The Prime Minister Boris Johnson accompanied by the Home Secretary Priti Patel visit North Yorkshire Police HQ in July 2020. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street
Every government introduces new laws — it’s what politicians are for, after all — but the agenda for Boris Johnson’s government has raised serious concerns across the political spectrum.
If passed, these bills would place restrictions on everyday parts of life in Britain. From the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which could make peaceful protest punishable by time in jail, to the Elections Bill that could change who is, and who isn’t allowed to vote.
The Nationality and Borders Bill could redefine what it means to enter the UK illegally and could even see people stripped of their British citizenship without warning. The NHS could see the greatest restructuring in its 70 years of existence under the Health and Care Bill, while the Online Safety Bill could make the internet a very different place to the one we know.
These are the five new pieces of legislation you need to have on your agenda going into 2022.
1. The Nationality and Borders Bill
What is in the Nationality and Borders Bill?
The Nationality and Borders Bill is far reaching in its implications for the meaning of nationality, the rights of asylum seekers and immigrants, and the treatment of victims of slavery or human trafficking.
The bill redefines who can and who cannot claim asylum in the UK. It does this by marking certain routes as legal, and therefore others – such arriving by a small boat across the Channel – illegal. This claims to break the business model of people smugglers by incentivising bringing people to the UK.
Those who enter the UK by an illegal route would not only have their claim for asylum ruled as inadmissible, but they could also receive a jail sentence of up to four years.
The bill contains a provision that would allow the government to strip people of their British citizenship without warning for public interest reasons including counter-terrorism or if they pose a threat to national security.
What does the government say about the Nationality and Borders Bill?
This bill is the cornerstone of the government’s New Plan for Immigration which it characterises as “firm but fair”.
“It will deliver on what the British people have voted for time and time again – for the UK to take back control of its borders,” said Home Secretary Priti Patel who brought the bill to parliament.
Ministers assert that the measures are aimed at cutting costs, breaking people-smuggling gangs and preventing dangerous criminals from entering the UK.
“Speed up” the removal of “failed asylum seekers and dangerous foreign criminals.”
Introduce maximum life sentences for people smugglers.
Increase the maximum sentence for illegally entering the UK.
Establish the power to process asylum claims offshore for those who travel “by illegal routes.”
What do critics say about the Nationality and Borders Bill?
There has been widespread opposition to the bill, with many critics fearful of its implication on the rights of both foreign and British people.
Barristers led by the human rights QC Raza Husain have claimed the proposed law breaches international and domestic law, representing “the biggest legal assault on international refugee law ever seen in the UK.”
In the legal opinion commissioned by Freedom From Torture, the objective of the bill is described as “the penalisation, both criminally and administratively, of those who arrive by irregular means in the UK to claim asylum.”
And it’s not just asylum seekers and refugees who would be impacted. The bill would grant the government the power to deprive a person’s citizenship without them even being told, Alba Kapoor, senior policy officer at The Runnymede Trust has warned. Under this clause, ‘Britishness’ hinges on good behaviour, warns Kapoor.
Modern day slavery charity Unseen has warned MPs that under the bill, victims of human trafficking considered to be a “threat to public order” would be disqualified from any government support, ignoring the fact that many victims of trafficking are forced to commit crime as part of their exploitation.
What stage is the Nationality and Borders Bill at?
The House of Lords will hear a second reading of the bill on Wednesday January 5 2021, with a protest organised outside of parliament organised by campaign group Media Diversified.
“We, a coalition of 20 faith and non-faith groups plus individuals call, upon you to join us as we create a spectacle like no other to coincide with the second reading of the #NationalityandBordersBill,” reads the Facebook event.
2. The Elections Bill
What is the Elections Bill?
Through the Elections Bill, ministers hope to make it mandatory for people to show photo ID before casting a vote at their local polling station. The bill would also affect the rules on campaign spending and give parliament oversight of the Electoral Commission, which runs elections.
What does the government say about the Elections Bill?
The government says that the bill – set to take effect in 2023, if it is passed into law – is designed to crack down on voter fraud.
Under the new measures, a photo ID will be required to vote in person and those using a postal vote on a long term basis will have to re-apply every three years.
Chloe Smith, Cabinet Office minister, told the Commons that “fraudulent criminality is a very real threat to the integrity of elections”. The Conservative MP referred repeatedly to an electoral fraud scandal in the 2014 Tower Hamlets mayoral vote, after which former mayor Luftur Rahman was found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices.
With the UK leaving the EU, the legislation strips European citizens of their previous automatic right to vote or stand in elections.
What do critics say about the Elections Bill?
