Special Branch is to launch a review of ministers’ personal security amid fears that anger provoked by the Government’s controversial Hunting Bill could “get out of hand”.
The issue was discussed by Cabinet yesterday after incidents in which ministers have been “greeted” by angry hunt supporters at public engagements across the country. A senior Government source said ministers were “alarmed” by the quality of the intelligence network run by hunt supporters and the angry nature of some recent confrontations.
“We have nothing against peaceful protest but there is a real danger that one of these incidents will get out of hand – there are some very unpleasant people involved,” he said.
Special Branch will now be asked to conduct a full-scale security review for ministers and their staff. Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael already has access to the services of a Special Branch protection officer.
Westcountry hunt supporters last night accused the Government of a gross overreaction to legitimate political protest.
Alison Hawes, regional organiser for the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, said ministers had refused to listen to rural communities and had gone back on promises to find a solution to the hunting issue based on “principle and evidence”.
She said many anti-hunting MPs had refused invitations to visit hunt kennels to discuss the issue, leaving hunt supporters with no other way of getting their views across. There was no prospect of any let-up in the organisation’s campaign to “hound” ministers making public appearances.
“We are not going to go away,” she said. “Anything we do in the Westcountry will be within the law but we are certainly not going to give up.”
She defended the tactic of egg throwing used against Mr Michael during a visit to Exeter last month.
“Country people are furious and it is probably better for them to vent their anger by lobbing a few eggs at ministerial cars than by lobbing something else,” she said.
However, Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw accused the Countryside Alliance of “encouraging” angry protests. Mr Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, has been the target of three recent protests in the Westcountry – most recently at Shebbear last week.
He said: “It is irresponsible of the alliance to encourage protests of this kind. It is all very well for ministers like me who are used to taking flak, but my civil servants are all female and they found the experience in Cornwall and Devon recently rather unsettling – not just the violence but also the torrent of verbal abuse.”
The Cabinet discussion on hunt protests followed an incident on Wednesday night in Oxford when Commons Leader Peter Hain was pelted with eggs.