EU Withdrawal Bill and the Charter of Fundamental Rights

21st November 2017

Geoffrey Cox tells MPs that as long as human rights are protected in this country, it is not necessary to incorporate the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into the EU Withdrawal Bill.

Broadly speaking, there have been two means of protecting human rights in international law. The first, which is generally followed by civil and continental law systems, has been to adopt charters of general rights with very broad statements of those rights and then to turn over to the courts the interpretation, in specific circumstances, of how those rights should be applied. The second, which is generally followed by common-law traditions, has been to proceed not by general statements of rights, but by specific statutory remedies in defined circumstances and by case law that defines the facts and allows the remedy to be extended by analogy with the facts of the particular case.

With due respect to Opposition Members, it seems to me as though some of them have made a mistake in equating the need for the incorporation of the charter with the protection of fundamental rights in this country. Article 7 of the universal declaration of human rights provided in 1948 that all subscribing nations to the United Nations should respect the principle of equality. But it has never been suggested that the United Kingdom, because it did not incorporate that principle into a general statement of an equality right, was not compliant with its obligation in international law, under the declaration and subsequently the covenant, to respect equality.

That is because there are two ways in which one can protect human rights. One can either adopt a general statement of rights and leave the protection of it to the courts, or one can adopt specific remedies in given circumstances that cumulatively and substantively protect those rights. Nobody has suggested that because the Soviet Union incorporated a right to equality into its constitution, equality rights were better protected there than they were in this country, which did not. Therefore, the absence of a general statement of rights, such as that in the charter—I do not say that there is not a function for such statements, but let us begin with first principles—is not to be equated with the protection of human rights. We have to look at the substantive effect of the cumulative common law and statutory protections in our law.

That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) suggested that the Government’s approach should not be to incorporate this charter of wide, broad and, quite frankly, vague general statements of rights and allow courts to take those statements, which are often rich with value judgments, and apply them to the facts. That is why the approach of my right hon. and learned Friends on the Front Bench is right and, I suggest, consistent with the common-law tradition of this country.

I am wondering which country the hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about, because the common-law tradition melds with the civilian tradition in Scotland. I take nothing away from his erudite explanation of the background to all this, but the point that hon. Members seek to make is that, as is the case with the Human Rights Act, having the charter of fundamental rights as part of our law gives ordinary citizens and businesses the opportunity to go to court to enforce those rights, which this Bill will take away from them.

No such charter existed with binding legal force before 2009, even in the European Union, but let us look at the circumstances. I contend that there are two ways of proceeding, of which the first is to have a broad and general statement of human rights—indeed, extended human rights under the charter—and to allow the courts simply to interpret them in given circumstances.

Some Government Members and—I think—some Opposition Members believe that the proper place to resolve moral dilemmas is not necessarily in a court. As someone once said, why should a majority of five or nine judges take precedence over a majority of the 650 Members of this House on questions of moral dilemma? Many of these

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

No, I am not going to give way again. This will become a debate between lawyers, and that is not the point. 

It is actually on a moral point.

No, no. [Interruption.]

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is not giving way.

The point is that these broad and general rights are ripe with value judgments. Quite often, they are not appropriately dealt with by six or seven elderly white judges in a Supreme Court; they are better resolved on the Floor of this House and by a democratic vote in this Parliament.

Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?

If my hon. Friend will forgive me for a moment, I need to develop an argument, because I want to move on.

Let us accept for the moment that there is a second and perfectly legitimate way, which international law accepts. International law does not require subscribing nations of the United Nations to adopt a Bill of Rights, and neither does the European Court of Human Rights—it never did require us to do so. It looked at the substantive and practical effect and how those rights were substantively protected in the jurisdiction. If we accept that for a moment, why should we not proceed by means of the Government’s proposed policy of examining specific statutory remedies and specific rules of common law, and considering whether the right is satisfactorily protected?

Some of us believe that the courts are not always the right place in which to deal with these matters. For example, article 20 of the charter of fundamental rights simply contains a right to equality before the law. That right has been enshrined in the common law in this country for centuries. Why should we have it in the charter of fundamental rights? Some say that there will be a problem between the two charters—

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

I will give way to the hon. Lady, but not now.

