United Kingdom

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United Kingdom 2023

The UK government continued to pursue a policy agenda that breached its international human rights commitments and curtailed human rights protections. People seeking asylum and other migrants were particularly targeted, along with protesters. New government legislation further eroded the freedom of assembly and expression. Police faced findings of institutional racism and other forms of discrimination. Abortion was decriminalized in Northern Ireland, but access to abortion services was still hindered. In the rest of the UK, abortion remained criminalized apart from lawful exceptions. Legislation was passed terminating investigations into and prosecutions of historic human rights violations during the Northern Ireland Troubles. Minimum service levels during industrial action were imposed in various sectors.


The UN Human Rights Council adopted the UK’s UPR Outcome Report in March. The new Bill of Rights Bill, proposed in 2022 as a replacement for the Human Rights Act, was formally withdrawn, but the Human Rights Act remained under sustained attack by its piecemeal disapplication in other legislation and hostile government rhetoric. The UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights became the subject of increasing political pressure. Conversely, the devolved Scottish government launched a consultation on a new Scottish Human Rights Bill to expand the legal protection of human rights in Scotland.

Right to a healthy environment

In September, the government announced a delay to, or abandonment of, key policies intended to contribute towards reaching net zero by 2050. A ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 was delayed by five years to 2035. The phase-out of liquid petroleum gas boilers for residential heating was also delayed from 2026 to 2035. Requirements on residential landlords to increase the insulation of their properties by 2028 were scrapped. In November, the government announced plans to pass new legislation permitting fossil fuel companies to bid for new oil and gas drilling licences on an annual basis. These bidding rounds would proceed so long as, in a given year, the UK was predicted to import more fossil fuel products than it produces domestically and the carbon emissions produced by the new domestic extraction were less than the equivalent emissions from imported fuel. The government continued to insist that it would meet the 2050 net zero target, although NGOs claimed its policies were not on track to meet this.

Freedom of expression and assembly

In May, parliament passed the Public Order Act, furthering a legislative crackdown on peaceful protest that started with the 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. The Public Order Act criminalized various forms of peaceful protest, such as “locking on”, expanded police stop-and-search powers, created protest banning orders, and gave the Home Secretary powers to seek civil injunctions against peaceful protesters.

In June, the Public Order Act 1986 (Serious Disruption to the Life of the Community) Regulations were passed. This secondary legislation expanded the circumstances in which police can impose conditions on protests, backed by prison sentences. Conditions can be anything police consider necessary to prevent “serious disruption”, defined in the regulations as an obstruction causing “more than minor hindrance to day-to-day activities”.

In May, dozens of peaceful protesters were arrested at and around the coronation of King Charles III, including pre-emptive arrests. The majority of charges were subsequently dropped.

Arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment of peaceful environmental protesters continued throughout 2023. In some instances, protesters charged with offences were prevented by judges from referencing climate change or other environmental concerns in their defence to the jury. Those who ignored such orders faced prosecution for contempt of court and prison sentences.

Following the Hamas attacks in Israel on 7 October, and the subsequent Israeli bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, regular large-scale, non-violent protests occurred calling for a ceasefire. The then Home Secretary and other government ministers sought to pressure police to ban these protests, characterizing them as “hate marches”. Police leaders responded that they lacked the legal powers to ban the protests. The government indicated its intention to legislate to further expand policing powers to intervene against non-violent protests.

Some people in the UK on temporary visas had their leave to remain curtailed because of their involvement in pro-Palestine protests.

Irresponsible arms transfers

In June, the High Court rejected a judicial review challenge brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) against the government’s decision to renew arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the context of ongoing conflict in Yemen. The court ruled that the government had not acted irrationally in renewing the sales.

NGOs expressed concern over continued transfers of components for combat aircraft to Israel. In December, an application for judicial review of export licences for military equipment capable of being used by Israeli forces in Gaza was lodged by a group of NGOs. The case was ongoing at the end of the year.


In January, the UK government blocked the Gender Recognition Reform Act passed by the Scottish Parliament from becoming law. The devolved Scottish government challenged this decision in the Court of Session, but lost the challenge in December.

In February, the government published the Shawcross Review into the “Prevent” strand of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy. The review made many recommendations, including that Prevent should focus more greatly on what the review referred to as “non-violent Islamist extremism” and narrow its approach to what it referred to as “the Extreme Right Wing”. Amnesty International’s own research into Prevent found discrimination and interference with freedom of thought and expression.1

In March, the government-commissioned Casey Report on the standards of behaviour and internal culture at the Metropolitan Police was published. It found numerous issues, including institutional racism, sexism and homophobia. In May, the outgoing Chief Constable of Police Scotland gave a speech in which he admitted that institutional racism, sexism, misogyny and discrimination existed in the police force.

In March and June, respectively, the Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales and the Northern Ireland Policing Board each published research into the use of strip-searching by police against children. The Children’s Commissioner’s report found, among many other concerns, that Black children were up to six times more likely to be strip-searched than other children.

Following 7 October, reports of antisemitic and Islamophobic hate crimes escalated dramatically. Between 1 October and 13 November, the Metropolitan Police reported that 779 antisemitic offences were recorded, an increase of 1,200% on the same period the year before. In the same period, 343 Islamophobic offences were reported, a 236% increase.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Despite being decriminalized in Northern Ireland, abortion remained criminalized in England and Wales, and Scotland, subject to lawful exceptions determined by doctors. In 2023, six women were charged with illegal abortion offences. In July, a woman was sentenced to a 14-month suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to self-administering an abortion outside the legal time limits.

Ongoing barriers obstructed access to abortion services in Northern Ireland following decriminalization, including multiple failings by the devolved government, under-resourced and understaffed services, conscience-based refusals, misinformation and pervasive stigma.2


In September, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill was passed into law. The act effectively created an amnesty and terminated all inquests, inquiries and investigations into killings and other Troubles-related human rights violations. They were to be replaced by a light-touch review by a new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. The act was widely criticized by victims, political parties in Northern Ireland and the government of the Irish Republic, as well as a range of international human rights monitors. The act was met with immediate legal challenges by victims and families. In December, the Irish government announced its intention to launch an inter-state case against the UK at the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the act’s provisions breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

In June, the “Illegal Migration Act” passed into law. The act and government rhetoric around it were in conflict with the UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. The act banned the government from processing asylum claims made by people who had arrived without prior permission, and required the government to expel them and never permit them lawful residence in the UK. This reinforced an existing policy of refusing to process asylum claims by people deemed to have arrived irregularly via countries perceived as safe. The policy affected the majority of asylum claimants in the UK.

In November, the Supreme Court ruled that the government’s policy of expelling people seeking asylum in the UK to Rwanda was unlawful. In response, the government signed a new treaty with the Rwandan government and tabled legislation in parliament requiring courts to treat Rwanda as a safe country, disapplying large parts of the Human Rights Act and other rights-protecting legal instruments and substantially limiting the ability of the courts to intervene. Thelegislative process was ongoing at the end of the year.

In September, a government-commissioned inquiry into abuses of people detained at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre was published. The report found a prevailing culture of abuse, including 19 instances of inhuman or degrading treatment of detained people by staff within a five-month period. Nevertheless, the 2023 “Illegal Migration Act” granted new powers to detain people for immigration purposes without effective judicial oversight.

Hostile government and media rhetoric against migrants increased throughout the year. In September, the then Home Secretary singled out trafficking survivors, and gay and women refugees. Safeguards for migrant survivors of human trafficking and unaccompanied children were removed or reduced through the “Illegal Migration Act”. At the same time, steep increases to visa fees were imposed, further impoverishing migrants in the UK.

Workers’ rights

In response to large-scale public sector strikes in schools, universities, hospitals and railway services, in July, parliament passed the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, which potentially breached the right to freedom of association. The act gave ministers broad powers to determine levels of service that must be maintained during industrial action in a range of broadly defined sectors, such as health, education and transport. Workers failing to comply with “work notices” would lose their protection against unfair dismissal. The act also provided that a union failing to ensure named members broke the strike would face severe financial penalties.

  1. This is the Thought Police: The Prevent Duty and its Chilling Effect on Human Rights, 16 November
  2. Legal but Not Local: Barriers to Accessing Abortion Services in Northern Ireland, 7 December