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. 

Whither rule of law? A government gone rogue

Robert Wilcox

The government has announced to the world that it intends to break international law. It was an unusually frank admission from the government. Rather than heads shaking in denial, or the usual tripartite strategy of deflection, evasion and obfuscation, ministers have been very open about what they are doing. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, believes that we should feel reassured by the fact that the government’s Internal Market Bill only breaches international law “in a very specific and limited way”. At the risk of stating the blatantly obvious, however, breaking the law in a “very specific and limited way” is still breaking the law.

Perhaps we should console ourselves by following the example of Theresa Villiers MP and acknowledge that there are “routine occasions where other countries … are in violation of obligations under international law”, or Sir William Cash MP, who similarly recites breaches of international law at every available opportunity. But there are few surer signs that one is on the back foot in an argument when one is obliged to point out the many and various wrongdoings of others.

Contrary to the government’s implicit assertion that this is somehow a trivial matter, there are extremely serious consequences to passing this legislation. Of course, a whole host of states, including the UK, have breached international law before – and the occasions when they have done so should by no means be dismissed lightly. But it is the context which is particularly damning here. The government is proposing to breach obligations set out in an agreement which it negotiated and signed itself mere months ago. This is the very deal which the Prime Minister declared was “oven-ready” to the British public. One of two conclusions can be drawn: the Prime Minister did not understand what he was signing when he put pen to paper, or that he fully intended to breach the Withdrawal Agreement all along.  

The principle of pacta sunt servanda, which literally translated means “agreements must be kept”, is the cornerstone of international law. It is not difficult to understand why. International law does not descend from on high. It is a body of law made by states, for states. It follows that every breach of international law is not just detrimental to a specific undertaking given to a specific state; it imperils the continued existence of the international legal order. This is because the relationship between states depends on there being a certain level of trust between them. If a state cannot be trusted to abide by a promise it has made – which necessarily comes of its own volition; international law cannot be unilaterally imposed on states – how can other states be expected to abide by their own commitments?

This is precisely why it is so frustrating to hear MPs making such flippant comments as international law is simply a “set of political constructs” (à la Villiers). This shows a complete lack of appreciation for the achievements of international law in protecting human beings, the environment and everything in between, on a day-to-day basis. It is by no means perfect. But the same can be said of domestic law. What matters is that states have identified certain commitments to each other as having legal status. Without a rules-based system in place, we revert back to a Hobbesian nightmare vis-à-vis states. If international law is reduced to no more than a “political construct”, if government promises are not worth the paper they are written on, what hope is there for meaningful international co-operation?

The circumstances surrounding the introduction of this Bill are odd to say the least. If the government was that concerned about aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol – the part of the Withdrawal Agreement in question – and the implications for the integrity of the UK, surely it would never have agreed to it in the first place? In any event, the Withdrawal Agreement established a Joint Committee precisely for the purpose of addressing present issues concerning the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And if the government had any doubts about whether the EU was acting in good faith, then it could invoke the dispute resolution mechanism provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement. It is this very same mechanism which the EU now proposes invoking against the UK, prompting outrage from the government; the very same mechanism which the UK agreed to when the government signed the Withdrawal Agreement. Given the options available, it begs the question why the government is so intent on this provocative act? Whether it is merely political posturing or not, ministers should hold their heads in shame – there are some lines that you simply do not cross.

The Bill demonstrates the height of the government’s irresponsibility. The government is willing to endanger the hard-won, though still fragile, peace in Northern Ireland by undermining the Good Friday Agreement. It is content to play into the hands of despots and rogue states across the globe, who are relishing the prospect of citing the UK when they again question the legitimacy of international law. It is indifferent to the damage being done to the international legal order at a time when increased co-operation between states is necessary to confront humanity’s shared problems.

Yet, none of this should really come as any great surprise. The rule of law is anathema to this government. It necessitates compliance with the law at all times, not just when it is convenient. It requires ministers to account for themselves, to give reasons for their decisions based on objective evidence and to not exercise their power arbitrarily. It extends no favours to the pursuit of ideological goals. Exceptions are made for no one, not prime ministers nor even chief political advisers.

It is for those reasons that the rule of law is essential to a free and democratic society, and why it is perceived as an obstacle by governments that have come to power on the back of the rising tide of populism. They believe that they have the democratic mandate to do whatever they want, that their electoral success is somehow unique. In reality, what they have achieved is no more than a coup. They have essentially hijacked a public mood, which they themselves created and manipulated for their own ends through years of peddling misinformation and scapegoating. When they finally find themselves in power, it is only the rule of law which can prevent the steady slide towards totalitarianism.

Parliament, it seems, is either unwilling or unable to restrain the government. The overwhelming majority secured by the Conservative Party makes it highly unlikely that the government’s legislative agenda will be scuppered by MPs. Breaking international law, however, did seem like too bitter a pill for most MPs to swallow. Yet, even before the government made its concession, whereby Parliamentary approval would be required before ministers could exercise their powers under the Bill, the majority of MPs voted in the government’s favour. Apparently not even a threat to the rule of law is enough to wake certain MPs from their acquiescence and sycophancy. One has to wonder what is next? If this government has taught us anything, it is that nothing is off the cards. 

End the Ban: Why giving asylum seekers the right to work in the UK is common sense

Tomos Owen

Imagine trying to live off £5.39 per day. It almost sounds like the basis of a TV show. Unfortunately, it is the reality that asylum seekers face in the UK. Not only this, asylum seekers in the UK currently have to have been waiting on a decision on their asylum application for an entire year before they can apply for the right to work, the right to work that is so fundamental to our everyday lives and allows us the freedom to support ourselves and our families. An asylum seeker’s ability to apply for the right to work after one year also sounds far more promising than the reality of the situation. Whilst an asylum seeker can apply for the right to work at this point, very few are actually granted this right, and even then they are restricted to only filling vacant roles that fall under the Shortage Occupation List. This list is made up of highly skilled jobs such as scientists, engineers and architects; professions that very few asylum seekers will be qualified for. The result is that the majority of those waiting on their asylum applications are forced into poverty with no means to improve their situation.  

