2021: A year in review

Tomos Owen & Robert Wilcox

Just over a year ago, thousands of pro-Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol Building in a bid to overturn the result of the 2020 Presidential Election. An unprecedented chapter in US history, it was made all the more extraordinary by the President’s own role in inciting his fellow Americans to riot. The events in Washington D.C. served as an important reminder, not just for the USA but for democracies across the globe: democracy is not a given.  

Our 2020 review concluded with a warning about the dangers facing democracy in the UK. We observed that democratic norms are often worn away gradually rather than democracy being lost overnight. The US Capitol storming followed years of routine flouting of democratic norms, not just by the now former President Trump but also by the Republican Party he represented. Over the course of 2021, we have continued to see a worrying erosion of democratic ideals and safeguards by the current UK government.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is, and was, from its inception, a clear attempt to limit the right to protest; a fundamental right in any state that claims to be a liberal democracy. Whilst certain provisions contained within the Bill were recently voted down in the House of Lords, they could still be reinstated when the Bill returns to the House of Commons. Those provisions pave the way for the police to determine how much noise a would-be protester can make. They would enable people to be banned from protests because they were involved in a previous protest which could have caused – it need not actually have caused – ‘serious disruption’. And protesters who secure themselves to objects could be faced with long sentences, together with a fine. Existing laws are sufficient to address those rare instances where protest crosses over into violence; for the government, it is all about silencing dissent.

There is a wider agenda at play here. Last year, the government also published the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. Judicial review is the mechanism by which individuals can challenge, in the courts, the legality of the government’s conduct. It is not only an essential component in the checks and balances on executive power; it ensures that individuals can obtain remedy for errors by public bodies. One of the government’s own back-benchers broke ranks to condemn the Bill; David Davis MP described it as ‘a worrying assault on our legal system’ and said that it will ‘serve as a template for further attempts to curtail the working of the courts in the UK’. Indeed, originally, the government planned to increase the use of ‘ouster clauses’, which would prevent the courts from reviewing certain government actions. Given that this government is no stranger to being on the wrong side of the law, it is obvious why it would want to put itself beyond the law’s reach. Although it has put these plans on the backburner for now, the Bill would still deprive people in immigration and asylum cases from bringing judicial review in the High Court where permission to appeal has been refused.

The government has also been accused of undermining transparency by blocking freedom of information (FOI) requests. The not-for-profit global media platform, OpenDemocracy, notes that, according to the Cabinet Office’s own website, only 41 per cent of FOI requests were responded to fully in 2020. This is the lowest response rate since recording commenced in 2005. A recent OpenDemocracy investigation into the Cabinet Office’s “Clearing House” found that it actively monitors FOI requests from journalists and campaigners, and controls how government departments respond. The legality of this arrangement is in serious question. Transparency is a crucial component of democracy; without it, the task of holding the government to account becomes even more difficult.

The headlines over the course of 2021 would suggest that this government has much to hide. A fast-track “VIP lane” was uncovered, whereby the government awarded COVID-19 contracts to those with favourable connections to ministers and officials – an arrangement which was subsequently found to be unlawful. It was discovered that the Tory peer, Lord Brownlow, initially paid for the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s official residence, which the Prime Minister claimed to know nothing about – WhatsApp messages later emerged, between Lord Brownlow and the Prime Minister, which showed that they had in fact discussed the refurbishment. As 2021 drew to a close, details of lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street started to come to light. If the Prime Minister was to be taken at his word last year, he was ‘sickened’ at the thought these parties had taken place; we now know he attended a “bring your own booze” party in his own garden, with around 40 other people, as well as having a birthday party in the Cabinet Room itself. To cover the tracks, The Independent has reported that staff at No 10 were told to remove potentially incriminating evidence from their phones.

The damage being done to our democracy is worrying enough. But there is more to concern us. In December, the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, announced reforms to the Human Rights Act 1998. This is the same man who stated ‘I don’t support the Human Rights Act’. The Chief Executive of Amnesty International, Sacha Deshmukh, responded to the announcement by warning that ‘if ministers move ahead with plans to water down the Human Rights Act and override judgments with which they disagree, they risk aligning themselves with authoritarian regimes around the world’.

The government’s disdain for human rights has long been apparent. Since taking up the post of Home Secretary, Priti Patel has been exploring ways to prevent asylum seekers from reaching our shores. Several points should be noted here. Firstly, an asylum seeker is not required to seek refuge in the first country that they reach. Secondly, in order for an asylum seeker to qualify for refugee status, it must be shown that they are unable or unwilling to return to their country ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’. Thirdly, Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention (the “Refugee Convention”) states that simply entering the country illegally is not in itself sufficient grounds for penalising asylum seekers.

Apart from the UK’s legal obligations, which the country signed up to of its own volition when it became a signatory to the Refugee Convention, there is clearly a strong moral argument for providing refuge to people who find themselves in these circumstances. After all, people would not undertake the dangerous journey to the UK on a mere whim. Moreover, the policy of making it impossible for asylum seekers to arrive in the UK is not only dangerous, but it can prevent or delay the legally required determination to be made, i.e. the determination of whether or not the asylum seeker is legally entitled to refugee status and therefore our protection. The government seems to be making that determination before asylum seekers are able to present themselves. Some of those that do manage to make it here have been housed in deplorable conditions in disused military barracks; in a case brought last year, a judge held that housing asylum seekers in Napier barracks in Kent was unlawful on the basis that no rational person could have taken the view that the environment was adequate for their needs.

The government’s Nationality and Borders Bill has attracted criticism from the UN Refugee Agency (the “UNHCR”), and other organisations, for penalising asylum seekers, as well as enabling the government to strip a person of British citizenship without notice. Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR Representative to the UK, said that ‘[the] Bill would undermine, not promote, the … stated goal of improving protection for those at risk of persecution’. In a report commissioned by the charity Freedom from Torture, barristers took issue with the establishment of a two-tier asylum system which would disadvantage those that arrived in the UK by ‘irregular means’. They noted that ‘the basis for the attack on irregular arrival is that refugees should use safe legal routes. But there are no such safe legal routes. There is no such thing as a refugee visa’. Meanwhile, the Good Law Project has condemned the Bill as ‘racist’ based on legal advice obtained which states that non-white British citizens will be disproportionately impacted by the power to deprive an individual of citizenship.

We are seeing more and more of what the Prime Minister’s vision of “Global Britain” looks like. At the beginning of 2021, Tory MPs voted against a proposal to prevent the UK from entering into trade deals with countries that the High Court deems guilty of genocide. The government has continued to licence arms to Israel – £400 million’s worth over the last six years – despite its systematic oppression of the Palestinians. The government has failed the people of Afghanistan, who have been put at serious risk of having even their most basic human rights taken away. Despite being warned about the imminent fall of Kabul to the Taliban, both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary decided to take holidays.

