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.

Cutting aid to the world’s poorest: Is this what global Britain looks like?

Tomos Owen

Another week, another U-turn. For anyone that follows British politics this will not come at a surprise. If anything, the U-turn has become a trademark of the current UK government and a defining feature of their first year in power. These U-turns have for the most part been welcomed, generally reversing a course of action that was clearly misjudged and did not align with the will of the British people, but the latest is rather more callous. It was on 25 November 2020, exactly one month before Christmas, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the government aimed to reduce the foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI). This equates to around a £4bn cut in aid to those most in need around the world at a time when the funding of aid agencies and charities has already been decimated. 

The allocation of 0.7% of GNI to the foreign aid budget reflects a target that has been set by the UN since 1970. The UK signed up to this in 1973 and in 2013 became the first G7 country to do so. The importance of achieving this target in the UK has become so important in recent years that it was enshrined in law in 2015 through the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act. This created a legal obligation on the government to achieve the contribution of 0.7% of GNI to foreign aid in 2015 and every year subsequently, with a statement being required to parliament if this was not achieved. Equally, the current government clearly believed this commitment important enough to be included in their own manifesto, so the latest announcement also has the consequence of breaking an election promise. Although, it is worth pointing out that the Conservative party are not alone in this respect and the issue is so important and bipartisan that it was included in the manifesto of every elected political party in the last election, bar the DUP. 

Given that meeting the annual contribution of 0.7% of GNI to foreign aid is a goal sought across the political spectrum, it is worth highlighting how this money is spent and where it actually goes. The money is spent in several ways, but foreign aid is always targeted at low and middle income countries across the globe. In general, 64% of the money is spent bilaterally, meaning directly to a country or region, and 36% is spent multilaterally through agencies such as the United Nations. According to government figures, 15% of their contribution is spent on humanitarian relief, 12% on healthcare and 11% on education, amongst various other sectors. These are all fundamental aspects of life which would suffer greatly if foreign aid was cut. This money is also spread across the nations most in need and in 2016 the top five countries where foreign aid was provided by the UK were Pakistan, Syria, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Afghanistan. 

Whilst these figures from the government are all interesting, a solely empirical look at this issue fails to contextualise just how important the UK’s foreign aid has been. You don’t truly get this sense until you look at the reaction to the announced cuts from those on the front line of these issues. On the cuts, the executive director of Action Against Hunger, Jean-Michel Grand said, “we estimate these cuts could see as many as three million women and children lose access to often life-saving nutrition service. Clinics will close, nurses will lose their jobs, and children will lose their lives”. The chief executive of Oxfam, Danny Sriskandarajah, stated, “cutting the UK’s lifeline to the world’s poorest communities in the midst of a global pandemic will lead to tens of thousands of otherwise preventable deaths.” The chief executive of WaterAid, Tim Wainwright, added, “this U-turn sees the government not only turning its back on those least able to cope with the impact of Covid-19 and climate change, but also reducing our international standing just at the moment when we are redefining global Britain on the world stage.” Katherine Nightingale, head of advocacy for Care International, simply pointed out that these cuts pose the potential for loss of life. The reaction from the third sector as a whole has been one of condemnation. 

The common theme coming from voices in the sector is that these cuts will lead to preventable deaths and have a serious impact on the wellbeing of many others. This is really the crux of the issue. On the face of it, saving around £4bn at a time when the UK is heading for a double-dip recession seems positive, but saving this by cutting aid to the world’s poorest cannot be justified. The end in this case certainly doesn’t justify the means. It is also not just simply about saving lives and the continuation of foreign aid equally has a long-term goal. It is about seeing ourselves as global citizens that assist one another, rather than people that should solely be concerned with what is happening in the arbitrary boundaries that mark our individual nation. If we all work together globally, in the future we can achieve feats far greater than have been seen before, but this relies on ensuring that in the present we achieve the far simpler goals of eradicating poverty, ensuring every individual has access to an education and removing the threat of preventable diseases. This will spark development in low and middle income countries that will create a net benefit for all. The proposed cuts will only serve to stifle this development for years to come and condemn whole regions to prolonged hardship.

