The Fire Brigades Union has sent a pre-action protocol letter to the Home Secretary threatening judicial review of her alleged failure to address “serious fire and operational safety concerns” aboard the Bibby Stockholm. The FBU claims that the Home Office has failed to arrange fire drills for asylum seekers or adequate risk assessments of the barge, despite more than doubling the number of planned occupants by using single rooms for double occupancy and creating rooms for four or six persons to sleep in. This, they say, creates “an apparently entirely new, and highly dangerous accommodation arrangement” which is “inherently unsafe”. The planned judicial review follows the Home Office’s refusal to meet officials to discuss fire safety concerns, which Robert Jenrick – the Immigration Minister – justified on the basis that the barge meets industry standards and that appropriate bodies, such as the National Fire Chiefs Council, have been consulted.
Two thinktanks – Civil Exchange and the Sheila McKechnie Foundation – have issued a damning report on the state of freedom of expression and democratic discourse in the UK, condemning the “political attack” on democratic spaces by government ministers. The report, titled “Defending our Democratic Spaces”, laments the attempts by Conservative ministers to portray judges, lawyers, charities, campaigners and parts of the media as a “block to democracy rather than key components of it”. Other key issues highlighted in the report include the increasingly authoritarian anti-protest laws being passed, new ID restrictions on the right to vote, reduced access to judicial review, and the creation by ministers of an “intemperate environment” as part of ongoing culture wars. The result, it is feared, is a “chilling effect” on public campaigning and further polarisation of UK politics. The political attacks on freedom are not just affecting those on the left – we also recently saw the closure of Nigel Farage’s bank account with Coutts on the basis of his political beliefs and the subsequent resignation of Natwest’s CEO.
Further details of the sinking of a Greek fishing boat carrying up to 800 people – including up to 100 children – have come out, placing the Greek authorities under intense scrutiny. The tragedy, which occurred on Wednesday 14th June, has seen the confirmed deaths of at least 78 people and only 104 confirmed survivors – with no women or children surviving. The Greek authorities have so far claimed that the boat had no issues navigating until close to the time when it began to sink and that the people onboard had refused help from the Greek coastguard. However, marine tracking evidence obtained by the BBC suggests that the overcrowded fishing vessel was not moving for at least seven hours before it capsized. This has raised questions over the actions of the Greek coastguard, prompting the UN to call for an investigation into Greece’s handling of the situation amid claims more action should have been taken earlier to initiate a full-scale rescue attempt. Up to 500 people are still unaccounted for. In slightly more positive news, nine of the people traffickers involved in the disaster have been apprehended by Greek police and pled not guilty in a Kalamata court to trafficking charges.
The Italian prosecutor for Padua, Valeria Sanzari, has demanded the cancellation of 33 birth certificates of children born to lesbian couples dating back to 2017, saying the name of the non-biological mother should be removed. The mother whose name is eliminated will no longer be able to fulfil a series of tasks, including picking up her child from school without the written permission of her partner. If the legally recognised parent dies, the children could be taken from the family home and become a ward of the state. This comes against the backdrop of the election of Meloni’s right-wing government and a debate in Italy’s lower house on a new law that would make it a crime, punishable by up to two years in jail, for couples who go abroad to have a surrogate baby, even in places where it is legal. Critics of the move, such as Italian parliamentarian Alessandro Zan, have called the proposal “cruel [and] inhumane”, saying it will result in children being “orphaned by decree”.
The head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Kishwer Faulkner, is facing an independent investigation into alleged misconduct. It is reported that around 40 complaints have been made by 12 members of staff against Faulkner, alleging harassment, bullying, and discrimination. It is also alleged that Faulkner described Emma Laslet, a trans contestant on ‘Brain of Britain’, as ‘a bloke in lipstick’ – leading to claims of discriminatory language. Her supporters claim that the investigation is a witch-hunt and coup d’etat, motivated by employees critical of Faulkner’s approach to trans rights after she proposed changes to the definition of sex in the Equality Act 2010. These changes would clarify that ‘sex’ means ‘biological sex’ – a move that would clarify the position of trans people in sport, and ensure that only ‘biological women’ can use single-sex spaces. Faulkner also wrote to the Scottish government early in 2022 urging them to pause their proposed reforms to gender recognition (which were ignored). The investigation has since been paused while the Commission seeks legal advice on the impact of leaked confidential information as a result of the original report on this investigation by Channel 4 News.
