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EU Withdrawal Bill and the Charter of Fundamental Rights

21st November 2017

Jonathan Djanogly accepts provisions in the Bill that exempts the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights from transferring to UK law as the Charter will lose relevance post-Brexit; providing that existing human rights legislation remains and the Government accepts the need for retention of the ECHR in the post-Brexit period.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)

I believe that, taken as a whole, the Bill works and will do what it says on the tin. Indeed, I note that no one has come up with a better plan to extricate us from the EU. Furthermore, the recent Government announcement that we should have a Bill to set out the terms of withdrawal and the implementation period will provide a good opportunity to readdress any legal complexities and tweaks that become necessary—for instance, through the proposals on human rights changing due to EU negotiations. However, the detail is what counts, and I think that this legislation is still something of an unpolished gem.​

Clause 5 would change the role of the principle of the supremacy of EU law post-Brexit and act as a carve-out to the concept of having retained EU law. Many of the related issues were debated on day one of our Committee proceedings in relation to clause 6. With clauses 5 and 6 in place, once the UK leaves the EU, EU law will no longer be supreme over new laws made by Parliament, and the UK courts will not need to follow European Court of Justice judgments made after exit day. However, it is time for a gripe, Mr Hanson. The Minister’s decision to speak twice on different issues within the same group has been somewhat unhelpful, because it disconnects the various parts of what we are debating. I agree the two groupings might have been preferable, but that was not on offer from the Chair. Having had my gripe, I will now move on.

Amending clause 5 to deal with the requirement of the withdrawal agreement, or even an incompatibility with it, could be activated by use of the Henry VIII powers set out in clause 9, or alternatively by delaying implementation of clauses 5 and 6 using the power in the Bill—a power that the Government currently wish to amend, but which I hope they will not—to set different exit days for different purposes.

Of course, having the position ironed out in the newly proposed implementation Bill could also be an option. This is a likely issue to be considered, as the Prime Minister did, of course, on 22 September, support a transition period, noting that

“the framework for this strictly time limited period, which can be agreed under Article 50, would be the existing structure of EU rules and regulations.”

The Government have since complained that the EU has been slow to talk about an implementation period, which is certainly concerning. It has been described as a wasting asset, but this should not reduce our urgent need to consider how we would actually implement it.

There is no doubt, from reading the views of the significant number of experts, and from what the Exiting the European Union Committee has heard in evidence, that there is some level of confusion about the meaning of clause 5(1) to (3). I hope that the Government will clarify the position, although I have to say that much of the evidence that the Select Committee received was itself conflicting as to its importance. For instance, witnesses queried the intended effect of clause 5(1): is it only a declaratory statement, or is it setting out the position for the retention of the principle in clause 5(2)?

The point is that the relationship between the supremacy of EU law and retained law is not clear to a number of people. As Professor Mark Elliott noted,

“if retained EU law is domestic law, can it inherit the ‘supremacy’ of the ‘EU law?’”

Would retained law under clauses 3 and 4 benefit from the supremacy of EU law as provided for in clause 5(2)? Professor Syrpis backed that up in his written evidence to the Committee:

“The Bill may be handled in various ways; for example Clause 5(4) excludes the Charter, Clause 6(2) states that: courts need not have any regard to anything done on or after exit day by the European Court”

and schedule 1 excludes Francovich damages.​

But it remains unclear whether these exclusions relate only to the retention of EU law in UK law, in clauses 2 to 4, and the interpretation of retained EU law, in clause 6, or whether they also apply to the principle of supremacy of EU law, in clause 5. In effect, I have seen enough indecision on this to think that the Minister needs to expand on his interpretation of the supremacy principle.

