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Animal Rights Protests: Protection Of Public

Volume 621: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2001

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2.44 p.m.

What action they are taking to protect individuals and the public from attacks and intimidation by those who claim to represent animal rights.

My Lords, the Government are committed to doing whatever is necessary to help the police to tackle violent animal extremists. There are already tough laws to protect business and individuals from violent or threatening protests. But we intend to strengthen these further to give the police additional powers to ensure that businesses and individuals can go properly about their lawful business without fear of violence or intimidation.

The measures we propose will allow the police to take action to prevent extremists protesting outside people's homes and will also strengthen the law against the sending of malicious communications. In addition, the Government are consulting closely with the police service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts to achieve an effective and consistent approach to enforcement of the law in this area.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that full reply. Has he seen comment by those threatened that the most recent measures announced are not adequate to counter attacks on the families and properties of those who are thought—sometimes incorrectly—to be engaged in animal experiments? Can the Minister confirm that Thalidomide was not tested on animals before it was marketed and that it led to very distressing results?

My Lords, the noble Lord's second point is not part of my policy portfolio. My noble friend Lord Hunt will endeavour to furnish the noble Lord with that information.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his first point. It is important to get the right measures to deal with this particular animal rights extremism. We shall want to listen carefully to those who are properly concerned for their welfare and security.

My Lords, do the Government agree that such threats comprise one of the most dangerous forms of terrorism in the UK at the moment? In the light of that, is it not important that everyone—particularly the investment community—should stand firm against such intimidation? Can the Minister draw the attention of this to the fund managers of Phillips & Drew, Panmure Gordon and the board of HSBC, which gave in to the first whiff of a threat from the animal rightists and which set a deplorable example of corporate cowardice?

My Lords, I am sure that there will be widespread support for those comments. It is an appalling form of terrorism. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary raised this issue in the debates on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. We are and shall be taking firm measures to deal with these problems, particularly those of intimidation and malicious communications.

My Lords, I welcome that response. The sooner tough action is taken to deal with these gangsters, the better. They are acting in a way which is utterly counter-productive and forfeits respect for the cause they seek to serve, as they did when they released mink into the wild at great cost to the natural heritage. Does the Minister recognise that there is widespread unease from those responsibly concerned with animal welfare? Does he further recognise that this unease could be relieved to a marked extent by discouraging the unnecessary use of animals in science and by the inspectorate being adequately resourced, strong and austere enough to ensure that high standards of care are maintained in laboratories?

My Lords, it is a widely shared view that we have one of the best regulatory systems in the world for dealing with animal welfare and experimentation. We, and our Government in particular, should be proud of that record. I concur with the noble Lord's earlier points which reflect comments made in your Lordships' House today.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's proposals to tighten up protection for people being terrorised by animal rights protesters. Does he recognise how extremely serious this matter is? Is he aware that one lawful establishment outside Oxford was closed down entirely by animal rights protesters? Is he further aware that medical research academics in the university have been threatened, along with their families, including their children? Can he confirm that most medicines have to be tested on animals before they can be sold to the public?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that intervention. I am aware of the final point that she made. We take these threats very seriously indeed. We should be proud that the Home Secretary has announced the release of further funding—a further £1 million—to protect the establishment in Cambridge. Over the past year or so, Cambridgeshire police have arrested some 200 people in an attempt to counter those demonstrations. People should be under no illusion: this kind of lawlessness will be dealt with very firmly by the police. I am conscious of the attacks and intimidation that have taken place at other establishments. I refer in particular to the establishment in Oxfordshire and to Shamrock Farm in Sussex. We are very aware of these issues. We intend to deal with them firmly and give our utmost support to the police in this important work.

My Lords, what use is being made of existing powers against those who send letter bombs and either threaten to burn down or try to burn down people's houses or premises?

My Lords, the police have a wide range of powers under the criminal law and public order legislation which they can use to tackle those problems and to ensure that people can go about their business and lead much happier lives as a consequence. The Public Order Act 1986 provides the police with powers to act in respect of a range of criminal offences relating to public disorder; for example, when threatening or abusive behaviour or harassment occurs. I do not want to go into too much detail about how the security services and the police service conduct themselves in countering terrorist activities. That would be quite wrong. But the House can be assured that they are ever vigilant and are becoming increasingly successful in that endeavour.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that with the animal rights movement there is an iron curtain of understanding beyond which it is not possible to convey the importance of animal testing to this country and to the health and welfare of the people living in it? Does he further agree that, as a result, it is necessary to mount a campaign to convince the general public that animal testing is necessary, that these people are merely delaying important developments and that work may go overseas rather than be carried out in this country?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord's comments. It was very encouraging to everyone that the Prime Minister took such a clear lead on this issue. We want to encourage the widest possible understanding of the importance of this form of experimentation and the development of medical science as a consequence of that.

My Lords, we look forward to supporting the kind of measures outlined by the Minister when the Bill comes before the House. Are they likely to include some degree of confidentiality for the private addresses of directors, shareholders and so on? I realise that it is a difficult issue, but it is also a very important one.

My Lords, I certainly understand the noble Lord's point. No doubt it is being carefully considered.

My Lords, under what category does the Home Office regard this type of activity? Is it seen as a misuse of freedom of expression; is it seen as civil disobedience; or is it categorised as terrorism?

My Lords, it would depend very much on the activity being undertaken by particular individuals. None of us has a problem with people freely expressing their views, even if we find those views at odds with our own. But it cannot be right that people conduct their campaigns by means of terrorism, violence or intimidation. For that reason, we intend to take firm measures and to give the police the utmost support and encouragement in dealing with the problems as they present themselves.