Nevertheless, the proposed cuts will go to a vote in parliament and the arguments in favour should be addressed. Rishi Sunak, the architect of these cuts, has simply followed the line that, in a time of economic crisis in the UK, keeping the promise of providing 0.7% of GNI to foreign aid cannot be justified. He suggests he will be spending elsewhere nationally and that this is what we should be focussing on. This is a difficult point to productively counter because it is simply a matter of ideology. I personally find it easy to justify not cutting 0.2% from the aid budget as this money is simply so important. We will never be able to save or assist everyone, but if not cutting 0.2% of GNI contributions were to save tens of thousands of lives and assist many millions more, in my mind I wouldn’t think twice about retaining our contributions as promised. The truth is, even by maintaining the current 0.7% of contributions there would be a reduction in monetary value going to these nations because of the drop in productivity in the UK, so the percentage cut is a double-whammy. 

Rishi Sunak also callously argued that we are already doing enough to help those in need. Whilst we will still be supporting millions after the proposed cuts, the reduction in the aid budget will rip away resources from millions that already rely on us and create a vacuum of assistance. Given the economic circumstances globally, these resources are unlikely to be provided from elsewhere any time soon and in many cases these people will be left behind entirely. Regardless of this, as the UK would still be one of the top contributors to foreign aid in terms of percentage of GNI if it was dropped to 0.5%, the Chancellor seems to believe the position is still generous. Quite frankly, there is nothing generous about a decision that will lead to tens of thousands of deaths. It is true that the UK has been the top contributor of foreign aid out of all of the G7 nations in terms of percentage of GNI and that by cutting the contributions to 0.5% we would still be second in that list after Germany who contribute 0.6%. However, this whole argument is incredibly shortsighted. The UK is hosting the G7 summit in 2021 and now we have been seen to cut aid to the world’s poorest this could lead the way for many more nations to do the same. The result of this could mean countless billions in aid cut from the budgets of nations globally. At this time of worldwide crisis, the UK should be using its position to inspire other developed nations to do more for those in need and not less. Lets not forget that the UK became so prosperous in part because of their exploitation of many of the world’s poorest countries in the first place. 

The final argument is that we can’t afford it. This is linked to the first argument about justification and in reality it is simply whether we can economically justify borrowing to meet our promise of foreign aid contributions. The moral argument has already been laid out. Economically, the UK was already set to borrow £55bn for the 2020/2021 tax year. The Office for Budget Responsibility now estimates that the UK will borrow £394bn for the 2020/2021 tax year instead. There is no way around the fact that this is an astounding figure, but if you broke this figure down you would undoubtedly find that a certain percentage could not be justified or was misspent. You need only to look at the inflated PPE contracts that the government have been awarding their friends to know that this is the case. Or the millions given to individuals for simply brokering deals. The truth is that government ministers have had no problem justifying these as a good way to spend taxpayer money. If we must increase borrowing by a little over 1% in order to maintain our promise and support to the world’s poorest, this must be seen as a good way to spend taxpayer money too. 

The sad conclusion is that, as with any decision currently made by the government, their 79 seat majority means that there is unlikely to be a change of course. What will now be interesting is seeing how many Conservative MPs vote against the proposed cuts. Prominent Tory MPs such as Tobias Elwood and Jeremy Hunt have already publicly denounced the cuts and there are some reports that around 60 Tory MPs would vote against the government. Unfortunately, this still wouldn’t be enough to turn the tide and we are likely to condemn millions to further hardship. One now has to ask, is this what global Britain looks like? Are we now going to turn our back on those who most rely on us across the globe when the going gets tough? If so, these cuts may be our one-way ticket to becoming a pariah state. 

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? We are faced with a self-serving government

Robert Wilcox

This week, a report into government procurement practices during the pandemic was released by the National Audit Office. According to the report, Covid-19 contracts worth over £9 billion were awarded without competitive tender. We also learnt that the government has been operating a “high-priority lane”, whereby politically well-connected suppliers were ten times more likely to be granted public contracts. Just one in a growing list of examples is the £253 million contract awarded to Ayanda Capital Ltd, an investment firm with connections to an adviser working under International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss. It beggars belief why a firm specialising in private equity and currency trading, and no experience in supplying medical equipment, would be awarded a contract to supply personal protective equipment (PPE). It may explain why 50 million of the masks it did supply were unfit for use by NHS staff.

However, it is not simply PPE contracts that have been handed out on the basis of favourable political connections; the government has similarly appointed individuals to key roles in the fight against Covid-19 without a proper recruitment process. Kate Bingham, a venture capitalist and the wife of a Conversative minister, was appointed to chair the UK’s vaccine taskforce. She has since been faced with allegations that she shared vaccine details to private equity investors, in addition to criticism for allocating nearly £700,000 for hiring public relations consultants (interestingly, these consultants came from a PR firm with links to Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law).