The ordinary, working people of this country, too, are being failed by the government. The UK is currently in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, with inflation rates at their highest for thirty years. Families are faced with the difficult choice of whether to keep the heating on or put food on the table. Yet, the government has announced tax hikes and axed the £20 uplift to Universal Credit. The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights condemned the decision to axe the uplift as ‘unconscionable’ and ‘deliberately retrogressive’, as well as noting that it would likely breach the UK’s obligations under international law.

Reflecting on the actions of this government over the course of 2021 is a sobering experience, and the examples discussed in this blog piece are by no means exhaustive. The worrying trends we saw in 2020 continue. But there is still hope. Ironically, that hope came in the aftermath of the Owen Patterson scandal. Mr Patterson was a Tory MP whom was found to have broken the lobbying rules. Rather than accept the finding, the government whipped its own MPs into voting to block Mr Patterson’s suspension and to overhaul the standards watchdog that made the finding. Amidst the political furore, Mr Patterson resigned, triggering a by-election in his constituency, North Shropshire. North Shropshire, a Tory stronghold for nearly 200 years, swung massively from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats. What should we take from this? It seems that, even for those that traditionally support the government of the day, there are actions that the electorate will not stomach. It is to this hope – the hope that voters will make their voices heard – to which we must cling. And why we must do everything to stop our voices from being silenced.

The government is pushing people into poverty  

Robert Wilcox

The UK is facing one of its worst cost of living crises in decades. Rising food, fuel and energy prices are generating a surge in household bills. Both the Bank of England and the Office of Budget Responsibility have warned that inflation could hit five per cent in the next few months. But with millions below the poverty line, and the likelihood that they will be joined by hundreds of thousands more, it is clear that the government is not doing enough for those struggling to make ends meet; rather, it seems intent on making life even tougher for the poor in our society.

Poverty in the UK is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon. According to a 2021 Parliamentary briefing paper, 14.5 million people in the UK were living in poverty (accounting for household costs) – including 4.3 million children – before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. This represents 22 per cent of the population – a damning indictment on the world’s fifth largest economy. Research findings published by the Legatum Institute indicate that the pandemic has pushed hundreds of thousands more people below the poverty line.

Against this backdrop, and with the pandemic raging on, the government has persisted with its plans to end the furlough scheme and eviction ban, putting thousands at risk of unemployment and homelessness. Simultaneously, it has announced tax hikes and axed the £20 uplift to universal credit (which itself has always been a botched system). The latter decision was described as “unconscionable” and “deliberately retrogressive” by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who also stated that pushing ahead with the cut would likely breach international human rights obligations. In particular, he noted that the government had failed to carry out an impact assessment of the measure on its citizens, the need for which is “well-established” under international law.

Unlike the government, the independent social reform organisation, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has done its research. As a direct result of the cut to universal credit, 500,000 more people, including 200,000 children, will be living in poverty. The impact is already being felt; The Independent has reported that demand for food banks has soared since the cut was introduced, but a combination of increasing demand and supply issues means that 45 per cent of food banks are now faced with having to reduce the size of their food parcels or having to tell individuals that they cannot help them.

The optimistic tone set by the Chancellor in his Autumn Budget is in marked contrast to the current reality for individuals across the UK. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has stated that the combination of high inflation rates and tax hikes will result in “real pain” for low-income households and that “millions will be worse off in the short term”. Far from offering a glimmer of hope to those faced with the day-to-day struggle of providing the essentials for themselves and their children, they are increasingly having to decide whether to skip meals in order to keep the heating on. So much for the government’s promise to “level-up” the country.

To say that this government does not care about those living in poverty would be to resort to cliché; it would also be true. Of course, the cost of increased public expenditure has to be borne by someone. The problem is that the government has chosen to target the poor rather than those that exploit legal loopholes to avoid paying tax. We need to demand that the government change its priorities, whilst donating what we can to food banks and other support organisations which seek to help those in urgent and dire need. The nurses and carers we clapped for not so very long ago may well depend on that help.

Britain can transform the plight of climate refugees through its COP26 presidency

Tomos Owen

This blog post was originally published by Agora Think Tank on 19 January 2021. You can find the original here.

An estimated 70,000-80,000 Jewish refugees were accepted into Britain before and during World War Two . At the time, the idea of turning our backs on those fleeing atrocities in continental Europe was reprehensible. The depth of this feeling was so widespread that the United Nations gathered numerous states from across the globe to agree to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a monumental effort to ensure that individuals could flee oppression and find refuge across an international border.

The Convention placed legally binding obligations on states to process the claims of asylum seekers, outlined the rights afforded to refugees, and, most importantly, created the recognised status of a refugee. Britain was among those quick to agree to the Convention.

Almost 70 years since the Convention was signed, the situation is very different. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) around 1% of the world’s population are displaced, yet European sentiment towards refugees has seen a significant shift from compassion to assist those forced to migrate towards greater reluctance. This sentiment appears to be dictating the global response to climate refugees and could have devastating impacts as climate change worsens.

Climate Refugees

Although without official definition, a climate refugee can broadly be categorised as an individual who has fled their home nation due to the effects of climate change – such as extreme weather, drought, or rising sea levels – threatening their lives or livelihoods.

Despite decades of warnings from some scholars, the danger to climate refugees remains comparatively overlooked. They are not recognised under the law and they are not entitled to any rights in foreign states. The Refugee Convention was written following World War Two and, since its adoption, has not evolved beyond its focus on wartime. This has led the UNHCR to the stark conclusion that the Convention cannot protect climate refugees.

There have been numerous calls to address these inadequacies, though there remains a lack of appetite to expand the Convention’s current scope of protection. This is less about climate refugees being viewed as undeserving and more to do with a general atmosphere of anti-refugee sentiment. The UNHCR has stated that opening the Convention to encompass climate refugees in the current political climate could actually lead to restricted protection for all refugees. It is worrying that the UNHCR find themselves in this position, given their role as champion for all refugees. Protection must now be found elsewhere, and Britain should lead the drive to provide this.

COP26 is Britain’s opportunity

A major barrier to finding a solution for the future flow of climate refugees is the absence of international willingness. Since the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP21), many governments have exhibited greater hostility towards immigration and refugees, including in key nations such as Australia and the US. Equally, the UK’s 2016 Brexit campaign focused heavily on limiting future immigration. It is possible that, following this mandate, the British government may avoid seeking a global protection mechanism for climate refugees, both to appease their citizens and to retain favour with countries which they are now seeking trade deals with.

