The Prime Minister has officially started the process of leaving the European Union. What does this mean for our human rights?
What’s just happened?
Let’s start from the beginning. The referendum back in June saw a vote to leave the European Union, but the process didn’t officially begin until Article 50 was triggered.
Using Article 50, Theresa May has formally notified the EU of Britain’s intention to leave the bloc. This means we now have a time limit of two years in which to finalise a deal on how we leave.
During this period nothing will really change: we’ll remain part of the EU until 28 March 2019. The intervening two years will be used to work out how we transfer the EU laws that the Government want to keep into UK law, and what our new relationship with the group will look like.
Let’s talk about human rights
Brexit has become a huge talking point, especially when it comes to how our human rights will be affected. At the moment, they’re protected by a complex collection of laws and treaties, many of which we signed up to by being part of the European Union.
The Government’s previous White Paper on Brexit said they would aim to preserve all EU laws as they were at the moment before exit, with Parliament then making a decision on whether to keep, repeal or amend specific laws after we leave. It’s clearly the start of a long debate on what exactly our exit will look like, especially with regard to our rights. Here are just a few key areas:
The Convention on Human Rights
Leaving the European Union does not automatically mean opting out of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is a separate treaty that the UK signed to protect our basic human rights, such as the right to free speech and family life. The Convention on Human Rights is protected in UK law through the Human Rights Act.
Even after Brexit, British citizens will be able rely on their Convention rights in domestic courts, and take their case to the European Court of Human Rights once they have been through the British courts.
There have, however, been warning signs that this could change. Previously, the Government advocated for repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a new British Bill of Rights. This would start a conversation about exactly which rights we should continue to protect.
Justice Secretary Liz Truss has confirmed that these plans are on hold at least until after Brexit. However, the Convention on Human Rights will undoubtably form part of the debate surrounding our rights.
European Union laws protect various rights for workers in the UK. This includes things like the right to be treated fairly at work and not be discriminated against.
The EU also sets safeguards on things like the maximum amount of hours a person can work in a week, the right to equal pay, and minimum limits on holiday and maternity leave.
These are all guarantees which will have to be transferred into UK law, and some people are concerned that they will be watered down in the process.
Free Movement & Residence
At the moment, free movement is a legal right of all UK citizens as part of being EU members. This means we can travel, live and work in any EU country, without the need for a visa or any special permission. Currently there are more than a million British people living in other EU countries, most of them in Spain.
An agreement will now have to be reached as to whether British people can still live, travel and work across Europe – and whether the millions of Europeans living in the UK will have a right to remain.
So far, despite the House of Lords attempting to protect the rights of EU workers in the UK, the Government has refused to make any assurances.
Our private data is becoming an increasingly important human rights issue, as millions of us use electronic devices more and more to go about our daily life and communicate.
The EU provides strong protections concerning the ways in which both the Government and private companies handle and use our data. Again, this is something which could be undermined as our Government decides which protections to carry over into English law.
Want to know more about your human rights and Brexit?
- See our feature on what Brexit could mean for the constitution
- Look at our analysis of Theresa May’s original speech on Brexit