New laws 'will end animal extremists' reign of terror'

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The Independent Online

The Government vowed yesterday to end the ''animal extremists' reign of terror'' as it announced tough new police powers to arrest activists who demonstrate outside scientists' homes.

The Government vowed yesterday to end the ''animal extremists' reign of terror'' as it announced tough new police powers to arrest activists who demonstrate outside scientists' homes.

The clampdown, which followed warnings that research companies were being driven out of business by animal rights militants, brought accusations that ministers had over-reacted.

As well as being given the power of arrest, police will be able to ban activists from returning to individuals' homes for three months. The laws on harassment will be strengthened to cover hate campaigns against employees of companies involved in animal research.

A specialist police unit is being set up within the National Crime Squad to target leading extremists and police are being given fresh advice on dealing with protests.

Caroline Flint, the Home Office minister, said: ''The Government intends to put a stop to the animal extremists' reign of terror. It is wholly unacceptable that a small number of criminal extremists attempt to stop individuals and companies going about their legitimate business.''

A joint Home Office-Department of Trade and Industry document said ministers were still considering making it an offence to cause ''economic damage to the suppliers of firms or research groups'' involved in legitimate research. It also urged animal lovers to think twice about giving to hardline groups. It warned: ''Such well-intentioned donations are unlikely to help animals, but are far more likely to be funding criminal activity.''

The Royal Society said that it cost universities an average of £175,000 a year to put in security measures to defend against animal rights extremists, running up an annual bill nationally of more than £8m.

Professor Barry Keverne, chairman of its animals in research committee, said: "It is not just the financial burden which concerns us. Extremist activity may result in young scientists being dissuaded from research in areas where animal testing may be necessary."

Sir Colin Lucas, Oxford University's vice-chancellor, said that the announcement would promote reasoned debate. "[It] is a clear demonstration of the Government's strong commitment to the future of animal research in the UK," he said.

Brian Cass, managing director of the animal research company Huntingdon Life Sciences, said: "It's great to see the direct engagement of the Home Secretary and the positive actions to increase police powers ... What needs to occur is more resources co-ordinated nationwide to find perpetrators and then bring them to book."

Robert Cogswell, co-founder of Speak, which campaigns against animal testing at Oxford and Cambridge, said the Government was pandering to pharmaceutical companies: "The more people feel disengaged, the more they will take the law into their own hands."

The animal rights campaigner and Labour MP, Tony Banks, said there was "an element of over-reaction" in the plans, which classed animal rights activists in the same category as al-Qa'ida terrorists.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, said: "People have every right to be protected from harm and harassment - particularly around their homes. However, this offence seems capable of catching the innocent and the menacing alike. We are far from convinced there is any shortage of police powers or criminal law in this area."

Animal rights campaigners yesterday lost their High Court battle to overturn the decision of the Deputy Prime Minister to grant planning permission for a primate research centre at Cambridge. The university has already abandoned the plan in the face of protests.

MAIN POINTS

* New police powers to arrest activists demonstrating outside private addresses

* Protesters to be banned from returning to people's homes for three months

* Harassment laws to be strengthened to cover campaigns directed against employees of the same company