Britain has announced it will seek harsher sentences for migrants caught entering the country without permission amid a record-breaking surge in arrivals over the English Channel.
The stricter prison sentences for both migrants and people smugglers come as part of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s plans to overhaul asylum rules in a bid to prevent what her department has characterised as “asylum shopping”.
The legislation announced Saturday makes it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK without permission, with a maximum sentence for those entering the country unlawfully increasing from six months to four years.
Under the law set for its first reading in parliament on Tuesday, people smugglers will face life sentences, up from the current maximum of 14 years.
Patel said the plans were “fair but firm”, adding that the UK would “welcome people through safe and legal routes whilst preventing abuse of the system, cracking down on illegal entry and the criminality associated with it”.
The bill’s unveiling comes as the Britain’s asylum system strains under the pressure of a record number of arrivals over the Channel.
A total of nearly 6,000 migrants have made the dangerous crossing in the first six months of 2021.
The total number of 8,417 arrivals for the whole of 2020 is likely to be overtaken in the next two months if trends continue, according to figures from the domestic Press Association news agency.
The Home Office said it was “very likely that those travelling to the UK via small boat will have come from a safe European Union country in which they could have claimed asylum”.
“Where this is the case, they are not seeking refuge at the earliest opportunity or showing good reason for seeking to enter the UK illegally but are instead ‘asylum shopping’ by picking the UK as a preferred destination over others and using an illegal route to get here,” it added.
The government launched plans earlier this year for what it called the biggest changes to asylum rules in decades, saying the current system was overwhelmed.
The plan drew fire from refugee groups, who accused the ruling Conservatives of political cynicism.
“Instead of peddling deliberately misleading myths and untruths about asylum and migration, the Home Office should be establishing safe routes for those few people escaping persecution who wish to seek asylum here,” Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director said.
Britain on Wednesday announced a new post-Brexit subsidy regime but vowed no return to 1970s-style state control and bailing out of failing companies.
State aid was a key sticking point of the tortuous negotiations for a trade agreement with the European Union, following Britain’s departure from the bloc last year.
Wrangling over so-called “level playing field” terms governing fair competition proved troublesome, until an 11th-hour agreement was made in December last year.
The UK government billed the changes as a “quicker and more flexible” alternative to the “bureaucratic” EU state aid regime, saying it will drive economic growth in priority areas.
“The new UK system will start from the basis that subsidies are permitted if they follow UK-wide principles –- delivering good value for the British taxpayer while being awarded in a timely and effective way,” it said.
“These UK-wide principles will allow public authorities to deliver subsidies where they are needed without facing excessive red tape.
“The system will not be a return to the failed 1970s approach of government trying to run the economy, ‘picking winners’ or bailing out unsustainable companies.”
The government said the new subsidy regime will apply to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But it plans to prevent “displacement” — awarding of subsidies that could lead to jobs and economic activity moving from one part of the country to another, as commonly happens among states in the US.
Brexit exposed deep fault lines across the UK. Scotland, which voted against leaving, has seen a surge in nationalist support and renewed calls for independence.
And Britain has so far failed to implement separate trading arrangements for goods transported to Northern Ireland, prompting threats of reprisals from Brussels.
Pro-UK unionists in Northern Ireland want the protocol governing trade there to be scrapped, arguing that checks on goods threaten its place in the wider union.
One EU official said the British changes to state-aid rules were expected but Brussels would nevertheless be watching developments closely to see how far they go.
“We knew it was coming. That’s why there are the level playing field provisions in the TCA (trade and cooperation agreement),” the official told AFP.
The official said the proposals, submitted in a bill to parliament, were a “first step” towards Britain implementing its Brexit commitments.
“But it’s still very early in the process. The bill needs to go through parliament (and) only sketches out key elements while others will need to be defined.”
Britain has set up an independent authority to regulate competition law as a counterpart to the role previously managed by the European Commission, with both bodies upholding common principles.
Courts on each side will decide trade remedies in the event of unfair subsidies.
Britain on Monday said it had joined the United States, Canada and the European Union in imposing fresh sanctions on Belarus after the detention of an opposition journalist.
The government said it had imposed travel bans and asset freezes against “senior-ranking officials” in President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, as well as oil firm BNK (UK) Ltd.
