Ministers last night headed off a parliamentary rebellion over human rights law following Brexit with a promise to publish an analysis of the sources of rights in the UK. The intention is to back up its position that it will be unnecessary to incorporate the 2009 Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law.
The promise was enough to persuade one prominent Conservative critic, former attorney general Dominic Grieve MP, not to press an amendment requiring the government to report to parliament on the implications of removing the charter from domestic law. However after a lengthy debate which engaged some of the House of Commons' most distinguished lawyers, an amendment to retain the charter was defeated by a government majority of just 10 votes.
Champions for preserving the charter, which catalogues fundamental rights protected under the EU framework, claimed to be winning the argument. Corey Stoughton, advocacy director at rights group Liberty, said: 'The government’s near loss on two key amendments shows victory is in sight. We are thankful to the MPs who stood up and made it clear that parliament will not let the government use leaving the EU as an excuse to take away people’s hard-won rights.'
During the debate justice minister Dominic Raab MP stressed that the charter was not the original source of the rights within it. 'It was only intended to catalogue rights that already existed in EU law,' he said. 'We are leaving the EU, but our commitment to pan-European standards, human rights and the European co-operation in this area remains undimmed.'
However this view was challenged by former lord chancellor Kenneth Clarke MP: 'It is true that the charter was originally proposed as a statement of European values to which all members of the European Union could adhere, but... it has developed. If it is doing no harm, why are the government going to such lengths to get rid of it?'
Expressing his concerns, Grieve said: 'It worries me that, when we leave in March 2019, there will be a hiatus. There will be a gap where areas of law that matter to people are not protected in any way at all.' He chided colleagues for 'a failure... to look at what has been happening in our society and country over a 40-year period. On the whole, western democracies have tended in that time to develop the idea of rights. I know that for some members that appears to be anathema—it makes them choke over the cornflakes—but it is a development that I have always welcomed and that, it seems to me, has delivered substantial benefits for all members of our society, particularly the most vulnerable.'
Raab said the government would publish on 5 December 'a memorandum containing article-by-article analysis of the charter and how the substantive underpinning rights at the point at which it is codified can be reflected in UK law'.
The Law Society questioned whether this would allay concerns. Society vice president Christina Blacklaws said: 'Some rights – relating to children and older people, for instance - are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights but not by current UK law. To make sure that nobody is left behind or overlooked, we urge the government to publish a comprehensive assessment of the impact of removing the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights from UK law. This would help build confidence that the EU (Withdrawl) Bill will incorporate and enshrine all existing EU equality and human rights protections.'