Some say that there will be a collision. I am not sure that I buy the argument that there will be too much of a conflict or collision between the charter and convention. Quite frankly, my experience in the courts is that when both are relied on, the judge usually ignores the charter. As I said to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the judge asks, “What does it add?” One may hum and ha, and try to come up with something, and the judge thereafter says, “Well, let’s concentrate on the Human Rights Act and the convention, shall we?”

The truth of the matter is that I do not deny that a modest—I repeat, a modest—extension in the courts has been effected in very recent years by the charter. The case of Benkharbouche is an example of an applicant being able to set aside part of the immunity from suit that the State Immunity Act 1978 conferred on a foreign embassy. Article 6 of the convention did not apply to the employment context, but article 47 of the charter, which guaranteed an effective remedy and a fair hearing in circumstances covered by the scope of European Union law, allowed that lady to argue that part of the statute should be set aside, and it was set aside.

Similarly, in the Vidal-Hall data protection case, the restriction under section 13 of the Data Protection Act 1998, which this House had imposed—it said that if people wanted to bring an action for damages under the Act, they had to show they had actually suffered damage—was set aside by the court on the basis that the data protection directive contemplated cases in which people suffered not merely damage, but distress. However, whether somebody should be able to sue the state or anybody else for damages because they have suffered distress or has to prove that they have suffered pecuniary distress is a matter for this House.

That is what I mean when I say that these matters are resolvable in numerous ways. Many Members on both sides of the House would disagree on the question of whether it was a legitimate public policy judgment that we should restrict an action for the breach of the Data Protection Acts to cases where actual damage was suffered or whether distress was enough. Why should it be resolved by a court? Why should it not be resolved by the House? That is part of the reason why Members on both sides of the House voted to leave the European Union in the first place. We believed that those kinds of decisions needed to be taken here, not by courts and not by the imposition of a law in which we did not have a majority say in this kind of question.

I want to develop what I hope is a coherent argument. I was addressing the question of whether or not there was a conflict between the human rights order—a disharmony imposed by the convention—and that which might be imposed by the incorporation of the charter. There could be real problems ahead. There will be cases in the broad and expansive definitions of European Union law, under which the charter applies when it falls within the scope of EU law, when a moral dilemma confronts a court that is asked to disapply an Act of Parliament. The supremacy principle is retained, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) observed, by the Act. In cases in which it is covered by the charter, and in which such a dilemma has arisen, the Act is set aside because of Benkharbouche and Vidal-Hall. If the charter is incorporated, its vague and general statement of rights will have binding force, so the Act will be set aside.

If I bring a case under the convention and I say that the Act should be set aside because I have suffered inhuman and degrading punishment, or some of the worst violations of human rights that could be conceived by a state, I cannot have the Act of Parliament set aside, which introduces an element of absurdity in our law. Apparently one can torture someone and not have the Act of Parliament set aside, but I cannot have my workplace rights infringed: in that case, I can have the whole caboose set aside—a whole Act of Parliament and statutory apparatus. It makes no sense, and it will bring our law into disrepute if we tolerate for long a situation in which a court faces a moral dilemma when a case is brought under a general statement of human rights. In some cases that are litigated, the court can set aside Acts of Parliament, but in other cases, it cannot do so, even when it involves the most serious violations of human rights imaginable.

Everyone accepts that the Bill legislates for an unsatisfactory situation—we can all agree on that. I tell my friends on the Conservative Benches with whom I have far more in common than that which divides us, even though we may have been on different sides of the debate on the question of belonging to the European Union, we can all agree on some fundamental things. It cannot be right to go on for long with a body of law in our overall legal order that permits and allows higher, special and better rights in certain circumstances. Incorporating the charter will exacerbate that problem. The protection of the rights that Opposition Members have rightly identified as worthy of protection can be accomplished by a different means. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who is not in his place, spoke so well on data protection. It is absolutely right that we need to make certain that our data protection laws are no less important that those we find on the continent, but we do not need to do that by incorporating a general statement of a right and leaving it to the courts to enforce.

