Communities and Culture, Devolution and Constitution

Brexit, equality and human rights in Wales

This week, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill moves to Committee Stage in the House of Commons and will, unusually, be debated on the floor of the house. Politicians from across parties are laying a wide range of amendments with the aim of securing changes to a defining piece of legislation for our times.

We – the Equality and Human Rights Commission – have a role to play in ensuring that equality and human rights are central to the debate on the Bill. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has possible implications for the Equality Act 2010, as well as other laws that relate to areas such as maternity and parental rights, accessibility for disabled people, and immigration. The Commission is advising all political parties on amendments that can be made to the Bill that will ensure that, after we leave the EU, there is no regression to the equality and human rights protections we have here in Britain.

The UK has a reputation as a global leader on equality and human rights.  The Bill is an opportunity for the UK Government to set out a positive vision for the kind of country we want to be after we leave the EU.

The Commission is encouraging all political parties to pursue five priorities in relation to the Bill and Brexit as a whole. These are to

  1. Protect Parliament’s role in scrutinising the UK’s equality and human rights legal framework, this includes ensuring that any future changes to equality and human rights legislation can only be amended after rigorous parliamentary scrutiny
  2. Retain the UK’s equality and human rights legal framework as we leave the European Union, all Equality and human rights laws that are currently underpinned by EU law, should remain (including the European Convention on Human Rights).
  3. Ensure the UK is a global leader on equality and human rights, including strengthening the Public Sector Equality Duty and implementing United Nations recommendations on human rights
  4. Protect the UK’s equality and human rights infrastructure. All governments should ensure the loss of EU funding does not undermine the UK’s equality and human rights infrastructure. This includes academic research, for example on violence against women and how to police it, and voluntary sector services, for example those supporting older and disabled people in employment.
  5. Promoting the UK as an open and fair place to live and do business
  • All future trade agreements should contain human rights and democracy clauses that, at a minimum, meet current EU standards.
  • The UK Government should conduct rigorous equality and human rights impact assessments of proposed changes to immigration rules, and take steps to minimise negative impacts.

Why does the EU Withdrawal Bill matter to Wales?

Equality and human rights are, with some exceptions, subjects that are not devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. The UK Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill will therefore have a direct impact in Wales with regard to equality and human rights.

We think the Bill should explicitly rule out the use of delegated powers to make changes to equality and human rights laws. This would mean that any changes would have to be made by primary legislation and would be subject to full scrutiny by Parliament.

We recommend an equivalent provision should be made in relation to any changes to equality and human rights laws in devolved areas brought forward by the Welsh Government under delegated powers in the Bill.

The Commission has set out our belief that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (the Charter) should be retained. The Charter currently provides important protections for rights that fall within the scope of EU law, such as non-discrimination rights in employment

In order to ensure anti-discrimination laws are not weakened after Brexit we advise Governments to enshrine a new constitutional right to equality in British statute

This right to equality would protect and promote domestic equality rights on leaving the EU and ensure that Britain remains a world leader in protection of the right to fair and equal treatment.

What does this mean in Wales?

Under the constitutional right to equality, it is proposed governments in the UK, Scotland and Wales would have to provide a statement to their parliaments that legislation is “right to equality” compliant as well as human rights compliant. This would require amendments to the devolution statutes.

Following the UK’s decision to exit the EU, the Welsh Government could take further opportunities to take forward equality and human rights, securing certain protections. For example, the Welsh Government is able to build UN human rights treaties into Welsh legislation and policy. It has done this to some degree, most notably with regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Welsh Government could consider explicitly incorporating human rights principles into the service delivery of devolved functions, including health & social care, education and local government. We also encourage UK and Welsh Governments to set out how they will ensure that the loss of EU funds does not impact on work on equality and human rights in Wales.

As we head into 2018, we have an opportunity to heal the divisions exposed during and since the referendum to bring the nation together again. The Commission will continue to advise our leaders on the changes we think are needed, and to be a strong, independent and robust voice in protecting all our rights in the months and years ahead.

 

This post was written by Catherine May, Principal at the Human Rights Commission in Wales

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Welsh Brexit blog, nor Cardiff University.

 

Footnote

  1. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006.  It operates independently to encourage equality and diversity, eliminate unlawful discrimination, and protect and promote human rights.  Their job is to help make Britain fairer. They do this by safeguarding and enforcing the laws that protect people’s rights to fairness, dignity and respect.
  2. They are committed to our vision of a modern Britain where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and we all have an equal chance to succeed. The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. It encourages compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998 and is accredited at UN level as an ‘A status’ National Human Rights Institution in recognition of its independence, powers and performance.

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