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. 

Breaking the law: the curious incident(s) of the Health Secretary’s failure to publish COVID-19 contracts

Robert Wilcox

A high court judge has ruled that Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of the government’s multibillion-pound COVID-19 contracts within the required 30-day period. The Secretary of State dismissed the ruling as simply a case of “delayed paperwork”. Apart from providing further evidence of this government’s blasé attitude towards its legal obligations, the circumstances surrounding the case reveal, at best, incompetence and, at worst, a complete lack of integrity.

The requirement to publish a contract award notice (“CAN”) within 30 days of a contract being awarded is set out in Reg. 50 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. In addition, the snappily titled Publication of Central Government Tenders and Contracts: Central Government Transparency Guidance Note (November 2017) states that the full details of such contracts should be disclosed to the public.  

To be clear, the Secretary of State did not fail to publish a CAN on just one occasion; he has repeatedly failed to comply with the law in relation to a considerable number of COVID-19 contracts. In response, the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to uphold the public interest through the law, brought judicial review proceedings, in conjunction with several MPs, against the Secretary of State (Good Law Project Ltd & Ors, R. (On Application of) v Secretary of State for Health And Social Care [2021] EWHC 346 (Admin)).

As the presiding judge himself noted, the proceedings may have proven unnecessary had the Secretary of State come clean when he received the claimants’ letter before claim. The Secretary of State, however, merely conceded that there had been “technical breaches” with respect to the legislation and, rather than agreeing to publish the CANs within a reasonable timeframe, argued that such proceedings were futile and that the claimants did not have standing to issue them in any event (in other words, the Secretary of State suggested the claimants lacked the capacity to take legal action against him).

These arguments did not find favour with the judge, whom also noted that it was the proceedings brought by the claimants which forced the Secretary of State to admit, eventually, to breaching reg. 50. Nor did his Lordship agree that the procurement challenges created by the pandemic justified the lack of transparency. Whilst acknowledging that the Secretary of State had to respond rapidly to the evolving public health situation by procuring high numbers of goods and services, his Lordship explained that “the obligations imposed … serve a vital public function and that function was no less important during a pandemic. The Secretary of State spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020. The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded”. If anything, transparency is actually all the more important during a pandemic. In such circumstances, the procurement choices made by the government are likely to have a direct impact on people’s lives.

Tragically, this has turned out to be the case. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has found that hundreds of millions of pounds were spent on personal protective equipment (PPE) which was unfit for purpose. During the first wave of the pandemic, concerns were raised by healthcare workers about the adequacy of PPE, some of whom died as a result of contracting COVID-19. The Secretary of State, however, denies that there was any such shortage.

According to the Secretary of State, the way the government has managed its COVID-19 contracts was “in the national interest”. It was certainly in the interest of some individuals. As noted in a previous blog post, an investigation by the National Audit Office found that the government has operated a “high-priority lane” for procurement, whereby politically well-connected suppliers were ten times more likely to be granted pandemic-related contracts.

Without transparency, there can be no knowledge of such contracts – short of private investigation – which makes it much more difficult to hold the government to account. And one would rightly have questions about the government’s PPE contracts. Why was a £252 million contract awarded to Ayanda Capital, a finance company, for the supply of face masks? Why were two contracts for the supply of medical gowns, worth £108 million, awarded to Clandeboye Agencies, a company specialising in the supply of confectionary products? Why were contracts for the supply of PPE worth £345 million awarded to Crisp Websites Limited, which has a trading name of Pestfix, when it had never previously supplied medical standard PPE? The Medicines and Healthcare projects Regulatory Agency is investigating the award of a £30 million contract to Hinpack, a firm that has no prior experience in supplying medical items, for the supply of test tubes. According to The Guardian, the firm’s owner, Alex Bourne, made an offer to the government to do so by means of a personal WhatsApp message to none other than the Secretary of State.

