Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner writes: Wearing balaclavas or other face-coverings has long been a standard tactic of animal rights protestors and other extremists. There are only two reasons for wearing such items in the context of a ‘protest’: to intimidate and harass, and to hide identity with the intention of committing criminal offences and avoiding prosecution. This is a tactic that clearly works, not only by creating alarm and distress in rural communities visited by groups of extremists who have bizarrely adopted the uniform of the paramilitary complete with standard black face coverings, but also in committing some horrible crimes without any legal consequences. From Wiltshire to Derbyshire; from Gloucestershire to Yorkshire there have been a series of violent assaults by hunt saboteurs in the last few years (quite apart from low level offences) none of which have seen anyone brought to justice.
The law currently allows police officers to order the removal of such face coverings, but only after a process requiring the written authorisation of a senior officer. The Countryside Alliance has long argued that this process is completely useless in the context of the sort of protest that hunts, and increasingly others, have to contend with. In the face of denials from the police we carried out research using the Freedom of Information Act which showed conclusively that the current powers to order the removal of face coverings are almost exclusively used in relation to pre-arranged events. Police forces had regularly authorised officers to order the removal of face coverings at events like far-right marches and anarchist protests. In three years, however, only one police force had used the power to request that hunt saboteurs remove face coverings whilst one rural force had only used the power in relation to a local football derby.
We were therefore very grateful to Sir Edward Garnier QC MP who in April tabled an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill in the House of Commons which gained widespread support from MPs, but a rather confused response from the Government. However, when Lord Dear, himself a retired Chief Constable, moved a similar amendment in the House of Lords last month the Government accepted that there was an issue that needed to be addressed and committed to bringing its own proposal forward. It was noticeable that the debate on Lord Dear’s amendment included a broad acceptance that the current situation does not take account of modern methods of demonstration, such as flash mobs, where the police may not have advance knowledge, and if face masks are being worn are unable to act swiftly and identify those involved.
As a result of Lord Dear’s intervention the Government drafted its own amendment to the current law, which was passed by the House of Lords on Wednesday. This means that a senior police officer will be able to give immediate oral authorisation for a constable to require the removal of face coverings, where it is impracticable for that authorisation to be given in writing. The conditions and protections remain exactly the same, but the process will now allow the police to tackle a serious issue both in rural communities and elsewhere. As well as removing the alarm that masked protestors cause, being able to unmask protestors is a powerful deterrent and may well prevent offences which might otherwise have been committed.
This is a positive example of the Government reacting to the concerns of the rural community with a practical and proportionate response. We are grateful to those of you who have lobbied your MPs on this issue, those in Parliament who made the case for change and to Ministers for listening to the arguments. We expect the changes to come into force in the spring and will then be writing to Chief Constables to ensure that they are aware of the new process and will make use of it.
Follow Tim on Twitter @CA_TimB
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