A Bleak Week for Rights in the UK

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A protestor demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament, in opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, London, January 15, 2022.
© 2022 Lucy North/MI News/NurPhoto via AP

To say the United Kingdom government was busy over the past week would be a classic British understatement. It steamrolled through parliament four separate pieces of legislation that will do real harm to people’s rights.

The government’s attacks on civil liberties and the frameworks protecting them, alongside its failure to meaningfully address an escalating cost-of-living crisis, add up to a grim picture for human rights protection in the UK.

The Nationality and Borders Bill effectively dismantles the UK’s asylum and refugee law regime, criminalizes asylum seekers, sets up a fundamentally discriminatory structure, and lays the legal groundwork for pushbacks and offshore refugee processing. It also makes stripping citizenship easier.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, imposes new restrictions on peaceful protest, increases protest-related fines and sentences, and strengthens police powers to crack down on “unauthorized encampments” which risks exacerbating discrimination against Traveller, Roma, and Gypsy people.

The Elections Bill’s plans to introduce voter identification requirements, which creates a real risk of disenfranchisement on the basis of socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity, will go ahead without a clear demonstration about how the new powers are proportionate, or indeed necessary. The bill also gives the government power to set the priorities of the Electoral Commission, the elections watchdog, creating fears for its independence.

New measures in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill will limit the extent to which people who fear their rights are affected by immigration or social security decisions can challenge them in the courts.

Meanwhile, living costs are rising at an alarming rate and food banks report record levels of increased demand for aid. At the same time, the Chancellor – rather than seizing the opportunity to address people’s right to an adequate standard of living – dismissed the suggestion of additional support to families struggling with energy costs as “silly” in a chat hosted by an influential parents’ group.

It’s difficult to adequately capture the extensive damage the bills will do. All four bills are set to become law in days. In each instance, had it not been for some parliamentary resistance and civil society mobilization, the outcomes would have been even worse.  

Imagine for a second how much less bleak the outlook would be if the government dedicated half the energy and legislative effort to improving living standards and rights protections as it has done to watering them down.

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