Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
The United Kingdom (UK)—comprised of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales—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.
Key Developments in 2017:
- A snap general election in June returned a hung parliament. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party was weakened, but remained in power with the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
- A number of terrorist attacks took place during the year, including a May bombing attack at a concert in Manchester in which 22 people were killed. The Islamic State (IS) militant group claimed responsibility for the Manchester attack, as well as a separate strike in March on Westminster Bridge in London, which killed four.
- Hate crimes against immigrants and Muslims continued to rise, with many observers linking the increase to tensions prompted by terrorist strikes, as well as inflammatory rhetoric regarding refugees and migrants that accompanied the 2016 Brexit vote, and has persisted in its aftermath.
- Newspapers continued to oppose a government initiative to implement Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which if formally enacted could saddle publications that fail to join a government regulator with high legal costs in court cases.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 40 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. 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, who 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. May stayed on as prime minister following free and fair elections held in June 2017.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
While a general election was not due until 2020, Parliament in April 2017 voted to approve a call for snap elections by Prime Minister May, who sought to strengthen her position to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) sent a limited mission to observe the elections, and in its final report offered relatively minor recommendations without questioning the integrity of the polls’ results. The Conservative Party won 42 percent of the vote, which amounted to a loss of 13 seats, and resulted in a hung parliament. The Labour Party did better than expected, gaining 30 seats, with 40 percent of the vote. The Scottish National Party (SNP) lost 21 seats but still represented the third largest party in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats gained 4 seats, taking their share to 12 seats, and the Northern Ireland-based DUP increased its share of seats from 8 to 10. The Conservatives and the DUP forged an alliance whereby the DUP agreed to support May’s minority government on key matters including Brexit and national security legislation.
A3. 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, though the limited OSCE mission that observed the 2017 snap polls urged lawmakers to consider an annual cap on how much a single individual could donate to a party or candidate, as well as reforms that could boost transparency surrounding campaign financing.
The Conservative government has moved towards requiring voters to produce identification in order to vote, with a trial pilot scheme planned for five local areas in the May 2018 local elections. (Voter identification requirements already exist for elections that take place in Northern Ireland.) The Electoral Commission backs voter identification measures to prevent electoral fraud through impersonation, though some advocacy groups as well as the Labour Party maintain that it will discourage political participation among marginalized groups.
Separately, at year’s end, the Electoral Commission was investigating claims that Russia had meddled in the 2016 Brexit vote by enlisting people to spread misinformation and divisive messages on social media platforms. In November 2017, Prime Minister May publicly accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “planting fake stories” to “sow discord in the West.”
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 16 / 16
B1. 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 Party and the Labour Party have dominated British politics for decades, though several other parties regularly win seats in Parliament.
B2. 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. The SNP supplanted the Liberal Democrats as the third-largest party in Parliament in the 2015 elections, a position it maintained after the 2017 elections.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
People’s political choices are free from domination by powerful groups that are not democratically accountable, including the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, and economic oligarchies.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4
Under Britain’s system of “devolution,” the UK 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 (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people, and members of racial or ethnic minority groups have been able to gain a political voice through their participation in the mainstream political parties. However, in late 2017, numerous allegations surfaced of sexual harassment of women in Parliament by other lawmakers, at least two of which prompted formal investigations. In the wake of the revelations, a number of current and former political figures and political journalists made statements recognizing sexual harassment as a problem within the Parliament.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 12 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
Britain’s freely elected officials are able to make and implement national policy without significant influence from actors who are not democratically accountable.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 4 / 4
Large-scale corruption is not pervasive in domestic political and governance structures, and anticorruption bodies are generally effective. However, the UK is increasingly coming under scrutiny for the ways in which its banking and financial sectors, property market, and offshore services in overseas territories enable money laundering and facilitate corruption globally.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4
Members of Parliament are required to disclose assets and sources of income, and this information is made available to the public. The country’s Freedom of Information Law is reasonably well-implemented, and journalists have been able to access information under its provisions about topics of interest to the public. However, there are growing calls to extend the law’s reach to private companies contracted by government departments and agencies.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 54 / 60 (–1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
Press freedom is legally protected, and the media are lively and competitive, and espouse viewpoints spanning the political spectrum. The state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is editorially independent and competitive with its counterparts in the commercial market.
In 2017, newspapers continued to oppose a government initiative to formally implement Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which stipulates that, in media-related court cases, publishers who are not members of a recognized self-regulator can be ordered to pay their opponents’ legal costs, even if they win. These provisions were proposed to incentivize publishers to join a recognized self-regulator, but have been denounced by journalists.
D2. 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 assaults. In March 2017, the Metropolitan Police released statistics for the previous 12 months, which showed an 18 percent increase in the number of victims of religious hate crimes in London compared to the same period in 2015–16. Representatives from some UK–based NGOs suggested that the increase was linked with hostile rhetoric regarding refugees and migrants that accompanied the 2016 Brexit campaign. There have also been concerns about rising Islamophobia in the wake of terrorist attacks.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4
Academic freedom is generally respected. However, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015 requires schools and universities to prevent students from being drawn into terrorism and to vet the remarks of visiting speakers as part of that effort. The program has raised concerns that open debate and academic inquiry is being stifled. A bill to repeal provisions in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act that require teachers and those caring for children to report evidence of extremism among children in preschool or primary school settings was not considered as planned in May 2017, because Parliament was dissolved on May 3 ahead of the year’s snap elections.
D4. 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 free and open private discussion persisted in 2017. The 2016 Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), known by critics as the “snoopers’ charter,” requires communications companies to store metadata on customers’ activity for 12 months and, in some cases, allows this information to be accessed by police and other security officials without a warrant. However, judicial commissioners must review ministerial authorization of warrants for the actual interception of communications.
The British civil liberties group Liberty was granted leave by the High Court in June 2017 to challenge parts of the IPA, and the case was ongoing at year’s end.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is generally respected.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Civic and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate freely. However, groups identified as terrorist organizations can be banned, and there are concerns that the relevant legal provisions are broad enough that they could allow the ban or prohibition of legitimate associations and activism. In recent years, disclosures of surveillance of NGOs have drawn criticism. In 2016, Human Rights Watch filed a challenge with the European Court on Human Rights (ECHR) to force the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a judicial body, to state whether or not the group had been subject to surveillance by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and if so, whether such surveillance was legal. The ECHR had not issued a decision on the case at the end of 2017.
A lobbying law adopted in 2014 concerning third-party campaigning was heavily criticized by NGOs for limiting the amount of money they can spend during election years. In September 2017, the government rejected recommendations by a government commission to reduce the law’s scope.
E3. 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.
F. RULE OF LAW: 14 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
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.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4
While due process generally prevails in civil and criminal matters, rights groups and some figures within the judiciary have criticized severe cuts in legal aid under reforms that took effect in 2013, which left many vulnerable people without access to formal legal counsel. The cuts notably affected those with immigration-related cases, and parties to cases heard in family courts.
The 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act has been criticized for giving excessive powers to police, including the authority to seize 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 up to 200 miles away from their homes.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
There were a number of terrorist attacks in the UK in 2017. In March, four people died and dozens were injured when an attacker drove a vehicle through a crowd of people on Westminster Bridge in London; the Islamic State military group claimed responsibility for the attack. A similar vehicle attack took place on London Bridge in June, after which the assailants stabbed a number of people; the attack resulted in a total of eight fatalities. In yet another vehicular attack, one person was killed in June when an attacker drive a van into a group of Muslim worshippers performing prayers near a London mosque. In the year’s deadliest attack, 22 people including a number of children were killed in a May bombing attack at a concert in Manchester; IS claimed responsibility for the strike. And in September, two dozen people were injured in a bombing in the London Underground train system.
While prisons generally adhere to international guidelines, the problems of overcrowding, violence, and drugs in prisons have increasingly been raised, most recently by the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales in his 2016–17 annual report.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding the 2016 EU referendum campaign appeared to fuel a spike in harassment of and physical attacks against foreigners in the UK. In October 2017, the UK Home Office said there had been 80,000 recorded hate crimes in England and Wales between April 2016 and Match 2017, a 29 percent increase over the same period in 2015–16; it also reported spikes in hate crimes after the 2016 EU referendum and the Westminster Bridge attack in March 2017.
Immigrants and their descendants receive equal treatment under the law but frequently face living standards below the national average. Immigration laws that took effect in 2016 require landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants, obliges banks to perform background checks before opening an account, and makes it a criminal offense for migrants to obtain jobs without appropriate paperwork. It also allows police to seize vehicles belonging to migrants in the country illegally, and allows authorities to electronically track those released on bail while awaiting deportation.
Asylum seekers and migrants can be detained indefinitely, and there have been persistent reports of poor conditions and abuse in immigration detention centers. The government has continued to hold children in immigration detention centers.
The authorities actively enforce a 2010 law barring discrimination on the basis of factors including sexual orientation and gender reassignment.
While women receive equal treatment under the law, in practice gender discrimination persists in the workplace and elsewhere in society.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 14 / 16 (–1)
G1. 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.
G2. 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. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4 (−1)
The government generally does not place explicit restrictions on personal social freedoms. However, in Northern Ireland, abortion is allowed only to protect the life or the long-term health of the mother, meaning most women seeking legal abortions must travel outside the region.
Same-sex marriage became legal in 2013 in England, Scotland, and Wales, but the Northern Ireland Assembly has blocked a similar change in Northern Ireland. The DUP, whose support allows Prime Minister May’s minority government to survive, has consistently used its power to veto or obstruct legislation on marriage equality, even as polling has shown widespread support for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to the persistence in Northern Ireland of restrictions on personal social freedoms that have been removed elsewhere in the country, including a ban on same-sex marriage.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Economic activity is not excessively influenced by the government, though 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. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act increased punishments for human traffickers and provides greater protections for victims. However, its implementation has been weak. Children and migrant workers are among those most vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking.