Committee (4th Day) (Continued)
37: Clause 5, page 3, line 21, at end insert “except in so far as the Charter is necessary to protect the rights of children and young people as provided for in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights.”
My Lords, Amendment 37 focuses on the protection, welfare and rights of children once the UK is no longer a member of the EU. I am disturbed by the notion of excluding the European Charter of Fundamental Rights in our domestic systems. Why is removing this being considered? What can be put in its place that is better? Perhaps the Minister can give the House an explanation.
I apologise if there are no microphones, although it is not my fault. There has been little effort to consider how Brexit might affect children. I do not know who has been consulted on this. Perhaps the Minister can tell me. Have children been consulted? Organisations now often consult children about matters which affect their lives. Have the UK commissioners for children been consulted? They are advocates for, and speak for, children. Has the voluntary sector, which does such a splendid job in supplying information and support to children and those of us who work for them, been consulted? If not, why not? Have academics who support children’s rights been consulted? If all these people have been consulted, what are the results of such consultations? Has an impact assessment on how Brexit will affect children been considered? If not, why not?
I believe that there are 80 EU instruments which entitle children to protection and welfare. EU directives have not all been incorporated into UK law, yet these are comprehensive. There are numerous case studies on children as victims of crime—the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, criminal justice, and legal aid for victims. All these emphasise what it will mean to not have the European charter in place. Some have argued that our domestic laws on children are sufficient to protect them in all instances. This is not the case and I shall discuss it in a moment.
Last Monday, my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith spoke about the need to retain the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and stated that the charter will not be downloaded into our domestic law. An opinion by a Queen’s Counsel concludes that this would weaken human rights protection in the UK. The independent Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law has stated that the charter does much more than codify rights and principles. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, commenting on the Government’s right-by-right analysis of the withdrawal Bill, concluded with six devastating paragraphs in support of retaining the charter. The final paragraph states that some of the charter rights,
“are based wholly or in part on provisions of the ECHR”.
Other international treaties also come into play that have not been incorporated into domestic law, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory. However, the UNCRC is not incorporated fully into UK law and there are no legal or financial sanctions for non-compliance with its provisions. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, was hoping to comment on this but has had to leave.
The response also states that,
“a failure to preserve relevant parts of the Charter in domestic law after Brexit will lead to a significant weakening of the current system of human rights protection in the UK”.
The Children’s Rights Alliance points out that the European Charter of Fundamental Rights sets out in a single document the fundamental rights protected in EU law and of particular importance to the protection of children’s rights.
We all know that the UK under successive Governments has made great strides to protect and enhance the welfare of children. Examples include the Children Acts of 1989 and 2004 and the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which is not yet in force. However, our domestic laws do not cover the full range of children’s entitlement regulated by the EU. We have no constitutional commitment to children’s rights at central government level, the level at which most EU legislation will be amended or repealed after Brexit.
I give other examples. The Children Act 1989, of course, enhanced the welfare of children but did not regulate the full range of children’s rights to protection covered by EU law—for example, as regards consumer protection and health and safety. The Children Act 2004 strengthened the 1989 Act but does not cover cross-border recognition and enforcement of family orders currently regulated by EU Brussels I and II. In particular, the right of a competent child to be heard in relation to child abduction or family disputes is significant. The Equality Act, welcome though it is, is not particularly strong as an instrument for children’s rights and does not cover many issues that would be of concern post Brexit—for example, equality in the workplace.
The Children and Social Work Act improves decision-making and support for looked-after children and for safeguarding work at the local level. It also makes relationships and sex education appropriate to age mandatory in schools. However, it seems to contradict amendments introduced by the Immigration Act 2016, specifically on care support for unaccompanied children when they reach the age of 18 and do not have leave to remain, are not asylum seekers or do not have a first immigration application for leave to enter or remain.
Other Acts such as the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the broadcasting Act 2003 contain measures to protect children, but are not fully comprehensive and obligations may be vulnerable to repeal when implemented through statutory instruments. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill could create problems for thousands of families affected by divorce or separation or involved in cross-border EU-UK family or child protection cases.
In 2017, UNICEF published its report on the progress made on children’s rights in the UK. It stated that while we have made much progress, we are weak in assessing the impact of legislation and policy on children. There have been significant advances in child protection and welfare in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, these devolved measures will be impaired by Brexit as much of EU law affecting children may well be repealed through the use of delegated powers at a centralised level. This, of course, is worth a debate in itself. The Minister may say that Government cannot ignore the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. But these Acts, welcome though they are, have limited relevance to children. The European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the UNCRC go wider and deeper. Does the Minister accept this? If so, could he say—I ask this again—what will replace the European Charter of Fundamental Rights? The only way to ensure that children’s rights and welfare are protected is for it to be incorporated as part of retained EU law.
The Government should ensure that all existing protections for children’s rights and welfare in the EU legislative framework are reserved in domestic law. We cannot leave children from the UK—but also, in certain cases, from the EU—vulnerable to unclear or non-existent laws. I cannot understand the decision to drop the European Charter of Fundamental Rights when nothing else is in its place, and I do not know what will be. Why bother? Why reinvent? Any charter or convention, if attacked, must surely weaken the commitment to human rights, and we should resist such attacks with all our might.
My Lords, in connection with EU withdrawal, and as already intimated, there are perhaps two key aspects concerning our protection of children. First, that the current level of cross-border co-operation should not diminish. Secondly—which this group of amendments highlights—that UK domestic law and its deployment should continue to be guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
With regard to the first, can my noble friend the Minister reassure us that to safeguard children the right steps are being taken so that the UK will remain part of relevant cross-border interventions, including Europol and the European arrest warrant agreements?
The second focus is on United Kingdom law protecting children. Here, two inconsistencies already obtain. For, while subject to EU legislation, our own UK legal provision still falls short of that covered by EU law on children. In relation to UNCRC there is an even wider gap. That is since, although guided by it, none of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been incorporated into UK domestic law at all—hence within Amendment 70 the exhortation that it should now come to be.
However, in spite and irrespective of such apparent anomalies and omissions, after EU withdrawal clearly our principal aim must be to avoid any slippage of existing UNCRC standards. What plans does my noble friend now have to ensure that we do avoid this?
Yet at the same time, does he concur that we ought to go much further; thus not just guarding against the erosion of standards; but in properly maintaining them also seeking to build upon and improve them?
For, rather obviously, sustained cross-border co-operation as well as improved national legislation protecting children are both in the interest of all states. To mutual benefit, therefore, this consideration in turn reflects the positive opportunity for attaining much better results for protecting children’s rights.
All the more so is that the case with us since, although leaving the European Union, we will remain within Europe’s consensus on human rights and the rule of law represented by its far larger affiliation of the 47 states of the Council of Europe, in which parliament, along with those here tonight, including the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, the noble Lords, Lord Russell and Lord Foulkes, and my noble friend Lord Balfe, I have the honour to serve.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 70, in my name, supported by the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Russell, and the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, to whom I am grateful. However, my remarks are also relevant to other children’s rights amendments in this group, some of which I have signed. I am grateful, too, to the Children’s Society for its assistance, and to all the children’s organisations that have worked so hard to ensure that children’s interests are not forgotten as we debate the Bill.
I have already made clear my strong opposition to the removal of the Charter of Fundamental Rights from retained EU law, and colleagues have made clear the damaging impact this is likely to have on children. Amendment 70, which is a probing amendment, goes further than other amendments in this group in that it provides for the full incorporation of those parts of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified by the UK. The convention covers all aspects of a child’s life and sets out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights to which all children are entitled. Key principles include the best interests of the child being a primary consideration in all actions concerning children, and children being able to express their voices in all matters affecting them.
The amendment was inspired in part by a recent Coram statement that:
“As the UK prepares to leave the rights framework of the EU, it is an opportunity for parliament to ensure that vital rights for children are protected and continue to be promoted across a diverse range of areas ... now is the time to align the commitments of the UK nations and incorporate the provisions of the UNCRC into domestic law to ensure that the UK shows clear and unambiguous leadership as a champion for children in the world”.
Now is the time, because the EU has an overarching constitutional objective to promote and protect children’s rights, which will be lost. However well individual pieces of domestic legislation such as the Children Act 1989 may do so, they do not provide comprehensive protection, as my noble friend Lady Massey has already said.
By the same token, the amendment was also prompted by the way in which the Government have used the convention to counter arguments that the removal of the charter will damage children’s rights. For example, at Second Reading the Minister stated that,
“children’s rights … will of course continue to be protected under the Children Act 1989 and through our remaining party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”.—[Official Report, 31/1/18; col. 1694.]
He hoped that that would provide reassurance—but I am afraid that it does not. As I said, the Children Act is just one piece of legislation. Protection within domestic law is partial and piecemeal, although it is better in the devolved nations. As Ministers know full well, because, as has already been pointed out, it is unincorporated, the convention cannot normally be used to defend children’s rights other than by means of the charter when within the scope of EU law.
The legal opinion provided to the EHRC makes it clear that such international treaties have force in domestic law only in limited circumstances and to limited effect. That is, in effect, recognised in the introduction to the Government’s own right-by-right analysis, and it is exemplified by the case of R(SG) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in which three out of five Supreme Court judges found that the benefit cap was in breach of the UNCRC. However, because the convention is not incorporated, it was left to Parliament to address the issue—which of course it did not. The key argument was that the cap is not in the best interests of the child—as I noted, a key tenet of the convention. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed regret that in the UK the right of a child to have his or her best interests taken as a primary consideration is still not reflected in all legislation and policy matters, and children’s views are not systematically heard in policy-making on issues that affect them—as I said, another key tenet.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I was then a member, in its report on the UK’s compliance with the convention reached a similar conclusion and expressed support for incorporation, as did all the children’s NGOs giving evidence. Although the then Children’s Commissioner preferred an incremental approach, this was on purely pragmatic grounds and on the assumption that we would not be moving in the opposite direction with the removal of the charter of children’s rights protections.
The European Network of Ombudspersons for Children issued a statement on Brexit last October in which it expressed concern at the lack of regard for the voice and position of children and their fundamental human rights in the Brexit process. It called on the UK Government and the EU to conduct a children’s rights impact assessment and to conduct meaningful engagement with children so as to take account of their views. This is particularly important as they did not have a vote in the referendum and may feel powerless in the face of a process that will shape their futures. Indeed, in a consultation held by the Children’s Law Centre in Belfast, the children, we were told, felt angry and frustrated that a decision that will impact on their lives was taken without them. Earlier today, some of us met some of the children from Northern Ireland. When I told them about the amendment in my name today, they cheered and wished it godspeed.
The ombudspersons network asked each EU Government to communicate to their children’s commissioner or ombudsperson how they would pay due regard to the rights of children during the negotiations. Echoing what my noble friend Lady Massey asked, will the Minister tell your Lordships’ House whether the Government have done that and how they have paid due regard to children’s views and rights since the referendum? I am afraid that, in the Commons, the network’s plea fell on deaf ears. Apart from the valiant efforts of my honourable friend Kate Green, no attention was paid to children’s rights, which were bracketed with animal rights in the Committee debate.