The wait that asylum seekers are required to see through before they can work paired with the almost unattainable requirements of jobs which are then available, creates conditions that equate to a ban, even though there is not one in law. The impact of this is detrimental. In 2018, a study conducted by Asylum Matters showed that 74% of single asylum seekers were living below the poverty line. This improves slightly for an asylum seeking couple with one child, with the figure at 63%. However, it goes without saying that nothing other than a figure of 0% of asylum seekers living under the poverty line would be an acceptable figure. The prospects of reaching this are slim. This was plain to see in 2018 when the Home Office increased the weekly sum given to asylum seekers by an embarrassing 80 pence, despite this coming after a three year freeze on any increases and still falling below the inflation rate for that year. All the while MPs enjoyed a rise in their salaries of £26 per week in 2018. Unsurprisingly, asylum seekers have failed to see any further increase in their weekly allowance up to the time of writing this piece. It is frankly unconscionable that individuals that have travelled to the UK, in many cases in fear of their lives, are then forced to live in poverty because of inadequate financial provisions. 

Fair justification for the current policy surrounding asylum working rights is lacking. Up until 2002, asylum seekers were able to work in the UK after they had been waiting on the outcome of their application for only six months. Nevertheless, the right to work for asylum seekers was then removed entirely by the Labour government at the time, citing faster decision times making the right to work after six months irrelevant. This may have been the case at the time, but in the years following, waiting times have increased exponentially and the number of those now waiting more than six months on a decision is startling. The latest figures from 2019 showed that 57% of asylum seekers waited more than six months for a decision on their application, an increase of 11% from the previous year. The ability for an asylum seeker to even work at all was only reintroduced in 2005 to comply with the 2003 European Union Directive on Reception Conditions, although this reflected the 12 month wait which we still see today. The jobs asylum seekers were able to do were then restricted further in 2010 to only those on the Shortage Occupation List. It is beyond clear that the environment that facilitated the policy change on this issue in 2002 is no longer reflective of the circumstances we currently find ourselves in. The waiting times have increased and with it the number of those asylum seekers living in poverty. Though the reluctance to change tact may also have been impacted by the erroneous assumption that relaxing working rights for asylum seekers may draw more applications.

There is an assumption by some that allowing asylum seekers to work in the UK earlier would increase the numbers of individuals coming to the country for economic reasons. This is certainly the position of the UK government who confirmed as much in a survey carried out by the European Commission and the European Migration Network in 2019. Despite this, the survey showed that out of 25 Member States only one could categorically say that there had been an increase in asylum applications linked to relaxed working rights for asylum seekers. The remainder saw no correlation or had not changed their policy in this area recently. The survey also showed that in 2015, the Czech Republic decreased the time an asylum seeker had to wait before they could apply to work from 12 months to six months after the submission of their application, a change which has been advocated for in the UK. They registered no increase in asylum applications and in the year following the policy change the number applying actually decreased slightly. 

The findings of the survey also match the conclusions of the University of Warwick who completed a systematic review of 30 studies conducted in this area since 1997. They found no correlation between an asylum seeker’s access to work in any one given country and the number of applications that country received. Instead they found that there are numerous other factors which account for an asylum seeker attempting to get to a specific country. These reasons included whether they know people in the country, what language the country speaks and also, whether that country generally respects human rights law. Those arguing that the UK would be more attractive to asylum seekers if the right to work was relaxed invariably suffer from failure of empathy and forget that these are people fleeing war and violence. In many cases, asylum seekers have been forced out of their countries at short notice and have not stopped to assess where they could then find work. To suggest that this regularly happens almost implies that a large portion of those applying for asylum are not genuine. The University of Warwick found that it would be far easier for those who have no legitimate claim to work illegally, rather than bring themselves to the attention of the authorities by applying for asylum. Reporting weekly to the local council, providing fingerprints, and holding a biometric card are hardly the actions of someone who wishes to take advantage of the system.

Given that the current policy is failing, the benefits of a change must be considered. There is clearly a strong argument in the UK to revert to giving asylum seekers the right to work after six months given the increase in time it is taking to come to a decision. This would counter the issues with increased waiting times, but could equally have a benefit economically. This is clearly a route which would allow asylum seekers to avoid being pushed into poverty. Whilst asylum seekers that do find work would then be contributing to the UK economy through income tax and increased spending. Those that peddle the narrative of asylum seekers “draining resources” would do well to remember that many asylum seekers would jump at the chance to work, if only they were permitted. A change in policy to allow asylum seekers to work earlier would have to coincide with a relaxation on the types of jobs they are able to do, but there is an equally valid argument for doing so. Only months ago, the UK was suffering from a shortage of labour to such an extent that Prince Charles made a public plea to ask individuals to consider picking fruit, and when that failed, we were forced to fly workers to the UK from abroad. It is bemusing that the current policy surrounding asylum seekers is justified when this is the case, and this is only one example of a shortage of labour in certain sectors in the UK. 

There is also precedent to suggest that by giving asylum seekers the right to work they may not only fill vacant jobs, but can create jobs for the open market. This was demonstrated in Kampala, Uganda where full working rights were given to refugees. In many cases these businesses were successful, however what is most interesting is that when a study was conducted into who those businesses employed, 40% were from the local population. Further, only 1% of refugees in the same location were entirely reliant on humanitarian aid. Whilst refugees are a different group, they are directly comparable in that a refugee is only an individual who has had their asylum officially recognised. This example demonstrates that improving working rights for asylum seekers can have a clear net benefit to a country. They can begin working earlier, begin integrating into their new society, all whilst stimulating the local economy. The more you look at this issue, the clearer it is that a change is policy is simple common sense.

Despite the logic that a change of policy would be beneficial, a change does not appear to be coming any time soon. This issue is one that has been tirelessly pursued by organisations such as Refugee Action who are witness to the devastating impact that the current policy has. Up to this point that has all been in vain. It is difficult to comprehend the current position given that a small amount of research on the topic clearly suggests that the change would have no adverse effects in the UK. However, the lack of action suggests that the government is making decisions in this area based on ideology, rather than on any cost-benefit analysis. 

The government was given a clear chance to change this policy as recently as 2016 when the Immigration Act went through parliament. During this process, the House of Lords voted in favour of an amendment that would have allowed asylum seekers the right to work after six months of filing their application. This is exactly what Refugee Action has been campaigning for, but the amendment was voted down by the House of Commons. This is part of a wider pattern of increasing hostility to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, a pattern which seems to be based in the flawed logic that by withholding more lenient working rights they will deter numbers coming to the country. They fail to remember that many of those are fleeing from tyrants far greater than the Home Office. No amount of hostility will deter asylum seekers coming to the UK so the government would do well to reassess and end the ban for good. If only they could look past their own prejudices. 

If you want to join the campaign to End the Ban you can do so with Refugee Action here

Love is love: time to end homophobia for good

Robert Wilcox

Chemical castration or go to prison for up to two years – that was the choice faced by Alan Turing when he was convicted of “gross indecency” in 1952. “Gross indecency”, which here meant any form of homosexual activity amongst men, was a criminal offence under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (otherwise known as the Labouchère Amendment). Turing, the man who in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code had shortened the Second World War by up to four years, saving millions of lives, opted for chemical castration. Whilst his conviction ended his career in national intelligence and security, he wanted to avoid prison so that he might continue his academic work. Yet, simply because he was gay, Turing would be required to take injections of synthetic oestrogen, which suppressed his libido and eventually rendered him impotent. In 1954, he committed suicide.

Turing was one of approximately 49,000 men convicted of “gross indecency” before homosexual activity was decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act 1967. But whilst homosexuality is now legal, homosexuals in the UK are still faced with prejudice and the threat of violence. A 2018/19 Home Office Bulletin reported that 14,491 incidents of homophobic hate crime had been recorded by police in England and Wales in that year alone. This represented a 25% increase on the previous year. Moreover, a 2019 survey conducted by NatCen, the UK’s largest independent social research agency, found that just over one third of the population either “feel uncomfortable with or [are] actively opposed to lesbian and gay relationships”. Clearly, homophobia is still a real problem in this country.

It is difficult to comprehend that the UK, a supposedly civilised nation, persecuted homosexuals well into the 20th century. Indeed, some of the men who were prosecuted for “gross indecency” are still alive today. But it is truly sickening that, in this century, people are still being intimidated and physically assaulted purely on the basis of their sexuality. A particularly sadistic incident took place in May last year, when a lesbian couple on a London bus were attacked by a group of young men after refusing to kiss for their amusement. Perhaps just as shocking, however, is the fact that a significant number of the population take issue with the notion of homosexuality itself.

There is no typical homophobe; they vary in age, ethnicity and socio-economic background. But what they do have in common is, when challenged, they will inevitably rely on one or more of a very limited number of “arguments” in support of their homophobic views. They will say that homosexuality is “unnatural”, “a sin” or “just not normal”. Alternatively, one may come across those who will say something along the lines of “I haven’t got a problem with it; it’s up to them what they get up to in the privacy of their own homes – but I don’t want to see that sort of thing in public”.

One should always be wary of anyone who seeks to argue that something is wrong on the basis that it is “unnatural”. At the risk of stating the obvious, anything which occurs in nature is, by definition, natural. It has been scientifically proven that sexual orientation is not a choice; it is a matter of biology. More importantly, however, to say that something is “unnatural” does not engage with the question of its morality. It is, in essence, claiming that something is wrong because it is different. This betrays what is really at issue here: the homophobe is uneasy about the idea that people can be different; they would prefer everyone to conform to their own narrow view of the world. This explains their tendency to stereotype homosexual behaviour and disparage it as being abnormal (the use of the word “queer” is not accidental). For the homophobe, the LGBT+ community poses an existential threat because it challenges socially constructed norms, such as “masculinity” and “femininity”, and it is to these norms that the homophobe so desperately clings in order to feel secure about their own place in society. Rather than confront their own insecurities, however, the homophobe would prefer that homosexuality was not permitted and, in many cases, something to be punished.   

As for the claim that homosexuality is a “sin”, it must be said that religion has much to answer for here. In the context of the UK, it is appropriate to focus on Christianity. The Book of Genesis tells the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities destroyed by God for their wickedness. This wickedness, which ranged from pride to rape, has also been interpreted to include homosexuality, as such acts also took place there. One might wonder whether this is more a reflection on those who interpret the Bible in this way; they are themselves opposed to homosexuality and, therefore, they believe that this was just another example of the wicked acts committed by the cities’ residents. In their defence, however, it is stated in Leviticus that “thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination”. No reason is given in support of this, no justification explaining why homosexuality is condemned in such strong terms. For some Christians (though not all), the fact that a text, some thousands of years old, prohibits homosexual activity is enough. It is difficult to even attempt to reason with such Christians; they have wholly and utterly assigned their moral judgement outside of themselves. Rational discourse is reduced to mere citation of “rules”. They persecute homosexuals because they believe God has told them to do so. They require no reason to justify this hostility because, to them, God is beyond question.

This particular aspect of Christian dogma has had a significant influence on UK law dealing with homosexuality. Such laws are described as anti-sodomy laws; the etymological origin of the word “sodomy” is the city of Sodom. Homosexual activity was also regarded as a matter solely for the ecclesiastical courts until the Buggery At 1533 established anal intercourse as a secular offence, the sentence for which was death. This was later abolished three centuries later by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which replaced the death sentence with one of life imprisonment or a prison term of at least 10 years. Even the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, however, did not bring an end to institutionalised homophobia; section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which remained in force until 2003, stated that local authorities “shall not promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

The arm of the law is long. It not only reaches out and moulds our interactions with each other in myriad ways; it can shape our very thoughts too. In that respect, it is important to understand that the law has simultaneously enforced and perpetuated homophobia. Of course, law can be a positive force but, in relation to homosexuality, it has for too long done much in the name of prejudice. Setting aside the nuances of jurisprudence momentarily, laws are essentially opinions on how we should behave which are backed by the full force of the state. One can see how a person might be indoctrinated into thinking homosexuality is wrong. But that does not make it forgivable, and the time for the homophobe to see past their own social conditioning is long overdue.

It is an unfortunate truism that humanity demonstrates an unparalleled capacity for cruelty to its own. Recognising that homophobia has no moral or rational basis would be a step towards unlearning this cruelty. Love is love.

*The words homophobia and homosexuality, as used in this article, should be understood as encompassing biphobia and bisexuality. However, the author recognises that whilst there are similarities in how homosexuals and bisexuals are, and have been, treated, there are also differences in the issues that they face. 