Nevertheless, as hosts of the delayed COP26, the UK should recognise that it has one of the key remaining opportunities to address the lack of protection for climate refugees by incorporating it into climate change agreements. Alok Sharma, who recently left his ministerial position to focus on his role as COP26 President, demonstrated in his address to UN nations that he is cognisant of climate change migration. It is now imperative that this be followed up with concrete action.

This action should take the form of an agreement between states whereby climate refugees can be identified, relocated equitably, and conferred with rights enabling them to begin a new life. This provides a response which would ensure climate refugees are protected whilst equally avoiding a burden on any one state.

This could be achieved and is not without precedent. During COP21 there were numerous proposals surrounding a coordination facility for those displaced by climate change; a plan which would have facilitated relocation for climate refugees. This gained traction, although talks were eventually discontinued following Australia’s opposition and the belief that a more efficient alternative could be found. A lack of progress since COP21 suggests that this may not be the case and with the effects of climate change showing no signs of slowing it is now time to resurrect this idea.

The UK government must recognise that, through their own hosting of a COP summit, they have a wonderful opportunity to provide lasting protection for climate refugees.

Why did they use military barracks to house asylum seekers and why has it been deemed illegal?

Tomos Owen

The Home Office began housing asylum seekers in disused army barracks around September last year and in that time their use has been a regular feature in the news. The Penally Camp in Tenby, West Wales, which was used for this purpose, was closed in March following an inspection that found it totally unsuitable and unsafe. Napier Barracks, an even larger site housing asylum seekers in Kent, remains open and is thought to house a population of around 250 individuals. However, the High Court has recently deemed that the Home Office’s use of the Napier barracks was unlawful and did not maintain a standard of living that protected the health of individuals. The outcome of this case was the inevitable result of a series of poor decisions taken by the Home Office during the height of the pandemic. 

The use of the military barracks for housing asylum seekers was the result of a housing shortage brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Home Office operates the housing aspect of the asylum process by contracting a large housing association to provide accommodation to asylum seekers while their claim is being decided. In normal times, once an asylum case is concluded and if the individual has received their refugee status, they gain rights almost equivalent to that of a British citizen and therefore become the responsibility of their local council. This means they are able to apply for council housing. This constant stream of individuals with freshly granted refugee status means that there is constantly space being freed up in the Home Office contracted accommodation for new asylum seekers. Although that is not how it worked during the pandemic. 

To the Home Office’s credit, during the height of the pandemic they took the decision not to move asylum seekers and refugees on from their accommodation in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Given that much of this accommodation is shared houses, this was a sensible move and definitely went some way to protecting individuals’ health. However, it also led to a massive housing shortage in the asylum process as the limited amount of accommodation provisions that the Home Office had access to was full. The Home Office’s solution to this was to rent out hotels, many of which were unable to welcome guests normally because of COVID-19, and to utilise disused barracks like Penally and Napier. In October 2020, there were 9,500 asylum seekers housed in hotels, a massive increase from the 1,200 housed in hotels at the end of March 2020. The Penally and Napier barracks provided another combined 634 beds for single adult male asylum seekers. 

In terms of space, the 634 beds that the military barracks offered was minimal in comparison to the number of houses and hotel space that the Home Office were using. However, the negative impact of the use of these barracks was staggering. The mental health implications for asylum seekers were particularly dire. Though not technically detention centres, the barracks acted in a very similar fashion. The camps are surrounded by barbed wire, there are visible patrols by security guards, there are curfews in place, and access to the outside is difficult. For those that had experienced traumatic events in their countries and fled to the UK to seek sanctuary, these conditions only served to exacerbate their trauma. The Home Office had apparently sought to avoid this by saying that vulnerable individuals would not be housed in the barracks, although this decision process must have been flawed. This was demonstrated when a number of cases were brought against the Home Office because of vulnerable individuals that had been housed at the Penally Camp, including by Duncan Lewis Solicitors who secured transfers for 51 residents. 

Even if individual asylum seekers were not vulnerable before going in, the conditions of the camp alone were still bad enough to be triggering. One of the examples I have referred to in the past relates to the large number of Eritrean individuals that were housed at the camps. The UK receives a number of Eritrean asylum seekers and one of the main reasons for this is because in Eritrea national service is compulsory, oftentimes indefinite, and the consequences for leaving can be brutal. One can only imagine the mental health implications for an individual who has fled their country because of the brutal national service setup and then arrives in the UK to be detained in a military barracks. These situations really paint the picture of a Home Office that is out of touch with the reality that asylum seekers face. 

Arguably, the biggest issue at the camps was the spread of COVID-19. In both Napier and Penally, asylum seekers were forced to sleep in overcrowded dorms with very little social distancing. At its height, there were 20 asylum seekers per room in Napier barracks. Inevitably, and so clearly foreseeably, when COVID-19 did get into the camp, it spread very quickly amongst the residents. In January and February this year, there were 197 cases of COVID-19 at Napier, which accounted for almost half of all residents. When questioned on how this happened, Priti Patel made sure to shift all of the blame onto the asylum seekers by saying, “people do mingle, and it is a fact when we looked at what happened at Napier people were not following the rules”. This attitude is truly astonishing given that the Home Office had put these individuals in these unsafe conditions in the first place. 

It is therefore unsuprising that a court case was brought against the Home Office due to the conditions of Napier barracks. As already mentioned, the Penally Camp fortunately closed in March 2020 and all of the residents were dispersed to alternative accommodation. The case regarding Napier barracks was brought by six asylum seekers as they deemed the accommodation unsafe and alleged that the dormitory-style setup led to the spread of COVID-19. The judge looked at the evidence of the COVID-19 outbreak and also a fire which occurred at Napier and ultimately judged in favour of the asylum seekers. He noted that, “I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the claimants. Insofar as the defendant considered that the accommodation was adequate for their needs, that view was irrational.” He also criticised the detention-like settings. 

Following the ruling, there was an outpouring from organisations asking for the camp to be closed. Whether this will happen is so far unclear as the Home Office has an agreement in place with the MOD to use the site until September. Some also fear that this could be extended. One has to question whether all this simply helps paint the picture that the Home Office are trying to create. It appears that they want the UK to be seen as somewhere that doesn’t treat asylum seekers well in the hope that this will somehow make the UK “less desirable” to those fleeing their countries. I have addressed this flawed logic previously, but it appears to persist in the government’s actions and recent statistics do back this up. Only yesterday, an article was released revealing that the Home Office paid out £9.3m in compensation for over 300 cases of unlawful detention last year and in the last three years, it has paid out £24.4m to 914 people wrongly detained. This is an increase in cases of 216% in comparison to the previous three years before that.  

