June 22, 2004
By Tom Bawden
POLICE are investigating an animal rights activist group after shareholders in Montpellier, the construction group building a new drugs research laboratory for Oxford University, received threatening letters in the post. Shares in Montpellier crashed by 19 per cent yesterday after investors received a letter - purporting to be from Roy Harrison, the company's chairman - threatening "prompt activity by the animal rights movement" unless they sold their shares. The stock ended the day at a four-year low of 18p, down 4¾p.
The letter is aimed at derailing a new £18 million animal testing laboratory which Montpellier is building for Oxford University. Walter Lilly & Co, a subsidiary of the group, is leading the project, and activists are hoping to force the company to pull out by targeting shareholders of the group.
Montpellier reacted angrily last night to the letters, some of which claimed to be written by Michael Bishop, managing director of the company's Britannia Construction subsidiary, rather than by Mr Harrison.
A company spokesman said: "These letters purport to be from certain members of the senior management team at Montpellier. This is false. Copies of the letter have been forwarded to the appropriate authorities and the Metropolitan Police."
Montpellier described the letters as "fraudulent" but would not be drawn on the nature of the action it was contemplating.
A police spokeswoman added: "We are aware of letters that have been received by shareholders of Montpellier Group. Local police forces are investigating."
The investigation is being run by the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Netco), which was formed in March 2004 to combat terrorism and other forms of extremism.
The activists' letter, seen by The Times and written under the banner "Stop the Oxford Torture Lab", said: "We are writing to every shareholder of Montpellier Group asking them to sell their shares.
"A month after you receive this letter, the remaining shareholders who have not sold 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 is not known exactly who is behind the campaign. Speak, a prominent representative body for animal activists, did not return phone calls yesterday.
The activists will be hoping to replicate the success of SHAC, the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty organisation, which helped to push Huntingdon Life Sciences, the Cambridge-based drug testing company, to the brink of collapse. In January 2000 SHAC began a campaign which targeted the company and its financial backers, including shareholders, bankers and City institutions such as market makers and stockbrokers. The company's share price, which was 22p at the start of 2000, quickly fell by about 65 per cent and continued to fall for the next two years, to stand at 3.25p at the end of 2001, when the company moved to the US and relisted in New York.
Several institutions, including Phillips & Drew, Barclays and HSBC, severed their links with the company and the DTI was forced to install the Bank of England as Huntingdon's banker.
Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association, said: "This kind of activity is outrageous and can be particularly intimidating to old people. Biomedical testing is a legal requirement for bringing a pharmaceutical product to the market."