BioWorld International Correspondent
LONDON - The UK is cracking down on animal rights activists, promising to beef up policing and enforcement of existing laws against a range of intimidation tactics. It also will introduce legislation to outlaw protests outside people's homes and consider the possibility of making it an offense to cause economic damage to the suppliers of companies or research groups engaged in the legitimate use of animals.
The announcement follows a sustained campaign by the BioIndustry Association (BIA) demanding stronger protection. It also amounts to an acknowledgement that extremists are blocking legitimate academic and commercial research and threatening the financial stability and international standing of the UK's pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors.
Aisling Burnand, CEO of BIA, told BioWorld Internation-al that BIA is satisfied with the proposals, but she called on the government to set out a precise timetable for implementing them.
"It is a very comprehensive and thoughtful document, proposing new legislation and pushing [animal rights extremism] up the police priority list," she said. "Now lots of work needs to be done between the police and the prosecution [authorities], because in the past we have seen arrests, but not convictions."
The BIA will monitor the effectiveness of the measures and will renew its demand for a single piece of legislation against animal rights extremism if the government's strategy of tackling the problem through stronger enforcement of existing laws fails.
The ABPI, the industry body representing the pharmaceutical industry, also welcomed the proposals. Director General Trevor Jones said the government has recognized that animal rights intimidation is now an issue of terrorism.
"Legislation is only part of the answer," he said. "We are pleased that the government recognizes that it is equally important for the police to coordinate their work nationally, to treat animal terrorism as an equal priority with other terrorist threats, and for the courts to punish accordingly."
However, SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Life Sciences), one of the leading activist groups, is undeterred by the proposed crackdown. Greg Avery of SHAC was defiant in an interview with BBC Television calling the proposals "nonsense legislation." SHAC claims there has been a massive increase in interest and support "not just for SHAC, but all other campaigns against the vivisection industry," as a result of the media attention that has been drawn by the government's proposals.
The government has had to pick a very delicate line in framing measures to crackdown on activists and protect the bioscience sector without offending the extremely strong animal welfare lobby in the UK.
In a forward to the proposed strategy, "Animal Welfare: Human Rights - Protecting people from animal rights extremists," UK Prime Minister Tony Blair reiterated the claim that the UK has one of the toughest regimes for licensing and controlling animal experiments. He added that the success of the bioscience sector "is under threat from a tiny minority of animal rights extremists who are behind an illegal campaign of intimidation and violence against individuals and firms involved in this vital work."
The UK exported pharmaceuticals worth £12 billion in 2003, while the bioscience industry invested £3.5 billion in research and development in the UK.
SHAC claims its actions have led 50 suppliers to stop providing services to the animal testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences plc so far in 2004. In January, animal rights campaigns forced Cambridge University to suspend plans for a new primate research center, and last month the building of an animal research facility at Oxford University was halted. Work stopped after a fall in the share price of the main contractor Montpellier, prompted when shareholders received a forged letter in the name of the company's chairman telling them to sell their holdings to avoid the attention of animal rights activists.
The government's strategy will have to counter everything from similar forgeries to threatening letters and harassing phone calls to employees at home. There also have been floods of faxes, emails and phone calls to block companies' lines of communications; the mailing of anonymous letters to neighbors alleging that targeted individuals are pedophiles; packages of offensive materials such as used toilet paper and razor blades being sent to individuals; unwanted goods and services ordered in the name of victims; graffiti; cars vandalized and windows smashed; assaults and intimidation protests at offices and homes; and the planting of fake explosive devices.
Although all illegal, those offenses are covered by a range of different laws, and they often are assessed by police and the courts as individual incidents, rather than as part of a sustained campaign. The government's new strategy promises a concerted drive to catch extremists and to ensure a coordinated response by law enforcement agencies.