The Home Office’s actions are completely unsustainable and are causing irrevocable harm to individuals that are coming to the UK to seek sanctuary. They are also costing UK taxpayers millions in compensation payments that could be avoided if we were to treat individuals with more humanity. Housing asylum seekers in military barracks is only part of this problem and we need to see a shift towards being more receptive to those seeking asylum. It is now certain that this attitude shift will not come from the government and public pressure must be applied to change our current course. Without this, I fear that we are slipping further towards a nation that feels it is above international human rights law and, as we have seen elsewhere in the world, a nation that feels this way is capable of unspeakable cruelty. 

End UK arms sales to Israel

Robert Wilcox

For those who concern themselves with such matters as human rights, there is perhaps no issue which weighs so heavily on the collective conscience than the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Occasionally, escalations in the violence make the headlines. But the sporadic media coverage tends to result in certain misapprehensions, not least that the conflict comprises no more than intermittent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, and that the modus operandi is confined to the exchange of missile fire.

This is a conflict which has a long history, but the history very much shapes the present reality for Israelis and Palestinians alike. In 1917, Britain seized control of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire and issued the Balfour Declaration (the ‘Declaration’), pledging to support ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’, together with the caveat that ‘nothing [would] be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. The driving force behind the making of such an ambiguous, yet obviously provocative, statement appears to have been geopolitical; in other words, it would best serve the interests of the British Empire.

The Declaration met with outcry from the Arab world. Palestinian Arabs comprised ninety per cent of the population of Palestine at that time but, by means of just a few words from the British government, were now reduced to being merely ‘non-Jewish communities’ that so happened to be based in Palestine. In response, there was a surge in support for the Palestinian Arab nationalist movement, which hitherto had been relatively passive, and the next thirty years saw a series of riots. In 1948, in the midst of conflict, Jewish forces declared independence and established the modern state of Israel. In what the Palestinians call the Nakba (the Arabic word for catastrophe), 700,000 of them either fled or were forcibly expelled.

To this day, Israel refuses to recognise the right of Palestinians to return to their homes. It continues to dispossess and displace Palestinians by means of forced evictions, land confiscation and the demolition of residential buildings. This is a clear violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits ‘[i]ndividual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons’. Amnesty International reports that there are currently over five million Palestinian refugees dispersed across the Middle East, many of whom face appalling living conditions in overpopulated camps.

The air, land and naval blockade of the Gaza Strip (a Palestinian territory to the west of Israel) – which has now been in place for over a decade – has devastated the area’s economy, resulting in extreme poverty. Nearly two million Palestinians (three quarters of whom are refugees) are currently barricaded into the area, which measures a mere 360 square kilometres. For reference, that is equivalent to two thirds of the Welsh population being confined to an area roughly the size of the city and county of Swansea.

Israel has also fenced in almost 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank (to the east of Israel), a move which was condemned by the UN General Assembly in a 2003 resolution and subsequently held to be a violation of international law by the International Court of Justice in its 2004 Advisory Opinion. The heavy restrictions on the movement of both people and goods have separated family members from each other, and have hampered access to construction materials, education and healthcare. Last June, Omar Yaghi, an eight-month year old baby with a cardiac condition, died after the Israeli military denied his family entry into Israel for arranged surgery.

Hundreds of Palestinians, including children, are arbitrarily arrested and detained by Israel each year.  Those who find themselves in Israeli prisons, again even the children, are routinely subjected to torture or cruel treatment. The Israeli “justice” system is pitted against Palestinians; Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organisation, has reported that there is only a 1.9 per cent chance that an Israeli citizen will be convicted following a complaint by a Palestinian. In contrast, Palestinians, whom are often tried in military courts, face a conviction rate of 99 per cent.

The Adalah (the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) has identified over 60 laws which it says, directly or indirectly, discriminate against Palestinians residing in Israel or those residing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It notes that ‘[t]hese laws limit the rights of Palestinians in all areas of life, from citizenship rights to the right to political participation, land and housing rights, education rights, cultural and language rights, religious rights, and due process rights during detention’. ‘[T]he two-tier system of laws’ has also drawn criticism from Human Rights Watch. The stance taken by Israel is undeniable, if overtly paradoxical: Palestinians should not be entitled to enjoy the same human rights as Israelis.

The exchange of missile fire is the result of these underlying tensions reaching breaking point. On the one hand, there is the Zionist movement – the Jewish nationalist movement to create a Jewish homeland – taken to the extreme; the eradication of any non-Jewish presence in the territory that the Israelis claim for themselves, by whatever means it deems necessary. On the other hand, there is the Palestinian counter-movement to reclaim their historic lands, which has generated support for militant groups that similarly deploy violent means.

Israel has repeatedly, and indiscriminately, fired rockets at the Gaza Strip, killing civilians (including children) and destroying civilian infrastructure (during last month’s hostilities, an Israeli airstrike destroyed Gaza’s only COVID-19 testing facility). Hamas, the largest of Palestine’s militant Islamist groups, has also indiscriminately fired rockets at Israel. Every breach of international humanitarian law must be condemned. But the balance in power cannot be ignored, something which is borne out by the stark difference in the number of casualties. Nor can the desperate situation facing the Palestinians. Israel does have a responsibility to protect its own civilian population, but this cannot explain away its subjugation of the Palestinians. It certainly provides no pathway towards peace.

How has the UK responded to the systematic oppression of the Palestinians? It supplies arms to Israel. In fact, the UK government has licensed arms worth over £400 million to Israeli forces in the last six years alone. When asked in Parliament whether any British-sold weapons or military hardware had been used in Gaza, Foreign Office minister, James Cleverly, would not answer but claimed that “the UK has a robust arms export licensing regime”. This is the same regime which has permitted billions of pounds worth of arms to be licensed to Saudi Arabia and its allies for use in Yemen, despite evidence that British-made weapons and military hardware are being used on civilians and civilian infrastructure, and fuelling what the UN has called the world’s “largest humanitarian crisis”. For the British government, money speaks louder than innocent lives. And, as for its relationship with Israel, the UK is, quite simply, an enabler of what is effectively an Apartheid regime.

As a final word, there are those who regard criticism of Israel, in and of itself, as anti-Semitic. They apply the label to anyone who would challenge Israel’s history of human rights violations against the Palestinians. It is no exaggeration to say that this tactic has been deployed on the international political stage to Israel’s advantage. After all, the term carries with it a particular stigma – and rightly so. But no state should enjoy impunity purely because of its religious significance; no state should be beyond reproach when it comes to violations of the most basic human rights.

