Leading Article: There is no place for intimidation in a democracy

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THE ACTIVITIES of a minority of animal-rights activists have grown increasingly militant in recent years. In 2004 alone there were more than 100 attacks on the homes of Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratory employees. The construction of an animal research facility in Oxford had to be halted last year because of a virulent campaign of intimidation.

And the costs of protecting animal research are ballooning. It is estimated British universities spend pounds 175,000 a year on security for their laboratory workers. This could prove expensive for the country as a whole, too. Investors in Britain's pounds 3bn bioscience sector are increasingly worried about the apparent inability of the police to deal with these militant campaigns against activities that are, however distasteful in some instances, legal.

The legislation announced yesterday should help. Some have argued that the police need extra resources, not new laws, to deal with violent demonstrators. But the tactics of some activists have grown so sophisticated that the case for these new measures is compelling.

Militant campaigners have learnt that targeting firms which provide services to animal research centres - cleaners, builders, banks etc - can be more effective than targeting the centres themselves. By spreading fear as widely as possible, these activists are exerting substantial economic pressure. Under this new legislation it would be a specific criminal offence to target companies associated with laboratories in an attempt to cause "economic damage" to research centres.

New police powers to arrest those who protest outside private homes are also welcome. Demonstrators have a right to make their case in a vocal manner outside research centres, but it is unacceptable for them to picket scientists and their families at home. This crosses the line from legitimate protest to intimidation.

There is a strong case for arguing that too much animal experimentation goes on in the UK - particularly on primates. But bullying, threats and violence have no place in a democracy, whatever the merits of the various arguments. The police should utilise this new legislation to ensure that the intimidation comes to an end.