The amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill was defeated by 311 votes to 301, giving the Government a majority of just 10.
Just one Conservative MP, Ken Clarke, defied the Government whip and voted for the motion to retain the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, put forward by Jeremy Corbyn.
Civic organisations warned over the weekend that individual rights to privacy, equality, freedom of expression, fair working conditions, a fair trial, access to a lawyer and the protection of personal data are all in potential jeopardy if the charter is stripped from the UK state book after Brexit, in March 2019.
Labour had originally intended to vote for a Conservative amendment to the bill – also calling for the EU Charter to be retained – but this was dropped following a concession from Government ministers to review the way human rights would be affected by changes to the charter caused by Brexit.
It came following speculation that the Government could have faced its first potentially embarrassing defeat over the withdrawal bill after reports that Dominic Grieve’s amendment had the support of several Tory MPs.
Earlier in the third of eight late-night debates in the Commons on the landmark legislation, Mr Grieve warned that the Conservative’s modern reputation “starts to fray at the edges” if it fails to be seen as protecting citizens’ rights, adding that he is worried there will be a period after March 2019 of a “hiatus, a gap where areas of law that matter to people are not protected in way at all”.
But the former attorney general dropped his threat after ministers offered concessions. In an attempt to eases MPs’ concerns over EU human rights after Brexit, Dominic Raab, the justice minister, said the Government would outline within two weeks how key articles of the EU charter will be reflected in UK law by releasing a “detailed memorandum”.
Mr Raab also said he would be happy to continue talks with Mr Grieve, Tory former minister Oliver Letwin and other MPs if they believe any rights have been missed out.
During the debate Ken Clarke, the former Conservative Chancellor and pro-European, said the Government had failed to explain why they intended to abolish the Charter of Fundamental Rights after Brexit.
Mocking the Government, the senior Tory MP added: “Presumably it's because it's got the word 'European' and 'rights' in it, and this was intended from a Daily Telegraph gesture to the hard right wing of my party.”
But Mark Harper, a former Conservative minister, suggested that the Government could consider bringing forward an amendment at report stage – likely to be in the new year – to address Mr Grieve’s concerns over the charter.
“If there are actually rights which we do think are important and aren't, we don't think are adequately reflected in legislation, there is an argument at some point in due course - maybe not immediately when we're doing this - but certainly whether some of them actually would benefit from being brought into the Human Rights Act,” said Mr Harper.
After the amendment was voted on the Liberal Democrat’s Brexit spokesperson, Tom Brake, said: “The government squeaked home, but we will not give up the fight to protect fundamental rights from an extreme Brexit.
“Ministers won't be permitted to weaken vital protections to appease their own Brexiteer backbenchers and ram through a Tory Brexit.
“The vast majority of people do not want to see a Brexit that undermines our freedoms, equality and privacy.
Stephen Doughty, a Labour MP and supporter of the pro-EU organisation Open Britain, added that the Government’s “wafer thin” majority on Wednesday evening “does not give them any mandate to water down the rights of the British people”.
He continued: “Ministers must now engage properly with the concerns so many people, including MPs on all sides of the House, have about their ideological insistence on pulling Britain out of the charter of fundamental rights.”
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