HL Deb 17 February 2003 vol 644 cc910-2

3.1 p.m.

Lord Taverne asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the law provides adequate protection against intimidation from animal rights groups.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, the Government are totally committed to protecting those working on, or otherwise connected with, legitimate scientific research on animals.

The police have a range of powers under existing criminal law and public order legislation to deal with intimidatory protests by animal extremists. We have made legislative changes in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, which provides a new power to move protestors away from homes where such protests may cause harassment, alarm or distress. We have also strengthened the provisions on sending malicious communications with the intent to cause distress or anxiety. However, the effectiveness of existing laws is continuously monitored and proposals to strengthen existing legislation will be brought forward if found necessary.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, the Government are concerned about the threat of terrorism. The animal rights extremists are real-live terrorists who terrorise employees, children, babysitters, old ladies who hold shares—anyone who is remotely connected with a target company. They use megaphones in the middle of the night, break windows, burn cars and beat people up. Surely that is a systematic campaign of intimidation. Are the Government satisfied, with more than 700 such cases in the last quarter of last year, that the police are properly enforcing laws against such intimidation? Surely it is a form of terrorism that must be dealt with more effectively and rooted out.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I share the noble Lord's repugnance for some of the actions of animal rights activists. I agree that, at the extreme end of the spectrum, such repulsive behaviour can be classified as terrorist activities. The Government have worked closely with ACPO to try to ensure that all police forces have in place adequate procedures for monitoring and acting against extremists when they carry out harassment of employees or directors of companies undertaking legitimate scientific research and business activities. A number of people—I think four or five—are currently in prison for having committed and been found guilty of criminal acts of such a nature against such firms or their employees.

The police will not hesitate, and are encouraged by the Government, to use fully the powers that the legislation gives them. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service is looking to try to ensure that its actions are as co-ordinated and to a similar high standard so that any possible cases, where there are good grounds for prosecution, are brought.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, there is an animal rights group called PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It is also an anti-angling organisation, which concerns me particularly. Have any intimidation cases involving PETA been brought to the Minister's notice? Have any charges been made against the organisation?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am aware of PETA, as is the Home Office. To date, it appears to be small and mainly focused on anti-angling campaigns. We have not so far noticed any acts of harassment, but all such groups are actively monitored, both by the Home Office and by the police.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the noble Lord recall the serious threat of extreme violence and the physical attacks a few years ago against people working in laboratories who were carrying out humane experiments aimed at saving the lives of human beings? Does he agree that that was misguided?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I recall it and I agree that it was misguided. To many of us, it demonstrates the utter extremism of some such actions. We have had, since the 1986 Act was passed, what. I think is the tightest system of regulation in the world. There is a very strong system for authorisation and inspection of people, premises and facilities and projects before animals can be used. Animals are not used flippantly or lightly, but for medical, veterinary or fundamental scientific research that benefits us all.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, will my noble friend indicate the incidence of prosecution in 2000, 2001 and 2002 of the animal rights groups?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, as I suspect my noble friend would expect, I do not have those figures exactly at my fingertips. I shall be very pleased to write to him with them and place a copy in the Library.

Lord Turnberg

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the impact of animal rights activists on the pharmaceutical industry? Many companies are considering moving their operations to other countries, particularly the United States, where there is a much more favourable atmosphere.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, we are also aware of the experience of the Huntingdon Life Sciences Company, which moved its shares on to the American stock exchange from the British one because it gave greater shareholder protection and anonymity. The Government work closely with the pharmaceutical industry in respect of the matter. The industry is one of the gems of British industry and British research. It is fundamental to the health of our economy. We view with extreme concern any worries on its part that our environment may be hostile to its highly successful businesses and highly necessary scientific research.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, there was recently an event in the House for the Biolndustry Association, which has since written to me on the issue. Some of its members would find it difficult to reconcile their own experiences with the account of the action taken against the terrorists that we have heard today. Will the noble Lord accept that much more needs to be done? If there is to be a proper distinction between persuasion, on the one hand, and intimidation, to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on the other, that intimidation should be effectively proscribed.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I agree that we wish to prevent and outlaw any acts of intimidation that inhibit or deter legitimate business or scientific research. In respect of the examples that the noble Lord did not fully give, if he would let me have that evidence I would be pleased to place it before my honourable friend the Minister in another place who deals with the matter. I am sure that he would be pleased to consider it to ensure that we do all that we should as a government on the matter.

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