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Powers to require removal of disguises: Great Britain

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I beg to move amendment No. 124, in page 53, line 31, leave out lines 31 to 33 and insert—

'(a) incidents involving serious violence may take place in any locality in his area, and'.

Clause 93 provides powers for the police to demand the removal of items of clothing which officers believe are designed to conceal identity. [Interruption.]

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is moving an amendment.

Andrew Bennett: How often does the Minister expect this power to be exercised? What does she expect to be

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covered by the requirement for someone to remove something that could be considered a disguise and by the power of the police to hang on to that item?

I assume that the provisions cover clothing, but what about fancy dress, for example? Many people involved in demonstrations, wanting to make a political point, put on various disguises. Can the police require those to be removed? What about wigs? Do the provisions cover religious dress?

The amendment would ensure that if the Government want to take these draconian powers, there should be evidence that serious violence, not merely an offence, is likely to occur. There is a good chance that some offence will be committed during a demonstration, but it is unlikely to be sufficiently serious for a police officer to demand the removal of a disguise or fancy dress.

The Minister must explain to the House in what circumstances and to what degree the powers will be used. The safeguard should be that it will be used only in circumstances in which the person authorising the exercise of the power expects serious violence to occur. We must remember that the powers will be exercised on any occasion by an individual police officer, and most people accept that some police officers are not always as sensitive as they might be.

Norman Baker: I share some of the concerns which have been raised by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett). I am surprised at the Government pursuing this line, as they already have powers, under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, regarding the removal of disguises or face coverings. A senior officer can authorise the removal of coverings where he or she reasonably believes that incidences involving serious violence may take place in a locality. That seems a reasonable provision, and to extend it as the Bill suggests is somewhat worrying. There are already measures to deal with serious violence, and that is what terrorism and terrorist attacks are. However, as we have already seen, the Bill has been hijacked in order to bring in a whole range of powers that have nothing in particular to do with terrorism. The clause seems to be one of them.

9.15 pm

Face masks can already be removed in cases of serious violence. The Minister seeks to extend that provision to less serious offences, and to enable its authorisation by police officers of a more junior rank.

Although the Minister does not much like the Human Rights Committee, I draw her attention to its comments because they are valid. The Committee notes:

The Committee was drawing attention to people who might have a reason for wearing a face covering, for example, Muslim women.

We are happy for Muslim women voluntarily to remove what the Minister might describe as their "disguises"; indeed, we might celebrate that, but it is a different matter to be required to remove them.

Caroline Flint: In my speech on Second Reading, I mentioned that in several countries—Qatar, for

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example—women are asked to remove their face covering when they want to take part in an election. It is not unusual in cultures where face coverings are worn to ask for the removal of the veil for the specific purpose of identification, as long as that is done sensitively and by a female.

Norman Baker: With respect, if we are taking lessons in human rights and civil liberties from states in the middle east, we need to be rather careful. We should base our system on what we believe correct—a tradition of civil liberties established over many hundreds of years. With due respect to Qatar—a country with which I am not familiar—the importation of its powers on human rights and civil liberties should be considered with some trepidation.

Ms Abbott: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a difference between the removal of a person's face covering by someone of the same culture, as part of the performance of their civic duty, and its forcible removal in a heated atmosphere, because the wearer is suspected of a crime, by someone who is likely to be from a different culture?

Norman Baker: I am extremely grateful for that accurate intervention. In one case, the removal of the face covering is voluntary and in the other it is required. We need to make that point to the Minister.

The Human Rights Committee stated:

Again, the Committee expresses some trepidation, but the Minister appears to want to wash it away as irrelevant.

The Minister must be careful when she dismisses comments from both sides of the House, from various Committees and from bodies outside. If there is a problem as regards face coverings, I suggest that it is not a terrorist problem—it relates to police powers. It might have more to do with hunt saboteurs, and we should not be dealing with hunt saboteurs in a Bill such as this.

Jeremy Corbyn: I shall be brief as, unfortunately, we have much to discuss this evening.

When the Minister replies to the debate, will she tell us exactly how she defines the disguise that has to be removed? The word "disguise" can mean many things: for example, do beards and facial hair constitute a form of disguise? In the current anti-Taliban atmosphere, would my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) and I be hauled into a police station for someone to set about us with a razor—[Hon. Members: "Yes!"] Now we see the Committee's love of liberty.

David Winnick: My hon. Friend's beard is not long enough.

Jeremy Corbyn: Indeed; I should not be accused of being Taliban. However, we obviously need some definition. A situation might arise in which an unimaginative police officer—perish the thought that such a person should exist—decided that all bearded men were

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in disguise and should thus have their beards shaved off so that they could be checked. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish put the following point to me earlier: what if a person was wearing a bandage for genuine medical reasons, but the arresting officer decided that it was in fact a disguise?

I could go on and on, giving examples in which the fevered atmosphere of people being stopped and told to remove their disguises could set off an extremely unpleasant chain of events. Many hon. Members, certainly those of us on the Government Benches, will have taken part in demonstrations of various sorts over the years, and know that a carnival atmosphere sometimes surrounds them. What happens then if someone says, "Hang on, you're wearing a disguise"?

On one occasion, during a demonstration outside the British Aerospace annual meeting, a gentleman who looked for all the world like General Pinochet was standing with the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, but then crossed the road to take part in the annual meeting. The officials who were organising the meeting thought that he was an important military gentleman and promptly opened the doors, ushered him in and offered him a seat on the front row, assuming that someone like General Pinochet would probably spend a lot of money at British Aerospace. In fact, he was a valuable part of the demonstration: he got it on the front page of a lot of newspapers. Is that the sort of person who would be arrested and told to remove that disguise?

Under existing legislation, the police can require the removal of a disguise only if they think that violence has been committed. The proposal will give far too much unfettered power to the police, and the Human Rights Committee has suggested that it should be reconsidered. Because of the results of the last Division, which I regret, the power to take fingerprints will be widely available to the police, so why on earth will they need to go to the lengths of arguing about the removal of disguises with people who would become hostile to what the police are trying to achieve?

Ms Abbott: I am listening with rapt attention to my hon. Friend's usual lucid and incisive contribution. Does he agree that the proposal is yet another that gives this rag bag of a Bill every appearance of being the outcome of Home Office officials having cleared their in-trays of every draconian and authoritarian measure that they can think of and ramming them through the House under the pretext of a national emergency?

Jeremy Corbyn: I agree with most of what my hon. Friend says, but this is not just a matter of Home Office officials' in-trays; rather, it is as if a storeroom of Bills has been festering for a long time and someone has had the bright idea of pushing them through, given the opportunity—and this is the opportunity. After the declaration of some sort of state of national emergency, the Bill has been drafted to introduce very draconian legislation—

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