Of course, if domestic courts decide on the content and meaning of law post Brexit, then domestic judges are going to have to respond to the challenge, as I am sure they are very capable of doing. Clearly we should help them on their way, so far as possible, by giving clarity on such issues as scoping the supremacy of EU law, although ultimately they will have to judge—

“judges will simply have to do their best”,

as Lord Neuberger put it. Frankly, I do not see what could be put in the Bill that would make this an easy process for judges in practice. However, as Sir Stephen Laws and Dr Charlotte O’Brien told our Committee,

“there is already an existing principle whereby, when deciding on law, the courts will look at foreign judgements and treat them as persuasive but not binding”.

Professor Richard Ekins took this a stage further and thought that the provision is only there

“to make it the case that no one thinks the judges are doing anything wrong if they read them”—

meaning Court of Justice judgments—

and that

“you could delete the clause and I think the judges would, properly, do the same thing”.

Clause 5(4) exempts the charter of fundamental rights from being converted into domestic law. The first point here is that, whether or not one agrees with the provision, one could ask whether this is the right Bill to insert it into. That argument was made by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). It states that the Bill is about converting EU law into UK law in order to have a functioning rule book, rather than dealing with policy issues—providing legal certainty rather than reshaping rights. We could have had a stand-alone Bill to deal with that, but I am not convinced that it would have helped the process, or indeed the outcome. In fact, to the contrary, I think that having the benefit of the clause 5 debate running contemporaneously is helpful—if only Ministers had thought the same when grouping today’s amendments.

As for the charter itself, it is a matter of fact that it contains certain extra rights other than those that exist in the Human Rights Act, such as the right to dignity and, as the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) elaborated, the right to protection of personal data. There is also a wider class of potential applicants, because it includes anyone with a “sufficient interest”. Also, stronger remedies are arguably available in certain circumstances, but all that still has to be within the scope of EU law, and I agree with the Government that the charter will lose its relevance after Brexit. However, in the wider context and while it is important to debate the issue, I have strong doubts that we will be losing much by removing the charter if we get the drafting of this Bill right, because many charter rights will form part of the general principles of EU law, as has been explained, and will thereby be retained by clause 6(7) and schedule 1 for the purpose of interpreting retained EU law.​

Retention of the charter would also go against the principle of English courts taking control. There may be initial teething problems, but I note that the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), told the Exiting the European Union Committee that an EU legal source exists for each charter right, such that judges will be required to look at the underlying source law or rights when considering cases post-exit, rather than the charter. However, I am not sure that that is quite adequate, as it seems as though the Bill will contain no right of action in domestic law based on a failure to comply with any of the general principles of EU law and the courts will not be able to disapply any new law because it is incompatible with any of these general principles, including fundamental rights. Amendment 10, tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), would address that by allowing challenges to be brought to retained EU law—law after Brexit—on the grounds that it is in breach of the general principles of EU law.

Sir Oliver Letwin

Does my hon. Friend agree that a different amendment—perhaps a Government amendment on Report—could achieve the same purpose by restricting that part of schedule 1 to dealing with non-retained general principles of law, so that retained principles could form the basis for a right of action?

Mr Djanogly

Yes, my right hon. Friend made that fair point in an earlier intervention. I am happy to say that I am open and willing to hear what the Government have to say on that, and I look forward to the Minister’s contribution later.

The concept of amendment 10 sounds reasonable to me—not least if we are to get rid of the charter—and I shall be listening carefully. However, I agree that the charter has significantly added to the complexity of human rights applications and that in removing the charter the Bill will provide an opportunity to simplify things outside the EU. The Minister has promised to deliver to the Exiting the European Union Committee a memorandum on charter rights, and I note the idea provided by new clause 16, tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie), of a report to review the implications of removal of the charter. I would happily accept Ministers’ assurance on that, rather than to legislate for it, and I hope that the document to be delivered to the Committee by 5 December will cover the two issues, as I think the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), said earlier.

My underlying acceptance of the Bill’s position is premised on there remaining, as now exists, a significant and meaningful body of human rights legislation in this country. That would include common law and the Human Rights Act and would be underpinned by the European convention on human rights. I am therefore pleased that the Minister took the opportunity to accept the need for retention of the ECHR in the post-Brexit period.

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