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Protecting Shareholders from extremists and criminals

22nd June 2006

It of interest that when the matter was first discussed in Grand Committee in the Lords, the question of denying access was not raised from the point of view of extremist activity.

It of interest that when the matter was first discussed in Grand Committee in the Lords, the question of denying access was not raised from the point of view of extremist activity. That is because the Opposition took the decision that that was a political issue that should be dealt with by this House, not least because the topic is one on which I have corresponded with the Government for several years in the interests of my constituents who work at Huntingdon Life Sciences. Subsequently, however, several thousand shareholders of GlaxoSmithKline, the pharma-group, received threatening letters from animal rights terrorists. Suddenly, on Report in the Lords, Lord Sainsbury, on direct orders from above and urged on by a chorus of vocal peers, promised to go away and reconsider the Government's position before Third Reading, when amendments were indeed produced and added to the Bill.

Having demanded increased protection for shareholders for many years now, and the Government having rejected my amendments to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill to do that, I am pleased to see that the issue is now being addressed. I am aware, however, that reactive and on-the-hoof law can often turn into the worst law in practice. That is why we need to spend some time on the clauses.The overriding concern of my hon. Friends is to ensure the protection of shareholders from violence and intimidation.

My purpose is much more than protecting companies that practise animal testing, although that is the area directly within my experience, so I shall refer to it. The amendments are more about the type of environment that we are to offer people conducting business in this country. Just as the protection of the person must be a priority for the Government, so must be protection for companies and their shareholders. Without that protection business will, as I will show the Committee, simply pick up and go overseas. The other preliminary point that I make, with some irony, is that several speakers in the Lords debate on this issue and several journalists have made out that the GlaxoSmithKline letter incident was a new development. I shall show the Committee that that was not the case and that attacks on shareholders have become an established theme of anti-corporate activism.

On the basis that this is a general debate on shareholders, I do not intend to address the rights and wrongs of the underlying issues, much though I support animal testing, for example. My point is that although direct action, sometimes slipping into terrorist activity, emanates from animal rights activists today, the same methods could be used tomorrow by other groups. If drugs manufacturers, animal testing companies and furriers are affected now, meat importers, road builders, handbag manufacturers, furniture makers or mining companies could be affected tomorrow.

It is clear now that farmers and animal testing companies are the weathervane for such activity, and for too long the Government and many in the City have allowed such attacks to continue while hoping that the issue would just fade away. I have carefully followed the Government's actions on the issue and it has been clear that the priorities of varying Home Secretaries have differed widely. I was, therefore, very pleased to hear the Prime Minister speak strongly against the animal rights extremists after the GSK incident. Likewise, in an important development, I was pleased and relieved to see the recent supportive letter from a good number of City institutions that appeared in the press recently. As the largest shareholders, the fact that they finally stood up jointly against the terrorists was an important development and they are to be congratulated on taking a stand.The key message is that those terrorists are fanatics to their cause every bit as much as the fanatics behind the challenges we face elsewhere. The problem will not simply go away. Unless we counter it head on, it will fester, grow and become much more of a problem in a wider range of sectors. We have no choice but to act.I recognise that the number of arrests of such terrorists has increased recently, but we must be aware that many of them wear their conviction record as a badge of pride within their own ranks. Furthermore, their tactics are often surreptitious in so far as they are fairly expert at getting the maximum publicity for their stunts and crimes using a very small number of activists. That is one of the things that is so frightening about this topic. No one has given me an accurate assessment of the number of extremist protestors, but we may be talking of little more than 100 or so who have crossed the line into out-and-out terrorism.

The important breakthrough in dealing with these people came about via the civil law, rather than the criminal law, when Huntingdon Life Sciences managed to secure a civil injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which was originally intended to stop stalking. The court found that the injunction could cover all of the employees and at multiple locations, including their homes. As different companies have subsequently applied for injunctions, the courts have gradually extended the remit to cover activists who continually look for new victims related to the company who are not covered by the injunction. One granted to Oxford university was extended to cover third-party unnamed suppliers to the proposed research premises, and was then further extended to cover people who live or work in Oxford who may be negatively affected by noise and so on. Very recently GSK also used an injunction to protect its shareholders.The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, passed in January last year, included provisions that made it easier to secure injunctions, as well as instituting other valuable measures concerning harassment of people in their own homes. That was important because when HLS shareholders were approached by the terrorists, many of them had their homes picketed, graffitied and so on. Injunctions tend to work quite well because breaching them can incur criminal penalties, and for the most part the terrorists work within or around the law, mainly saving criminal activity for the night or for when it is difficult to catch them. However, the use of injunctions has meant that the extremist campaign has become wider so the number of so-called home visits-that is for protest visits, not taking tea-has decreased for directors and employees, while anonymous activities such as abusive calls and hate mail has increased and the incidence of criminal damage, which takes place mainly at night, is high.Importantly, as more farm and research companies take out injunctions, so the extremists look for easier targets. We have seen an increase in the number of secondary and tertiary target companies. Typically, the secondary target company will be a small family-owned supplier, possibly in the locality of the primary target. It will be sent a letter saying that it must sign a document promising not to trade with, for example, HLS, and that if it does not sign, it will be put on the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty website. That threat is often enough to get a capitulation, as the extremists call it. For the brave traders who refuse to be intimidated, being placed on the SHAC website means that their company is game for visits from the thugs. That is when it starts to get really nasty. Normally, it starts with protestors invading the premises. Many small businesses in my constituency have called me about the torments they have suffered because of such thugs.I was a member of the Committee that considered the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. We had been pushing for some time for new criminal laws to protect companies from economic terrorism and tabled amendments to deal with it. We were happy when the Government accepted the point and later introduced their own provision-clause 145-preventing animal testing companies from being forced to act in a certain way if contracts had terminated in circumstances of criminal activity.

At that time, the Conservatives wanted the provision being drafted to apply more widely than to animal testing companies alone. As Lord Sainsbury said in the other place, the protections given shareholders in the Bill need to be looked at in the context of protections given under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. That being the case, we now think that section 145 provisions should be extended to all companies, as provided for in section 149 of the 2005 Act. Although the Government are acting, it seems to be always at the last minute and at the point of a gun. Can we please think a step ahead of the extremists?

I return to the relationship between civil and criminal law in the context of shareholders. Many, if not most, of the companies that will be affected are not the size of GlaxoSmithKline-far from it. They will normally be small family businesses for which an injunction costing tens of thousands of pounds is unaffordable. More to the point, such companies are asking, “Is it not for the Government to defend us against terrorist activity rather than our having to pay for injunctions?

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