HC Deb 07 July 2004 vol 423 cc263-71WH

11 am

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Olner, for the opportunity to raise this subject, because it is a matter of increasing concern to me. I have had a long involvement with this issue, because almost 25 years ago I worked in the chemical industry and I saw then the difficulties faced by staff and companies.

We are now seeing increased levels of animal rights activity. Most of us are familiar with the saga of Huntingdon Life Sciences, the way in which City shareholders were targeted and the damage that that has done to the company. I pay tribute to Brian Cass and his staff for managing to refinance themselves and continue their valuable work.

There have been many instances of animal rights extremism since then. In the most recent quarter, from April to June this year, there have been what are euphemistically called "home visits"—22 to employees and 32 to company directors. The director of the building company Montpellier, which is involved in the construction of the Oxford animal research laboratory, resigned from the business. There have been 24 instances of phone, fax or e-mail blockade, which are immensely threatening to employees and, more worryingly, to their families, including children. I have seen the effect on senior research scientists when their families have been targeted. It has led to divorce, mental breakdowns and distressed children who have been unable to benefit from their childhood.

There have been 46 instances of damage to property, 94 publicly advertised demonstrations and 164 demonstrations that were unadvertised. Almost 3,000 people have been involved in protests. My office overlooks Portcullis House, and I remember one evening when people demonstrated outside about Yamanouchi for about two hours, disrupting not only the business that I was trying to conduct, but that of many other Members and members of the public.

There have been 80 arrests at demonstrations and 43 occasions when vehicles have been damaged. In many cases, corrosive fluid has been used, and in 33 cases tyres were cut or pierced. When corrosive fluid is used, tyres have to be changed anyway in case there has been some damage, and it is estimated that the costs of those attacks in one quarter alone are £250,000. We know that Cambridge university has had to scrap plans for its primate research laboratory and that Oxford is facing real trouble with its research facility as senior staff receive "home visits". Huntingdon Life Sciences and Hall farm, which breeds guinea pigs for the research industry, have also been targeted.

I recognise the fact that a small number of people are involved in the terror tactics; the vast majority of people who take a strong stand against the use of animals behave legally. The Home Secretary reportedly supports the Humane Research Trust, which is a legal organisation. The problem is, however, that those extremists are causing immense damage to our scientific and research base, and the Government do not appear to have the resolve to address the issue effectively. In the US and Japan, which are our main competitors in many of the research, pharmaceutical and bioscience industries, the perception is that the UK does not treat the issue seriously enough and will not take substantive action.

A new group called Victims of Animal Rights Extremism was launched in the House of Commons in April to try to help resolve the problem. It is a coalition that includes Amicus, the Bioindustry Association, the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Research Defence Society and Huntingdon Life Sciences. A Bill has been drafted to deal with the situation faced by people involved in this area, but the Government have still not made their position clear. I want the Minister to clarify whether they want that Bill, and if not, what way forward they propose to deal with the issues. It is the right of people working in those industries to have that clarification.

Lord Sainsbury, in his recent evidence to the Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I used to be a member, pledged to introduce legislation, but rejected a single Bill, saying that he preferred to amend other legislation. The implication was that that would be a quicker route to deal with the problem. Specific legislation already exists in the United States, and seven members of SHAC—stop Huntingdon animal cruelty, the group targeting HLS—USA were recently arrested and charged under that legislation. It is therefore clear that such legislation does work.

For a while, I thought that the Government's preferred method, which is Lord Sainsbury's option of piecemeal legislation, might come to pass. There was a rumour that the Government were planning to amend section 14 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal with "home visits" by amending—this seems slightly ludicrous—the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, which has recently been in Committee. That rumour appears not to be coming true, but I hope that the Minister will tell us whether there is any substance to it. If not, what proposals does she have to deal with the issue of "home visits"?

If the Home Office is planning to amend that Bill in a piecemeal fashion, will the Minister also outline which legislation will be amended and how it will be done? For instance, is the Home Office planning to amend the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 in order to protect companies? There is currently no protection for companies, and nor is there any requirement for companies to protect employees, even though they have an overriding duty of care to take appropriate steps to do so.

Is the Minister planning to deal with "home visits" not by amending section 14 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, but by clarifying the Human Rights Act 1998, so that article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which deals with the right to respect for private and family life, takes precedence over article 10, which provides for freedom of expression? Is she planning to change the law so that companies do not need to spend significant amounts to secure injunctions, in addition to extra security costs that run to millions of pounds and reduce the UK's competitiveness as a location for biomedical research? It cannot be right that the onus is so heavily placed on the victims to protect themselves from the extremists.

