Freedom in the World 2023 - United Kingdom

/ 100
Political Rights 39 / 40
Civil Liberties 54 / 60
93 / 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.


The United Kingdom (UK)—which includes the constituent countries of England, Scotland, and Wales along with the territory of Northern Ireland—is a stable democracy that regularly holds free elections and hosts a vibrant media sector. While the government enforces robust protections for political rights and civil liberties, recent years have seen concerns about increased government surveillance of residents as well as rising Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Key Developments in 2022

  • In April, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that asylum seekers whose claims were deemed “inadmissible” in the UK would be sent to Rwanda for further consideration. Opposition politicians and human rights groups denounced the plan. The first flight to Rwanda was planned for June but was halted following a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling. In December, the High Court ruled the plan lawful; civil society groups that challenged the policy said they would consider an appeal.
  • The left-wing republican Sinn Féin became the Northern Ireland Assembly’s largest party after elections in May. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which advocates for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, was the second largest. Subsequent efforts to form a local power-sharing government were unsuccessful, with the DUP blocking several votes to install an Assembly speaker; the territory’s government remained unformed at year’s end.
  • In July, Boris Johnson, who faced scrutiny over his apparent violation of COVID-19-related lockdown measures and other matters, resigned as leader of the ruling Conservatives. Johnson left the premiership in September when the party selected Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to succeed him. Truss resigned in October, after her government’s budget and tax policies were met with heavy criticism; former chancellor Rishi Sunak succeeded Truss and remained in post at year’s end.
  • Queen Elizabeth II died in September, having served as sovereign since 1952. She was succeeded by Charles, the crown prince. Individuals protesting the monarchy during public assemblies marking Elizabeth’s death were detained and arrested on numerous occasions.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

Executive power rests with the prime minister and cabinet, which must have the support of the House of Commons. The leader of the majority party or coalition usually becomes prime minister and appoints the cabinet. Boris Johnson resigned as Conservative leader in July 2022, triggering a leadership contest in the party. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss won and became prime minister in September but resigned in October, after 45 days in office. Former chancellor Rishi Sunak, who succeeded her as party leader and prime minister that month, remained in post at year’s end.

The monarch is the ceremonial head of state. Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended to that position in 1952, died in September 2022. The crown prince immediately succeeded her as Charles III.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The bicameral Parliament’s more powerful lower chamber, the House of Commons, has 650 members directly elected to serve five-year terms. Members of the unelected House of Lords, numbering 798 in September 2022, are appointed by the monarch. The body largely plays an oversight role in reviewing legislation passed by the House of Commons.

In the December 2019 snap election, the Conservatives won 365 lower-house seats while the opposition Labour Party won 202. The Scottish National Party, which advocates for Scottish independence from the UK, won 47.

Elections for some local councils and mayoralties in England, Scotland, and Wales took place in May 2022; Labour and the Liberal Democrats gained council seats, while the Conservatives sustained losses.

Elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly’s 90 seats were also held in May 2022. In a historic result, the left-wing republican Sinn Féin became the Assembly’s largest party with 27 seats. The DUP won 25. The nonsectarian, liberal Alliance Party gained 9 seats, winning 17. Two independents and four parties won the remainder.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4

The UK’s electoral framework is robust and well implemented. Parliament maintains a direct role in electoral management, notably through its involvement in the seat-boundary drawing process. However, the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 will limit its future involvement. Parliament’s role was further eroded in March 2022, when the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022 repealed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which had limited the prime minister’s ability to force a snap election.

Under the Elections Act 2022, voters in England and Wales must show photo identification to vote in general elections and some local contests. The government said the law would ensure electoral integrity, but democracy advocacy groups, some members of Parliament (MPs), and the Electoral Commission (EC) strongly criticized it. In 2019, the Electoral Reform Society warned that voter-identification rules would disproportionately impact Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) voters. In a 2021 report, the EC noted that only four electoral-fraud convictions were recorded after the 2019 electoral calendar. Also in 2021, a House of Commons committee extrapolated that 1.1 million people would be discouraged from voting in a general election under the bill’s provisions.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4

Parties do not face undue restrictions on registration or operation. The Conservative and Labour parties have dominated politics for decades, though other parties regularly win seats.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

Opposition parties operate freely and have a realistic opportunity to increase their support and gain power through elections.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 4 / 4

People’s political choices are generally free from domination by groups using extrapolitical means.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4

Women, LGBT+ people, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups are active in UK politics. Women held 34.5 percent of lower-house seats as of late 2022. LGBT+ and BAME representation improved in the 2019 general election. Liz Truss was the country’s third female prime minister, while Rishi Sunak is its first prime minister of color.