From Opium to Oppression: A Short History of The Relationship between the UK and Hong Kong

Tomos Owen

Over the last few years the political situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated markedly. Whilst Hong Kong had gotten used to a long period of democracy and autonomy from China, the last few years have been fraught with social tension, culminating with the introduction of a new National Security Law. Following the introduction of this law, the UK has taken the bold step of offering a route to citizenship to over three million residents of Hong Kong who are eligible for British Nationals (Overseas) status. At the same time, the government has been on an offensive to characterise the channel crossing of 2500 refugees since the beginning of 2020 as a ‘crisis’. I believe in offering Hong Kong residents with BNO status citizenship and opening safe routes so we can welcome refugees and remove the need for channel crossings, but what has led the government to only offer the former? This only becomes apparent when you look at the long and spotted relationship between Britain and Hong Kong. 

To fully understand this relationship you have to go back to the 17th century when Hong Kong was still administered by an area of inland China. Hong Kong at the time was relatively barren and for the most part relied upon the trade of pearls, salt and fish. Unbeknown to them, a trading relationship was also forming between Britain and China that would change the course of history in Hong Kong even to this day. At the dawn of this new found relationship, trade between Britain and China was informal and often sporadic. Britain had no official presence around China and trade for the most part was conducted through the British East India Company. However, in the centuries that followed, trade between Britain and China began to increase exponentially. The British were able to supply precious metals and in return, the Chinese were able to supply luxury goods in the form of tea, silk and porcelain. This relationship was initially lucrative for both the British and the Chinese, but a significant issue began to arise. Whilst British supplies of precious metals were initially supplemented through their colonial expansion, domestically there was also a growing demand and soon the British were in a significant trade deficit with China. This was, of course, unsustainable and with the British unlikely to find a new source of precious metals, they were forced to find another product which could balance their trade with China. 

To the detriment of the Chinese, the product that eventually balanced the trade deficit between Britain and China was opium. The British were said to have discovered this trade by 1773 and fast became the leading suppliers of opium to China. This was greatly assisted by the growth of the British East India Company and the monopolies they were able to secure on opium production in areas of India, which ensured there was always a continuous supply. As opium became more popular, Chinese society inevitably began to suffer from the effects of addiction. This is said to have infiltrated the breadth of the class-system and by 1780 the emperor of the Qing dynasty published an edict against the drug. When this ban was in place, the British East India Company licensed private traders to carry opium from India to China rather than carry it themselves. In turn, private traders would trade the opium with Chinese smugglers for precious metals which they would then return to the British East India Company. Despite the Qing dynasty’s clear ban on opium, they continued to profit from this trade for several years as precious metals received from the importation of opium would invariably be used to buy more goods from China. However, no amount of profit could make up for the social instability caused by opium addiction and in 1796 importation and cultivation of the drug was outlawed entirely. 

Unsurprisingly, the British traders were not deterred by the ban on the importation of opium and with this trade becoming even more lucrative, the amount of opium flowing into China continued to increase. This was facilitated greatly by corrupt officials who could profit from the widespread distribution networks within mainland China. The early 19th century was marked by rising tension between Britain and China, not least because of their contrasting outlooks on how trade should be conducted. Britain began favouring open market policies with limited trading barriers, whereas China favoured heavy government intervention where they saw fit and enforced substantial taxes on luxury goods. For the second time in the tumultuous relationship, Britain and China found themselves in a situation that was entirely unsustainable. This reached boiling point in 1838 when the Chinese emperor began sentencing drug traffickers to death and seizing stockpiles of opium. Initially, Charles Elliott, the British Superintendent of Trade in China, ordered that any British ships carrying opium should flee and prepare for war. Whilst Elliott did ultimately concede on this and a large amount of opium was handed to China, the relations between the two countries were damaged beyond repair. 

Instead of aiming to reconcile with the Chinese, the British contingency only furthered their problems. In 1839 when two British sailors beat a resident of Hong Kong to death, Elliott refused to hand the culprits over, favouring his own trial. This was the final straw for China and the emperor imposed a ban on the sale of food to the British and prevented their docking at Macau, a key landing point for their ships. With a number of British ships running out of provisions, the British sent Royal Navy ships to China in a response to the rising tensions. When the Chinese continued to refuse to trade food with the British, Elliott gave them the ultimatum that if they continued any longer, the British ships would fire on the Chinese. This failed to deter China’s chosen course of action and, true to their word, the British fired and the Chinese responded in turn. Eventually the British drove the Chinese away, but this was just the first action in what became known as the First Opium War. The next few years saw continued bombardment from the British military ships and in 1841 they caught several key forts on the Pearl River. This forced the Chinese Admiralty into negotiations with the British and by the end of January 1841, it was agreed that Hong Kong would be handed to Britain. However, this did not end the war and over the next year the British continued to fight for compensation and reparations for the cost of the war and the loss in trade. It actually took until August 1842 when the Treaty of Nanking was signed which provided the British with these concessions, opened up free trade and, importantly, officially ceded Hong Kong to Britain.

The British rule of Hong Kong saw them rapidly modernise the island. During the 1800s a number of Christian missionaries founded schools and colleges, the first gas and electric companies were introduced and, in a sign of what the island would become, the first large scale bank was opened. Nevertheless, relations between Britain and China remained unstable, culminating in a Second Opium War in 1856-1860. The British were again victorious and the Chinese were forced to cede Kowloon and completely legalize the trade of opium. Despite a now firm presence in the area, the British sought even more territory and in 1898 took advantage of further Chinese military failure, this time at the hands of the Japanese, and agreed to a 99-year lease of 200 islands around Hong Kong known as the ‘New Territories’. Over the following years, the population in Hong Kong boomed and the island became a key port in the British Empire. 

The early 20th century was marked by fears of invasion during World War I, but this did not eventuate and Hong Kong prospered during the war through the introduction of an opium monopoly in 1914. In World War II, Hong Kong would not be so fortunate and when the Japanese attacked at the end of 1941 the British could do little to resist. China had agreed to counter any invasion, but by the time they planned an attack the British had already surrendered to the Japanese. The occupation by the Japanese was bold and by 1943 a new currency had been introduced, streets and parks had been renamed, and strict rules were enforced. The occupation also led to a mass exodus which saw the population decrease on the island by almost 1 million people before the end of the war. It took the dropping of the atomic bombs to end World War II and with it the Japanese withdrawal from Hong Kong. The British returned immediately and re-established themselves on the island. 

The next few decades were far more favourable for Hong Kong. The island went from being solely a trading port to a thriving manufacturing hub in its own right. Infrastructure began to spread across the island, including upwards with the introduction of more high rises. Whilst the 1960s saw some low wages and water shortages, by the 1970s the manufacturing industry had greatly boosted the economy leading to a far higher life expectancy and rate of literacy than had been seen previously. During this period the relationship between Britain and Hong Kong had also remained relatively stable, but the 1980s arguably marked the most defining decade of change since the First Opium War. In December 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed by Margaret Thatcher, the then British Prime Minister, and Zhao Ziyang, who was China’s Premier at the time. This Declaration outlined that China would exercise their sovereignty over Hong Kong and that the British would hand back the island in July 1997. They also agreed that from 1997, a ‘one country, two systems’ approach would be implemented. This meant that while Hong Kong would officially become part of China again, the region would be allowed a fifty year period of continued capitalism and normality. 

By the time Hong Kong was handed back to China the economy on the island was booming and it had become the financial hub which it is known for today. The handover to China did see a number of changes on the island; the role of Chief Executive of Hong Kong was introduced and is chosen by a an Election Committee; the British honours systems and public holidays were replaced with local alternatives; secondary schools had to begin teaching in Cantonese; and most references to the Queen were removed and replaced with reference to the State. However, freedoms to which Hong Kong had become accustomed to remained, such as freedom of the press and the ability for Hong Kong to trade independently within international bodies like the World Trade Organisation. Regardless of the continuation of many freedoms, tensions inevitably arose between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy factions on the island. In 2012, the introduction of a new National Education curriculum sparked protests as many argued it was heavily pro-China and critical of Western nations. This included suggesting that multi-party nations did not function adequately and referring to China’s leading party as ‘progresive, selfless and united’. The Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement in 2013 also sought reform, desiring electoral changes to the way the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is elected to reflect true international standards of universal suffrage. Despite electoral reform being promised to the Hong Kong people in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, their protests were to no avail. 

In 2016, Hong Kong elected their first female Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. This was significant in its own right, but this election was even more so given the rise in pro-Beijing seats that had been won. The term of Carrie Lam has already been deeply entrenched with controversy and in 2019 she made international headlines when she attempted to introduce the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019. This Bill would have enabled Hong Kong to deport individuals accused of a crime to China to face trial. Many feared that this could be used maliciously and lead to the extradition of political prisoners. It also would have blurred the lines between the legal systems of Hong Kong and China, drawing the two closer together. To the relief of those protesting, their pressure led to the withdrawal of the Bill, although this would not end the tension that was almost at boiling point. This boiling point was arguably reached this year when Hong Kong introduced a new National Security Law. This law criminalised the acts of succession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces, and since it’s introduction in June this law has been applied both frequently and broadly to fuel the agenda of pro-China interests. 

To this day, protests are still ongoing and clashes between pro-democracy activists and the police in Hong Kong occur daily. Notable pro-democracy activists, such as Nathan Law and Simon Cheng, have been forced to flee Hong Kong and seek asylum in other nations around the globe out of fear for their safety. The UK government has condemned the decisions made by Carrie Lam in introducing the National Security Law and the US government has even gone to the extent of imposing financial sanctions on the Chief Executive. The UK government should follow suit and adopt a far tougher approach, particularly as direct signatories of the Sino-British Joint Declaration which is clearly eroding. It is unclear what the next chapter for Hong Kong will hold, but it is clear that they will be far closer to China before the Declaration expires in 2047 and that Britain has lost any influence over the island. Unfortunately, the offer of a route for citizenship for those in Hong Kong that hold a BNO passport is a blunt instrument and in any case, the likelihood is that the majority of those will not take up the offer. Nevertheless, Britain should not disregard the long history they share with Hong Kong, however questionable, and should now act to ensure fundamental freedoms are respected. 

The urgent need for self-reflection: the UK’s treatment of refugees and migrants

Robert Wilcox

This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity

From the play, Sir Thomas More

In 1517, on what became known as Evil May Day, an anti-immigration riot flared up in London. Resentment towards immigrants had been building for some time. Then, a fortnight prior to the riot, a broker named John Lincoln persuaded a preacher named Dr Bell (possibly Beal) to deliver a sermon in which he blamed immigrants for the abject poverty suffered by the locals, accusing the former of taking the latter’s jobs and depriving them of their livelihoods. He called upon the crowd “to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal”. Several assaults on immigrants occurred in the weeks that followed. In the evening of 30 April, a crowd of around a thousand young men gathered who, after freeing those jailed for assaults on immigrants, proceeded to attack immigrants, their homes and their places of business.

Five hundred years on, the ever-present undercurrents of paranoia and xenophobia have, once again, risen to the surface of political discourse. It is far from unusual to see media coverage of demagogues inciting resentment of foreign nationals living in the UK. These xenophobes embrace a particularly cunning form of sophistry; the effectiveness of their rhetoric lies in its simplicity. It exploits the very real economic inequality that exists in this country to construct a misleading and, ultimately, false narrative. Immigrants become the convenient scapegoat for successive governments’ failure to address economic inequality and people’s dissatisfaction with their own lot in life. This is usually accompanied by the invocation of pejorative language (for example, Nigel Farage’s recent description of a group of six adults and children landing on a Kent beach in a dingy as a “shocking invasion”), which seeks to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of these people, even to the point of dehumanising them.

It is precisely their humanity, however, that should always be at the forefront of our minds, despite the best efforts of the xenophobes. No one would leave their own country on a mere whim, risking their own lives, as well as those of their family, to attempt the perilous journey across open waters in a craft that is barely, if at all, sea-worthy. That is obvious. Why, then, are they so desperate to reach the UK? It is important here to distinguish between refugees and migrants because there are crucial differences between the two groups – a distinction that politicians and the media alike often fail to draw when boats carrying people arrive on our shores.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. They are fleeing situations which most of us can scarcely imagine finding ourselves in. As such, they have a right to seek asylum under international law. Failure by a state to grant asylum can, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees observes, have “potentially deadly consequences”. Therefore, in turning refugees away, the UK is not only breaching its own international legal obligations but risking lives. How can we, as a country, possibly have any moral standing on the international stage if we refuse assistance to those in desperate need of our aid? All the more disturbing is the fact that, in some instances, they are fleeing conflicts in which the UK has itself played a hand. There is a rank hypocrisy to dropping bombs on countries but refusing asylum to the innocent civilians who are caught up in the aftermath.    

