Government abandons Bill of Rights Bill, controversial laws on migration, protest and strikes remain
A previous CIVICUS Monitor report looked at the death of Chris Kaba, a 24-year-old Black man shot dead by a police officer in South London in September 2022, and the subsequent protests outside Scotland Yard demanding justice. The police officer in question was charged with Chris Kaba's murder in September 2023.
On 27th September, the British government approved the drilling of the largest untapped oil field in the North Sea, Rosebank on the coast of the Scottish Shetland Islands. This was approved despite climate activists warning that it would be “incompatible with a climate-safe future” as burning these fossil fuels would release roughly the same amount of emissions annually as around 90 countries and 400 million people. Furthermore, this project will not reduce energy bills in the UK but will push the UK far beyond the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement and cause further climate disasters. CSOs and activists have mobilised to launch a petition against the drilling of Rosebank.
Rishi Sunak approving the Rosebank oil field = moral and economic madness:— #StopRosebank (@StopCambo) September 28, 2023
❌ won't bring down our bills
❌ won't improve energy security
✅ will make Norwegian oil giant Equinor billions
✅ will wreck the climate
Equinor's profit, our loss. pic.twitter.com/0w1WmZeLIQ
Civil society organisations, activists and movements continue to fear the curtailment of the right to protest and civil liberties as the UK police have been given further powers to crack down on protests deemed to amount to “more than minor disturbances,” in addition to the extended powers given to them by the Public Order Act passed in June 2023. This has created a climate of fear and distrust of the police as fundamental rights and freedoms continue to be suppressed.
Victory for CSOs as the government abandons the Bill of Rights Bill
After some back and forth, the UK government officially announced its decision not to pursue the Bill of Rights Bill on 27th June 2023. The Bill, which sought to repeal the UK Human Rights Act, was met with major concerns as it would have weakened individual human rights and created barriers to redress. Following the decision to abandon the Bill, civil society groups and lawyers welcomed the decision.
Illegal Migration Act adopted
The Illegal Migration Act received royal assent on July 20th 2023. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the highly controversial law denies access to protection to anyone who enters the UK illegally, regardless of their age or circumstances, and allows them to be deported to their country of origin or a third country despite any threats of persecution or human rights abuses they may be facing there. The law has been described as “unworkable” and will have a devastating impact.
Upon its passing, the Act was criticised by the UN Refugee Agency and the UN Human Rights Office for its “profound impact on human rights and the international refugee protection system.”
Civil society has responded to these developments with a joint statement signed by 290 organisations, expressing solidarity with all those who will be affected.
Freedom of Association
Trade unions to employ non-compliance strategy against Strikes Act
The Strikes (Minimum Level of Service) Act was passed in July 2023. As previously covered by the CIVICUS Monitor, the legislation allows employers in a wide range of sectors to impose “minimum service levels,” and require employees to work during industrial action under threat of losing their jobs. The government has now launched a consultation period to find out how the legislation will be implemented and to set the minimum level of service. The law was passed just days after the Supreme Court ruled that regulations allowing companies to hire agency workers to cover for striking staff were illegal. This ruling followed a judicial review initiated by trade unions against the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022.
The trade unions have announced that they are determined to protect the right to strike and have therefore agreed on a strategy of “non-compliance” with the law on strikes to demonstrate their opposition and rejection, while at the same time filing an official complaint with the International Labour Organisation, the UN supervisory body for workers’ rights.
MP demands revocation of charity’s non-profit status because of critical Tweet
In August 2023, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the UK’s largest conservation organisation, came under fire for a Tweet in which it called government officials “liars” after the government had reneged on a promise not to weaken existing environmental protections. Following a public appeal from Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson, the Charity Commission, the UK’s regulatory body for non-profits announced it was aware of the matter and would consider further steps. Legal experts in the charity sector have defended RSPB’s right to campaign, stating: “It is difficult to see how RSPB’s commentary, clearly tied to a live and relevant policy decision, would breach the prohibition against party political activity.”
Calls for the RSPB to be stripped of its charitable status because of its Tweet raise concerns about censorship, state interference and the suppression of the freedoms of association and expression. This situation could have a chilling effect and make charities and civil society organisations afraid to speak out against government policies or hold the government to account.
Freedom of Assembly
New legislation introduced further restricting the right to protest
As reported in the previous Monitor update, the Public Order Act (POA) was passed in May 2023, raising serious concerns about restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly. In June, the Government introduced secondary legislation, in order to define “serious disruption to the life of the community” as referenced in the POA.
