My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests.
Divisions have grown deeper since the referendum to leave the European Union. There is growing uncertainty as people fear for their future, their families and their right to remain, despite the joint paper on citizens’ rights. If Brexit is to happen, this debate is a chance to begin to articulate what we expect from the Government and to start asking the challenging questions. Who do we want to be as a country? How can we live up to our history, and defend and build on it; and what stands in the way of our achieving that vision? Two days ago, on
As many will know, Britain was instrumental in creating the post-war international human rights consensus through the universal declaration and, in particular, the European Convention on Human Rights, which is now incorporated into domestic law through the Human Rights Act. Human rights in the United Kingdom go back, of course, much further: Magna Carta was 800 years old in 2015. These rights transcend political parties and individuals—they are universal. Yet there has often been resistance from Governments, and these rights have been hard-won. Women’s suffrage is merely 100 years old next year. Minorities, misrepresented and defamed, were equally denied. I know this human rights landscape not from an academic perspective but as a member of a much-maligned and misrepresented minority that was denied equality for a very long time, like so many other misrepresented minorities.
What has been achieved has been achieved across a thousand generations. That is why I celebrate organisations in this field but particularly the courageous individuals across the generations who have given so much—their liberty and their lives—to achieve what we have today. Rights have come gradually, with the Disability Discrimination and Race Relations Acts; the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality with the 1967 Act; the Equality Act 2010; civil partnerships and equal marriage. But although we have equal marriage here, it is still, shamefully, denied in Northern Ireland, as is abortion. Those anomalies must not be allowed to continue. Our ground-breaking Gender Recognition Act has now been overtaken by Malta’s, and we now need to face down the attacks on and objections to the rights of trans women and trans men. So the history of human rights in the UK has been one of steady progress, with legal protections improved over time, but often after hard-fought litigation. We must not allow standards to regress.
Where we have led, others have followed and improved. Our global position means that we are rightly held to a high standard. NGOs are watching and so are our peers in the international community. The UN’s universal periodic review—our peer review by other UN member states—took place earlier this year. The results do not place us in the top flight. Only 42% of the recommendations were accepted by the Government, compared to a global average of 73%, so arguably the UK’s status as a human rights leader is at risk.
In this very short debate we have a chance to set the tone for scrutiny of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which we will undertake next year. The process of Brexit, as I said before, has created division and doubts. There are doubts about what rights will exist after Brexit; whether standards will improve or get worse; how laws will be interpreted and whether we will keep pace with international best practice. There are doubts too for those for whom essential services are at risk, from the loss of access to EU funding or EU workers. Therefore, the Government’s human rights priority should be to put those doubts to rest and ensure that protections are preserved and enhanced. Brexit must not reduce our rights but must be an opportunity to enhance them, keeping the protections of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as well as the application of the charter’s general principles. Indeed, the general principles provide a complementary and important tool for individuals to enforce their rights, as seen this year when John Walker successfully used them in the Supreme Court to close a loophole in domestic law denying same-sex couples the same pension rights as heterosexual ones. To remove the right of action based on the general principles is to deprive these rights of any real force.
So I ask the Minister, will the Government uphold the principle of non-regression in equality and human rights laws and ensure continued parliamentary scrutiny of any changes to our equality and human rights laws by restricting the use of delegated powers? Will they commit to remaining in the European Convention on Human Rights and not diminishing the protections in the Human Rights Act? Will they ensure that our courts can keep pace with relevant EU case law, post Brexit? On the latter, I share the concerns expressed to your Lordships’ EU Justice Sub-Committee by senior Law Lords on the current wording of Clause 6 of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which creates legal uncertainty and has the potential to politicise the judiciary.
If we want to achieve progress the Government should consider the following—to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, “I’ve got a little list”. It includes giving enhanced status to UN treaties, for example the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as ratifying the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. It includes establishing a national action plan on human rights as a sensible framework for the implementation of UN human rights recommendations. It includes undertaking an equality impact assessment of new arrangements to replace EU funding—assessing, for example, the impact that Brexit will have on disabled people, older people and carers, and services available to groups vulnerable to violence, including children, women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The Government should also consider undertaking a cumulative impact assessment of the 2018 Budget and reconsidering existing policies that are contributing to negative financial impacts for the most disadvantaged. Finally, they should follow up their race disparity audit with genuine action: for example, taking forward the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recommendations in A Roadmap to Race Equality and responding to the Lammy review with innovative options. There is much to do to retain the rights we have and to improve upon them.
There is so much I have not mentioned: homelessness; the doubling of the number of rough sleepers in just seven years; and increasing poverty. That is why I believe firmly that we need an annual human rights debate. I know that this House will perform its duty diligently in scrutinising Brexit legislation, never more so than in the defence of rights and freedoms. Therefore, I now look forward to the contributions of noble Lords.
My Lords, your Lordships may be aware that the time limit for Back-Bench speeches has been relaxed from two minutes to four minutes, but I must ask that remarks are concluded at the point the clock reaches four minutes to allow the Minister his maximum allocated speaking time.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, who is a well-known champion of the protection of human rights. I share with him—and, I am sure, all other noble Lords—a sense of the importance of their continued protection following Brexit. I also, I suspect, share with him a disappointment with the decision taken by the British public to leave the European Union. I am extremely concerned about some of the economic consequences of our so doing, but this evening we are concerned with the human rights consequences and the need to keep them ever at the forefront of our considerations. Although complacency is not appropriate, nevertheless I feel confident that we can protect human rights adequately in the future without being involved in the European Union.
The final shape of any deal—and I profoundly hope that there is a deal—will, I hope, deal adequately with citizens’ rights and the security and criminal justice arrangements that have been the bedrock of our relationship with other European Union countries. The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, spoke about the Charter of Fundamental Rights. His party was not very enthusiastic about that when it was first brought in. Although I think it is a fine statement of general principle, I fear that I am one of those who do not feel that actionable rights per se are necessarily the answer. I have read the government review of the withdrawal Bill in connection with the charter and it does not seem that we are likely to lose any substantial protection if Clause 6(5) becomes law.