Migrants, on the other hand, are individuals whose lives are not directly threatened in their own countries but who seek to better their lives elsewhere. The legal obligations imposed on states in respect of refugees do not extend to migrants, but is that any reason to treat them as anything less than human beings? This is where the xenophobe sees their opportunity, claiming that migrants are a drain on public services and are responsible for nationals being out of work. It is nauseating to think that such arguments could seemingly justify turning away boats, some of which contain children, and deliberately leaving those on board to the mercy of the seas.

In any event, such arguments are either misleading or completely false. Various studies have demonstrated that immigration has a net benefit for the UK economy, with migrants contributing more to the public purse than UK citizens. They also undertake work that UK citizens simply will not do; the agricultural and construction sectors, for example, are dependent upon migrant labour. As to the idea of taking people’s jobs, it is worth remembering that migrants would have to go through the same application process as UK citizens would.

It is roughly at this point that the xenophobe will resort to the argument that migrants have irreversibly changed the character of our local communities. They do not consider the possibility that people from different backgrounds and cultures might enrich our communities. Nor do they consider the possibility that we, as UK citizens, have failed to preserve, or have turned away from, our own heritage. Some years ago, a woman in a shop was told to stop speaking “foreign muck” to her child. The shop was in Wales and the language that the woman was speaking was Welsh. This example serves to illustrate what xenophobia really is. It is an attitude that arises out of, and is perpetuated by, fear and ignorance, both of which manifest as anger. The xenophobe perceives the foreigner as something ‘other’ and anything different, in their view, is an existential threat to themselves.

It is the populist sentiments of the xenophobe which are currently influencing UK government policy towards refugees and migrants. No one is disputing the need for a fair and effective immigration policy. But there is a more urgent need to treat refugees and migrants as exactly what they are: human beings like us. Instead, we have witnessed such policies as the ‘go home or face arrest’ vans which were driven around areas with a significant immigrant population, and the ‘hostile environment’, a combination of measures designed to deter people from coming to the UK and essentially force out those who are already here by denying them access to essential services. In the last few days, it has been revealed that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is intending to deploy the Royal Navy to prevent boats containing refugees and migrants from crossing the English Channel. This, apparently, is the best that this country can do for other members of the human race: push them back out to sea.

The time for us all to engage in much-needed self-reflection is long overdue. In the play, Sir Thomas More, written and revised by a group of playwrights some decades after Evil May Day (one of whom is widely believed to be William Shakespeare), the eponymous More confronts the mob, condemning them for their cruelty and violence. He makes an impassioned speech, asking them to consider what they would do if they found themselves in the same situation as the immigrants and “must needs be strangers”? How would they feel if they found themselves in “a nation of such barbarous temper / [t]hat breaking out in hideous violence / would not afford [them] an abode on earth”? Why should they, simply because they are in a country different to that of their birth, be spurned “like dogs” and treated “as if that God / [o]wed not nor made not you”? This is, fundamentally, an appeal to them to reflect on their shared humanity. And that is the crux of the matter: in failing to challenge the inhumane treatment of refugees and migrants, we dehumanise ourselves too.

The UK’s ‘Magnitsky Laws’: an effective deterrent against human rights abuses or simply posturing?

Tomos Owen

Earlier this month, Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, announced that the UK would be sanctioning 49 individuals and groups accused of gross human rights abuses. This was the first time the UK had individually imposed sanctions for human rights abuses and in Dominic Raab’s own words, ‘“sent a clear message” in regard to the UK government’s position on these actions. Rather than introducing new legislation altogether, the powers to impose sanctions through the so-called ‘Magnitsky Laws’ actually stem from amendments to two existing pieces of legislation. The Criminal Finances Act 2017 amends the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to include gross human rights violations or abuses under their definition of ‘unlawful conduct’. This allows the UK government to freeze the assets of human rights abusers in the UK. An amendment was also made to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill (now the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018), which allows the UK government to impose sanctions on individuals and groups on the basis of gross human rights violations. This latter amendment includes imposing travel bans on human rights abusers. 

These types of sanctions are not without precedent and have been in use in other countries for a number of years. The first Magnitsky sanctions originated in the United States in 2012 following the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who uncovered a massive tax-fraud scheme in his country. This involved hundreds of millions of dollars being fraudulently siphoned off from a private company, Hermitage Capital Management, and into the pockets of officials. Magnitsky reported that this had been possible because the police raided the company following an unjustified accusation of tax evasion, enabling them to confiscate material and pass it onto organised criminals. The criminals then took over three of Hermitage’s Russian companies, made them look unprofitable and fraudulently claimed back $230m in tax paid to the Russian state. Considering that this money belonged to the Russian state you would be forgiven for thinking that Magnitsky was hailed a hero. However, the result was far different and rather than those guilty being brought to justice, a criminal case was actually brought against Magnitsky himself. In 2008, he was arrested and held in poor conditions without trial and without visits from his family or any access to medical treatment. In November 2009, having been beaten and tortured, he died at the hands of officials. This led to the United States to create the Magnitsky Act which enabled them to punish human rights abusers, including freezing their assets and banning them from entering the US.

The Magnitsky laws in the UK have so far been used to sanction a range of human rights abusers. First, and foremost, the UK government used their first set of sanctions to punish those in Russia responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky. This was completely justified, although equally symbolic given that these types of sanctions originated as a response to his death. The others sanctioned by the UK government perhaps give a better indication of where the UK government believes the worst human rights abuses have been, or are currently being, committed around the world. Those which also make the list include 20 Saudi nationals responsible for the muder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and a top Myanmar military commander responsible for the genocide of the Rohingya Muslim population in the country. Interestingly, the sanctions also included two North Korean bodies, the Ministry of State Security Bureau 7 and the Ministry of People’s Security Correctional Bureau, which are responsible for running prison camps where torture and murder are common practices. 

