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. 

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.