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Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill


7th February 2005

I welcome the progress made both during and after the Committee stage on issues relating to animal rights extremism.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I welcome the progress made both during and after the Committee stage on issues relating to animal rights extremism. We will now have in the Bill provisions that, if it is enacted, should provide extra assistance in protecting the public from the campaigns of violence and intimidation being waged by animal rights extremists. The measures will make it an offence to harass two or more people on separate occasions; they should also help to prevent the harassment of a person in his home, although the Bill as it stands does not extend that protection to a person's workplace, where many such incidents occur.

I thank the Minister for having taken the time to meet me last week to discuss the new clauses that the Government have now tabled. In normal circumstances, we would have hoped for a far more substantial period of consultation-not least to consider the legal language and concepts in the new clauses, which are both novel and complicated. None the less, my hon. Friends and I welcome the Government's decision to table the additional measures to combat animal rights terrorism. They seem finally to have realised the need to tackle a disturbing trend in the activities of animal rights terrorists.

I know from my constituency and elsewhere that the last few years have brought increasing numbers of attacks on so-called secondary and tertiary targets. Primary targets-the animal research organisations themselves, such as Huntingdon Life Sciences-have been able to make progress, albeit at great cost, in the fight against the criminals. By increasing the use of injunctions against known terror groups, they have been able significantly to reduce the incidence of attacks on their facilities and their staff.

However, the result of those successes has been a switch in the tactics used by those desperate groups and individuals. Before, they attacked the animal researchers in their laboratories; now, the easier option for the terrorists, which enables them to avoid the injunctions, is to unleash violence and intimidation on people away from their place of business-for instance, in their homes, furtively and in the middle of night- or against anyone seen to be in any way connected to the research organisations. Such secondary targets could include a building contractor working on the primary research facility. Even more tenuously, a tertiary target could be as distant as a fund manager maintaining a shareholding in that building company, or even, as was the case in Staffordshire, a pub frequented by workers at the secondary target.

I was recently made aware of an example involving Fidelity, one of the world's largest fund management companies. In the UK, Fidelity was targeted by animal rights extremists who disrupted a key part of its business activities-a roadshow event, in which it marketed its products to independent financial advisers. The so-called justification for that action was Fidelity's investment activity. It was enough that it had invested in BOC, which in turn had a business relationship with Huntingdon Life Sciences. BOC, of course, has since withdrawn its custom from HLS. Unsurprisingly, individuals and businesses in that chain are struggling to cope with the barrage of violence that is unleashed against them because they are perceived to be connected with the main target. As I pointed out on Second Reading, many targeted companies have agreed to sever their links with animal research organisations.

Few organisations can afford the effort and the tens of thousands of pounds required to obtain injunctions. Indeed, many companies that could afford injunctions are reluctant to obtain them as they regard it as the role of the state to defend them and their employees. Accordingly, many companies have been forced, often with great reluctance, to abandon perfectly legal business operations-out of necessity, they believe-so that they can safeguard their employees and their premises. Along with a number of individuals and groups I have, for a number of years, highlighted the urgent need to extend the law to protect these wider victims of animal rights terrorism. Groups representing city institutions, such as the National Association of Pension Funds, are waiting to take their lead from Government, so naturally I am delighted that the Government have finally decided to heed the calls for action. To put it simply: better late than never.

Government new clause 10, entitled "Interference with contractual relationships so as to harm animal research organisation", would make it a criminal offence for someone to carry out or threaten to carry out a criminal or tortious act intended to cause, or likely to cause, the victim not to enter into a contract with a third party, or to breach an existing contract. A tortious act is a non-criminal act, for which damages are usually claimed in a civil court. For someone to be liable for the offence they must act with the intention of harming an animal research organisation. Harming in this context means causing any type of loss or damage to the organisation or, alternatively, hindering that organisation in carrying out any of its activities. I am pleased that the Government have come round to the idea of introducing a measure to protect the economic interests of those affected by extremists. It is those very economic interests that animal rights terror groups unjustly seek to destroy.

The clause clearly springs from the foundations provided by various people in recent months. The Minister mentioned new clause 5, which my hon. Friends and I tabled and which is in many respects similar to Government new clause 10. Overall, we support the Government new clause as well as the other Government new clauses, but there are a number of areas on which we would be grateful for clarification. First, can the Minister confirm that the definition of a person in Government new clauses 10 and 11 is intended to cover legal as well as natural persons-in other words, companies? If not, the Government will not have gone as far as I aimed to go in new clause 5, which would have provided protection for companies.