The first steps taken by the UK government are positive and it is clear that those sanctioned were wholly deserving of punishment. Overall, the ability for the UK to impose these types of sanctions offers a new and welcome boost in the fight to uphold human rights globally. Whereas previously the UK would have been more inclined to work with the EU or rely on the UN to introduce human rights sanctions focused on geographical locations, the powers under the Magnitsky Laws allows the government to take a far more targeted approach. That is not to say that the former approach is obsolete and many of the sanctions that the UK were part of through the EU have since been made UK regulations in their own right. However, rather than having to formulate separate sets of regulations for geographical human rights sanctions moving forward, the UK can now move with speed to simply target those responsible through existing legislation. There is also growing evidence that imposing geographical sanctions is ineffective and rather than deter the administrations that are guilty of human rights abuses, they create more hardship for the poorest in those nations. The UN Secretary General has called for blanket sanctions to be lifted because they are exacerbating humanitarian disasters, especially during COVID-19. In a time where human rights sanctions are essential, the Magnitsky Laws provide a fairer alternative that only punish those responsible for abuses and, as these sanctions target the personal wealth of the abusers, they are likely to be a far greater deterrent.  

Whilst the initial steps taken by the UK government are positive, it is too early to judge whether their use of the Magnitsky Laws will be an effective tool against human rights abusers. There will be much scrutiny on who they choose to impose sanction on in the future, but also more importantly, who they choose not to impose sanctions on. To be an effective tool in the fight for human rights globally, sanctions need to be imposed on human rights abusers from countries that are both allies and adversaries. If we are only to impose sanctions on countries less favoured, the Magnitsky Laws will fast become a political tool rather than a serious response to human rights abuses. Unfortunately, the Magnitsky Laws provide clear scope for this abuse because there appears to be little oversight on the decision making process for who should be sanctioned. We are reliant on the Foreign Office’s equitable use of these powers and with the UK still attempting to make several post-Brexit trade deals, it is foreseeable that they may not want to impose human rights sanctions on some individuals for fear of harming negotiations. 

When considering the list of those already sanctioned, there are certainly some glaring omissions. Hong Kong with their new National Security Law is a clear first example. This law is just the latest act in a series of moves by Hong Kong which aims to limit free speech, freedom of the press and freedom of association. The National Security Law hands over large amounts of power to China and introduces a number of disproportionate measures, such as deeming several seemingly minor offences as terrorism, a crime which can carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. Even the simple act of publicly supporting independence in Hong Kong could now lead to arrest. One can only imagine the uproar if this was the case in the UK and those calling for Scottish independence were in the same position. This comparison with the UK highlights just how oppressive the regime of Hong Kong has become and there is a very strong case for imposing Magnitsky sanctions on those responsible. There is an equally strong case for imposing sanctions on those in China responsible for the apparent and ongoing genocide of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. There is a growing amount of evidence that the Uighur population is being subject to mass incarceration, forced labour, forced sterilisation, and even the forced removal of Uighur children from their families. The seriousness of the situation was demonstrated most recently through the verified video of Uighur Muslims being taken off trains while bound and blindfolded. Dominic Raab has already noted that these actions amount to “gross, egregious human rights abuses”, seemingly confirming that they reach the threshold where Magnitsky sanctions could be imposed. It is too early to say whether the UK government is now preparing to impose sanctions for these abuses or if they will be omitted altogether, but it is certain that the next announcement of sanctions is eagerly awaited. 

There are two final points of note when discussing the Magnitsky sanctions. The first was the astounding news that Defence Minister, Ben Wallace, called the Saudi regime only a few days after the announced sanctions to apologise. If true, this seriously undermines the position of the UK government as being tough on human rights abusers and clearly points towards the sanctions being politically motivated. There is clearly no room for apologies when taking strong action against those guilty of human rights abuses and this is the case whether they are nationals of our allies or not. The second, and perhaps a more clear example of how the sanctions are simply posturing, was the announcement by the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, that the UK would resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia. We have written on this extensively so it only suffices to say that this decision was made despite the findings that arms provided by the UK may have been used in the past to commit violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. This is a clear cut case of the UK government wanting to have their cake and eat it too. 

Fighting human rights abuses will never be a part-time affair and the government must decide whether they are willing to risk losing revenue from arms exports in the interest of humanity. Until this is done, a question mark will always be over the UK’s Magnitsky Laws and the motivation for using them. 

Why the UK government’s attitude towards Russian interference is so concerning

Robert Wilcox

“One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive”.

Hannah Arendt, On the Origins of Totalitarianism

The government failed to take the necessary action to safeguard our democracy from Russian interference. That was the damning conclusion drawn by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (the “ISC”) in its report, which was finally released on Tuesday following a nine-month delay. According to the report, “the Government had badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required”. During Prime Ministers’ Questions on Wednesday, however, Boris Johnson dismissed criticism of the Government’s failure to act, declaring that such criticism was “motivated by a desire to undermine the referendum on the European Union that took place in 2016”.

It is worth revisiting how long it has taken for us to get here. The report itself was sent to the Prime Minister on 17 October 2019. It normally takes a maximum of 10 days for such reports to be signed off for publication. Johnson did not see fit to make the report public in the run-up to the General Election last December, despite what it may have told the electorate about the sort of influence that Moscow might attempt to exert over the process. He did, however, approve the report for publication on 13 December 2019, the day after the General Election.

Nevertheless, the report was still not made public. Johnson said that it would not be released until the ISC was reconvened; yet it is for the Prime Minister to nominate its membership. The ISC finally reconvened this month – the longest period the ISC has gone without sitting since its formation in 1994. But the controversy did not end there; the government drew criticism from Tory and opposition MPs alike for its attempt to shoehorn Chris Grayling, the former Secretary of State for Transport, into the role of Chair of the ISC. His particularly infamous track record while in government has led to the nickname “Failing Grayling”. Although the government denied that it was attempting to influence the appointment, which it is not legally entitled to do under section 1(6) of the Justice and Security Act 2013, the whip was removed from Tory MP, Dr Julian Lewis, because he voted with opposition committee members to secure the appointment for himself. Lewis, the only current Tory MP who has previously sat on the ISC, received a text message shortly before the vote, asking that he confirm that he would be voting for Johnson’s preferred candidate. He did not respond as he felt it to be an “improper request”. With the Chair of the ISC in place, the report was at last published on 21 July 2020.

