Three’s a Crowd: UK introducing three laws that could threaten human rights

August 8, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

UN humanitarian and environmental expert, David Boyd, has warned that Boris Johnson’s government is introducing three pieces of legislation that will make human rights violations more common without repercussions for those who violate such rights. 

What does this mean?

Mr Boyd referred to the policing bill, the Cover Human Intelligence Sources Act 2021 (CHIS) and plans to weaken judicial review which is the legal process of challenging ministerial decisions. The policing bill involves stringent measures including the ability for the police to stop protests based on noise and disruption to the public. Meanwhile, the CHIS Act protects undercover state agents from criminal prosecution if they commit an offence on UK soil. You can read more about CHIS while it was still a bill here. Mr Boyd warns that together, the three pieces of legislation are “shrinking civic space” and “counter the direction we need to be going in”. 

What's the big picture effect?

Mr Boyd expressed his concern after campaign group Not1More wrote to the UN to ask for intervention in an attempt to preserve the rights of peaceful protesters within the UK. The introduction of these new laws does raise concerns over government accountability and various freedoms we take for granted such as the right to peaceful protest. 

Moreover, changes to judicial review could put the fundamental right of access to justice “in jeopardy” by making the government more immune to legal challenges. These will come in the form of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. Mark Elliott, Professor of Public Law at Cambridge, feared that such changes risked “eviscerating judicial review”. However, Helen Mountfield QC described the bill as a “damp squib” as only two of its 48 sections “relate to judicial review at all”. Mrs Mountfield highlighted that it is “the executive, not the judiciary, in danger of stepping on toes in the delicate constitutional dance”. Nonetheless, in 2013, David Cameron’s coalition government severely restricted judicial review by raising court fees and restricting legal aid. As a result, the Bar Council has recorded a 44% decline in judicial review applications from 2015 to 2019. 

CHIS, also known as the “Spycops Bill”, has also had a profound impact. The legislation allows covert agents including police officers, MI5 agents and military personnel to carry out criminal conduct without consequence. The Act is questionable as it fails to outline what criminal conduct is or is not permissible. This means that undercover operatives are not prohibited from committing serious offences such as murder, torture and sexual offences. Moreover, this comes at a time where undercover police are being investigated for abusing women. Most notably, Kate Wilson, an environmental activist, was found to have been under surveillance by six operatives. One such operative deceived her into a long term sexual relationship, with the Metropolitan Police Service conceding that such surveillance was “neither proportionate nor justified”. 

Not1More have warned that those wishing to protest will be exposed to “undue restrictions, arbitrary detention and/or invasive policing”. Working alongside law firm Global Diligence LLP, Not1More reported 400 incidents of unwarranted and aggressive behaviour to deter protests against shale fracking and the HS2 line. Mr Boyd rightly highlighted that, in an environmental context, protestors attempting to address the current crisis “deserve our full support”. It is rather “troubling” when the UK is showing signs of moving away from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and pursuing an agenda of repression. 

Despite this, the UK government believes “public order legislation is out of date” and these new laws will strike a balance between the rights of protestors and the rights of others who wish to “go about their business unhindered”. These laws will supposedly enable the police to “better manage highly disruptive protests”. Historically, such disruptive protests have “cost millions to the taxpayer and caused misery to businesses and local communities” according to a spokesperson for the government. Overall, these three new laws vary in their impact on the public but they serve to outline a potentially worrying trend that the government seems to be pursuing – the aim of avoiding/minimising its legal accountability.

Report written by Dan Furniss

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