Under the UK’s system of devolution, Parliament has granted different degrees of legislative power to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Senedd (Parliament), and the Scottish Parliament, augmenting the political representation of regional populations.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4

Freely elected officials can generally make and implement national policy without significant influence from actors who are not democratically accountable. However, a new power-sharing government was not formed in Northern Ireland by the end of 2022.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4

Large-scale official corruption is not historically pervasive, and anticorruption bodies are generally effective. In January 2022, however, researchers at Sussex University warned that then prime minister Boris Johnson’s government suffered a “failure of integrity,” citing Johnson’s behavior in office.

Concerns over the awarding of coronavirus-related contracts to politically connected people persisted in 2022. In January, a High Court judge ruled that the use of a “priority lane” to award test-and-trace contracts was illegal; in September, the government disclosed that 50 firms had benefited from priority contracts. In November, Michelle Mone, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, was revealed to have received £29 million ($35.2 million) in proceeds related to priority contracts; she remained under investigation by the upper house’s standards commissioner at year’s end. The company that won those contracts, PPE Medpro, was being investigated by the National Crime Agency as of December.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4

MPs are required to disclose assets and sources of income, and this information is made available to the public. Freedom-of-information legislation is reasonably well implemented, and journalists can generally access information to report to the public. However, in 2020, openDemocracy reported that requests deemed sensitive are vetted by a government clearing house. In August 2022, the government said it would overhaul the clearing-house system to improve transparency.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4

Press freedom is legally protected. The media environment is lively and competitive, espousing viewpoints spanning the political spectrum. The publicly owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which relies on dedicated license fees for most of its funding, is largely viewed as editorially independent and competitive with its commercial counterparts. In an August 2022 speech, former news presenter Emily Maitlis criticized a member of the BBC Board for serving as an “active agent of the Conservative Party.” The BBC rejected her claims that month.

Journalists face regular harassment; a 2020 National Union of Journalists (NUJ) survey found that over half of its members encountered online abuse, while nearly a quarter were physically attacked. The government published its first-ever National Action Plan to enhance the safety of journalists in 2021. In August 2022, six antilockdown activists received convictions for verbally abusing and chasing BBC journalist Nicholas Watt on a London street in 2021. Five were handed community sentences.

Paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland have also issued threats against journalists in recent years. In June 2022, the NUJ condemned a pro-UK paramilitary group for threatening a journalist operating in Belfast.

Parliament considered the Online Safety Bill (OSB), which would restrict online access to material deemed illegal or harmful, in 2022. In July, the government amended the OSB to prevent the arbitrary removal of news content from online platforms.

In July 2022, the Justice Ministry said the government would legislate to address strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). In November, the Solicitors Regulation Authority warned that lawyers involved in SLAPPs would face disciplinary action.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

Freedom of religion is protected in law and practice. A 2006 law bans incitement to religious hatred, with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. Nevertheless, minority groups, particularly Muslims, continue to report discrimination, harassment, and occasional assault. The Home Office recorded 3,459 religiously based hate crimes in England and Wales against Muslims during its 2021–22 reporting period; 1,919 were recorded against Jewish people, the second-largest targeted group.

Muslims have been reluctant to discuss religious subjects or their identity in some settings, especially in the classroom, due to Prevent, a strategy designed to divert individuals vulnerable to terrorist or extremist recruitment. Prevent has been criticized for forcing Muslims to self-censor for fear of referral.

In 2021, William Shawcross—who was accused of fostering an “institutional bias against Muslims” as head of the UK’s Charity Commission—was appointed to chair an independent review into Prevent. A draft report from the Shawcross-led review, which said that the government should focus more on Islamist extremism than right-wing threats, was leaked in May 2022. A final report was not published by year’s end.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4

Academic freedom is generally respected, though the government has recently made political forays into the academic curriculum. A draft law on freedom of speech in higher education remained under parliamentary consideration at the end of 2022. The bill, which would introduce fines for English universities deemed to have restricted free speech, has been criticized by freedom-of-expression groups on grounds that it may allow the government to define “acceptable speech” at universities.

