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Builders have rights too


Animal rights activists are targeting contractors and suppliers involved in a controversial new research laboratory in Oxford.Russ Lynch and David Rogers examine the implications

CONTRACTORS have enough problems.Winning the work for a start, completing the job for clients who often want things done yesterday at half the cost, and then getting the suppliers and labour in to do it.And getting paid of course.

Sympathise then with Montpellier, which has attracted the wrath of animal rights activists because its subsidiary, Walter Lilly, is building a £16 million research centre for Oxford University.The new centre will carry out a number of tests on monkeys although in these pages last week the university's registrar David Holmes said over 98 per cent of the animals housed there will be rodents.

Construction News first revealed how Montpellier and its suppliers - notably concrete firm RMC - have borne the brunt of a spate of attacks from anti-centre campaigners causing thousands of pounds'worth of damage.

The issue was put firmly in the public gaze last week when activists sent a letter to shareholders urging them to sell their stake in the firm.

The letter, bizarrely purporting to be from one of Montpellier's directors but written under the header 'Stop the Oxford Torture Lab', warned shareholders that they 'will have their details publicly advertised on the internet.

This will prompt activity by the animal rights movement to persuade these shareholders to sell.'

It concluded: 'Montpellier Group plc have been given every opportunity to pull out of this project.A plummeting share price should convince them.'

When news of the letter reached the City, Montpellier's share price fell 19 per cent.

The letter mentioned Huntingdon Life Sciences and the activists will be hoping to repeat the success of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty organisation a few years ago, which saw the Cambridge-based firm eventually relist on the New York stock exchange after a campaign which targeted the company and its financial backers including shareholders and City institutions.Shares, which in early 2000 stood at 22p, slumped 65 per cent to 3.25p by the time it left for the US.

Montpellier believes the letters have been sent by the Animal Liberation Front and the incident is now being investigated by the police's National Extremism Tactical Co-ordinating Unit.The company has been backed in its plight by the Construction Confederation.

A spokesman for the confederation said: 'The industry has had experience with activists in the past, on schemes like the Manchester second runway and the Newbury bypass in the 1990s.'

Three years ago 150 protesters from Friends of the Earth turned up at Balfour Beatty's AGM attacking the firm's planned involvement - which it eventually dropped - in the Ilisu Dam project in Turkey.

Newbury bypass contractor Costain was involved in pitched battles with protesters.A spokesman remembers: 'It was full-on, direct action.They turned up at the site and our AGM but I don't remember them singling individuals out.'

The activists' change in approach at Oxford gives a more sinister edge to the protests.The confederation's spokesman added: 'This has more of a ethical than an environmental dimension and it is a new tactic to target individual shareholders but security has been an issue for a number of years. It is for those involved to decide how best to deal with it, but it is the smaller firms who are unused to the security issues that may be concerned.'

According to the activists' creed, anybody from major suppliers down to the smallest one-man band is a legitimate target.

Although companies like Montpellier and RMC are unwilling to add fuel to the flames by commenting on the attacks, Montpellier directors have been targeted at home. Postings on the Arkangel animal rights activists'website boast of seven cars daubed with paintstripper.

Speak, the official body against the Oxford laboratory, denies involvement, but it has held weekly demonstrations outside the South Parks Road site since construction began in March as well as the headquarters of both Montpellier and RMC.A major national demonstration is planned in Oxford with a march on the site on July 24.

But the Home Office is preparing to take a stern line.A spokeswoman said:

'It is wholly unacceptable for this small minority to attempt to stop individuals and companies going about their legitimate business.

'Ministers have had a number of discussions with senior police officers, and they take the unlawful activities carried out by animal rights extremists very seriously.'

Amendments to the 1986 Public Order Act which came into force in January have given the police additional powers to deal with protesters who occupy or invade buildings, and allow them to impose conditions on smaller groups of protesters who conduct intimidatory protests outside targeted premises.

But science minister Lord Sainsbury said last month that the Government will consider further legislation to stamp out home visit tactics to prevent the intimidation of family and friends.

The local MP, Liberal Democrat Evan Harris, has been vocal in his call for more Government support to businesses and individuals involved in controversial projects of this ilk.He has lobbied Home Office ministers on the subject. Dr Harris said: 'It would be reasonable for the Government to pay the excess costs of security, and also provide underwriting for insurance purposes for people who receive threats.'

Whether ministers will take this step remains to be seen. But any moves to protect the construction industry - which, after all, is merely doing the bidding of its clients and political masters - would be a welcome show of support.