Critics are united in their assertion that there is no need for new legislation to prevent voter fraud – there have been three convictions for voter impersonation in the UK since 2014 – and therefore point to other motives for the government in changing the laws on voting.
Labour has accused the prime minister of trying to “choose the voters” through the new legislation, warning it could make it more difficult for homeless, elderly and low-income people to vote.
Founder of the Hands Off Our Vote initiative, Freddie Mallinson, told The Big Issue, that the requirement amounts to “bureaucratic nonsense [which] makes it that much harder to go and vote and could easily mean hundreds of thousands miss out on their chance to have a say.”
“I just don’t see the justification or rationale without concluding they’re passing a law they believe will benefit them and their political careers,” he continued.
When it comes to changes on campaign spending, the laws would affect spending from non-party groups such as trade unions. Labour and unions have accused ministers of introducing legislation which would disproportionately affect their fundraising and expenditure.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of the Aslef rail union and chair of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, told the Guardian the measures in the election bill were “a deliberate attempt to silence the trade unions that have a century-long relationship with the Labour party”. He added: “It’s not only an attack on freedom of expression, it’s also utterly unnecessary – trade union money is the cleanest money in politics.”
The bill also changes the relationship between the government and the Electoral Commission, which runs elections. Under the new proposals, “the body that invigilates the fair conduct of the electoral process will have its agenda dictated by the ruling party. It is not clear, under such a regime, how all the other parties are meant to retain confidence in the independence of the regulator,” wrote Guardian columnist Rafael Behr.
What stage is the Elections Bill at?
The bill has passed the first and second stages of scrutiny by MPs, meaning it moves to the House of Lords. Dates for the report stage and third reading are yet to be announced.
3. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
What is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill?
The PCSC Bill is designed to introduce new police powers and review the rules around crime and justice across England and Wales.
It proposes wide-ranging new police powers when it comes to protests, such as the ability to impose “conditions” on any protest which is deemed to be disruptive to the local community and up to 10 years in prison for damaging memorials, such as statues.
Other new measures include increased jail sentences for assaults on emergency workers and child murderers.
What does the government say about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill?
Home Secretary Priti Patel has focussed on elements of the bill designed to address sentencing for sexual offences and violent crime when discussing it in parliament, describing them as “crucial measures… to support victims of violent crimes including young women and girls”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a similar angle when speaking to the BBC, highlighting the increase in sentences for rapists and stopping the early release of sexual and violent offenders in what he called “a very sensible package of measures” .
What do critics say about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill?
Cities across the UK saw thousands join Kill the Bill protests in 2021, resurrecting the old protest slogan used around the world with a more specific meaning.
Calling for the bill to be binned, protesters were angry that it would allow police to impose “conditions” — widely seen to mean restrictions or outright bans — on protests if their actions caused “serious annoyance” to the surrounding community, organisations and businesses.
The bill has also been widely condemned by human rights groups for limiting the right to peaceful protest through limits on noise permitted at demos and hefty prison sentences for those deemed to be causing a “public nuisance”. Demonstrations and marches could become a thing of the past as being too noisy or causing too much “annoyance” would be grounds to shut them down.
Lord minister Baroness Williams of Trafford has recently proposed amendments to the bill that could allow police to stop and search people “without suspicion” during protests, as well as criminalising “locking on” to objects or being “equipped” to do so.
The traveller community has raised concerns about Part four in the bill that would change trespass from a civil to a criminal offence. The criminalisation of trespass could make it punishable by a £2500 fine, time in prison, or the confiscation of the vehicle – which for many Travellers is their home.
“The Government have failed Gypsy and Traveller communities – there is no point in bringing in more laws which tell Travellers where they can’t go when you aren’t telling them where they can go,” said Abbie Kirkby, at Friends, Families and Travellers that campaigns against racism and discrimination against Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.
What stage is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill at?
The bill has passed through the House of Commons and is currently making its way through the House of Lords. It is currently in the report stage, which gives all members of the Lords a further opportunity to examine and make amendments (changes) to it.
From Monday January 10, the amendments tabled by the Lords will be discussed. The Lords will then be able to vote for or against these amendments, sending the edited bill back to the House of Commons for approval from MPs.
4. The Health and Care Bill
What is the Health and Care Bill?
The Health and Care Bill focuses on restructuring parts of the NHS in England to create a more localised system with less central bureaucracy.
It proposes to establish 42 independently run Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) that cover the whole of England, made up of GP surgeries, community and mental health trusts, hospitals and other primary care services, with local authorities and other care providers.
