Hunt saboteurs following the Puckeridge Hunt in Ashdon, Essex, january 2016. PHOTO Cambridge Hunt Sabs

Hunt saboteurs following the Puckeridge Hunt, January 2016. PHOTO: Cambridge Hunt Sabs

When the Countryside Alliance’s advisor on policing, retired Dyfed Powys chief inspector Phillip Davies, addressed the recent National Police Chiefs Council conference in Derby, also attended by Netpol, he was keen to portray opponents of hunting as violent ‘extremists’ and complained bitterly about the lack of police action against them. In reality, however, it is often activists monitoring breaches of the Hunting Act 2004 who are themselves under attack by hunt supporters.

In the last three months alone, the Hunt Saboteurs Association has reported an attack on a vehicle by masked terrier men from the Middleton Hunt near York and another by supporters of the Ross Harriers hunt in Herefordshire. Last month a supporter of the York and Ainsty South Hunt pleaded guilty at a magistrates court hearing to deliberately driving at a hunt saboteur, while masked supporters of the Cheldon Buckhounds in Devon are accused of a violent attack on sabs observing an illegal deer hunt on Exmoor.

Many of these incidents involve hunt supporters who were photographed and filmed wearing balaclavas: and yet with no apparent sense of irony, the Countryside Alliance has recently launched a campaign for a change in the law to extend police powers to remove face coverings from protesters or hunt saboteurs. It claims that “extremists know that wearing face coverings masks their identities and makes prosecution unlikely, and also that it intimidates those who they are protesting against.”

The organisation is unhappy that some police forces around the country are reluctant to use powers against hunt saboteurs under section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, This allows an inspector (or higher rank) to authorise an order for a limited period granting officers the authority to insist on the removal of a face covering, if they believe it is worn to conceal the wearer’s identity. Refusing to comply while a section 60AA order is in place is a criminal offence, although wearing a mask or scarf is itself lawful.

What the Countryside Alliance is calling for is an end to the need for prior written authorisation by a senior officer. It is supporting an amendment [NC23] to the government’s Policing and Crime Bill tabled in April by Tory MP Edward Garnier, which would give Individual police officers the power to order the removal of face coverings in the course of their everyday duties.

Far from helping to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour, however, this looks rather more like an attempt to smear and criminalise opponents who are no longer protesting against hunting – that battle was won back in 2004 – but who are exposing, often very effectively, the illegal activities of hunt staff and supporters.

If passed, the amendment could effectively bring an end to the right to wearing a mask or scarf as a face covering, as officers would almost certainly use the ability to insist on their removal, with little more than a “reasonable belief” that an offence has been committed, on a routine basis.

However, as we argued last year, there are many reasons to protect your privacy when taking part in protests, because “anonymity may… represent the main deciding factor for many about whether they are able to ‘stand up and be counted’ at all”. Anti-fascists may want to avoid profiling and harassment by far-right websites and Facebook pages. Faced with the excesses of public order surveillance and data retention, others may understandably worry about the impact on their jobs, education or immigration status. Opponents of hunting also have a legitimate reason too for wanting to maintain their anonymity: a strong suspicion that hunt supporters can find out where they live and have been responsible for damaging vehicles parked outside their homes.

Amending government legislation is difficult, even for an organisation with the resources of the Countryside Alliance. If this amendment is intimately unsuccessful, however, the campaign behind it is primarily hoping it will persuade the police to use section 60AA powers far more often to harass hunt saboteurs, by reinforcing the false idea that face coverings are always an indicator of impending disorder (unless, of course, they are worn by hunt supporters).

Netpol, however, remains convinced that to resist industrial-scale police surveillance of political dissent and strengthen the right to privacy and anonymity when taking part in protests or monitoring illegal hunting, face coverings must become commonplace, especially in ‘peaceful’ circumstances.

The more people wear them – for no other reason than an act of solidarity with others who have a greater need for anonymity – the harder it becomes for the police to insist a mask counts as ‘reasonable suspicion’ for targeting individuals and using stop and search powers.

Over the summer, we hope to produce more of the hugely popular Netpol face coverings launched at last year’s People’s Assembly demonstration. Sign up to our mailing list to find out when they become available