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Animal Rights Extremists

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2001

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3 p.m.

Whether, in view of the latest reported threats from animal rights extremists to Members of Parliament, they have any plans to proscribe by order any such organisations as terrorist.

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary made clear in another place during yesterday's debate on the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2001, He has considered this matter very carefully and does not judge at present that it would be right to proscribe any such groups. However, we do condemn their disruptive and sometimes violent attacks on individuals and property and we are committed to doing whatever is necessary to help the police to deal with these extremists.

My Lords, while I thank the noble Lord for that reply, is He aware that I am extremely dissatisfied with it? Does the noble Lord accept that the Animal Rights Militia and the Justice Department have both advocated violence? Surely it is time for those two organisations in particular to be banned.

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness will recognise that additional measures are being taken to strengthen the processes by which we bring such perpetrators of violence to justice. The Police and Criminal Justice Bill will provide a new power for police to move protestors away from homes where such protests may cause harassment, alarm or distress. The Bill will strengthen provisions on sending malicious communications, making that an imprisonable offence. Furthermore, we shall protect the homes of the directors of vulnerable companies by providing that the addresses of those directors at risk of violence or intimidation can be withheld from the public by the use of a secure register. Those measures will provide protection, increased sanctions and new powers for the police to take effective action against extremists.

My Lords, do the police have any powers to deal with people who demonstrate on behalf of such organisations but disguise themselves by wearing stocking-masks and so forth over their faces? Does He agree that they can have no possible innocent reason for doing so?

My Lords, the answer to both of the noble Lord's questions is a definitive "yes". The police are able to take action against people who adopt such disguises in order to inhibit the possibility of being arrested and having charges brought against them.

My Lords, in view of the shambolic debate held yesterday in the other place on the order to which the noble Lord has referred—when a single order under the Terrorism Act was debated, proscribing 21 different organisations—does He agree that in the future there should be separate orders for each separate organisation so that they can be the subject of proper debate?

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord that the debate held yesterday in the other place was shambolic. It seemed to reflect the free expression of critical opinion and an explanation of the Government's position with regard to the order. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord immediately that it is only a matter of days before this House will have an opportunity to debate that order. No doubt on that occasion the noble Lord will participate in a free and democratic, but not shambolic, debate.

My Lords, can the Minister expand on his reply to my noble friend Lady Sharples? He said that such extremist groups are already subject to the law. However, when the leaders of those organisations openly incite people to violence, are they not then committing an offence?

My Lords, incitement to violence, if proven, is an offence and would bring a condign punishment. Perhaps I may add that there is a danger here that press comment may exaggerate the extent to which groups such as those mentioned are organised at the same level as a number of the organisations which have been proscribed in the order to which I have just referred. There is a substantial difference between one or, in some cases, two people masquerading under organisational names, then using those names after they have carried out malicious acts and have been charged with them, and large, highly organised groups.

My Lords, did the Minister observe that when we debated the Hunting Bill on Monday last, one matter on which all sides of the House were united was in their condemnation of animal liberation groups and their activities in connection with that Bill, as well as the violent actions recently perpetrated against Huntingdon Life Sciences and other companies? As I have said, the whole House is united against such actions. I believe that is also true of another place. For that reason, I believe that, when we come to the order in a few days' time, it will be difficult for the Government to reply in the manner adopted by the Home Secretary last night in another place. He appeared simply to brush it off.

My Lords, I do not think that it is correct for the noble Lord to suggest that the issues were brushed off in the debate held in another place yesterday night. Perhaps I may hasten to add that I know that all sides of the House join in the condemnation of the outrageous and extremist misbehaviour which has been carried out in a number of locations including, as the noble Lord indicated, sometimes in regard to hunts. However, I am seeking to draw a distinction between organisations which it is proper to proscribe because, in so doing, we can take effective action to limit the criminal behaviour of such groups, and dealing with individuals or tiny groups of people who merely appropriate a set of initials or a name. We must beware of giving such people the same credence as organised groups. What we are dealing with in this case are individual criminals who need to be brought to justice.