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 is home to 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. In a 2016 referendum, UK voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union (EU), through a process known colloquially as “Brexit,” which will have political and economic reverberations both domestically and across Europe in the coming years.
- Numerous officials in the governing Conservative Party were involved in high-profile political scandals during the year, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was accused of misusing political donations and holding parties in violation of COVID-19-related lockdown rules, and several members of Parliament (MPs), who allegedly breached lobbying regulations. In December, the Electoral Commission fined the party for failing to properly disclose political donations.
- In March, Parliament introduced a controversial draft law that includes provisions that would broaden the powers of the police and restrict protest and assembly rights in England and Wales. The proposed legislation sparked mass “kill the bill” protests across the country, which continued throughout the year; the bill remained under consideration in Parliament at year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
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. A snap general election was held in December 2019, where a majority Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was elected. The monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, holds a ceremonial role as head of state.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The UK has a bicameral Parliament. The more powerful lower chamber, the House of Commons, has 650 members directly elected to serve five-year terms. The 788 members of the unelected House of Lords are appointed by the monarch. The body largely plays an oversight role in reviewing legislation passed by the House of Commons.
A general election was not due until 2022, but Prime Minister Johnson, who led a minority government after winning the premiership in July 2019, secured a new election from Parliament, held in December 2019. The Conservatives secured an 81-seat majority. The opposition Labour Party won 202 seats, down from 262 in the last Parliament. The Scottish National Party, which campaigned to remain in the EU and advocates for Scottish independence from the UK, remained the third-largest party in the House of Commons.
Elections for some local councils, police commissioners, and mayoralties in parts of England and Wales, which had been postponed due to COVID-19, took place in May 2021. Assembly elections took place in Scotland and Wales on the same day.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
The UK’s electoral framework is robust and well implemented. An Electoral Commission report on the 2019 General Election noted the presence of “misleading content and presentation techniques” in online campaigning. In September 2020, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), a nongovernmental organization (NGO), called for the regulation of internet-based campaign and financing activities.
Parliament maintains a direct role in electoral management, notably through its involvement in the seat boundary drawing process. The Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020, which was enacted in December 2020, will limit its future involvement. In May 2021, the government formally introduced a bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which limits the prime minister’s ability to force a snap election.
Conservative governments have moved towards requiring voters to produce identification in order to vote. The Elections Bill 2021-22 was introduced in July, and if enacted, will require voters to present identification for all elections in England and Wales. In 2019, the ERS noted that 2,000 prospective voters participating in a pilot voter identification scheme were turned away from polling stations in that May’s local elections, and that a permanent requirement would disproportionately impact Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) voters.
In June 2021, the government announced a series of plans that some say would undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission. A former electoral commissioner alleged that the new Elections Bill would subject the commission to political oversight, representing “serious threats to the fairness of all future elections in Britain.”
Following the local and mayoral elections in May 2021 the government announced that it plans to change the electoral system for mayoral elections to a “first-past-the-post” system, which critics claim will provide an undue advantage to Conservative candidates in future elections.
|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?||4.004 4.004|
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.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Opposition parties operate freely, and have a realistic opportunity to increase their support and gain power through elections.
|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?||4.004 4.004|
People’s political choices are generally free from domination by groups using extrapolitical means.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||4.004 4.004|
Under the UK’s system of devolution, Parliament has granted different degrees of legislative power to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, and the Scottish Parliament, augmenting the political representation of regional populations.
Women, LGBT+ people, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups are active in UK politics. After the December 2019 general election, a record 220 MPs, representing 34 percent of the lower house, are women. LGBT+ and BAME representation also improved.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
Freely elected officials can generally make and implement national policy without significant influence from actors who are not democratically accountable.
Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly took place in March 2017, but legislators did not form a functioning government for a record-breaking 1,045 days after that poll. An agreement, which was facilitated by the UK and Ireland, was finalized in January 2020.
In February 2021, an investigation by The Guardian revealed that the Queen had repeatedly invoked an obscure constitutional mechanism referred to as “Queen’s consent” to lobby for changes to draft laws that may otherwise have affected her assets.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Large-scale official corruption is not historically pervasive, and anticorruption bodies are generally effective. However, conflict-of-interest and bias concerns over the awarding of COVID-19 tenders to politically connected recipients persisted in 2021. In February, the High Court ruled that former health secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully when he failed to publish details of government contracts within the legally mandated timeframe. Hancock also failed to declare his own interest in awarding an NHS contract to a firm owned by members of his family. Prime Minister Johnson was also accused of breaking ministerial code by failing to publish the same contracts, though he was later cleared of wrongdoing. The High Court ruled in June that awarding a state contract to a marketing agency connected to senior government figures was unlawful.
After former prime minister David Cameron was accused of lobbying the current government for economic assistance in March, a Treasury Committee inquiry found that though Cameron did not break any rules, existing lobbying regulations were inadequate. In October, MP Owen Paterson was accused of an “egregious” break of lobbying rules after an investigation revealed that he had financially gained from lobbying activities that directly breached the ministerial code of conduct. Although Paterson ultimately resigned, Parliament voted to reject his suspension and halt the investigation into the matter.
In December, the Electoral Commission fined the Conservative Party £17,800 ($23,500 US dollars) for improperly reporting a donation that was used to finance the redecoration of the prime minister’s official residence. An inquiry into the matter cleared Johnson of breaking ministerial code.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||4.004 4.004|
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 November 2020, NGO OpenDemocracy reported that requests deemed sensitive are vetted by a government office known as a “clearing house.” In June 2021, a judge ruled that the government had displayed a “profound lack of transparency about the operation” of the clearing house and had not been justified in failing to comply with over 100 freedom-of-information requests.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
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 editorially independent and competitive with its commercial counterparts.
In 2020, the Council of Europe (CoE) criticized the government after the Ministry of Defence blacklisted journalists from online news outlet Declassified UK. The ministry apologized to the CoE later that month, and promised to conduct a review.
A National Action Plan including measures intended to enhance the safety of journalists was published in March 2021. Throughout the year, journalists received death threats and were subjected to harassment from antilockdown activists. Paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland have also issued threats against journalists in recent years; in both 2020 and 2021, Amnesty International condemned the harassment of journalists by such groups, stating that their actions undermine press freedom.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
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 assaults. In October 2021, the Home Office recorded 124,091 hate crimes in England and Wales during its 2020–21 reporting period, a 9 percent increase over the 2019–20 reporting period.
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. Educators and human rights groups have criticized the policy for forcing Muslims to self-censor, for fear of being referred to the program. In January 2021, William Shawcross—who was accused of fostering an “institutional bias against Muslims” in his previous role as the head of the UK’s Charity Commission—was appointed to chair an independent review into Prevent. His appointment was controversial, and prompted widespread criticism from rights groups and Muslim community leaders, who expressed concerns that Shawcross will institute policies harmful to Muslims.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally respected, though the government has recently made political forays into the academic curriculum. In October 2020, Women and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch commented that teaching critical race theory was partisan and illegal and the Department for Education issued guidance calling anticapitalism an “extreme political stance.”
A new draft law on freedom of speech remained under consideration in Parliament throughout 2021. 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 would potentially 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 government’s long-standing 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. Human rights NGO Liberty criticized the strategy in 2019, saying it stifled open debate and academic inquiry.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
Concerns about the effects of mass surveillance on unfettered private discussion have persisted for several years. The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 required communications companies to store customer metadata for 12 months and, in some cases, allowed this information to be accessed by the authorities 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 EU jurisprudence in 2018.
The government has advocated for the use of automated facial recognition (AFR), which builds “faceprints” of individuals based on recordings taken in public gatherings. In August 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled the South Wales Police’s use of AFR unlawful, but did not preemptively ban its use throughout the UK.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is generally respected, though peaceful protesters have found themselves under police surveillance for attending public events in recent years. Draft legislation that would place new restrictions on protest rights was introduced in Parliament in March 2021. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill includes provisions that would criminalize certain acts of protest, including blocking roads, and would allow authorities to suspend the assembly rights of people convicted of “protest-related” crimes. Widespread protests against the bill took place throughout the year, and in June, a parliamentary committee on human rights warned that the bill may violate protesters’ human rights. The proposal remained under consideration in the House of Lords at year’s end.
Police were accused of using lockdown restrictions to suppress protests in 2021. In March, police forcibly dispersed a public vigil held in memory of Sarah Everard, a woman who was killed by a serving police officer earlier that month; authorities claimed that participants had violated social distancing requirements. Demonstrations against police misconduct and use of excessive force continued throughout the year.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
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, which began in 2015, remained in session throughout 2021.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
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.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is generally independent, and governmental 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.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
Due process generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. However, funding for legal aid has been cut several times since 2013, leaving many vulnerable people without access to legal counsel and prompting criticism from rights groups and some figures within the judiciary.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 provided police with new enforcement powers, which have been criticized as disproportionately broad in scope. Many of these powers were phased out in 2021. In July 2020, The Guardian reported that the Metropolitan Police had been disproportionately fining BAME London residents for violating COVID-19 measures.
UK police have also been accused of using stop-and-search powers disproportionately: in 2020–21, Black people in England and Wales were seven times more likely to be searched by police than White people. . Data published by the Home Office in November 2021 shows a 24 percent rise in the use of the controversial policing practice during COVID-19-related lockdowns. The government expanded the stop-and-search powers of the police in July, “permanently relaxing” existing restrictions on the practice. In March, the Independent Office of Police Conduct ordered that the City of London Police reinvestigate an allegation of racial profiling made by a man who had been stopped and searched over 20 times without charge.
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 allows authorities to 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 over the partition of the island of Ireland. In July 2021, the UK government confirmed that it plans to end all prosecutions linked to the Troubles. The same month, 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 government has also declined to open an inquiry into the 1989 murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane, who was allegedly killed by a loyalist organization with the assistance of a soldier and a police informant. In December, the Supreme Court ruled that a 2014 Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) decision not to investigate the alleged state-sanctioned torture of 14 men during the Troubles was “wrong” and “irrational.”
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act, which allows undercover police officers to commit crimes to obtain intelligence, was enacted in March. The so-called “Spy Cops” bill has been strongly criticized by civil rights groups, and a parliamentary human rights committee warned it would allow agents to engage in especially violent activity.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals living in the UK are largely free from violence, but acts of terrorism did occur in 2021. In October, David Amess, a Conservative MP, was killed in an alleged terrorist attack. The following month, a bombing outside a Liverpool hospital was declared an act of terror.
Northern Ireland saw continued paramilitary activity throughout the year. In March, the PSNI reported 3 security-related deaths, 13 bombing incidents, and 83 terrorism-related arrests in the 2020-21 reporting period. During the same period, 230 households were rehomed due to intimidation from paramilitary groups.
While prisons generally adhere to international guidelines, problems of overcrowding, violence, self-harm, and drugs in prisons have worsened in recent years. In January 2021, it was reported that the use of force by prison staff against prisoners had doubled since 2011. In a July report, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) noted that prisoners had been subjected to extended periods of isolation in order to curb the spread of COVID-19, but such measures were being progressively relaxed. Following a freedom-of-information request from The Guardian, the Ministry of Justice revealed in July that over 50 inmates were being held in isolation in “close supervision centers” under conditions that the UN has argued are degrading, inhuman, and illegitimate.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Foreign residents in the UK have been subject to increasing scrutiny in recent years. Under the ongoing “hostile environment” policy, which aims to persuade undocumented immigrants to voluntarily leave the UK or refrain from immigrating, individuals seeking public and private services face stringent immigration checks.
In a February 2021 report, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) concluded that immigrants faced heightened racist treatment and poverty due to the policy. A proposed amendment to the new draft of the Nationality and Borders Bill, added in November, would allow the Home Secretary to strip individuals of their British citizenship without notice; rights advocates have expressed concern that BAME individuals would be disproportionately affected by the legislation. In 2020, a parliamentary public accounts committee accused the Home Office of formulating biased immigration policies.
Asylum seekers and migrants can be detained indefinitely, and there have been persistent reports of poor conditions and abuse in immigration detention centers. In July 2021, NGO Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) criticized the Home Office for keeping asylum seekers, some of whom were torture survivors, in isolation for indefinite periods of time. In February, media outlets reported allegations of sexual harassment and exploitation of asylum seekers in government detention facilities. The High Court ruled in June that the Home Office had unlawfully detained asylum seekers in inadequate and unsafe conditions. In July, the government introduced legislation that would “severely restrict” family reunion rights, which provide a path for minor refugees and asylum seekers to join family members living in the UK.
Though women receive equal treatment under the law, 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 more than 17,000 hate crimes against LGBT+ people during the 2020–21 reporting period in England and Wales, a 7 percent increase over the 2019–20 reporting period.
BAME residents face continued discrimination, including by the authorities. Stop-and-search powers are disproportionally used against BAME people; the Metropolitan Police initiated over 228,000 such stops in 2021. In 2020–21, Black people in England and Wales were seven times more likely to be stopped by police than white people.
Members of the Irish Traveller minority community have historically faced discrimination in the UK. In March 2021, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that Pontins, a vacation resort chain, had instructed its booking operators to refuse bookings to people with Irish accents or surnames, violating antidiscrimination laws.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
While UK residents generally enjoy freedom of internal movement, travel was affected by COVID-19-related lockdowns throughout 2021. Though strict lockdowns were imposed in 2020 and early 2021, most restrictions on movement and assembly had been lifted by mid-July 2021. Some restrictions were reintroduced in November in response to the spread of the Omicron variant.
UK passport holders saw their freedom to travel to EU member states lessened when an agreement on the UK’s departure from the bloc was reached in December 2020. Since January 2021, visitors from the UK have required a visa for extended travel to EU member states in the Schengen border area.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
Individuals may freely exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4.004 4.004|
The government generally does not place explicit restrictions on personal social freedoms. Abortion and same-sex marriage were heavily proscribed or prohibited in Northern Ireland until Parliament passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019. However, the law has not been fully implemented, and abortion services remained largely unavailable in Northern Ireland during 2021.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that nearly a third of English and Welsh women between the ages of 16 and 59 have experienced domestic abuse. Domestic violence increased during COVID-19-related lockdowns, with police data showing that two-thirds of women in abusive relationships experienced more violence during the first national lockdown. Fewer than one in 60 cases of rape reported to the police in 2020 resulted in charges being filed.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
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 rose to 34.6 percent in 2020.
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. In an April 2021 report, the Modern Slavery and Exploitation helpline reported that a significant increase in cases of sexual and criminal exploitation had occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
UK workers have encountered unsafe and exploitative conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Allegations of worker exploitation in the Leicester garment industry persisted in 2021.
On United Kingdom
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Global Freedom Score93 100 free
Internet Freedom Score79 100 free