“The sanctions send a strong signal to the Belarusian authorities that the UK will not tolerate those who repress human rights coming to the UK or using our financial institutions,” the foreign office said in a statement.
Britain said its sanctions were imposed separate to the EU, which it left last year, but in parallel to those announced by Washington, Ottawa and Brussels.
It follows outrage at the diversion in May of a Ryanair flight, which was forced to land in Minsk, upon which Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend were detained.
The British foreign office said the restrictions on BNK (UK) Ltd, which exports Belarusian oil products, would “significantly impact one of the regime’s main revenue streams”.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “The Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of airline passengers and crew in a shameful ruse to snatch Roman Protasevich.
“We will hold the regime to account in coordination with our allies including through further banning travel, freezing assets and cutting off oil export revenue streams.”
In September last year, Britain announced sanctions on human rights grounds against Lukashenko himself, his son and senior figures in the Belarusian government.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) on Wednesday asked the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and other members of the International Communities to impose a visa ban on President Muhammadu Buhari and members of his cabinet.
The opposition party said this should be done immediately, describing suspension of Twitter operations in Nigeria as ‘stifling free speech in Nigeria.’
This was disclosed in a statement signed by the party’s spokesperson, Kola Ologbondiyan.
“The party also urges the world bodies to also sanction the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami as well as certain leaders of the APC for their individual ignoble roles in the ban imposed on Twitter in addition to associated harassments and threats to Nigerians.
“The PDP urges the countries to bar President Buhari, Lai Mohammed, Abubakar Malami, and their family members from entering their territories for any private purposes whatsoever,” the statement read in part.
The PDP said its demand is based on the violation of UN international Charter on Human Rights by President Buhari by banning the use of Twitter in Nigeria.
The PDP insists that banning Twitter in Nigeria is a clear violation of Article 19 of the UN Charter as well as section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which guaranteed freedom of expression to all Nigerians.
“For the avoidance of doubt, Article 19 of the UN Charter on Human Rights provides that Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impact information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
“In the same vein, section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) provides that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference,” PDP added.
The party holds that the trio of President Buhari, Lai Mohammed, and Abubakar Malami and their agents cannot continue to enjoy diplomatic privileges and rights extended by virtue of their offices in Nigeria, while at the same time flouting the UN Charter.
The envoys of the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union in Nigeria among others, have insisted that the Federal Government’s suspension of Twitter, is a violation of the fundamental human right of freedom of expression.
The envoys who met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, in Abuja on Monday, urged the government to protect freedom of expression.
US ambassador to Nigeria, Mary-Beth Leonards, who spoke on behalf of others said they were delighted to see Nigeria succeed, and that all challenges have solutions.
“We are here as partners who want to see Nigeria succeed. We want to see this place unified, peaceful and prosperous and that’s how all of our activities are arranged. I think we have to be very clear that we are Nigeria’s strong partners on issues of security and we recognise the daunting times and the array of security challenges that confront Nigeria.
“While they are daunting, they are not insurmountable and part of the way to surmount them is through partnership of the people you see represented here,” Leonards said.
“Not only in physical security but in terms of expanding opportunities and promoting mediation and dialogue; this is all very important and we look forward to continuing that partnership and continuing our conversation around important issues like media freedom.
“We re-affirm our position that free access to the ability to express oneself is actually very important and perhaps more important in troubled times.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government says it would restore Twitter operations in Nigeria if the platform would be used responsibly by the citizens.
While highlighting that the responsibility of the government is to protect law, order, and human lives, Onyeama made it clear that there is no definite time for lifting the ban.
“The condition would be a responsible use of the social media and that really has to be it.”
“We are not saying that Twitter is threatening the country or any such thing; why we have taken this measure is to stop them to be used as platforms for destabilization and facilitation of criminality or encouragement of criminalities,” Onyeama stated.
Prominent diplomatic missions to Nigeria, including Canada, the US, the UK and the EU, on Saturday said they were let down by the decision to suspend Twitter operations in Nigeria.
The Federal Government suspended the social network’s operations on Friday after Twitter deleted tweets from the official account of President Muhammadu Buhari.
