So here it is, finally, after months of speculation. The government has published the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, aka the EU (withdrawal) Bill, that will formally end Britain’s membership of the European Union and pave the way for the transposition of EU law onto the UK statute book.
A first read of the Bill reveals a striking omission – a declaration by the government that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will not be transposed into UK law after Brexit.
But what does this mean for human rights?
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights contains some provisions that overlap with the European Convention on Human Rights, but in some areas it goes further or contains rights not included in the ECHR at all.
For example, the Charter contains a substantial right to protection of personal data in Article 8. This was helpful in the recent Watson case against the UK Data Protection and Investigatory Powers Act, where the EU courts ruled that UK surveillance legislation was incompatible with EU privacy standards.
The Charter also contains the right to fair and just working conditions, the right to preventive healthcare, and the right to social security.
If the government persists with its intention to leave these rights out of UK law, people in the UK will be far more vulnerable to infringements on privacy and attacks on their working conditions. It’s therefore essential that Labour sticks to its guns and insists the Charter is transposed into UK law, except perhaps for those articles that impact on issues that are yet to be settled in the negotiations, such as the guarantee of free movement.
Equally worrying is the provision for so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’ in the Bill for a period of up to two years. These would allow ministers sweeping powers to alter laws without the normal parliamentary scrutiny that is essential for keeping government in check.
With these powers, it would be easy for the government to slash and burn its way through EU employment and equality standards that we want to see transposed and retained in UK law after Brexit.
Labour has rightly called for restrictions on these powers, but the challenge is how to ensure a smooth transposition process without relying on them. Passing every law through Parliament in the usual fashion may extend the process for years when the public may expect MPs to focus on other pressing concerns. Perhaps it would be wise to restrict Henry VIII powers only to the most uncontroversial areas of EU law, where there is a broad consensus between parliamentarians in any case.
Andrew Noakes is Director of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights