UK human rights watchdog warns on 'inclusivity' of Brexit Britain
European Union Withdrawal Bill 'sets the tone for the kind of Britain we're going to be', says chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in an interview with PoliticsHome.
It might seem innocuous, the second reading of a bill in the House of Commons, but in the case of the somewhat understatedly named European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, a lot is at stake.
David Isaac, chair of the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), puts it this way. “I think it’s one of the most significant pieces of legislation in a generation, because it’s dealing with the mechanics on one level of exiting the EU, but most importantly I think it sets the tone for the kind of Britain we’re going to be when we leave.”
The artist formerly known as the Great Repeal Bill began its passage through the Commons in July with the formality of the first reading. Now rested and sun-kissed, MPs return to Westminster to pick up where they left off, with the first day of debate on Thursday (second on Monday). The legislation will revoke the 1972 Communities Act, which took Britain into the EU and ensured that European law took precedence over domestic legislation. As part of the procedure, all existing EU legislation will be transferred into UK law, before the gruelling task of amending, repealing and improving begins in earnest. Ministers hope to have the Bill passed through both Houses of Parliament before the UK’s EU-exit in March 2019.
The EHRC, the UK’s human rights watchdog, wants to ensure that equality and civil liberties are centre stage of the debate. Isaac, who took on the post as chair in May 2016, prior to the EU referendum, has already seen how the Brexit vote has affected these areas. He cites the spike in hate crimes after the vote on 23 June and EU citizens unsure of their future residential status in Britain.
“I think there’s a continuing anxiety about how inclusive Brexit Britain is going to be. That’s the thing that concerns us and that’s why the Withdrawal Bill for us is very important,” he says. So important, in fact, that the EHRC has proposed amendments including a “limited use” of the delegated powers that will be at the UK government’s disposal after leaving the EU. Isaac fears such delegated powers as currently drafted, although designed to help the technical withdrawal from the EU, risk an unprecedented use of executive power and could have significant implications for parliamentary sovereignty and democratic accountability, one of the reasons some people used for having the referendum. A failure to set limits, according to Isaac, could lead to a “diminution” of equality and human rights laws.
Currently, as a member of the European Union, Britain benefits from protections stipulated in EU law. These include the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and certain non-discrimination laws.. All signs suggest the UK will remain part of the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Human Rights, which is separate from EU Law and under which rights are protected at home by the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998. Proposed Tory plans to introduce a British Bill of Rights, to replace the HRA, have been shelved, at least until after Brexit.
According to the EHRC, the two “most significant” ramifications on equality and human rights from Brexit are leaving the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the loss of “the guarantee for equality rights provided by EU law”. On this last point, the body says a “future government could seek to pass laws which repeal or weaken our current rights below the standard of EU law rights”. Isaac, then, wants to see a commitment in the Withdrawal Bill to ensure “current protections will be maintained”.
“If we hardwire in a non-dilution clause, which is what we’re proposing, then we believe that will go some considerable way to ensuring that for the future there is no dilution in terms of day one and beyond,” he continues.
As part of the EHRC’s proposed amendments, Isaac is calling for a “constitutional right to equality” that every law and government action can be tested against. He also wants for the UK to remain part of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union to ensure English, Scottish, Northern Irish and and Welsh law remains privy to entitlements relating to a general right to non-discrimination and rights of the child.
“We can see no good reason for the Charter to be excluded”, says Isaac. The ability to challenge laws that breach fundamental rights are protected under the Charter and the EHRC wants to see this retained by incorporating those rights into domestic law.
And lastly, Isaac wants guarantees “that Brexit Britain continues to stay in line with European and global equality and human rights laws”.
“That means, for example, that we would be keen to ensure that the jurisprudence of the case law of the European court continues to apply when equality and human rights issues are being considered by British courts, which isn’t controversial,” he says.
And should parliamentarians turn a blind eye to these requests, what would the implications be? Isaac states: “If you don’t hardwire the sorts of things that I’m talking about into the Withdrawal Bill, then there’s a risk of dilution, arguments and ambiguity. We don’t want there to be any ambiguity on any of these areas whatsoever.”
As ministers and parliamentarians dust off the holiday blues and gear up for a historic parliamentary term, one that could shape Britain for decades to come, Isaac has a message for them.
“We all understand that the referendum outcome has to be implemented. But there was no clear guidance on the detail,” he says.
“By looking at what sort of Britain we want to be… human rights and equality law is absolutely fundamental to that vision.
“These are the mechanisms and this is the detail that needs to be incorporated to ensure we maintain the current protections and stay in line with what is happening elsewhere around the world.”