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More Protesters to Face Prison as Government Plans Bans on Face Masks and Flares at Demonstrations

“The Government is determined to shut down the ways in which ordinary people can take to the streets to make their voices heard,” Liberty says

A crowd of protesters wearing face masks during a Black Lives Matters protest in London in 2020 Photo: Joshua Windsor / Alamy

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The Government is pushing to ban the use of flares and other pyrotechnics at protests and to let police forces ban face coverings, in the latest spree of anti-protest legislation. 

Ministers have quietly published new amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill which include further restrictions on the right to protest, part of a move condemned by NGOs including Liberty as a dangerous clampdown on free assembly. 

Under the proposed plans, any police constable of inspector rank or above would be able to ban face coverings in any area within their remit for 24 hours, if they believe “the protest is likely to involve or has involved the commission of offences” and it’s “expedient” to ban masks.

It is not clear how wide an area the bans could extend, but it is an attempt to stop activists deliberately “concealing” their identities. However, those wearing coverings for medical reasons are likely to get swept up in the area-wide bans.

Possessing pyrotechnics such as flares at protests, and climbing on war memorials at any time, will also be banned outright. Both will carry fines of up to £1,000, with anyone climbing on memorials also facing up to three months in prison. When banning face coverings, police will have to give advance notice. 

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Protests can be defined as constituting only one person, under the bill, meaning that anyone carrying a flare without it being deemed necessary for work could be fined. 

Other changes to the bill will remove defences used by protesters, where they have previously been charged with property damage. It creates a new offence of creating “serious disruption to road transport infrastructure”.

The draft law states clearly: “Protest does not constitute a lawful or reasonable excuse” for blocking roads, damaging property or breaching the Public Order Act 2023 – another anti-protest bill passed only last year, following the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. 

Those bills were briefed as being passed specifically to target climate action groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, but many have successfully defended their actions through free speech defences. 

Green party peer Baroness Jenny Jones told Byline Times it reflected “dark times”: “This dangerously authoritarian Government is clamping down yet further on free speech and making it much harder to protest. 

“More is left to the discretion of individual police officers to decide on protests which will inevitably lead to injustices against peaceful protesters. I hope that once in Government, Labour will repeal many of these recent repressive laws. But somehow I think they might not see it as a priority.” 

Third Round of Anti-Protest Laws Imposed as Civil Liberties Groups Warn of Creeping Authoritarianism

Just one day after Suella Braverman’s appeal for more stringent protest restrictions, the UK Government has unveiled a new set of anti-protest laws.

Ruth Ehrlich, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty, told Byline Times:  “The new protest amendments show once again that the Government is determined to shut down the ways in which ordinary people can take to the streets to make their voices heard.

“Banning face masks will stop ordinary people from being able to take to the streets to stand up for what they believe in. From dissidents fighting for justice, but terrified for the lives of their loved ones abroad, to people with serious medical conditions, everyone attending protests must have the freedom to make decisions about how to keep themselves safe. 

“The police already have the powers to compel someone to remove a face covering – and refusing to do so is a criminal offence. The Government doesn’t need to introduce yet more laws – this time even more sweeping and restrictive.”

Ehrlich branded the changes a “blatant attempt by the Government to clamp down on the ways people can make their voices heard.”

“From votes for women to Pride, the UK has a rich history of protests that have driven positive change in society. We must proudly defend this history and reject these amendments,” she added.

The bill will go through its final Commons stages on Thursday (16th May) before heading to the House of Lords, where it is likely to face amendments and a potential battle with the Commons.

UPDATE: A Home Office spokesperson told this outlet: “The right to protest is a fundamental part of our democracy but we must also protect the law-abiding majority’s right to go about their daily lives.

“It is unacceptable that people can commit offences and evade justice through wearing a face covering and the new measures, which will be introduced in the Criminal Justice Bill, will prevent protesters from covering their face wholly or mainly for the purpose of avoiding conviction for criminal behaviour within the designated area.”

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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.

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