Secret tapes fuel anti-hunt dispute: Nicholas Roe reports on a 'Kafkaesque' leadership conflict threatening to create a damaging split within the League Against Cruel Sports

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The Independent Online
A BIZARRE row involving secret taping of telephone calls is threatening to tear apart Britain's leading anti-hunt group.

Described by one campaigner as 'spooky', the dispute within the League Against Cruel Sports is proving as ferocious as anything experienced in the field. It may result in the loss of the league's chairman or of senior members of staff, including its chief executive.

At its heart lies an argument over who should lead the organisation, which has 37,000 supporters, 20 staff and an income of pounds 1.5m a year.

Chris Williamson, a Derby-based Labour councillor, has been chairman for 10 years, but his style has increasingly angered some members of his 12-strong executive committee. They object to what they see as his 'dictatorial' style and claim that resulting divisions have demoralised staff, making it difficult to get on with the job of hunting the hunters.

When committee re-elections were announced, his critics sent a private letter to about 2,000 members implicitly warning against voting for Mr Williamson and his supporters. At that point, they say, matters became 'Kafkaesque'.

The five people who signed the letter were telephoned anonymously and led into making critical statements about the chairman's committee backers, not knowing that they were being secretly recorded.

The tapes were then played to the five at a hastily convened and furious meeting of the executive committee. Backed by full written transcripts, the effect of this dramatic encounter was to crush the rebellion. A second letter was sent out, countermanding the first.

Some senior staff were among those taped criticising their executive committee and their position is now open to question. The chief executive, James Barrington, is one of those facing the possibility of disciplinary action, even dismissal. He said: 'I certainly feel under threat.'

Les Ward, who runs Advocates for Animals, a Scottish-based animal rights organisation, and who opposes Mr Williamson, said: 'It is absolutely disgusting. You are supposed to have a committee working together and here is one side taping the other side's telephone conversations.' Mark Davies, a fellow committee member, said: 'It is rather spooky and nasty and certainly not above board.'

Mr Williamson denies involvement in telephone taping or being a dictator, and says that a full inquiry into the running of the league will be held. He says of the dispute: 'It is a complete waste of energy.'

Meanwhile the league does business as best it can. Current projects include fighting to reverse a High Court decision which effectively told councils that they can no longer ban hunts from their land. It is also trying to get hunt trespass on the same legal footing as trespass by saboteurs.

Results of the elections will be known by next Monday.