The findings contained in the report are deeply troubling. It notes that “Russia considers the UK one of its top Western intelligence targets”. It then goes on to describe how Russia is capable of orchestrating highly sophisticated cyber-attacks against states, its extensive use of disinformation campaigns, the Russian money circulating within the UK’s political system and beyond (including academia, charities and cultural organisations), and the business connections that exist between members of the British establishment and Russia or Russian companies (the latter, to all intents and purposes, often being arms of the Russian state). Alarming though this is, much of it has long been known or suspected. What is really concerning is the ISC’s finding that our government has actively avoided taking the necessary action to identify possible Russian interference and to respond accordingly.  

Despite “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014”, the report states that the government has not “sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election”. This may be juxtaposed to the US response to allegations of Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election; a summary of an intelligence community assessment into those allegations was made available to the public within two months of the election. In the the case of the EU referendum, for example, no subsequent assessment of potential Russian interference was made. The report notes that “even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe”.

The government’s lack of concern for Russian interference in our democracy is nothing short of scandalous. The delay in releasing the report, which itself states that Russian interference poses an “immediate and urgent threat to our national security”, has meant that actions to be taken on the back of the ISC’s recommendations have been delayed, and that the public went to the ballot box in December without the information contained in the report. Indeed, the report not only describes the means of interference that Russian has at its disposal but, more than that, it shows that our government has failed to perform what is probably the most basic function of any government: to do all it can to preserve the integrity of the state in the face of foreign interference. One does not need to invoke the nuances of political theory to recognise this; if a government does not protect us from foreign interference, we are open to manipulation, without our even being aware of it, and, ultimately, the danger is that we become nothing more than a vassal state. It is enough to simply sow the seeds of distrust in our politicians and political institutions, giving rise to a sense of indifference amongst the populace.

Perhaps, most worryingly of all, is that in responding to the backlash following the publication of this report, our government has betrayed its own authoritarianism. Johnson has rejected calls for an inquiry into potential Russian interference in the EU referendum. He has suggested that it is simply another attempt to cast doubt over the Brexit vote. It seems that this precisely the reason for the government’s inaction. It is worth looking at closely. Johnson is not only opposed to certain conclusions being drawn from information that is available; he does not want the public to have any access to information which might lead them to draw certain conclusions. Such an inquiry might find evidence of interference and, then again, it might not. But the electorate should be informed about the potential means that Moscow might use to attempt to influence us. What is really happening here is our Prime Minister, the person who has the greatest responsibility to our democracy, has taken it upon himself to decide which of our country’s democratic exercises can be the subject of scrutiny. Johnson is essentially deciding what it is that we should and should not know. When a government controls information in this way, it tends to be a sure sign that a country is leaving democracy behind.

Sheer coincidence or simply cronyism?

Robert Wilcox

There is nothing new about political favours. Party leaders will often nominate loyal supporters for peerages, and key allies tend to find their way onto government or opposition front benches whether they are qualified for their office or not. Such appointments seem to have attained the status of political convention and are borne with a certain acceptance. That acceptance, however, has it limits. And in the last couple of months alone, we have seen two particularly notable examples of cronyism which bring the integrity of the government into serious question.

It was recently reported that the Cabinet Office, which is run by Michael Gove, awarded an £840,000 contract to a company by the name of Public First. This contract is for research into the public’s attitude towards government policies, including the effectiveness of the government’s COVID-19 messaging. Pretty innocuous one might think, even sensible given the importance of effective communication at this time. But there is more. The owners of Public First, James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, are long-time collaborators of Gove and the Prime Minister’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings. Frayne served as Gove’s director of communications at the same time Cummings was working as Gove’s chief political adviser. His collaboration with Cummings on political campaigns dates back two decades. As for Wolf, she co-authored the Tory Party’s 2019 election manifesto.

It could merely be a coincidence. Perhaps Public First is the best qualified company to carry out the work, at the lowest cost to the taxpayer. But there was no opportunity to test that hypothesis, as the government chose not to subject the contract to a competitive tendering process. This would have allowed other companies to bid for the contract. Why did the government not do so? According to the Cabinet Office, the COVID-19 emergency meant that the work needed to be carried out urgently. This seems plausible. As always, however, the devil is in the detail. On 18 March, Public First was paid £58,000 in relation to “Gov Comms EU Exit Prog” work. A further payment of £75,000 for “Insight and Evaluation” work was made on 20 March. On 2 April, £42,000 was paid for work relating to “EU Exit Comms”. It was not until 27 May, over two months into lockdown, that Public First was paid for work relating to COVID-19, in the sum of £78,187.07. This does not convey a sense of urgency. The Cabinet Office has since claimed that the references to Brexit communications were actually references to COVID-19, and were the result of administrative errors. There is such a thing as too many coincidences.

The second example, which came to light last month, was the approval given by the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, to a £1bn housing development plan by former press tycoon, Richard Desmond. Jenrick overruled the decision taken by the government’s planning inspectorate, which felt that the development did not deliver enough affordable housing for London’s poorest borough. Jenrick’s timely intervention not only ensured that Desmond got the planning permission but helped Desmond to avoid a £45m charge. That money would have been used by the local council to fund educational and health projects in the community.

Apparently, the familiar spectre of coincidence made an appearance here also. Two months prior to Jenrick’s intervention, he attended a fundraising dinner at which he was sat with Desmond and other property developers. Desmond showed Jenrick a promotional video of the development and, following that event, sent a number of text messages to Jenrick, emphasising the need for a speedy decision to be taken. A mere two weeks following Jenrick’s grant of planning permission, Desmond donated £12,000 to the Tory Party. If it is indeed a coincidence, it is a remarkable one – not because of how completely causally unrelated these events seem to be but because, to the impartial observer, they would seem so completely causally related. It was not until the details of this coincidence were made public, however, that Jenrick admitted that his decision would be viewed as bias by someone acquainted with the facts and that it should, therefore, be quashed. Another coincidence perhaps?

When government ministers use their positions to line the pockets of their friends and allies, it undermines our democracy. That is why it is imperative that they not only do the right thing but are seen to be doing the right thing. The time is long overdue for this government to realise that with power comes responsibility. Their failure to be open and frank about these arrangements speaks volumes. There is nothing new about cronyism. But normally, if a politician hasn’t been forthcoming about such arrangements and there is a hint of suspicion, they at least acknowledge their position is no longer tenable and promptly resign when the facts do come to light. The times that we live in are far from normal.