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The government announced yesterday (8 February) that the police will be given powers to arrest protesters who wear face coverings to threaten others and avoid prosecution in the Criminal Justice Bill. Any focus on this issue is welcome, but it is difficult to understand what new powers are necessary given the changes made to Section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 2017, which the Countryside Alliance campaigned long and hard for.
These made provision for a senior police officer to give immediate oral authorisation for an order to be given by a police constable on the ground to remove face coverings. Previously, written authorisation prior to a demonstration or event had been required. Failing to comply with an order to remove face coverings is a criminal offence with a penalty of up to a month’s imprisonment.
Home Office Minister Brandon Lewis wrote to all Chief Constables highlighting the changes at the time. In his letter he said “The Government is committed to ensuring that the police have the powers they need to detect and investigate crime, but also to prevent it. This power will enhance their ability to do so in many public order situations, including large public events, protests and demonstrations”, which is almost identical to what the Home Secretary said yesterday.
The Alliance campaigned for the 2017 amendments and was pleased both that they were passed, and that the Minister raised the new powers with Chief Constables. In the last 7 years, however, the police have remained reluctant to act to remove face coverings whether in relation to animal rights extremists, political demonstrators or football hooligans. We would argue that since the change in the law in 2017 the fundamental problem is not that the law currently does not give the police sufficient powers to act against people who are using face coverings both to intimidate and to avoid prosecution for criminal activity, but that the police are not using those powers.
Further amendment to the legislation may well be justified, but if the police do not use the current powers, even when Ministers write to Chief Constables, then it is difficult to see how new laws will change the situation. The wearing of balaclavas and other face coverings in this context is a cynical tactic and its use by extremists will continue to grow unless the police use the ample powers they already have to stop it.