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Public Disorder

Volume 723: debated on Thursday 16 December 2010

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of the public disorder that took place on 10 November and 9 December, they will introduce public order legislation prohibiting the wearing of masks or disguises at otherwise lawful demonstrations, marches and protest meetings.

My Lords, the police already have powers under Section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to require the removal of face coverings worn for the purpose of concealing identity. The police also have powers to seize such items.

My Lords, it does not appear so when we have these disturbances. It would be very helpful for the police if potential troublemakers did not wear masks, so enabling the police peacefully to move them on to avoid trouble.

My Lords, the tradition of policing in the United Kingdom is by consent and to maintain as far as possible the trust of the public with whom the police are working. It is therefore a matter of judgment for the police whether someone who puts on a mask during a demonstration in the middle of a very large crowd should immediately be arrested. We have to trust the judgment of the police on that. I am assured that a number of the arrests that took place at the end of and since recent demonstrations were of people who put on masks during part of the demonstrations.

Does the Minister agree that this issue requires a proportionate and balanced response, and not an overreaction? There is a long history of masks and disguises being used peacefully by protesters as part of their repertoire of raising and ridiculing issues and sometimes individuals. Paradoxically, by donning a mask out of context, protesters can draw attention to themselves as potential troublemakers who are worthy of additional attention.

I thank the noble Lord for that question; he has of course great experience in this matter. The definition of a mask worn for the purpose of concealing identity and with the intention to commit acts of violence is tightly drawn. I passed someone at Victoria station this morning whose face was covered, I think, to keep him warm. Two days ago, I passed some Japanese tourists outside here who were wearing gauze face masks which I think were intended to prevent them catching the European version of Asian flu. They would not be caught by the Act.

Does the noble Lord accept that while one has great sympathy with the reasons behind the Question—I appreciate what has just been said about the necessity of balance in approaching this issue—there is one other balancing issue that should be taken into account: that police should not appear on such demonstrations with their identity numbers concealed or otherwise removed?

My Lords, does my noble friend realise how terrifying it can be when a mass of people are protesting and people come up wearing masks? It might be fine for great strong men like him, but it is not fine for a lot of people. The arguments against banning masks just do not hold water. Surely if there was a rule which stated that masks could not be worn, someone wearing a mask would be arrested. That would be the law. Why cannot we have it?

My Lords, Section 60AA is very tightly drawn, requiring police to be authorised in the particular circumstances to require any person to remove any item which the constable reasonably believes that person is wearing wholly or mainly for the purpose of concealing their identity. We have all of us been watching the demonstrations in recent weeks. We know how difficult it has been for the police to maintain the balance for the great majority of demonstrators who wished to undertake peaceful protest. I am sure that all of us wish to maintain the right to peaceful protest in this country. How the police deal with the minority of violent protesters is a matter that we must leave to operational judgment on the day and at the time.

My Lords, the noble Lord is surely right to say that this matter has to be left to the judgment of the police. Does he agree that it shows some of the difficulties that the police have and that they need support? Does he really think that the Government are giving the police the necessary support in the light of the drastic cuts in budgets that are going to be made to the Metropolitan Police Force?

I might well have anticipated that question, as it comes up on all possible occasions. The Government are giving the police all the support that they can. I am informed that a number of the people arrested after demonstrations are people identified as having been wearing masks, but if they have also been identified as taking part in more serious offences, they will be charged for the more serious offences first.

My Lords, will the Minister please think about this point again? The offence as currently on the statute book is very tightly drawn and, consequently, means that policemen engaged in a situation will be very cautious in their approach to things. We might like to take into account the experience in Northern Ireland, where, for decades, it was an offence simply to wear a mask in public, and it did not cause any of the difficulties alluded to earlier.

My Lords, one simply has to ask whether it helps when police are attempting to control a very large demonstration to ask for police snatch squads to try to go in to the middle of a demonstration to seize particular demonstrators, which is in effect what the noble Lord is asking for. We have to leave this to the judgment of the police on the day. I am assured that a number of those who were wearing masks and, for example, in the 24 November demonstration, vandalising a police van in the middle of Whitehall were identified afterwards and some of them have been arrested.

My Lords, I have already quoted Section 60AA of the 1994 Act, which says,

“for the purpose of concealing … identity”.

I have also said that there are plenty of other reasons, not simply including religious identity, for which people may indeed wear masks. If it gets colder in the next few days, we can expect to see many more white Christian Englishmen, perhaps even including the noble Lord—I am not sure whether he is a Christian or not, but that is up to him—wearing masks that keep their faces warm.