House of Lords defeats government plans to scrap EU rights charter after Brexit

Peers defeat government on amendment to keep EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as part of UK law

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Monday 23 April 2018 19:05 BST
House of Lords defeats government plans to scrap EU rights charter after Brexit

The government has suffered another embarrassing defeat on its flagship Brexit bill in the House of Lords after peers voted to keep a key EU human rights charter as part of British law.

Peers backed a cross-party amendment in favour of retaining the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights by a majority of 71, with 316 supporting the motion and 245 opposing it.

It is the third major defeat the government has suffered on its EU Withdrawal Bill in less than a week. The bill will transfer almost all European statutes into UK law when Britain leaves the EU, but the Charter of Fundamental Rights is one of a handful of pieces of legislation that will not be retained.

Last week, peers voted for amendments to try to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU, and enshrine workers rights after Brexit.

The latest defeat could force the government to soften its stance when the bill returns to the House of Commons. Ministers have insisted retaining the Charter of Fundamental Rights is unnecessary and that the protections it offers will be included elsewhere.

But a number of peers, including several Tory rebels, criticised these claims.

House of Lords defeat Government on EU customs union withdrawal bill

Lord Pannick, a crossbencher who co-sponsored the amendment, said excluding the charter from UK law after Brexit would be a “recipe for confusion”.

“I fear the government is seeking to make an exception for rights under the charter because the government is suspicious of the very concept of fundamental rights,” he said.

“This bill should not be used as an excuse to reduce the legal rights which we all enjoy against the state.”

Saying there had been “no coherent defence of the government’s position”, he added: “The exclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights from this bill is unprincipled and unjustified.”

The motion was also signed by Tory peer Lord Deben, Labour’s Lord Goldsmith and the Liberal Democrats’ Baroness Ludford.

Ten Conservative peers voted for the amendment, including former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine and former ministers Lord Willetts and Lord Patten.

Opposing the motion, justice minister Lord Keen was heckled as he claimed retaining a “body of foreign law” after Brexit would be “one of the greatest constitutional outrages since 1689”.

He said: “What happened to the mother of parliaments? What happened to the concept of the sovereignty of this parliament? We’re prepared, apparently, to abandon it in favour of a body of foreign law because we no longer trust ourselves to protect our own fundamental human rights. Is that what we’ve really come to? It is a shocking denouement.

“The idea that we’re going to have to cling on to a body of foreign law in order to maintain fundamental human rights in this country is simply astonishing. It would reflect not only a constitutional outrage but a total abdication of our responsibilities.”

The Charter of Fundamental Rights contains a wide range of protections, including the right to a private life, freedom of speech, equality provisions and employment rights governing how workers are treated. It is broader than the European Convention on Human Rights, which is already part of UK law through the Human Rights Act.

MPs vote against retaining EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in UK law after Brexit

Paul Blomfield, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, said: “This is a welcome decision by the House of Lords. The future of human rights protections is not a party political issue. It is about the type of country we want to be and the values that we want to champion.

“Labour reject the government’s decision to rule out transposing the Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law after Brexit. It risks leaving a gaping hole in human rights protections and reducing the protections for UK citizens.

“This vote is yet another signal to ministers that their approach to Brexit is flawed and that they need to think again.”

Human rights campaigners also welcomed the defeat. Martha Spurrier, director of the charity Liberty, said: “This is a huge victory for human rights and common sense. The Lords have sent a clear message to the government: you can’t use Brexit to take away people’s rights.

“Singling out the charter as the only law ministers refused to bring home from the EU was a cynically politicised move built on hostility to laws that protect us all from abuses of power. It’s time the government provided the certainty our country needs and brought home all our hard-won rights.”

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