Bringing human rights home: What’s at stake for rights after Brexit

This is the first of a series of guest posts on the sectoral implications of Brexit.

George Wilson is EU law and policy specialist for Liberty and is currently leading their response to Brexit, looking in detail at the potential implications for our rights and freedoms – and how best to make sure we leave the EU with our rights intact. George joined Liberty in March 2017 while finishing a doctorate in European labour law at the University of Leeds. His research has been published in academic journals and edited book collections, and he has presented his research internationally.

Over the last year, Liberty has been establishing what leaving the European Union (EU) could mean for human rights and equality laws.

The government is legislating for the UK’s exit from the EU via the European Union (withdrawal) bill – which is intended to copy EU law into domestic law, ensuring legal clarity and certainty for people and businesses. It is impossible to overstate the legal, political and constitutional significance of this process: the task of incorporating over four decades of EU law into domestic law is without precedent.

It has been accepted by almost all in parliament that the country’s decision to leave the EU does not mean we should sacrifice our hard-won rights and freedoms. But, if the government is to keep its promise that Brexit will not lead to a loss of rights protections[1],  the withdrawal bill needs serious reform.

Human rights at risk

The bill will remove the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and will take away people’s ability to bring legal claims based on the general principles of EU law. This exceptional treatment of human rights laws is entirely at odds with the bill’s stated purpose and undermines government assurances that the same rules will apply (PDF, 130KB) on the day before exit as on the day after.

The withdrawal bill also gives ministers unprecedented powers to amend or repeal ‘retained’ EU law, without adequate parliamentary scrutiny or safeguards for human rights and equality laws. Retained EU law under the bill includes critical human rights legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010.

These threats are explored in our recently published report Bringing human rights home: What’s at stake for rights in the incorporation of EU law after Brexit (PDF, 800KB). This joint effort draws together leading NGOs, academics and legal practitioners who lay out the consequences of the incorporation process for fundamental rights. Our aim is to warn those involved in the policy making process – including MPs and peers, ministers, civil servants and those who seek to influence them – of the significant dangers the bill presents in its current form.

We have used concrete examples to cut through the complexity and legal jargon of the withdrawal bill, illustrating its potential impact on our everyday lives. For example, the report highlights the danger that EU laws which have only been partially transposed into domestic legislation will be lost after withdrawal. These include important accessibility rights for people with disabilities when travelling by bus and coach. Other critical issues considered include the risk that our equality laws will be amended without proper parliamentary scrutiny and the complexities thrown up by the devolution settlement.

Irrespective of their area of focus, contributors are in unanimous agreement: parliament must make major changes to the withdrawal bill if the people of the UK are to keep their human rights and equality protections intact after we leave the EU.

Beyond the withdrawal bill

Even if those changes are made, we will need to vigilantly monitor the use of ministerial power under the final Act to make sure our rights are preserved and valued.

The withdrawal bill will not be enough, in isolation, to ensure the UK exits the EU without leaving human rights protections behind. As the contributions in our report on data protection, disability rights, and justice and home affairs illustrate, further legislation is required. The government should publish detailed incorporation plans, outlining plans to legislate in all of these areas.

As the bill makes its progress through parliament, we will continue to work closely with partner organisations and our members to ensure that Brexit does not lead to a loss of fundamental rights protections.

For more information on Liberty’s policy and advocacy work on Brexit, please contact

Read Liberty’s report: Bringing human rights home: What’s a stake for rights in the incorporation of EU law after Brexit (PDF, 800KB).

[1] See, most recently, House of Lords debate 26 February 2018, vol 789, cols 568 – 568.


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