Protesters face jail for wearing face masks or carrying flares under new crackdown

Police will be given new powers to arrest protesters who wear face coverings under new laws cracking down on disorder, ministers have announced.

Demonstrators flouting an order to remove their mask could be jailed for a month and fined up to £1,000.

Anyone joining a protest will also be banned from carrying pyrotechnics, including fireworks, flares and smoke, and those using them could be arrested.

Pro-Palestinian supporters shout slogans and wave Palestinian flags (AFP via Getty Images)
Pro-Palestinian supporters shout slogans and wave Palestinian flags (AFP via Getty Images)

Causing disruption, such as blocking roads and people locking themselves to objects, will also be made criminalised under the sweeping crackdown, which targets environmental as well as political protesters.

Last November, fireworks were fired into crowds and towards police officers when pro-Palestinian protesters clashed with authorities in London after a demonstration.

Footage appeared to show flares being fired at a line of officers, prompting the Metropolitan Police to issue a dispersal order.

The force also issued an order giving officers the power to require someone to remove any item used to conceal their identity – such as a mask.

Police chiefs have previously warned that some protesters use face coverings to hide their identities to intimidate other people and avoid criminal convictions.

The new laws, in England and Wales, will allow officers “where police believe criminality is likely to occur” to arrest any protester who ignores an order to remove a mask.

Protesters will no longer be able to cite the right to protest as a reasonable excuse to get away with disruptive offences, such as blocking roads

The Home Office

Anyone who breaches an order may face a month behind bars and a £1,000 fine, the Home Office says.

“Protesters will no longer be able to cite the right to protest as a reasonable excuse to get away with disruptive offences, such as blocking roads,” according to officials.

Since 2021, the Conservatives have increasingly criminalised protest in response to direct action by environmental demonstrators.

But senior police and crime commissioners said then that the powers to crack down on protests were not needed and went too far, and the latest announcement is likely to prompt anger by campaigners and organisations for human rights, the climate and other causes.

Under the new measures, the possession of flares, fireworks and any other pyrotechnics at public processions and protests will be banned, with perpetrators facing £1,000 fine.

Climbing on war memorials will also be made a specific public order offence, carrying a three-month sentence and £1,000 fine.

In some recent cases, protesters have scaled national monuments.

Blocking roads will be criminalised (PA Wire)
Blocking roads will be criminalised (PA Wire)

Home secretary James Cleverly said: “Recent protests have seen a small minority dedicated to causing damage and intimidating the law-abiding majority.

“The right to protest is paramount in our county, but taking flares to marches to cause damage and disruption is not protest, it is dangerous.

“That is why we are we giving police the powers to prevent any of this criminality on our streets.”

Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for public order, welcomed the proposals, saying: “As with all policing powers, these new powers will be used when appropriate, proportionate and necessary to achieve policing objectives.

“Policing is not anti-protest, but there is a difference between protest and criminal activism, and we are committed to responding quickly and effectively to activists who deliberately disrupt people’s lives with reckless and criminal acts.”

Since 7 October, when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, killing some 1,200 people, there have been more than 1,000 protests and vigils, according to official figures, accounting for 26,000 police officer shifts between October 7 and December 17 alone, and 600 arrests.

Last year actions such as “locking on” were outlawed, and police were given powers to stop and search protesters for items such as padlocks and superglue.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 also made it easier to tackle public nuisance caused by protesters.

Police figures show that during last year’s Just Stop Oil campaign, 657 protesters were arrested under the Public Order Act 2023.