Will the Government address the issue of consistency in relation to convictions in the courts and encourage the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts to consider not only the one incidence of terrorism that has led to a person being in court, but the overall pattern of intimidation or terrorism, when they sentence someone charged with such offences? Could restraining orders such as antisocial behaviour orders be used?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint)

They are being used.

Mrs. Lait

I am delighted to hear that ASBOs have been used. The Minister now has the perfect opportunity to advertise that fact and to ensure that more courts and the CPS are aware of it. We still have to see what force ASBOs will have in the long run. They are taking out some of the young toerags for a while, but I am not certain how long that will last.

Given the draconian powers and lengthy sentences that have been introduced to deal with the war against terror, I ask the Minister what makes animal terrorists different. Should they not also be charged under that legislation, making their sentences longer?

The Government's argument may be that specific legislation takes too long to introduce. I am sure that the Minister will agree that any postponement would mean waiting at least two years, because it is doubtful whether legislation could be passed before what is generally understood to be a proposed general election next May. It would take two years whoever won. Will she explain what the Government plan to do in the interim? If they do not wish to amend the legislation that I have mentioned, which legislation are they planning to amend? What ideas did Lord Sainsbury have? Which ones will the Minister advance? Will the Home Office or the Department of Trade and Industry take them forward?

What co-operation is there across Government to ensure that different Departments act in a concerted way so that a coherent body of law is produced instead of one specific measure? Does she plan to amend the legislation and—this may be a bit of a nerdy point—will that be done by statutory instrument or by amending Bills? Perhaps the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill could be amended as it goes through the House. Will the Government amend proposed legislation?

Who is gripping the issue to ensure that it is covered across Government and what time scale is envisaged to get a reform in place? Will the issue be dealt with before we prorogue in the autumn or before we rise for any general election next year? The previous Home Secretary—now the Foreign Secretary—was clear about the issue: We will not tolerate a small number of criminals trying to threaten research organisations and companies. This is an opportunity for the current Home Secretary to send out an equally clear and authoritative statement that he will not tolerate such activity.

At the most basic level, that would help to protect the Government's own investment and the development of new medicines and research funding for life sciences. If we look closely at the pharmaceutical research base in the UK, we find that it has shrunk during the last two decades. Jobs and companies have moved quietly away. The decision to move is a complex one, but one factor in the equation is undoubtedly the unpleasant environment created by animal extremists. The irony is that the countries to which the companies move often have less animal-friendly protection laws than we have in the UK. We need a strong skills base to take advantage of our innovation abilities. That means that the issue of animal extremism needs to be gripped and clear remedies proposed.

This is the opportunity for the Minister to come forward with clear proposals about what the Government plan to do to ensure that people who work in science, who are our lifeblood in this country, no longer need suffer the terror of phone calls in the middle of the night, attacks on their cars, being attacked with baseball bats, as Brian Cass of HLS was, or being terrorised, as a pensioner in my constituency was. That man's pension came from a company which, following a complicated series of takeovers, acquired shares in HLS. That elderly gentleman and his elderly wife received phone calls right through the night. Posters were stuck on their garden gates. Posters were put on the streetlights down their road, saying, "This murderer lives at…" and featuring their photo.

In this day and age, it is not acceptable that people who carry out a service to this country in any way, shape or form should face horror and terror from a small number who take extremism to its extremes and terrify, hurt and maim people physically and mentally. The Minister has the opportunity to set the record straight about what the Government wish to do to ensure that those people are not affected.

11.13 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) on securing this debate, because it gives me an opportunity to say once again in a public forum that I, colleagues across Government and the Government as a whole recognise how important the area is, and to say how seriously we take it. In this public forum, it is also important to send to all members of the British public who care about animals a strong message that some people, often in their name, are using illegal activities to pursue those who are doing nothing illegal and are the victims of the sort of activities of which the hon. Lady gave examples.

We also need to send out a strong message that, although we need to do more, we need accurately to report what happens to people. I understand that the attack on Mr. Cass resulted in a 10-year sentence for the person who carried it out. That person was caught, arrested, charged and convicted, and it is important that the media report that as well, for the benefit of people who think that they are going to get involved in the sort of activities that might result in violence, but whose more common features are criminal damage, phone calls, letters and abuse.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the UK has the toughest regulations in the world on the use of animals in scientific procedures. UK scientists have to satisfy strict criteria before they are allowed to experiment on animals—a fact that, I am afraid, does not seem to carry much weight with animal rights extremists, although it is absolutely true. Whatever the extremists say, most people in the United Kingdom—a recent survey gave the figure of 90 per cent.—believe that the use of animals for medical research is justified so long as it is done without causing unnecessary suffering to the animals. Research using animals has contributed to almost every medical advance in health care in the past century, including all current medicines and vaccines, medical devices such as replacement heart valves and surgical procedures including organ transplants.

