Government backs down over EU human rights to avoid risk of defeat

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Ministers have sought to see off a potential rebellion by Conservative MPs that could have brought a first defeat over the EU withdrawal bill by partially backing down on the future status of EU human rights measures in UK law.

Following another day of debate about the bill, which seeks to transpose EU statute into UK law post-Brexit, the government faced possible defeat over amendments intended to maintain the scope of the EU charter on fundamental rights.

Several of the amendments were tabled by Dominic Grieve, the Tory former attorney general and a leading Brexit rebel, with speculation that enough of his fellow Tories would back some of these to inflict defeat.

However, the solicitor general, Robert Buckland, said the government was willing to work with Grieve to see how rights under the charter could be kept after Brexit, and would introduce its own amendment to this effect later in the bill’s passage.

Grieve said this was sufficient reassurance for him and that he would not press for a vote on his amendments.

Ken Clarke, another leading Conservative Brexit rebel, refused to guarantee he would not press for a vote on one amendment, which would allow Britons to mount legal challenges under the charter after Brexit, to which he was the second signatory after Grieve,

However, with Grieve backing away, the chances of a government defeat were notably lessened if a vote was called.

What is the EU withdrawal bill?

The EU Withdrawal Bill – once known as the Great Repeal Bill – is going through the House of Commons to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and transpose all existing EU legislation into domestic UK law, which will avoid a ‘cliff-edge’ change on the day after we leave the EU.

Parts of the bill have been highly controversial, and MPs have tabled hundreds of amendments to try and change its wording, including a significant number of Conservative rebels. Some of the key controversies include its use of so-called Henry VIII powers, which will give government ministers the power to tweak the wording of laws to make sure they make sense in UK legislation – but those changes could take place without having to go through parliament. MPs have called this a “power grab” by the government. The government estimates around 800 to 1,000 measures called statutory instruments will be required to make sure the bill is applied correctly.

Other concerns include the government’s decision not to include the EU charter of fundamental rights in the law being transposed. Other amendments are attempts to affect the Brexit process, including legislating for a transitional period and giving MPs a binding meaningful vote on the deal secured by Theresa May, before the deal is finalised.

Buckland said he did not fully agree with Grieve’s amendment, which would allow challenges to EU law retained after Brexit “on the grounds that it is in breach of general principles of EU law”, and questioned whether it would add anything “that is relevant or material” to existing rights.

But Buckland said: “Let me say that we do recognise the strength of views from my right honourable friend and, indeed, from other honourable members and honourable friends on this issue – many of whom have spoken this afternoon.

“We’re listening, and we are prepared to look again at this issue to make sure that we are taking an approach that can command the support of this house.”

Buckland said he would happily discuss a way forward with Grieve, “and agree to work together with us in this shared endeavour”, which would result in a government amendment in the report stage, the next part of the bill’s passage through the Commons.

The climbdown illustrates again how vulnerable ministers are over the bill, given the number of potential Tory rebels often exceeds the government’s tiny DUP-aided majority.

During the debate, the government also said it would publish by 5 December a review of the implications of removing the charter of fundamental rights from UK law. This was in response to an amendment by the Labour MP Chris Leslie, who said in response he would not push for a vote on this.

Speaking earlier in the debate, Grieve said the government should appreciate the results of recent decades of advances over human rights. “On the whole, western democracies have tended in that time to develop the idea of rights,” he argued.

“I know that for some members that appears to be anathema – it makes them choke over the cornflakes – but it is a development that I have always welcomed and that, it seems to me, has delivered substantial benefits for all members of our society, particularly the most vulnerable.”

Fellow Tory MPs should bear the issue in mind, Grieve said, “because the issue will not go away”. He added: “If we do not seek to act on it, the idea of a modern Conservative party starts to fray at the edges, and I do not wish my party to gain a reputation for ignoring these key issues.”

Paul Blomfield, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, said his party would back moves to enshrine EU rights protections.

“The failure to transpose the charter [of fundamental rights] into EU retained law creates a gap in our statute book and as the Equality and Human Rights Commission has stated the bill as it stands will not achieve the government’s stated aim of non-regression on social justice issues and that’s something very serious for this House to take account of,” he said.

“By compiling and codifying these rights in a single document, the charter in effect created new rights and certainly created new protections.

“In short, the charter is the most effective key to unlocking vital rights, and to fail to transpose it and make it operable in UK law is to lock away those rights and deny UK citizens the key to accessing them.”

Dominic Raab, the justice minister, rejected the arguments, saying the EU withdrawal bill would actually improve rights protections “precisely because we are making sure that the substantive rules of EU law will be retained on day one of exit”.

He added: “This country has a longstanding tradition of liberty and rights, and we intend to build on that following our departure from the EU. The government are resolute in that commitment.”

The debate marked the third of eight planned days of debate during the committee stage for the bill, which now faces potential amendments totalling 176 pages, giving scope for other potential defeats.

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