The tweets, which Twitter said ran afoul of its policies, had referenced the country’s infamous civil war.
By early Saturday, users across the country started to experience difficulties in accessing the service and many resorted to using Virtual Private Networks (VPN).
“The diplomatic missions of Canada, the European Union (Delegation to Nigeria), the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America convey our disappointment over the Government of Nigeria’s announcement suspending #Twitter and proposing registration requirements for other social media,” a joint statement from the missions said.
“We strongly support the fundamental human right of free expression and access to information as a pillar of democracy in Nigeria as around the world and these rights apply online as well as offline.
“Banning systems of expression is not the answer. These measures inhibit access to information and commerce at precisely the moment when Nigeria needs to foster inclusive dialogue and expression of opinions, as well as share vital information in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The path to a more secure Nigeria lies in more, not less, communication to accompany the concerted efforts of Nigeria’s citizens in fulsome dialogue toward unity, peace and prosperity. As Nigeria’s partners, we stand ready to assist in achieving these goals.”
Bad for Business
Earlier the United States had chided the Nigerian government’s over its decision.
“Nigeria’s constitution provides for freedom of expression,” a statement from the US Mission in Nigeria said.
“The Government’s recent #Twitterban undermines Nigerians’ ability to exercise this fundamental freedom and sends a poor message to its citizens, investors and businesses.
“Banning social media and curbing every citizen’s ability to seek, receive, and impart information undermines fundamental freedoms.
“As President Biden has stated, our need for individual expression, open public conversation, and accountability has never been greater.
“The path to a more secure Nigeria lies in more, not less communication, alongside concerted efforts toward unity, peace, and prosperity.”
Britain announced Friday a free-trade agreement with three European countries — major fishing neighbour Norway as well as Iceland and Liechtenstein — in its latest move to boost trade ties post-Brexit.
The deal, agreed in principle and which builds on “an economic relationship already worth £21.6 billion ($30 billion, 25 billion euros)”, will slash tariffs on British food products, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said.
Britain formally left the European Union in January 2020 after nearly five decades of membership, and quit its single market and customs union at the start of this year.
Since then, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has replicated or rolled over existing trade agreements with the bloc and several countries, vowing that they will be more advantageous than those negotiated by the EU.
London is currently in advanced trade deal discussions with Australia and has held early talks with India, New Zealand and the United States.
Talks are also due to begin soon with Canada and Mexico.
Trade between non-EU member Norway and Britain, separated by the North Sea and key fishing spots, amounted to £20.4 billion last year.
Access to Britain’s rich fishing waters was a major sticking point in post-Brexit talks with the EU.
“Reduced import tariffs on shrimps, prawns and haddock will reduce costs for UK fish processing, helping support some 18,000 jobs in that industry in Scotland” and northern England, said Friday’s statement.
The agreement also “significantly cuts tariffs as high as 277 percent” for exports of some British cheeses to Norway.
“There are also tariff reductions and quotas on pork, poultry and other goods. UK wines and spirits including Scotch Whisky will also now be recognised in Norway and Iceland,” the statement added.
Exports to the three non-EU countries will meanwhile be done without the need for any paperwork.
“All documents, contracts and signatures can be electronic, allowing goods to move seamlessly across borders and saving businesses time and money,” the statement said.
Norway meanwhile stressed that the deal would not lead to an increased quotas for British beef and cheeses, reassuring the country’s farmers as the centre-right government trails in the polls ahead of legislative elections in September.
Britain is Norway’s biggest trading partner after the EU, accounting for 22 percent of its exports, including natural gas and fish.
Friday’s agreement also calls for caps on the charges mobile operators are allowed to charge each other for international mobile roaming, and mutual recognition of professional qualifications, such as nurses, lawyers and vets.
– Second-best option – Prior to Brexit, Britain, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein had signed a temporary agreement enabling them to continue to trade goods freely pending a broader, permanent agreement.
Speaking to reporters in Oslo, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg hailed the new deal as “the biggest free trade agreement we’ve ever had.”
Solberg — a pro-European in a country that has twice rejected EU membership — noted nonetheless that “a free trade agreement will never be as good as the European Economic Area.”
