HC Deb 19 November 1984 vol 68 cc21-8 3.30 pm
Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the poisoning of confectionery by members of the Animal Liberation Front.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

I have been asked to reply.

I have today received the following information from the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. At 3.10 pm on Saturday, 17 November, the press bureau at New Scotland Yard received a telephone call from the deputy news editor of the Sunday Mirror informing the police that he had just received a telephone call from the Animal Liberation Front stating that Mars bars throughout the country had been injected with rat poison. That telephone call was followed by the receipt at the Sunday Mirror of a Mars bar and a letter from the ALF, in which the ALF claimed to have adulterated Mars bars in London, Leeds, York, Southampton and Coventry. The Mars bar and letter were handed to the Metropolitan police.

At about 3.45 pm the same day the BBC offices at Portland place were handed a Mars bar which was claimed to have come from the ALF and to be contaminated, as were others throughout the country.

The Mars bars that were handed to the Sunday Mirror and the BBC have been submitted to the Metropolitan police laboratory for examination, and a result of the analysis is expected tomorrow. In the light of recent ALF activities, the police and the manufacturers have, very properly, taken these claims seriously.

I understand that a number of other police forces have been handed Mars bars which are either marked with a large cross or contain a copy of the ALF letter. Tests to determine whether or not they have been contaminated continue, but thus far I am glad to say that there is no evidence that any member of the public has purchased or eaten a contaminated product.

Police inquiries are continuing.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in deploring the Animal Liberation Front's outrageous and irresponsible behaviour.

Mr. Bruinvels

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful answer. Is this not yet another example of an irresponsible campaign that is corrupted by violence and terror tactics? Are not defenceless children very much in danger, and is there not a risk that they could be very ill indeed from eating contaminated Mars bars? I think that my hon. Friend will agree that the ALF appears to care more about animals than humans, which is a disgrace.

Will my hon. Friend let us know whether any warnings were given? What steps is the Home Office taking to monitor the ALF's activities? Is my hon. Friend aware that the RSPCA has condemned outright the ALF's action as being totally irresponsible and very corrupt? Is he further aware that these animals—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has asked at least three questions and, in fairness to other hon. Members, that is enough.

Mr. Mellor

I agree with my hon. Friend's concern. It comes a little hard to be lectured about animal rights by a group that is plainly contemptuous of human rights. The problem with the incident that has been reported is that it is just one of a series of incidents which has been escalating in seriousness in recent months. Those incidents have involved personal violence against people involved in research work in laboratories. Three weeks ago. three people were put into hospital. Dangerous wild animals have also been let loose.

The problem facing civilised people in this country is that such behaviour threatens us all. It is utterly irresponsible, and we must all stand firm against it by assisting the police to resolve the matter as speedily as possible.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sunderland)

Is the Minister aware that people such as the spokesman for the RSPCA—who yesterday on television described such monstrous criminal behaviour as understandable—are doing the cause of those concerned about animal welfare no good at all? What steps are being taken by the police to trace the perpetrators of these offences?

Mr. Mellor

In reply to the hon. Gentleman's helpful question, I can tell him that every effort is being made by the police to trace those responsible, and inquiries are continuing.

Many of us are concerned about animal welfare, which is why Britain has the most rigorous animal welfare laws in the world. It is why the Government are currently negotiating with a wide range of interested groups to reform the 1876 Act and to introduce controls that will be even more rigorous.

We appreciate that some animal experiments—indeed, quite a large number—will be absolutely crucial for the foreseeable future if we are to have product safety and if we are to conquer diseases for which currently there is no cure. That is something that the extremists find it impossible to understand.

None of us can have any truck with such conduct, which must be stamped out in the interests of us all.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the vast majority of people are becoming increasingly fed up with the arrogant and irresponsible antics of the members of the Animal Liberation Front masquerading as do-gooders and presuming to know better than the law or this House about what the law does or should allow?

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Mars affair is only the latest in a series of episodes in which the freedom of people in Britain to go about their lawful business has been interfered with? When I say people, I mean butchers, pet food shopkeepers and many other traders.

Mr. Mellor

It is the appallingly wide range of activities condemned by the extremists that make them so frightening. For example, when a football manager is a fisherman, that is a licence for the extremists to damage the ground and pitch of a team that the manager's team is playing against. Because they are against angling, apparently youths must be free to throw stones at anglers. Because they do not agree with people eating hamburgers, at least a dozen McDonald's restaurants have been damaged in recent months. Because they do not agree with mink farming, some of my hon. Friend's constituents have had mink released into the countryside. That is an act of grotesque irresponsibility for both mink and other wildlife in the countryside. They even released a wolf last week.

These things are going too far. The community as a whole must repudiate such action if we are to have the civilised debate about animal welfare that we all want.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Will the Minister confirm that, by legitimate and orthodox means over the years, the RSPCA has had signal successes with the Home Office to prevent cruelty to animals? Do not such incidents as what occurred during the weekend, even if they turn out to be a hoax, add nothing to the cause of animal lovers throughout Britain who sympathise with the movement against cruelty to animals?

