Charter of Fundamental Rights – Government Report

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 21st November 2017.

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Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:15 pm, 21st November 2017

I am grateful to the Minister for that. I had understood that the revision and repeal of the Human Rights Act was on the back burner, but Members on this side of the House and many Conservative Members can celebrate a great victory if that plan has now been dropped and the Government are backing down on that one. Unfortunately, I very much doubt that we will be in the mood for celebration as we are facing the Government’s chaotic plans for Brexit, and that is what we have to discuss today.

My colleagues in the Scottish Government in Edinburgh have recently reiterated their firm commitment to the idea that international human rights norms should not just be signed up to by the jurisdictions of these islands, but should be given direct effect by giving individuals and businesses the opportunity to raise and realise their rights in the courts. The Scottish Government have indicated that they intend to

“implement the socio-economic duty in the Equality Act 2010 by the end of this year, placing a requirement on key parts of the public sector, including Scottish Ministers, to have due regard to reducing the inequalities caused by socio-economic disadvantage when taking strategic decisions. This is a key component of our approach to tackling poverty.”

The Scottish Government also committed in their programme for government to look at how they can further embed human, social, cultural and economic rights, including the UN convention on the rights of the child. That is an indication that the Scottish Government’s direction of travel on international human rights norms is very different from the UK Government’s. It reflects the fact, as I said earlier, that human rights are not a reserved matter save in so far as the repeal or amendment of the Human Rights Act is concerned. Indeed, the Scottish Government have the power to legislate to protect human rights and intend to do so.

That leads me to comment briefly on new clause 78 and a new right in relation to equality that is intended to apply across the United Kingdom. There is a laudable intention behind the new clause, but its application in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would require discussion with and the consent of devolved Administrations, if it were to be incorporated into the devolution statutes. The Scottish Government’s and Scottish National party’s position on human rights also reflects the wishes of voters in Scotland, who voted to remain in the EU by a considerable margin and who voted in considerably larger numbers for parties that support international human rights norms than for those that do not.

It is about time that this Parliament started to recognise that views across these islands are quite divergent from the sort of Brexit that the Government are proposing. The cross-party amendments would go some way towards the aim of keeping us in the charter and keeping remedies for UK citizens. Of course, that is not to say that there are not many people in England and Wales who voted to leave and also wish to see the charter of fundamental rights preserved. We heard, if I may say so, a typically eloquent speech by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, who said that the rights that have come into our law as a result of our membership of the European Union have done good across these islands, particularly for the most vulnerable people in our society. One would hope that we could agree on that on a cross-party basis.

A lot of misinformation is going around about the charter, and that stems from a resistance to the idea that it is either desirable or necessary for international human rights norms to have direct effect in the United Kingdom. We have to recognise that the logical result of that antipathy to giving direct effect to international human rights norms is to take away rights, and the ability to realise them, from British citizens and businesses. That is surely not a desirable state of affairs, no matter which side of the House one sits on.

As we have heard from a number of hon. Members, the Government have tried to reassure us that importing EU law without also importing the charter will make no difference to the protection of rights in the various jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. Indeed, they state in paragraphs 99 and 100 of the explanatory notes to the Bill that it is unnecessary to include the charter as part of retained law because it merely codifies rights and principles already inherent in EU law. That is what the Minister told us from the Dispatch Box. As others have said, that rather begs a question: if it is just a simple codification, why bother not incorporating the charter?

As I pointed out in an intervention on the Minister, the Exiting the European Union Committee heard evidence from a senior legal academic, who said that there will be legislation in retained EU law that refers to the charter, so there will be a lack of legal certainty if the charter is not there. The Minister would no doubt say, “Yes, but the general principles will still be there.” But the charter existed as a codification of the general principles in order to make them more readily accessible.

I am interested to see the list that the Minister is going to produce on 5 December, but he could make his life a lot easier—I know that he and his colleagues have a lot on their plate at the moment—if he just incorporated the charter, rather than running around with bits of paper listing the general principles when they are all listed in the charter anyway. Surely that would be the logical and practical thing to do; unless there is, to use someone else’s phrase, some devilish plot, whereby removing the charter of fundamental rights means that rights will be removed. There is some evidential basis for believing that at least some Government Members think it is a good thing not to incorporate the charter of fundamental rights because it includes rights that they do not like. I am sorry to single out one Government Member, but I did read the article in The Sun yesterday by Suella Fernandes. I am not normally a reader of The Sun, but it caught my eye on Google that it contained an article about the charter of fundamental rights and I thought that every newspaper should be given a chance from time to time, so I had a little look. Like me, the hon. Lady is a lawyer, and she writes:

“This week Parliament will be asked to vote on whether to incorporate the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law. If Labour, acting with others, manage to force this through there will be legal chaos. Not only will it hand new and long lasting powers to UK courts”,

but it has also

“crept into many areas of UK law, from asylum to even national security.”

So there we have it in the words of at least one Conservative Member. There are things in the charter of fundamental rights that some on the Government Benches do not wish to be incorporated into our law.