THE GOVERNMENT has announced that it will give extra powers to police to tackle animal rights extremists as it delivers a clear endorsement of experiments on animals.
The Home Office, which said such experiments had brought major medical and economic benefits, promised a series of amendments to criminal laws. This was a little at odds with indications given by Labour over the past few years that animal experiments would be phased out.
One key change in the law will tackle fanatics who gather outside the homes of staff working in animal labs or for sub-contractors, to harass and threaten them.
Police can currently "direct" demonstrators away from a house but cannot act if protesters disappear before police arrive. The new power will make it a criminal offence to protest outside homes "in such a way that causes harassment, alarm or distress". Police will be able to make arrests after the event.
A Home Office paper stresses that the power will not affect the right to picket a workplace peacefully.
In a second change, an amendment to the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act will make it an offence for anyone "directed" away from a home to return within three months.
The third change, to the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, will allow the arrest and prosecution of those who harass not just a single individual but also employees of a specific company.
The Home Office has promised that police and the Crown Prosecution Service will bring the organisers of animal rights "terrorism" to justice. Other measures have also been suggested such as informing shareholders in pharmaceutical companies that they do not have to include their addresses in public records.
The Crown Prosecution Service is also making greater use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), requiring offenders not to continue the offending conduct. Mr Macdonald said police were also targeting ringleaders, not just individual protesters.
The hard-core of animal rights organisers, who mastermind violence and fund raising, is targeted by the National Crime Squad.
The police response in England and Wales is led by the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit. It is based in Cambridgeshire, where the Huntingdon Life Sciences experimental laboratory, a long-term animal activists' target, is also based.
The Government makes clear its support for animal research, stating that it is "taking action to develop alternatives [to animal testing] as soon as possible. However, if cutting-edge, life-saving research is to continue, it will be necessary for the foreseeable future to continue to use animals".
There was a cautious welcome for the proposals.
Prof Barry Keverne, the chairman of the Royal Society committee on animals in research, said the measure went some way to ensuring better protection from intimidation and harassment but he was concerned that help for universities was not mentioned.
Dr Mark Walport, of the Wellcome Trust, said: "We will have to wait and see how effectively it works. It is the delivery that matters; the rhetoric alone is not sufficient."