Freedom House (Autor)
The scale and oversight of British intelligence agencies sparked debate in 2013 after the revelation that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had been complicit in a mass surveillance program perpetrated by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).
Press freedom in the United Kingdom also came under scrutiny with the unveiling of new regulations on the media as well as the alleged harassment by authorities of the journalists who published the surveillance leaks.
The Labour Party took a sharp turn to the left in 2013, while the right wing of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party grew increasingly impatient with some of his policies. The populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) made considerable gains in local elections in May. Cameron’s failure to secure enough votes to authorize British intervention in Syria in August was seen as a weakness by many of his critics.
The British economy experienced a robust recovery in 2013 after a contraction the previous year, growing at its fastest pace in three years, at 1.8 percent in the first three quarters. The recovery gave a boost to Conservatives, though the manufacturing sector trailed the service sector.
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
Each of the members of the House of Commons, the dominant lower chamber of the bicameral Parliament, is elected in a single-member district. Parliamentary elections must be held at least every five years. Executive power rests with the prime minister and cabinet, who must have the support of the Commons.
The House of Lords, Parliament’s upper chamber, can delay legislation initiated in the Commons. If it defeats a measure passed by the Commons, the Commons must reconsider, but it can ultimately overrule the Lords. The Lords’ membership, currently around 800, consists mostly of “life peers” nominated by successive governments. There are also 92 hereditary peers (nobles) and 26 bishops and archbishops of the Church of England. The monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, plays a largely ceremonial role as head of state.
The struggle between unionists and Irish nationalists over governance in Northern Ireland largely ended with a 1998 peace agreement, which established the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the assembly was suspended a number of times before further peace talks, and the formal disarmament of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—an outlawed Irish nationalist militant group—paved the way for fresh assembly elections in 2007. Those elections resulted in the formation of a power-sharing local government between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). A March 2011 referendum increased the Welsh Assembly’s autonomy, giving it authority to make laws in 20 subject areas without consulting Parliament. Sinn Féin and the DUP consolidated their control in the May 2011 elections for the Northern Irish legislature, while the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) made major gains in Scotland’s election held the same day.
In the May 2010 Parliamentary elections, the Conservatives led with 306 seats. Labour placed second with 258, the Liberal Democrats took 57, and smaller parties divided the remainder. Conservative leader David Cameron, lacking a majority, formed a rare coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Local elections in May 2013 resulted in considerable gains for the populist UKIP, which came third in the average share of votes.
Despite clashes on certain issues, the coalition government persevered throughout 2013. In January, Prime Minister Cameron announced that he would renegotiate Britain’s membership with the European Union (EU) and hold a referendum on leaving it if Conservatives won the next elections. A bill guaranteeing a referendum by the end of 2017 passed in July with the unanimous support of MPs in the House of Commons; Labour and the Liberal Democrats boycotted the vote. Business lobby groups and investors were disturbed by the news of a possible British exit. Cameron lost an important vote on intervention in Syria in August, becoming the first prime minister in British history to be prevented by Parliament from going to war.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 16 / 16
The Conservative Party recovered in popular opinion polls during 2013 after seeing their popularity lag the previous year; the Liberal Democrats and their leader Nick Clegg continued to lose voters’ support. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband took a sharp turn to the left at his party’s conference in September, promising to increase the minimum wage and freeze energy prices if his party wins the 2015 elections.
Other parties include the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru and the SNP. In Northern Ireland, the main Catholic and republican parties are Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, while the leading Protestant and unionist parties are the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP. Parties that have never won seats in Parliament, such as the UKIP and BNP, fare better in races for the European Parliament, which feature proportional-representation voting.
After much debate between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament over the terms of a referendum on Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom, a compromise was reached in 2012 between Cameron and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond. The agreement scheduled a vote for the fall of 2014, with a single yes-or-no question on independence. Polls conducted in 2013 predicted varying results for the referendum, though most have indicated it would fail.
