Irish Penal Reform Trust

Joint Committee on Human Rights: Government’s response to COVID-19

21st September 2020

In March, the Joint Committee on Human Rights announced that it would be scrutinising the UK Government’s COVID-19 response, with the recognition that some groups in society have been at greater risk and therefore needed greater protection. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has published the report of their enquiry into the human rights implications of the Government’s response to COVID-19. This follows a range of other reports published in recent months, including a specific report on mothers in prison published in July this year.

While tackling COVID-19, some of the actions taken by the Government to preserve life (Article 2 of the ECHR) have interfered with numerous other human rights This wide-ranging inquiry by UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights highlights a number of rights issues with the response to the pandemic, including in policing, prisons and mental health detention, and learning from deaths. The resulting report considers the legal and regulatory frameworks that have been imposed, health and care, restrictive measures, access to justice, the right to life, accountability and detention.

The Committee recognises the significant human rights implications of the restrictive lockdown regimes that were introduced in adult and child prisons. While a number of broad rights issues are raised in the report. Below, we summarise a small number of these recommendations, which relate to prisons in particular.

Examining the use of solitary confinement, the Committee notes that lockdown restrictions in these settings should be subject to a reasoned and transparent proportionality assessment. The report notes that the use of solitary confinement breaches the rights of children in detention, and where it is prolonged, the rights of adults. The Committee states In our view the restrictive lockdown regimes in prisons, YOIs and STCs have left prisoners in solitary confinement for long periods in conditions likely to engage the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 ECHR).” [emphasis added] The Committee highlighted the impact on more vulnerable groups, such as older people, who may have experienced these practices more severely.

While the Committee examined the rights to family life in their previous report on mothers in prison, this report also notes that the right to family life of people in detention of their loved ones may have been breached due the measures taken during lockdown, stating that Blanket visiting bans in prisons are incompatible with the right to family life (Article 8 ECHR)” [emphasis added]. The Committee recommends that “As soon as it is safe to do so, prison visiting must resume as a matter of priority in all prisons.” The Committee makes 55 recommendations in total, three of which have direct implications for families and children of people in prison.

Scrutinizing the decision to restrict inspections in prisons, the Committee wrote that while short scrutiny visits by the prisons’ inspectorate have proved an important source of information on what has been happening inside detention settings during the pandemic (read more here)continuing restrictions on inspections mean that human rights abuses may be going undetected in these settings. It is imperative that full inspections resume, safely, as soon as possible.” [emphasis added]

Read ‘The Government’s response to COVID-19: human rights implications’ in full here.

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.

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