Labs still 'soft targets'

July 30, 2004

Government moves to crack down on animal rights extremists may not prevent universities becoming "soft targets", charities and academics have warned.

The Association of Medical Research Charities, whose members spend £660 million a year on research in the UK, wrote to the Home Office this week to complain that ministers seemed to be focusing on protecting industry from animal rights extremists, apparently ignoring academic researchers and the public funders of their research.

Diana Garnham, chief executive of the AMRC, said: "We know universities are on the front line, but there has been little talk about how university research institutes will be protected. The concern is that universities and charities will become soft targets for extremists."

Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' group, voiced similar concerns. A spokesperson said: "We hope that universities, other publicly funded research environments and charity institutes will not be forgotten and that attention will be paid to the wider group of individuals engaged in animal- based research."

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is due to announce new powers to tackle animal rights extremists on Friday. Measures are expected to include making it a criminal offence to protest outside someone's home in an intimidating way, and an extension of the anti-stalking laws to protect employees from the repeated activities of protestors.

But there was widespread scepticism about whether such measures would go far enough.

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said: "I'm not convinced that they'll come up with anything very much." He has lobbied the Government to underwrite security costs at universities and to pay the extra insurance of contractors who undertake controversial projects.

Lord Winston, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Imperial College London, warned: "It is difficult to see what any government can do that will be truly effective - whether it is industry or private researchers or academic establishments that are being targeted."

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