Then we come to Dido Harding, who was appointed to oversee NHS Test and Trace, the government’s flagship programme for tackling the spread of Covid-19. The wife of a Conservative MP, Harding was CEO of the telecommunications company, TalkTalk, when it was the subject of a cyberattack by two teenagers. Nearly 160,000 customers had their personal details stolen. TalkTalk was fined £400,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office for failing to adopt appropriate security measures, thereby allowing customers’ data to be accessed “with ease”. Apparently, however, this was no cause for concern for the government. Indeed, despite the well-documented failings of NHS Test and Trace, Harding has since been appointed as head of the newly formed National Institute for Health Protection. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, without any apparent sense of irony, declared that “she’s simply the best person who could be doing this job now”.

This week also saw headlines surrounding the Cabinet Office inquiry into the behaviour of Home Secretary, Priti Patel. The inquiry concluded that Patel’s treatment of civil servants breached the ministerial code of conduct. When a minister breaches the code, the expectation is that the minister in question resigns. In fact, it is unprecedented for a minister to remain in their post following a breach of the code.

Not only has Patel failed to resign, but the Prime Minister is refusing to dismiss her, thereby rejecting the findings of Sir Alex Allan, the independent advisor on ministerial standards. Allan resigned in response. It has since emerged that government officials prevented Allan from accessing a key witness, former civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam (who himself resigned due to Patel’s campaign against him), and that the Prime Minister attempted to persuade Allan to tone down the conclusions of his report so that it would be more “palatable”. Those wishing to read the report in detail will be disappointed as the Prime Minister has also seen fit to block it from being published in full.

Readers will be forgiven for a sense of déjà vu here. Patel is no stranger to playing fast and loose with the ministerial code. During her time as International Development Secretary, she held a series of undisclosed meetings with Israeli politicians and businessmen. Following these meetings being reported in the press, she was forced to resign by the then Prime Minister, Theresa May.

The current Prime Minister also has form when it comes to sitting on politically inconvenient reports. The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russian Interference Report, which found that the government had failed to take any action whatsoever to safeguard our democracy from external interference, was delayed by an unprecedented nine months. During the time that the report went unpublished, the UK headed to the ballot box for a General Election, unaware of the damning findings the report contained.  

In addition, the Prime Minister has proven reluctant to dismiss his political backers in the past. When it was discovered that the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, had overruled a decision by the government’s planning inspectorate to award a £1bn housing development contract to former press tycoon, Richard Desmond, the Prime Minister did nothing – despite Jenrick having discussed the development with Desmond at a fundraising dinner two months prior, and the planning inspectorate’s findings that the development did not deliver enough affordable housing for people living in London’s poorest borough. Perhaps the Prime Minister approved of the £12,000 donation that Desmond made to the Conservative Party two weeks following Jenrick’s decision? And, of course, who can forget the Dominic Cummings scandal? Cummings’ breach of the lockdown rules damaged the government’s public health messaging, endangering people’s lives. Yet, it was some text messages about the Prime Minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds, and allegations that Cummings’ allies had been referring to her as “Princess Nut Nut”, was what apparently mattered enough for Cummings to finally be dismissed.

All of us, whoever we voted for in the last election, should be concerned about the lack of integrity shown by this government. Ministers appear to have no regard for well-established conventions dealing with the exercise of political power. Granting contracts, which are paid for using taxpayers’ money one hastens to add, and granting jobs to people or companies because they are politically favourable undermines the foundations of a democracy. In the current circumstances, these decisions also put lives at risk. Ministers seem to think that the mere fact that they were elected to political office entitles them to do as they please. However, as even the earliest democracies quickly discovered, it is those in power that need to be most closely watched – precisely because they hold power.

Having studied Classics, Boris Johnson should know this lesson only too well. Yet he clearly has naught but contempt for attempts to hold him and his ministers accountable. He 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). And, indeed, when challenged over the despatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions, he reacts with what can only be described as utter incredulity that members of Her Majesty’s Opposition have the audacity to criticise his policies.

