Civic space in decline: Restrictions on protests, attacks on migrant rights, & protesters behind bars
October 2022 was a tumultuous month for British people and their political leaders. After 45 days in office, on 20th October 2022, Liz Truss resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party following weeks of failed and reversed economic reforms, the resignation of two important cabinet members, and her growing unpopularity within her own political party.
On 25th October 2022, Rishi Sunak was selected by the Conservative Party as the new Prime Minister of the UK government, without the chance for the British public to express their democratic rights by voting in a general election.
Nevertheless, PM Rishi Sunak has stepped up in a time where the UK is facing a difficult period of political, economic and social qualms, including ongoing housing, energy, food and inflation crises. Amidst this, UK civil society groups have continued to mobilise against the government’s restrictions on civic freedoms including anti-protest laws which increase police powers. Moreover, new pieces of legislation, such as the Strikes Bill, which curtails the right to strike, are passing through the Parliament whilst older ones, including the Public Order Bill, continue to progress through the legislative process despite serious concerns expressed by civil society and international human rights groups.
A worrying trend in the UK: A drop in freedom rankings
In its 2023 World Report, Human Rights Watch (HRW), an INGO which investigates human rights abuses across the globe, stated that the UK government “repeatedly sought to damage and undermine human rights protections”.
Yasmine Ahmed, the UK director for Human Rights Watch, stated that “In 2022, we saw the most significant assault on human rights protections in the UK in decades” as HRW’s report claims that the UK’s aforementioned policies are a “grave human rights concern”. Due to this, the UK has received notable changes in civic space rankings, and levels of freedom and corruption.
Moreover, from 2022 to 2023, Britain’s Corruption score has decreased by five points, dropping its place in the global rankings from 11th to 18th place, which is the UK’s worst performance in the history of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). However, this is not a recent trend as over the past five years the UK has stood out as being a country in which the most significant drops in CPI have been observed.
The government's interference with protests and negative attitudes towards civil society have serious and troubling implications for its liberal democracy standards and human rights norms. There are growing discussions that the country could “soon make the list of countries that abuse rather than protect human rights with its outright assault on the rights of its own citizens and aggressive roll-back of protections such as on the right to assemble and protest. ''
Since 2017, the scores of 10 countries dropped significantly: Haiti, Honduras, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Austria, Canada, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom. #CPI2022— Transparency International (@anticorruption) February 14, 2023
Read more ➡️ https://t.co/x3iPyQlMTU pic.twitter.com/8Mhfs3oIUu
Workers’ rights threatened
The Minimum Service Levels Bill (known as the Strike Bill) is currently progressing through Parliament, with a second reading due at the end of February 2023. This bill will have vast implications on the right to strike and protection for workers as it will “restrict the protection of trade unions from legal action, as well as remove the automatic protection of employees from unfair dismissal if the minimum services were not delivered”. The minimum service level will be implemented in specific sectors, including health and education.
The government plans to introduce further restrictions which show its determination to weaken civil society and democratic freedoms by reducing the rights of workers and their ability to strike. The bill comes at a time when thousands of nurses and ambulance workers and other sectors are striking due to several labour rights issues. The sectors are also protesting this bill as the government refuses to negotiate with unions.
The government may have left us out in the cold but we're just getting warmed up!— RCN London (@RCNLondon) February 7, 2023
Members at St Mary's Hospital, @ImperialNHS, putting it simply:
📣 No Nurses? No NHS. #FairPayforNursing means fighting for the future of the NHS and the profession. #RCNStrike pic.twitter.com/Oo0Q3dAg8w
Four feminist organisations,Fawcett Society, Pregnant Then Screwed, the Equality Trust, the Women’s Budget Group and the TUC, wrote a letter to the equality minister to express that the Strike Bill will disproportionately impact on women, especially women of colour, given that the sectors impacted comprise predominantly a female workforce. The letter stated:
In an already-challenging labour market rife with discrimination, the last thing working women need is to be threatened with the sack for exercising their democratic right to strike and for trying to defend their pay and working conditions – especially in a cost of living crisis. -
For many women who work in systemically undervalued sectors, strike action is critical to making their voices heard. What’s more, we know that women, especially women of colour, are at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis – workplaces must work for women and the starting point for this must be decent pay and working condition, - Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, told the Guardian.
Continuing threat to the Humans Rights Act and anti-migrant attacks
The Bill of Rights Bill (see previous see update), which would revoke the Human Rights Act, appears to have been deprioritised by the government for now. This bill has been widely criticisedby UK civil society groups, and even a Committee of MPs and peers have urged Prime Minister Rishi Sunak not to proceed with this bill as it will make it harder for people to enforce their rights and will harm the UK’s international reputation.
Human right groups and refugee rights organisations warn that the Human Rights Act continues to be threatened as the government is working on developing new legislation to address issues related to migration and refugees. This new legislation will put forward a renewed attempt to push for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human rights (ECHR), paving the way for the government to implement a harsher approach to migration and asylum-seeking in the UK.
As reported previously on the Monitor, in April 2022, the UK government and the Rwanda government agreed on a controversial deal to transfer people seeking asylum in the UK to Rwanda, despite the country being deemed unsafe, to outsource the processing of their asylum claims. Leaked WhatsApp messages from a Conservative MP group showed complaints from “red wall” MPs that the Rwanda deporting policy may never happen if the UK does not leave the ECHR.
In December 2022, the High Court ruled that the Rwanda deportation scheme was lawful, after a legal challenge was brought by migrants and activists. However, the court found that then interior minister Suella Braverman (now home secretary) had not properly considered the circumstances of the eight claimants in the case and referred their cases back to her. During an interview, in response to the ruling, Braverman stated that the European Convention on Human Rights was ill-suited to deal with modern migration.
Within this context of increasing anti-migrant rhetoric, several attacks against migrants and anti-migrant protests have taken place. Hope not Hate, an organisation that monitors far-right activity, expressed concerns over the anti-migrant protests and over “harmful rhetoric from politicians and the media which is emboldening the far-right”. Protests were also staged in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers:
- In November 2022, a migrantcentre in Dover was firebombed in what was deemed by authorities as an attack “motivated by a terrorist ideology”.
- In January 2023, pro-migrant and human rights activists protested near the Houses of Parliament in London against the plan to deport Rwandan asylum seekers.
- In February 2023, hundreds of anti-migrant protestersdemonstrated in Knowsley outside a hotel housing asylum seekers. Clashes were recorded between these protesters, counter-protesters and the police.
- To counter this, protests were staged in Liverpool to welcome refugees in response to Knowsley clashes.
- Also in February 2023, a protest was planned against refugees and asylum seekers staying in Newquay, Cornwall. However, the Cornwall Council condemned this plan and encouraged people not to attend the protest.
In addition to the above developments, in March 2023 as part of the government’s drive to “tackle illegal immigration” it put forward an Illegal Immigration Bill. The new law will make asylum claims inadmissible from those who travel to the UK on small boats and it places a duty on the Home Secretary Suella Braverman to remove those arriving by small board “as soon as reasonably practicable” and return them to their home country or a “safe third country”. The government has not confirmed if the bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The bill includes a section 19(1)(b) statement, which indicates that the government intends to proceed with it, even if it fails to be compatible with the Convention or domestic law.
The UN Refugee Rights Agency stated that it is ”profoundly concerned” by the asylum bill introduced by the government, which equates to an “asylum ban”.
The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances. -
The effect of the bill (in this form) would be to deny protection to many asylum-seekers in need of safety and protection, and even deny them the opportunity to put forward their case. This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and would undermine a longstanding, humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud. -
Liberty UK stated that the bill “flies in the face of international human rights principles”.
This Bill will effectively allow the Government to commit human rights abuses without consequences. Excluding refugees and migrants from the protection of the Human Rights Act is abhorrent and wrong. Human rights are universal and it’s not up to the Government to pick and choose who does and doesn’t deserve them…Removing the right to appeal asylum decisions is a shocking attack on the rule of law. -
We all deserve the chance to live safe, dignified and fulfilling lives.— Liberty (@libertyhq) March 7, 2023
But this desperately cruel Bill from the government flies in the face of international human rights principles and will tear families and communities apart. https://t.co/BObJZf9V3k
Public Order Bill: ‘Ping Pong’ begins
On 30th January and 7th February 2023, during Report Stage on the Public Order Bill (POB) in the House of Lords, Peers succeeded in removing SDPOs without conviction and suspicion-less stop and search. They also prevented the government from introducing new police powers to shut down protests before they begin, and setting an extremely low threshold for ‘serious disruption’ as ‘more than minor’. The government offered a few concessions, such as removing GPS tracking of people subject to SDPOs. New important measures were added to the bill including introducing protection for journalists and other observers at protests. This comes as a result of the prominent arrest of LBC journalist Charlotte Lynch at the Just Stop Oil protest in early November 2022, and other journalists.
However, as the Bill enters ‘ping pong’, these mitigating measures have been rejected. The government rejected Lords’ amendments and proposed their own amendments instead which MPS passed on 7th March in the Commons. The Bill now returns to the House of Lords on 14 March.
Increasing hostility towards journalists should worry us all and the replies to this are just as concerning. No free press means no accountability, and that means whatever goes. Sorry this happened to you @DerryFootage https://t.co/UOSP0XQw9s— Charlotte Lynch (@charlotterlynch) November 22, 2022
It looks unlikely that Peers will stand firm on these amendments, and regardless it remains a significant problem for democratic and civic rights in the UK and “paves the way for the UK government to introduce a range of new powers to restrict demonstrations and erode protest rights”. There are other areas of concern which remain in the Bill, which are: extending stopping and searching on suspicion, SDPOs with conviction, criminalising locking on and being equipped to lock on. These aim to restrict civil disobedience protest methods commonly used by civil rights groups and environmental activists, including Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made it clear that his goal is to increase the police’s powers to shut down protests and prevent “guerrilla” tactics.
On 16th January 2023, the PM said:
The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute. A balance must be struck between the rights of individuals and the rights of the hard-working majority to go about their day-to-day business. We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public. It’s not acceptable and we’re going to bring it to an end. -
Civil society campaigners, such as Liberty and other groups have shared their outrage over this “draconian approach”.
Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, said:
Protest is a fundamental right, not a gift from the State. But our right to protest continues to be attacked by a Government determined to silence people and hide from accountability. These new proposals should be seen for what they are: a desperate attempt to shut down any route for ordinary people to make their voices heard. Allowing the police to shut down protests before any disruption has taken place simply on the off-chance that it might set a dangerous precedent. -
Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond, also stated:
At a time when the right to protest is under attack around the world, the government should be setting a positive example to countries that have clamped down on civic space. Instead, the UK is mirroring this trend and is becoming increasingly authoritarian by making it harder for people to protest. How can the UK call other world leaders out for undermining democracy if we are doing the same thing here? -
The bill also comes at a time where distrust in the British policing institution is higher than ever following a series of serious scandals related to racism and sexual assault (see below).
Growing distrust in police forces
It has been two years since Sarah Everard’s death by Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan police officer, and the UK police continues to be found guilty of committing offences against women.
- In December 2022, two police officers, from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary were fired after evidence showing 6,000 messages shared between other constables which included racist and homophobic messages and insults towards people with disabilities and women.
- In January 2023, The Met police announcedthat there were approximately 1,633 cases of alleged sexual offences or domestic violence involving 1,071 officers being assessed currently.
- In February 2023, police officer David Carrick was sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty of 49 offences; rape, coercion, false imprisonment, and sexual assault against 12 women.
During February 2023, organisations, including Women Against Rape and Women of Colour Global Women’s Strike, organised protests against the Public Order Bill. They expressed concerns that the POB will give officers, similar to Carrick and Couzens, the power to restrict protests staged against the police. This will make it harder for survivors to step forward and will undermine protests for women’s rights and protection.
Open letter to Met Commissioner Mark Rowley https://t.co/zNGghRLCZe Stop Police Impunity. Stop arming police rapists, racists & murderers. Stop increasing the power of corrupt police forces over the public – NO Public Order Bill! Prosecute Rape, domestic violence, racist attacks pic.twitter.com/LKRQLlGshZ— Women Against Rape (@AgainstRape) February 7, 2023
Limiting the right to protest
Since last October 2022, there have been numerous protests held and evidence of police forces stopping and searching, detaining, or arresting protestors.
has estimated that at the end of 2022, at least 54 people were jailed for taking part in protests and Just Stop Oil have claimed that 100 of their activists have spent time in prison. This data also includes:
- Protesters from the “Kill the Bill” demonstrations against the Policing bill, in March 2021 in Bristol.
- In December 2022, four Palestine Action activists were remanded after being accused of causing criminal damage to a factory in Wales, which they say contributes to the flow of arms from Britain to Israel’s apartheid state.
- In January 2023, an activist from the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Newcastle-upon-Tyne was sentenced to 34 months in prison for ‘violent disorder’, whilst another has been sentenced to 29 months, and a third is already in jail. During these protests there were complaints of disproportionate policing towards BLM campaigners and restrictions imposed on earlier demonstrations.
- A solo anti-monarchy protester was detained by the police in Cornwall during a royal visit for holding a blank piece of paper.
Environmental rights protests face restrictions
There were several cases of repressions on environmental rights protests documented during this period:
- In November 2022, a Just Stop Oil activist was sentenced to six months in prison after being convicted of causing a public nuisance by disrupting traffic on the M25.
