A couple of days ago I wrote a blog about whether the Countryside Alliance’s position as a member of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) should be reviewed following the judge’s summary comments during the sentencing of huntsman Mark Hankinson, who had been convicted of encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence during a series of private webinars last year (see here).
The judge, Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram, had intimated in his summing up that the webinar contributions of former Chief Inspector Phil Davies and his references to ‘smoke screens’ and ‘creating elements of doubt’ [in my view, in order for hunting personnel to avoid potential prosecution] were questionable at best, although Mr Davies was neither charged or prosecuted.
Mr Davies is a member of the RPPDG as the Countryside Alliance’s representative.
Since I wrote that blog, more detail has emerged that further increases the justification for reviewing Mr Davies’ position on the RPPDG.
In an exclusive article published today by iNews, it is claimed that the police are ‘furious’ that only Mark Hankinson was prosecuted, because they wanted to see all six webinar contributors face prosecution but the CPS said there was insufficient evidence to proceed.
The article goes on to claim that The League Against Cruel Sports, which was the official complainant in the action, called on the CPS to reopen cases against Lord Mancroft and others involved in the meetings, including Mr Davies.
Whether there was or wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute all six, the fact is that Mr Davies’ participated in a webinar that covered the illegal persecution of wildlife, resulting in a conviction for Hankinson, and there hasn’t been any indication that Mr Davies, or any of the other contributors for that matter, challenged Hankinson’s criminal briefing at the time it was delivered. That may be insufficient evidence to prosecute but it does absolutely nothing for public confidence. In my view, Mr Davies’ continued involvement as a member of the RPPDG is no longer tenable on that basis alone.
Here is a copy of the iNews article:
Police officers behind the conviction of a leading figure in the fox hunting lobby have told i they are “furious” that a member of the House of Lords was not prosecuted.
Lord Mancroft, one of 92 hereditary peers who remain in the upper house, was one of six leading hunting figures who appeared in leaked videos that offered advice on deflecting protesters and police.
Police sources said they wanted the CPS to prosecute him but that prosecutors did not find sufficient evidence.
Last week Mark Hankinson, a director of the Master of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), was found guilty of encouraging and assisting hunts across the country to evade the ban on fox hunting.
Passing judgment in Westminster magistrates’ court, Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram ordered Mr Hankinson to pay a fine of £1,000 along with a contribution of £2,500 towards legal costs.
However, Devon police officers involved in the case since August 2020 said they believed Mr Hankinson should not have been the only person charged under Section 44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007.
One of the investigating officers said that they wanted “six charged, including Lord Mancroft, but the CPS only charged Hankinson. We were furious that Mancroft wasn’t charged.”
Another officer said that the CPS had originally considered charging six of the officials on the leaked webinars to around 100 invited hunt enthusiasts, but that the CPS only accepted the prosecution of Mr Hankinson.
The case centred on the practice of trail laying, which is not illegal and involves the laying of a scent for riders and hounds to follow. It replicates what a traditional hunt would have looked like, but without a fox being chased, injured or killed.
However, Mr Ikram ruled that Mr Hankinson was advising on how trail laying was being used as a cover for illegal hunting.
Investigating officers and anti-hunt groups claim Lord Mancroft was another of the MFHA officials offering advice.
Mr Ikram also referred to Lord Mancroft’s comments during what was meant to be a private online meeting for hunt masters.
Lord Mancroft, who was identified on the videos as Benjamin Mancroft, told the attendees to be careful what they record on body cams during a hunt.
It is common practice for both hunters and saboteurs to record hunts in order to gather evidence of any wrongdoing from either side.
During the webinars, which were recorded on 11 August last year, Lord Mancroft, who was chairman of the MFHA until May this year, said: “Those of you who are filming and recording, please don’t stand there recording the opposition [hunt saboteurs]… flying their gizmos and blowing horns and say ‘isn’t that marvellous that they haven’t seen us because we’ve just caught a fox behind them’ or something like that. I mean you’ve got to be very careful about who’s saying what.
Referring to Lord Mancroft’s comments, Mr Ikram told the court: “I did not hear from him and, of course, the defendant isn’t responsible for another’s words. That said, all the words of the others are relevant because it tells me something about the events he was speaking at and the ‘overall agenda’ in which he was also speaking. I do make clear that the defendant is to be judged wholly on what he said but others’ words, in my view, provide context to what he said.”
Mr Ikram also pointed to comments on the videos made by Phil Davies, police liaison officer at the Countryside Alliance and former chief inspector at Dyfed Powys Police.
Advising on the advantages of laying trails, Mr Davies told hunt masters: “Now, you know more about hunting than the saboteurs or the courts know, but what it will do is create that smokescreen, or that element of doubt that we haven’t deliberately hunted a fox, so if nothing else you need to record that and it will help us to write the defence to your huntsman.”
Responding to Mr Davies’s comments, Mr Ikram told the court: “Mr Davies is, of course, right that the speakers do know more about hunting than this court. This court does however understand well concepts such as creating smokescreens and creating ‘elements of doubt on deliberately hunting foxes’ (and I emphasise the word deliberately). This court is also very familiar with the writing of defences.”
The League Against Cruel Sports, which was the official complainant in the action, called on the CPS to reopen cases against Lord Mancroft and others involved in the meetings, including Mr Davies.
A spokeswoman for the League said: “Questions need to be answered by the CPS as to why others on the webinars were not dealt with in the same manner as Hankinson.
“The CPS needs to reinvestigate why those people were not charged. Because, obviously, the threshold of evidence was met for Hankinson so there surely are questions that need to be asked about whether the threshold had been met for Lord Mancroft and the others, like Phil Davies.”
However, a spokesman for the CPS said that only the evidence against Mr Hankinson was enough to bring a prosecution.
The CPS spokesman said: “We considered possible charges against six suspects and concluded that Mark Hankinson’s case was the only one that met our legal test for a prosecution.”
A spokesman for the MFHA said the group was considering an appeal against Mr Hankinson’s conviction.
Lord Mancroft and Mr Davies were contacted for comment. Devon and Cornwall Police declined to comment.
As an aside, the League Against Cruel Sports has published a fascinating blog which provides some insight to how the prosecution against Hankinson came about – here.
UPDATE 25th October 2021: Police boot off Countryside Alliance rep from all wildlife crime priority delivery groups after hunting webinar trial (here)