Human rights risk being forgotten in the understandable rush to protect public healthby Martha Spurrier / March 23, 2020 / Leave a comment
Coronavirus has created a public crisis on a previously unimaginable scale. Around the world, politicians are faced with the unenviable task of trying to fix societies that are breaking down. The change to our public and personal lives that this crisis demands is so dramatic that each and every one of us is affected.
The UK government has an obligation to take steps to protect people’s lives. At my campaign organisation Liberty, we understand that this will involve restrictions on individual freedoms. So it makes sense, for example, to prevent public gatherings and keep people at home for as long as it’s necessary and proportionate to do so. The PM’s statement on Monday evening included measures to this effect.
However, we’re also keenly aware that states of emergency and exception are often the moments when essential rights and liberties are hollowed out; when executive power oversteps the mark, hidden from public scrutiny by the long shadow of crisis.
And in such a fast-paced, pressured environment, when all of us are suffering a unique but connected hardship, the human rights of everyone, particularly those of us who are most at risk from abuse, are all too easily missed.
While the coronavirus is new, public health crises, pandemics and situations of national emergency are not. The UK government already has legislation at its disposal. We have the Public Health Act 1984 which gives a range of powers to a range of authorities. We have the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which, again, gives emergency powers. Why the government is seeking more powers, some that would severely limit our rights in the long term, is unknown and we are seeking urgent clarity on why we need standalone legislation in the form of the Coronavirus Bill.
This Bill would not only give the government extraordinary powers, it would enable it to enact them for an extraordinarily long time—much longer than this pandemic is expected to last. If it is reportedly the view of Public Health England that this crisis will extend to spring 2021, why then is the government giving itself powers that could last well beyond two years? Although it is being widely reported that this Bill will lapse after two years, a more detailed look reveals that there is a further clause that allows the government to extend those powers for a further six months, and potentially further still. This could happen without the parliamentary scrutiny that would be given to ordinary primary legislation, let alone extraordinary legislation like this.
To keep a reasonable check on these new powers, it’s essential that this Bill is regularly scrutinised. The government concession inserting a six-month review and vote on the legislation in the House of Commons is a welcome one. But it doesn’t go far enough: absent a huge rebellion, these powers will remain on the statute books until well into 2022. Instead we are demanding a firm three-month sunset clause. Parliament has the power to approve further legislation, should this crisis demand it.
The breadth of the Bill is also extraordinary. It runs to more than 300 pages, and includes some spectacular restrictions, including powers to rearrange or cancel elections. It effectively hollows out standards for social care in the community, making clear that those of us most at risk—older people, disabled people and those requiring hands-on care—are likely to see care assessments downgraded and provision loosened. If you have a serious mental health condition, this Bill will also leave you vulnerable, stripping away vital protections and enabling the state to detain you in hospital more easily.
Elsewhere, the Bill gives the home secretary the power to close ports and borders for extended periods of time if we don’t have enough border staff. Even in a public health emergency this is an extreme power, well beyond anything announced so far, and we’re urging parliamentarians to implement a 72-hour maximum limit on the period for which the UK’s borders can be closed. The Bill also makes it easier for the government and intelligence services to conduct covert surveillance on all of us.
A Bill of this scale cannot be simply “nodded through,” and the powers it contains must be scrutinised continuously. The Lords must interrogate its provisions and ask the Commons to think again on controversial points.
What is also worrying is what the Bill doesn’t do—the people it doesn’t acknowledge, their rights not even considered. It fails to address the situation for migrants, for example. If you’re an undocumented migrant your access to healthcare is fraught because of the hostile environment. Although everyone is entitled to treatment for coronavirus free of charge, whatever their immigration status, there’s a hidden, far greater cost. If you go to hospital you risk your data ending up in the hands of the Home Office, effectively being shopped to immigration enforcement, even during this pandemic. What this means is that if testing becomes widespread, this group may be missed because of our own self-defeating policies.
This week’s Windrush Lesson Learned report widely condemned the hostile environment. Yet here we are, lessons not learned and another scandal in the making. Liberty, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Medact have been asking for a suspension of the hostile environment for weeks now. The government has failed to answer.
The rights to leave or enter your country, to participate in free and fair elections and to be protected against arbitrary detention are the bedrock of a healthy democracy. But this Bill undermines all of these key tenets.
While it is right that the government should take decisive steps to protect life in the context of this pandemic, we’re urging parliamentarians to amend the elements of this Bill that go too far.
Coronavirus has already changed the face of British society. This Bill will do so further. Its potential consequences are too grave and too far-reaching for it to be passed without proper examination.
We’re all prepared to change what’s normal, but we need to be wary of a government that is so keen to change what is normal in the long-term. These are unprecedented times, and that calls for unprecedented measures. Our role now is to closely scrutinise how the government uses its powers. They must be measures of last resort deployed reasonably and proportionately, and only available for a limited time. The prime minister is right that we can beat this virus, but we don’t need to sacrifice all our hard-won rights and freedoms to do so.