In any event, I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman about the effect of article 8 of the charter, which covers data protection, and even the Council of Europe’s convention No. 108, to which we are signatories. The directive itself refers to article 8 of the charter as an underpinning source of protection of privacy rights in the data field. If we approach it in the manner the Government suggest—let me say to Opposition Members that I concede completely that this requires collaboration and co-operation in an honest and transparent spirit by those on the Conservative Front Bench—then let us work together to ensure that these rights are protected, but we do not need a broad, general and vague statement of rights incorporated into our law through the charter that will produce anomalies in our law in a fashion that will not do it credit.

I will conclude by saying, if I may, that we face a political choice. I urge Conservative Members to reflect on the fact that, provided these rights are protected, it does not matter the means by which that is done. General states of human rights are not necessarily consistent with the common-law tradition. I remind the Opposition Front Benchers that when the Human Rights Act was introduced by their Government—a signal achievement of their Government—they deliberately left out article 13 of the convention, which required an effective remedy. They did that for a very good reason: the careful constitutional balance of the Human Rights Act meant that they wanted to avoid courts deciding, under the influence of the European Court of Human Rights, that they would have to lean towards striking down Acts of Parliament. It was a possibility at that time. Indeed, in New Zealand, under its Bill of Rights, the courts were moving towards believing that they were obliged to strike down Acts of their Parliament. Leaving out article 13 meant that there was no risk of that, but article 47 puts it back. It allows the disapplication of statutes of this House. There was a good reason why the Labour Government of the day thought that that was imprudent and there is a similarly good reason today.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for giving way. He makes a very passionate and highly informed speech, which explains so much about the basis of law and the merits of the common-law system. Surely the point he did not address, however, is this: the Bill enshrines EU law into domestic British law. Therefore it does not make sense not to incorporate the charter. That is the contradiction that concerns many.

It does make sense, because all that does is restore us to a position pre-2009 in the European Union. The general principles will still apply. There is no inconsistency by allowing the general principles—subject to amendments, which I am not speaking on; I have some sympathy with the amendments tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield —but I am convinced that incorporating the charter would be wrong and unwise. As a matter of policy, I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends and Opposition Members not to vote for it.

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Geoffrey’s other contributions to the debate


As well as making a substantive contribution to the Debate, Geoffrey also made interventions during the course of speeches made by his colleagues

What exactly would the new clause add to the rights that already exist under article 14 of the European convention on human rights?

The new clause has been promoted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I take it that the commission has done careful research into how it would provide an extra guarantee that is not currently provided. The hon. and learned Gentleman should look at it carefully to understand how it is meant to work, but it is an overarching tool that, as I understand it, we currently do not have. As I said before, as a non- legal person, for me the most important thing is the safe- guarding of our equality laws and the need to match what has been done so far at European and international level.

Brexit is increasingly nothing to do with what leave politicians promised to the people. I fear it is becoming an ideologically driven process to turn this country into some sort of deregulated free-for-all, in which the progress we have made over the past four decades to protect individuals from exploitation and discrimination, in tandem with our European neighbours, is sacrificed on the altar of sovereignty. The British people did not vote to give away their fundamental rights and protections. If Parliament does not amend the Bill, let nobody claim that this is the will of the people.

Before my hon. and learned Friend moves on—very authoritatively, I am sure—to the details of the amendments, may I point out that he has just made an important statement? He said that he had thought about whether retaining the charter of fundamental rights after we had left would add anything to our legal rights in this country beyond what we already have. In the past half hour, we have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) describe what she calls the third category of rights, which do not appear anywhere else in our law, and we have just heard the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) list three or four rights in the charter that are not replicated anywhere else. Which of those rights would the Solicitor General be happy to see abandoned? What is going to happen to the third category of rights? He must explain why he does not think the charter adds anything, given that the main reason people are trying to get rid of it is that it has extended the scope of European-sponsored human rights law in this country.

As the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) has mentioned, the Government will, on 5 December, publish their full analysis of the sources of the rights that we have been talking about. I remind my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) that the underlying principles of EU law from which the charter has been developed will be part of the body of law that we bring down to the UK, and will be able to be relied upon.

Is not the answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe’s question that the rights might not be replicated in our existing law but the protections will be? The fact that a general statement of a right is not replicated verbatim in our law does not mean that those rights are not otherwise protected adequately and fully by our laws.



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