Whom, then, will hold the government to account? Those in the best position to put pressure on ministers are members of their own political party. However, despite the actions of a few Conservative MPs in standing up against the government, the majority toe the party line and, without any hint of shame, defend yet another policy U-turn with the same vigour as which they opposed it. It seems that, for the foreseeable future, those occupying the UK’s highest political offices will not be disturbed from their belief that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

The attacks on immigration lawyers must stop

Tomos Owen

It was recently announced that a man had been charged with terrorism offences for a far-right attack at the offices of Duncan Lewis Solicitors in Harrow. The man had entered the firm in September brandishing a knife and threatened to kill a member of staff. The prosecution now allege that he was planning to take a solicitor hostage and fly both the Nazi flag and that of the US Confederacy, both of which were in his possession, from their office. What is clear is that the target of Duncan Lewis Solicitors was not random and it is alleged that this target was chosen because of their work in preventing the removal of immigrants from the UK. This appears to be the violent culmination of months of anti-lawyer rhetoric coming directly from the UK government.

In the months leading up to the attack, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has been on the offensive against, in her own words, “lefty lawyers” and “do gooders”. She has repeatedly suggested that some lawyers have been frustrating the removal of immigrants from the UK, a point which she believes warrants an overhaul of the current immigration system. What seems to have been lost on the Home Secretary is that removals are only ever stopped by a judge if it appears that the deportation would have been unlawful or if an individual did not receive adequate access to justice. 

Ironically, despite protestations from the Home Secretary suggesting that some lawyers are taking advantage of a broken immigration system, it was a Home Office policy that has been in place since 2015 and enabled the deportation of numerous individuals that was recently deemed unlawful by the Court of Appeal. This was a policy which gave individuals just 72 hours to make representations of their right to be in the UK, after which they could be deported at any time in the following three months without notice. This had serious implications for access to justice, a key principle of the rule of law which underpins fairness in our society. In many cases, individuals simply did not have the time or resources to access legal advice and put a legitimate case together as to why they should not be deported. 

To understand why lawyers are acting to prevent deportations, you need only examine the actions of the Home Office and the human rights principles that underpin deportations. A state does not have total freedom to deport individuals and they must complete their due diligence to ensure that if deportation occurs the individual would not be subject to torture, inhumane or degrading treatment and other irreparable damage. This principle, known as non-refoulement,  applies to individuals that have seen their asylum claims rejected and those that are in the UK unlawfully. The Home Office is obliged to ensure that this principle is followed and that their actions do not infringe on an individual’s human rights. 

Unsurprisingly, many of the recent actions of the Home Office have fallen short of this standard. In one of the most recent examples, a judge stopped the deportation of 20 asylum seekers to Spain which the Home Office sought as they had previously passed through that country. These types of deportations are not uncommon because of Dublin III regulations which allows one European country to return asylum seekers to another if there is proof that they passed through. The logic behind this regulation is to try and prevent asylum seekers picking and choosing where they end up, although on a continent where the immigration systems differ markedly this does little to deter most asylum seekers travelling to a country they believe would treat them the best. In travelling to the UK, this appeared to be the case for those 20 asylum seekers as the court found there was clear evidence that if they were sent back to Spain they would be left destitute. They knew this because an earlier group of 11 Syrians had been deported to Spain by the Home Office, only to be kicked out of the airport in Madrid and left on the streets without food or water. This is what would have awaited a further 20 asylum seekers if the court had not intervened. It is also worth noting some of these individuals had been subject to torture and were suffering from PTSD, a point which clearly did not worry the Home Office. 

The result of the court case was a massive win for humanity and because of it 20 individuals avoided what looked to be impending homelessness. The response from the Home Secretary was anything but humane. In describing the outcome of the case Priti Patel said, “We are bitterly disappointed with the court’s ruling, which has prevented us from returning people who have no right to be here. This case has not abated our determination, and we have more flights planned in the coming weeks and months.” This demonstrates the contempt that the Home Secretary has for the lives of some individuals. Even though the individuals were in the UK unlawfully, it is not normal to react with this level of frustration when a court prevents you from deporting people to likely destitution. It is almost beyond comprehension that anyone could be so callous, let alone the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom. 

The audacity of the Home Secretary to suggest that it is a certain number of lawyers that are the problem is bewildering. Without the work of lawyers preventing these deportations there would clearly be a massive scope for injustice and a great deal of harm would be caused. All the while there is a clear solution for the Home Secretary; if there was nothing unlawful or untoward about the actions of the Home Office in certain cases there would be no need for lawyers to act to prevent deportations. Despite this, the comments of the Home Secretary suggest that she is determined to carry on with the same course of action as we have already seen. This brings us back to the beginning of this article. Rather than changing course, the Home Secretary has tried to paint immigration lawyers as the enemy and somehow agents of the left side of the political spectrum in the UK. This is simply untrue and immigration lawyers are doing what they have always done by upholding the laws of this country and international human rights principles. 

