ANIMAL RIGHTS extremists were blamed for driving away the main contractors on a new £18 million science centre that will carry out research into life threatening diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s.
Ministers threw their support behind a rescue plan after Oxford University vowed to press ahead with the centre despite the decision by Walter Lilly, the construction company, to pull out after what was described as a campaign of intimidation and terrorism.
The move marked another blow to British science after Huntingdon Life Sciences left for the US two years ago and Cambridge University abandoned plans for a neuroscience centre in January this year.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, promised action and said that police would have "whatever they request" to deal with the extremists. "We are going to launch within the next three weeks a revised, updated programme, agreed with the police," he said in an interview on Channel 4 News.
"If we need powers in the policing and organised crime legislation this winter, I will grant it. Whatever is necessary, within reason, to actually clamp down on people who are internal terrorists."
Work had begun on the new centre in Oxford and government sources insisted that construction would be completed by the end of next year, although Oxford refused to say who its new partners were.
Ministers are investigating how they can provide better legal protection for companies involved in research, and greater penalties for animal welfare extremists.
Mark Matfield, director of the Research Defence Society, which represents scientists involved in animal experiments, said that new legislation must also stop harassment of contractors, staff and shareholders. He said: "This is coercion or blackmail by any other name, and if the law is not sufficient to prevent animal rights activists doing this then the law should be strengthened.
“However, one contractor, even a big one, pulling out is hardly something novel. It has happened many times before to targeted laboratories, and these labs have learnt how to deal with this situation."
The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry said: "It is truly appalling that the illegal activities of a small band of people conducting a campaign of intimidation, harassment and terrorism can prevent a company from working on a facility that will bring great benefit to people."
Most of the animals to be housed in the new facilities were rodents, and all would come from existing Oxford facilities. There would also be fish and primates.
Montpellier, of which Walter Lilly and Co is a subsidiary, would say only that the £18 million contract had been terminated by mutual consent with Oxford University.
Shares in Montpellier fell by 19 per cent to a four-year low of 18p last month, after investors received letters purporting to be from company directors. The letter threatened investors with "prompt activity by the animal rights movement" unless they sold their shares.
Vicky Cowell, of the charity Seriously Ill for Medical Research, said: "This gives out the message that you can behave like terrorists and get away with it. They knew the nature of the project when they took it on, they are doing a legal job and they should stick to it."