These regulations, containing provisions previously rejected by the Parliament as amendments to the POA, lower the threshold considerably for police to restrict protests. Under the new provisions, police would be able to impose restrictions on protests causing “more than minor” hindrances to day-to-day activities. Civil society groups have warned that the vagueness of the language gives the police “almost unlimited” powers to shut down protests.
Amnesty International UK has raised very serious concerns about the content of these draft regulations and how they’ve been introduced, noting that they “lower the threshold for police interference with the right to protest to an extremely low level, to the point where in practice they empower police to pick and choose which protests are and aren’t allowed to continue.”
Moreover, human rights organisation Liberty has expressed that the Government’s move violates the constitutional principle of the separation of powers because the measures have already been rejected by the House of Lords when they were tabled as amendments to the Public Order Act. Liberty has also launched a legal challenge to the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, stating she was “unlawful in bringing the legislation through the back door despite not having been given the powers to do so by Parliament.”
BREAKING— Liberty (@libertyhq) June 14, 2023
Suella Braverman is set to sign off protest restrictions she has no power to create. Restrictions rejected by Parliament
LIBERTY'S LAWYERS HAVE STARTED LEGAL ACTION AGAINST THE HOME SECRETARY pic.twitter.com/yhPMlS0Bpu
Activists jailed for contempt of court
The UK authorities have repeatedly condemned environmental groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, which use civil disobedience to draw attention to climate change by, for example, blocking motorways and busy roads and throwing washable paint on buildings. Activists using these peaceful protest methods are routinely prosecuted in the UK. Now these activists face even more punishment if they try to explain their motives in court, as do other activists who try to stand up against their prosecution. During the reporting period, several cases came to light of activists being held in contempt of court for speaking out on ongoing climate protest cases.
In May, several members of Republic, Animal Rising and Just Stop Oil were arrested during anti-monarchy protests on the occasion of the coronation of King Charles III, although they were protesting peacefully and merely holding up signs. The police searched them without giving any reason, confiscated their protest posters and held some of them in police custody for several hours (see earlier CIVICUS Monitor update).
On 20th June, World Refugee Day, a peaceful protest organised by Amnesty International UK, Freedom from Torture, Liberty and other human rights organisations was broken up by police. The activists wanted to hang a banner reading “Compassion, not cruelty: refugees welcome” on Westminster Bridge in London, but were stopped by police for “endangering the public.”
In the UK, protesters have increasingly been banned from expressing their motives in court when charged with offences related to protests. This came after Inner London Crown Court Judge Reid ruled that juries should not consider protesters' motives and that trials should be considered “in a legal rather than a moral way.” This has led to non-violent protesters being charged with contempt of court for explaining the motives and causes of the protests, in breach of the judge’s orders. This attack on the free expression of protesters in court is an attempt to minimise cases that end in acquittal because can relate to or understand the values and motivations that led to the protesters' actions.
In March, Trudi Warner, a 68-year-old retired social worker, was one of several protesters who held up a sign outside the Inner London Crown Court, where a climate change protest was taking place. Her sign read, “Jurors: you have the absolute right to acquit a defendant according to your conscience.” Warner now faces a possible prison sentence, and 12 other people are being investigated for contempt of court for holding placards similar to Warner's during a trial in the same court in May. On 4th March, Amy Pritchard and Giovanna Lewis, who are Insulate Britain protesters, were both jailed for seven weeks after they defied the judge’s order not to mention climate change during their trial as being the motivation for blocking traffic during a climate protest in 2021.
Human rights watchdog Liberty has warned that this is a sign of increasing government attacks on the right to protest in the UK.
Restrictions on pro-Palestinian protests
Since the beginning of October, tens of thousands of protesters have demonstrated in support of Palestine in various cities across the UK, including London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. These demonstrations reflect public concern and solidarity with the Palestinian people, primarily due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis resulting from Israel’s crackdown in Gaza. As in other European countries, pro-Palestinian protests in London face various restrictions. Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Research in Europe, Esther Major, has stressed the importance of protecting the right to protest for Palestinian rights.
On 10th October 2023, the media reported that Home Secretary Suella Braverman had called on senior police officers in England and Wales to take action against flags, songs or symbols that could be “used to "harass or intimidate” members of the Jewish community, indicating that displaying the Palestinian flag or singing pro-Palestinian chants could be classified as criminal offences. She expressed that “behaviour that is legitimate in certain circumstances, such as waving a Palestinian flag, may not be legitimate if it is used to glorify terrorist acts” and called on the police to investigate whether chants such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” could be considered calls for violence against Israel, which would constitute a racially aggravated public order offence. Critics saw the Home Secretary’s letter as an attempt to exert undue influence on the police. Amnesty International subsequently called on the UK authorities to ensure that police respect human rights during protests Israel and Palestine protests.