C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12
Corruption is not pervasive in Britain, but high-profile scandals have damaged political reputations under both Labour and Conservative governments. The Bribery Act, which is considered one of the most sweeping anti-bribery legislation in the world, came into force in July 2011. Editors involved in a scandal with the News of the World paper were accused of repeatedly bribing public officials and the police.
A 2013 World Bank study concluded that the United Kingdom’s freedom of information laws are “reasonably successful;” the government has proposed reforms that would limit freedom of information requests, which have been criticized by civil liberties groups and the press. The UK placed 14 of 177 countries on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16
Press freedom is legally protected, and the media are lively and competitive. Daily newspapers span the political spectrum, though the economic downturn and rising internet use have driven some smaller papers out of business. On rare occasions, the courts have imposed so-called superinjunctions, which forbid the media from reporting certain information or even the existence of the injunction itself.
The state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is editorially independent and faces significant private competition. A series of scandals have plagued the broadcaster in recent years, however, as several BBC employees were convicted of sexual and verbal abuse, and senior managers were accused of receiving inordinately high severance payouts.
In October 2013, Rebekah Brooks, the former head of the tabloid News of the World, and seven of the paper’s journalists stood trial for allegedly hacking into the telephone messages of hundreds of public figures and crime victims. The scandal led to the closing of the paper, which was owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. The trial is expected to last until Easter 2014.
The scandal led to the creation of a new regulatory system in October 2013 to prevent future press transgressions. The new regulations—which were adopted via an arcane legislative procedure, the royal charter, to avoid accusations of state regulation—will make it easier to file complaints about press intrusion and establish fines of up to £1 million ($1.6 million) for offenders. The regulations have been staunchly opposed by the British media, as well as numerous press freedom organizations, which argue that they could be used to stifle press freedom. The new rules could be amended by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament and the unanimous agreement of the recognition panel approving the regulator.
British authorities allegedly harassed the Guardian and its journalists after the paper published the leaks linking the GCHQ to the NSA’s surveillance program. In July, two security agents threatened journalists in the Guardian’s offices and compelled them to destroy computer hard drives, and in August, the partner of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first reported on the program, was detained and questioned at Heathrow Airport for the maximum nine hours allowed under British law.
England’s libel laws—which had been regarded as claimant-friendly—were significantly overhauled in April 2013 with the Defamation Act. The law introduced a “public interest” defense, set more stringent requirements for claimants, and made it more difficult for foreigners to file a complaint.
The government does not restrict internet access. A draft communications data bill announced in 2012 would require internet and phone companies to keep metadata up to a year, allowing public authorities to see details about the identities, locations, and duration of online communications, mobile phone calls, and voice calls placed over the internet. However, the so-called snoopers’ charter was shelved after criticism by privacy rights organizations and the Liberal Democrats announcement in April 2013 that they were not supporting the bill.
Although the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have official status, freedom of religion is protected in law and practice. Nevertheless, minority groups, particularly Muslims, report discrimination, harassment, and occasional assaults. A 2006 law banned incitement to religious hatred, with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. In May 2013, Islamic extremists killed a British soldier in Woolwich. Two people were arrested after the attack for making incendiary comments on social media, and a third was charged with malicious communications.
Academic freedom is respected.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected in law and in practice. There are certain laws and practices, however, which the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association deemed unnecessarily harsh during his January 2013 visit. Such practices include the criminal charge of “aggravated trespass” used occasionally against protesters, and the use of “kettling”—a policing tactic when protesters are contained in a limited area by a cordon of policemen. The former tactic was used in June against 21 climate activists protesting at a power station.
Violence in Northern Ireland has abated in recent years. Nevertheless, protests were held throughout 2013 as a reaction to the Belfast City Council’s vote limiting the time the Union Flag is flown at city hall. Demonstrations in January and February descended into violent rioting, and by April police had arrested more than 200 people in connection with the protests.
Civic and nongovernmental organizations may operate freely. Groups labeled as terrorist organizations are banned under UK law. A bill being considered by the House of Lords was heavily criticized for limiting the amount of money charities could spend during election years, with opponents asserting that the bill’s ambiguous language could lead to self-censorship and hinder the work of smaller charities.
Workers have the right to organize trade unions, which have traditionally played a central role in the Labour Party.
F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16
A new Supreme Court began functioning in 2009, replacing an appellate body within the House of Lords. A Justice and Security Act adopted in April 2013 allows civil courts to hear secret evidence in private in cases related to national security. Critics charged that the act violates fair trial rights, denying defendants the right to counter evidence against them in closed material proceedings and allowing ministers, rather than judges, to decide which evidence would be withheld or presented in court.
The police maintain high professional standards, and prisons generally adhere to international guidelines. In October 2013, the Supreme Court denied two prisoners the right to vote despite a European Court of Human Rights ruling that the UK should abolish its blanket ban on prisoners’ votes. The Supreme Court, however, stopped short of ruling the ban lawful.
In 2013 the government banned undercover agents from having sexual relations with their targets; several agents had been criticized in recent years for improper conduct.
The leaks of the GHCQ’s surveillance programs revealed that the agency was wiretapping millions of phone calls and more than 200 fiberoptic cables. Critics argued that the legal rationale behind the spying was outdated, particularly the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which allows the interception of broad categories of communications if one end of the communication is non-domestic.
Britain’s strict antiterrorism laws have undergone several changes in recent years. In January 2011, the detention of terrorism suspects without charge was limited to 14 days. Britain’s “control order” regime—including the use of forcible relocation of terrorism suspects and restrictions on their internet usage—was replaced in January 2012 with new Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). The 2013 report of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation stated that, despite several problems, TPIMs provided a “broadly acceptable response.” The detention of David Miranda, the partner of Guardian investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, was seen by many as an abuse of the Terrorism Act.
The government has been accused of “outsourcing” torture by extraditing terrorism suspects to their home countries, where they could be abused in custody, but has consistently denied complicity in illegal rendition and torture. The United Nations Committee against Torture published a scathing report in May 2013 criticizing the government for delaying public inquiries into allegations of torture and rendition, creating loopholes in legislation that shield British officials from prosecution in case of torture, and deporting Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were allegedly tortured afterward. The committee also expressed concerns about the secret court procedures introduced by the Justice and Security Act.
Britain’s large numbers of immigrants and their locally born offspring receive equal treatment under the law, but their living standards are lower than the national average, and they complain of having come under unwarranted suspicion amid the recent terrorist attacks and plots. An immigration report released in November 2012 found that the UK has a large backlog of asylum cases, with some 147,000 asylum seekers who made a claim before March 2007 having waited an average of seven years for a decision. The Home Affairs Committee found in 2013 that in some instances asylum seekers who were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) had to “prove” their sexual orientation to the UK Border Agency.
The Conservative Party pledged to reduce the number of immigrants significantly by 2015. A new Immigration Bill being considered by Parliament at the end of 2013 would require landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants and banks to perform background checks before opening an account; it would also clamp down on “sham” marriages and compel temporary migrants, such as students, to pay £200 ($320) annually to the National Health Service (NHS). The bill was criticized for increasing the risk of homelessness and discrimination.
In a pilot project that was part of conservatives’ plans to reduce immigration, vans were placed around in London with a sign reading “go home or face arrest.” The project was canceled amid criticism from the Liberal Democrats. The Islamic community has been threatened by protests and occasional violence by the far-right English Defence League (EDL).
A 2010 equality act consolidated previous antidiscrimination laws for age, disability, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16
While women receive equal treatment under the law, they remain underrepresented in top positions in politics and business. Women won 143 seats in the House of Commons in the 2010 elections. A report released in May 2013 revealed that women were affected disproportionately by the government’s austerity measures. Abortion is legal in Great Britain but heavily restricted in Northern Ireland, where it is allowed only to protect the life or the long-term health of the mother.
Despite considerable opposition in his own party, Prime Minister David Cameron managed to push a same-sex marriage bill through Parliament, which became law in July 2013, making the UK the ninth country in Europe to legalize the practice. The law allowed religious organizations to refuse to conduct same-sex marriages.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year