Freedom in the World
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Despite a series of setbacks in 2000, Tony Blair's governing Labour Party managed to regain its lead in the opinion polls and swept to another victory in general elections held in June 2001, trouncing the opposition Conservative (Tory) Party. Britain was wracked by racial tension between whites and Asians with the eruption of a series of race riots during the summer months. Following the September 11 attacks in the United States, further antiterrorism legislation was passed at the end of the year that was criticized by human rights groups.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland encompasses the two formerly separate kingdoms of England and Scotland, the ancient principality of Wales, and the six counties of the Irish province of Ulster (see Northern Ireland under Related Territories). The British parliament has an elected House of Commons with 659 members chosen by plurality vote from single-member districts and a House of Lords with 478 hereditary and appointed members. Reforms to make the Lords more representative are ongoing; an initiative by the government in September 2000 allows all United Kingdom, Irish, and Commonwealth citizens over age 21 to nominate themselves for ten new seats. A cabinet of ministers appointed from the majority party exercises executive power on behalf of the mainly ceremonial sovereign. Queen Elizabeth II nominates the party leader with the most support in the House of Commons to form a government.
Blair's "New Labour," so called because of its radical shift from its socialist past, adopted Conservative-style positions on a number of issues and swept general elections in May 1997. The government continues to define itself as it goes along by blending traditional Labour and Tory policies. Since taking office, Labour has abandoned tax-and-spend policies, devolved monetary policy to the Bank of England, and maintained strict spending limits. However, it has also reintroduced the minimum wage and restored rights to trade unions.
Devolution of power to Scotland and Wales took place in May 1999, with each territory establishing its own legislature. The 129-member Scottish parliament and the 60-member Welsh assembly exercise control over transportation, health, education, and housing, while foreign, defense, and economic policies remain under British control. On December 1, 1999, Britain officially handed power to a new 108-member Northern Ireland assembly in Belfast. The shared-power arrangement between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, arose from the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998, but internal feuding among loyalist paramilitary organizations and disputes over police reform, disarmament, and the British military presence continue to threaten the agreement.
During 2000, Labour achievements such as devolution, House of Lords reform, a stable economy, low unemployment, and improvements in primary education were overshadowed by criticism of the government's failure to deliver on its key promise to revive public services. After years of underinvestment, transportational systems are in disrepair, secondary schools are substandard, and the National Health Service is ill-equipped to handle its workload. In July 2000, Blair introduced a budget, designed to win back disillusioned traditional Labour supporters, which called for spending increases to improve health, education, transport, and policing, and to develop poor areas. Despite a crisis over rising fuel prices in September during which its approval ratings plummeted, the government rebounded to lead in opinion polls held in December. Many attributed this success to the Conservatives' inability to capitalize on the government's setbacks.
In general elections held on June 7, 2001, the Labour Party secured a second term in office with another landslide victory. The United Kingdom's third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, increased its representation, while the far-right British National Party (BNP) won an unprecedented 16 percent of the vote in a constituency in Oldham, Manchester, where there had been race riots in May. The Conservative Party failed to improve on its crushing 1997 defeat and faced a leadership challenge when its leader, William Hague, announced his resignation the morning following the 2001 elections. After a rancorous three-month campaign, the party elected rightist Iain Duncan Smith as Hague's successor in September 2001.
Citizens of the United Kingdom can change their government democratically. Voters are registered by government survey and include both Northern Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in Britain. British subjects abroad retain voting rights for 20 years after emigration. Welsh and Scottish legislatures have authority over matters of regional importance such as education, health, and some economic matters. The Scottish parliament has limited power to collect taxes. In 1999, the government abolished hereditary peerage in the House of Lords and dismissed more than 600 hereditary peers. Critics expressed concern that the move would allow the government to pack the house with cronies; hereditary peers had constituted more than half the Lords membership, while the balance were government appointees.
The Human Rights Act, effectively Britain's first written charter of rights, came into force in October 2000. Under the law, British citizens who feel their rights have been violated may take their grievances to British courts rather than seek redress in the European Court of Human Rights. British Law Lords will declare whether specific British laws comply with the European Convention. The law represents a significant shift in power to the courts, because although judges will not have the right to strike down legislation, the government will face enormous political pressure to bring laws into line with European standards.