The government has played fast and loose with people’s lives during the pandemic. It has used a public health emergency to line the pockets of its friends. The rollout of the vaccine provides some much-needed light at the end of the tunnel, and it will be tempting to simply move on from this. That said, we must demand a full public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Britain slams the door on unaccompanied child refugees

Last June, I asked whether we in Britain would be happy turning our back on unaccompanied child refugees. Eight months on and the government look to have concluded that they would be happy with exactly that. This comes following a response by the Immigration Minister Chris Philp to a question posed by Labour MP Alex Sobel in January. This question asked whether the government would be resettling any unaccompanied child refugees from areas such as Lesbos or Calais. Philp confirmed that unless those children already have family in the UK then the government would not make any attempts to do so. This also applies to unaccompanied child refugees that are located anywhere else in the world. This position means that hundreds, if not thousands, of unaccompanied children across the world can now cross the UK off their list of nations where they originally may have found sanctuary. 

The ramifications for the decision by the government are likely to be far reaching. With fewer routes to safe countries, the risk that these vulnerable children could face abuse or exploitation rises. Previously, following the Immigration Act 2016, the Home Office had agreed to provisions that included accepting 300 unaccompanied child refugees (this eventually rose to 480). This was on top of the unaccompanied child refugees that were also being brought to the UK under the Dublin III Regulation, a piece of EU legislation that allowed unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their relatives if their relatives were living in the UK. This protection for unaccompanied child refugees, which could be described as mediocre at best, now looks to have been weakened further in the post-Brexit immigration shake up that continues to raise serious moral questions regarding the Home Office’s position.

It should be clear why the government needs to do more to protect and provide sanctuary for unaccompanied children that still remain in active conflict zones. However, one may reasonably ask why we should also provide sanctuary to unaccompanied child refugees that are already in countries considered “safe”, such as France or Greece. The concept of “safe third countries” was the topic of my last blog post and this should hopefully have convinced you that these “safe third countries” can sometimes be considered anything but safe for asylum seekers. This is particularly so for unaccompanied child refugees in areas such as Calais or Lesbos, hence the question from Alex Sobel MP. 

At the end of summer last year there were actually around 250 unaccompanied minors recorded in Calais and around 407 in Lesbos, although both of these figures are likely to be underestimations due to the difficulty in locating these children at times. The sheer number of asylum seekers in these areas mean that there are often limited resources to go around and specialist services for children do not exist or are overwhelmed. In Calais, charities have reported that children as young as 11 have been found living on the streets and that evictions from makeshift camps can sometimes result in children being sent to facilities specifically designed for adults. The centres in Calais that are designed to house unaccompanied child refugees, such as one known as Saint Omer, can only house a limited number of children and are often full, pushing any remaining children onto the streets. This makes safeguarding impossible and opens the door to traffickers.

The situation is Lesbos has not been much better. Last year, thousands of refugees were moved to temporary tents on Lesbos after a fire tore through the Moria refugee camp where they were initially located. The initial count in September was 407 unaccompanied minors on Lesbos, although the UNHCR later confirmed that these were moved to the mainland. The UK government was aware at the time that some of them had family in the UK, but action to resettle them was incredibly slow. Worryingly, this was also under the established Dublin III Regulation rather than the new post-Brexit immigration rules. Time will tell whether the long espoused post-Brexit ease with which everything will now be done will also apply to resettlement of unaccompanied child refugees. If the first six weeks of the year are anything to go by, I wouldn’t hold my breath. 

It is worth pointing out that outside of their obligations under the Dublin III Regulation last year, the UK government did not offer to take in any unaccompanied child refugees from Lesbos that didn’t already fall under the Regulation. This fell to 10 EU nations, including Germany who were very quick in offering to take in 150 unaccompanied child refugees. The lack of assistance by the UK was really the beginnings of the restrictive approach to protecting unaccompanied child refugees we now see. This position is unconscionable and regardless of action that we have taken in the past, we must face facts: we have an ongoing moral obligation to provide protection to unaccompanied child refugees across the globe.  

The UK government has the resources to provide far more support and protection for vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees. The reality is that the approach of the government, by viewing many countries as “safe”, leads to thousands of individuals being overlooked when they are in dire need of protection. The government should urgently review their policy surrounding unaccompanied child refugees across the entire globe. Whereas countries may objectively be deemed safe, a process should be established to assess whether an unaccompanied child refugee is safe in their particular circumstances, regardless of the country they are in. This requires a proactive approach focussing on outreach, rather than simply dealing with what we can see on the surface. Only then will we successfully be able to remove more children from the risk of abuse and exploitation.

 

* The term “unaccompanied child refugees” is used throughout this piece in order to align with most news stories in this area. However, a more accurate description is “unaccompanied children seeking asylum”. 

It’s just business: MPs reject genocide clause in post-Brexit Trade Bill

Robert Wilcox

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me”.

From Martin Niemöller’s poem, First They Came

Last week, MPs voted against a proposal intended to prevent the UK from entering into trade deals with countries that the High Court deems guilty of genocide. This proposal, introduced as an amendment to the government’s post-Brexit Trade Bill, received cross-party support in the House of Lords but was defeated in the House of Commons due to the overwhelming majority enjoyed by the government. Even a rebellion by 33 Tory backbenchers was not enough to swing the vote.

Genocide is one of the most despicable crimes known to humankind. The term was coined by Polish jurist, Raphael Lemkin, by combining geno (from the Greek word, genos, meaning race or kin) and cide (from the Latin verb, caedere, meaning to kill). In the aftermath of the Holocaust, when the Nazi regime systematically murdered an estimated six million Jews, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“the Convention”).

With the adoption of the Convention, the term genocide was finally recognised in international law. It is defined in Article 2 of the Convention as certain acts which are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Together with war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression, the crime of genocide underpins the body of law known as international criminal law. Whereas international law generally limits itself to regulating the conduct of states, it has long been recognised that there are some crimes so egregious, so utterly shocking to humanity as a whole, that the individual perpetrators can be held accountable by the international community.

As stated in the preamble to the Convention, “at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity”. One of the earliest recorded genocides is that of the near destruction of the Aboriginal Tasmanians by British colonists during the Black War, which raged from the mid-1820s to 1832. However, it would be a mistake to think that genocide is reserved to the history books. Today, China stands accused of committing genocide against its Uighur Muslim population. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have reported that at least one million ethnic Uighurs are being forcibly detained in detention camps in Xinjiang, a region in north west China.

The situation in Xinjiang was very much on the minds of MPs when the amendment was debated in the Commons. The government sought to defend its opposition to the amendment by arguing that trade policy is a matter for our government, not our courts. Yet, simultaneously, it has been suggested that the amendment was inappropriate because genocide should be left to the international courts. The government also, rather bizarrely, emphasised that the UK does not currently have a free trade deal with China and maintained that the amendment should not be enshrined in law for that reason. These arguments are contradictory, flawed and inimical to human rights.

Genocide is a legal concept, with the criteria for making such a ruling clearly set out in the Convention. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for judges, who bear the constitutional responsibility of applying the law, to apply the criteria for genocide, having regard to all the evidence available to them. It would also ensure that such rulings are rendered in accordance with the law alone, not swayed by lobbying or the equivocations of foreign policy.

It is certainly not unprecedented for the courts to render judgments that impact on a government’s domestic and foreign policies. They do so regularly through the mechanism of judicial review. It is perhaps for this reason that our current government is so uneasy about giving judges more power to make findings that could generate political scandal. This government often finds itself on the wrong side of the law, whether it is in relation to its treatment of asylum seekers or its approach to arms sales. As discussed in a previous blog post, the Court of Appeal, in the case of R (on the application of Campaign Against the Arms Trade) v Secretary of State for International Trade [2019] EWCA Civ 1020, held that the government’s grant of export licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia was illegal because the government had a policy of disregarding violations of international humanitarian law, the body of law concerned with the protection of civilians during conflict, when making these decisions.

