Last weekend, The Conservative party launched their 2019 general election manifesto. The 64 page document, entitled “Get Brexit done, Unleash Britain’s potential”, sets out the party’s plans for Britain for the next five years. Recommitting to their pledge to leave the European Union on January 31st, the party also set out key campaign promises including recruitment of 50,000 nurses, the building of 40 new hospitals, and the creation of a £20 billion fund to fix the blight of potholes.
Reading it, it would be easy to forget that the Conservatives have been in Government for almost a decade. During that time, they’ve implemented austerity, the largest attack on our welfare state since its inception. What’s most interesting about this manifesto, though, is that the Conservatives are predominantly not standing on their record. Instead, they’re promising to invest, and in many cases reverse, many of the damaging cuts they implemented.
It’s been pointed out that the commitment to recruit 20,000 new police officers would not even cover the almost 21,000 cut by Conservative governments since 2010. The promise for 50,000 more nurses has also been exposed as spurious, with 19,000 of that number being drawn from nurses already employed by the NHS. The claim of 40 new hospitals has been rubbished, with the reality being only six new hospitals are actually in the pipeline. The £20 billion pothole fund, however, appears to be holding firm (phew!).
Behind the flash bang of election promises, a Britain built in the shape of this manifesto would be a much darker, and more sinister place. Here’s some of the key policy shifts and extensions you may have missed:
The Conservatives have always sought to be seen as the party of “law and order”. As such, they’ve always had a “tough” stance on crime with a ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ approach to criminal justice that has always played well with their base, but in this Manifesto the party has gone even further.
The manifesto promises a fair criminal justice system that “stands for the law-abiding majority, not the criminal minority”, and which “gives a second chance to those who have served their time and wish to make a fresh start”. They promise to ensure this by including tougher sentences for the worst offenders and an end to automatic halfway release from prison for serious crimes. For the Conservatives, a ‘fair criminal justice system’ also includes an extension of stop and search powers, which have been condemned as amounting to little more than racial profiling.
Oonah Ryder works in the Criminal Justice Voluntary sector and co-hosts The Lockdown podcast. “The Conservative manifesto proposals on crime, though containing very little detail, should worry us all,” she says. “This has nothing to do with protecting victims and everything to do with warehousing the visible casualties of 10 years’ of austerity and diverting public attention from government failings towards the spectacle of ‘evil criminals’.”
“Longer sentences, more police powers and bringing the prison into the community in the form of electronic tagging will do nothing to address the real causes of violence or the impact of criminalisation, it will simply worsen the trend of punishing those in crisis. As the old saying goes, if the only tools you have are handcuffs and cells, every problem looks like a criminal.”
Another key proposal in the manifesto is the extension of so-called ‘secure schools’ to deal with ‘problem students’. “No Secretary of State for Justice has yet explained how secure schools will be any different from the dismal ‘Secure Training Centres’ introduced in the late ’90s,” continues Oonagh. “This version of a child prison was supposed to focus on education and foster a rehabilitative culture. They proved to be little different to any other child prison – poor conditions, high levels of violence and abuse, and lasting trauma for the children who leave them. The majority of children in prison have experienced levels of neglect, abuse, exclusion, violence and discrimination that are unimaginable to most people outside of prison. Almost all of these children have also been utterly failed by the education system, with around 90 per cent having been excluded from school prior to coming into prison. The idea that making their environment more like school will impact them positively seems misguided at best.”
EXTENDING THE HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
The introduction of the Hostile Environment under the Liberal Democrat – Conservative Coalition in 2012 is seen by many as one of the most insidious pieces of policies implemented by the Tories in recent times. Despite being widely derided, and laying the foundations for the Windrush Scandal, the Conservatives appear to be doubling down on their commitment to some of the worst excesses of it.
“The system of charging overseas visitors for healthcare is a mainstay of the hostile environment – and it is clear that it’s not working,” Jeremy Bloom a Public and immigration lawyer at Duncan Lewis Solicitors tells Huck. “Hospitals are ill-equipped to make treatment decisions based on immigration status, and many decisions to charge overseas visitors turn out to be unlawful and open to challenge. At Duncan Lewis, I’ve seen cases where people who have lived here for decades have had life-saving treatment delayed. I’ve seen asylum seekers who have had to fight legal battles in the last years of their lives to get the treatment that they are entitled to, even under the restrictive regulations that are in place.”
“Perhaps most worryingly, the Manifesto sets out that ‘people coming into the country from the EU will only be able to access unemployment, housing, and child benefit after five years’.” Jeremy adds, “The Manifesto gives no indication of how it would address human rights issues that may arise from people being forced to live in destitution as the result of this blanket policy. Preventing access to child benefit in this way might also have grave implications for the State’s fulfilment of its child rights obligations under domestic and international law.”
Previous Tory administration threats to revoke the Human Rights Act have been widely met with derision. The manifesto contains a pledge to “update the Human Rights act to ensure there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government”. The manifesto pledges to limit judicial review so as to ensure they can’t be used for political purposes and to “set up constitution, democracy and rights commission that will examine these issues in-depth and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”.
The vague pledges have already been widely condemned by Human Rights professionals and lawyers. Stuart Snape, managing partner at Graham Coffey & Co. Solicitors, told the i that various politicians have sought to vilify the Human Rights act and that “Brexit has become a convenient excuse for those politicians who find the Act frustrating, but we should be under no illusion that the rights and freedoms that it protects are by no means guaranteed without it.”
Raj Chada is head of Crime at Hodge, Jones and Allen solicitors. “It is quite something when the Tories are saying that fundamental rights should not be respected or ruled on by British judges,” he says. “It is a nonsensical policy that will mean cases being decided in Strasbourg rather than London or even withdrawal from the ECHR which virtually every country in Europe has signed up to. The proposals in the manifesto are the mark of a truly extreme, reckless and ignorant right-wing ideology”
If the Conservative party wins on December 12th, there is no doubt the fabric of our country will change irrevocably. Reforms and proposals the like of which are contained in the manifesto threaten more than just our welfare state – but in some cases, the very rights and protections so many have fought so hard to win.
The attacks on our rights and democratic structures are already coming thick and fast. After illegally proroguing Parliament earlier this year, the Tory party are now threatening to revoke Channel 4’s broadcast license for empty chairing him, via the medium of ice sculpture, in last night’s Climate debate.
If nothing else this manifesto, and the proposed extension of the attacks we’ve already witnessed, should have us all afraid. Very, very afraid.
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