Any interference with freedom of expression must be strictly necessary and proportionate, and in full accordance with the law. - Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive
Ahead of protests announced for the last weekend of October, the head of the Metropolitan Police in the UK has said that the police will be “absolutely ruthless” in dealing with pro-Palestinian demonstrations. According to media reports, a total of nine people were arrested at solidarity rallies for Palestine in London between 29th and 30th October, and five of them were charged.
Freedom of expression
Developments regarding the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters Bill.
In a previous CIVICUS Monitor report, the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters Bill), also known as the Anti-Boycott Bill, has already been described as a problem for free speech and democratic participation.
The Bill was originally introduced in Parliament in June 2023. It has now passed through the committee stage in the House of Commons, although the date for the report stage has not yet been announced. Civil society organisations have been invited to make both oral and written submissions on the Bill. If passed, the bill would prohibit public bodies, including municipalities and universities, from being influenced by “political or moral disapproval of the conduct of foreign states” when making procurement or investment decisions.
Civil society organisations from various sectors have raised several concerns about the Bill. These include the impact the bill will have on fossil fuel divestment, concerns about the gag clause in the bill, the threat to freedom of expression by preventing public bodies from making decisions based on principles and values, and the new risk that public bodies can be challenged for expressing “political or moral disapproval of a foreign state” when they seek to address human rights abuses in their supply chains.
Another concern was with the public hearing for the bill as the Public Bill Committee, made up of Members of Parliament from across parties, was organised to hear and consider evidence about the anti-boycott bill, however, not one Palestinian advocate was invited. More specifically, oral evidence was heard by human rights organisations, pro-Israel groups, lawyers, right-wing journalists, and Jewish community bodies, but the committee did not invite any Palestinian organisations or activists, including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which is the largest solidarity campaign undertaking BDS campaigns in the UK, to speak at the hearing.
Another problem was the public hearing on the bill, as the Public Bills Committee, composed of MPs from all parties, held a hearing on the anti-boycott bill but did not invite a single Palestinian lawyer. More specifically, human rights organisations, pro-Israel groups, lawyers, right-wing journalists and Jewish community institutions were heard, but the committee did not invite any Palestinian organisations or activists, including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), the largest solidarity initiative undertaking boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) campaigns in the UK, to speak at the hearing.
The PSC was joined by more than 20 other civil society organisations to express their concern over the “exclusion of Palestinians and the PSC from the committee hearings on the government’s controversial anti-boycott bill.” In addition, 3,000 PSC members and supporters emailed the committee to express their concern about the “exclusion of witnesses from the groups most directly affected by the proposed law”.
Nevertheless, there have been some positive developments on the part of the trade unions and the devolved British governments, which have officially opposed the Bill. The Trades Union Congress, which represents the majority of trade unions in the UK, passed a motion against the bill in September highlighting that the bill “would "undermine ethical investment and procurement by public bodies by restricting consideration of human and workers’ rights, international law and environmental concerns” and explicitly supporting the Right to Boycott coalition.
Moreover, the Scottish government officially announced its rejection of the anti-boycott bill in August, and the Welsh government announced the same on 8th September. Although Westminster still has the power to overrule the devolved governments, their decisions are an important and valuable step in the campaign against the Anti-Boycott Bill.
UK Home Office to revoke visas for those who “express support” for Hamas
In a further worrying development, the UK government is considering plans to expel foreign students, academics, and workers who engage in what the government deems to be anti-Semitic acts or expressions of support for Hamas. On 12th October, it was reported that Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick tasked officials with evaluating the possibility of revoking visas on national security grounds for those who expressed support for the terror group in the aftermath of its attack on Israel on 7th October. This move follows a directive from France's interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, to immediately expel all foreigners who commit anti-Semitic acts.
The UK has the authority to revoke visas for students, workers, and visitors on national security grounds or if it is deemed conducive to the public good, provided there is "proportionate" evidence. Given the recent crackdown on pro-Palestinian activism, there are significant concerns regarding freedom of expression and how these criteria will be enforced. On October 10th, the media reported that students at several UK universities had been interrogated by the police for social media posts referencing Palestine’s "right to resist occupation" and referring to Israeli settlers as "fascist" in the aftermath of the attack. Academics have also faced accusations of justifying Hamas militant attacks in online posts. A Home Office source told the Telegraph that if individuals in the UK behave in this way, it should be considered “conducive to the public good” if their visas are revoked and that Home Office officials are already reviewing some students’ comments to see if and how they could take action to end their visas.