Mr. Mellor

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. At the end of the last Parliament, an Act was passed, supported by the RSPCA, to prevent the sale of pets from open street markets. That dealt with the scandal of Club row. I was happy to support that on behalf of the Government.

A dialogue is continuing with a whole range of groups concerned with animal welfare, including the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments—which I know many hon. Members support—to update our laws on animal experiments.

We do not need the activities of extremists to persuade us that our animal welfare laws need to be the best possible. They only hinder the process of reform; they do not advance it.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Will my hon. Friend accept the assurances of hon. Members on both sides of the House who belong to the all-party parliamentary group for the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments—which I have the privilege to chair—that we are wholly opposed to the practices carried out by people such as this, who claim to believe in animal welfare?

Will my hon. Friend accept our assurance that we believe that the only proper way forward is to fund research into alternatives, so that animals are no longer required for experiments?

We would welcome a statement from the Minister in the near future on our submissions on the White Paper.

Mr. Mellor

My hon. Friend knows that the Government, for the first time, have made available a substantial sum for research into alternatives. He knows that the number of animal experiments has fallen from about 5.6 million in 1976 to about 3.6 million last year. He is aware that, while we must strive to bring into play as many alternatives as possible, for the foreseeable future many animal experiments will be needed if we are to have any chance of conquering those diseases that still remain without a remedy.

The House will know that several surgical procedures that are now commonplace, such as coronary bypasses, were introduced 20 years ago only after the most rigorous experimentation on animals, without which such life-saving operations would not have been possible.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does the Minister recollect that, following my active participation in the Committee stage of the Protection of Animals (Scientific Purposes) Bill, introduced in 1979 by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), there were suggestions that Governments of the day should make it clear that to accept the demands of animal liberation supporters would lead naturally to infringements of the various Medicines Acts? In those circumstances, would it not be useful for Governments to indulge in the making of some tear-jerking statements—many of which would have a basis of fact—about precisely what would happen if the aims of the ALF were to be achieved? If they were, all sorts of work relating to human disasters would be gravely affected.

Has anything been learnt from the recent Japanese experience in regard to the poisoning of foods?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman has made some valuable points, and it is up to all of us in public life to stress them. I have done my best to do so, and as a consequence I have suffered somewhat at the hands of the extremists. It needs to be clearly understood that the vaccines that save children's lives all have to be tested on animals. Unless every batch is tested, there will be more vaccine-damaged children, and we cannot countenance that.

We must not think that it is only animal experiments—or so-called unnecessary animal experiments—that the extremists are against. They are against commonplace pursuits such as fishing, they are against the eating of animals, and I have seen letters from the Animal Liberation Front denouncing the keeping of pets. There is no way in which any civilised Government can bow to their demands.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Can my hon. Friend assure the House that the tests on the allegedly poisoned Mars bars will be carried out as quickly as possible? On today's 1 o'clock radio news a man purporting to speak for the Animal Liberation Front said that none of the Mars bars had been poisoned. Those of us who know the Mars corporation know it to be an exceptionally responsible and worthwhile company.

Mr. Mellor

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that the results of the analysis should be known as quickly as possible. The reason why the analysis is taking a good deal of time is that everything, including the wrappers, is being subjected to minute examination, not merely to determine whether Mars bars have been contaminated but to get evidence as to who might have been responsible. Whether or not the bars have been contaminated, criminal offences have been committed. The incident is deplorable, whether or not Mars bars containing rat poison have been put on shelves.

It is most unfair that Mars should be pilloried and held in contempt for supporting important medical research at one of the most significant medical establishments. If that is a matter for which people are to be held in contempt, things have come to a pretty pass.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

In rightly and forthrightly condemning the interference with Mars bars, is the Minister aware that many responsible campaigners felt a great deal of frustration that there was no legislation on animal welfare proposed in the Queen's Speech? Will the Minister take steps to ensure that firm proposals are made public as soon as possible to minimise the damage done by wild and irresponsible groups such as the ALF?

Mr. Mellor

The trouble is that we are breeding a large number of single-interest groups which become extremely frustrated when people who have to deal with many other matters are not prepared to give total priority to their point of view. They seem to think that they can resort to any kind of law breaking to bring about their aims. We must all, regardless of our party political position, condemn that sort of activity. I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman would not want his words to be interpreted as condoning that frustration. We are the first Government for a long time to take the matter seriously enough to introduce a carefully considered proposal to reform the 1876 Act.

Further deliberations are taking place in the light of detailed submissions received from animal welfare groups and others. It is in the best interests of the legislation that it remains under consideration. The Government are committed to take action, and action will be taken. However, that will not satisfy the extremists. They are opposed to all experiments and "all experiments" would not be stopped by a responsible Government.

Mr. Derek Spencer (Leicester, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the activities of the Animal Liberation Front go much further than irresponsibility? Its members claim deliberately to promote their activities by serious crime. They have claimed responsibility for acts of criminal damage involving between £70,000 and £80,000. They inflict terror upon those who work in laboratories and their activities are to be condemned by everyone who supports the cause of animal welfare.