With Brexit, Britain also quit the EEA, which allows for the free movement of people, goods, services and capital between the EU, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
“A free trade agreement means more bureaucracy and added costs for businesses and citizens, and is less dynamic than what we have in the EEA,” Solberg said.
“The agreement doesn’t eliminate all the obstacles to trade either. Some are not resolved,” she added.
The agreement must still be approved by the Norwegian parliament, where Solberg’s government is in the minority.
Meanwhile in Reykjavik, Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson hailed the deal as “a new era in the relationship between the countries”.
“The United Kingdom remains one of Iceland’s most important export markets”, he said, adding that “the conclusion of an agreement with the United Kingdom was vital.”
The European Union and Britain launched parallel competition probes on Friday into whether Facebook uses data from advertisers to unfairly dominate the online classifieds market.
The US social media behemoth sells classified advertising on its Marketplace service, but also gathers data from commercial advertising that may give it an unfair advantage — a charge the firm declared “without merit”.
Investigators will also probe whether Facebook’s single user log-in allows it to unfairly use data gathered across its social media, dating app, and advertising platforms.
The cases opened by the European Commission and Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) are separate, but the regulators are working closely together.
“Facebook collects vast troves of data on the activities of users of its social network and beyond,” EU vice-president and competition chief Margrethe Vestager said.
“We will look in detail at whether this data gives Facebook an undue competitive advantage in particular on the online classified ads sector, where people buy and sell goods every day, and where Facebook also competes with companies from which it collects data,” she said.
“In today’s digital economy, data should not be used in ways that distort competition.”
A Facebook spokesperson responded in an email: “We will continue to cooperate fully with the investigations to demonstrate that they are without merit.
“We are always developing new and better services to meet the evolving demand from people who use Facebook. ‘Marketplace’ and ‘Dating’ offer people more choices and both products operate in a highly competitive environment with many large incumbents.”
– Marketplace ads – The formal probe follows a preliminary investigation focused on Facebook’s Marketplace classifieds service — available to most of its three billion users.
Companies advertising on Marketplace have to provide data to Facebook which the European Commission said led to concerns that the internet giant may distort competition.
“Facebook could, for instance, receive precise information on users’ preferences from its competitors’ advertisement activities and use such data in order to adapt Facebook Marketplace,” it said.
The EU executive is also concerned about how Marketplace is integrated into Facebook’s core social network platform — “a form of tying which gives it an advantage in reaching customers and forecloses competing for online classified ads services”.
There is no deadline for the probe to be wrapped up, with the commission saying its duration depended on factors including the complexity of the case.
– Internet gatekeepers – The European Commission noted in its statement that former EU member Britain’s CMA also on Friday opened its own probe into the way Facebook uses data.
Britain has left the EU and now runs its own competition regime, but both regulators said they would work closely together to investigate Facebook.
Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA — which set up a “Digital Markets Unit” in April — said they would assess whether Facebook’s business practices are giving it an unfair advantage in the online dating and classified ad sectors.
“Any such advantage can make it harder for competing firms to succeed, including new and smaller businesses, and may reduce customer choice.”
Last month, Brussels launched another probe into Facebook, related to its buyout of a US startup, Kustomer, that specialises in helping businesses interact with customers online.
Vestager and the European Commission have often clashed with US digital giants in the past and has formally accused Apple of unfairly squeezing out rivals from its app store.
The EU is currently preparing an ambitious law, known as the Digital Markets Act, that will set up special rules for so-called “gatekeepers” — the largely US platforms that dominate the consumer internet.
Nigeria has received the £4.2million seized from the associates of convicted former Governor of Delta State, James Ibori from the United Kingdom.
This is according to the Minister of Justice and the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, who disclosed this on Tuesday via a statement issued by his spokesman, Dr. Umar Jibrilu Gwandu.
He confirmed that the “Federal Government of Nigeria has received GBP 4,214,017.66 of the loot associated with the family members of former Delta State Governor, James Ibori.”
According to the statement, “the amount has been credited into the designated Federal Government account with naira equivalent value of the amount as of 10th May 2021.”
Malami was said to have signed the Memorandum of Understanding for the repatriation of the Ibori loot on behalf of the Federal Government of Nigeria.
The Minister said the development was a demonstration of the recognition of reputation Nigeria earns through records of management of recovered stolen Nigerian stolen in the execution of public-oriented projects.
On May 3, Malami had announced that the United Kingdom would repatriate the looted fund to Nigeria any moment from now.
He had explained that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration was working tirelessly to ensure the return of looted Nigerian assets kept outside the country’s territorial boundaries, adding that that the Federal Government of Nigeria was in touch with the UK government on the matter.
“Documentations with the banks in different countries often take longer than anticipated. We anticipated two weeks but we are not in control of the banks.
“There is neither complacency nor any delay as efforts are being made to ensure successful transfer of the looted funds,” he said.
He noted that the Federal Government is working assiduously to make sure that the transfer goes through successfully.
Britain on Sunday passed the milestone of vaccinating 20 million adults with two doses of the coronavirus jab, just a day before a raft of restrictions are lifted across most of the country.
According to government statistics, 20,103,658 million have now received their full two vaccine doses — 38.2 percent of the adult population.
Still more have received a first dose — 36,573,354, or 69.4 percent of the adult population — with a total of 56,677,012 million vaccines administered since the start of the UK’s campaign on December 8.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the vaccine programme had made “extraordinary strides” in reaching the 20-million mark.
“Receiving a second dose is vital to ensure you have the ultimate protection from this deadly virus,” he added, encouraging people to come forward to book their jab as soon as they were offered it.
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the development was “another incredible milestone”.
“It is inspiring to see the incredible public response to our call to arms to get the jab. We have one the highest vaccine uptake rates in the world, but our work is not done yet.”
Britain, one of the first countries in the world to begin a mass Covid-19 vaccine campaign, opted to delay giving the second vaccine dose until 12 weeks after the first dose — instead of after four weeks as was done in clinical trials.
On Monday most of the UK will take a major step in reopening the economy, with restaurants and bars opening their indoors and entertainment venues like sports stadiums and cinemas reopening with some restrictions.
However the unlocking has coincided with the arrival of a more transmissible coronavirus variant from India.
To counter the new strain the government has said it will accelerate the rollout of second vaccines doses to over-50s and the clinically vulnerable, cutting the interval since the first jab to eight weeks.
Data from Public Health England shows the vaccines are already having a significant impact, reducing hospitalisations and deaths, saving more than 11,700 lives and preventing 33,000 hospitalisations in England by the end of April.
The government has said its goal is to give a first dose to all adults by the end of July.
The British government on Sunday pushed back against criticism it was too slow to impose travel restrictions on India as a coronavirus variant identified in the subcontinent spreads in the UK.
England and the devolved nations of Scotland and Wales will unlock parts of their economy on Monday but the future roadmap for reopening has been put in doubt over the more transmissible variant.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News it was “completely wrong” to suggest the UK could have acted faster to designate India as a “red list” country meaning arriving travellers would have to quarantine in hotels.
He explained that India was placed under strict travel restrictions in April before the variant, known as B1.617.2, was under investigation.
The British government has come under criticism from opposition politicians over its decision to put Pakistan and Bangladesh on its red list before India.
Hancock rebuffed the suggestion the decision was influenced by a planned trip by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April to assist in post-Brexit trade talks.
“We take these decisions based on the evidence,” he said over the visit which was eventually scrapped because of surging COVID cases in India.
Indoor hospitality and indoor entertainment such as cinemas, museums, and sports venues are to open their doors in most parts of the UK for the first time in months on Monday.
People and families will also be able to meet with some restrictions in private houses under the new measures.
Hancock said the reopening could go ahead despite the presence of 1,300 cases of the Indian variant in the UK because of the country’s successful vaccination campaign and close monitoring of cases.
However, he sounded a note of caution over plans to completely lift restrictions on June 21.
“We’re in a race between the vaccination programme. And the virus and this new variant has given the virus some extra legs in that race, but we have a high degree of confidence that the vaccine will overcome,” the health secretary said.
The government’s former chief scientific Adviser told Sky News the UK now found itself in a “perilous movement”.
“We have a variant that shows good evidence of being more transmissible and possibly significantly more transmissible. We’re going to have to watch the numbers extremely closely,” he added.