Those who say that genocide should be left to the international courts fail to appreciate that, despite its achievements in promoting respect for human rights, the United Nations is hindered by a number of weaknesses (as shown by its track record when it comes to taking action). The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court established a permanent, international court for the purpose of prosecuting individuals for violating international criminal law, and there have also been a number of international criminal tribunals set up to address some of the darkest periods in human history. Despite the progress made, however, there are two significant problems. Firstly, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) each have the power to veto a resolution. If a resolution is unfavourable to itself or its allies, a P5 state can veto it, thereby preventing action from being taken. Secondly, states must consent to the jurisdiction of the international courts. Any state that fears an unfavourable ruling will simply withhold that consent.

It is worth stating that, in some ways, invoking the role of the international courts is nothing more than a distraction. It fails to address the real question here, which is should our courts be given the power to make a finding of genocide in order to prevent the government, and future governments, from entering into trade deals with genocidal states? The obvious answer to that question, if the UK’s claim to be a country which stands up for human rights is to be taken seriously, is yes. The government’s attempt to undermine the significance of the amendment to that claim, by noting the absence of a trade deal with China, is contemptible. It is obvious what this amendment is driving at; it is intended to give the government pause about any trade deals it has made and any trade deals it intends to make in the future. This is a valid concern given its apparent willingness to deal with foreign governments with extremely poor human rights records.

Work on a redrafted amendment has already begun. Please write to your MP, asking that they support the effort to stop the UK from trading with genocidal states. Though it may come as a shock to ministers, some things are more important than money.

How the UK’s new “Safe Third Countries” policy will create more hardship for asylum seekers

Tomos Owen

With the first day of 2021 marking our exit from the European Union this was always going to be a year of significant change, and tightening immigration, one of the key promises of the Brexit campaign, was always going to be one of the first of these changes to occur. Unsurprisingly, the government moved to do just that in December when they introduced a change to the rules surrounding asylum cases. Although despite the usual fanfare and rhetoric, these rule changes were published online without any public announcement. This is always an indication that there needs to be extra scrutiny as silent rule changes tend to suggest that the government knows that the change would not be well received.

The new rules stipulate that an asylum claim will be deemed inadmissible if an individual has travelled through, or has a connection to, a “safe third country”. The UK government will also be in a position to remove asylum seekers to any other “safe third country”, if that country agrees to receive them. The idea behind these rule changes is that the UK will be able to restrict the number of asylum claims that are admissible whilst maintaining their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Although whether this is actually in keeping with the obligations of the Refugee Convention is somewhat unclear; the Convention remains silent on the concept of “safe third countries”. It is possible that those drafting the Convention 70 years ago did not foresee that some countries would now so freely try to circumvent the rules which they themselves signed up to. 

Despite the change of rules, the government will still face two major hurdles when it comes to deporting asylum seekers to any third country. The first is the concept of non-refoulement which has been addressed through this blog before. This concept ensures that a country does not deport an asylum seeker if that asylum seeker would then be subject to torture, inhumane or degrading treatment and other irreparable damage. The Refugee Convention does stipulate that non-refoulement must be adhered to. This can lead to a situation whereby an asylum seeker has travelled through a country which, on the face of it, is considered a safe country, but deportation back to that country would fall short of the obligations set out in the Refugee Convention. The UK government was seen to tread this very line when they deported 11 Syrian asylum seekers back to Spain last year only for them to be left destitute. This led to a further planned deportation being halted by the courts, an event which may become even more common this year.