Given that the words of the Home Secretary now appear to have incited violence, these attacks on the legal industry must stop. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be stopped by the Prime Minister given his own comments suggesting that the criminal justice system is, “being hamstrung by lefty human rights lawyers”. This had led to 800 figures from the legal industry writing to Boris Johnson and Priti Patel urging them to cease the attacks. This included former Supreme Court justices and numerous QCs and academics. The letter claimed that the attacks, “endanger not only the personal safety of lawyers and others working for the justice system, as has recently been vividly seen; they undermine the rule of law which ministers and lawyers alike are duty bound to uphold.” There have also been similar calls from some of the Conservative frontbench. The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, and the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, both called on Priti Patel to stop the attacks of the legal profession following the far-right attack at Duncan Lewis Solicitors. 

Whether these calls will do anything to abate the crusade against immigration lawyers is yet to be seen. If you consider that Priti Patel has continued to make comments even after the Metropolitan police terrorism unit warned her about the far-right nature of the incident at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, it seems unlikely. What must be clear is that immigration lawyers involved with this work are doing their utmost to protect the values of this country and the rule of law, a principle that has been in place for centuries before this government and will be in place for centuries after it.  

Child food poverty: the UK government’s refusal to extend the free school meals scheme

Robert Wilcox

In the summer, it took a public campaign by Manchester United forward, Marcus Rashford, to force the government into providing free school meal vouchers to children from low-income households during the holidays. Commenting on the government’s U-turn, Boris Johnson, betraying not the slightest hint of shame, stated that “we have to understand the pressure that families are under right now”. Last Wednesday – with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging on and families under mounting pressure – Conservative MPs voted overwhelmingly against a motion to extend the free school meals scheme until Easter 2021. As a direct result of this vote, 1.4 million children are at risk of going hungry.

Stating the obvious, which is no reason to leave it unsaid, we are not here concerned with a country that has had its food supplies interrupted by natural disaster or war. This is the government of the world’s sixth largest economy, supported by the vast majority of Conservative MPs (only five rebelled), making a deliberate policy choice to not ensure that children have access to adequate food during a pandemic which has resulted in many parents finding themselves on reduced incomes or out of work entirely.

In recent years, food bank usage has rapidly increased following the rollout of Universal Credit, the Conservatives’ flagship social security scheme. According to research by the Trussell Trust, the demand for food banks increases in an area the longer Universal Credit has been in operation there. This has been accompanied by highly distressing reports from teachers of their students rummaging through dustbins in search of food. Quite clearly, the scheme is failing the very people it should be helping. But it is this scheme that Conservative MPs are touting as the way forward even now, when households are under further financial strain due to the pandemic. Those MPs are wilfully dismissing the reality; their social security scheme makes households worse off, to the extent that they have difficulty in putting food on the table.  

Remarks made by Conservative MPs regarding free school meals go a long way towards explaining their unwillingness to do more for struggling households, revealing alarming degrees of cynicism, hypocrisy and prejudice. Ben Bradley MP has argued that extending the scheme “increases dependency” on the state. Jeremy Hunt MP believes that the motion was merely “designed to embarrass the government”. Brendan Clarke-Smith MP, when interviewed, asked “where is the slick PR campaign encouraging absent parents to take some responsibility for their children?”. In a Facebook post, Selaine Saxby MP responded to the news that various businesses have pledged to feed children for free by stating that “I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support”.

The arguments they raise are fallacious and desperate, in the latter case even sarcastic. The irony that it is taxpayers who fund MPs’ expenses, and spend nearly £60,000 each week subsidising their three-course meals, appears to have been lost on Conservative MPs. They prefer to peddle a narrative of parents shirking their responsibility to their children. Even if one accepts this warped narrative, then surely that is all the more reason to help those children? A voucher, specifically for supermarket use, would at least provide the means to ensure that additional food comes into the household. Of course, the reality for most children who are entitled to free school meals is that their parents, far from shirking their responsibility, are doing all they can to provide for their children. For myriad reasons however, such as redundancy, loss of income, ill-health (both physical and mental), they find themselves unable to do so. The onus is on us, as a society, to do everything we can to help. To suggest otherwise is to defend the indefensible. No child should be left hungry, no matter what the circumstances.

