MPs called for a resumption of visits to prisons and a review of immigration detainees. The joint committee on human rights have published a report on how the government’s COVID-19 measures were restricting movements, gatherings and how closing schools affected other rights. While acknowledging the response was to protect lives, a right protected in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the committee noted the need for a public inquiry. It suggested the Government undertake ‘some form of swift lessons-learned review as soon as possible in order to fulfil its human rights obligations and to prevent future unnecessary deaths’.
‘This is an unprecedented and uncertain time for everyone, and the Government must act in a justifiable, fair and proportionate way,’ said the chair of the committee, Harriet Harman QC. ‘As we approach the Coronavirus Act’s six-month review, there are a number of concerns that the Government must urgently address.’
The Children’s Commissioner for England raised the issue that children remanded to custody were effectively serving time in prison without a sentence and, in particular, those awaiting trial who are close to turning 18: ‘If they are not tried before their 18th birthday they will be tried as adults,’ the commissioner told MPs. ‘These children will not benefit from the youth justice system, which is more rehabilitative. They will be given adult sentences which are much longer despite having committed the crimes as children.’ The MPs called for those who turn 18 between the commission of the offence and sentencing ‘should be dealt with as children in the youth courts’.
The committee also highlighted problems caused by trials being adjourned for significant periods of time and the post Covid extension to custody time limits. ‘All defendants have the right to a timely trial before an independent and impartial tribunal and this right must be respected and provided for as speedily as possible,’ the MPs said.
The committee had previously called for a maximum time limit for immigration detention of 28 days. Home Office statistics revealed that the number of people held under immigration powers fell by 939 between the end of December 2019 and the end of June 2020. ‘However, hundreds of individuals remained in detention,’ the MP said. ‘… Where there is no reasonable prospect of removal within a reasonable timeframe, immigration detention ceases to be lawful.’
The ‘disproportionate impact’ measures had on children with school closures, especially those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities was also acknowledged. The committee urged the Government to address barriers children may face when returning to school and ensure ‘unequal access to education for disadvantaged children […] does not lead to wider inequality in society’.
The report also stressed the need to ensure evidence-based and non-discriminatory allocation of personal protective equipment and to protect the most vulnerable to the disease: the elderly and those from BAME backgrounds. The Committee wrote the government must be ‘transparent’, justifying ‘the necessity and proportionality of interferences’ with the ‘latest scientific evidence’.