Mr. Mellor

Several recent incidents have involved attacks by several dozen people armed with slegehammers and crowbars. In a recent incident, three people were put into hospital. During the year the claims that have been made by the group and the threats that it has uttered have become ever more ferocious, including breaking into the homes of scientists and smashing their hands to pulp in front of their families. Last week ALF representatives threatened to use firearms. My worry is that these people are feeding their own psychotic tendencies to such a degree that we can no longer assume that they do not mean what they say, and that sooner or later, as is evidenced by the fact that violence is already escalating, they will not do something truly dreadful. That is why I say that the community must disclose any information that it has about these groups so that members of them can be stopped, as much in their own interests as in those of the rest of us.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. In view of the importance of this subject, I shall call those hon. Members who have been rising in their places. However, this is a private notice question and we must move on when those hon. Members have been called.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

The Minister says that he wishes to stamp out this irresponsibility. Perhaps one way of doing so would be for the Minister to show a little more flexibility. He has developed over these last years a reputation among those people who take an interest in these matters as not being flexible. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is the reputation that this Minister has acquired for himself. It may well not be grounded on fact, but it happens to be the truth. If that is the case, then surely it is for the Minister himself to ensure that a campaign is organised to make the Government's position quite clear to those interest groups. That is the way to defuse the difficulty that we have today.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman is an instant expert on everything that comes before the House, and I suppose that I must take his strictures as stolidly as those of my colleagues who have them visited upon them regularly. The proposals in the White Paper have been considered by groups such as both the veterinary bodies, the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments, and other reputable bodies such as the Royal Society, and have been found to be entirely in keeping with the best traditions of British concern for animals. If the hon. Gentleman means by flexibility that in the interests of pandering to extremists I should stop medical research, cancer tests, research into safe vaccine for children and protection for those who deal with hazardous chemicals, let him have the backbone to say so rather than using coded expressions that suggest that we should pander to extremism, which is something that he is good at doing.

Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesham)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, apart from radio interviews, Independent Television News showed on our screens at lunchtime a gentleman who proudly admitted that the exercise had been a hoax? If it be a lunatic hoax, should not the Government be thinking fairly carefully whether those who may be associated with crimes should be allowed such platforms?

Mr. Mellor

As I have said, I am not in a position to say whether it has been a hoax. Irrespective of whether it is a hoax, it is profoundly irresponsible. I shall not comment on what the gentleman said on ITN, as I gather that the police are interested in the observations he made.

Mr. Albert McQuarriie (Banff and Buchan)

My hon. Friend will be aware that millions of Mars bars have been withdrawn from the shelves of shops and that the production of the bars has been stopped. This will create unemployment in a factory and town where we are looking for employment. Members of the ALF should take that into consideration before they set out on their dangerous expeditions.

Mr. Mellor

I agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Does my hon. Friend accept the fact that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are well aware of the pressure and attacks on him and entirely reject the ludicrous statements by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Did you listen to what I said? If not, read it tomorrow.

Mr. Hickmet

Will my hon. Friend help the House by saying what assistance he and the police have received from the Mars company? Is my hon. Friend satisfied with that assistance in tracing the so-called poisoned bars?

Mr. Mellor

I am happy to say that the Mars company has behaved with the utmost responsibility in all this. I stress that there is no reason why people should lack any confidence in Mars products or why Mars should feel that it has been anything other than the victim of an outrageous, unnecessary and unjustified attack. In supporting research, the Mars company has acted inestimably. Companies such as Mars would be criticised not if they supported such research but if they did not do so.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

Does my hon. Friend agree that Mars bars contaminated with rat poison would cause death or serious injury? Does my hon. Friend agree that charges that reflect those consequences should follow? If, however, this is a hoax, does my hon. Friend agree that the Mars company and the retailers should be able to pursue an action for damages?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

He will represent either side.

Mr. Mellor

It would be dangerous for me to seek to advise either the Mars company or the police on what charges should follow. I remain of the view, as I have said, that this is a serious incident, whether or not rat poison was put into those Mars bars. It is worth bearing in mind that, the last time these people threatened to contaminate products, they put bleach into shampoo, which could have blinded people. No one should treat this as a joke; the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) seems to treat most things as a joke.

Mr. Skinner

It is not a joke: he will take the brief.

Mr. Mellor

This is one of a series of incidents in recent months that will trouble every responsible hon. Member.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many people who are seriously worried about the welfare of animals will be appalled that a small minority are using threats to the well-being and health of children as a way of getting publicity? They will be even more worried because that publicity prevents and obscures the serious public debate that is taking place and should take place on how we in Britain treat animals? Will the Under-Secretary of State comment on the obvious vulnerability of food manufacturers to such threats? Is the Japanese experience helpful in this respect?

Mr. Mellor

These are worldwide phenomena. The experience in Japan and America will be studied. Producers of goods that are widely distributed and sold all over the country are especially vulnerable to this threat. That is why the only answer to the problem is to stamp out those extremists. It is important that we should have a debate about animal welfare and that our animal laws should be the best possible legislation. It is important also that we should have an environment in which there is not only good animal welfare but a good climate for scientists to do important work of fundamental research. Striking the balance between the two is something that all responsible people want to do.

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