The House of Lords has today (7 December) passed a Government amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill which makes it easier for the police to tackle violent masked protestors. The amendment is a response to concerns that current powers cannot be used by the police in response to many protests by animal rights activists, other extremists and ‘flash mobs’.
The amendment means that a senior police officer will be able to give immediate oral authorisation for a constable to remove face-coverings, where it is impracticable for that authorisation to be given in writing. The law currently requires prior written authorisation that the police have grounds for reasonable belief that activities may take place in an area that are likely to involve the commission of offences. The conditions and protections remain exactly the same, but the fast track process will now allow the police to tackle a serious issue both in rural communities and elsewhere.
Research by the Countryside Alliance using the Freedom of Information Act published earlier this year revealed that the powers had only been used on one occasion in the past three years to require animal rights activists at a hunt to remove face coverings, despite the use of masks to intimidate and hide identity being a standard tactic of hunt saboteurs. The powers had been used on many occasions in relation to pre-arranged demonstrations and football matches.
Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, said: “There are only two reasons for wearing masks and face-coverings 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 has worked, not only by creating alarm and distress in rural communities visited by groups of extremists who have adopted the uniform of the paramilitary complete with standard black face coverings, but also in allowing offences to be committed 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, none of which have seen anyone brought to justice.
“It doesn’t matter if violence and intimidation are happening in urban areas or the countryside, it is wrong and it’s only right that police officers are in the position to be able to tackle effectively potentially criminal behaviour wherever it arises.
“We are therefore delighted that the Government has recognised the need to amend the law, recognising that the police need greater flexibility faced with modern types of protests. The amendment does not extend police powers, but makes it more practical to use existing powers and we now expect the police to make full use of them. For too long a small minority have hidden behind masks and disguises to intimidate people and to escape being held account for unlawful behaviour. This change in the law will discourage unlawful activity, whilst allowing lawful and peaceful protest.”