- Members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) painted the Home Office premises with black paint to protest against a decision by the secretary of state at the Department for Leveling Up, Housing, and Communities, Michael Gove, to open a new coal mine in Cumbria. 17 arrests were recorded thus far in connection with several actions.
- Two Just Stop Oil protesters were arrested for throwing tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflower painting and gluing themselves to it.
- Two other Just Stop Oil protestors were jailed for three weeks after damaging the frame of the artwork Peach Trees in Blossom at London's Courtauld Gallery.
- Two protesters from the HS2 Rebellion were sentenced last December 2022 after spray painting HS2’s Euston HQ pink.
- Seven women protesting for XR (known as the Barclays 7) were given two-year suspended sentences but spared jail time after they staged an act of civil disobedience at Barclays Bank offices’ HQ in 2021.
- In January 2023 XR protesters stormed the House of Lords to protest anti-protest laws and to defend human rights. They were escorted out by the police.
On 1st January 2023, Extinction Rebellion made a statement declaring that in 2023 they would change protest tactics to prioritise attendance.
We recognise and celebrate the power of disruption to raise the alarm and believe that constantly evolving tactics is a necessary approach. What’s needed now most is to disrupt the abuse of power and imbalance, to bring about a transition to a fair society that works together to end the fossil fuel era. Our politicians, addicted to greed and bloated on profits won’t do it without pressure. -
WE QUIT!— Extinction Rebellion UK 🌍 (@XRebellionUK) January 1, 2023
Our #NewYearsResolution is to halt our tactics of public disruption. Instead, we call on everyone to help us disrupt our corrupt government.#ChooseYourFuture & join us: 21 April, Parliament. pic.twitter.com/FZlCeaHj4F
Democratic independence and transgender rights
In January 2023, Scotland tried to pass a Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which would ensure that transgender people would no longer require a gender dysphoria diagnosis to obtain a gender recognition certificate, and the minimum age to do so would be lowered to 16. However, in an unprecedented move Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Alister Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland, triggeredSection 35 of the Scotland Act to constitutionally block the gender reform bill from becoming law.
Since then, there have been mass demonstrations held outside Downing Street in London against the UK Government. More protests have been recorded in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Scottish Trans Alliance said that the UK’s decision was disappointing:
It seems that the UK Government have chosen to take the most combative and obstructive approach – one that challenges both a progressive decision of the Scottish Parliament that would improve trans men and women’s lives, but also that challenges the authority of the Scottish Parliament to make laws in areas devolved to it. -
In February 2023, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation. As a result, whether Scotland keeps fighting the legal battle against the UK government in support of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill will depend on the successor and cannot be predicted at this stage.
New Online Safety Bill
Following a debate in the House of Common, a new Online Safety Bill (OSB) is passing through the House of Lords. This bill is an attempt by the UK government to regulate internet content and to protect children from harmful content. However, the bill has measures that may limit free online expression and media freedoms, and increase censorship.
The Centre for Policy Studies has said that “it is likely to do far more harm than good in its current form, and should either be scrapped or seriously amended” as the OSB “incentivises firms to remove perfectly legal content from their platforms”. Firms who do not remove this content risk having to pay a significant fine or prison sentences if their content is deemed harmful to children.
Certain aspects of this bill have been opposed by civil society groups, including freedom of expression organisations, as it would incentivise platforms to over-censor and “over-regulate content to avoid criminal liability, leading to the removal of legitimate content and the degradation of users’ human rights online”.
Index on Censorship has described the UK government’s Online Safety Bill as a “backward step for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression” which undermines a core human right and UK civil society.
National Security Bill
The National Security Bill (NSB) is another piece of legislation that continues to progress through Parliament, and in early March 2023 it will start the Report Stage in the House of Lords.
Civil society, global journalism and media freedom organisations have raised concerns over the bill which threatens freedom of expression.The bill proposes a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS) which would require any organisation or individual involved in “political influencing” in the UK, whose activities are “directed by a foreign principal” to register. There were significant concerns about the chilling effect this could have on foreign funded CSOs who are engaged in political advocacy. However civil society has been working to secure concessions that limit the impact of FIRS and the government has proposed amendments that will significantly reduce the number of INGOs impacted by the FIRS. These passed on 7th March.
In addition, the bill criminalises journalists who handle, obtain, retain, disclose or provide access to "protected information" as part of their work, if they work for a foreign funded organisation, with no public interest defence. On 23rd February 2023, some amendments were proposed to the bill relating to the criminalisation of whistle blowers and journalists, however press groups said that these measures were only “incremental”.