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Volume 688: debated on Thursday 18 January 2007

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have received from Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur or other senior police officers about the policing of demonstrations, what discussions they have held in connection with such representations; and whether they are making any proposals in response to them; and [HL1095]

Whether they intend to introduce legislation to ban the burning of flags at demonstrations or otherwise; and [HL1096]

Whether they intend to introduce legislation to empower the police and other authorities giving consent to demonstrations the power to approve, amend or ban particular slogans or other words on banners and placards as a condition of giving consent; and [HL1097]

Whether they intend to introduce legislation to prevent persons taking part in demonstrations from covering their faces. [HL1098]

We have had discussions with the Metropolitan Police Service in the light of the representations from Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur on the policing of demonstrations. We keep public order legislation under review and would always consider representations from the police service on changes. We would also consult the police service as a whole on any proposed changes to legislation.

It is already a criminal offence for a person to display or deface a national flag if such activity is likely to pose a real risk to public order or the activity constitutes incitement to racial or religious hatred. For example, under Sections 4A and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, a person may be guilty of an offence if they display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.

In determining whether a person has committed such offences the court is required to respect a person's right to freedom of expression, while balancing that freedom with the need to maintain public order and protect the rights of people who may be offended by the activity.

In addition to the offences under Sections 4A and 5, the Public Order Act 1986 gives the police the power to impose conditions on, or to prohibit, processions and to impose conditions on assemblies. The types of conditions that may be imposed on an assembly are limited to those relating to its place, the numbers taking part and its duration. There are no restrictions on the type of conditions that may be placed on processions.

There are already powers in place to allow the police to require the removal of face coverings. Section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was inserted by the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. It enables a police officer of inspector rank or above to authorise police officers within a given area for a period of up to 24 hours to require the removal of face coverings worn for the purpose of concealing identity and to seize any such items. Before authorising an area, an inspector must reasonably believe that activities likely to involve the commission of offences will take place in that area and that it is expedient, in order to prevent or control the activities, to give an authorisation.