When people think about what might change in the UK after Brexit they probably think about tariffs on trade with Europe, perhaps about bleached chickens being sent over from America or the colour of their passport. What people probably aren’t aware of is how they are going to be left with fewer rights and protections.
This week as we publish our Annual Report on the State of the World’s Human Rights, Amnesty International has issued a warning that rights are set to be substantially reduced by the Government’s flagship EU Withdrawal Bill. Just to be clear, this isn’t about being anti-Brexit, it’s about the way the current plans to leave will impact rights. The Bill made the bold claim of seeking to smooth the passage of exiting the EU by providing continuity. It was pitched very much as a keep calm and carry on Bill and for the most part that’s what it does. In all but one area – the only thing excluded in the shopping basket of legislation we are taking with us from the EU are human rights. And that should be a cause for alarm to people across the UK.
Amnesty’s report singles out the UK Government’s failure to retain the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in domestic law, weakening the protections currently available to people in the UK. Similarly, the Brexit bill fails to retain people’s ability to bring a case founded on the EU “general principles”, which include protections such as the right to equality. The exclusion of these two mechanisms for rights and redress strips ordinary people of one of the safety-net layers of protection that they probably never even knew was there.
One recent example of people relying on this safety-net was a case brought by Mr Walker, a gay man in a civil partnership who wanted to enforce his right to equality. Supported by our colleagues at Liberty, Mr Walker mounted a challenge to his employer’s refusal to pay his pension to his partner after his death in the same way they would any other married couple. His challenge under EU law was successful, and his partner is now entitled to his pension payments in the event of his death, but the ladder he climbed up is being kicked away.
This isn’t about being anti-Brexit, it’s about the way the current plans to leave will impact rights
Another recent case which relied on these protections found the UK’s mass digital surveillance regime to be unlawful. Ironically, the challenge was originally brought by none other than Brexit Secretary David Davis along with Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson. Judges ruled that the Investigatory Powers Act, nicknamed the Snoopers’ Charter, which granted sweeping powers to GCHQ to spy on people in the UK, breached individuals’ privacy by storing their data and allowing police and other public bodies to authorise their own access without adequate oversight. This ruling is the sort of check on power and over-reach that people in the UK will miss.
The final part of the Bill which we are concerned about involves Ministers being given sweeping powers - so-called Henry VIII powers - to rewrite and amend laws after Brexit without the proper scrutiny of parliament. This is not just to give Ministers a blank cheque, but rather a blank cheque book. They will have this power indefinitely in some cases and can wield it to amend any of the protections which are EU derived. This means that pieces of legislation such as the Equality Act, which originally came from EU law, could be at risk. There’s a dark irony in the fact that a lot of the debate around Brexit involved a wish to ensure greater powers for UK parliament, but this first step towards exiting strips parliament of their powers to scrutinise law changes.
Meanwhile we’re also concerned that the UK’s so-called “Global Britain” drive to secure new trade deals as we prepare to leave the European Union is leading to a heightened risk of the UK ministers and officials “soft-pedalling” on human rights issues even where countries have extremely poor human rights records. Last month, China’s national newspaper The Global Times praised Prime Minister Theresa May for “resisting radical pressure at home” to raise concerns over the treatment of democracy protesters in Hong Kong in efforts to focus on trade and investment links with the world’s second-largest economy. Recent UK trade delegations to Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and the USA have raised concerns over the UK’s apparent unwillingness to speak publicly about human rights overseas.
We mustn’t trade away our principles in our eagerness to sign new deals and as the Withdrawal Bill proceeds through the Lords for the final time, they should insist on a safety-lock for rights and protections. You don’t have to be pro- or anti-Brexit to see that our protections, rights, global reputation and the very sort of country we are going to be in the future is at risk.
Kate Allen is director of Amnesty International UK