As to the Human Rights Act, we still have it. There has been talk—of which I am aware—of a British Bill of Rights. Together with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, I was on the commission that considered whether that should be the case. The majority thought that it should, although nobody thought that that would result in a diminution of protection; it was a question simply of recalibrating our relationship with the Strasbourg court.
Why am I not unduly concerned about our future protection of human rights post Brexit? It is simply because I believe that our courts, with their historic tradition of respecting human rights, and our Parliament, should be, and have proved, capable of responding to the challenges that human rights issues sometimes pose. I will give two examples. The first is modern slavery. All human rights documents and conventions, quite rightly, outlaw slavery in all its manifestations—but what we needed was a piece of bespoke legislation to deal with the precise problems, subtle yet profound, thrown up by modern slavery. That is what Parliament could do, rather than a broadly based rights instrument.
The second example was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman: the very important equal marriage legislation. That is something that Parliament achieved, notwithstanding opposition within Parliament and considerable opposition outside. It was one of those occasions when Parliament was ahead, I think, of most of the general public, and now we can turn round and say that Parliament should be proud of what it achieved in that respect. It is an irony that many of those who were concerned about it thought that it might offend the Strasbourg court in some way—hence the clever drafting of that piece of legislation to make it proof from any such challenge.
So what are the Government’s priorities post Brexit? I hope and believe that they are to maintain our reputation for protecting and honouring human rights. We belong to innumerable treaties, conventions and the like which do just that. We have an excellent reputation for our protection of human rights. I believe that we will be able to continue to do so. We should not rest on our laurels, of course, but should be active in identifying any potential weaknesses—but human rights are safe with our Parliament and our courts.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Cashman on securing this debate on human rights priorities this evening.
The human rights and equality concerns arising from the EU withdrawal Bill, heightened by the exclusion of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, relate both to what is captured in domestic law on exit and the intention of government after departure. The Government’s rights-by-rights analysis, published on
The Government have given an undertaking to require a ministerial Statement for any Brexit-related primary or secondary legislation on whether and how it is consistent with the Equality Act 2010. There is no such requirement, however, for consistency with the provision of rights underpinning the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, yet the adequacy of the proposed protection of rights will be of particular significance in Northern Ireland. Human rights, equality and employment rights are a central and essential ingredient of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. In the absence of a functioning Executive at Stormont, the legislature in Northern Ireland is unable to consider the implications of the Bill for those rights. The people do not have a voice in the way that the Northern Ireland Act is intended to work. It would be a travesty if Brexit were achieved at the price of loss of confidence in the rights of the people in Northern Ireland. The narrative must not be defined only by the perceived needs of English voters. As to the future, the amendment or repeal of the Human Rights Act may well be regarded by some as a breach of the Good Friday agreement itself.
More generally, the Government’s proposed manner of protecting equality and human rights on exit from the EU is weakened by a lack of confidence in their longer-term intention. The recent Conservative manifesto stated that the human rights legal framework may be reviewed post Brexit. Not so long ago, the Government’s Red Tape Challenge reviewed the Equality Act 2010 and canvassed views on repealing the Act itself. The Government need to demonstrate that we will not be walking back to our future after Brexit by setting out a clear vision on how the UK will remain a global leader on equality and human rights once we have left the EU and, as my noble friend Lord Cashman has urged, to commit to the principle that there will no dilution of equality and human rights law in this country.
My Lords, the United Kingdom has a strong and proud record in upholding human rights. This is in large part due to our common law tradition and parliamentary democracy. Fundamental human rights, which so many Members of your Lordships’ House champion tirelessly—in season and out, at home and abroad—arise from irreducible moral truths about who we are, what we share and why our shared human dignity matters. Parliament and our courts are well equipped to deliberate and determine such matters. What the Government must make clear is that, in or out of the European Union, they have no intention of emasculating our obligations to uphold those fundamental rights.
The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights is a good starting point but it is not the perfect paradigm. Commonwealth jurisdictions such as Australia and New Zealand protect rights at least as well as some European Union member states, and in some cases even better. The research of Professor John Finnis, Richard Ekins, Graham Gee and others in various papers published by Policy Exchange set out some helpful examples of best practice. I wonder whether the Minister has had the opportunity to read and reflect upon these in preparation for this debate. Can he also tell us what additional support the Government will give to the courts during the transitional period, to ensure that they are adequately enabled to adjudicate contested questions previously determined by European courts?
There is one area of law that neither we nor the EU have right, and that is the way in which we deal with the crime above all crimes: genocide and the associated crimes against humanity and war crimes. The noble and learned Lord will recall that I moved an amendment seeking a determination of the crimes by ISIS against Yazidis, Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria as a genocide. He will recall that in April 2016 the House of Commons passed a resolution declaring that a genocide was under way. Similar resolutions were passed by the European Parliament, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, the American Congress and others, yet such is the inadequacy of how we give effect to our duties under the 1948 genocide convention to prevent, protect and punish that, even now, no one has been brought before any court to stand trial for executions, rape, enslavement and a litany of other obscenities. Perhaps our failure to provide a proper mechanism to hold perpetrators to account is why we see the same ethnic cleansing being repeated against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma.
Earlier today, I met officials from the War Crimes Unit at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The UK deserves credit for securing United Nations Security Council Resolution 2379 to bring Daesh to justice, but as this is to be implemented via Iraqi courts I would like to hear what resources and assistance we are going to give to ensure that that approach is effective.
I have laid the Genocide Determination Bill before your Lordships’ House. It provides for the High Court of England and Wales to make a preliminary finding on cases of alleged genocide and for the subsequent referral of such findings to the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal. It spells out how the instruments that deliver justice need to be changed. I hope the Minister may give time and will agree to study the Bill and give it proper consideration, and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, might do the same.
The 30 rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, from the right to life to the right to free speech, were born in the ashes of Auschwitz. They should continue to be the bedrock of our country’s principled approach to the upholding of human rights, and that is why today’s debate is of such importance.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, for enabling us to acknowledge the crucial contribution that your Lordships’ House and Parliament as a whole have made, and must continue to make, to advancing equality. As he so effectively argued, it is vital that that continues beyond Brexit because there is so much still to be done to empower disabled people, in particular, so that we can enjoy the equality that is ours by virtue of our common humanity.
I take this opportunity to put on record my heartfelt thanks to all noble Lords and Members of the other place who have expressed support since my speech in your Lordships’ House on
Noble Lords will know that I have respectfully requested that the Prime Minister dissociates the Government from this downgrading of disability. However, if that is what I am asking of the Prime Minister, then the very least I can do is dissociate myself as well. With immediate effect, I am therefore withdrawing my acceptance of the Equalities Minister’s offer to join the board of the commission, an offer which was made under false pretences. I will not collude in this shameful downgrading of disability, which Written Answers in the other place now show was taken by an Equalities Minister who informed No. 10 of the change to the commissioner role only 24 hours before my appointment. Even worse, the Equalities Minister did not even inform the then Minister for Disabled People that there was to be no disability commissioner.
In conclusion, I ask nothing of my noble and learned friend the Minister this evening, but I respectfully reiterate my request to the Prime Minister that she ensures the release of all the relevant communications, so that Parliament can understand how on earth the Equalities Minister could possibly think that agreeing to help get rid of the disability commissioner role would somehow help disabled people in our fight for equality.
My Lords, I am sure the whole House will want to treat with great respect and deep consideration the very important points that the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, has just made. I thank my noble friend Lord Cashman for giving us the opportunity for this debate and for the brilliant speech he made in introducing it, which brought a lot home to me. In my politically formative years, when I was very young—in my teens—I took human rights very seriously indeed with others. I was at a conference in Geneva where I was privileged to meet Eleanor Roosevelt and talk with her. What I have never been in any doubt about since is that human rights are not just an optional asset to have in a nice society. They are not a vicarage tea party affair but a fundamental cornerstone of a decent society and, more importantly, of stability and peace throughout the world. If we really secure human rights, extremism will be marginalised. I am doubtful it will be eliminated—although I wish it would be—but it will be marginalised. We have to give people a stake in a society that they believe is worth defending and in which they have full confidence. Human rights should be a central priority in all that government is doing.
There is absolutely no doubt that the decision to leave the European Union has caused a great deal of anxiety, which my noble friend referred to. What we need from the Minister is a very specific list of those rights—not generalisations—which the Government are determined to include in whatever arrangements are made, and what rights they are not going to include, because it is quite clear there are some that they will not include. We will need the specifics so that people know where they are. My noble friend was also right to emphasise the importance of a national action plan. If human rights are going to be properly implemented, we must have a plan to which we work and have the authority of that plan behind us. He was also certainly right to talk about the impact assessment. We need to know exactly what these changes will mean for the lives of ordinary people.
I shall conclude on a point about citizenship. A lot of us were appalled by the significance of the referendum result for people from Europe living in Britain and British people living in the European Union. We were given categorical assurances from the Bench opposite that this was going to be a priority of the Government— yet here we are, 18 months later, and all that surrounds the issue is uncertainty. We are not talking about statistics; we are talking about families, mothers, fathers, children, sick relatives, elderly people, vulnerable people—real people who have thrown their lives into creating job opportunities for themselves and others, and have committed themselves to another society in doing so—but we are still dithering about, trying to work out what the specific arrangements should be.
If we get nothing else tonight, we must get from the Minister an absolute assurance—even though I have already referred to the categorical assurances we were given 18 months ago—that this is going to happen without delay, and that we are not going to break the promise that this will not become a negotiating counter to be played in the game of leaving the EU.
My Lords, human rights are really about how we treat one another as human beings. They are about fairness and respect for all. Such principles must therefore be uppermost in our minds as we negotiate our departure from the EU. I am truly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, for this debate tonight.
I worry for the future of the one in five UK citizens who are disabled. Arguably, they have benefited from the best equality and human rights legislation in the world. The UK has both influenced and been influenced by EU law on disability rights. Under EU law, international treaties have a stronger impact than they do under UK law. For instance, EU law must be interpreted consistently with the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People. This has provided a significant baseline for progressing disability rights in the UK. The Government must ensure that there is no regression, so that disabled people continue to benefit from the convention and see progress in the UK.
One of my major areas of concerns is disabled people’s right to independent living, on which I have campaigned passionately for many years. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which I appreciate is being hotly debated in the other place, is particularly relevant to this. Article 26 on the integration of persons with disabilities helps to give effect to their independence and participation in the community, but it is not expressly addressed by the European Convention on Human Rights or the Human Rights Act. How will this protection be continued if the charter is not retained in UK law?
Our success in advancing independent living has also been helped by the European structural funds. Billions of EU money has stimulated a significant shift from institutional to independent living across Europe. What are the Government’s plans if we are no longer going to be part of the fund? Where will be obtain such funds to progress independent living in this country when that comes to an end?
Another vital issue concerning disabled people is the possible effect of new immigration rules on EU employees. Many of us require personal assistants or carers to live independently and to be included in the community. This workforce enables people like myself the freedom to enjoy a private family life, to work, to be here debating in the House tonight, to socialise and to actively participate as equal citizens. Thousands of us employ between two and six EU nationals. I urge the Government to carry out a rigorous equality impact assessment of disabled people’s rights to live independently and ensure that the impact of Brexit on this vital workforce is central to debates on freedom of movement between Europe and the UK.
If human rights are realised for disabled people, they are secured for all of us and will strengthen the fabric of our society.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, for giving us the opportunity to debate the important question of what the Government’s human rights priorities are post Brexit. I hope he will not be too disappointed if I try to address the closely linked question of whether human rights are a priority for this Government.
“Britain has a long history of protecting human rights at home and standing up for those values abroad … However, the present position under the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act is not acceptable”.
These are not my words but words from my party’s paper, Protecting Human Rights in the United Kingdom. However, all grand statements have to be underpinned. If the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act are not acceptable, as that statement says, and the European Union and the human rights framework it provides—despite its shortcomings—is no longer part of the structure of human rights, what will underpin our commitment?
I accept the Government’s assurances, given in the repeal Bill White Paper and subsequently, that,
“legal rights and obligations … should … be the same after we have left the EU as they were immediately before we left”.
I particularly welcome assurances that the Government will not amend or repeal the Human Rights Act or alter the UK’s relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights during the Article 50 period. However, I am afraid that I am not as optimistic as my noble friend Lord Faulks.
I have concerns premised on a number of factors. These include the potential for future legislation that could seek to roll back the current level of protection; political rhetoric feeding the tabloids and the tabloids emboldening the Government on a general attitude of dismissing our strong tradition of commitment to human rights; a disdain for the judiciary; and attacks on the rule of law. I am concerned also by the worrying but honest admission from Sir Simon McDonald, the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said that human rights are not a “top priority” for the Government.
Our approach at the Human Rights Council is another concern, where too often we abstain rather than stand by the values that we espouse. My most recent concern is the approach to the UK’s third universal periodic review, which is, as the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, said, a form of peer review where all nations’ human rights records are put under a spotlight. This year, the UK received 227 official recommendations and, whereas the world average of adoption of recommendations is 73% and other western European states supported an average of 67% of recommendations, the UK supported only 42%. That is less than in previous years, and specifically it did not support recommendations that related to securing the future status of the Human Rights Act.
Each of the concerns I list could be the subject of a debate. Sadly, with only four minutes allocated, I simply raise them and ask my noble friend the Minister to reassure the House that this Government remain committed to the human rights landscape as it currently stands and do not intend to remove protections afforded to British citizens as we remove some of the underpinning that enables these very protections.
Finally, Britain has a strong record in promoting human rights both domestically and internationally. We played a leading role in establishing the post-war international human rights framework. We are right to be proud of our record. But the legacy this Government should strive for is that, at this moment of significant constitutional change, we should set out a positive vision of the kind of country we want to be after we have left the European Union and ensure that the UK remains a global leader on equality and human rights once we have left. The EU may no longer be a priority, but we must all work to ensure that the values that used to bind us as a nation, including human rights, remain a priority.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, for tabling the debate. I declare that I am a trustee of the British Institute of Human Rights, which is listed in the register of interests. The British Institute of Human Rights, along with 31 other organisations, has submitted evidence to Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, expressing concerns about the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. They also co-ordinated a letter signed by 145 civil society groups with a strong message to the Prime Minister on human rights now and, importantly, post Brexit.
In the debate on Brexit, it appears that the impact on disabled people has barely been discussed in the public arena. It was not particularly discussed in the referendum debate or election manifestos; it seems that we have been forgotten, so I ask the Minister what guarantees will be given that disabled people’s rights will be protected as we go forward?
Disability Rights UK, in the manifesto which was published in June this year, made some very sensible recommendations about priorities for disabled people. We should not even have to be articulating these, but it shows where we are in our attitudes towards disabled people. It said that EU-based disability rights existing at the time the UK leaves the EU have to be maintained, including those in relation to air and ship travel, web accessibility, accessible goods and services, public procurement and manufactured goods. Disability rights, which are incorporated in domestic law at the time of exit, including primary legislation, must remain unchanged without there being proper scrutiny. We cannot inadvertently discard, for example, disability equality rules and regulations and just call them “red tape” as a reason to get rid of them.
There has to be continued government commitment to the UK being ahead of the curve on disability rights—fully committing to implementing standards equivalent to the new European Accessibility Act, once that is passed—and at least matching current funding for disabled people’s organisations. In recent days we have heard a lot about equality impact assessments around Brexit—or perhaps the lack of them. It is essential to ensure that there is no detrimental impact on disabled people’s independence through reducing the PA workforce, as covered by my noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton. There are other recommendations in Disability Rights UK’s manifesto, which are worth exploring, but perhaps at another time.
There are challenging times for disabled people: whether that is how they are portrayed in the media as victims or vulnerable, whether it is the impact of welfare reforms, or the fact that disability hate crime figures are too high, or that the reporting of hate crime against disabled children is on the rise. In the last year, there were 450 incidents of hate crime towards disabled children—up from 181 in 2014-15. Disabled children and their parents are being targeted online and they get verbal abuse in the streets. Amanda Batten from the Disabled Children’s Partnership said from a survey of 2,700 parents that abuse is commonplace. So it is easy to understand that in this attitude towards disabled people, their rights may be eroded.
Finally, according to recent comments, disabled people do not particularly contribute to British society, and it is our fault that UK productivity has fallen. Of course, I strongly disagree with that. Disabled people have a significant amount to contribute, but for this to happen their rights need to be discussed and protected. I look forward to further debates on this matter in the future.
My Lords, in the unfortunately short time available, I draw attention to our EU nationals from the Roma community, many of whom fled from extreme discrimination—their children sent to special schools and not allowed to speak their own language, their villages burnt down like the pogroms of old, mistreatment at the hands of the police, and even murders committed and condoned by the rest of the population.
The reforms to EU migrants’ access to welfare benefits have had a disproportionate impact on Roma well-being and the conditions for assuring their residence in the UK are discriminatory. Five years’ continuous residence does not work for family units who go backwards and forwards over the channel for family events and contacts. Family is of particular importance to people who have little confidence in the state, and of course contributes significantly to its members’ well-being. It is not clear what will be adduced for the assessment of conduct and criminality. Will it be local resentment, no matter how prejudiced, or permanent exclusion from school, of which there is now a disproportionate and worrying amount? Will it be civil penalties, such as driving offences, or all criminal offences, no matter how petty? The use of income records as evidence tends to exclude anyone in the informal economy or a family enterprise, and the online stipulation is another barrier to many. Can the Minister specify exactly which documents will be accepted?
Since the referendum, border force police have deported over 5,000 EU migrants, one-third of whom were Romanians, including many Roma rough sleepers, although a legal challenge is ongoing. Some of these problems also affect Irish Travellers, and indeed Irish citizens in general. Have the issues of Roma rights and safety been raised at all in Brexit discussions? The UK Government set their face against adopting the national Roma integration strategy for 2015 to 2020, as requested by the European Commission. Will they now set out their policy for dealing equitably and justly with the human rights of the Roma people, and their eligibility to remain here?
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, on securing this important debate. I want to raise just a few of the major human rights concerns highlighted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in relation to Brexit. The Government have given assurances that they will respect parliamentary sovereignty in dealing with changes to the law on equality and human rights. However, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill as drafted does not honour those assurances. Much has been said in debates in your Lordships’ House about the wholesale use of delegated powers under the Bill to amend or repeal retained EU law and other domestic law, including primary legislation. The Bill prohibits the use of delegated powers in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998. Why, then, does it not hold to that standard for other legislation that protects equality and human rights? Do the Government have plans to water down the Equality Acts of 2006 and 2010, or other primary legislation that protects employment and other rights? Perhaps the Minister could explain.
The Government say in their White Paper that the use of delegated powers will be used only to deal with deficiencies in preserved EU-derived law arising out of our exit from the EU. It will be government Ministers who decide what those deficiencies are, will it not? Maybe Ministers will regard some individual rights as a deficiency in the system. Clearly, Parliament needs some clear principles in the Bill to prevent a dilution in our human rights and equalities framework. The Equality and Human Rights Commission recommends that an amendment to the Bill explicitly rules out the use of delegated powers to make any changes to equality and human rights laws. I entirely agree with the need for that safeguard. Again, I shall be grateful for the Minister’s comment.
The House will pick up all the equality and human rights issues when we come to debate the Bill. I just want to pick one other that has already been mentioned—my mystification that the Bill removes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights from domestic law. Why does it do that? The charter provides important protections for rights that fall within the scope of EU law, such as non-discrimination rights in employment. The Government have said that,
“the removal of the Charter from UK law will not affect the substantive rights from which individuals already benefit in the UK”.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, made that point. However, rights enshrined in the charter do not have equivalence in UK law. Those rights will surely be lost.
The charter also provides remedies for individuals and the right to challenge laws that breach fundamental rights. Am I right that the Government would like to see the back of these remedies and rights? Maybe that is the explanation. The Government argue that many of the rights protected in the charter are also found in UN and other international treaties the UK has ratified. However, the UK has not incorporated UN human rights treaties in every case. Does this dilution of citizens’ rights reflect the Government’s failure to address important issues? My worry is that the watering down of individual rights is intentional. I hope the Minister will explain which of these assumptions is correct.
With the consent of both Front Benches, I shall speak briefly in the gap. I chair the European Union Justice Sub-Committee. Matters of justice and rights have been crossing our tables over the last few months. I share the expressions of concern that have been heard, particularly those of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, about our leaving the European Charter of Fundamental Rights behind.
The question posed by my noble friend Lord Cashman asks Her Majesty’s Government what are their human rights priorities in the light of Brexit. The answer should be simple: the priorities are to hold tight to our commitment to human rights. That must, inevitably, mean holding tight to the European Convention on Human Rights; to our international commitments on human rights in the many conventions and treaties we have signed; and, most particularly, to the Human Rights Act. I am not as sanguine as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. I share the position of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi: the Conservative Party has run hot and cold on this over the years and has not been very good on protecting human rights. The repeal of the Human Rights Act was taken off the table recently because there was not time in the timetable and it might muddy the waters during Brexit. It might confuse people even more that the European Court of Human Rights is quite distinct from the European Court of Justice. The Conservative Party was quite happy to live with this muddle for many years.
The people who want a hard Brexit are the same people who do not like human rights, and who want to leave the European Court of Human Rights. The people who want to completely turn their backs on the European Union are the same as those who want to leave human rights values behind. I am not optimistic. Only this morning, I took part in a debate on the “Today” programme in which one of the right-wing think tanks was, yet again, pulling out stuff about us having our own human rights rules and not being part of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is an agenda which a part of the Conservative Party will run with again and again.
The priority today should be to say that human rights will be even more needed in this period of disruption, when we are seeing pain in the lives of many people, particularly the poorest in our communities or those who belong to minorities. They will need the reassurance of human rights. If the Government want to set their priorities at the heart of Brexit, human rights should be their major one—protecting the human rights of individuals and those who will be most vulnerable in this process of change.
This is really important. Human rights matter; they are the set of values that we have clung to and created. Indeed, Conservative lawyers were the great creators of the European Convention on Human Rights. Such rights have to be living and breathing and must adapt to the world as it changes. That is what is wonderful about human rights. I say to the Government: please, cling to them, and to the Human Rights Act. See them as being the Government’s staff in helping to get the change that is going through now. They will protect many people and give them reassurance.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Cashman. Many of my colleagues wanted to speak, but because there was so little time they gave their time to the rest of us.
In preparing for tonight’s debate, I remembered that next year it will be 30 years since people abseiled into this place to oppose the hateful and hated Section 28. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has more faith in our courts than I do, but, as a member of a minority group, I have to say that over the last 30 years many of the rights that I have come to enjoy have come from decisions of European courts that were fought tooth and nail by Parliament and courts in this country. I am afraid that I agree rather more with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, in her somewhat downbeat assessment of what the position is likely to be post the abandonment of the international standards of human rights to which we have subscribed for so long.
I have very little time available to me but I, too, have a list. I want to ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, a number of questions. He may not be able to answer them now but I hope that he will do so in writing. Is equality before the law, as guaranteed in Article 20 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, an enforceable right in UK law? If it is guaranteed by common law, does it apply across the entire United Kingdom and can that right be removed or limited by statute? How will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that the same level of protection is available in the light of Brexit?
Article 21(1) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights expressly protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation in UK law. Will the Government identify where protection against discrimination is recognised as a human right in the UK and where that right is expressly recognised in UK law as an enforceable right? Again, how will the Government ensure the same level of protection in the event of Brexit?
In international law, the UK is bound by its human rights treaty obligations at the UN and the Council of Europe. Do these treaty obligations expressly protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation? Are the other protected grounds in Article 21(1) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights fully covered by the UK’s wider international human rights treaty obligations? If so, how? The EU charter provides extensive protection from discrimination on the grounds of sex, including in its Articles 21, 23 and 33. In the absence of the charter, can the Government confirm that these rights are fully protected under UK law and, if they are, how does UK law give effect to those rights? How will there be the same level of protection in the event of Brexit? Can the noble and learned Lord also confirm that all references to sex in the Charter of Fundamental Rights include people who are trans?
That is a long list of very dry, boring and technical questions. However, they are of the utmost importance to every member of a minority population in this country. Until such time as the Government come forward with detailed answers to those questions, they have to understand that some of us live in fear that the rights that were so hard won over the last 30 years are going to disappear. I say to the young people I meet in my community, “Talk of human rights is very boring and very dry, but it is absolutely the bedrock of our right to live with decency and equality alongside everybody else in society”. So I look forward very much to hearing some dry and technical answers.
My Lords, it has been an absolute privilege to listen to this important debate instigated by my noble friend Lord Cashman and to listen to so many eminent speakers from all sides of this House. It is wonderful that we have marked Human Rights Day in this way, and I agree that we should do so every year as one small contribution to our commitment to human rights in this House. I am also delighted that more than half the speakers in this all too short debate have been women. Women’s rights are human rights, as I am sure we will discuss much more next year as we mark 100 years of the Representation of the People Act. That was achieved through struggle, including very serious struggle and trips to prison, force feeding, torture and so on—not just gradualism but very hard won rights indeed.
Last week, I had the pleasure of accompanying the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, to Geneva, to hear him address the UN there. In that address, he outlined his plans for a new approach to foreign policy based on solidarity, international co-operation and human rights. He said clearly:
“The survival of our common humanity requires nothing less”.
This approach will place human rights at the centre of Labour policy, at home as well as globally, and it also categorises our Brexit position. Labour has been consistent in calling for retaining workers’ rights protections, environmental and animal welfare standards, and on the incorporation of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights into British law. Under a Labour Government, that is the vision for a post-Brexit Britain, based on our values of co-operation and internationalism.
In stark contrast we heard the Prime Minister’s conference speech in September, in which she laid out her party’s philosophy and vision for a post-Brexit Britain, beginning with the now infamous quote, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”. That negative view of internationalism speaks to a creeping xenophobia that was not sated by the EU referendum result and continues, I am afraid, to colour too much thinking from the party opposite on Brexit negotiations. I therefore ask noble Lords on all sides of this House to look at the use by the Government of the rights of EU nationals resident here as a bargaining chip in the talks, leaving them in limbo for the last 18 months. I agree with my noble friend Lady Whitaker that the Roma people are perhaps one of the most demonised minorities in Europe, and we should give particular care to their treatment in the months and years ahead.
I am afraid that Mrs May and her Government have consistently demonstrated a lack of support for European human rights law—the same laws, as my noble friend Lady Kennedy said, that we Britons were so instrumental in creating and which set the historic status of the UK as a global leader on equality and human rights on the world stage. That status is now in grave peril.
More worrying still is the lack of will and a culture of disregard for the importance of human rights and sometimes even for the rule of law. I talk in particular about the recent statement made by the Defence Secretary that terrorists should be “eliminated”, with no reference to due process, and of course refer also to other Ministers’ intention, repeated over many years, to scrap the Human Rights Act in favour—no question—of a lesser instrument that would protect people differentially, not least on grounds of nationality or other badges of worthiness.
More worrying still, the Government are now tasked with the complex negotiations for the UK’s exit from the European Union, and have given us no reason to believe that they have a true commitment to human rights. In spite of repeated assurances that the withdrawal Bill will maintain the status quo, various rights and protections have been explicitly excluded, in particular the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which the Government maintain creates no new rights. That is simply not the case; if it were, the Brexit Secretary, Mr Davis, would not have needed to rely on it in his own ultimately successful challenge to the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act.
It is simple: losing the charter means losing rights. I agree with others who said that, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. The charter created new rights; for example, Article 8 on data protection, Article 13 on academic freedom, Article 24 on the rights of the child, Article 26 on disabled people’s rights, Article 21 on sex discrimination, and so on. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, the British Institute of Human Rights and the Law Society and so many other vital civil society stakeholders have expressed concerns about the loss of the charter. Moreover, the Human Rights Act is still in jeopardy, as is, potentially, our continued support and signatory status to the European Convention on Human Rights itself. We heard from my noble friend Lord Cashman and the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, about our poor response to the UN Human Rights Council’s periodic review of human rights compliance in this country.
Fundamentally, it is a question of what kind of Britain we want to build post Brexit. Some want a race to the bottom and we want a race to the top. We want to champion the rule of law and progressive values and not allow a bargain-basement Britain, where you pay no tax and low wages and have no standards for employment protection, human rights, workers’ and disabled people’s rights, environmental rights, equalities and ethical business. We want to match European and international standards. No, we do not want to match them—that is not enough. We want to raise them.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, on securing this important debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said that human rights matter. I would go further: human rights are central to the way we live now and to the way we wish to live in the future. They are an integral part of the society of which we wish to be a part. It is not only that they matter but that they are there and will be retained.
Protection of human rights remains a priority for this Government. The principles that underpin our legal and justice framework have developed over many centuries, with the evolution of human rights at its heart. As the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, pointed out, history is important because it has taken time for these rights to develop, emerge, be recognised and upheld without qualification. We look back upon a long-standing tradition of liberty and human rights.
The noble Lord mentioned Magna Carta, which was rediscovered in the 17th century but nevertheless is a critical foundation of the rights we enjoy today. The 1689 Bill of Rights and the common law underpin much of what we have, including—as was pointed out in the recent Unison decision of the Supreme Court—the right of access to justice, which is essential to the maintenance of human rights. We also have the Human Rights Act 1998, which this Government are committed to retaining in the present Parliament.
Reference was made to the role that the United Kingdom has played in developing the international human rights framework—including in the Council of Europe—the European convention and the United Nations. We have recently been re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council and will be a part of that until at least 2019. That is an important step and position for the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom’s human rights framework is multi-layered and has developed over many years. Our departure from the European Union does not change our commitment to human rights, nor is there any reason why it should. The European Union began to recognise what it termed fundamental rights many decades ago. This initially occurred through the case law of the European Court of Justice and subsequently through EU legislation. The EU decided to reaffirm the rights and principles that it recognised in what became the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights—the charter, as it has been referred to by noble Lords. That was first proclaimed in 2000 and became legally binding in 2009 with the introduction of the Lisbon treaty.
It is important to stress that the charter did not create rights. It brought existing European Union and international rights and principles together into a single document—the charter—but it did not create them. EU fundamental rights in the charter then applied to member states only when they were acting within the scope of EU law. Now the United Kingdom has, despite the misgivings of many in this House and elsewhere, voted to leave the European Union, and the withdrawal Bill currently being discussed in the other place is designed to ensure that the United Kingdom exits the European Union with certainty, control and continuity. That is essential in the national interest. The Bill will save EU-derived domestic legislation, including UK legislation that has been passed to implement EU directives, and incorporate direct EU legislation and directly effective rights that arise from treaty articles into domestic law.
The substantive rights that provide the source law of the charter will be retained or converted into domestic law. Although the charter will not be retained after exit, non-incorporation of the charter into domestic law will not in itself affect the substantive rights that individuals already benefit from in the United Kingdom, as the charter was never the source of those rights. The Government remain fully committed to ensuring that there are strong human rights protections once we leave the European Union; we do not consider that those are in any way undermined by our decision not to incorporate the charter into domestic law.
The Government are committed to furthering the United Kingdom’s status as a global, outward-looking nation, contrary to the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. We are playing an active, leading role in the world in that regard; I mentioned our position on the UN Human Rights Council. We will continue to support an international order in which rules govern state conduct, and be champions of British values of freedom, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law. We will continue to comply with our international human rights obligations and take action to tackle any abuse of those rights where we can.
Of course, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the principal international treaty in this regard is the European Convention on Human Rights, which is given further effect domestically by the Human Rights Act. The Government have made clear their commitment to respecting and remaining a party to the convention. We will also continue to work with our European partners to improve the functioning and efficiency of the Strasbourg Court—particularly in the light of its enormous backlog of pending cases, which disrupts its ability to maintain the jurisprudence of the convention. Our commitment to European co-operation in this area and pan-European standards is as firm as ever. Of course, we remain members of the Council of Europe. In addition, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, noted in his opening speech, we are signatories to the Council of Europe Convention On Preventing And Combating Violence Against Women And Domestic Violence—the Istanbul convention—and we are working towards meeting our commitment to ratifying it.
I turn to some other specific areas of rights where the UK is taking action. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, would agree that the United Kingdom is now recognised as a world leader on LGBT rights. We can take some comfort from our record but we cannot be complacent. We have made significant progress over the past 50 years, tackling some of the historic prejudices that existed in our laws and ensuring that LGBT people are involved in the issues that affect them. We are also seeking to tackle discrimination in wider society. Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools is clearly unacceptable, as is the disability-based bullying that was alluded to by the noble Baroness. We have invested some £3 million in a programme to tackle this bullying in primary and secondary schools in England. The programme is aimed at schools that currently have no or few effective measures in place to address the issue.
We are also looking to the future. In July this year, we launched a national online survey to gain the views of LGBT people living in the United Kingdom on what they think about public services. There are questions on health, education, safety, the workplace and more general questions about what it is to be an LGBT person in the United Kingdom. The survey received quite unprecedented feedback, with over 100,000 responses, making it the largest LGBT survey in the world. We will analyse those results closely and set out further steps to promote LGBT equality next year.
We are also committed to achieving gender equality—I noted, as has been mentioned, that more than half of the contributions in this important debate were from women; I certainly welcome that. We will be doing that through the 2015 UN sustainable development goals, which consists of 17 goals, one of which specifically focuses on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment. Indeed, our Foreign Secretary wants our foreign policy consciously and consistently to deliver for women and girls, and he appointed the first FCO special envoy for gender equality in February. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office works closely with other departments to achieve our gender equality goals.
If I stray a little beyond my time I hope noble Lords will forgive me. Defending the right to freedom of religion or belief—a point touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Alton—remains a high priority for the Government. Freedom of religion or belief is a human right enshrined under the universal declaration and one that we respect. Indeed, in February the Prime Minister reiterated her commitment to,
“stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practice their beliefs in peace and safety”.
There is also the issue of domestic violence, which again is a matter that has to be addressed in this context. We are committed to introducing a draft domestic violence and abuse Bill to demonstrate our commitment to, among other things, ratifying the Istanbul convention, which I mentioned before. There is a further ambitious package of non-legislative measures to be funded in that regard.
I turn to the particular comments made by noble Lords. Much was said by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, that I hope I have touched on already. I hope that I have, in a sense, been able to put some of his doubts to rest. While the general principles underpinning the charter are of critical importance, the law we retain after Brexit will ensure that the rights of individuals will be respected. In so far as the charter distinguishes between rights and principles—a point touched on by a noble Lord—we can of course enforce the rights, but we cannot enforce principles. However, they will remain relevant and material to the interpretation of the jurisprudence going forward in so far as it applies to the construction and applicability of rights relating to equality and other human rights. There was also the issue of EU case law post Brexit, which is addressed by Clause 6 of the Brexit Bill.
My noble friend Lord Faulks observed that the charter contains a fine statement of general principle. I hope I have addressed that point. Those principles of course are important, but they do not operate in the same way as rights.
The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, referred to concern about a lack of confidence and a need for the Government to set out a clear vision that there will be no dilution of human rights post Brexit. There is no intention that there should be a dilution of human rights post Brexit. The intention is that those rights that we enjoy and which underpin the charter—they are not created by the charter—should continue and be maintained.
On the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I noticed that he proposes to put forward the genocide Bill. I will of course look at it and consider its terms. We have debated this on previous occasions. I understand his concern and his deep interest in this area.
My noble friend Lord Shinkwin had very particular points to make about the position of a commissioner in the context of disability. He added that he would ask me nothing. I am obliged to him for that, because it is beyond my brief to address the points that he raised, but I noted what he had to say.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, opined that human rights are not an option and I hope that what I have said will reassure him that this Government do not regard them as anything like an option. We certainly do not regard them as a form of negotiating point. I wish to make that clear.
The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, indicated that there should be no regression. Again, I emphasise that there is no intention that there should be. She touched on some specific questions about how we will maintain protections post Brexit if there is no charter. Again I emphasise that the charter itself is not the source of rights; it is an expression of principles and rights that already exists, and already existed, in our domestic law. As to the issue of how one vindicates those rights, as the Solicitor-General observed in the other place, in so far as there is a question about that, the Government will consider and address it, if there are issues about whether certain rights have to be implemented in a different way after Brexit.
On the matter of immigration, one has to emphasise that there will not be an absolute bar on immigration. They are talking about free movement, and the two things are quite distinct. The immigration process is yet to be worked out and, as noble Lords are aware, there will be an immigration Bill which will address some of these issues.
My noble friend Lady Warsi suggested that human rights are not a priority for this Government, but I would dispute that. They remain central to this Government’s vision of a society. Whether it is the society that exists within the European Union or without it, it is a society that exists in Europe and exists internationally, and that has as one of its motivations a respect for the rule of law and respect for human rights, and in particular for equality.
The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, spoke about the issue of disabled people’s rights. Again, I simply underline that those rights will be retained and protected. As regards hate crime, of course it is an important issue. I hope that I have been able to give some reassurance about the Government’s recognition of it as an issue and the steps we are attempting to take to deal with it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, alluded to the position of the Roma population in the United Kingdom. This Government are concerned about the inequalities experienced by the Roma and Traveller communities, particularly in the context of health and education, but there are other areas as well where issues arise. There has been a race disparity audit showing that these communities are among the most disadvantaged in British society and we agree that more needs to be done to ensure that these people are not excluded and not left behind.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked whether there are plans to water down employment and other rights by means of the powers given to Ministers under the EU Bill. That is not the intention. It is quite clear what the purpose of these powers is—it is to ensure that there is a smooth transition at the point when we leave the European Union with regard to the workability of our existing legislation. That is the aim of those particular powers.
I think I have touched on the observations from the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and I hope I have responded to her concerns. But I would make one observation. She suggested—I might have misheard her—that people who want to leave the European Union, people who want a hard Brexit, do not have human rights values. I would dispute that, and I would reject it.
I was referring to the sections of the Minister’s own party, the Conservative Party, that are driving for a hard Brexit and have led on it. They are not people who have been proud exponents of human rights. They have been great critics of the Human Rights Act and wanted to see its abolition. They have often spoken of withdrawing us from the European Convention on Human Rights. It is reasonable to make the connection between the desire to rid ourselves of Europe and the desire to rid ourselves of the human rights connections that we have with Europe. I think that is regrettable.
I am not going to debate this at length, but I wholly reject the proposition that the noble Baroness advances. I simply do not accept it at all.
A series of questions were posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. Is equality before the law part of the United Kingdom’s law? Yes, of course; it is fundamental to our law. Is equality protected by United Kingdom law? Yes, of course it is. We do not have to rely on the EU charter for these rights; they already exist. The charter is an expression of rights and principles that already exist. I noted some specific questions and if the noble Baroness wishes, I will write to her to respond to those questions—I shall not attempt to address them now.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, sought to turn this into a party-political broadcast rather than a debate. I am not sure that is the way forward for a determination of these issues. I believe that we have fundamental beliefs in common on equality and human rights, and I reject the suggestions of xenophobia, or that there will be any loss of rights because we are losing the charter.
I was very happy to allow the noble Baroness to speak in the gap and to take her earlier intervention, but there is a question of time and I am not going to take a further intervention. I have to come back to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and say that I am pleased that the Labour Party has decided to put human rights at the centre of its policies—I thought they were always there. I certainly hope so. Human rights have always been at the centre of our policies. It is important that we recognise that and that we reject those intrusions on human rights that can come from any number of directions, be it on the grounds of disability, nationality or religion, including anti-Semitism.
I thank noble Lords for contributing to this debate and the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, for raising this issue in the House.
House adjourned at 7.28 pm.