The other major hurdle when it comes to “safe third country” deportations is that the receiving country has to agree to readmit the asylum seeker. The Home Office’s own guidance states that if a third country has not agreed to readmit an asylum seeker within six months of the claim being registered, and if there are no realistic prospects that this will happen, they will have to admit the case for a substantive review. As of writing this, the UK government has not negotiated any return agreement with any country so the likelihood that returns would be facilitated are slim. This is particularly the case with European countries as, following Brexit, policies surrounding tackling refugee flows between the UK and the EU are likely to be complex. France already has almost three times as many refugees as the UK. It is hard to imagine a situation where France would jump at the idea of negotiating a return agreement for asylum seekers.

Without such agreements the new policy introduced by the UK government will create significant hardship for asylum seekers. It will significantly delay claims as many will not even begin to be processed for six months. Asylum seekers in the UK are provided only £37.75 per week and are significantly restricted in their actions. Given the already lengthy asylum process, this new policy will only create more financial hardship for those that have come to the UK seeking our protection. This policy will likely have an effect on the health of asylum seekers too. Asylum seekers in the UK have been noted as five times more likely to suffer from mental health problems in comparison to the general population. Prolonging the asylum process will only deepen this endemic. Ironically, given that the Home Office is introducing this policy to tighten asylum rules, the delays in processing claims will also mean that asylum seekers that do not have genuine claims will get to stay in the UK for longer than they previously would have. The policy as a whole looks to be ill-advised and fuelled by ideology rather than practicality. 

Overall, the new policy is just another designed by the Home Office to fix the “broken” asylum system. In reality, it only adds another layer of complexity and uncertainty for asylum seekers that reach the UK. The pressure will now be on the government to negotiate return agreements, but whether this is achievable is debatable. This is particularly so with EU countries which will likely make up the majority of third countries that asylum seekers would have travelled through. The focus should rather be put on speeding up the asylum process so genuine asylum seekers can have their status granted and begin integrating into life in the UK as soon as possible. The only issue is that motivation to approach asylum matters in this way is clearly lacking.

2020: A year in review

Tomos Owen & Robert Wilcox

To say that 2020 has been an unusual year is an understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the package of government measures introduced in response, continue to dramatically impact our day-to-day lives. Even the most ordinary activities are subject to myriad restrictions and we find ourselves consciously weighing up the potential risks that even the simplest acts pose to others. In these respects, the pandemic has highlighted issues that form the crux of debates concerning human rights and civil liberties. To what extent can a person’s choices about how to live be permitted to interfere with the choices of another? How far can a government go in imposing restrictions on individual liberties, even for a legitimate purpose? This would seem to be quite enough to be getting on with, but the pandemic has also shone a much-needed light on the social injustices and levels of inequality that persist in what are conventionally regarded as civilised nations.

It was against this background that we finally launched Write for Humanity. The blog had a long period of gestation; we first discussed setting it up over a year ago in light of our shared commitment to human rights and a recognition that their continued existence depends on individuals being willing to publicly advocate for them. However, our increasing alarm in relation to the current government and the depraved turn in political rhetoric left us feeling that we had to “do our bit” sooner rather than later. It is not without irony that the increased time afforded to us as a result of being required to work from home meant that we could give the blog the attention that it warranted. And, sadly, despite focussing on the UK alone, we have not been short of issues to write about.

Since we launched the blog on 15 June 2020, we have posted 22 articles – covering a range of important issues, from unaccompanied child refugees to cronyism in government. The blog has received almost 2,000 views from people in 25 countries during that time. We have also been directly contacted by a number of individuals expressing their support and saying that they have used the resources made available on the website to take action themselves. Ultimately, that is the aim of Write for Humanity: to facilitate action by people who recognise that, in the immortal words of Martin Luther King, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. We are extremely grateful to those who donated when we hiked the South Wales Three Peaks in September, helping us to raise over £750 for Oasis Cardiff, a charity which supports asylum seekers and refugees to integrate and engage with their new community.

If anything, the blog has made us realise how much more we need to be doing to fight for human rights, democracy and social justice here in the UK. There is this persistent narrative, often invoked by modern day demagogues, that somehow the UK should seek to return to “the good old days”, to reclaim its past when it truly was “Great” Britain. Of course, the UK’s contributions to the advancement of human rights, such as its role in the liberation of Europe and in helping establish the European Convention on Human Rights, should be taught and celebrated. But the story is incomplete.

Most people are unaware of the Black War, a conflict between British colonists and the Aboriginal Australians of Tasmania, which resulted in the latter’s near extermination. It is not widely known that the British used concentration camps during the Second Boer War, where conditions were so abysmal that over 26,000 civilian Boers died, in addition to at least 15,000 separately held black Africans. Who, in school, was taught that India suffered 12 famines during British occupation or that, in 1919, the British Indian Army sealed peaceful protestors of British colonial rule within the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh and then proceeded to gun them down? And who could possibly disregard the tens of thousands of Kenyans that were placed in concentration camps by the British during the Mau Mau Uprising, where they were regularly tortured and sexually assaulted? These are but a few examples; the list could go on.

These bloody episodes should not be relegated to the annals of history. The failure to grapple with the truths of our past have consequences for the present. It results in a dangerous cocktail of ignorance and arrogance that explain many of the human rights challenges that we face today. British colonialism cannot be disentangled from systemic racism. It is not merely coincidence that black people living in the UK are faced with a lower life expectancy, lower incomes, worse health outcomes, worse education outcomes and longer prison sentences than white people. Those who responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by asserting that “all lives matter” have completely misunderstood the situation; all lives should matter but it is entirely naïve to suggest that they do matter when black people still face widespread discrimination.

The atrocities committed by members of the British military during past conflicts should have led Parliament to reject the government’s Overseas Operations Bill which, according to Human Rights Watch, will make it more difficult to prosecute genuine war crimes. It seems that there is no room for nuance in political debate anymore; the debt that we owe to soldiers risking their lives to protect ours cannot be overstated, but that should not extend to absolving them for inflicting gratuitous pain and suffering, especially on civilians. Yet, the government’s Bill easily passed; in fact, the Labour Party imposed a whip on its MPs to abstain and sacked three shadow ministers when they voted against it.

Few people will have missed the increasingly inhumane rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers and refugees this year. These are people fleeing war and persecution, torture survivors, and victims of sexual assault and human trafficking. The UK has legal obligations to such persons, and rightly so. Yet politicians continue to deploy dehumanising language to describe these victims of circumstance. They peddle a false narrative that asylum seekers and refugees drain the UK’s resources and threaten our culture, as if that could possibly justify the harsh treatment that they are met with. The truth is quite different from what they would have us believe. Asylum seekers live off just £5.39 a day. They are banned from applying for the right to work until a year has passed from when they make their asylum application. And far from being an “invasion”, just 0.26% of the UK’s total population is made up of asylum seekers and refugees; time would, perhaps, be better spent looking at other causes for our allegedly diminishing culture.

As this information is readily available, it begs the question why such harmful attitudes persist. One is forced to conclude that it is a fear of ‘otherness’. This transcends the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees; it is the root cause of all prejudice. There is good reason to think that the more prevalent this fear is within a community, the more we will witness other forms of discrimination. Indeed, the rise in hate-filled rhetoric in the public sphere has seen an increase in incidents of homophobic hate crime.

Rather than combatting negative attitudes towards human rights, the current Tory government has fuelled them. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has reduced the number of legal routes for asylum seekers to enter the country and made it her mission to make crossing the English Channel “unviable”. She has devised plans for the Royal Navy to push boats back out to sea and considered sending asylum seekers to an island in the South Atlantic. Together with the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, she has also criticised “activist lawyers” who are simply attempting to force the government to comply with its legal obligations. This rhetoric is widely believed to have inspired a far-right attack at the Harrow office of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, a firm which specialises in immigration work. The government continues to indefinitely hold immigrants, including children, in poorly-equipped detention centres, with serious consequences for their physical and mental wellbeing. It also has repeatedly voted against the Dubs amendment, which would require the UK to continue to reunite unaccompanied child refugees with their families post-Brexit.