Simultaneously, there are those who would use Israel’s conduct towards the Palestinians to inspire hatred of Jews. Indeed, the heightened tensions in May saw an increase in anti-Jewish harassment and violence worldwide. Proponents of this view, and perpetrators of these acts, have no place in civilised society. Hate is their only agenda, and they have much in common with those in Israel who are committed to the subjugation of the Palestinians.

The unjustifiable human cost of the UK’s foreign aid cuts

Tomos Owen

It is almost six months since I initially wrote on the appalling decision by the UK government to cut foreign aid by £4bn across the world. At the time, the government’s decision was met by disbelief. While the whole world struggled with the pandemic, the UK chose to insulate themselves and cut funds to those that need it most around the globe. The saving of £4bn, a drop in the ocean when you consider that the UK’s GDP was £1.96trn in 2020, was too big to pass by the government. There was an outpouring of responses from various organisations explaining how this would impact their work in theory. Unfortunately, these theories have now turned to reality and the true cost of the government’s callousness is being felt across the globe. 

In true fashion, the announcement in April about where the remaining foreign aid budget would be spent lacked any transparency and the government opted to avoid initial scrutiny by only releasing the figures via a written statement at the end of a working day. The statement remained silent on cuts and provided no comparable figures from previous years, leaving campaigners having to work out for themselves where the cuts had been made. The backlash soon followed, with an alliance of 200 NGOs calling the cuts “a tragic blow for many of the world’s most marginalised people”. Once you dig into the figures, it is clear to see just how tragic the cuts will be. 

It is worth starting with a few of the areas that the government has called their “priorities”. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said in his statement that these would be, “poverty reduction, including getting more girls into school, providing urgent humanitarian support to those who need it most, and tackling global threats like climate change, COVID recovery and other international health priorities”. On the face of it, this is a commendable list and these would be top priority for many in favour of international aid. However, rather than these areas of priority receiving increased funding to tackle the problems, they are actually facing significant cuts in many cases. 

Save the Children has calculated that £400m will go to girls’ education from the recent announcement, but this is down by almost a quarter of the 2019 figure which was £536m and down by 6% on the 2020 figure of £424m. For the government to call girls’ education a priority, without addressing the reality that the most recent funding package means that girls’ education will actually have to be restricted in comparison to previous years, they are seriously misleading taxpayers. Unless the government has found a way to drastically increase the efficiency of how this money is spent, they should call a spade a spade and admit that these cuts demonstrate their feeling that providing aid to the world’s poorest during a pandemic is not one of their top priorities. 

Other areas of the aid budget that constitute the government’s “priorities” equally don’t fare well when you compare them to the previous year’s figures. In 2019, the UK provided £1.5bn in humanitarian aid, but this has seen a massive cut to now only £906m. Funding for healthcare, clearly the world’s biggest priority given the pandemic, has also seen cuts in the UK aid budget from £1.41bn in 2019 to £1.305bn this year. The callousness of the government is truly revealed with this healthcare funding, as the figures actually include an increase in funding to tackle COVID-19. Rather than injecting new money to tackle the virus across the world, the government is redistributing money from tackling other key healthcare issues. Kevin Watkins, the chief executive of Save the Children, put this succinctly when he said, “the health budget, which they have cut by 14% from last year, includes an increase in funding for COVID-19. They are financing COVID by cutting child health and nutrition programmes that will cost lives”. There is yet to be a justifiable reason from the government as to why these draconian cuts are necessary. 

One last area of note is sexual health and family planning; both of which Britain has a longstanding history of funding across the globe. Both of which are now areas seeing significant cuts in the UK’s aid budget. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has revealed that the UK’s initial £155m promise to the UNs sexual health and reproductive agency has been slashed to now only £23m. The UNFPA noted that this money, which was expected and its uses planned for, would have helped to prevent 4.2 million unsafe abortions, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 250,000 maternal and infant deaths. These are truly shocking figures. There is one phrase that pops to mind and one that I have unfortunately used several times before when talking about the actions of this UK government, and that is pariah state. The UK is becoming more and more insular, and the world is unlikely to forget that when many nations were in more need than ever we turned our backs on them. 

There will always be those that argue that following the pandemic and our slide into significant debt, we must make these cuts. However, we have seen that we can afford this debt when necessary and the cost to benefit ratio of foreign aid is far higher than many other areas of spending that the government sees fit to implement. How are we forgetting that the government thought it appropriate to spend almost £1m on repainting a plane, £2.6m on a new media suite for their press briefings, and in one case £50m on unusable PPE, all in the middle of a pandemic? This is not to mention the billions spent on the Track and Trace scheme that failed to prevent a second wave of COVID-19 in the UK. The UK government has time and time again used taxpayer money to feed their own interests and the foreign aid cuts are a manifestation of this mentality. 

The saga of foreign aid cuts will continue as the UK government has not yet released the figures of the country-by-country foreign aid spend, leaving aid agencies unable to plan for how resources will be used. The mistrust in the government runs so deep that many aid agencies believe that this is simply because the government wants to avoid bad publicity as they prepare to chair the G7. What is clear is that the government can and should reassess the cuts urgently. If ever that was a time for a government U-turn, it would be now. 

More than just curtains and wallpaper: the extent of Tory sleaze

Robert Wilcox

If ministers are to be believed, we should not concern ourselves with whom initially funded the £58,000 refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat. When interviewed, ministers willing divulge that the Prime Minister ultimately footed the bill, but they become curiously tight-lipped when, having failed to answer it, the question is asked of them again – this time with greater emphasis on the initially. Of course, it would be naïve to think that the nuance was lost on them the first time.

When the question is put a second time, they deem it inappropriate to comment on the precise financial arrangements and, what is more, proceed to advise the interviewer that the viewers at home are not interested in who paid for the wallpaper, that their listeners would prefer it if they discussed the “real issues” rather than the Prime Minister’s curtains. Nothing rouses suspicion quite like a government stating what the electorate does and does not care about.

Despite ministers’ best efforts to play down the seriousness of the allegations, they are anything but inconsequential. Failing to disclose political donations is breaking the law – and for good reason. Large sums of money rarely pass hands without some sort of quid pro quo. We are entitled to know to whom our politicians are beholden so that we can reach our own conclusions about whose interests they are really concerned with. The Electoral Commission has now launched a full-scale investigation into where the £58,000 came from; this would be unnecessary if the Prime Minister would simply answer the question.