Legal attempts by the government to combat crime and corruption have been widely denounced as dangerous to basic freedoms. The Terrorism Act 2000, permanent legislation to replace emergency laws concerning political violence, became effective on February 19, 2001. Amnesty International released a briefing on the bill, outlining concerns about provisions such as arrest, entry, and search and seizure without warrant; denial of a detainee's access to counsel upon arrest and during interrogation; detention without trial for up to 12 days; and the shifting of the burden of proof from prosecution to defense. Shafiq Ur Rehman, a Muslim cleric accused of supporting terrorism, was ordered to be deported in October after 17 months of deliberations by the Law Lords. In December, the government passed the Anti-terrorism, Crime, and Security Act after just a month of parliamentary and public scrutiny, which allows for indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without charge.
A government report issued in 1999 found London's police force "riven with pernicious and institutionalized racism." The findings stem from complaints of police harassment of blacks and, specifically, the case of Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old black student stabbed to death in 1993 by a group of white youths. No one has yet been convicted of the killing despite five arrests and eight separate investigation teams. In 2000, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reported that criticism of police for their handling of the Lawrence case has provoked a police backlash against minorities. The report also noted that blacks make up a disproportionate number of those killed in police custody.
In April, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act was passed, making it illegal for public bodies to discriminate on the basis of race (when the original act came into effect in 1976, the application of the act was optional in the public sector). However, Britain was struck by a series of race riots between whites and Asians (primarily of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent), in Oldham in May, Leeds and Burnley in June, and Bradford and Stoke-on-Trent in July. The rioting was triggered by specific racially motivated incidents as well as the activities of several far-right parties such as the National Front and the BNP. A report on the Oldham rioting published in December also blamed deep-rooted segregation in the town's communities as a major factor in provoking the unrest.
Government policy provides for freedom of religion, and the Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation. The Church of England (Anglican) and the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) are designated as state religions, although their status has come under increasing scrutiny. According to one nongovernmental organization (NGO), the number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2000 rose to 398 from 270 the previous year, partially as a reaction to increasing violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Though uncensored and mostly private, the British press is subject to strict libel and obscenity laws. Print media are privately owned and independent, though many of the national daily newspapers are aligned with political parties. The BBC runs about half the electronic media in the country and, although funded by the government, is editorially independent. The Human Rights Act provides a statutory right to free expression in Britain for the first time, although the European Convention makes exceptions in the interest of public safety, health, morals, and the reputations and rights of others. Parliament passed freedom-of-information legislation in 2000, granting access to a wide range of information previously denied, including police data. The law, which is expected to come into force in 2002, has been sharply criticized by rights groups for excluding information regarding national security, defense, international resolutions, individual or public safety, commercial interests, and law enforcement.
In October 2000, new regulations gave employers the right to monitor staff phone calls, e-mail, and Internet activity without consent. In July 2000, measures were introduced to allow authorities to intercept e-mail and other electronic communication without a warrant for reasons of national security, prevention of crime, and national "well-being."
Attacks on British refugee asylum policy continued in 2001. Britain has been unable to handle an increasing influx of refugees; currently more than 40,000 people await decisions on asylum applications. The Immigration and Asylum Act, enacted in April 2000, seeks to deter asylum seekers by offering them vouchers redeemable for goods instead of cash welfare benefits. In addition, asylum seekers are to be dispersed among 13 designated sites around Britain instead of being allowed to settle where they choose, and refugees whose applications for asylum are turned down will be allowed only one appeal. Rights activists charged that the new law, which does not allow vendors to give change in cash for vouchers that exceed the value of goods purchased, would both demean and reinforce prejudice against refugees. In August, a Turkish Kurd refugee was killed by a gang of white youths in Hull, and the following week an Iranian asylum seeker was stabbed in a housing development in Glasgow. In April, it was revealed that the government's shift in refugee policy had led to a dramatic increase, from 14 to 78 percent, in the number of applications being refused.
British workers are free to form and join independent trade unions. The Labour Party introduced a national minimum wage in 1999. Legislation introduced in mid-2000 requires employers to offer part-time workers the same benefits, wages, and conditions of employment, such as parental leave and sick pay, as those enjoyed by full-time workers doing the same type of work. With an estimated 44 percent of Britain's female workers in part-time employment, the new regulations help boost women's equality in the workplace.
Britain was the only European state included in a list of countries shamed for sending "child-soldiers" into battle. The Child Soldiers Global Report, released in June, strongly criticized the United Kingdom for recruiting soldiers as young as 16 and for routinely sending 17-year-olds into combat. By the end of June, Britain had still not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, according to Amnesty International. The trafficking of children to Britain, particularly from Eastern Europe and West Africa, also continues to be a problem. A report published in December by the U.K. branch of End Child Prostitution, Pornography, and Trafficking (Ecpat UK) says that a growing number of foreign children are being forced into prostitution.