HL Deb 05 February 1998 vol 585 cc737-9

3.2 p.m.

The Earl of Carnarvon asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will include in the Crime and Disorder Bill a provision similar to Section 35 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996 to prevent persons wearing face coverings, balaclavas or hoods in public places without reasonable excuse.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Northern Ireland provision is aimed at the wearing of balaclavas and so forth by paramilitary terrorists and is part of a range of measures intended to tackle the particular circumstances that have prevailed in the Province. The position in England and Wales is markedly different. This particular measure will be far less effective than may be supposed. For that reason the Government have no plans at present to extend the provision to the mainland.

In 1993 the Association of Chief Police Officers considered and rejected the idea of making it an offence to wear balaclavas and so forth without reasonable excuse. I know that it has reconsidered that in the light of an approach from the noble Earl and will be consulting the Home Office shortly. We shall of course consider with great care its views on this serious matter.

The Earl of Carnarvon

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply and, in asking my supplementary question, I wish him a happy birthday today. Is he aware that there is unanimous support from all 44 chief constables for the power to demand the removal of face coverings before crime and disorder take place? Last year there were several serious offences by masked persons during the National Front march in Dover and during the Bristol City versus Bristol Rovers football match. Will the noble Lord consider amending Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to permit officers to demand the removal of face coverings that might intimidate other persons or which might inhibit the subsequent identification of offenders?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for reminding me that time does pass, however slowly, in your Lordships' House. I am indebted to him, as always, for his great scruple and courtesy in indicating the line his supplementary question would take. Perhaps I may deviate for a moment because Northern Ireland has been mentioned. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, back in the Chamber after her recent indisposition.

This is a serious matter. The noble Earl has mentioned a number of specific incidents and there are others which he and I have discussed privately, some of which are sub judice. This is a significant issue. We are awaiting representations from the chief officers of police. Remedies already exist: for instance, the power of arrest where a breach of the peace is reasonably apprehended. There are also difficulties about defining facial coverings because they might include sunglasses when the sun shines and, perhaps more often, rainhoods when it rains. This is a serious matter, not least, as the noble Earl said, as regards the production of identification evidence for subsequent successful prosecutions. That is why at the door of the Home Office no one is allowed in who is wearing, for instance, a motor cycle crash helmet.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there will be a great deal of appreciation for the fairly positive replies that he has given this afternoon? Is the Minister aware that there is strong support among chief officers of police for a change in the law, as the noble Earl rightly said? That applies not only to the sort of episodes to which the noble Earl referred, but also to a number of armed robberies committed by people wearing some form of covering to the face. Will he look at this matter very carefully with ACPO when it has submitted its report to the Home Office?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for that approach. I entirely accept what the noble Lord said. These head coverings are worn to escape identification, but, as far as we are concerned, they are also used to intimidate people who are being attacked. It is a serious matter. The letter from ACPO to the noble Earl was dated 21st January, which was when he was courteous enough to forward it to me. We have not received the representations yet. We shall deal with the matter with all appropriate seriousness.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord gave a sympathetic response to the Question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon. Can he be assured by me that, should he wish to make the changes suggested by this Question, he will have full co-operation from these Benches, particularly if he wishes to make those changes during the passage through this House of the Crime and Disorder Bill?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, again, I am very grateful. That is always the general attitude that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, adopts. It may be that an amendment to Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 would be the more appropriate place for consideration. But if there were an appropriate opportunity during our present journey through the current Bill, we shall consider it. This is definitely a mischief which needs to be looked at with great care. I can only reiterate all our thanks to the noble Earl for raising it.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I appreciate the background to my noble friend's Question which concerns crime. However, are the Government aware that any changes would require the greatest care—particularly in relation to smog masks worn by cyclists and such things as chadar scarves?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord reminds me that my list of facial coverings had not previously been exhaustive. I anticipate that any proposed offence would have built into it the proposition that the offence could not be committed without reasonable excuse. People do sometimes want to wear things round and about their faces, such as football supporters, Welsh rugby supporters and people of that sort.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I welcome the positive response of the noble Lord, but will he give the House an assurance that particular attention will be paid to the opinion of the Chief Constable of the RUC, where parallel provisions have operated with great benefit?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, with such an authoritative source I can give that assurance. Curiously, as it happens. that offence has never been invoked in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the mere passage of the Bill making it an offence has had the desired social consequence without the need for prosecutions. It was a surprise to me—and it may be to the noble and learned Lord—that Section 35 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996 has never been invoked.

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