People aged 42 and over are now able to book their Covid-19 vaccines, joining the more than 33.8 million people in the UK who have received their first dose. The news comes as the Joint Committee on Human Rights called for a review of all fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for lockdown breaches and called the system “muddled, discriminatory and unfair”. The committee chair, Harriet Harman MP, said the “lack of legal clarity” meant an unfair system which “disproportionately hits the less well-off and criminalises the poor over the better off”. The report highlighted concerns about FPN validity, an inadequate review and appeals process, the size of penalties and the criminalisation of those unable to pay. A CPS review found that 27% of coronavirus-related prosecutions that reached open court in February were incorrectly charged. The lack of an adequate means to seek review of an FPN, other than through criminal prosecution, significantly increases the risk that human rights breaches will not be remedied, according to the committee. The importance of ECHR Articles 7 and 8 (no punishment without law and right to family and private life, respectively) was highlighted in particular.
On Wednesday, Amnesty International released its 2020/21 report on the state of the world’s human rights. Amnesty’s UK director, Kate Allen, also called for an inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic and said “the government is now shamefully trying to strip away our right to lawfully challenge its decisions, no matter how poor they are.” The report highlighted human rights concerns related to the government’s response to COVID-19, including health, immigration, domestic abuse and housing. There were also concerns around police conduct around racial discrimination and excessive use of force against protesters; during the first national lockdown in May, 10,000 of 43,644 recorded stop and searches conducted against young black men. Several legal developments were criticised for falling short of human rights standards, including the Immigration Act, the Gender Recognition Act, the Domestic Abuse Bill, the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which would create a “presumption against prosecution” for members of the British Army accused of overseas crimes, including torture, committed more than five years earlier.
On Monday the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021 came into force, allowing the Attorney General, Suella Braverman QC, to be the first minister to take maternity leave. The Act grants cabinet ministers six months’ maternity leave whilst retaining their government post, whereas in the past MPs would have to resign to take time off to give birth. The Act is not without its critics, including those saying it should apply to MPs outside the Cabinet, and include provisions for paternity, adoption and shared parental leave. There was also heated debate in the Lords on the gender-neutral phrasing of the original Bill, with the Lords voting to replace ‘person’ with ‘mother’ in the final Act, despite its potential exclusion of trans and non-binary people.
A new offence of non-fatal strangulation has been included in the Domestic Abuse Bill following a campaign by the Centre for Women’s Justice, other organisations and the Victims’ and Domestic Abuse Commissioners. The Bill is passing through the House of Lords and now includes the offence of intentionally strangling another person or otherwise affecting their ability to breathe. Currently perpetrators are usually charged with common assault, with a maximum of just six months in jail. The Bill also includes amendments strengthening the laws on ‘revenge porn’, making it an offence to threaten to share intimate images of a person with the intention to cause distress, and extends the coercive control offence to situations where perpetrators and victims do not live together. The Victims’ and Domestic Abuse Commissioners welcomed the amendments but urged the Government to go further in creating a defence for people who commit offences due to domestic abuse.
On Friday the Women and Equalities Committee published the Government’s response to its report on the impact of coronavirus on BAME people, in relation to inequalities in health, employment, universal credit, housing, and the no recourse to public funds policy. The Committee’s inquiry found that comorbidities in BAME people place them at risk of experiencing coronavirus more severely and with graver health outcomes. Specific risks to BAME people include difficulty in accessing Government guidance, the disproportionate impact on BAME people of zero-hour contracts and being denied furlough, difficulties in applying for Universal Credit, and overcrowded housing due to housing inequality.
The Department of Health and Social Care on Friday published new guidance for care homes and visitors, to take effect on 8 March. This is not a change in the law, as visits to care homes have never been unlawful, but the new guidance sets out the government’s advice on safe visiting practices. This is that:
The week began with the first Opposition Day of 2021, with Labour choosing to put council tax and employment rights centre of the Parliamentary stage. This followed an admission last week by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng that the government was reviewing certain workers’ rights which had been saved post-Brexit as retained EU employment law. Responding to allegations that the government planned to scrap the 48-hour maximum work week and change the rules around rest breaks and holiday pay calculation, he tweeted ‘[w]e are not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights’. During the Opposition Day Debate Mr Kwarteng confirmed the review was no longer happening and that the government would not row back on the 48-hour work week, annual leave entitlement or rest breaks at work.
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