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Extremist Protests: Protection Of Individuals

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2001

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3.1 p.m.

What action they are taking to protect people at risk from terrorist action by animal liberationists.

My Lords, it is completely unacceptable that a small minority of criminals attempt to stop individuals going about their legitimate, lawful activities. The Government are committed to doing whatever is necessary to help the police tackle these extremists. There are already tough laws to protect businesses and individuals. We intend to strengthen these further in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill.

My Lords, I welcome the steps that the Government are taking to promote better protection in such cases. Can the Minister say whether the Government will treat this form of terrorism as one of the most dangerous organised threats to law and order that exists at present? In particular, will the Government take measures to prevent intimidation of victims' homes, both by keeping private and confidential the addresses of directors of target companies and by looking again at the question of organised groups acting in concert by way of harassment outside people's homes? At present, the law is not adequate in that respect in properly protecting people.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on the position he has taken. I also acknowledge his support for government measures. The measures we are putting into the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which have now been tabled as amendments, will give the police additional powers to deal with protests outside people's homes. The police will be able to direct protestors to move away or disperse; and failure to comply with the direction will be a criminal and, indeed, an imprisonable offence.

A second amendment will amend the malicious communications legislation, which currently makes available to those accused a defence of subjectively believing that their behaviour was reasonable. This will be replaced by an objective test. We are encouraged by the support that we are receiving for ensuring that company directors will be protected from necessarily having to provide their home address. Therefore, we are taking the measures suggested by the noble Lord. We take the issue extremely seriously. It is in all of our interests to give the police the utmost support in operations directed against such protestors.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not only a case of protecting people, but also one of protecting animals from these people? Can the Minister give the House any information about what has happened to the beagles that were recently stolen? Can he say whether any follow up measures have been taken by the authorities to try to find out what damage or harm has occurred to them?

My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, it is occasionally the case that some of the activities of extremists involved in this sort of "protest"—if one can call it that—have had an adverse impact on some animals. That fact is greatly to be regretted; indeed, it is not something that should be encouraged. I cannot provide the noble Lord with the information that he requires because that is an operational matter for the police. However, I know that the police have taken seriously the attack he mentioned and that they have been vigorous in the extreme in following up and inquiring into exactly what has happened. They are to be congratulated on that work.

My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm that the courts should take into account the intention to cause fear when assessing the gravity of an offence and before sentencing an offender?

My Lords, I am sure that that would be the case. Courts would take that point very carefully into consideration.

My Lords, I believe the feeling of the House is that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, should put his question. If there is time, two swift questions can be put.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, although we realise and welcome the indication that the Government are considering tightening up the legislation, one of the crucial issues, as always, is one of resources? Is he also aware that the police force responsible for trying to protect Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire is one of the smaller police forces, albeit one that is extremely well led by a very vigorous chief constable? Is the noble Lord further aware that that force needs additional financial support, given the pressure on its resources? Can he tell the House what can be done in that respect?

My Lords, we have provided the Cambridgeshire constabulary with an additional £1 million to support their activities. In response to the noble Lord's earlier point, I should tell him that we have not just moved forward; we have physically tabled amendments so that the legislation will be changed in the way in which I carefully described. So, yes, we are giving very active support to the Cambridgeshire constabulary and, yes, we are putting in place the legislation to enable the police to act.