There are certain issues where it should never be necessary to invoke the law, where the demands of morality leave no equivocation over the action that must be taken. This is surely one of them. Yet, for the benefit of government ministers who may need reminding, whilst there is no specific provision in domestic legislation, the right to adequate food is found in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11(2) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights points out, the right to adequate food does not mean that a government is responsible for distributing food to everyone free-of-charge. But what it does mean is that a government must establish and maintain conditions which, as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explains, ensure that “every man, woman and child … has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement”. Clearly, the government has opted not to safeguard this right for children and, as experience has taught us, the fact that this is inconsistent with international law will be of little concern.

It is, therefore, down to us to pressure the government into making another U-turn. Local councils and various business may have pledged to do all they can, and both the Welsh and Scottish governments have stated their intentions to extend the free school meals scheme. But no child should fall through the gap and be left hungry. Please write to your MP now about this issue (tips on how you can do so can be found here) and/or sign this petition

Does the Overseas Operations Bill open the door to war crimes?

Tomos Owen

On 23 September 2020, Parliament voted in favour of the Overseas Operations Bill after its second reading. The Bill is part of the government’s plans to prevent ‘vexatious’ claims against military personnel, but Human Rights Watch have suggested that the Bill could prevent individuals being prosecuted for legitimate war crimes. If passed in its current form, the Bill would create a presumption against prosecution for crimes committed by military personnel whilst on overseas operations if the incident in question took place more than five years ago. Whilst preventing vexatious claims is important, this goes far further than necessary and would make it an exceptional case that any individual was prosecuted for crimes committed if the five year time frame has elapsed. 

The Government believes the Bill is justified as to date there have been a limited number of criminal prosecutions against military personnel. If we take Iraq as an example, this is true. However, this fails to take account of the 2017 revelation that the UK paid nearly £22 million in compensation to Iraqi nationals who had brought civil claims against the British military between 2003 and 2017. This figure is a stark demonstration that there were serious failings by the British military in Iraq and that whilst some subsequent claims may have been vexatious, a large number were entirely legitimate. The International Criminal Court (ICC) found as much in 2017 when they concluded that there was a reasonable basis to believe that the UK committed war crimes in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, including murder, torture and sexual violence. Even so, the government has pushed ahead with this Bill in another worrying sign that fulfilling their nationalist agenda is more important than their international obligations. 

There are several troubling aspects of the Bill in its current form, none more so than Article 1(4) which sets out the presumption against prosecution for events which took place more than five years ago. Whilst prosecution is possible after these five years, the reality is that it will likely only occur in very rare circumstances. This creates the unconscionable position of the government legislating to protect individuals who may be guilty of crimes as extreme as murder and torture. This is a position that contrasts standards that are well established in both domestic and international law that cover these crimes. Quite rightly, there is no domestic statute of limitations for the crime of murder in the UK. This is essential to ensure public safety by preventing individuals guilty of this crime having any means of avoiding justice, simply because it happened after a set time has elapsed. Equally, Articles 8(2)(ii) and 8(2)(vii) of the Rome Statute, to which the UK is a party, cover the war crimes of torture and unlawful confinement respectively. The Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court which has the ability to investigate and prosecute the UK if they have not looked into these crimes adequately. This Statute explicitly states that any crime within their jurisdiction is not subject to any statute of limitations.  

Nevertheless, if passed, this Bill could harbour an atmosphere of suppression and cover-ups in order to reach the point where the presumption against prosecution will apply in the UK. This would not be without precedent and both the UK government and the Ministry of Defence are no stranger to being accused of such actions, having been accused of covering up war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2019, BBC Panorama and the Sunday Times reported that 11 British detectives had found credible evidence of war crimes in both of the conflicts. This was based on evidence that emerged through the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), investigating British war crimes in Iraq, and Operation Northmoor, investigating British war crimes in Afghanistan. One such incident concerned an Iraqi policeman who was shot by a British soldier while leaving his home in Basra. Within 24 hours the commanding officer investigating the incident had concluded that the British soldier was acting in self-defence, citing another British soldier who had seen the Iraqi policeman shoot first. Although, when interviewed by IHAT, the British soldier who was apparently ‘witness’ to the incident stated that the report was inaccurate and rather than being an eyewitness he had just heard one shot, clearly indicating potential wrongdoing on the part of the British soldier. This is just one of a number of reports that contains inconsistencies and have failed to be investigated adequately. The Overseas Operations Bill would only provide further justification for failing to investigate an incident, or even worse, not investigating it at all.