Regular readers of this blog will know that these latest allegations are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the government’s sleaze. More and more details are emerging about the billions of pounds worth of COVID-19 contracts, which were awarded without competitive tender, and by means of the government’s “high-priority lane” went to associates of the Tory Party. P14 Medical, Meller Designs and Pharmaceuticals Direct Limited, all run by Tory associates or donors, were granted PPE contracts worth £276m, £160m and £102.6m respectively. Ayanda Capital Ltd, a private equity firm with connections to an adviser working under Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, was awarded a £253m contact; 50m of the masks it supplied were unfit for use by NHS staff.

A £30m contract for the supply of test tubes went to Hinpack, a firm with no prior experience in supplying medical items but whose owner had Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, on his list of WhatsApp contacts. Hancock has recently come under fire after it was discovered he owns shares in a company which has been approved as an NHS supplier; there are clear grounds for arguing a conflict of interest. As if that is not enough, a high court judge has ruled that Hancock broke the law by failing to publish details of the government’s COVID-19 contracts within the required time period.

Then there were the individuals appointed to key roles in the fight against the pandemic, without a proper recruitment process. The role of chair of the UK’s vaccine taskforce went to a venture capitalist who also happens to be the wife of a Tory minister. The individual appointed to oversee NHS Test and Trace was CEO of TalkTalk when it was subjected to a cyberattack by two teenagers, resulting in the theft of nearly 160,000 customers’ personal data, but she is also the wife of a Tory MP.

The BBC has published text messages between Sir James Dyson and the Prime Minister, in which the latter promises to “fix” the tax status of Dyson’s employees if they moved to the UK to manufacture ventilators. No one argues that ventilators were not desperately needed, but the lack of transparency is staggering. Indeed, someone badly needs to explain the lobbying rules to Hancock; he met with former Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the founder of Greensill Capital – for whom Cameron started working after leaving office – for private drinks, so that they could discuss a new payment scheme for NHS staff. As if determined not to be outdone by Hancock, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced a Towns Fund in the Budget to help “level up” towns and support their post-pandemic recovery; curiously, of the 56 constituencies that will receive funding, 47 are in Tory control.

It seems that there is nothing that ministers can do to get the sack. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, overruled the government’s planning inspectorate by approving a £1bn housing development plan put forward by former press tycoon, Richard Desmond. The latter subsequently donated £12,000 to the Tory Party. The Prime Minister ignored the outcry; evidently, he did not think that the demands of integrity warranted Jenrick’s dismissal. And, similarly, when the Independent Advisor on Ministerial Standards found that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, treatment of civil servants breached the ministerial code, it was the Advisor who left his post, not Patel.

There is more than a mere whiff of sleaze surrounding this government. We have seen the emergence of a new Toryism under Boris Johnson; it is a caricature of the man himself, self-serving and lacking in both integrity and any sense of responsibility. The neoliberal belief in the free market has been restated; markets should be free to operate insofar as it is only the Tories and their political allies that have access to it. Meritocracy is now not so much a question of ability, but of whether, and how much, you donate to the Tory party. We fail to hold this government to account at our peril.

The UK is no longer an institutionally racist country…apparently

Tomos Owen

The UK is officially no longer institutionally racist, and in fact we should be seen as a shining example to other white-majority countries when it comes to tackling racism. These were just some of the conclusions of the recent Sewell Report, published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Dr Tony Sewell, the Chairperson of the report, wrote in his foreword that, “we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”. He admitted that “impediments and disparities” existed, although he quickly confirmed that in their conclusion these were not to do with racism. The report was rapidly met by condemnation by various sections of society. 

One of the first to criticise the report was Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, who expressed her disappointment in the findings of the report. Her reaction to the conclusion that Britain isn’t institutionally racist was to say, “tell that to the black young mother who is four times more likely to die in childbirth than her young white neighbour, tell that to the 60% of NHS doctors and nurses who died from Covid and were black and ethnic minority workers”. David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, called the report an “insult to everybody and anybody across this country who experiences institutional racism”. Rehana Azam of the GMB Union added, “institutional racism exists, it’s the lived experience of millions of black and ethnic minority workers”. The comments go on and on, but these few highlight the common theme that the findings of the report simply don’t match the experience of those that it describes. 

When you dig into the report it is not difficult to understand why the response has been so visceral. The report itself is a 258-page document and covers various aspects of life, but there are a few key points which the authors seem to have used to make their conclusions. These include figures showing an increase in diversity in some professions, the pay gap shrinking between ethnic minorities and the white majority population, and improvements in educational attainment among ethnic minorities. Certainly, all are points that deserve commendation. They definitely demonstrate improvements in some areas and there is clearly scope to conclude this, but evidence continues to show that while improvements may have been made, institutional racism still exists. 

Although it is not like the authors have omitted statistics that suggest this – ironically this evidence is included clearly in the report. There is ample evidence actually in the report to suggest that institutional racism still exists in the UK. The report notes that there are now zero Black CEOs at any of the FTSE 100 companies, that Black and Asian women faced a substantially greater risk of dying during childbirth, that Black African men were 3.4 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than White British men, that in the year ending March 2020 Black Carribean people were almost 7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people. In that same year, Black people were also arrested at a rate 3 times higher than that of White people. Do the authors of the Sewell report seriously think that these are a mark of a country that should be looked up to when it comes to fighting racism?! They certainly tried to excuse many of these statistics, on many occasions criticising the public for taking these out of context or suggesting that the way data is presented is misleading. Take the section on stop and search, and you will see that the authors point out that higher crime levels and a larger proportion of ethnic minorities in London create major disparities in the figures. However, their own graph clearly shows that stop and search rates for Black people in England & Wales, excluding those done by the Metropolitan and Greater Manchester Police (no data was available for GM Police force), from April 2019 to March 2020, were still 6 times higher than White people. 

Given the evidence that is freely available, it is pertinent to ask how the authors were able to reach the conclusion that the UK is no longer institutionally racist. However, many would say that the conclusions of the report were written on the wall as soon as it became clear who the authors would be. You need only look at comments made preceding the report by several of them. In an article written in 2010 by Dr Tony Sewell, the Chairperson of the report, he dismisses the idea of institutional racism in schools and instead suggests that the reason Black pupils were failing was because they hadn’t done their homework. In the same article, he also suggested that Black pupils were held back by a sense of victimhood and used the bizarre anecdote of how he believed he helped some of them get over 400 years of racism and slavery by offering them a Quality Street. More recently, he acknowledged racial disparities, but expressed his opinion that these may be caused by class and geography rather than racism. There is even the question of whether he should have been selected to lead the report in the first place given that in the same month that he was appointed to chair the report, he was forced to apologise for homophobic comments he made some years ago.

