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No more hiding for activists as police gain unmasking powers

The House of Lords has passed an amendment that will allow police to more easily apprehend and prosecute violent animal rights activists who hide their identities behind masks and disguises

Animal rights activists

Violent clashes with hunt saboteurs have been reported in recent years

The House of Lords passed an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill last month that will make it easier for the police to unmask violent protesters.

The amendment was made in response to concerns that existing powers do not permit police officers to unmask protesters, often including hunt saboteurs and other animal rights activists, without prior written authorisation.

Animal rights activists can now have face coverings removed

Senior police officers will now be able to give immediate oral authorisation for a constable to remove face coverings where it is impractical for that permission to be given in writing.

The Countryside Alliance (CA) revealed last year that unmasking powers had only been used on one occasion in the past three years to require activists at a hunt to remove face coverings, despite, they noted, “the use of masks to intimidate and hide identity being a standard tactic of hunt saboteurs”.

However, the powers had been used by officers on many occasions at pre-arranged demonstrations and football matches.

“For too long a small minority has hidden behind masks and disguises to escape being held to account”

Tim Bonner, chief executive of the CA , 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 without any legal consequences. From Wiltshire to Derbyshire; from Gloucestershire to Yorkshire, there has been a series of violent assaults by hunt saboteurs in the past few years, none of which have seen anyone brought to justice.

“It doesn’t matter whether violence and intimidation are happening in urban areas or the countryside — it is wrong and it is 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, accepting 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 has hidden behind masks and disguises to intimidate people and to escape being held to account for unlawful behaviour. This change in the law will discourage unlawful activity while allowing lawful and peaceful protest.”