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 requires schools and universities to help divert students from recruitment into terrorist groups, as part of the Prevent strategy. Educators are expected to report students suspected of terrorist or extremist sympathies to a local government body and vet the remarks of visiting speakers, among other obligations.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4

Concerns about the effects of mass surveillance on unfettered private discussion have persisted for several years. The Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) 2016 required communications companies to store customer metadata for 12 months, which authorities could sometimes access without a warrant. The government later limited access to metadata for serious criminal investigations with the approval of an independent commission after the High Court ruled the legislation incompatible with European Union (EU) jurisprudence in 2018. Other legal challenges against the IPA continued in 2022.

The government published a draft of the OSB for parliamentary scrutiny in April 2022. Among other things, the draft required online platforms to remove or restrict content deemed illegal or harmful and placed related responsibilities on Ofcom, the country’s media regulator. In November, the government amended the OSB to require that social media firms only remove content that is illegal or violates their own standards. Provisions on legal material considered harmful to adults were removed. The OSB remained under consideration at year’s end.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4

Freedom of assembly is generally respected, though peaceful protesters have found themselves under police surveillance for attending public events in recent years.

Assembly rights were also affected by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (PCSCA) 2022, which received royal assent in April. Among other things, the PCSCA gives police in England and Wales more power to determine if a protest may cause “serious disorder.” Authorities may restrict individual protesters’ actions under the law. The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner criticized the PCSCA in December, saying it would have a “chilling” effect on peaceful assembly. PCSCA provisions against protests based on “noise” went unused as of December.

The House of Commons voted in favor of the Public Order Bill, which would restrict protests that are considered overly disruptive, in October 2022; the bill did not attain final parliamentary approval or royal assent by year’s end.

In March 2022, High Court judges ruled that police had breached speech and assembly rights in their policing of a public vigil held in memory of Sarah Everard, a woman who was murdered by a Metropolitan Police officer in 2021.

Following the September 2022 death of Elizabeth II, police detained and arrested people protesting the monarchy on many occasions.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate freely. However, in recent years, disclosures of police surveillance of NGOs and political organizations have drawn criticism. A public inquiry into the conduct of undercover officers who spied on—and in some cases had intimate relationships with—civil society advocates began in 2015 and remained active in 2022.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4

Workers have the right to organize trade unions, which have traditionally played a central role in the Labour Party. The rights to bargain collectively and strike are also respected.

Unions in sectors including health-care, transport, and education launched major strikes in 2022. In June, for example, rail workers went on strike, affecting train travel nationwide. Major strikes affected multiple sectors in December, causing the greatest labor disruption in the UK since 1989.

In September 2022, 11 unions said they would seek judicial review after the government altered existing rules to allow firms to hire temporary staff during strikes. Ministers were also considering legislation which would further restrict the right to strike in some sectors, including rail and health-care, at year’s end.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4

The judiciary is generally independent, and authorities comply with judicial decisions. A new Supreme Court began functioning in 2009, improving the separation of powers by moving the highest court out of the House of Lords.

In a June 2022 report, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution warned that political pressure on the judiciary affected morale within the branch; the group also concluded that the Supreme Court may have “assumed a position more palatable to the executive” in some decisions.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4

Due process generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. However, cuts to legal aid have left many vulnerable people without access to legal counsel.

UK police have been accused of using stop-and-search powers disproportionately: In 2021–22, Black people in England and Wales were over six times more likely to be searched by police than White people. In an April 2022 report, the Independent Office for Police Conduct recommended that BAME individuals receive safeguards from stops and searches on the grounds of racial bias. In May, the government lifted a restriction on stops and searches in areas where authorities expect serious violence. In August, the children’s commissioner in England criticized the Metropolitan Police, which patrols Greater London, for strip-searching 650 children between 2018 and 2020, 58 percent of them Black.

Under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, authorities can seize the travel documents of individuals attempting to leave the country if they are suspected of planning to engage in terrorist-related activities abroad, and to forcibly relocate terrorism suspects within the country. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 makes viewing terrorist content online punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and allows law enforcement agencies to keep the fingerprints and DNA of terrorism suspects for up to five years, even if no charges are filed.

