Impunity pervades post-Johnson Government

Johnson’s lack of candour might look like a personal phenomenon, but it was something which pervaded his government. This had grievous consequences. As our recent report details, lack of transparency and accountability pervaded his government’s approach to the pandemic. It is demonstrated through the use of technologies which could be employed as population-level surveillance, with appalling consequences for public trust.

There are far too many of examples of this disregard for public standards and consequent erosion of trust, within ORG’s remit and without. Here we summarise some of those that have been most important to our work.

Data protection and privacy

Regarding the pandemic, we believe that public health consequences were inevitable as a result of playing fast and loose with privacy. Johnson’s approach to government no doubt emboldened Matt Hancock to disregard data protection checks; to push ahead with the centralised collection of location data; to invest in a vast test and trace programme with insufficient safeguards on the use of personal data. 

Concerns over privacy were dismissed and ignored. Meanwhile, the Information Commissioner’s Office was unable or unwilling to strongly enforce data protection law after multiple breaches by the government, citing their desire to act as a ‘critical friend.’ Little was heard from them, and public confidence in the ICO’s ability to hold government to account was seriously undermined, leading to complaints from MPs about their actions.

Of course, it may seem a leap to assume that the ICO’s actions were the result of the government’s behaviour, but we should remember that the Johnson administration was threatening to dismantle data protection, in a highly irresponsible manner, the legacy of which we see in the current Data Protection and Digital Information (DPDI) Bill. The term of the ICO was nearly up, and when it was, the government unsuccessfully tried to find someone they could appoint with an industry background, including rigging the people making the selection. Now, the current bill does everything it can to control the ICO’s agenda, and make it ‘balance’ rights with the interests of business. 

Online Safety Bill

Similar problems are baked into the Online Safety Bill, which hands powers to government to determine what kind of material is ‘dangerous’ and should be removed. Regarding safeguards for free expression, these are reserved to media organisations, but held back from the public.

The democratic decay that marked Johnson’s government extended to a blatant, and consistent, disregard for the rule of law.

Jim Killock, ORG Executive Director

Migrant rights

The impact of these trends are often worst for people who are least able to defend themselves. Boris Johnson’s disregard of migrants’ human and digital rights is just one aspect of his disregard for their human rights. For instance, Johnson stated that migrants had been treating Britain as their own for too long; a comment in a long history of such remarks from Johnson. He thereby helped perpetuate harmful stereotypes and contributed to an atmosphere of hostility and xenophobia towards migrants and refugees. It is impossible to build an environment where human and digital rights are respected, where the starting point is that institutions are actively seeking to demonise sections of the population.

The most prominent attack on migrants rights is proposed plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, which came with a price tag exceeding £120 million, faced strong condemnation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR argued that this scheme risked breaching international obligations, including those outlined in the UNHCR’s Refugee Convention. Yet the government continues with its plan. Less well known are the effects of these plans on migrant digital rights that follow, which live on the level of bureaucratic humiliations, targeting and finding reasons to deny individuals their rights.

For instance, the government continues with Johnson-era plans to tag asylum seekers who cross the English Channel electronically. This infringes upon their privacy and dignity and treats individuals seeking refuge as criminals rather than recognizing their legitimate right to seek protection from persecution and violence. 

Other examples include the continued abuse of data at our borders, device seizures and other measures. While the Johnson administration cannot be blamed for all of these measures, his focus on immigration and channel crossings, has made it extraordinarily difficult to even begin to tackle injustices in these areas.

Policing and Pre-crime

The government also proposed massive extension of the use of the “National Fraud Initiative” to attempt to use government data to look for people it believed were suspicious or in some way guilty of infractions. Meanwhile the Police, Crime and Sentencing Act was introduced which extended police access to public data sources to combat violent crime, with the likelihood that it will target specific communities and criminalise them.

These measures did nothing to ensure accountability or redress. They built on the government’s narratives against migrants and minority communities, extended police powers and increased the likelihood of digitally-enabled discrimination. While the roots of these polices go much deeper than Johnson, the current government continues the same trajectory, with little political pressure in Parliament to ensure that the police are held to account regarding new powers; which is extraordinary given the controversy that surrounds discrimination in policing in the UK.

It is impossible to build an environment where human and digital rights are respected, where the starting point is that institutions are actively seeking to demonise sections of the population.

Jim Killock, ORG Executive Director

There is a similar pattern emerging around the Prevent Duty – the government’s attempt to prevent terrorism that is essentially a profiling and mass surveillance exercise over British Muslims. 

Despite a mechanism in place to independently review terrorism policy in the UK, Johnson’s government chose to appoint those with existing biases against the communities Prevent targets and who champion the policy to lead its review. That has led to a sham assessment that ignores Prevent’s widespread censure and instead recommends doubling down on the worst parts of the policy. The legacy of Johnson’s lack of accountability thus extends beyond his tenure as those recommendations were wholesale accepted without further scrutiny after the review by William Shawcross.

Disregard for the rule of law

The democratic decay that marked Johnson’s government extended to a blatant, and consistent, disregard for the rule of law. The PM repeatedly was disdainful of constitutional conventions, such as the prorogation of Parliament in 2019 or his attempt to break international law in Northern Ireland. 

In the UK courts, government departments, such as the Home Office, have showed disdain for the judgments of the courts. In our work, we challenged the Immigration Exemption to data protection, which was designed to allow data to be shared for immigration purposes with essentially no accountability to individuals. The government has consistently refused to implement the directions of the High Court.

In short, Johnson has left a legacy of government impunity and legislative means to control it. This extends further, into threats to human rights, the courts and attempts to reduce electoral accountability. 

It will take a lot more than Johnson’s inelegant semi-departure to wind back that legacy. Parliament asserting itself to restrain executive powers in the Online Safety Bill and DPDI Bill would be a start.


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