On Tuesday, Keir Starmer announced Labour will force a vote on retaining the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in UK law following Brexit. Striking a non-partisan tone, he said “this is not a party-political issue. It is about the type of nation we want to be. Britain should be a proud advocate of human rights.”
This is an important move from Labour, demonstrating a strong commitment to protecting human rights during the Brexit process. While the Charter of Fundamental Rights might, at first glance, seem like a superfluous document considering the UK’s existing human rights protections under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, it actually contains a number of rights that are substantively greater than those provided elsewhere. These include rights related to non-discrimination, housing assistance, social security, preventive healthcare, data protection, children, and many other areas.
While many rights contained within the Charter overlap with rights elsewhere in UK domestic law, there’s no substitute for having them located in a single, over-arching, and constitutional document. As Keir Starmer has commented, the government’s approach risks “[taking] rights from the charter and scatter[ing] them to their original sources: the polar opposite of effective human rights protection.”
However, including the whole Charter in UK law doesn’t come without its difficulties. For one, the Charter contains a clear right to freedom of movement within the EU, which may well not continue after Brexit for UK citizens. It also contains some references to EU institutions that are unlikely to have the same kind of jurisdiction in the UK following Brexit. A like-for-like transposition into UK law could therefore be tricky, necessitating some tinkering with the substance of the document. This could end up pushing Labour to declare its position on issues like free movement faster than it would otherwise wish.
The government has pledged to strengthen human rights during the Brexit process, with Justice Minister Dominic Raab saying “this country has a longstanding tradition of liberty and rights, and we intend to build on that following our departure from the EU.” It’s now time for them to put their words into action by working with Labour to protect the Charter, rather than trying to break it up.
Andrew Noakes is Director of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights