A UK government report claims that the country has made real progress against animal rights extremists over the last couple of years, thanks to legislation aimed at increasing the powers of the police to deal with intimidatory tactics and harassment.

The view corresponds with figures released by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry last week, which showed that the number of attacks on private homes by animal rights extremists declined by more than half for the first six months of this year compared with the same period of 2005, and were down 86% from 2004.

Measures implemented by the government include the formation of a dedicated police unit to tackle the problem, and allowing company directors and shareholders to remain anonymous to prevent them from being targetted from harassment and violence.

The government report also pledges to continue to take “robust action against extremists who put vital research at risk.” A quarter of the entire research expenditure by the UK’s manufacturing sector is funded or carried out by the pharmaceutical industry, it notes. That amounts to £3 billion a year.

Impetus to tighten up legislation in this area came after a series of incidents in which animal rights activists overstepped the boundaries of legitimate protest and reported to violent action.

In one of the worst incidents, the managing director of perennial activist target Huntingdon Life Sciences, Brian Cass, was beaten with pickaxe handles by three masked attackers in 2001. And last year a broker working for investment firm Canaccord Capital, which held an interest in HLS customer Phytopharm, escaped injury when a bomb placed underneath his car exploded.

Discussing the downturn in cases, the ABPI said that "these figures mark a sea change in the level of attacks and harassment in the UK and substantive progress towards government objectives," according to Philip Wright, the association's director of science and technology.

Wright attributes the reduction to a three-pronged strategy of new legislation, enhanced policing with coordinated inquiries and working with stakeholders to combat attacks.

So-called ‘home visits’ - night-time intrusions into the private properties of people considered by the extremists to be associated with animal research that are often accompanied by vandalism and threatening messages - have fallen to only 15 reported cases so far in 2006, compared to 38 in the first half of 2005.

“The new figures also show a drop in virtually every area of illegal activity by extremists. The pharmaceutical industry will be very much encouraged by these figures," said Wright.

Responding to the report, Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association which represents biotechnology companies in the UK, said: “We are particularly encouraged by the government's stated determination, outlined in the recent progress report, to achieve a sustained removal of extremist threat.”