Leaving not losing – rights, freedoms and equalities in the Brexit bill
Britain is withdrawing from the EU and it’s time to get serious about what that means in terms of how and what we chose to keep when we leave.
As you’d expect, maintaining people’s rights and freedoms throughout this process is Amnesty’s priority. Ahead of the Second Reading of the Brexit bill this Thursday, there are three fundamental issues both Amnesty and Liberty, who we’re working closely with, would like MPs to focus on:
- the vast powers granted to ministers;
- the lack of safeguards to stop those or any other Brexit laws being used to roll-back rights and equality protections;
- the rights that individuals in Britain will no longer have access to.
We must be vigilant
It’s fair to say that the government will need decent wiggle room to turn EU law into British law, so the idea of granting them additional powers is understandable. But in matters where constitutional powers are transferred to the ministers at the top of government and away from Parliament, we must be extremely vigilant.
The wording of the ‘delegated powers’ themselves should be cause for concern for any MP or Peer. They give ministers powers to change laws using secondary legislation in the broadest possible terms, often undefined, including to “prevent, remedy or mitigate” a “failure” of EU laws Britain keeps to “operate effectively”. Given such powers are barely scrutinised, are hard to amend and that there will be thousands, there is no doubt that we need more safeguards in the bill.
Beyond the Human Rights Act
The government seems to recognise that point in the bill, since it’s got a safeguard to prevent new powers being used to increase taxation, but the same commitment isn’t made to ensuring no roll-back of rights. Amending the Human Rights Act (HRA) itself is ruled out but not all our rights are wrapped up in just the HRA – there are lots of equality laws and more detailed protections elsewhere too. That’s why Amnesty and Liberty would like an amendment explicitly ruling out the roll back of rights using new powers.
Then there is the choice about what we bring over into domestic law, referred to by the government as ‘retained EU law’. The bill seeks to bring over most EU legislation into UK law with one glaring exception: the Fundamental Charter of Human Rights. This is explicitly ruled out in the bill, leaving us with just the General Principles which came before the charter.
Enjoying hard-won rights
We are not convinced the principles will cover everything the charter does, but this is actually eclipsed by another problem – the bill rules out the principles being relied on to go court. So making challenges about accessing data collected on you, which stem from the charter and underlying principles, won’t be possible.
Nor will cases like that of John Walker, who won his case at the UK’s Supreme Court, using the principles of non-discrimination and equality, for LGBTI couples to be granted the same pension rights as heterosexual couples.
These are all huge constitutional changes that affect our rights, freedoms and equalities. We’re urging parliamentarians at the bill’s second reading on Thursday to raise these issues so that safeguards can be added by the government.
Only this will ensure the hard-won rights people enjoy today will be the same on the day Britain leaves the EU.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.