Unfortunately, the UK government was provided with what they believe is justification for their actions, and that they believe necessitated both the Bill and the premature closure of IHAT and Operation Northmoor. The name Paul Shiner was quick from the lips of government ministers doing the media rounds in rebuke to any journalist who questioned the ethics behind the Bill. Paul Shiner is a former human rights solicitor who worked for the now defunct firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL). The firm passed on around 65% of all cases to IHAT and did initially have some success, notably, the case of Baha Mousa in 2006, in which the Iraqi national was tortured and died in the custody of the British military. One soldier was convicted in this case and the Defence Secretary at the time admitted significant breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this early success, it was later found that Shiner paid a middleman in Iraq to find claimants, a practice which was in breach of industry standards. It was also found that the vast majority of the claims brought forward by Shiner contained dishonest allegations or were completely false. These claims cost the British public £30 million and quite rightly led to Shiner being struck off as a solicitor in 2017. 

To the detriment of justice and due process, the actions of Paul Shiner have overshadowed the legitimate cases that had merit and required further investigation. As already noted, his example was used as justification for closing both IHAT and Operation Northmoor. The latter was closed without even completing interviews with Afghan witnesses, an essential part of any case. The legacy of Shiner will also now live on in the form of the Overseas Operations Bill, which will undoubtedly pass through into law. The Bill continues to be sold as a patriotic flag in the sand and a show of support for the British military from the Conservative party. I think it is worth noting that this article is in no way meant to represent anti-military sentiment and in fact I have always been a proponent for the military. However, I believe support for the military and criticism of the Overseas Operations Bill do not have to be mutually exclusive. One simply has to question how patriotic it is to provide war criminals with a chance of escaping justice. 

On the topic of patriotism, I would be remiss if I did not mention two further points, one on the Bill itself, and another on the politics surrounding it. The first draws into question the government’s claim that they are bringing the Bill forward solely to protect members of the British military. In reality, whilst they have been proudly boasting about the protection the Bill would provide, they have been less vocal about the aspect which seeks to limit the ability of military personnel to sue the Government where they have sustained an injury while on operational tour. Whereas the courts currently have the ability to decide whether a claim is out of time, the Overseas Operations Bill would stipulate that if the incident occurred overseas, personal injury claims would need to be brought within six years of the incident, or within 12 months of an individual’s knowledge of the injury, whichever of those two is later. This is likely to have wide ranging implications, particularly as many of the common injuries sustained by military personnel take a long time to surface or incline individuals to avoid support, such as noise-induced hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder. It appears that the government has callously included this part into the Bill in the hope that they can limit their liability from claims by military personnel and, unfortunately, this appears to have worked.

The other point worth mentioning is the reaction to the Bill from the opposition benches, particularly the Labour party. In many respects, this article has echoed many of the criticisms that the Labour party expressed. The Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey, stated that the bill, ‘creates the risk that the very gravest crimes including torture and other war crimes go unpunished’. He specifically labelled the Bill as unconscionably and called for government Ministers to rethink it, yet when it came to voting, the Labour party were whipped to abstain rather than oppose it. This led to the sacking of three junior ministers who had voted against it, along with 15 other Labour rebels. This move appears to be a calculated one that aims to win back the favour of voters lost to the Conservative party in the 2019 General Election. It does appear to align with Keir Starmer’s recent comments on supporting the military, or at least does not directly oppose it. However, as already mentioned, criticism of, or even opposition to, the Overseas Operations Bill and support for the military don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It is simply a situation whereby you clearly need to state the reasons for not supporting the Bill. They certainly made the case for it, only to fall at the last hurdle. Time will tell if this was a miscalculation, but one would hope that a Labour party led by a former human rights lawyer would have known better.

With the Bill now at Committee stage, we can only wait on any potential amendments with anticipation, although the likelihood remains that any amendments will not be enough to substantially change the flawed Bill. The Law Society have expressed deep concerns that the Bill prevents access to justice, but unfortunately that appears to be the exact aim of this government. It increasingly looks like the International Criminal Court will now be the only means of justice for the subjects of British war crimes.