Others involved in the report had also expressed their opinion that institutional racism doesn’t exist in the UK or had questioned the prevalence of racism. Munira Mirza is the head of the Downing Street policy unit and set up the commission that was tasked with the report, choosing Dr Sewell to lead it. In 2018, following Theresa May’s racial disparities audit she said, “it reinforces this idea that ethnic minorities are being systematically oppressed, that there’s a sort of institutional problem, when in fact what we’ve seen in the last 20 years is a liberalisation, an opening up for many people”. Dr Samir Shah, one of the authors, wrote an article for the Spectator in 2009 entitled, ‘Race is not an issue in the UK anymore’. Dr Dambisa Moyo, another author of this report and author of a book called Dead Aid, had argued that we should be phasing out aid to Africa as it only causes corruption and overreliance. There are also some among the authors that have links to the Conservative party, including Aftab Chugtai and Mercy Muroki, the former having met with Conservative members previously and the latter working for a think tank co-founded by Iain Duncan Smith and speaking at the Tory conference. 

Understanding the backgrounds of many of the authors of the report and those tasked with setting up the commission, it becomes clear that there are serious questions about whether the report was truly an objective look at racism in the UK. The authors recommend that unconscious bias training stops in workplaces, but ironically they seem to have succumbed to their own confirmation bias in their conclusions. The debate surrounding the outcome of the report continues, with several calls for the entire report to be scrapped. This includes a letter from a group of prominent Windrush campaigners, including the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, which accuses the report of completely ignoring the “atrocities” by the Home Office during the Windrush scandal. Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, has said that the report “isn’t credible” and that it was a “missed opportunity”. Black Lives Matter UK have also called for the report to be withdrawn immediately. 

Despite this response, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that he still wishes to implement the recommendations in the report and although admitting that he didn’t agree with everything in it, there is no sign of it being withdrawn. The truth is that far from putting the issue of racism to bed in the UK the report will only fuel the debate and divide the nation further. This report was set up with the intention of concluding that the issue of racism in the UK was being overplayed and that was achieved by selecting individuals who already held these beliefs to write it. This has also now distracted from the issue of actually dealing with the racism that does exist and instead we are debating the conclusions of the report. Nonetheless, this debate will continue and pressure may continue to grow on the report being withdrawn. What is certain is that the UK still has a long way to go in tackling racism, both overt and institutional.

You can read the Sewell Report in full here

The threat to our right to protest

Robert Wilcox

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

George Orwell

On 18 June 1984 – a literary coincidence, perhaps – thousands of striking miners gathered outside Orgreave coking plant. The miners sought to prevent lorries from leaving the plant in the hope that it would allow them to pressurise the government into keeping the pits open, and thereby safeguard their jobs and communities. This was their protest. Those miners were met by thousands of police officers, some with police dogs and others on horseback. The violence that followed led to the confrontation becoming known as the “Battle of Orgreave”.

At the time, the mainstream media embraced the narrative that it was the miners whom were responsible for the extent of the violence. 95 miners were charged with committing violent disorder and riot, but the trials collapsed. Over thirty years later, the Independent Police Complaints Commission issued a report which found “evidence of excessive violence by police officers, a false narrative from police exaggerating violence by miners, perjury by officers giving evidence to prosecute the arrested men, and an apparent coverup of that perjury by senior officers”. In the words of human rights barrister Michael Mansfield QC, it was “the biggest frame-up ever”.

Fast forward to today and there are those who are using the scenes in Bristol last weekend to justify the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which recently passed its second reading in the House of Commons. They say that it is precisely this sort of behaviour which the Bill is intended to combat. However, if we have learnt anything from confrontations between police and protesters over the course of history, both here and abroad, it is that we should at least be wary of one-sided, state-backed narratives. Avon and Somerset Police have already had to withdraw their claim that “one [police officer] suffered a broken arm and another suffered broken ribs”; this claim had apparently been made before those police officers were medically examined but was leapt upon by political pundits to condemn the protest against the Bill.

For all that, it is extremely important to acknowledge the truism that protesters can and do take matters too far, and acts of gratuitous violence on their part – when they do happen – should be called out. Too often, well-meaning individuals fall into the trap of dismissing or defending such acts because they do not wish to do damage to their cause. But one can advocate for a cause, whilst simultaneously condemning any violence carried out in its name. Freedom is always in danger in any society where ideals trump truth.  

The threat to our freedom is what makes the Bill so controversial. Amongst other things, it would abolish the common law offence of public nuisance and replace it with a statutory offence, one which specifically makes it a crime to seriously annoy or inconvenience members of the public. If a person were to be convicted of this offence, they could be imprisoned for up to 10 years. The Bill also grants additional powers to the police to dictate the manner in which a person can protest, through the imposition of time and noise limits. Anyone who claims to be a proponent of liberal democracy should be deeply worried by the prospect of these measures becoming law.

Article 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998 grants “everyone … the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others”. This right is not absolute; restrictions may be imposed in the interests of national security or public health, for example. Crucially, however, the Act stipulates that such restrictions must be necessary in a democratic society”. The jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights tells us that this means the restrictions must be proportionate, and no more than what is required, to achieve a legitimate aim.

The ostensible aim here is that of public order. But the content of these provisions is such that one would have very good reason to doubt that this is the government’s true motive. Comments made by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, are illuminating. She described the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice and police brutality as “dreadful”. According to her, members of Extinction Rebellion, a global environmental movement committed to non-violent protest, are no more than “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals”. One gets the sense that what the government really has an issue with is the act of protest itself. 

The proposed legislation would obviously give would-be protesters pause. It criminalises “serious annoyance” and “serious inconvenience” to members of the public but defines neither, affording considerable discretion to police officers to make arrests. All protests, to some degree, annoy or inconvenience some section of the public; any form of expression carries with it the potential to offend. Those who would exercise their right to protest should not have to do so with a draconian sentence hanging like a Damoclean sword above their heads. Nor should the police have the power to dictate to a person when and how they can express their personal convictions to the degree envisaged by the Bill. We are not yet a police state.

Revisiting the protest in Bristol, one can see how the government’s justification for the Bill simply does not hold water. The police have claimed that a minority of protesters were responsible for the violence and destruction that took place. They are currently attempting to track down and charge those protesters. This, in itself, shows that existing provisions of criminal and tort law (the body of law that addresses civil wrongs) must be sufficient for cases where individual protesters have allegedly crossed the line. If this were not the case, the police would have no legal basis for pursuing these individuals. And it is worth noting that the rest must, therefore, have been peacefully exercising a fundamental right. It is these individuals whose freedom of expression is threatened if the Bill becomes law. It is always worth remembering that when police and protesters clash, it is the police who occupy the position of initial arbiter for offences allegedly done to them. It is they who decide who and when to prosecute in matters in which they themselves have been involved.

