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 UK has seen an increasingly falling rate in arrests and prosecutions for cannabis possession over recent years, as police forces no longer see the point in enforcement. The Liberal Democrats have campaigned for its legalisation since 2016, and the first medically-prescribed cannabis was permitted in the UK in 2018. However, crucial NHS cannabis-based medicines for epilepsy remained prohibitively difficult to access for another year, with the majority of self-reported ‘medicinal’ users still turning to the black market. With growing numbers of US states, alongside Canada and South Africa decriminalising recreational use over the past three years, some UK MPs believe that cannabis legalisation will occur in the UK within five to ten years.
A number of legal developments put free speech under the spotlight this week.
First, media commentators disputed the significance of the Duchess of Sussex’s successful privacy claim against Associated Newspaper Limited, covered in last week’s round-up. A leader in The Times issued the grave warning that ‘Mr Justice Warby’s judgment creates a precedent that will have a chilling effect on the media,’ not least ‘given that what was at stake…were issues that affect society as whole’. Some media lawyers took a dim view of such alarm, suggesting there was little to be surprised at in Warby J’s carefully reasoned conclusion that no legitimate public interest was to be found in publishing the intimate contents of a daughter’s letter to her father.
Then came Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement of a proposed free speech law targeting universities, designed to reverse ‘the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring’. Its reception was mixed to say the least. The scheme would impose a statutory free speech duty on universities and student unions, enabling ‘no-platformed’ academics, students and visiting speakers to sue for compensation. Potential infringements would be investigated by a mandated ‘free speech champion’, empowered to recommend various forms of redress. While many academics welcomed the basic principles behind the proposal, others complained that it fomented “phantom fears” of a “cancel culture” crisis.
For several years, China has been enacting a policy of repression and brainwashing against over a million Uyghur Muslims in its northwest Xinjiang province. Reports include instances of forced sterilisation. Its hundreds of ‘re-education’ camps have been revealed as places where contact with relatives, the ability to pray and even when to use the toilet are tightly controlled. A leaked document reveals the state’s use of algorithms to score inmates on a ‘behaviour-modification’ points system, which tells guards when to mete out rewards and punishments. Absent from their homes, Uyghur places of worship are secretly bulldozed en masse.
On Tuesday, the UK government announced new rules that seek to prevent UK companies profiting from forced Uyghur labour. Companies will have to demonstrate that their supply chains are free from slavery. Public procurement rules will also attempt to exclude suppliers with links to human rights violations. This new policy appears to implement Key Proposal no. 5 of the newly created China Research Group, a think tank set up by Tory MPs to ‘counter violations of international universal human rights’. The ERG-style group was formed after China’s coronavirus cover-up operation became clear.
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