United Kingdom | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

The United Kingdom's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to changes in the survey methodology.


The Good Friday Agreement between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein suffered a serious setback when police found sensitive materials at Sinn Fein houses and offices that prompted the suspension of the 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly. Human rights groups continued to voice concern over the high incidence of racism, anti-Semitism, and the mistreatment of children and the mentally ill. Civil liberties continued to be under siege by the adoption and implementation of antiterrorist legislation.

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. The British parliament is bicameral. The House of Commons has 659 members directly elected on a first-past-the-post basis. There is no upper limit on the number of House of Lords members; the chamber includes 26 archbishops and bishops and 92 hereditary peers under the House of Lords Act 1999, and currently there are 692 members. 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.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's centrist "new" Labour Party was reelected in June 2001, achieving the largest majority ever by a governing party entering its second term. Nevertheless, relations with trade unions suffered in 2002 over pay levels and the private finance initiative, whereby private business helps improve public services. The prospect of U.K. participation in a U.S. military action against Iraq exacerbated unease with Blair's autocratic leadership and potential U.K. isolation from other EU states.

Devolution of power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland took place in 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 London's control. The 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast, which arose from the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, was suspended in October 2002 after police raided Sinn Fein houses and offices and found documents that could be of use to terrorists.

A sharp rise in racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic behavior in Western Europe followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. In the United Kingdom, 5 attacks on Jews were reported in December 2001; 13 in January 2002; 7 in February; 12 in March; and 48 in April.

The European Parliament amended the 1997 European Commission directive on privacy in telecommunications in May 2002, obliging member states to retain all telecommunications data on individuals for one to two years and to provide the relevant authorities unrestricted access to these data in order to assist law enforcement officials in eradicating crime. Human rights groups attacked this move as an assault on privacy and civil liberty.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

United Kingdom citizens 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. The Scottish parliament has limited power to collect taxes. In 1999, the government abolished hereditary peerage in the House of Lords, but debate on how to make the chamber more representative of the population has delayed further transformations.

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 introduced a statutory right to free expression, although the European Convention makes exceptions in the interest of public safety, health, morals, and the reputations and rights of others.

British television owners pay a 112 pound (US$168) licensing fee that helps fund the BBC. In October 2002, a Sunday Times journalist refused to pay the fee on the grounds that the 1998 Human Rights Act's definition of freedom of expression overrides the law that enforces collection of the licensing fee.

The Freedom of Information Act of 2000 will come into effect in January 2005, although from November 2002 authorities must publish descriptions of the information they will provide. Rights groups criticized the law for excluding national security, defense, international resolutions, individual or public safety, commercial interests, and law enforcement information. The Scottish parliament passed the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act in April 2002; it must be in force by the end of 2005.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000 (RIPA) grants law enforcement agencies access to a wide range of information, primarily Internet based. The legislation has been widely criticized for endangering civil liberties such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right to privacy.

Governmental 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 state religions, although their status has come under increasing scrutiny.

As of October 2000, the Human Rights Act of 1998 allows British citizens to take their grievances to British courts rather than seek redress in the European Court of Human Rights. Consequently, British courts are being pressured to bring domestic laws into line with European Convention standards.

Amnesty International expressed concern over the implementation of the Terrorism Act of 2000 and the Antiterrorism, Crime, and Security Act of 2001 in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. These acts call for the detention of non-U.K. nationals for unspecified and unlimited duration; degrading detention conditions; denial of a detainee's right to counsel; and failure to ensure respect for the human rights of UK nationals.

In December 2001, the Council of the European Union adopted by "written procedure" antiterrorist legislation that requires member states to prevent "the public" from offering "any form of support, active or passive" to terrorists and to check all refugees and asylum seekers for terrorist connections. Human rights groups criticized the legislation because it does not distinguish between conscious or unconscious assistance, treats would-be immigrants as criminals, and was not debated in parliament before being adopted.

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 employment conditions, such as parental leave and sick pay, as those enjoyed by full-time workers doing equivalent work.

Human rights groups continued to voice concern over the mistreatment of minorities and the mentally ill by police, citing several deaths in police custody.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act of 2000 strengthens the Race Relations Act of 1976 in Great Britain, making it illegal to discriminate in employment, education, housing, and the provision of goods, services, and facilities. For Northern Ireland, the Race Relations Order 1997 covers the same issues.

The Immigration and Asylum Act of 1999 impedes refugees' abilities to enter the United Kingdom through pre-entry controls, obstacles to appeals, devolution of powers to immigration officers, limited bail hearings, and internment without bail. From April 2002, because of protests about the potential stigma attached to the bearer of vouchers, the proposed voucher system was modified to allow their exchange for cash. Implementation of the bail and internment provisions has been delayed.

Transparency International ranked the United Kingdom 10th on its 2002 Corruption Perceptions Index, the 6th highest evaluation of any EU member state.

Amnesty International voiced concern that the United Kingdom is failing to protect the fundamental human rights of children, citing the deaths of child-soldiers and children being held in young-offender institutions in England and Wales. By November 2002, Britain had still not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child regarding involvement of children in armed conflict. The trafficking of children to Britain, particularly from Eastern Europe and West Africa, for child prostitution and labor continues to be a problem.

British women earn on average only 73.7 percent of British men's wages, compared to 76.3 percent in the EU as a whole, according to Eurostat. Some 44.4 percent of women are employed full time. The percentage of women in national parliament is 17.1 percent; in national government, 35.3 percent. The Employment Bill, which received royal assent on July 8, 2002, will increase maternity allowances to the lesser of either 100 pounds (US$150) per week or 90 percent of the employee's average weekly earnings. The bill becomes effective April 2003.