Charter of Fundamental Rights – Government Report

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 21st November 2017.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield 1:45 pm, 21st November 2017

Yes, and there we are in agreement. It is inevitable and regrettable that we face this situation, but that is why simply to convert the charter, which, in any case, has lots in it that is unconvertible, and to say that it should maintain entrenched rights, seems to me, in the light of what we are debating in the context of Brexit, to be an impossibility. That is not something that commends itself to me.

Let me now move to a slightly narrower issue. We have to accept that, in the course of what we are doing, we are going through a complex period of transition. Forget about the transitional arrangements we may be negotiating with our EU partners—the truth is that we are creating a whole category of transitional law. By the concept of retained EU law, we are doing some very strange things indeed with our ordinary legal principles.

Clause 5(2) allows EU law to have priority over domestic law in certain circumstances. In fact, it allows for the possibility of UK law enacted prior to exit day being quashed for incompatibility with EU law that is retained on exit day. I simply make the point that, leaving aside our EU membership, which of course will have ceased, this is an utterly unique development in our legal system—it has never happened before. We are about to create a species of domestic or semi-domestic law—I would not quite describe it as feral law—which will have the unique quality of being able to override our own laws. Clause 6(3) will also allow CJEU judgments given before exit day to be binding, but not on our Supreme Court—a matter that my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin and I have been worrying about quite a lot in the course of the passage of this legislation.

So although the CJEU will rightly lose jurisdiction, it and EU law will keep a special status. However, that is intended to be only temporary, although how temporary is speculative, and I of course note clause 5(3), which says that this law can be modified and still retain this special status, as long as the modification, I assume, is not so dramatic or drastic that it is made explicit that it should lose it. That is different from replacement. That, I suspect, is because the Government know very well that this situation may continue for decades to come.

Yet, in the middle of that, the charter is removed. Leaving aside the other issues concerning the charter, which I have touched on, and which I do not want to go back over, that creates an unusual circumstance. EU law was always intended to be purposive, and one of the purposes is to give effect to the fundamental principles under which the EU is supposed to operate. Yet we are removing the benchmark under which this law is supposed to operate, because the charter will no longer be there, although, interestingly—I think this is an acknowledgment by the Government of the problem they have—they have then, in the next clauses, essentially allowed the charter and general principles of EU law to continue to be used for the purposes of interpretation.

It is very unclear how all this, in practice, is going to work out. That is why I tabled my two principal amendments. Amendment 8 would allow the retention of the charter. It provides an easy route to ensuring that this legal framework is retained, but for the reasons we have just been debating, there are serious issues surrounding it, which is why I think it is probably wrong to pursue it.

However, there is then the question in schedule 1 of what we do with general principles of EU law. What they are is totally undefined, but I assume—I have to assume—that if the Government are content to articulate the existence of general principles, they have done enough research to establish to their own satisfaction that general principles do exist—they are the result of court judgments interpreting the law and, indeed, the fundamental principles in the charter, but not the ones that are going to disappear on the day we leave.