On the face of it, the Magnitsky legislation was a welcome development as it enables the UK to impose sanctions on human rights abusers across the globe. However, it seems that, once again, the need to safeguard human rights yields to political expediency; there are some glaring omissions from the list of those sanctioned (for example, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, himself described China’s mass incarceration and exploitation of the Uighur Muslim population as constituting “gross, egregious human rights abuses”). Even more shockingly, the government is alleged to have telephoned Saudi Arabia to apologise for including it on the sanctions list and laud praise on its international security work. Indeed, this summer, it announced that it would resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies, whom are undertaking a military campaign in Yemen, despite evidence of repeated breaches of international humanitarian law. The country is currently facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But the government has cut foreign aid by £4 billion, whilst increasing military spending by £16 billion. There is seemingly no end to its hypocrisy. Furthermore, the perpetual threat of the Tories watering down, or doing away completely, with the Human Rights Act 1998 hangs like a Damoclean sword over all our heads. This month the government launched a review into the legislation, which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights in domestic law.

Ultimately, what is most striking of all about this government, however, is its complete lack of integrity. It readily engages in the spreading of misinformation. But perhaps this should come as no surprise. One has only to look at how the Tories ran their General Election campaign; 88% of their Facebook electoral ads were found to be misleading. Cronyism is rampant. The government awarded Covid-19 contracts worth over £9 billion to companies, without competitive tender, and handed out important public health roles to those whom enjoy close personal connections with the Tory Party, without a proper recruitment process. It has also rewarded Brexit loyalists and party donors with peerages.

Ministers escape accountability with tiring frequency. Priti Patel remained in post despite an independent review finding that she had breached the ministerial code by bullying civil servants. Robert Jenrick stayed on as Housing Secretary despite it being uncovered that he had overruled a decision by the government’s planning inspectorate not to award a £1bn housing development contract to a former press tycoon because it did not provide enough affordable housing. The latter donated £12,000 to the Tory Party shortly after the decision; the conflict of interest should have been obvious. Boris Johnson himself has repeatedly failed to attend Parliamentary Liaison Committee meetings, the only committee which is able to put questions to the Prime Minister (when he finally did appear, he appointed his own chairman). He sat on the Russian Interference Report, which found that the government essentially ignored evidence of foreign interference in our democracy, for an unprecedented nine months. He even tried to shoehorn the former Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling (popularly known as “Failing Grayling”) into the role of Chair of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee; it was this committee which had the responsibility of publishing the report.

If one is in need of further evidence of why this government is of such concern, there were two issues this year which should leave no fair-minded person in doubt. The first issue was the need for enormous public pressure to force the government into U-turning, twice, in relation to its refusal to provide free school meals to eligible children during the school holidays. This is at a time when families are under huge financial pressure due to the pandemic. Unicef, the UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian aid to children globally, announced that it would be feeding children in the UK for the first time in its history, and Tory minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg responded by saying that the organisation should be “ashamed” of its offer to help and accused it of “playing politics”. The second was the government’s announcement to the world that it was willing to breach international law in respect of treaty commitments it had itself signed up to mere months ago; it concerned a deal that the Prime Minister himself declared to the British public was “oven-ready”. The Tories feeble attempts to defend the government’s actions saw them belittling the value of international law in a move that plays into the hands of despots across the globe.      

A country does not abandon democracy overnight. Nor does it immediately relinquish its commitment to human rights. It is a combination of a range of, often subtle, developments that cause a state to quietly slip into darkness. We each have a responsibility to ensure that does not happen. We hope that you will continue to support the work that we do to shed a little light on these developments and feel motivated to make your own voices heard. The dangers, some of which are already manifest, are very real; they will only grow if met with silent acquiescence.