Just a few weeks ago the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, warned that democracy is “in retreat”. Apparently, Mr Raab is lacking a sense of irony. It is not too late to oppose the Bill. And if it seriously annoys or inconveniences government ministers that we do so, so be it.

Black Lives Matter: Where are we now?

Tomos Owen

It is now almost 10 months since the tragic death of George Floyd and the ensuing global anti-racism protests. With the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer that caused the death of George Floyd, set to begin in the coming weeks, it is a good time to assess where we are in terms of the eradication of racism in the UK. I would, however, be remiss to omit some of the developments that have happened in the USA. This is particularly true given that the USA is two months into a new administration that appears to be far more sympathetic to the cause of anti-racism. 

In the USA, the focus of civil rights groups and anti-racism campaigners has been police reform. This was their focus far before the death of George Floyd, as police brutality, particularly that which is aimed at Black Americans, has been ever present in the USA. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was introduced by House Democrats last June and amongst other things this would have ensured that training was put in place for state and local law enforcements to fight racial profiling, chokeholds and federal no-knock warrants would have been banned, and a federal register of problem officers would have been established so that they would not have been able to move easily between departments. This passed the House, but the Senate failed to act on it as the Republicans controlled the Senate at the time. This has meant that no major federal legislation has been passed on police reform since the death of George Floyd.

This inaction has undoubtedly led to the deaths of more Black Americans. One such incident includes the death of Andre Hill, an unarmed Black man, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ohio last December. The officer now faces murder charges, but whether justice will truly be served is yet to be seen. If history is anything to go by, this looks unlikely. Incidents similar to this will continue until significant reforms are adopted across the USA. Following the lack of action up to this point, a culture of racism and racial insensitivity still clearly underpins many police departments in the country. You only need to look back to last month for another example of this, when it was reported that a group of officers from the Los Angeles Police Department were being investigated for sharing a photo of George Floyd with the words “you take my breath away” for Valentine’s Day. There is really little surprise that trust in the police in the USA has diminished so much.

As expected, the advent of a new administration that has been shown to be in favour of stronger police reform has meant that there has been renewed movement in this area. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was reintroduced to the House by Democrats and passed last week. This must now pass the Senate, requiring 10 Republicans to join all of the 50 Democrats in voting for the Bill. Only then will it reach President Biden. If this Bill did go through it would mark some of the most significant police reforms in the USA in decades. The outcome would be widely welcomed by those protesting against racism, but as always the proof of effectiveness will need to come from a quantifiable reduction in police violence and racial profiling. Arguably it will be the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin that will receive greater attention in the coming months. The decision in this case will really dictate whether police officers in the USA will continue to be shielded from justice when they have clearly used excessive force. 

So what has been the response in the UK following our own mass protests against racism last summer? The protests were held in most major cities across the UK and they certainly felt significant at the time. They also led to the now iconic scene of the statue of Edward Colston, a British slave trader, being torn down and thrown into the docks in Bristol. This action marked the beginning of much wider scrutiny of how the names of historic slave traders are still present on many prominent buildings and streets across the UK and led to a reevaluation of whether this is acceptable. Whilst ultimately symbolic, this has been a positive outcome of the anti-racism protests and should work to realign our surroundings in a way that reflects our worldviews today. Whereas some have argued that these actions only serve to deny history, there is little behind these arguments given the obvious fact that our history is not recorded in statues or street names. In truth, influencing the change of place names or the removal of statues has been one of the easiest ways for anti-racism campaigners to see concrete action and affect change. 

These symbolic acts, while they have been a positive outcome of the anti-racism protests, will not be enough to achieve the goal of racial equality and justice within the UK. The real success will only come when the government and corporations alike take concrete action to address the systemic issues of racism within our society. Following the protests, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a commission to look at all aspects of racial inequality. Although that was not before he said that the UK “was not a racist country” and described the Black Lives Matter protesters with the word “thuggery”. The commission is still ongoing and the government has been accused of using it as another way to kick the can down the road and avoid the responsibility of taking concrete action. The Coalition of Race Equality Organisations (CORE) have expressed as much by saying that the commission “should not act as a tool to distract the public from inaction on race equality”. 

The concerns of groups like CORE are wholly understandable. It is questionable why there even needed to be a commission on this issue in the first place given the wealth of work that had already been done in this area. Over the last five years alone, including the new commission, there will have been five major reviews and audits looking into race and discrimination in the UK. Of those that have been completed, they showed there are racial inequalities in educational attainment, healthcare, employment, and discrimination against ethnic minorities in the justice system and within the workplace. It is unlikely that the new commission will find anything new and resources would have been far better utilised by implementing the recommendations of previous reviews, yet we remain waiting for any credible response by the government to this research while the latest commission continues to run on. 

When the outcome of the commission is finally released there are likely to be further delays in acting on any recommendations, if that is seen to happen at all. It would not be a surprise if the government simply capitalised on the fact that anti-racism stories are not currently making daily headlines and completely avoided taking action. There are already signs that they could well take this approach following their recent response to a report on race in the UK by the House of Commons and House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights. This was published in November and recommended that the government establish a race equality strategy and implement the recommendations of previous reviews. They rejected the former recommendation and suggested that they have already implemented the majority of recommendations from previous reports, including 33 of the 35 recommendations by David Lammy’s 2016 review into racial discrimination in the justice system known as the Lammy Review. Unsurprisingly, Lammy has called the government’s comments deeply misleading and that the reality is they have only implemented a “handful” of the recommendations in full. 

So where does all this lead us? Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that there has been concrete change in the UK to address racial inequalities and discrimination. The symbolic acts show that certain aspects of society have come to understand that blatant support or idolisation of figures that have fuelled racial inequality will not be accepted, but fundamental and systemic change must come from the government. The government is aware of what needs to be done but continues to hide behind their commission as a pretense for action. In the time their commission has been ongoing, racial inequality and discrimination continues to be rife in the UK and shows no sign of disappearing; a Sainsbury’s advert starring a Black family can ingnite racist abuse online, Black individuals remain at a far higher risk of dying from COVID-19, representation of Black people in boardrooms remains at dismally low levels, deaths such as that of Mohamud Hassan hours after being released from police custody in Cardiff continue to occur. This list could go on. 

The government’s inaction will ultimately only serve to create more anger amongst those campaigning for racial equality and it is foreseeable that the longer people believe they are not being heard the more extreme the measures they may take to get their message across. The government must take immediate action to address the current state of the UK and reduce the racial inequality systemic in our society. The time for lip service to the idea of racial justice is over, the time for action is now.