Yet again, the Public Order Bill and the Illegal Migration Bill have been back in the papers this week. The latter has made it through the House of Commons by 59 votes, following threatened rebellions from both the right and liberal wings of the Tory party. One of the resulting amendments provides the Home Secretary with the discretion to refuse to comply with interim injunctions from the ECtHR – known as ‘Rule 39 Orders’ (or ‘pyjama injunctions’ by some Tory MPs). In deciding whether to exercise her discretion, the Home Secretary will be entitled to have regard to the timeliness of any orders made by Strasbourg, as well as the ‘transparency’ of such orders. It is, however, unclear what practical effect this will have since the obligation to obey these orders exists at the international level, which domestic legislation cannot change. Once the Bill is debated in the House of Lords, it is expected that several amendments will be tabled in an attempt to temper some of the more draconian measures in the Bil – such as the detention of pregnant women and children – after the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that it is ‘seriously concerned’ about the impact of the Bill on such groups, and the implications for victims of modern slavery. Regarding the Public Order Bill (which is awaiting royal assent), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described the measures introduced by the Bill as ‘wholly unnecessary’, ‘disproportionate’ and inconsistent with our international obligations, and has called on the government to reverse the legislation ‘as soon as feasible’. The government maintains that both Bills are necessary and compliant with international law.
The increasingly violent conflict in Sudan has prompted the UNHRC to call on both the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces to halt the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. Since the conflict broke out on 15th April just over two weeks ago, over 20,000 people have fled Sudan for Chad, with various states, including the UK and Saudi Arabia, involved in the evacuation effort. Reports have come in of deliberate bombing of residential homes, repeated breaches of ceasefires and at least 400 dead in the capital, Khartoum. However, this figure is likely to be much higher, as the conflict is preventing many from seeking help. It’s also reported that millions are without water and power as a result of the targeting of civilian infrastructure. Human Rights Watch has said that the conflict highlights the need for increased international scrutiny in the region, and MPs in Westminster have called for sanctions on certain Sudanese officials.
Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” crossing the Channel will see a Bill brought before Parliament this week aimed at stripping those who arrive in the UK via small boats of their right to claim asylum. Potential measures under the Bill include new powers to declare claims inadmissible and a duty on the Home Secretary to remove such asylum-seekers to Rwanda or another third country. There may also be new criminal offences created for those who arrive via small boats, building on or adopting the draft Illegal Immigration (Offences) Bill. It is not clear how these plans will comply with the UK’s international obligations given the European Court of Human Rights’ previous intervention on the issue and their granting of an interim injunction, although the High Court gave the plans the green light back in December. The move also raises questions about the government’s plans for a domestic ‘Bill of Rights’, which previously included a clause obliging the UK courts to ignore interim measures from Strasbourg.
Suella Braverman is expected to introduce an amendment to the Public Order Bill to provide protective measures for journalists following defeats in the House of Lords. The Lords voted in favour of preventing reporters from being subject to police action after Hertfordshire police had to issue an apology to various reporters and photographers were detained at a Just Stop Oil demonstration in December last year. The government has not accepted the wording of the Lords’ amendment, with their proposed version merely preventing a police constable from detaining a person for the sole purpose of observing or reporting on a protest, which begs the question what exactly the government aims to exclude in doing so.
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill has been voted through the House of Commons amidst historic industrial action across the UK. Workers in health, education, transport and the civil service came out on strike in disputes over pay, jobs and conditions, and members of the Fire Brigades Union have voted overwhelmingly in favour of walking out. The synchronisation of strikes across different sectors has seen levels of disruption not seen in at least decades. The government has published a memorandum on the compatibility of the Bill with the ECHR, but the issue is far from clear cut – the Labour party and trade unions have opposed the Bill, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights has put written questions to the Secretary of State. The TUC has not ruled out legal action if the Bill is passed, and February 1st saw nationwide protests on the “right to strike day”.
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