Police will get emergency powers to impose curfews and order youngsters to remove their masks under moves to prevent a repetition of the summer riots that hit London and other major cities.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, announced plans to give senior officers the authority to order people off the streets if they suspect an area is about to be hit by violence and looting.
Officers on duty would also be able to tell potential trouble-makers to take off their face coverings without having to seek permission from senior ranks.
The proposals, disclosed by Ms May as she hosted an international conference in London on combating gangs, follow widespread criticism of the police response to the wave of disturbances in August.
The planned increase in police powers provoked protests from civil liberties groups, but ministers argued the moves were necessary because of the nature of the riots, which saw highly-mobile groups moving rapidly between areas.
Ministers propose giving officers of the rank of superintendent and above the authority to declare a curfew; at the moment officers have the power to disperse crowds rather than prevent them from gathering in the first place.
A Home Office consultation paper published yesterday says a curfew could be “useful in stopping people travelling into an area to cause problems, as seems to have been the case with a significant proportion of offenders involved in the recent disturbances”.
Under the plans, it would be an offence to ignore an instruction to leave an area rather than being outdoors in a curfew zone.
At the moment, police can only demand the removal of a face-mask with the written permission of a senior officer, a stipulation that the Home office says can cause “bureaucratic delays and hinder police response to mass disorder”. It says allowing officers to use their discretion “would prevent build-up of disorder; provide an effective deterrent to criminal activity; and accelerate the response to crime”.
James Brokenshire, Home Office minister for crime and security, said: “It is essential the police have all appropriate powers at their disposal to maintain public order. We must ensure officers on the ground have all the necessary legal measures available to them to protect our streets and keep the public safe.”
But Isabella Sankey, the director of policy for Liberty, said: “We can be stopped, searched and dispersed within an inch of our lives and should be rather more questioning of the logic of further measures. In a riot situation isn’t it better to arrest someone for actual violence than for failing to remove his mask - arrest him for looting rather than failing to leave the no-go zone in which he is looking for his teenage son after dark?”
Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch campaign group, said: "David Cameron was absolutely right to argue that society is broken. He is absolutely wrong if he thinks a more authoritarian approach is part of the solution to fix it. The police don't need more powers - they need a new approach.”