Scientists have expressed anger over the government's failure to protect them from animal rights extremists.
Last week's Queen's Speech made no mention of measures to tackle animal rights "terrorism" although reports earlier this year suggested the home secretary was considering stronger legislation against protesters who published personal details or targeted the homes of those associated with animal testing.
Instead, the Home Office said that it would launch a national strategy to coordinate and enforce existing laws. In a meeting with researchers and police last week, Mike O'Brien, Home Office minister responsible for animal procedures and welfare, said legislation was sufficient.
"The government wants to ensure that people carrying out lawful activities can do so without risk to their personal security," he said. "We think better and more efficient enforcement is the key."
Barbara Davies, deputy director of the Research Defence Society, attacked the strategy as "not a good enough answer". She said laws were inadequate, adding: "The only effective solution is new legislation to outlaw the organisation of aggressive animal rights campaigns that target individuals."
Her disappointment was echoed by Nick Wright, deputy principal and vice-principal for research at Imperial College, London. "They say they already have these powers. Why haven't they used them? People have been driven out of legitimate business by intimidation. We need something more robust, but they are not prepared to do this."
Representatives from the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, Huntingdon Life Sciences, the Medical Research Council, the Research Defence Society and the Magistrates Association were present at the meeting. Delegates were briefed on legislation, its advantages and its disadvantages.
Mr O'Brien urged researchers to take a more active role in collecting evidence for injunctions to enable them to bring criminal charges. They were told to liaise more closely with the police to keep them up to date on what was happening.
The Home Office said it would issue a consultation document in the new year with a view to producing a coordinated national strategy. It will examine the extent of the problem, the existing powers available, and offer guidance to the police and prosecution authorities. Legal advisers are looking at whether new legislation is needed to cover protests outside private homes, which might not be covered in the "watching and besetting" section of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act.
A spokesman for Huntingdon Life Sciences, a commercial animal laboratory, welcomed the move. He said results would be seen sooner without having to wait for new legislation. The laboratory has been the focus of a national campaign by anti-vivisection protesters, which has included violent protests outside staff and shareholders' homes. Cambridgeshire police has spent more than £1.2 million this year on protecting it.
The Institute of Animal Technicians now holds its annual congress abroad as few British universities are willing to play host because of safety fears. Over the past three years, four Home Office-licensed animal supply companies have closed because of intimidation and attacks on staff.
Laws to tackle protestactivities by animal rights extremists
- Public Order Act
- Protection from Harassment Act 1997
- Civil injunctions
- Anti-social behaviour order
- Malicious Communications Act 1998
- Offences Against the Person Act (section 16)
- Exclusion Orders
- Breach of the Peace
- Witness Personal Statement
- Proposals for a Fixed Penalty Notice
- Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992
Source: Home Office