These ICSs would be run independently by boards made up of NHS trust representatives, finance, nursing and medical directors, as well as private companies. While there are currently 42 ICSs in England, the health and care bill proposes to establish ICSs as statutory bodies, meaning they would have the power to authorise legislation.
The bill also increases powers for the health secretary to intervene on the configuration of services. At present, controversial changes to NHS services can be referred to the government. But under the proposed bill, the health secretary would be able to intervene in minor local plans at any time.
What does the government say about the Health and Care Bill?
Health Secretary Sajid Javid inherited the bill from his predecessor, Matt Hancock, when he took over the role in June.
“The fundamental aim of this legislation is to put into statute the requests the NHS made of government in 2019, while making a number of other changes to support improvement across the health and care system,” wrote Javid to the Health and Social Care Committee ahead of the bill’s second reading in July.
Javid wrote that the bill would “empower local health and care leaders to pursue new and innovative ways of delivering for people and communities”.
What do critics say about the Health and Care Bill?
Critics of the bill argue that it would pave the way for the NHS to be replaced by a profit-driven, American-style health care system.
Multiple Labour MPs have also thrown their weight behind the campaign to scrap the bill, including Rebecca Long-Bailey, John McDonnell and Barry Gardiner.
“We don’t want to see the further privatisation, the further Americanisation of the NHS, where they feel for your wallet before they feel for your pulse,” said Labour MP for Leeds East Richard Burgon at a protest organised by union Unite in opposition of the bill.
Dubbing the legislation the “privatisation bill,” Unite has warned that it would bring about a “complete break up of the NHS as we know it”.
NHS workers including doctors have also joined protests and raised their voices online. Julia Patterson, founder of campaign group EveryDoctor, warns that “up to 11 per cent of the NHS budget already goes to private companies.”
“This bill will embed private companies in the NHS in England, and give them the power to decide who gets what treatment when. No one should be profiting from public healthcare, it’s as black and white as that,” the organisation said.
What stage is the Health and Care Bill at?
The bill has already passed the House of Commons and is now facing scrutiny from the Lords. From January 11 it will be in the committee stage, followed by a vote on whether to accept or reject the amendments put forward by the Lords.
5. The Online Safety Bill
What is the Online Safety Bill?
The Online Safety Bill is currently in the draft stage, meaning that it is still in the process of being written. A joint committee of Lords and MPs has been appointed to consider the government’s draft before it is put to parliament.
The bill aims to establish a new framework to tackle harmful content online, such as images of child abuse, by regulating social media and tech companies.
Published in May, the first draft of the bill put a “duty of care” on large social websites to protect children online by removing harmful or illegal content. However the draft did not specify how these tech giants should police such content.
It would apply to any tech firm that allows users to post their own content — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat — but also pornography sites like OnlyFans and search engines incuding Google.
Ofcom – the UK regulatory body that regulates TV video and radio – would be tasked with enforcing the legislation if passed.
What does the government say about the Online Safety Bill?
The government says it is seeking to make the UK a safer place to be online while defending free expression.
Former Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden has called the proposed laws “ground-breaking” and the means to “usher in a new age of accountability for tech and bring fairness and accountability to the online world.”
Damian Collins, chairman of the joint committee issuing the report said “we need to call time on the Wild West online”.
“What’s illegal offline should be regulated online… For too long, big tech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless…. the era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end,” Collins continued.
MPs across the political divide have voiced their support for the bill including Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East, who tweeted that she hoped the bill would address online trolling such as that experienced by TV presenter Chris Packham.
What do critics say about the Online Safety Bill?
Other countries have tried to impose laws on these companies, but have faced issues in enforcing the rules on tech giants that exist across geographical borders. On the other side of the coin, however, Facebook has faced criticism for bowing to pressure from the Vietnamese government to censor posts with anti-state language rather than risk being banned in the country.
While many are in agreement that the internet needs to be made a safer place in the UK – and the proposals have been welcomed by children’s safety campaigns – civil liberties organisations are concerned that regulation of the internet by the government could lead to restrictions on freedom of speech.
Think tank the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) said a new report advising on the contents of the draft bill “fails to alleviate the gigantic threats posed by the draft Online Safety Bill to freedom of speech, privacy and innovation”.
“It would still mean speech being less free online compared to offline,” ASI’s research head Matthew Lesh told the BBC.
UK charity Glitch has praised the first draft of the bill for recognising the “severity of racist and misogynistic online abuse,” but said it didn’t go far enough “to reflect the gendered nature” of abuse directed at women, black women and non-binary people from minoritised communities online.
What stage is the Online Safety Bill at?
As the bill is still in the consultation phase, dates for its entry into parliament have not yet been released.
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