Human rights and free speech laws could be under threat as the Government and Brexit secretary, David Davis, push ‘The Great Repeal bill’ through Parliament in the coming months. The white paper for this giant act was published last week, after the UK triggered Article 50, revealing plans to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and convert thousands of European Union laws in to UK law.
Although the act is being labelled as ‘the biggest copy and paste act of all time’ there is one crucial piece of European Union legislation that will not be transferred in to UK law, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This major European act from 2000 enshrined up to 50 human rights in to law including; “the right to freedom of expression” and that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” as well as the rights to petition, collective bargaining and freedom of thoughts, conscience and religion.
Although David Davis, when introducing the white paper to Parliament said there were “no plans” to pull the UK out of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) the decision to ditch this major EU Charter could be interpreted as a sign of things to come.
Charter of Fundamental Rights
The Charter of Fundamental Rights is a piece of EU law that enshrines around 50 human rights across six areas including dignity, freedoms, equality and justice. It was first drafted and introduced in December 2000 but did not take full legal effect until being fully ratified into law in the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.
The charter has always been fairly controversial in the UK as there have been fears by some that the charter’s laws would force changes to UK laws and the decision to not include the document in the repeal bill has been celebrated in some quarters of the media. However governments in other countries have welcomed the clarification and extra detail to the Convention of Human Rights that the charter brings. The document also contains more modern rights that are not included in the Convention, in areas like workers’ social rights, rights to strike and protection of personal data.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights also affords EU citizens the right to challenge any decision taken by EU institutions or member states enforcing EU law. It also gave the European Commission the right to challenge member states if it thought that the rights enshrined in the document were not being upheld.
A future without the charter
Although shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer has said he will challenge this omission, if David Davis and the Conservative government are able to push through with this change it could signal a targeting of rights and free speech laws. There are concerns among some liberal voices that the Government could use so-called ‘King Henry VIII’ powers, which allows for less Parliament scrutiny on law changes, to push through parts of the huge number of law changes.
Despite the human rights convention continuing to be enforced in UK the ditching of the charter is a level of security to UK rights and freedoms being removed which in theory will make it easier for Parliament to make changes in the future. This scenario is not hugely unlikely as the extreme Euro-sceptics, who look to have gained in prominence and influence since the Brexit vote, hold the ECHR in a similarly disapproving opinion to the EU as a whole.
Some members of the Government have a track record of negative comments on some rights and EU laws. Liam Fox, prominent Brexiteer and International Trade Minister, said in 2012 that some workplace rights were “unsustainable” while Priti Patel has also said there would be benefits to disposing of EU employment laws. In September 2016 the Government were not able to guarantee the maintenance of employment protections instead merely saying they were a “priority’ during the negotiations.
The Prime Minister herself has also previously attacked certain social and workplace rights. In 2007 Theresa May wrote an article for Conservative Home where she criticised Labour’s decision to sign up to EU’s social chapter which included rights for pregnant women to get 14 weeks’ statutory leave at sick pay rates, the 48-hour maximum working week and equal employment rights for part-time staff.
With this track record, the opportunity to rewrite a huge chunk of UK law as well as the ditching of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, a wealth of human rights and free speech laws could be endangered. Around 50 human rights enshrined in the charter have already been weakened by the charter's omission from the Repeal Bill white paper and in the course of the giant undertaking that is the replacing of EU laws it puts current rights under huge strain.