Plan to jail animal rights extremists attacked by all sides

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Plans to jail animal rights extremists for up to five years for inflicting "economic damage" on medical research companies were criticised by civil liberties groups, anti-cruelty campaigners and even the police yesterday. The measures announced by the Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, prompted fears that peaceful protests could be curtailed while activists said they would not reduce the number of offences, which are already covered by stringent laws.

Plans to jail animal rights extremists for up to five years for inflicting "economic damage" on medical research companies were criticised by civil liberties groups, anti-cruelty campaigners and even the police yesterday. The measures announced by the Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, prompted fears that peaceful protests could be curtailed while activists said they would not reduce the number of offences, which are already covered by stringent laws.

Under the proposals it will become a criminal offence to interfere in the commercial activities of drug companies that use animals in research. Threatening behaviour or protest outside the homes of laboratory staff, or the workforce of their suppliers and associates, such as couriers and cleaners, will also be outlawed.

Ms Hewitt said: "The simple fact is that attacks by animal rights extremists put medical breakthroughs in areas like Aids, cancer and Alzheimer's directly at risk."

The announcement was backed by the bio-science industry, which is worth more than £3bn a year to the economy. Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, who has been the target of extremists, said: "It is essential that researchers and those working with them are able to carry out their work without fear of intimidation."

The Government was responding after a year in which protests halted the construction of a primate research centre in Oxford. It also follows the decision of more than 100 contractors and suppliers to sever links with Huntingdon Life Sciences after pressure from protesters.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said that the proposals were "unclear and worrying" and needed urgent clarification. "Nobody is in favour of intimidation or harassment but there are enough existing laws to deal with these problems already," she said.

Adolfo Sansolini, chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said the legislation could restrict freedom of expression. "This fails to take into consideration that for every one extremist who uses intimidatory tactics, there are hundreds of thousands of non-violent activists who work peacefully and lawfully towards their goal of abolishing experiments on animals," he said.

Assistant Chief Constable Anton Setchell, the Association of Chief Police Officers' national co-ordinator for domestic extremism, said the police had not been adequately consulted. The law change was too narrowly applied and should refer to a number of other extremists groups "who copy the tactics of each other".

Ms Hewitt said that the changes were compatible with human rights legislation and would not hamper the right to protest peacefully.

She said it would outlaw threatening behaviour, such as sending letters to the neighbours of scientists falsely denouncing them as paedophiles. It would also upgrade civil laws governing trespass, nuisance and low-level criminal damage, such as painting walls in red paint, to make them criminal offences if they were part of an animal rights protest. The legislation will be tabled as an amendment to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill.

THE ACTIVIST

The protest at Darley Oaks farm where guinea pigs are bred for medical research has been one of the most bitterly fought over the past five years. But for Sarah Dixon of the Save the Newchurch Guinea Pig Campaign, the new legislation is "pointless". Ms Dixon, who promotes only peaceful protest, said: "The offences this legislation is trying to stop are already against the law. I have no idea how far the legislation is going to go. At what point does peaceful protest become economic sabotage? If you are standing outside somewhere protesting and you convince someone not to drive into work that day, is that economic sabotage?"

A decision is expected this week in a High Court action on behalf of the farm's owners, Chris Hall and his family, to win a 70-mile exclusion zone around them where protesters are banned. Police have recorded more than 450 incidents against them, their staff and associates since February 2003, including the theft of the remains of Mr Hall's mother-in-law, Gladys Hammond, from her grave.

THE PHARMACEUTICALS DIRECTOR

Guy is the director of a family firm that supplies scientific equipment to the pharmaceuticals industry. Despite never being involved directly with animal experiments, he and his father have suffered a spate of attacks that have grown more intense over the past year.

It culminated last year in a visit to his home by about 50 activists in vans who started banging on his windows and shouting through megaphones. Police cleared the demonstrators away but not before they had leafleted the family's neighbours.

A month later came the first of the attacks on the family home, late-night visitors daubing insulting messages and excrement on the front of the house.

As a result of the victimisation, Guy has been spat at in the street by an angry neighbour and his 13-year-old son is too frightened to sleep at home. The boy has also had to change schools after word of his father's job spread to the local school.

Steve Connor