On the other hand, if companies are covered, would the drafting of new clause 10 mean that the perpetrator of the offence, person A, could be a company or a non-registered group such as Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty-SHAC? That is important, because SHAC has often claimed that it cannot be prosecuted because it is not an organisation as such. We welcome the step-by-step requirements that apply to the offence in Government new clauses 10 and 11, including the carrying out or threatening of a wrongful act, the resulting damage to a contractual relationship or intended relationship, and the necessary intention on the part of the perpetrator.

The need for all those requirements to be met should protect against wrongful convictions, but has the Minister considered the practical difficulties in establishing all those steps satisfactorily so that convictions can be secured? There is no point in having available new offences with which to charge people if it proves too difficult to secure convictions. I should be grateful for clarification about whom the new clause is intended to protect.

The drafting of subsection (2) is entirely free of ambiguity-

Dr. Evan Harris: The hon. Gentleman is making the point, as he has done before, that it may be difficult to catch people under the provision because of the lack of police intelligence. There is a need to beef up police activity. The problem is not the width of the provision, although it is rather wide. "Hinder", for example, is a wide term, and extends beyond harm.

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I shall come on to deal with the width of the provision. None the less, it sets out a series of steps, and the Minister should consider whether the process will be satisfactory in securing convictions.

7.45 pm

Our amendment (b) aims to maximise the protection afforded by Government new clause 10. I accept what the Minister said, but the new clause may require further review. We will not, however, push the matter to a vote. In the scenario envisaged in subsection (2) the actions or threats of the perpetrator-person A-would have to damage the contractual arrangements between the victim, known as person B, and a third person known as person C. A tertiary target would appear to be covered by that drafting.

Take, for example, a company supplying building materials to a building contractor working at an animal research facility. If the supplier were forced to terminate the contract to supply the builders, they would be protected as person B. What is the position of secondary targets? I cannot imagine that the Government have deliberately sought to exclude them, but the drafting may leave room for that possibility, because the term "animal research organisation" is specifically used in the provision. The question is whether those research organisations would fall within the definition of "a third person". In my example, would the contractual relationship between the building contractor and the animal research facility be protected? We would be grateful if the Minister addressed that point.

We have another query about Government new clauses 10 and 11. As an alternative to a criminal act, both clauses would allow for the offending act to be a tortious act that causes the victim to suffer loss or damage of any description. Could the Minister explain whether the intention is to catch the many and varied torts that exist under English law? Perhaps what was originally envisaged was trespass against the person, such as assault, or trespass on land. Defamation is also a tort-was the intention that threatening to libel someone would be enough to form the basis of the offence? The Minister gave the example of neighbours being wrongfully and shamefully informed by SHAC that a targeted individual was a paedophile. I will not go into any further legal details, but I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that issue.

Liberal Democrat amendment (a) to Government new clause 10-the same wording is used in amendment (a) to new clause 11-aims to quantify loss or damage, presumably so that minor tortious acts are not caught. I sympathise with that approach, but it is rather a blunt instrument. I acknowledge, however, that the other place may wish to review the issue in greater detail. The offence created by Government new clause 11 would arise where person A intimidates person B because B is connected with an animal research organisation. A connected person would include employees and their family members, customers and suppliers. The intimidation would be a threat by person A that they, or someone else, would commit a criminal or tortious act causing loss or damage of some description. The perpetrator's intention must be to cause the victim to abstain from doing something that he is entitled to do, or to do something that he is entitled not to do.

Will the Minister clarify the meaning of

"a person with a financial interest in an animal research organisation"

in new clause 11? We took that to include shareholders. In amendment (c) to new clause 11, we propose the insertion of a new paragraph to ensure that the provision covers anyone who is undertaking any regulated activity or who is an authorised person under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, including fund managers. The Minister said that that was already covered, and I am grateful for her clarification.

