This week the House of Commons will finally get an opportunity to vote on hundreds of Lords amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill.
Most of the attention has been on amendments to keep the UK in a customs union and to ensure parliament has a meaningful vote on our future relationship with the EU at the end of the negotiations. These are important issues on which Labour has led the way, but less attention has been given to another Labour priority: we are determined to keep the protections of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights for UK citizens after Brexit.
In order to preserve legal continuity and certainty after we leave the EU, the Withdrawal Bill will translate all EU law into UK law. But while the Prime Minister has repeatedly claimed that her government will not use Brexit to dismantle citizens’ rights and protections, the one component of EU law that her Bill will not transfer across is the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
This is a mistake.
The Charter has three key functions. First, it codifies in one place a clear set of political, social and economic rights that citizens can rely on. This enables us to better understand and more easily defend those rights, collected as they are in one document rather than scattered across thousands of pages of legislation and case law.
Second, it supplements the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s own Human Rights Act, developing existing protections such as the right to equal treatment and adding new ones. The “right to be forgotten”, for example, allows people to remove historic data relating to them from appearing in search engine results, demonstrating the Charter’s ability to keep our rights up-to-date as times change.
Third, the Charter acts as a key to all other EU law, providing legal certainty for claimants, defendants, and judges alike. Maintaining the Charter in UK law would prevent needless litigation to establish whether rights from before Brexit could be relied on in the UK after it.
Such certainty is particularly important in the context of the government’s ruthless cuts to legal aid, which have limited many people’s practical ability to enforce their rights through our courts. Rights without remedies are not rights at all.
Despite the Charter’s importance, the government seems wracked with confusion.
On one hand, the government has claimed that the Charter is unnecessary as it simply catalogues existing rights found elsewhere in UK law. While this may have been the case when the Charter was signed, this position overlooks the ways in which these rights have developed since then and ignores the benefits of clarity that such a catalogue offers.
Meanwhile the government’s own Brexit minister, Suella Braverman (née Fernandes), unwittingly gave the game away when she used a column in the Telegraph late last year to acknowledge that the Charter does contain new rights, before dismissing them as “flabby Euro-rights” that should be abandoned after Brexit.
Since the referendum, Labour has recognised the Charter’s importance and has fought against a Brexit deal that strips away its protections. And on this, Labour is not alone. The House of Lords passed an amendment to keep the Charter last month and earlier this year a joint report by Amnesty International and Liberty decried the government’s “extraordinary step of copying and pasting the entirety of EU law into domestic law, but leaving its key human rights component behind”.
Those organisations also agreed with a legal expert’s independent analysis for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which concluded that excluding the Charter “will lead to a significant weakening of the current system of human rights protection in the UK”. This is a completely unacceptable side-effect of leaving the EU.
Next week the House of Commons has a vote on whether to transfer the Charter into UK law after Brexit.
For Labour, it’s not a tricky question. We have a proud history of protecting fundamental human rights – from ratifying the European Convention on Human Rights in 1951 to passing the Human Rights Act in 1998.
We therefore call on MPs from all parties to vote for this amendment to guarantee that the Charter’s rights and protections will be safeguarded for UK citizens as steadfastly after Brexit as they were before it. As we leave the EU, Labour remains as committed as ever to continuing our nation’s proud tradition as a global leader in human rights.
Paul Blomfield is Labour’s shadow Brexit Minister.