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EU Membership: Human Rights

Volume 611: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2016

3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the protection of human rights of UK citizens of the UK leaving the EU. (905386)

The Government’s assessment of fundamental rights is set out in their policy paper, “Rights and obligations of European Union membership”, which was published on 14 April.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but his Secretary of State wants to leave the EU and the Home Secretary wants to leave the European convention on human rights, so should we take it that when this Government are finished, the UK will no longer be party to any international human rights treaties? Is that really the message that the UK Government want to send to the rest of the world?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I think he probably knows by now that, in regard to the plans being worked up for the Bill of Rights, it is not the Government’s policy to withdraw from the convention. We have said that we cannot rule that out for ever and a day, but that is not our proposal now, and it is absolutely not the case that we would withdraw from a whole range of other international human rights treaties if we left the EU.

Does the Minister agree that if we stay in the European Union the real risk is that, rather than human rights policy being determined by this House and adjudicated on by British courts, it will be decided by the Brussels bureaucrats and the European Court of Justice, and that before we know it, prisoners will be given the right to vote?

My hon. Friend makes his powerful point in an eloquent way. There is a recognition across the House, on whichever side of the wider debate, that some of the laws that have come out of the EU have been damaging to civil liberties, whether involving the European arrest warrant and the injustice inflicted on my constituent Colin Dines, or the right to be forgotten, which has a muzzling effect on free speech. There are certainly areas of concern, on whichever side of the wider debate Members are.

Gender equality is recognised as a fundamental human right by the European Union, and a report from the TUC has identified 20 key areas in which European Union law has enhanced the rights of working women, often in the face of opposition from Tory Governments. How does the Minister propose to ensure that these hard-won employment rights are protected in the event of a Brexit?

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her question. First, the vast majority of equal pay rights and women’s and workplace rights have been introduced by this House—by elected representatives accountable to the British people. I am surprised that she believes that the human rights and wider rights of our citizens and her constituents are better protected at EU level by bureaucrats and unaccountable politicians rather than by hon. Members in this House who are accountable to the British people.

As the Minister well knows, we did not get equal pay for work of equal value until the European Court intervened, and we have wide maternity rights only because of European directives. The Prime Minister’s former adviser Steve Hilton, who supports leaving the EU, said in 2011 that maternity leave should be abolished. Does the Minister wish to add his voice to that particular pungent voice? If not, which employment rights would he abolish in the event of a Brexit?

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that, but I do not think that any of the factual assertions she has made are right. There is absolutely no plan such as that she suggests, and I do not support abolishing paternity rights; in fact, when I was a Back Bencher under the last Government and this point was raised, I was fully in favour of transferable parental leave. She is mistaken in what she says, but what is most striking is that the message she is sending to her constituents and the wider citizens of this country is that they should have no faith in her ability and that of the Scottish National party in this House to protect their rights.

The convention was agreed in the 1950s, Britain joined the EU in the ’70s and the Human Rights Act was agreed in the ’90s. Twenty years on, does the Minister agree that it is important that we revisit all these papers, because rights were not invented by pieces of paper? Instead we should have a British Bill of Rights.

My hon. Friend is right and makes an important point about the future direction of human rights laws in this country. We are party to the European convention on human rights, and that is a different and separate issue from the EU. Our regime is based around our membership of the European convention, and considerable legal uncertainty is created if the Luxembourg Court starts to interfere and create risks and wider uncertainty about which rules apply and how.

The Minister may wish this was not the case, but in fact the EU has provided and protected employment and human rights for part-time workers and working parents, with paid holidays, maximum working hours, measures to tackle discrimination at work, and time off to care for sick children. Does he think that those rights are worth protecting? Or does he agree with the billionaire stockbroker who is funding the Brexit campaign, Peter Hargreaves, who thinks we should leave the EU because

“we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic”?

It is thunder and lightning but it does not provide much clarity on the issue; the bottom line is that the hon. Gentleman has little faith in Labour fearsomely defending workers’ rights. Whichever side someone is on in this House or in this debate, they should want to uphold the right of this House to make those finely balanced decisions on employment regulation and make sure that they are tailored to the precise needs of this country, not those of bureaucrats and other vested interests in Brussels.