April 2021 blog - To “build back better”, the Government has to put human rights at the heart of its coronavirus response

By Jun Pang, Policy and Campaigns Officer at Liberty

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that unless all of us are protected, none of us are. But the Government’s response, including the Coronavirus Act 2020, has prioritised punishing people rather than supporting them to follow public health guidelines. On 25 March, Parliament renewed the Coronavirus Act for the second time. But the fight for a human rights-focused recovery is just beginning.

Right at the start of the pandemic, Parliament passed the Coronavirus Act 2020. The Act contains wide-ranging powers, provides only limited parliamentary oversight, and prioritises law enforcement over protecting people. Every single charge brought under Schedule 21 of the Act, which allows officers to remove or detain a “suspected infectious person” for screening and assessment, has been incorrect. Using powers under the Act, the Government has clamped down on the right to protest, as shown through its heavy-handed responses to the vigil for Sarah Everard,[1] Kill the Bill protests across the country,[2] as well as Black Lives Matter protests last summer[3]. In many ways the Coronavirus Act 2020 has laid the groundwork for longer-term erosions of our human rights—including those contained in the Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill, also known as the Police Crackdown Bill.  

Tired of waiting for the Government to change its approach, Liberty decided to take matters into our own hands. In the run-up to the March vote, Liberty worked in collaboration with a range of expert organisations and lawyers to devise an alternative, rights-centred approach to the pandemic: the Coronavirus (Rights and Support) Bill, also known as the Protect Everyone Bill. The Protect Everyone Bill covers a wide range of areas, including immigration, data protection, education, housing, access to justice, social welfare, and prisons.

Developed in consultation with The Traveller Movement and Friends, Families and Travellers, our Bill also contains specific protections for Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) communities, whose needs have been consistently neglected by the Government throughout the past year. Our Bill creates an eviction ban and extends it to Gypsy and Traveller communities. GRT organisations have been calling for this ban since the beginning of the pandemic, given that the continued potential use of enforcement powers seeks to address a purported problem–“unauthorised encampments”–that are often the direct result of a lack of adequate site provision.[4] In addition, our Bill requires the Government to ensure that GRT communities living on encampments are able to access water and sanitation facilities.

In terms of education, our Bill requires the Government to consider the impact that temporary school closures will have on human rights, including those of digitally excluded pupils. We know that GRT pupils have been disproportionately affected by the shift to remote education, and that before the pandemic, GRT communities faced some of the greatest issues in accessing the education system of any ethnic group.[5][6]

Apart from these provisions, the Protect Everyone Bill also prohibits blanket bans on protest, provides for parliamentary scrutiny of any lockdown regulations, and establishes a right to appeal any fines. It suspends the racist Hostile Environment, protects people’s right to privacy, guarantees full pay for sick and self-isolating workers, and ensures that everyone is able to get the financial support they need to weather the pandemic, among many other measures. The Bill also scraps provisions in the existing Coronavirus Act 2020 that allow the Government to downgrade disabled people’s health, social care, and educational support.

The Protect Everyone Bill was tabled as a Private Members’ Bill by Dawn Butler MP and a cross-party coalition of MPs in the run-up to the March debate. Although our Bill wasn’t passed, and the Coronavirus Act 2020 was renewed, it has never been clearer that we need to put human rights at the heart of our longer-term coronavirus recovery plan.

The current greatest threat to this rights-respecting recovery is the Police Crackdown Bill. The Bill is a threat to all of our human rights: not only does it clamp down on the right to protest, it also criminalises Gypsy and Traveller communities’ way of life,[7] creates new stop and search powers that could licence state harassment, and establishes a “Prevent-style duty” to reducing knife crime, that would ramp up racial profiling.

The mass movement to #KilltheBill has shown what is possible when we stand united to defend the rights of marginalised communities—when we respond to an attack on one as an attack on us all.

You can take action against the Police Crackdown Bill today:

  1. Write to your MP: Liberty has created a petition to stop the Government’s dangerous new Policing Bill, which you can sign here. Follow Liberty on social media, including Twitter and Instagram to find out about our future campaigns.
  2. Friends, Families and Travellers have launched a new tool for people to write to their MP about harsh new laws for roadside camps, which you can find here.

Moving forward, we must continue to fight for a post-pandemic future where everyone’s rights and freedoms are protected. Defeating the Police Crackdown Bill is the first step.

 

[1] Sharon Marris and Tom Acres, Sarah Everard memorial: Arrests as police clash with crowds at cancelled vigil, 14 March 2021, available at: https://news.sky.com/story/arrests-as-police-clash-with-crowds-at-cancelled-vigil-for-sarah-everard-12245344

[2] Liberty, Liberty files legal action over protest arrests, 29 March 2021, available at: https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/issue/liberty-files-legal-action-over-protest-arrests/

[3] Nadine White, Policing Of UK Black Lives Matter Protests Was 'Institutionally Racist', 12 November 2020, available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/black-lives-matter-protests-policing_uk_5facfe86c5b6d647a39c05de

[4] Friends, Families, and Travellers, COVID-19: UK Government must lay out clear plan to support Gypsies, Travellers, and Boaters, 24 March 2020, available at: https://www.gypsy-traveller.org/health/covid-19-uk-government-must-lay-out-clear-plan-to-support-gypsies-travellers-and-boaters.

[5] Friends, Families, and Travellers, Written evidence submitted by Friends, Families and Travellers, Women and Equalities Committee, July 2020, available at: https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/8641/pdf/

[6] The Traveller Movement, Open letter to the Department for Education: Don’t further marginalise Gypsy and Irish Traveller school pupils, 9 November 2020, available at: https://travellermovement.org.uk/news-news/125-open-letter-to-the-department-for-education-don-t-further-marginalise-gypsy-and-irish-traveller-school-pupils.

[7] Luke Smith, How the Police Bill Threatens Britain’s Gypsy and Traveller Communities, Tribune, 31 March 2021, available at: https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/03/how-the-police-bill-threatens-britains-gypsy-and-traveller-communities