Police spy on protest farmers
SENIOR police officers have set up a spy network to target farmers
suspected of planning supermarket blockades and political marches.
In an echo of the 1984 miners' dispute, police chiefs have requested
intelligence reports on "rebel" farmers suspected of picketing and
other direct action against supermarkets selling imported meat.
The disclosure comes as farmers protesting at the collapse of
livestock prices plan sit-ins at restaurants serving foreign beef.
A confidential intelligence report seen by The Sunday Times requests
that police and civilian support staff in rural areas write up
briefings betraying "overheard conversations" from farmers who could
be their family, friends or neighbours.
The police document - marked "sensitive material" - states: "It now
seems probable that the farmers' dispute will become protracted and
the level of action taken will escalate." It requests information from
local police on "any apparent meeting or congregation of farmers".
The report wants people to detail "any demonstrations; any
conversation overheard relating to forthcoming action; any suspected
movement of farmers' vehicles; any information from unusual sources .
. . the Internet, CB radio". It even spells out how to compile the
information: "Remember to include the . . . time, date, exact
location, direction of travel, vehicle registration numbers, how many,
what was said."
The document reflects a shift in police tactics. Previously farmers
had been shown sympathy by police in rural areas as they protested
against imported food and plunging food prices.
The new tactics have been condemned by farmers' leaders. Richard
Macdonald, director-general of the National Farmers Union, said: "The
crisis in farming is catastrophic. These people have a legitimate
right to try to protect their livelihoods."
Monmouthshire farmer Rhys Parry, of the pressure group Farmers in
Crisis, said: "I am amazed by the memo. It appears almost comic. But
it has sinister overtones as though they are trying to make out we are
public enemy number one. We have heard they have received orders to
treat this like the miners' dispute."
The aggressive new tactics were defended by Joan Webster, assistant
chief constable of Gwent police. Webster's Force Intelligence Bureau
issued circulars to nearly 2,000 police, special constables and
civilian staff on September 25.
"That's a confidential document," she said. "I don't deny that there
would have been an intelligence gathering operation. It's no different
from neighbourhood watch. There's nothing too sinister or subversive
Webster said she believed other forces may have set up similar
Since last winter "rebel" farmers' groups have blockaded food
distribution centres owned by the main supermarket chains in Wales and
the West Country. Some rural forces such as Cheshire, Avon and
Somerset and Gloucestershire regard the rebels as a potential threat
and have stepped up their intelligence-gathering. Others, such as
Sussex, say they have asked Special Branch to monitor the situation.
Brian Thomas, of Farmers in Crisis, said: "I suspect police officers
may be infiltrating the dispute and I believe a detective has been put
on my case. I have spoken to Dyfed Powys police about my phone being
bugged but they have denied it."
Farmers began their dispute last November by throwing Irish burgers
into the dock at Holyhead. Since then hundreds of ordinarily peaceful
farmers have been drawn into action because of falling incomes.
Ministers are so concerned about such action that they hope to
announce a package of aid before farmers demonstrate outside
parliament on November 18. Some £50m is thought to be available from a
European Union scheme to compensate livestock farmers.
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