That situation will not change in the short or medium term. The development of new drugs and medical and veterinary technologies will continue to depend on the responsible use of animals. As the hon. Lady said, we therefore need to ensure that scientists can continue to do that important work on behalf of us all without harassment or intimidation. It is not only the scientists who are actively involved in that work. Particularly in the past few months, we have seen a move by the animal rights extremists to attacking the people who supply companies. Such people have no direct involvement in the work of the institutes and organisations, and by the very nature of the attacks on them, extremists are trying to create a climate of fear and to undermine the existence of companies such as Huntingdon Life Sciences.

We have already had an insight today into the activities of the extremists, which include publication of the names, addresses and phone numbers of target companies' employees on an extremist website, with an accompanying innuendo in that if their names are featured on that website, activities will follow. We know only too well what form those activities might take. There have been threatening letters, harassing telephone calls, floods of e-mails, attacks on cars and graffiti on people's homes. Anonymous letters have been sent to the neighbours of targeted directors making false allegations. In the case of one individual, the allegation was that they were a paedophile. Packages have been sent to the homes of target persons containing offensive material such as used toilet paper and razor blades. There have been late-night home visits involving masked extremists vandalising cars, smashing windows and spraying graffiti.

Since becoming the Minister with responsibility for this area, I have had several meetings with representatives from the bioscience industry and other companies. I have met victims of such activity and heard about their experiences at first hand. My colleagues and I are in regular contact across Government, and Lord Sainsbury and I meet regularly. We are not only responding to the general issue, but have responded strongly to the individual targeting of particular companies. We also have regular contact with senior police officers to discuss policing and enforcement at national, regional and local force levels.

The hon. Lady will understand, as we do, the complexity of dealing with the individuals involved in such activities. The fact is that the leaders behind them do not show their hand. There are midnight visits and people carry out the activities anonymously, so piecing things together and taking effective action against them is not easy, but we are trying to address that challenge. We have ensured that animal rights extremism features in the 2004–07 national policing plan, which means that police forces should take account of it. Every police force should be aware of what powers are available, and we have recently established a unit in Cambridge that exists primarily to improve performance at force level and to act as a support and a service. Where things are not happening at force level, that unit can be contacted for additional action. In recent weeks, particular companies have been targeted, and the unit has played a big role in working with us to address particular concerns.

The Association of Chief Police Officers recently appointed an assistant chief constable to the new role of national co-ordinator with responsibility for developing regional and national responses to animal rights extremists. As I said, we have also used Home Office funding to create a national extremism tactical coordinating unit, which is based in Cambridge. It will provide police forces and others throughout the country with tactical guidance, information and advice.

We also need to work with industry. Understandably, companies often do not want to take a proactive approach—for example, by warning their suppliers. Nevertheless, we must be able to share information for the good of all. We must be able proactively to help people to protect themselves and to know what to do when their switchboards—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair)

Order. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) should not be playing with his mobile phone while the Minister is speaking.

Caroline Flint

Companies must know what to do when there is a campaign of phone calls to their switchboards and where to go with information about suspicious activities. We need not only greatly to improve our relationships with the main companies, but to identify what we can do to reassure people elsewhere in the supply chain who work with them.

There were at least 138 arrests of animal rights activists during the first six months of this year, compared with 37 during the same period in 2003. We are working with the police, other agencies and companies to improve the availability of information on arrests. We are looking carefully at where arrests are made, what charges are laid and when cases come to court. That will help us to work better with other sectors of the criminal justice system to ensure that, as the hon. Lady suggested, cases that come to court are not seen in isolation, but connected to the wider campaign of animal rights extremism, which seeks to undermine the legitimate practices of business in this country.

Mrs. Lait

I am very pleased to hear what the Minister says about the courts, but will she address the principal issue that I raised: the legislative changes that, as Lord Sainsbury acknowledged, must be implemented? What plans does she have in that regard?

Caroline Flint

I will come to that. I have eight minutes left, and I intend to use them all.