The UK justice system still grapples with cases stemming from the Troubles, the 1968–98 conflict in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which was under upper-house consideration at the end of 2022, would offer “conditional” immunity for those who cooperate with “truth recovery investigations;” Amnesty International criticized the bill, saying it would not provide justice for victims of the conflict. A May report from the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the Queen’s University Belfast School of Law said the bill may breach the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and international human rights law.

In 2021, charges against “Soldier F,” who had been accused of murder and attempted murder during the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, were dismissed by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS). The High Court overturned that decision in March 2022; the PPS will conduct a new investigation.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4

Individuals living in the UK are largely free from violence, but acts of terrorism have occurred in recent years. In October 2022, an immigration processing center in Dover was attacked by a man allegedly driven by far-right views.

Paramilitary activity continues in Northern Ireland. In September 2022, the Police Service of Northern Ireland reported one security-related death, five bombing incidents, and 115 security-related arrests in its 2021–22 reporting period.

Prisons generally adhere to international guidelines but are overcrowded. Violence, self-harm, and the presence of drugs have also been reported. In a July 2022 report, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) raised concerns about the well-being of female prisoners and those kept in young offenders’ institutions. HMI Prisons also reported that some facilities holding immigrant detainees were “unfit for purpose.”

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4

Women receive equal treatment under the law but gender discrimination persists in the workplace and elsewhere in society. The authorities actively enforce a 2010 law barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, the UK has recorded a sustained rise in hate crimes against LGBT+ residents over the past decade. The Home Office recorded a 41 percent increase in hate crimes based on sexual orientation from the 2020–21 to 2021–22 reporting periods.

BAME residents face continued discrimination, including by the authorities. A 2022 review into the Metropolitan Police found systemic failings over its response to accusations of misogyny and racism by officers. Stop-and-search powers are disproportionally used against BAME people.

Members of the Roma, Traveller, and related communities also face discrimination in the UK. In April 2022, Liberty criticized the PCSCA for antitrespassing provisions that it said could affect these communities.

Foreign residents in the UK face considerable scrutiny. Under the ongoing “hostile environment” policy, which aims to persuade undocumented immigrants to voluntarily leave the UK or refrain from entering, individuals seeking public and private services face stringent immigration checks. Asylum seekers and migrants can be detained indefinitely, and there have been persistent reports of poor conditions and abuse in immigration detention centers.

In April 2022, then prime minister Johnson announced a plan in which people whose asylum applications were deemed “inadmissible” in the UK would be sent to Rwanda for further consideration; they would either be invited to settle in Rwanda or be sent elsewhere depending on further determinations. The first flight to Rwanda was planned for June but was halted following a ruling by the ECtHR. In December, the High Court ruled the plan lawful; NGOs challenging the policy said they would consider an appeal.

Under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which received royal assent in April, asylum seekers entering the UK through means deemed irregular may receive less support; the law also increased the burden of proof for refugee claims. The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, warned that the act may violate international law. The bill makes it possible for the home secretary to strip individuals of their British citizenship—a power already available via preexisting legislation—without notice.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4

Citizens generally enjoy freedom of travel and choice of residence, employment, and institution of higher education.

UK passport holders saw their freedom to travel to EU member states lessened after the UK’s departure from the bloc. Visitors from the UK require a visa for extended travel to member states in the Schengen border area.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4

Individuals may freely exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4

The government generally does not place explicit restrictions on personal social freedoms.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 5 percent of English and Welsh people over the age of 16 experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2022.

While abortion in Northern Ireland was legalized by Parliament in 2019, access to the procedure is severely limited. In May, the UK government introduced regulations that oblige the territory’s health department to fund abortion services and allow the UK government’s Northern Ireland secretary to directly intervene, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris invoked these regulations in October.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4

A 2016 report by a government commission expressed concern about the social and economic isolation of many members of ethnic and religious minorities and of the poor. According to the ONS, income inequality slightly fell between the 2012 and 2021 fiscal years.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 increased punishments for human traffickers and provides greater protections for victims, but implementation has been weak. Children and migrant workers are among those most vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking.