With less than two years to go before the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union, it’s still very unclear what human rights protections British citizens and residents will lose after Brexit.
Last week the UK government presented its key Brexit law, the so-called “Repeal Bill”, to parliament.
The government had promised not to water down key employment and equality guarantees that UK residents currently enjoy under EU law. While the Repeal Bill singled out just one EU law that it plans to scrap after Brexit, that law is significant: the EU’s Charter on Fundamental Rights.
At first glance, this may not be so obvious. After all, the Charter only applies when EU member countries are applying EU laws – a scenario which won’t apply to the UK after Brexit. But make no mistake: ditching the Charter – which guarantees economic and social rights such as the right to healthcare and stand-alone equality protection and the protection of personal data – could mean British citizens and residents will lose some basic rights protections. Without the Charter – or equivalent rights protection, people’s ability to directly challenge bad UK laws in the courts may also be limited.
Aside from ditching the Charter, the government’s commitments on other key rights currently guaranteed by EU membership are also not very reassuring. These rights may remain part of UK law on Brexit day itself, but could be scrapped by the stroke of a ministerial pen – and without parliamentary debate – after the UK leaves. Worryingly, small print attached to the Repeal bill suggests that it will bestow the power on ministers to remove rights currently enjoyed by EU citizens living in the UK.
The fact sheet accompanying the Brexit bill promises that the “substantive law and the principles which underpin the [EU] Charter will be converted into UK law.” Yet it also claims incorrectly that the Charter “did not create any new rights”, and moreover, the government is offering no guarantee that key rights will not be tossed aside once Brexit is complete.
The key test for the UK parliament now is to ensure that UK citizens and residents have the same legal protection of their rights the day after Brexit as the day before. Will this be the case? Last week’s proposal by the government to scrap the EU Charter, while suggesting that doing so will have no impact on people’s rights, is an ominous sign.