The state of equality and human rights in Britain is in jeopardy with the country’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that would stop EU human rights legislation from applying to the UK, according to human rights groups and legal experts who spoke to WikiTribune. The bill passed through the House of Commons on Wednesday, marking a major legal step on the way to Brexit.
On June 23, 2016, 72 percent of the British electorate turned out to vote in a landmark referendum on exiting or remaining in the European Union. Fifty-two percent voted to leave, prompting the UK’s exit from the EU and the need to rewrite reams of British law.
By a vote of 324 to 295, MPs decided on Wednesday not to carry over the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which enshrines basic human rights into EU law. The bill will now make its way through the next legislative process in the House of Lords.
But politicians, legal experts, and human rights organizations have criticized the government for putting people’s rights in jeopardy, despite assurances from the government that no protections would be lost in the Brexit process.
Thirty cross-party MEPs urged Brexit minister David Davis to keep the Charter of Fundamental Rights for fear that rights protections would be lost. An open letter published in the Observer newspaper was signed by more than 20 human rights organizations and legal experts, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the UK’s own human rights watchdog, which urged the government to safeguard the Charter’s protections after Brexit.
Vulnerable people ‘worse off’
The Brexit process threatens the UK’s most disadvantaged people, such as vulnerable women, LGBTI, disabled people, and ethnic minorities, said Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights organization. Women of color are among the most vulnerable, she said.
Groups who are already at risk and already on the edge of poverty will be more adversely affected by the negative effects of Brexit, Smethers said. “What we know is women of color are much more likely to be in lower income groups [so] they’re much more likely to be impacted by service cuts and spending cuts and welfare reform.”
“They’re worse off than other groups at the start, and then what’s been loaded up is the additional set of changes which then puts them even further behind, and even more worse off,” she said.
The EU Charter protects women against gender discrimination, outlining that equality between men and women “must be ensured in all areas, including employment, work, and pay.”
But Smethers is concerned about gender-based violence such as female genital mutilation (FGM), domestic violence, and trafficking post-Brexit. International cooperation to tackle violence against women and girls needs to be safeguarded at European level and requires “sophisticated and robust international cooperation systems to be in place,” she said.
“We’ve relied on the European Union to be the vehicle for that … But that’s not clear that we’ve got a ready substitute for when we lose that EU framework for cooperation and that’s a concern.”
A ‘less welcoming place’
Those with uncertain migrant status, including EU nationals, are also more at risk of Brexit effects, Smethers said. Hate crimes have surged in Britain since the Brexit vote and Muslim women are particularly at risk, according to Smethers.
Anti-Muslim attacks in the UK increased 47 percent in 2016, the year of the EU referendum, in comparison to the previous year, according to hate crime monitor Tell MAMA. Muslim women were the victims of 56 percent of these attacks.
Brexit is already having an effect on EU nationals. Immigration dropped by 100,000 people in the year after the June 2016 vote (Financial Times).
“People aren’t coming here in the same numbers that they would have previously done because they perceive us as being a less welcoming place, or less secure place,” Smethers said.
‘Talking from both sides of its mouth’
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights has been an important source of protection for digital privacy, according to Corey Stoughton, advocacy director of human rights organization Liberty. The Charter gives the explicit right to digital privacy that “doesn’t exist in other terms” in UK law, she said. Without the Charter, there would be fewer checks on the British government’s power to invade on privacy, she said.
The government claimed that it would not accept the Charter because rights were already covered by British law and other sources.
But Suella Fernandes, a recent appointee to the Brexit department, said the UK’s plan to drop the Charter of Fundamental Rights post-Brexit would simplify human rights law and avoid an “extra layer” of rights (The Guardian), contradicting former claims.
The argument that rights in the Charter are covered in UK law is inaccurate, Stoughton said. The language used for some rights in the Charter is “more explicit” than it is in UK law, which decreases the leverage anybody facing a case of discrimination or a breach of data privacy will have in court.
For protection in other areas of UK domestic law, such as disability rights, people would “have to have a big argument in court with a judge” to fight for the general right to freedom from discrimination, Stoughton said.
She added that amendments that have been put forward by the government in response to concerns are “a joke.”
“From the very beginning the government has been talking out of both sides of its mouth on this issue,” Stoughton said, adding that the situation was “really disappointing” given that the debate leading up to the EU referendum was not about human rights.
“I don’t think there’s anyone out there who thought Brexit was about losing rights protections in the UK. I don’t think anybody voted for that.”