New public order powers were announced by ministers last week. Amendments will be introduced when the government’s Criminal Justice Bill reaches its report stage in the Commons, probably next month.

Joshua rozenberg

Joshua Rozenberg

In the meantime, different branches of government have promoted the proposed reforms in very different ways. A Home Office statement refers to recent large-scale protests but does not tell us who was behind them. The only clue is a reference to ‘more than 1,000 protests and vigils’ since 7 October. That was the date that Hamas terrorists murdered and kidnapped hundreds of Israelis, forcing Israel to respond.

Demonstrators have been protesting about the response, not the initial attack. Now they have forced the government to introduce new restrictions on protests.

The Home Office said some protesters had been using face coverings to avoid prosecution, presumably because they would otherwise be identified from surveillance images. In fact, the police already have the power to require ‘disguises’ to be removed in some circumstances; failure to do so is an imprisonable offence. The Home Office did not say what additional powers it wanted.

Helpfully, a Downing Street website explained that there would be a ‘new offence to stop people purposely concealing their identity at protests in areas where the police believe offences might occur’. That would ‘give police the powers to arrest those who use face coverings to intimidate and threaten others’.

Almost in passing, the Home Office said that ‘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’.

That looks like a move to reverse the ruling in Ziegler, decided in 2021. Acquitting demonstrators who had prevented vehicles reaching an arms fair, the Supreme Court ruled that they might have a lawful excuse for obstructing the highway – even if the disruption was more than minimal.

And that’s not all. Downing Street said the reforms would ‘prevent a minority of protesters who deliberately cause disruption, public nuisance or criminal damage from using the excuse of protest to avoid prosecution’.

Criminal damage? As I reported here last month, the attorney general will be asking the Court of Appeal to decide whether presumed consent can be a defence: a hearing is expected next week. Perhaps the government will amend the Criminal Damage Act if the judges do not rule in the way it wants.

And Rishi Sunak made it clear that the government proposals were firmly rooted in pro-Palestinian protests. ‘Since the 7 October attacks, we have witnessed appalling examples of antisemitism, support for terrorism and violent intimidation at protests across the country,’ No 10 said. ‘Police already have extensive powers to tackle intimidation and racial hatred. But, to end this behaviour for good, we have worked with the police to establish what powers they need to bring order to our streets while protecting this country’s democratic values.’

Sunak said that ‘flares set off in crowded spaces – as they have been at recent protests – pose a danger to public safety’. For the first time, it will be an offence to possess flares, fireworks and other pyrotechnics at a public procession or protests. The maximum penalty will be a fine of £1,000.

And Downing Street indicated that another reform was being introduced in response to pro-Palestinian demonstrators. ‘People across the country were shocked when protesters scaled war memorials, disrespecting those who have given their lives for our country. We must protect these monuments from vandalism and protect the legacy of armed forces. That’s why we’re making it an offence to climb on war memorials, with a maximum penalty of three months in prison and a £1,000 fine.’

War memorials ‘are the altars of our national grief’, the security minister Tom Tugendhat added as he outlined the proposals to MPs last week. ‘It is clearly not acceptable to disrespect them in that way.’

Labour welcomed that – and the ban on flares and fireworks. But the shadow minister Dan Jarvis pointed out that dissidents might have legitimate reasons for hiding their identities when protesting outside the embassies of repressive regimes.

Tugendhat confirmed that the police would exercise their discretion when dealing with face coverings. He described Jarvis as his ‘honourable friend’ – a term normally reserved for members of the same party – no doubt because both men had served together as army officers on active duty.

The government’s proposals were broadly welcomed by every speaker except the Scottish National Party spokesperson.

Though rushed legislation is always risky and the reforms will not receive detailed scrutiny until they reach the Lords, most MPs seemed to share Tugendhat’s justification of them: the level of antisemitism was ‘utterly unacceptable’ and it was ‘simply intolerable to have parts of our community feeling unsafe to walk, shop or do whatever they choose on the streets of our capital’.