Amendment (b) would insert additional wording in subsection (l)(a) of Government new clause 11, and aims to equalise the protection offered by the two new clauses. It seems that in new clause 10, the carrying out of, as well as a threat to carry out, a criminal or tortious act would allow for conviction where contractual relationships were affected. Yet new clause 11 appears to contain a loophole, as it refers only to threatening, rather than carrying out, a criminal or tortious act. In theory, if an animal rights extremist carried out an act to intimidate someone, without having first threatened them, would they not be caught under the provision? If that were the case, some of the connected persons listed in new clause 11 might be protected by new clause 10. However, that would be the case only if they were involved in a contractual relationship that they had been forced to breach, abandon or not enter into as a result of intimidation. For other types of connected person, such as spouses or friends, new clause 10 with its focus on contracts would be of no use.

In new clause 12, we welcome the proposed five-year maximum sentence for offences under new clauses 10 and 11. That rightly reflects the seriousness with which those activities should be treated. Similarly, we agree with the Government's proposal to require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions for proceedings to commence. That seems a sensible way to address the politically contentious nature of this matter, which requires a fair balance to be struck between the right to non-violent freedom of expression, the need to protect individuals and businesses from unacceptable criminality, and the need to achieve a degree of standardisation across the country.

Subject to the issues that I have raised, it will be clear to the House that on the whole, my hon. Friends and I support the Government's proposals. However, those proposals do not go far enough. In particular, without detracting in any way from the need to protect individuals, I argue that further protection for company activity is needed. In Committee I tabled a number of amendments that would have provided that, but they did not receive Government support. Confidentiality orders should extend beyond directors to prevent the identity of threatened company shareholders from being made available to the public. The need for that cannot be better demonstrated than by citing the example of HLS, which was forced to undertake the burden of re-listing in Maryland in the USA, because that jurisdiction allowed shareholder details to be kept out of the public domain. Similarly, we sought to protect the identity of lenders to companies, as their details allow them to be singled out as secondary targets.

Most significantly, by tabling new clause 5 on Report we sought to introduce an offence of causing economic damage to companies. For the first time, that would have specifically protected all companies and connected persons from the financial damage resulting from harassment, violence and damage to the property. In new clause 14 the Government propose that their new offences could be extended by way of delegated legislation to organisations involved in areas other than animal research. Although we accept that the Government are taking legislation further down the road, we do not believe that this piecemeal approach goes far enough. There are already industries other than animal research that are suffering at the hands of extremists. Where animal research organisations are suffering today, other industries will follow. Road builders and leather manufacturers are just two examples that spring to mind.

I was recently updated about the continuing economic sabotage faced by companies in the agricultural biotechnology industry. The Government require full testing of genetically modified crops, yet with the difficulties in providing continuous security there seem to be few means of protecting their destruction by activists. Furthermore, companies and their staff have been targeted by means of the same tactics as those employed by animal rights groups. I was told that links have been uncovered between the targeting of the GM and the animal research industries by the same people. By limiting their new clause to animal research, the Government have failed to appreciate the pressing issues arising in other areas.

However, the introduction of new legislation by the Government is a positive step, and we will support the economic damage provisions. Accordingly, I shall not press our alternative new clause 5 to a Division, although in recognition of the lack of consultation and the drafting amendments required to new clause 11, I shall press amendment (b) to that new clause, keeping in mind the need for the other place to consult on those provisions during the passage of the Bill.

Finally, new laws are far from the whole answer. A much wider range of tactics must be adopted if we are to become more effective at dealing with the threats from economic extremists. A code for protesters similar to the existing picketing code could allow for legitimate protest, while freeing police and court resources. Judges and the police should have best practice guidance to ensure that there is a consistent approach to arrest, conviction and sentencing, not least in relation to new clauses 10 and 11. Two terrorists were jailed after orchestrating a campaign of thousands of telephone calls to research companies to block their lines. Imagine the industry's horror when those criminals' sentences were recently slashed on appeal.

Police forces must have adequate funding and training to make use of existing legislation, and any new measures that make it on to the statute book will need to be properly funded. Overstretched local Crown Prosecution Service lawyers can be left vulnerable in the face of experienced lawyers acting, often pro bono, on behalf of accused protesters. Almost a year ago the Government promised a team of specialist central prosecutors to deal with this issue. Where are they? I do not see them. We do not believe that the national extremism tactical co-ordination unit receives nearly enough resources to allow it to deal with such matters effectively. I do not want to state in public the number of people involved with the unit or the time that they spend on their work, but the Minister knows what those numbers are and how inadequate the situation is. All these examples are aspects that must be addressed. The actions of a tiny minority must not be allowed to continue to blight the lives of individuals and the workings of companies. Leadership and further action from the Government are called for without delay.



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