Drug test protesters plan to sue Minister

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The Independent Online

Animal rights campaigners threatened on Wednesday to sue a cabinet minister if she fails to take decisive action against Huntingdon Life Sciences.

The protesters have already said they will take legal action against the company if Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, does not act on an apparent breach of company law.

Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac), which has waged a determined two-year campaign against the firm, which runs animal testing laboratories, says it has breached the 1985 Companies Act by failing to call an annual general meeting for shareholders within 15 months of the last one.

A meeting was due to be held on 14 June but was cancelled to avoid feared protests from shareholding activists and because of scheduling problems.

Shac has reportedly taken legal advice from Matrix, the chambers of the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth QC, and has written to Ms Hewitt to urge her to act. The minister can force the company to hold a meeting if requested by a shareholder and fine the directors if they fail to comply.

Normally, that is a matter for Companies House, with solicitors from the Department of Trade and Industry becoming involved only in exceptional circumstances.

Greg Avery of Shac said: "Can you imagine if this was some other company ­ GlaxoSmithKline or Shell ­ actually breaching the Companies Act by not holding their AGM? It is either complete incompetence or they have got something to hide. Patricia Hewitt has got the power to call Huntingdon's AGM. We urge her to do that. If she doesn't we will have no other option but to take legal action against Huntingdon and legal action against Patricia Hewitt. If she doesn't sort this out my understanding is that she has been negligent in not acting within her powers.

"We will be forced, as per usual, to do the Government's job for them. If they don't do something this sends a clear message that yet again the Government is allowing Huntingdon to break the law."

A company insider acknowledged on Wednesday that it had failed to hold an AGM within the required time but added: "It is quite an unusual situation where a group of shareholders want an AGM to further damage the company and hopefully bring about its demise. It is the opposite reason to why most shareholders would want to hold an AGM. These are just a very, very small minority of our shareholders."

The company's American subsidiary, and the Stephens Group of Little Rock, Arkansas, are taking legal action against Shac as well as other animal rights groups in America.

The Department of Trade and Industry has already stepped in to help Huntingdon in this country after it was deserted by its financial backers in the face of a campaign of intimidation by the protesters.

Last month the Government offered the company use of the Bank of England's facilities, a service normally reserved for its own departments and commercial banks.

The Department of Trade and Industry, when contacted, said it did not comment on individual cases.