The Government are looking at better enforcement throughout the criminal justice system. Of course, penalties are important in that respect, and they must reflect the circumstances in which a person is brought before the court. One ASBO has already been used on someone who committed an offence linked to animal rights extremism, and more ASBOs are in the pipeline. As with other areas of antisocial behaviour, we intend to ensure that police forces and the criminal justice system are aware that tools already exist to contain and curtail people's activities.

Over the past few months, we have been debating how to improve law enforcement, and one way is to ensure that the powers that are available in the criminal justice system are actually used. Recently, we made two changes to the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. We amended the definition of a public assembly in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 from one consisting of 20 people to one consisting of two or more persons. We also extended the offence of aggravated trespass in that Act to cover trespass in buildings. Both changes came into effect on 20 January, and we have endeavoured to ensure that the relevant powers are used effectively. Indeed, they have already been used on several occasions to control intimidatory protests and office occupations, although that does not mean that they should not be used more widely. We have tried to ensure that companies and other organisations are aware of them, so that they do not think that there are no laws or powers to deal with this issue. A lot of the time, however, the issue is effective enforcement.

In 2001, we made several changes to legislation specifically to tighten up the law to deal with the problem of animal rights extremism. One of the most significant changes gave polices officers a new power to issue directions to protestors to move away from homes where protests may cause harassment, alarm or distress. That power is being used to minimise the impact of protests by animal rights activists outside the homes of targets, but we are looking further into the issue of home visits. For example, the police have directed the removal of offensive banners and prevented the use of sound systems and musical instruments. The legislation is being tested by animal rights extremists. They generally comply with directions before the need to arrest arises, but we need to engage with law enforcement agencies to make sure that they are being used to the fullest power of the law.

As I said, we are considering what more can be done to protect people who are targeted in their homes and to ensure that activists cannot exploit gaps in the law. We have introduced new provisions in other legislation. Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 has been amended so that, since 20 January, the police have had the power to stop and search for articles that could be used to commit criminal damage. That could apply to an animal rights activist carrying a spray gun with intent to spray graffiti or to someone with a brick who intended to smash a window.

Since 1 January 2004, the courts in England and Wales have had the power to ban from driving persons convicted of any offence. Again, that measure could be used by the courts when sentencing persons convicted for criminal damage, public order offences or harassment. Taking away an activist's car for a few months is likely to cause a lot of inconvenience. That is part of our effort to disrupt the activities in question and not make things easy for the people concerned.

On 1 July, we announced the outcome of our review of section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 in the context of the Government's commitment to freedom of information. Section 24 of the 1986 Act prevents the unauthorised disclosure of confidential information by Home Office Ministers, officials and others with functions under the Act. It does not waive or vary the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but creates an additional criminal offence, should there be unauthorised disclosure of confidential information.

The decision that has been taken follows consultation with stakeholder groups, and reflects the significant misgivings about the potential impact of repealing section 24 that continue to be expressed by scientific stakeholders in the lace of violence and intimidation from the criminal activities of a small section opposed to animal research. We have decided not to repeal it at this stage. In the meantime, we are considering ways to inform the public better about the law and to provide more information about why and how animals are used and the related regulations. We want a better dialogue and do not want to allow those who propagandise to get away with issuing their false and distorted pieces of information.

We are open to considering further legislation to address the criminal activities of animal rights extremists. The hon Lady mentioned the United States of America. Views on the success of its legislation are mixed. At the moment, there is discussion about that legislation having left some parties, such as suppliers to companies and organisations involved in the use of animals, out of the relevant scenario. The USA has found the matter difficult as well.

I am pleased to hear about the seven recent arrests, but considering the time for which the legislation has been in force in America, it has been used pretty rarely. We have good relationships with the FBI and work internationally on tackling some of the issues, as well as with the people behind the organisations and their activities in our communities.

We are open to the idea of more legislation. Our concern has been about passing quickly the legislation that we need. We recognise that the activities undertaken by the people in question could easily be undertaken by another group that felt that it had a particular concern about something. For example, there have been attacks in America on facilities that provide for women to have terminations. The activities could be harassment of employees. We are considering legislation that can respond to such illegal attacks on individuals who are not breaking the law. That is why we are not considering a narrow measure purely about animal rights extremism.

That does not mean that we do not need more legislation. We are looking at that possibility, but we also want to make better sense of what we have and to consider how to improve enforcement. To do that, we have established a national forum of officials in the past few months. We have now decided that it will be ministerially led, so that we can better assess how it can act as a delivery group to achieve outcomes and implementation on the ground, and deal better and more quickly with issues that arise. We shall have to plan for some issues in the medium and long term, but we shall have to deal up front with events affecting people today.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.