Legislation Watch: three planned changes that will limit our freedoms

Legislation Watch: three planned changes that will limit our freedoms

Never mind “Not Quite Freedom Day”. While few have been noticing, the government is busy trying to introduce some pernicious new principles into our laws which will limit our freedoms even as we are finally allowed not to wear masks.

The “RNLI Criminalisation” Clause

The government denies this of course. But clause 38(2) of the Nationality and Borders Bill amending S.25A(1)(a) of the 1971 Immigration Act makes it an offence to help anyone seeking asylum in the UK. It is not necessary to do so for money nor for the asylum seeker to be breaking immigration law. Charities specifically focused on helping asylum seekers (so long as they are not paid) are excluded from this provision. But the RNLI is not such a charity and is caught, as is anyone else helping, whether paid or for free and regardless of their motivation. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment. The Home Office has stated that this clause does not apply to bodies such as HM Coastguard or the RNLI helping those “in distress at sea”. But the Bill does not say this. A Home Office answer to a question does not override words in statute. 

Mrs Thatcher was once criticised for pointing out that the Good Samaritan had money. At least she accepted that he was trying to help and that this was a good thing. Her successors seek to make a criminal of him. What a direction of travel.

There are a number of problems with this provision: its conflict with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for one thing. It is not focused on those who do it for gain ie people smuggling gangs. More fundamentally, seeking asylum is not a criminal offence. In order to target an unwanted group – foreigners in boats – this government is prepared to establish a principle which makes people criminals for trying to help those who are not breaking the law. Think about how noxious a principle this is and how it might be used against others a government decides are to be scapegoats of the day. 

It is likely to prove ineffective as it will be easy enough to say that trafficked passengers in small boats crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world are likely to be in distress. And, in any case, the problem is utterly misdiagnosed. It is the Refugee Conventions written for a post-WW2 world when international travel was harder & the fact that there are no numerical limits on how many asylum seekers a country has to accept which cause the problem. This clause does nothing to address this. Still, when has effectiveness ever been a consideration so long as the legislation sounds suitably scary?

The “Let’s Ignore Evidence” Clause

Another one from this bill, clause 23 this time. This states that where evidence from an asylum seeker supporting their claim arrives late, no matter how strong or credible it is and no matter what the reason for the late arrival, it must be given “minimal” weight. It elevates procedural requirements, administrative convenience over substance, over the requirements of justice, over the need to decide a claim fairly on the basis of evidence. It disregards the very real difficulties of obtaining evidence on time from the sorts of countries from which refugees flee. It gives bureaucrats arbitrary powers. If they get it wrong, a genuine refugee, denied asylum, risks being sent back to a country where he may very well be tortured or killed. 

Ah, but what about those endless pointless appeals? A good point. Action is being – and should be – taken to limit such abuse. But this does not do that. It seeks to disregard relevant credible evidence. How much easier all sorts of trials could be if evidence could be excluded or ignored because of some minor lateness. Too cynical is it to think that once this principle has been established in one sort of case it can more easily be extended to others – all to save time?

The Online Safety Bill

This introduces the novel and alarming principle that internet companies should have a “duty of care” to remove content which “may” cause “psychological harm”. Not will cause. Not content which is criminal. Not a “harm” which is clearly defined. But this vague catch-all which treats the public as little babies to be coddled rather than as sentient adults. If passed, it amounts to one of the severest attacks on free speech we’ve ever had. Any activist group or citizen or lobbyist on any issue of controversy will have every excuse to whip up outrage over anything they dislike, claim that they have been psychologically harmed and get content removed or prevented from being published at all. Internet companies who don’t comply face fines of up to 10% of turnover.

And who is to regulate all this? Why Ofcom – a body whose chair is appointed by the government and who only just missed having Paul Dacre, former Daily Mail editor as chair.

It is a wretchedly sinister bill which will result in censorship of any views someone somewhere does not like, which gives alarmingly wide and authoritarian powers of censorship to government and to unaccountable overseas based technology companies and their algorithms (created by God knows who), which will crack down on the expression of opinions by ordinary citizens on the web, on blogs such as this, while controlling what journalists can say, which does not give the censored any right of appeal and which will be used by repressive governments around the world as justification for their own even worse measures.  It needs strangling at birth not fiddling around with the drafting. Quite how it is even remotely compatible with the government’s Freedom of Speech Bill, currently going through the Commons and intended to make universities give a platform to those with unpopular views is hard to say. It isn’t. 

The government has no understanding or care for freedom, the rule of law or justice – other than as words to be used in some ridiculous culture war of its own imagining. It has no understanding of British values, no willingness to stand up for them or exemplify them. It treats the British public as fools, to be alternately controlled or blamed. It panders to their worst instincts and seeks to make it hard for them to show their best side. This is not how a genuinely patriotic party behaves. These are incoherent, nasty and repressive proposals, performative laws which do little to address real problems but which allow Ministers to pose as strongmen.

Too much to expect the Opposition parties to oppose, I suppose. Too much to expect Tory MPs to wonder if this is what a Conservative party claiming to believe in Britain should be doing. Some like to say that, at heart, the PM is a liberal. On this evidence – and while I can still say this without causing “psychological harm” to his many fans – pull the other one, it’s got bells on.


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