The Minister Dominic Raab assured MPs that,
“the UK’s commitment to children’s rights and the UN convention … is and will remain unwavering. Our ability to support and safeguard children’s rights will not be affected by UK withdrawal from the EU”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/11/17; col. 504.]
But, as we have already heard, it will. Children have so far been bystanders in the Brexit process, yet it is their future that we are determining. We have an opportunity in this House to put that right. If the Government’s commitment to children’s rights is really so “unwavering”, I can see no justification for refusing to use this opportunity, as Coram argued, to incorporate the convention that safeguards those rights. I believe that we have a duty to do so.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 38, 39 and others regarding the rights of participation of children and the maintenance of dignity in older people. The EU charter includes children’s right to participation in Article 24, as we have heard, but there is no broad right to children’s participation in law domestically, although there is some provision for it in certain cases.
One of the general principles of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concerns children’s right to be heard and to have their views considered and taken seriously. Accordingly, in 2016 the UNCRC made recommendations to the UK, including that it should:
“Establish structures for the active and meaningful participation of children and give due weight to their views in designing laws, policies, programmes and services at the local and national level”.
However, in the UK there continues to be no permanent structure or action plan to facilitate the systematic participation of children in policy-making, although the DfE has indicated that it wishes to improve such engagement, and has recently published several child-friendly consultation documents.
The European Charter of Fundamental Rights brings together in a single document the rights which underpin EU law. It has included new issues that require protection—for example, the protection of personal data—extended existing rights and established new rights, such as the right to human dignity. It reaffirms the rights for children that already exist in the European Convention on Human Rights, such as the right to education, and includes key rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As the UK has not incorporated certain treaties such as the UNCRC into domestic law, there is no guarantee that rights contained in unincorporated treaties would be adequately protected after Brexit. It is therefore very important that the charter is retained in its entirety, in order not to weaken existing rights protections.
For example, the charter has strongly influenced the development of EU regulations in relation to cross-border family law. In 2016, one in 10 children born in the UK was to a family with one parent from the UK and another from an EU member state. EU cross-border family law regulations, covering issues such as child custody, contact, child abduction and child maintenance, provide these families with certainty about their legal rights in difficult situations.
If the family breaks down and disputes arise between UK and EU parents, the EU framework ensures child rights-based court proceedings that make a difficult situation slightly easier for a child to cope with. For example, regulations ensure that children have the opportunity to have their opinion heard during court proceedings that determine if they are to be returned to a parent in another country. Further charter-based proposals are being agreed that will strengthen children’s rights further, ensuring that the best interests of the child is a mediating principle.
The protection of the rights of children and older persons in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is essential as there are not such specific protections in the European Convention on Human Rights. Children in the UK cannot access the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as the UK has not ratified the third protocol, and there is no treaty on older persons.
Dignity for older people, especially those in care, is about supporting people with the same respect you would want for yourself or for a member of your family, treating each person as an individual and giving people independence and choice as to how their needs and wants are met. There are good examples of people who have been treated in a dignified manner but also, alas, several such as Mid Staffordshire and Winterbourne View have been identified by the Care Quality Commission. The last thing we want is that gaps in the law allow such cases to rear their ugly heads once more.
The principle of the inherent dignity of all people underpins human rights treaties. The right to dignity in the EU charter echoes the principles and rights of the charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dignity underpins all the provisions in the EU charter and is as relevant for children as it is for the rights of elderly people and those in need of care and their right to be treated with dignity, to participate in social and cultural life and to fulfil their dreams and aspirations.
We have come a long way in this area and the present and previous Governments have made great strides in helping us to treat anyone who lacks the capacity or the ability to self-determine—in dementia, for example—with consideration and dignity, and it would be more than a pity to put all this to waste. The amendment will signal to both our own people and EU members that the UK remains committed to maintaining the human rights standards we have established together.
I was in Adelaide in Australia some years ago and I went to the local museum. The history of what happened to English children who were sent to Australia has recently been in all our news and papers. We know what can happen to a country with which we have a great deal in common. We must not allow anything to lessen our understanding of and commitment to the human rights of both the young and the old in our society.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 37 and I associate myself strongly with the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. I will not delay the House by repeating her persuasive arguments. I warm to the amendment spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, in her effective speech.
Issues relating to the rights of the child obviously arise in the generality but I am not going to go after that. To save time, I will concentrate on some aspects that relate to the devolved context, which has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. Stronger protection for the child is necessary through legislation and it has been secured in legislation passed by the National Assembly in Wales and also in legislation in Scotland. One piece in Wales is the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011. It imposes a duty on Welsh Ministers to have due regard to the rights of children as expressed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child when those Ministers exercise any of their functions. To achieve the objective, since 2012 the Welsh Government routinely undertake child rights impact assessments on proposals to change Welsh law or policy that may have a bearing on the well-being of children.
My fear, which is shared by colleagues in the National Assembly, is that the withdrawal Bill will limit the scope of the devolved legislatures to amend laws relevant to children along the lines I have mentioned. These are powers which are currently within the devolved settlement, but there may be uncertainty as to the future. When we withdraw from the European Union, there is concern that these competences may come under Westminster and the powers in Cardiff to that extent would be curtailed. Indeed, the devolved regimes may, under those circumstances, be required by Westminster to act in a manner that contradicts their own commitments to children’s rights. I hope that the Minister can put my mind at rest in this matter and give the devolved regimes the clarity, certainty and transparency they seek.
My Lords, I rise to support these amendments very strongly. One of the sadnesses of recent social and political history in Britain is that although this country won immense respect at the time when the convention was being drafted, it has never been fully incorporated into our law. That applies to successive political Administrations. Now, with Brexit, this is being thrown into strong relief. Incidentally, I am very glad to see that those who are speaking to these amendments have emphasised how this illustrates why the charter matters and how we have been wrong to treat it so lightly.
I want simply to say this: we were champions in the drafting, introduction and birth of the convention. Whatever happens on Brexit, we must take the opportunity presented to us by these amendments to ensure that what is enshrined in the convention is made in every way absolutely fundamental to the policy and the work of any future Administration.
My Lords, I rise to speak to speak to Amendments 68, 97 and 158, all of which would ensure that following our departure from the EU, children’s rights will continue to be given due regard. The Government have claimed that the Bill will ensure continuity—in fact, a number of noble Lords think that is correct—and that there will be no legislative cliff-edge if or when we leave the EU.
However, whether by accident or by design, there is a gaping children’s rights hole in the Bill. These amendments would not introduce any new policy or extend provision; rather, they require only that where EU legislation has been developed in line with the principles of the UNCRC, new UK law or amendments to retained EU law will also pay due regard to the UNCRC. The Government have argued in previous debates that children’s rights are fully protected in UK law. I will clarify that this is not actually so and I want to pay tribute to the Children’s Society and a number of academics who have enabled me to do this. The Government argue that, for example, the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates the ECHR into UK law and does the job of protecting children’s rights. However, that ignores the fact that the ECHR is confined principally to civil and political rights, while remaining relatively silent on a range of social and economic rights that form the substance of EU law. There are further problems in relation to the process of bringing a claim for an alleged breach of ECHR rights.
The Children Act 1989 provides important protections for children in both public and private proceedings, but it does not regulate the full range of children’s rights that are covered by EU law such as consumer protection, health and safety, and non-discrimination; other speakers have mentioned one or two of these. It also does not cover the cross- border recognition and enforcement of family orders which are currently regulated by Brussels I and II. Furthermore, the Children Act 1989 is often interpreted narrowly, to the detriment of the fuller range of rights set out in the UNCRC. A crucial example, as the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, is the right of a child to be heard following abduction before a return order is made. The crucial question is, does the child wish to be returned? It is pretty desperate if they do not, and they will not be able to make their wishes known, as I understand it, even if they are of an age and maturity to make that appropriate. The Children Act 2004 places obligations on local authorities but does not extend those to immigration authorities or commercial or private entities to whom public authorities have contracted out aspects of their children’s services. These days, of course, much of that work is contracted out.
The Equality Act 2010 provides a number of protections for children and young people. However, it does not cover many of the issues that are a real worry for children, post Brexit. For example, it does not promote the need for public agencies to act in the best interests of the child as a top priority in the way the UNCRC does, which the EU implements. The Immigration Act 2016 proposes to withdraw leaving care support from unaccompanied young people at age 18, as has been mentioned, if they do not have leave to remain or are not asylum seekers. A lot of these kids probably do not have the knowledge and information they need to be in a position to claim those rights. There is therefore a human rights issue here, for which there is no provision in UK law. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 provides good protection for young people. However, the removal of Section 32 of the EU charter following Brexit will weaken protection against child labour. It will leave weak obligations on business in this area. Also, the EU trafficking directive includes requirements to have regard to the children’s best interests and to consider the long-term outcomes for children. These are absent from the Modern Slavery Act, wonderful though that Act is.
At an EU level, the rights of the child are currently guaranteed by Article 24 of the charter and are one of the fundamental rights mentioned explicitly in the commission’s strategy. They are thus included in the regular fundamental rights check, which the commission applies to relevant draft EU legislation. These safeguards will not apply to new UK laws or amendments to retained EU law. If, or when, we leave the European Union, we will thus need to correct the statute book and legislate for the future in areas of previous EU competency, such as matters relating to justice, specific areas of social policy, consumer protection and research and development. Across the UK, the range of issues where children could be exposed also covers data protection, paediatric medicine clinical trials, food labelling, television advertising, the rights of migrant children to access education and healthcare and, importantly, cross-border family law, as others have mentioned.
In conclusion, I do not believe that these gaps in UK law are the Government’s intention, but an oversight that can and should be corrected between Committee and Report. Does the Minister agree that if this Bill is about providing “certainty and continuity” for people—as the noble Baroness, Lady Evans of Bowes Park, said at Second Reading—it is only right that the Government provide certainty and continuity for children also? I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that he will take these matters back to the department for consideration before Report. Also, it would be helpful if children’s rights could be included on an agenda for a briefing session on the Bill with Ministers in the next few weeks.
My Lords, I rise to lend my support to this group of amendments on children’s rights and to briefly say one or two words on Amendments 37 and 69, to which my name is attached. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, I want to talk about this group because my fundamental feeling is that the voices of children and young people are simply not being heard in the Brexit process. Frankly, that is ironic when we consider that they are the population group who will be most affected by this—and for the longest time.
The Government’s plan not to retain the European Charter of Fundamental Rights through the EU withdrawal Bill is a real concern to me, particularly in relation to children. As we have heard, the charter enhances rights for children that already exist in the European Convention on Human Rights, such as the right to education. It also includes key rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, such as the rights to care and protection, to express views freely in accordance with their age and maturity—the principle of best interests being a primary consideration—and the right to know both parents. I know that others have said this, but I make the point that these are not small, trifling matters or marginal extras; they are fundamental things we should be very concerned about.
The charter contains certain provisions of great importance to children and young people that are not protected in domestic law at constitutional level. Children’s rights enshrined in the charter have been translated into practice through EU legislation, policy and case law. This includes legislation on child-friendly justice systems, and the charter has strongly influenced the development of EU regulations relating to cross-border family law. We heard an awful lot about this earlier in our debate on family law and I certainly do not intend to repeat that because we heard it in great detail. I simply make one point, which was my key point in that debate. It is crucial that children, including children born to families where one parent is from the UK and the other is from an EU member state, feel that their voice is heard in this process and that their wishes and feelings can be expressed, so that they feel that a fair decision is being made about what happens to them regarding these crucial decisions in their lives, particularly if they are to be returned to a parent in another country.
Finally, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is not in his place to talk in more detail about Amendment 69, to which I added my name because I felt it very important that a government body or right in statute exist somewhere to ensure that children’s physical and psychological needs are being met and considered, particularly when they are a victim of any form of neglect, exploitation or abuse. As many in the Chamber will know, no group of children has suffered more neglect, exploitation and abuse than children in care. That is why this amendment, which I know was tabled as a probing amendment, is so important.
My Lords, I have one brief question that I would like the Minister to answer. Most of the debate has been about children, apart from the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. I will talk about the elderly. I need to declare an interest—although we would all need to declare that interest. I am chair of Age Scotland. Like the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, as he mentioned, my noble friend Lady Massey who moved the amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Russell, who will speak, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who is in his place, I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. How will Council of Europe recommendations be incorporated into United Kingdom law if we leave the European Union? I ask this because an excellent report has been approved by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe entitled Human Rights of Older Persons, and their Comprehensive Care.
The author is the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. This was approved unanimously by the appropriate committee and by the parliamentary assembly. It recommends a whole range of things, including an adequate income for the elderly, appropriate housing, action on elder abuse, intergenerational provision, which is very important, the integration of health and social care—I am glad to see that the Government are doing that at a national level, but it needs to be done at a local level as well—and many more. These are very important recommendations, although I say so myself, immodestly. They are things that everyone is agreed on, but what strength, power and influence will they have? Will they just be advisory to the British Government, or will they take them as being more than that and as clear indications of the kind of action they propose to take? Would the recommendations of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Council of Europe itself have greater influence if we were to leave the European Union? If the Minister is not able to answer that question today, because I know that it has come out of the blue, I would be willing to receive a letter from him in due course.
My Lords, I have my name to Amendments 37 and 70, and declare my interest as a trustee of the charity, Coram. I remind the Minister that it is the hereditary oik from the Cross Benches here again for the second time—good evening.
There appears to be broad agreement that it would be disappointing and unfortunate if we inadvertently managed to let children’s rights slip as a result of our anything-but-straightforward and frictionless departure from the EU. The United Kingdom has often played a prominent role in developing global human rights frameworks, and I sincerely hope that the Government intend that we should continue to do so in the hereafter.
Many of us have taken on board the distaste which many on the pro-leave side feel for the charter. Indeed, I have watched online a video of the Minister lamenting the United Kingdom being told to make prisoners have the vote and to allow some individuals involved in terrorism to be given greater human rights than he thought was entirely appropriate. The European Scrutiny Committee of another place in 2014 described the charter as creating a state of confusion.
I think I heard the noble Lord refer to prisoners’ votes. That was the judgment of the Strasbourg court about the European Convention on Human Rights; it was nothing to do with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. In any case, the way in which it has been demonised is wrong, because it said only, “Please have a scheme”, and not, “All prisoners must vote”.
That committee was chaired by Sir William Cash and included a certain Member for the 18th century, Mr Rees-Mogg, so I think that we can conclude that it was clearly completely impartial. We have got the message.
The question that we are posing to the Government, in response to a wide range of representations which many of us have had, is whether they will honour their commitment to defend the rights of children as we come through this process.
I mentioned at Second Reading that scrutinising and discussing this Bill in a non-partisan and apolitical way might be helpful, so I have a specific question for the Minister: does he have a twin brother or a doppelganger? Can he be same person who on 30 January was responsible for writing two articles? One of them appeared on the ConservativeHome website and said:
“From the beginning we have been clear that we need—and indeed want—to adopt a collaborative approach and listen to the views of Parliamentarians from all sides of the House. The necessity and sheer scope of this legislation means that thorough debate and examination is more important than ever. We took this approach in the House of Commons and we will continue to do so in the Lords … The House of Lords has a well-deserved reputation for its detailed and thorough scrutiny. This Bill should be no exception—it will benefit from the forensic examination the Lords can bring and we look forward to that razor-sharp review”.
On the same day, in the Sun newspaper, he wrote:
“We are seeing a co-ordinated push by the defeated elites; the Europhiles will use their majority in the Lords—a majority that rests heavily on quangocrats and busybodies, some of them in receipt of fat Brussels pensions”—
which possibly includes Members of the European Parliament—and:
“For the Lords to overturn a result supported by more British voters than anything else in history would be outrageous”.
He described some of your Lordships as scheming Peers who want an anti-democratic coup. So I have two more questions for the Minister; could he share with us what he had for breakfast the day he wrote those two reports, because I shall try to avoid eating the same? Secondly, did he ever consider a career in the Foreign Office?
Let us please forget the unending politics and focus on the children, whose voice and interests have hardly been top of mind as a rather unseemly procession of opinionated individuals compete for media airtime and attention. I recall noble Lords to the fact that I am speaking to Amendments 37 and 70. Amendment 37 aims to bring into domestic law the parts of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law that are necessary to protect children’s rights. I appreciate that we are not going to bring the charter overall into our law; however, it has some very important provisions: the child’s best interests must be a primary consideration in all actions, children’s views may be expressed and shall be taken into consideration, and children have a right to maintain a personal relationship with both their parents unless that is contrary to their interests. It contains other articles, as other noble Lords have mentioned, including on education and the prohibition of slave labour—the Minister will be aware that our Prime Minister has a particular interest in anything to do with child slavery.
Amendment 70 goes about achieving the same end in a different way. The UNCRC is viewed by most of us as the gold standard. The Government have stated that the source of the rights of the child set out in Article 24 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights stem from the UNCRC, but as others have mentioned, it is not incorporated into domestic law. We share the concerns outlined by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its recent report, Legislative Scrutiny: The EU (Withdrawal) Bill: A Right by Right Analysis. There are several examples of where the UNCRC and the charter have fundamentally helped where there are gaps in our own law. Among these are cross-border family breakdown; the right to be forgotten and data protection; and where 17 year-olds, who are still children under the law, are arrested and treated as if they are adults, which is against the law.
I believe that we must protect the hard-won protections of children and ensure that they are not inadvertently lost. I also support Amendments 68, 69 and 97, all of which are simply trying to probe the Government, to understand how they see the way forward. What all of us are saying is that, however we go forward, we must ensure that in no way, shape or form are the rights and protections of children in any way impaired.
My Lords, I too strongly support the rights of children. Indeed, I support the rights of the elderly, in whom, like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I must, alas, declare an interest. However, with the best will in the world, I cannot support any of these amendments. The first point I make is that we debated reasonably fully last week the desirability or otherwise of incorporating this charter into UK domestic law in this Bill. The previous group is said to have been “already debated” and I find it difficult to see the logic of now debating a host of questions which raise the same idea, only more narrowly focused on one or two specific, individual charter provisions. This debate has ranged far and wide. We have even been back to cross-border co-operation, which was the subject of an earlier group, and I am certainly not going back down that trail.
I shall turn to the specific rights addressed here. The suggestion that the rights of children could be a primary consideration in any decision affecting them is hardly radical. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, noted earlier, the Children Act 1989 puts it rather higher than a primary consideration: it is the “paramount consideration”. Of course there are areas beyond the scope of the Children Act as such which are in play with regard to children, but for the life of me I cannot think of a single case in recent years affecting children—or, indeed, the elderly—which would have failed under the convention and the common law but would have succeeded only by reference to the charter; nor can I envisage such a case in the future. Somebody may be able to devise a scenario which would meet that but I have not been able to do so.
In any event, the Article 24 rights are regarded as retained general principles of EU law and therefore will continue to apply. The right to be heard on the part of children is not a contentious one. I took the opportunity of the regrettably short break we were given this evening to look at a particular decision—indeed, I think it was one of the last Supreme Court cases I was involved in, and my noble and learned friend Lord Hope will remember it because he presided over it. It was a group of extradition cases under the title of HH v Deputy Prosecutor of the Italian Republic. In the course of it the question of the children’s views was raised; it was an extradition case but the same principle applies across the wide field of children’s interests. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale of Richmond, who gave the lead judgment in the case, concluded:
“I share the view of the Official Solicitor that separate legal representation of the children will rarely be necessary, but that is because it is in a comparatively rare class of case where the proposed extradition is likely to be seriously damaging to their best interests. The important thing is that everyone, the parties and their representatives, but also the courts, is alive to the need to obtain the information necessary in order to have regard to the best interests of the children as a primary consideration, and to take steps accordingly”.
I do not know of cases where children’s interests are lost because they are not permitted to express their views.
I have a number of case studies on these issues, which I will show the noble and learned Lord. Children’s rights are not always consistent, particularly in youth justice cases. I know that children in custody in the youth justice system are very often ignored, mistreated and not heard.
I would be extremely obliged to the noble Baroness if she would put these cases clearly and crisply on a piece of paper and share them not only with me but with the Official Solicitor, who I think would be extremely interested in the proposition that children’s rights are being ignored in the youth justice system. But if they are ignored now, when the charter is available, what is to be lost?
The noble and learned Lord may remember that in my speech, which was about the UN convention rather than the charter, I cited a case, which I am sure he is familiar with—R(SG) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—where three of the judges, including the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, found that the Department for Work and Pensions was in breach of the UNCRC, but because it was not incorporated they could not find against the Government and said that it was for Parliament. Here is a clear example of where three out of five judges found that children’s rights in the charter—the best interests of the child—were not being treated as a primary concern, yet they could not find for those families.
I was going to come specifically to that case but, as I understand it, it was put forward not as a charter case but as a UNCRC case. I am not talking about that yet; I am talking about the charter because if it would not avail those children, then what is the point and why is it so important to incorporate those provisions of the charter? The UNCRC is a completely distinct point. I acknowledge that there may be a case and if that case is made good and establishes in full measure the proposition which the noble Baroness is advancing, it may be sensible, whether in this legislation or somewhere else—it would not logically take any part in this Bill—to incorporate the convention into domestic law. I acknowledge that it has not been. But unless you can show that something is to be lost by not continuing to honour the charter—if you fail to do that—with respect, it does not make any logical sense to bring in the UNCRC at this point of the Bill. I hope that the Committee can follow the logic of the way I put that.
I do not really want to spend a long time on this. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I are even more concerned about Article 25 and the rights of the elderly. That charter right is put in this way and it is worth incorporating what it says:
“The Union recognises and respects the rights of the elderly to lead a life of dignity and independence and to participate in social and cultural life”.
That is of course an admirable sentiment, a great principle and a suitable aspiration. But is it really said to be an enforceable right, which the courts would pay regard to if they had already rejected the claim under the common law and the convention? With the best will in the world, it does not make sense. I do not want to rain more heavily on everybody’s parade but I respectfully submit that it would not be a good idea to adorn this Bill, which has a limited aim, with these additional rights that logically do not stem from the ending of the charter.
My Lords, I certainly would not attempt to trade cudgels with the noble and learned Lord but Amendments 37, 38 and 69 seem common sense to me. If one thinks in terms of child trafficking and one particular area that personally concerns me, female genital mutilation, there is the taking of young girls out of this country to be mutilated and brought back, and sometimes they are brought here to be mutilated. It surely makes sense that we have the strongest possible cross-border co-operation, whether we are in the EU or out of it.
My Lords, my noble and learned friend Lord Brown is of course right. There is a simple proposition in law, which is that the United Nations convention, like others, is not directly enforceable in this country—let alone between two individuals—until and unless it has been incorporated into our domestic law, which it has not been. On the face of it, if one brought it as it stands by our decision tonight, or later, how would we tackle things such as where the charter and the convention say that every child has the right to know and be brought up by his parents? How would we reconcile that with our very complicated and subtle laws about, for example, sperm donors or surrogate parents? How would we reconcile a child’s right to education with our very lax attitude towards home schooling and our inability to bring that under control? How would we reconcile it with the very sad fact that the majority of divorced and estranged fathers do not turn up to see their children, even though their children would like to and have a right to see them?
In other words, it is extremely complicated. It is not enough simply to wave a flag for what a good thing the United Nations convention is, which indeed it is, unless it is incorporated in a careful and detailed fashion into our law, which it has not been. It therefore cannot be by a side wind as this Bill goes through Parliament.
My Lords, this has been an interesting and important debate and one that was much needed. As my noble friends Lady Massey of Darwen and Lady Lister and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, pointed out, there does not seem to have been enough attention paid to how Brexit may affect children. This point was made strongly in the briefing that a number of us attended and in the written materials given to us by an alliance of children’s organisations, and we are all very grateful for the work it put into briefing the House on this.
Many children’s charities are worried that neither the referendum nor the subsequent discussions engaged adequately with the voices of children and young people, especially those under 16, who still should have the opportunity to express their views.
A number of areas have been raised. I shall not go through them all, but we heard interesting comments around issues of cross-border co-operation by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on the European arrest warrant, Europol and Eurojust. The noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Greengross, touched on family law and cross-border co-operation, which I will not come back to, having spoken rather a lot on that on an earlier amendment, but I will be interested in anything the Minister has to add on that.
Two specific issues came up tonight. One is the status of children’s rights in the UK after Brexit and the other is we how retain appropriate mechanisms for ensuring that due regard is paid to children’s rights when policy and law are being developed. As my noble friend Lady Massey pointed out, a range of different types of EU regulations affect children. The way the key mechanisms come together is interesting. For example, the European Convention on Human Rights, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, particularly Article 24, which is based on the UNCRC in the first place, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the constitutional commitment in Article 3(3) of the Treaty on European Union to protect the rights of the child in all EU activities affecting children. The interesting result of this is that measures enacted at EU level, whether or not they directly target children, are interpreted and applied by member states in a manner that is consistent with international children’s rights standards. That is what we are trying to chase down here today. The risk of losing some of that is what these amendments are concerned with.
Amendment 37, tabled by my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen, and Amendments 38 and 39, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, seek to retain parts of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Amendments 68, 69, 70, 97 and 158, tabled variously by my noble friend Lady Lister, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, refer in various ways to the UNCRC and the requirement at least to have regard to the provisions of sections that have been ratified by the UK or, in some cases, to go further than that. My noble friend Lord Foulkes and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, made a powerful case for the importance of attending to the right to dignity for older people, especially in care. I am sure the whole Committee will be interested to hear the Minister’s response on those important issues.
Looking at these different instruments, Ministers in general argue that removing the charter will not result in a reduction in rights and they cite their right-by-right analysis, but as we have heard sometimes that may simply indicate that aspects of a charter right are protected domestically without necessarily meaning that those rights are being fully protected. My noble friends Lady Massey and Lady Lister referred to a counsel’s opinion obtained by the EHRC which offered a very different assessment of the likely reduction in rights. I should declare a historical interest as an EHRC commissioner in the long-lost and greatly missed days before I joined this House and had the opportunity to spend many evenings discussing the importance of Brexit.
The EHRC briefing states that “some Charter rights”, for example the right for a child’s best interests to be a primary consideration in all actions taken by a public or private institution,
“have no equivalent protection in UK law. Furthermore, the Charter provides remedies, such as the ability for an individual to challenge laws that breach their fundamental rights, which are not otherwise available in UK law”.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, mentioned that we had a debate on day 2 in Committee specifically about the charter—led, if I may say so, brilliantly by my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith—but the reason that these amendments are being debated here is because when he responded to that debate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, did not make any reference to the issues raised about children and therefore people who are concerned about children’s rights want to understand how they will affect the people they are concerned about.
The noble and learned Lord said in reply:
“I understand the concerns expressed by some about whether some rights would somehow be left behind, but if we can and do identify a risk of such rights being left behind, we are entirely open to the proposition that we have to address that by way of amendment to the Bill, and we will seek to do that”.—[Official Report, 26/2/18; col. 573.]
Can the Minister tell us whether an audit has been done in respect of children’s rights to see whether any of them will accidentally be left behind? If so, what was the result, and if not, when will it be done?
What of the other measures? My noble friend Lady Lister quoted the reply given by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, at Second Reading, in which he sought to reassure the House that children’s rights would continue to be protected by the Children Act 1989 and through our remaining party to the UNCRC. The UNCRC is hugely valuable, and I was pleased to hear it being defended so vigorously and passionately by my noble friend Lord Judd. But as many noble Lords have said, although we have ratified the UNCRC, the convention has not been fully incorporated into UK law and there are no effective sanctions for non-compliance.
The Children Act 1989, to which the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, referred, applies of course only to England and Wales. The problem for children in the UK as we leave the EU, as pointed out very clearly by my noble friend Lady Lister, is that there is no explicit constitutional commitment at a central UK level to children’s rights, and it is that level at which most EU legislation will be amended or repealed in the period post Brexit. We do not have any specific statutory provision requiring respect for children’s rights in lawmaking, and no general requirement to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the UK.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, pointed out, there are devolved provisions, such as the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 and the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014. But as a number of noble Lords have pointed out, my noble friend Lady Massey among them, the Bill brings competence on matters that have been arranged under EU law back to Westminster and would seem, on the face of it, to prevent devolved nations from exercising their powers to stop or amend legislation from Westminster—even, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, pointed out, where it might contradict their own commitments to children’s rights. I look forward to hearing the Minister explain to the Committee how the Government will deal with that.
On one level, these conversations may sound academic, but the noble Lord, Lord Russell, made a passionate defence of why human rights matter. They matter for everybody, even—probably especially—for people we do not want to give them to, but they certainly matter for children. One reason they matter is because of what we are talking about at the end of this: how to ensure that our children are safeguarded, protected from harm and enabled to flourish. I know no Government would want to challenge that aspiration, but the danger is that where there is no specific requirement to pay due regard to the interests of children when deciding matters in legislation, law and practice, especially when the matters may not appear to specifically relate to children, there is a real danger those interests can, and do, get overlooked.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, gave some important examples of forced child labour and slavery, but there are also some examples that are wholly unrelated, on the face of it. Under current EU law, the free circulation of goods and services between member states—a very fundamental principle of course—has to be balanced against the need to ensure the welfare of children who are exposed to them. In post Brexit trade deals, how will similar safeguards be ensured and, if it is necessary, how can they be enforced legally?
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, referred to data protection. The general data protection regulation makes specific recommendations in respect of children, saying that they have the right to be properly informed in language they can easily understand. Children’s charities fear that without that, our children will specifically be targeted by marketing of things that will not be good for them.
Nearly a quarter of our population are children. As we have heard, they did not get to vote in the referendum, but they are the ones who will live with its consequences for the longest time. I doubt many of the parents who voted leave did so in order for their children to be less well protected than they are at the moment.
We should be celebrating and building on the significant contribution the UK has made to the EU’s work on promoting the best interests of children. I hope the Minister has heard the concern from around the Committee and that the Government’s previous assurance does not seem to have given the reassurance that he might have hoped. If the Government do not like these amendments, could he tell the Committee how they will ensure that our children will be protected in future?
My Lords, I am grateful that the important issue of children’s rights has been raised. I thank noble Lords for these amendments, which seek to make changes relating to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the charter of fundamental rights, specifically to incorporate them into domestic legislation via the Bill and to impose statutory duties on Ministers to consider the UNCRC when making regulations. Many of the noble Lords who have spoken to these amendments have a track record of tirelessly championing children’s rights over the years, and the issue is of utmost importance to them and to this Government. Protecting children’s rights is paramount, and I assure noble Lords that I have heard their concerns about how existing rights and protections for children, and our commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, will continue as the UK exits the EU.
Amendments 37 and 38, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey of Darwen and Lady Greengross, seek to provide that some or part of the charter of fundamental rights would remain part of domestic law following withdrawal from the EU. As a number of noble Lords have observed, we have already debated the wider issue of the charter at length and noble Lords will be pleased to hear that I will not go through the general arguments today, although I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for rehearsing some of them. I take the opportunity again to reassure the Committee that the Government remain fully committed to children’s rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Our ability to support and safeguard children’s rights will not be affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
I have heard the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, about the impact of Brexit on children’s rights and the need to ensure that their welfare, safety and best interests are not compromised as we leave the EU. The rights and best interests of children are already, and will remain, protected in England primarily through the Children Act 1989, which sets out a range of duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, including making the child’s welfare the paramount consideration for any court—I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, referred to that. Children’s rights and best interests are further protected through the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which among other things ensures that the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration in all decisions relating to adoption. In addition, other legislative and administrative measures are in place, including the Children Act 2004, which imposes general safeguarding duties in relation to children on various bodies.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own measures for the protection of children’s rights which fully comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Additionally, the European Convention on Human Rights as a whole offers the protection of children’s rights, and this is implemented domestically by the Human Rights Act 1998.
I will come on to the noble Lord’s question shortly and answer him directly. None of this extensive framework is altered or in any way diminished by our exit from the EU and the non-retention of the charter. Amendments 68, 69 and 70, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Lister, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, would incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic legislation and require all public authorities and Ministers of the Crown to have regard to it. Further, Amendments 97 and 158, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, seek to ensure that regulations made to remedy deficiencies in retained EU law are not contrary to the UNCRC. Again, I thank noble Lords for these considered amendments. Although tabled with great intention and faith, in reality they would not enhance the existing safeguards in place to preserve the rights of children in this country—measures that I have already outlined and which will remain in place after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for her comments and points on this matter.
It is also important to highlight that in addition to these measures, which are a combination of both legislation and commitments, the UK Government already have a commitment to Parliament to give due consideration to the UNCRC when making policy and legislation. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, I assure noble Lords that the Government are working closely with the Children’s Rights Alliance for England to ensure that children and young people’s views are heard and taken fully into account when developing policy and delivery in this area. We are hugely grateful to it for the great work it does to help preserve children’s rights and deliver a framework of actions on the UNCRC. These actions are designed to embed children’s rights across Whitehall and beyond, as we set out in a Written Ministerial Statement in October 2016. Those actions include developing and promoting training for civil servants to help them understand children’s rights and the UNCRC, and looking at how we can promote and embed good practice.
As I have set out, the UK already meets its commitments under the UNCRC through a mixture of legislative and policy initiatives, which effectively safeguard the rights of children in this country, negating the need directly to incorporate the UNCRC itself. That approach is in line with normal practice for implementing international treaties. By going over and above measures already in place, and which will of course remain in place after we leave the EU, the amendments would create new burdens on public bodies and individuals, when the UK’s existing laws and commitments already adequately safeguard the rights of children in this country.
Amendment 70, from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, addresses continued co-operation on various security and law enforcement tools. Those discussions will be a matter for negotiations with the EU. The continued security of Europe is unconditionally guaranteed and is of paramount interest to us. The Government have been clear that the UK remains unconditionally committed to European security, and in the exit negotiations we will work to ensure that the UK and the EU continue to co-operate closely to safeguard our shared values and combat common threats. We recognise in that regard the value provided by Europol, the European arrest warrant, Eurojust and ECRIS. I hope that that provides appropriate assurances to my noble friend Lord Dundee and reassures other noble Lords of our wholehearted commitment to children’s rights and the UNCRC, showing that our ability to support and safeguard children’s rights will not be negatively affected by UK withdrawal from the EU.
I turn to Amendment 39, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, on the rights of the elderly. I entirely sympathise with the concerns raised today and I reassure the Committee that the Government are committed to the welfare of the elderly. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for drawing my attention to his no doubt excellent report in the Council of Europe. I must profess that in my extensive reading material I omitted to go through that worthy document but, now that he has drawn my attention to it, I shall make it my priority to get hold of a copy and will reply to him in writing on it.
There are enforceable domestic safeguards for the rights of the elderly under the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act. Older people will continue to benefit from the existing strong protections against age discrimination, harassment and victimisation in the Equality Act 2010—for example, when accessing services when we leave the EU. Of course, the Government also make provision for the rights of the elderly in domestic legislation in a range of ways. To take just the most obvious example, domestic law provides for state pensions and the safety net of state pension credit, as well as disability benefits and other measures such as the provision of social care for those with eligible needs—subject of course to a financial assessment—free prescriptions where charges would otherwise apply, and travel concessions. Again, none of this is in any way diminished by our exit from the EU and the non-retention of the charter.
Article 25 of the charter is also a principle, which is different from a right. It cannot be relied upon directly by individuals in the way that rights can. Principles are a valued and important tool, and, in so far as the principles and rights underpinning the charter exist elsewhere in directly applicable EU law, or EU law which has been implemented in domestic law, that law will be preserved and converted by the Bill. Retaining Article 25 as a standalone right in this way is simply not necessary. If Article 25 was incorporated into domestic law, it would be unclear how it was supposed to apply and it would undermine the Bill’s core objective: to give certainty and continuity after we leave the EU.
I turn to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, on protecting children’s rights. The UNCRC does not impose a requirement on state parties to incorporate the UNCRC itself. It is focused on the implementation of rights without prescribing how state parties should achieve that. I reassure noble Lords that the UK meets its obligation under the UNCRC through a mix of legislative and policy initiatives, as opposed to the incorporation of the UNCRC itself.
With regard to Wales, the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 requires Ministers to have due regard to the convention when exercising their functions. The Children’s Rights Scheme 2014 sets out the arrangement Ministers have in place to ensure compliance. None of the rights exercised by Welsh Ministers will be affected by any of the provisions in the Bill.
My favourite hereditary oik, the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, mentioned two articles. I certainly remember writing the article for “ConservativeHome” but have no recollection of writing an article for the Sun on the same day. I would be grateful if he would send me a copy of this for my delectation and interest, and I will respond to him when I have had a look at it.
I hope that my reassurances to noble Lords will enable them to withdraw or not move their amendments.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. We have had an excellent debate on children’s rights and protection, with many articulate and forceful contributions. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, stressed that children are potentially the most affected by Brexit because they are young and will be subject to the forces that Brexit might bring. I am disappointed by the Minister’s response. Many of us have said tonight that we recognise that we have made great strides in defending children’s rights and proposing things which improve those rights and the protection and welfare of children. But I would like the Minister to recognise what was also said: namely, that our domestic laws do not protect children in all circumstances. Many noble Lords have given examples of this.
As my noble friend Lady Sherlock said, our laws do not incorporate all the treaties and we should be working towards more incorporation. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, thought this might be an “oversight”—I think that was the word she used. Whatever it is, we need to sort it out. We need to recognise that children’s rights and protection are not always incorporated into what we do. An example is youth justice, where 17 year-olds can be treated as adults rather than children. Children say that this is not right or sensible, and I agree.
The Government have made it clear that they are very keen on social mobility. It is important, but it will not happen unless children are encouraged to participate in their own futures. I am talking about empowerment as well as protection. Last November, I held a seminar in Portcullis House. One or two noble Lords were there as observers. We talked about child-friendly justice and child mental health. Almost half the participants were children and young people; others included academics, European politicians and NGOs. It was acknowledged by everyone that the contribution of young people was absolutely crucial to defining the needs of children and young people and responding to them. I recognise that the Minister says that they have talked to CRAE—for which I have the highest regard—on the rights of the child, but have the Government actually listened to what children have to say on this? I would like some evidence of that.
As I said, we have made progress on involving and protecting children, but we should be big enough to take criticism when it comes—and we are criticised. We are not rated highly at international level on how we deal with children. I gave the example of youth justice. We should not be complacent.
This is an important set of amendments, spoken to most forcefully by colleagues. I hope that the Minister will call a meeting of those present today and others to discuss how we can move forward on issues relating to Brexit and children. My questions and those of others have not been sufficiently answered. I still have reservations and I would like to meet the Minister to talk about them. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 37 withdrawn.
Amendments 38 to 39B not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
40: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“Future provisions relating to family friendly employment rights, gender equality and work-life balance for parents and carers
(1) A Minister of the Crown must, as soon as reasonably practicable, report to both Houses of Parliament whenever new or amended EU law in the area of family friendly employment rights, gender equality and work-life balance for parents and carers would have amended provisions or definitions in domestic law had the United Kingdom remained a member of the EU or the European Economic Area (the “EEA”) beyond exit day.(2) Having reported to both Houses of Parliament, the Minister must consider whether to seek to incorporate those amended provisions or definitions into domestic law, in order to ensure that there is no material reduction of gender equality and employment rights as a result of the United Kingdom exiting the EU or EEA and that those working in the United Kingdom have at least the same gender equality and employment rights and protections as they would have had if the United Kingdom had remained in the EU or EEA.(3) New or amended EU law for the purposes of this section includes but is not limited to—(a) any future EU directives relating to family friendly employment rights, including but not limited to rights for pregnant workers and employees, and those returning from maternity, paternity and parental leave;(b) any future EU directives relating to gender equality;(c) the proposed directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on work life balance for parents and carers.(4) Reports presented under subsection (1) must include—(a) an assessment of how such amendments to domestic law would have impacted gender equality and work life balance in the United Kingdom had the United Kingdom remained a member of the EU or EEA beyond exit day, and(b) an assessment of how not implementing amended provisions or definitions in domestic law will impact gender equality and work life balance in the United Kingdom.”
My Lords, this amendment stands in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann, Lady Burt and Lady Greengross, whose support I very much value. I also thank Working Families for its assistance.
The amendment would simply require the Government first to report to Parliament on developments in EU law in the areas of family-friendly employment rights, gender equality and work/life balance for parents and carers which would have affected UK legislation had we remained in the EU, and then to consider whether they should incorporate these changes into domestic law to ensure that such rights are not diminished or are no less than they would have been were the UK still a member of the EU. What it does not do is bind the UK to implement future EU law. While it is essentially a probing amendment, I hope to convince your Lordships that it goes with the grain of government policy and therefore there is no reason for the Government not to accept it or bring forward some other version of it. If the Minister cannot give me such an assurance, we may want to come back to this on Report.
In their note on equality legislation and EU exit, the Government rightly point to the UK’s rigorous domestic equality legislation, part of which predates or goes beyond EU provision. The same is true up to a point when it comes to family-friendly and work/life balance provisions. But, as the Government acknowledge, only part of our legislation predates or goes beyond EU provision. There is wide agreement that, in the words of the Equality and Diversity Forum, the EU,
“has been an important driver for improvements which have benefited us all”—
and, I add, women in particular. An example is the pregnant workers directive, which, as Working Families attests from its helpline, has been crucial in helping protect women from pregnancy discrimination or maternity discrimination, although a recent EHRC report shows that it is still all too common. It is worth noting here that according to new analysis published in the journal Social Policy and Society, these pregnancy and maternity rights were watered down by the then UK Government during negotiations. Other examples of EU-driven legislation include the original right to parental leave, equal rights for part-time workers and the concept of equal pay for equal work of equal value, which strengthened our own pioneering equal pay legislation immeasurably.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights 2016 Brexit report likewise noted that:
“EU law has been described as the engine that hauled the development of UK anti-discrimination law”.
Yet the Minister gave the committee,
“no commitment that the government would monitor or take account of EU law developments”.
That, it observed, “may prove significant”, especially so because we know there are a number of important directives in the pipeline, one of which is explicitly included in proposed new subsection (3)(c) in the amendment, a directive on work/life balance for parents and carers. This includes two measures on which I and many outside organisations have campaigned for many years: improved terms of paid parental leave and the introduction of paid carer’s leave. I stress that work/family life balance is of increasing importance to men, as it has traditionally been to women. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, will say more about parental leave, because she has repeatedly raised the failure of the shared parental leave scheme to achieve its aim of significantly increasing fathers’ take-up of the leave.
The draft directive would provide four months of non-transferable leave for both fathers and mothers, paid at a minimum of statutory sick pay levels. This could provide just the kind of boost needed to encourage greater paternal involvement. I hope and trust that whatever happens to this amendment, the Minister can give us an assurance that the review currently taking place of shared parental leave will include consideration of the directive.
In addition, the draft directive includes a right to five days of carer’s leave a year, also paid at a minimum of statutory sick pay levels. As a vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Carers, I have been convinced of the importance of the case made by Carers UK and others for a period of such leave. As Carers UK argued in a report making the case:
“The evidence base for supporting working carers is growing, and it is compelling”.
Around 3 million people—one in nine members of the workforce—combine working with unpaid care for a loved one, and the numbers are predicted to grow as the population ages. The danger is that without the safety net of the right to a few days’ paid leave a year, carers will either reduce their hours or give up paid work altogether, which, as the Women and Equalities Minister said, is “a huge loss” both to them and the economy. Welcome as it is, the impact of the fund to help carers return to work in the private sector that she just announced will be reduced if it is not backed up by carer’s leave. The state pensions reviewer highlighted this issue recently and recommended statutory carer’s leave. Care leave is becoming increasingly common across the world, and if we do not keep up with our European neighbours on this matter we will fall further and further behind.
The question of future EU directives was also raised in the Women and Equalities Committee’s Brexit report. The government response stated:
“The UK Government’s record on equalities is one of the best in the world and we are determined to ensure that this remains the case … We are committed to protecting and promoting equality and to eliminating discrimination—leaving the EU does nothing to change this”.
This amendment does no more than to support, help and promote this commitment.
I will not take up time by detailing the depressing evidence from the Working Families 2018 Modern Families Index, which shows just how far we still have to go to achieve genuinely family-friendly employment, and therefore how important it is that we keep pace with EU developments. But such evidence is also there in the work of Carers UK and other organisations, which are calling for some way of keeping pace with EU developments—notably the EHRC, the TUC, the Fawcett Society and the Fatherhood Institute. In addition, new public attitude research by the IPPR indicates strong public support for continued alignment with the European economic and social model, regardless of the position taken on the referendum.
When a similar new clause was moved in the Commons in the name of Ellie Reeves and a number of other MPs, it was given short shrift by the Minister and rejected in two sentences on the grounds that it,
“suggests a procedural device for incorporating certain EEA-related rules into UK law. This is entirely unnecessary given the wider snapshot of EU law this Bill will take at the point of exit”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/11/17; col. 904.]
That was entirely to miss the point. It is not about incorporating existing rules, which, as the Minister said, will be done as part of the wider snapshot, and of course government assurances with regard to existing equality and employment rights are welcome, even though they have not convinced everyone. Similarly, the government amendment to Schedule 7, ensuring transparency in any changes to equality legislation and placing reporting obligations on government, is welcome as far as it goes, although it does not go far enough, despite the assurances in the Minister’s helpful letter to Peers.
Snapshots are static. The whole point of this amendment is to recognise that the world is not static—it will not be frozen in aspic on the day we leave the EU. Indeed, just the other week the Brexit Secretary assured business leaders in Vienna that Britain will remain a “dynamic and open country”. This amendment is all about dynamism and openness to change in the wider continent of Europe. Mr Davis continued that Britain will be leading,
“a race to the top in global standards”.
That is great, but how can it do so without ensuring that Parliament is informed about, and is able to consider changes in, such standards among its closest neighbours? In this spirit, I call on the Government to accept this amendment, or some version of it, to ensure that we do not lose the race in global standards of equality, family-friendly employment and work/life balance. Doing so would act as an important symbol that they are prepared to translate the Brexit Secretary’s fine words into deeds. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this small suite of amendments, to which I have added my name. We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. Her excellent speech leaves very little for me to add and I will test the patience of the Committee by making only a couple of brief points.
I emphasise that Amendment 40 is not a grab for any further powers to keep the EU linked to Britain post Brexit. We merely wish to ensure that the UK Government consider any future EU developments in the areas of family-friendly employment rights, gender equality and work/life balance. I hope that the UK would be ahead in these areas, as in the past we have been a leader in these fields. Indeed, we may well introduce changes which the EU would do well to consider.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, referred to an EU directive coming down the line on shared parenting, the uptake of which in this country needs considerable improvement. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, has graciously agreed to meet me and others to discuss some of the proposals that we have been working up. However, that is for the future.
Right now, with suggestions that we could be jettisoning our membership of the European Court of Justice and with talk of leaving the European Court of Human Rights, some colleagues on these and other Benches fear that our proud record of leadership in these areas will be lost and that the United Kingdom will enter a race—not to the top, as Minister David Davis has suggested, but in the opposite direction, to the bottom. Amendments 89A, 129A and 157A would simply enshrine in law the certainty that existing EU protections relating to families in the workplace could not be changed or got rid of under secondary legislation.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her question. As I have just outlined, my concern is that there has been talk on the Government Benches—it has all been suspended at the moment because nothing will happen pre Brexit—of abandoning our membership of the European Court of Justice and leaving the European Court of Human Rights. That is what worries me and it is why I mentioned it.
With due respect, that does not affect what we are doing with equality and human rights legislation in the UK. Perhaps the noble Baroness could explain a little further what that would mean. I do not see any impact on equality law in the UK from leaving the institutions that she has mentioned.
What I am concerned about is the general direction of movement that is being mooted in certain quarters regarding various types of rights for people in the UK in order to make the UK more amenable to having less protection in the fields we are talking about—employment, equality and human rights.
None of these amendments is unreasonable, and the Government would give considerable comfort to mums, dads and carers throughout the country if these simple amendments could be incorporated into the Bill.
My Lords, I fear I must intervene at this point, having been restrained a little earlier. I did have some amendments down which I thought were rather germane to the transition period potentially, on which noble Lords could take different views, but in the interest of making progress I thought that those issues could be more intelligently addressed once we knew a bit more about the progress of negotiations.
I must point out that, prior to that, four groups of amendments had occupied your Lordships’ House for five and three-quarter hours. At that average rate of progress and with 85 groups still to consider on the Marshalled List, many of which have been tabled by noble Lords who are concerned about leaving the European Union, we will need 13 more days in Committee, sitting for nine hours until midnight every day, with no dinner break and without considering any other business. With all respect, I do not consider that that is a good way to make progress or that it is sufficient progress to make. I think that a number of your Lordships will probably agree privately with those reflections.
We have a 19-clause Bill here, to which already your Lordships’ have tabled 67 new clauses. Perhaps some of these statistics might be noted outside. The amendment to which I speak is such a new clause.
I feel that, with all respect—
The noble Lord has spoken a great deal in the past few days; I would like to continue my remarks, if I may.
The important issue that is raised here is a perfectly good issue on which to have a debate in the Moses Room or on an Unstarred Question. These are matters of great importance. I strongly disagree with the noble Baroness who said that we had not made progress in this country: we have made a great deal of progress in this country. The performance of this country on gender equality, work/life balance and carers has been transformed in my lifetime. It needs to go further, but I cannot accept—
I did not make that suggestion, and the record will show it. I was coming to make some suggestions about how we could address this as a House. We have had some outstanding debates in this House from committees of your Lordships’ House on broader policy questions that arise from this difficult exit process. This is an extremely important issue, as I acknowledged at the outset, which deserves to be considered and continually considered in your Lordships’ House. I am merely saying, with great respect, that perhaps the usual channels should give some consideration to ways in which some of the issues that have been raised on this quite narrow Bill could be discussed—but, since I have been invited to explain why, it is nothing to do with the matters concerned.
By the way, the noble Lord cannot argue that because progress has been made by one judicial process it would not have been made by other processes. After all, huge progress has been made in the United States of America, which does not accept the judicial authority of Luxembourg.
This worthy amendment seeks to raise and bring before your Lordships’ House an important subject that your Lordships should consider and hold dear. However, the amendment is absurd in what it asks the Government to do—and that would be true if it was applied to any other field of public policy. So far in Committee we have had a series of general public policy debates. We have had several today which have been cloned, as it were, on to the Bill. The amendment wants Ministers to be required by law to watch only EU law as it develops and give regular reports to your Lordships’ House whenever a proposal comes forward on what should happen. A new principle is being grafted on to the law for this one issue.
I could reverse the question: why for this worthy policy only? Will it be submitted in the rest of Committee as we proceed on different aspects of public policy on all these new clauses that we should have a process whereby Ministers are required to watch and report on this and that after we have left the European Union? That is not very sensible. Our Ministers and Government should watch the legislation brought forward in every advanced country of the world, not only among our European partners, but not have this specific process clogging up the statute book.
The remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown—I am sorry, I can never remember his full title; I know it has got something to do with living in a leafy place with a wood nearby—on the previous group were absolutely correct. He made the point that we had discussed the Charter of Fundamental Rights before.
So, with the greatest respect, I oppose this amendment for the reasons I have given. It is not a sensible process on any aspect of law to ask any future Government to specifically watch the development of debates on future policy within the European Union and bring reports to your Lordships’ House. That is simply not practical legislation.
I have the highest esteem for the noble Baroness, as she knows. I recognise that she is passionately committed to these issues, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. They are trying to bring issues they care about before the House, but they do not have to do so on this Bill—and certainly not in the context of an amendment that will not work in practical terms.
We have been sent a Bill by the other place that is to provide for withdrawal from the European Union—not to provide a basis for a series of lengthy Second Reading-like debates on different aspects of public policy. That is the way we are drifting. It is why we took five and three-quarter hours to debate the first four groups and why, if we continued at that rate, we would have another 13 days to get through. The amendment is not practical and will not work. It raises an important issue, but we should move on. I will give way to the noble Lord now.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. He has been implying—rather more than implying—that noble Lords in this debate have been wasting time; that they have not been getting to the bottom of the subject or have been talking about irrelevancies. Is that what the noble Lord means to say—in other words, that we have not been doing a good job on this Bill? It seems to me that we have fairly elucidated the quite complex details in this proposed legislation so far. It is an enormously important matter and we can scarcely be accused of spending too much time on it. Our debates are being followed carefully by the country as a whole—and rightly so. If the noble Lord has any evidence of someone who has been filibustering or wasting time, I hope that he will bring it forward.
My Lords, I could well be tempted and I suppose that it depends on how quickly you can see paint dry. I leave it to people outside your Lordships’ House to judge the progress that we have made in the first four days, despite some of the undertakings and understandings of the Opposition Front Bench. Perhaps I may say that I greatly value and respect the Bench whose behaviour has been absolutely admirable and exemplary. I do not think that we have made fast enough progress, which is not justified. There are important issues to raise and I have simply suggested that these are some things that, as with the reports of your Lordships’ committees, could be discussed in other forums—but surely not during consideration of this little 19-clause Bill with a rather narrowly defined purpose and given all the other legislation that we have coming forward.
I oppose this amendment. It suggests a new mechanism for the Government in relation to our future relations with the EU which is unnecessary. I look forward to seeing the progress that the noble Baroness wishes to see being made.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 89A, 129A and 157A in the group and I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann and Lady Burt, for their support. Many noble Lords have already referred to the executive powers in this Bill which go beyond those needed to deliver the intent of preserving and converting existing EU law into domestic law to provide legal continuity on exit day. Clause 7, for example, gives Ministers corrective powers to do whatever they consider appropriate to address a deficiency in retained law. As the Constitution Committee has observed, as wide a subjective concept as “appropriate”, applied to such a broad term as “deficiency”, makes Ministers’ regulation-making powers potentially open-ended. Ministerial assurances on their use cannot substitute for a provision in the Bill to prevent the correcting powers being used to effect substantial changes to implement government policy outwith the stated intention of this Bill.
There are many areas of substantive policy which could be impacted by these open-ended powers, a concern that is captured in the long list of amendments to the Bill. I say to the noble Lord, Lord True, that if the Government more quickly took action to restrain the powers in Clauses 7, 8, 9 and elsewhere, and reflected the concerns that people have, the list of amendments that the Committee is debating might actually reduce in number. I am sure that he did not intend it, but choosing his moment at 10.25 pm to express his frustration at the amount of time spent on certain amendments, just at the point when we are discussing women’s and family issues, does not help the case that there is increasing anxiety that the Conservatives want to cut back on employment rights, particularly as they are afforded to pregnant women and mothers.
The particular focus of these amendments is to prevent powers in Clauses 7, 8 and 9 being used to limit the scope of or to weaken rights relating to maternity, paternity, adoption, parental rights, the rights of pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. Such rights are important because they affect the status of half of the population of this country. That is not a small or minority group, it is half of the population. When millions of women voted in the EU referendum to remain or to leave, I doubt that many will have done so in the belief that the result could prejudice their rights or status. These amendments reflect real concerns about the potential impact of Brexit and the application of this Bill on women, expressed by a broad coalition of women and equality organisations such as the Fawcett Society, Women on Boards, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Girlguiding and many others. Bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission share an anxiety that in setting the future of the UK economy, the Government could weaken women’s status in their vision of a differently regulated country.
The treatment of women who are pregnant and who care for children is fundamental to their ability to achieve social and economic equality. The penalty paid for child-bearing and caring is at the heart of the discrimination and loss of opportunity that many women continue to experience. It affects women who have been pregnant, are pregnant, may become pregnant and, by gender association, who do not have children. They all experience the consequences of a collective stereotyping of women.
There is a deep anxiety that government policy will turn backwards to seeing pregnant women and mothers as a burden on business, rather than progressing forward, further empowering women, enhancing their economic life chances, lifting them from low pay or pushing them through the glass ceiling. The EU is an important source of rights for women, whose rights have not all derived from the UK Parliament but come from Europe: the pregnant workers directive, providing pregnant women with the right to time off for antenatal appointments and safe working conditions; EU case law, which made it clear that dismissal due to being pregnant or on maternity leave is direct sex discrimination; and the parental leave directive, giving working parents the right to unpaid leave to care for their child, who may be ill. Protecting the right to parental leave is a key component of giving women the chance to balance their work and home lives.
We know that substantial policy changes implemented through regulations, as the Bill permits, can carry substantial consequences for equality. The introduction of employment tribunal fees led to the number of cases brought to tribunal dropping by 79% over three years. The Supreme Court ruled that the fees were unlawful and stressed the impact on access to justice, adding that the fees were indirectly discriminatory, given the deterrent effect on women bringing discrimination cases.
I want to remind noble Lords of the background here that is driving anxiety. In February, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published the results of a survey of 1,106 senior decision-makers in business—conducted by YouGov on its behalf—revealing managers’ attitudes around pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Allow me to highlight just a few of the results. More than one in three private sector employers agree that it is reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children in the future during recruitment. My translation: they are reluctant to recruit women who might become pregnant. Almost half of such employers agree that it is reasonable to ask women if they have young children during the recruitment process. My translation: they are reluctant to recruit women who have young children. Almost half of employers agree that women should work for an organisation for at least a year before deciding to have children. My translation: becoming pregnant in the first 12 months in a job warrants dismissal. A third of employers believe that women who become pregnant and new mothers in work are generally,
“less interested in career progression”.
My translation: that is a subjective view that translates into “Don’t promote mothers”. Some 41% of employers agreed that pregnancy puts an unnecessary “cost burden” on the workplace. My translation: that is a one-line summary of the history of gender discrimination. Some 36% of employers disagree that it is easy to protect expectant or new mothers from discrimination in the workplace. My translation: discrimination is still endemic.
Many business attitudes are decades behind the law we have now—let alone the law we may aspire to—which encourages the temptation for government to use correcting powers in the Bill to weaken pregnancy and maternity rights. If women are to progress, safeguarding their rights and challenging stereotyping and business attitudes is not a marginal issue. It is fundamental to the status of half of the UK population, to the aspirations and life chances of daughters, granddaughters, sisters, partners and friends. At the moment, a significant number of women are deeply anxious that this Government do not recognise that and will, in a new regulated world, row back on some of that progress.
Will the Minister recognise the anxieties that I have identified and consider before Report—I am sure others will make the same request, driven by the extent of the powers the Bill—how a way can be found to restrict the correcting powers in the Bill from weakening rights related to maternity, paternity, adoption, parental rights or the rights of pregnant or breastfeeding women?
My Lords, I support Amendments 40, 89A, 129A and 157A, to which I have added my name. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister, Lady Drake, Lady Burt and Lady Greengross, whose names are also on the amendments. These amendments deal with issues that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, so passionately and rightly said, will impact half the population of this country and would potentially reintroduce rights that would otherwise be lost for women, carers and parents. These measures have support from many groups representing women’s interests. I am grateful for briefings from the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations, Working Families, Carers UK and the Fawcett Society, among others. It is vital that we protect existing protections and equality law for women and carers, and maintain these protections into the future.
The EU has been a leader in equal rights for women. I am proud that the UK has been a principal player in Europe on this agenda. Measures such as rights for part-time workers, sex discrimination laws that put the burden of proof on the defendant and the right to request flexible working have all contributed to a far more female-friendly and family-friendly working environment for millions of employees across the UK. Brexit must not put women’s progress and prosperity at risk. It must also not dilute parental and paternity rights.
The Bill as drafted does not provide sufficient protection for hard-won equal rights that we have already attained. It introduces risks that rights will be weakened in future and fails to contain safeguards to ensure that the UK does not fall behind future EU advances on these issues. That is why these amendments seek to put in the Bill specific protections for the rights of important groups, including part-time workers and carers. The Government said that they intend to retain the current rights and protections, but why would they then resist putting them into the Bill explicitly? I hope that the Minister will come back on Report with his own proposals to this effect.
As we debated last week, the UK must not lose rights derived from the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. I suggest to my noble friend Lord True that the reason why there has been such a lengthy debate on individual areas of UK rights, including this series of amendments about women and carers—I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Drake—is that the Government have chosen to exclude the charter of fundamental rights and unfortunately have raised suspicions that they seek to weaken rights after Brexit. Ministers must not be given powers that could enable them to bypass Parliament to weaken such rights. It is true that the charter covers rights contained in other UN treaties that have been ratified by the Government. However, those treaties are not incorporated into UK law. Therefore, they do not provide the same protections. These amendments aim to introduce specific safeguards into the Bill. I am sorry if my noble friend believes that these issues are not sufficiently worthy to be debated in this Chamber.
I have made it absolutely clear that I consider these to be important issues. The points I made were entirely about the way in which progress is being made on this Bill. I would be extremely grateful if my noble friend did not impute to me things that I did not say and do not think.
I am most reassured to hear my noble friend’s words, but it is unfortunate that that issue was raised on this set of amendments about women, with the suggestion of moving to the Moses Room. I assure him that there are many on these Benches and across the Chamber who believe these issues to be extremely important for our country.
Many noble Lords across the House are concerned that the UK must not fall behind on gender equality and women’s rights. As we have seen recently, there is still some way to go before we can say that we have achieved gender pay parity and there remains a need further to improve women’s rights. Sadly, I have seen all too often women’s issues fall under the radar of policymakers. There are many loopholes in UK law which penalise women predominantly. For example, in the area of pensions, part-time workers, usually women, still fall through cracks in both the national insurance and auto-enrolment pension systems, leaving them disadvantaged. Any weakening of women’s rights and protections is moving entirely in the wrong direction.
The new clause proposed by Amendment 40 would help protect us from falling behind the EU. A practical example is the directive on work/life balance for carers and parents which the EU will bring in but not until after March 2019. The majority of carers for elderly parents tend to be oldest daughters in their late 50s or early 60s—I declare an interest as one such. The forthcoming EU directive would introduce carer’s leave, which can be so important to help women who might otherwise have to leave work altogether. Women who stop work to care for loved ones when they are in their 50s or beyond usually never return to the workplace, denying them the chance of a richer retirement and wasting their valuable skills. Ensuring that we do not fall behind when the EU introduces protections for carer’s leave is extremely important for women. We should not weaken rights and protections which they would otherwise enjoy. The amendments would not force the Government to adopt new EU laws and regulations, but they would ensure that Parliament had the opportunity to protect the position of the UK and keep pace with, or even exceed, improvements in these areas in the EU in future.
This Bill and earlier debates this evening highlight vividly that the Government’s proposed legislation does not ensure the objective of transferring EU law into domestic law in all its aspects, nor does it achieve the same protections and rights as citizens have at the moment. There will be a watering-down, which is not appropriate for a country that has spent so much time and energy on enhancing the rights, protections and position of women, part-time workers, carers and families. To countenance measures that put those achievements at risk is unacceptable. I hope that the Government do not wish to risk the UK falling behind or moving backwards on these issues, and that my noble friend the Minister will return on Report with proposals of his own which can achieve the aims of the amendment.
My Lords, I support the amendments in the names of my noble friends Lady Lister and Lady Drake. We could call this set of amendments “Keeping up with progressive forces” or “Ensuring UK women and families do not begin to lose out beyond the point of our exiting the EU”. My noble friend Lady Lister wants the Government closely to monitor, report on and replicate future EU developments in the area of family-friendly employment rights, gender equality and work/life balance for parents and carers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, has just said.
My noble friend Lady Drake calls for no regulations to be made under Clauses 7, 8 or 9 if such regulations weaken rights relating to maternity, paternity, adoption, parental rights or the rights of pregnant or breastfeeding women. Why are so many women’s groups and family and equality bodies concerned? Because for all the emollient assurances from the Government that such rights are safe in their hands, many of us are not convinced. Indeed, as my noble friend Lady Drake pointed out at Second Reading, the Prime Minister herself failed to rule out in December the scrapping of the working time directive, the agency workers directive and the pregnant workers directive. Perhaps the Minister can reassure us tonight that such directives will not be scrapped, alongside the right to care for an ill child, maternity rights and part-time workers’ rights.
My particular support for these amendments stems from the fact that it was my pride many years ago, as chair of the European Parliament’s Women’s Committee, to help broker into law the maternity leave directive, which has had an enormously positive effect on the women of this country in the intervening years. That law was brought in through very difficult negotiations with the UK Government of the day, who were not at all enthusiastic about it. So when people say, “How can you begin to think that our laws might regress?”, I am the living, old proof that we had to work really hard to get where we are now from a very low base.
Back then, it was felt that family employment policy could go in only one direction—in favour of progress. Today, it feels as if there are hands itching to turn the clock back on the progress of those rights. There are those in the noble Lord’s party—not the Minister, I am sure—who regard such rights as a drag on profits and bonuses in the workplace and in the boardroom. One concession by the Government, made during the Bill’s Commons passage, is now in Schedule 7, paragraph 22. It tells us that before a statutory instrument is laid containing regulations under section 7, 8 or 9,
“the relevant Minister must make a statement—(a) as to whether the instrument or draft amends, repeals or revokes any provision of equalities legislation, and (b) if it does, explaining the effect of each such amendment, repeal or revocation”.
While I congratulate those who succeeded in securing this small brake on government as part of the Bill, I ask the Minister: does knowing the Government’s reasoning on the possible removal of rights make that removal any less painful for its recipients? In a recent parliamentary Question I suggested to the Government that British women would be better off, post Brexit, if we aligned ourselves as closely as possible with continuing EU legislation such as the directive on work/life balance for parents and carers. The Minister replied—I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in his place—that the Government would take note of what the EU does in the future but that the whole point of Brexit was that we could make our own decisions from now on. That is exactly what many of us are extremely concerned about.
My Lords, I will be very brief. It is true that the UK has often gone further than the EU in providing key equality and employment rights that are of benefit to working parents and carers. As an example of this, when I started working with the Commission and the European Parliament many years ago, they thought of carers only as young people looking after young children. There was no mention of the fact that a whole lot of carers were looking after elderly people and that their numbers were increasing rapidly. This has changed. While Amendment 40 takes the Bill beyond simply incorporating the law as it stands at the point of exit, it is not about binding the UK into implementing future EU directives but will ensure that Parliament is informed of any such developments and commits our Government to considering their implementation.
I believe there is a danger that, without the assurances provided in the amendment, the UK might fall behind the EU on family-friendly employment rights in the future. The amendment will signal both to our own people and to EU members that the UK remains committed to maintaining fair and relevant employment rights and that we do not seek to become an offshore, low-wage, low-standard dystopian state.
My Lords, we have had a really good debate on equality and women’s rights, and I am pleased to support the amendments in this group. Amendment 40, which inserts a new clause, was moved so ably by my noble friend Lady Lister, who explained in detail why it would be very useful to have it in the Bill. It is a very good amendment, which would require the Minister to report to Parliament whenever there are new or amended EU laws in the area of family-friendly employment rights, gender equality, and work/life balance for parents and carers, which would have amended provisions in domestic legislation if the UK had remained a member of the EU, and the Minister would have to consider whether or not to incorporate these provisions into domestic law.
There could be a danger that the UK will fall behind the EU on gender equality and women’s rights when we do not automatically have to follow EU laws. The amendment means that Parliament will at least be informed of new EU laws and that consideration will be given to whether or not to incorporate them in UK law. This is not anything new, really. We do look at other countries and see what they are doing. If one thinks of the devolved nations, the UK Government have learned from the example of the Welsh Assembly, where we had a children’s commissioner—the first one in the UK—and then the UK Parliament decided that there would be one for England. There are other examples I could go into where we have learned from other countries. There is no problem in looking to see what works in one area or one country and then incorporating it into our laws. That is the importance of the proposed new clause.
Amendments 89A, 129A and 157A, spoken to by my noble friend Lady Drake, would ensure that regulations will not weaken our rights relating to maternity or paternity, or adoptive parental rights, or the rights of pregnant or breastfeeding women. We know that even today regarding our gender equality rights, which have been hard fought for, there is ample evidence that employers do not always adhere to the law. In recent weeks we have heard of employers who seem to disregard the laws around maternity and pregnancy. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, as my noble friend Lady Drake mentioned, said recently that many businesses were “decades behind the law” and,
“living in the dark ages”.
This followed a survey which showed that a third of those working for private companies thought it was reasonable to ask women during the recruitment process about their plans to have children in the future, whether they were pregnant and whether they had small children. This type of questioning is against the law and one wonders why it still goes on.
In December, the Prime Minister failed to rule out scrapping the working time directive, the agency workers directive and the pregnant workers directive, even though she was asked several times to give that assurance. The pregnant workers directive is of great value to women and gives much-needed protection in the workplace. So we need to ensure that delegated powers cannot be used to weaken maternity, paternity, adoption or parental rights. One can see why, after that long fight for equality, it has still has to go on. We want to make progress all the time but there are grave concerns about the Bill.
I hope that the Minister will be able to give guarantees tonight in relation to these amendments. Equality rights do not just stand still; they have to progress all the time. That is why it is so important that we look to see what the EU is doing and then see whether it is something that we would want to incorporate into our laws. We really need that reassurance from the Government that the equal rights we have fought for, hard and over many years, will not be watered down at all. These are sensible amendments that would continue to ensure the protection of women in the workplace, as well as ensuring that women’s equality rights do not fall behind those of future EU laws. I hope that the Minister can give assurances that he will look seriously at these amendments, because they are good and sensible ones.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister, Lady Altmann, Lady Greengross, Lady Burt, Lady Drake and Lady Gale for their contributions, and for bringing this debate alive tonight. It is right and proper that that debate should be here.
I would like to make a few points, which are necessary this evening. First, on the day after Brexit, the rights which we have worked so hard while within the EU to create will be brought back. We have been a partner in the framing of those rules and we will return them to the United Kingdom. There will be no dilution. There will be no weakening or regression. These rules will come back and they will stand here. I emphasise that as members of the EU, we have never been bound by those rules as anything more than a foundation upon which we can build greater adherence to those rights. It is important to stress that.
The EU pregnant workers directive requires 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. In the UK we offer 52 weeks, 39 of which are statutory maternity pay. Our maternity entitlements are nearly three times greater than the minimum within the EU. We have given fathers and partners statutory rights to paternity leave and pay—an entitlement which the EU is only now starting to consider in its proposed work-life balance directive. In light of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, she will be aware that the work-life balance directive is still only at the Commission proposal stage. We have not yet heard, or had a report, from the European Parliament or begun the necessary dialogue to determine what exactly will form the final elements of that directive. It is important to stress that the process of negotiation is right and proper. We have always taken part in that and will continue to do so. Exactly when it will reach the stage of clarity remains yet to be determined.
We have given the parents of all children up to the age of 18 a right to take up to 18 weeks of unpaid parental leave, while the parental leave directive requires only four months and applies only to the parents of children up to the age of eight. Again, we have sought to go further. It is important to stress that when we look at our ability to deliver against these EU expectations, we have never seen them as limiting us. We should be able to go beyond them.
Importantly again, it is not simply enough to enact these proposals; they must also be adequately enforced. That is why looking at the EU’s enforcement scoreboard is particularly important. At that point we begin to understand how successful it has been not just in transferring the law into the statute book but in making the law a reality because it is by those instruments and the reality of that law becoming functional that we adhere, advance and create functional rights.
The noble Baroness will recognise that that is part of a discussion for another time. We have already touched on it on more than one occasion. If I may, I will focus primarily on the amendments before us today.
It is important that we recognise that the rights we have cannot be undone. That must be the fundamental guidance. For those who ask whether I can give a categorical assurance that there shall be no erosion of the working time directive, the answer is yes, I can give that assurance. We will not be eroding these rules as they come back or after they come back. It is critical that these rules become and remain functional as we begin to develop our own rulebook. It is right that we should be cognisant of the advances in the evolution of rights whether it be in the EU or elsewhere. We have heard this evening about a number of these rights which we have seen emanating from the UN. We should not be limited in that regard. Time and again we have found ourselves in the vanguard of particular rights. As we consider this suite of amendments, I do not think we should lose sight of the fact that in more than one area on more than one occasion we have pushed rights far further forward than had been the case of the median rights within the EU as a whole.
The Minister just made an extremely significant statement. He will appreciate that part of the problem many of us have with the Bill is how far we trust the Government to have the very extensive delegated powers which are granted by the Bill and the chatter one hears, including from Ministers, about a desire to loosen EU regulations, in particular to loosen EU labour regulations. If the statement he has just made represents the Government’s considered view, that puts a number of minds at rest, although it may upset a number of people within his own party.
I hope I can put the noble Lord’s mind at rest.
It is important that we recognise how these functional rights are developed and ongoing. The day after Brexit, our rulebook will be safe. The rights which we have will be incorporated and we will build on them as a foundation. They are not a ceiling. It is right and proper that both this Chamber and the other place are instrumental in taking forward the enhancement of these rights. We have to recognise that over the past 30 years our understanding of what is a necessary family right has entirely evolved. As the vice-chair of the LGBTI group in the European Parliament, I recognised how far we could push things within the European Parliament, but I was very clear about how far we could not push them within the European Parliament because of the inability of certain member states to move forward with us. In that regard, in terms of equalities, on not one occasion have we ranked lower than third in the whole of the EU—indeed, in the whole of the continent of Europe. We have pushed forward those rights far faster, deeper and more surely than many of the other member states, so we should not lightly shake them off. We will remain what we have been, I hope, all the way through: a deliverer of these rights, not just on paper, because that is not a functional right, but in functioning and working in the workplace and elsewhere. It is absolutely right that we do so.
In response to a number of the questions raised, I am conscious that there is unease and a certain regard that the Government today will take the first opportunity to cast these rights aside, to scrape the barnacles off the boat to allow the ship to move faster. I assure the Committee that they are integral parts of the engine of the ship and we shall not be discarding them. That is how important they shall remain.
The noble Baroness makes an interesting point as to why people have not been able to hear these points, but I am iterating what the Prime Minister, and a number of other Ministers in the Government, have said as regards this, and am pleased if I have been able to cut through some of the hubbub that has surrounded it. We are and remain a Government committed to ensuring that on day one after Brexit there is no diminution whatever in the rights which are and have been enjoyed through our membership of the EU. It is important to stress that. I hope I have been able to give noble Lords some reassurances this evening and some confidence that they will be able to set aside these amendments on this occasion.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken from across the Committee in support of this amendment—with one exception of course, the noble Lord, Lord True. I cannot help but point out that there is a certain irony that the longest speech came from the noble Lord who complained that we were wasting time. He took, I think, nearly a fifth of the non-ministerial time in order to tell us we were wasting time.
I will rise to the bait. It is clear that one is going to be characterised and monstered, but the reality is that I very clearly set the remarks I made in the context of the four days that we have already had and the 13 days, at this rate of progress, it will take to complete Committee. I also made it very clear that I regarded the rights that are being discussed as important and hoped that the noble Baroness would see all that she hoped for come to fruition. I was as delighted as the rest of the Committee by what we heard from the Front Bench.
I think I should carry on. The noble Lord asked a question, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, gave a very clear answer, but perhaps the best answer came from the Minister himself. I thank him for his very courteous response and for his acknowledgement that this is a very valid amendment and debate, which we should be having. I very much welcome his categorical assurance that there will not be a watering down of the working time directive, and I know many other noble Lords welcome that as well. But I am puzzled. Yes, he has given assurances about not watering down existing rights, which is very welcome indeed, but I have not heard an argument against my amendment about keeping pace with what is happening in the European Union in the future. He was asked why he was not able to support the amendments, given the very positive stance he was taking, and I did not hear an answer to that. I am not going to pursue it now, but given his positive stance, and at the same time his failure to give arguments against this amendment, we may well want to return to this on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 40 withdrawn.
Schedule 1: Further provision about exceptions to savings and incorporation
40ZA: Schedule 1, page 16, line 12, at end insert “or
(c) the challenge relates to general principles of EU law.”
My Lords, I have tabled three amendments in this group, and signed two others. What links them is the provision of continuity and the ability to challenge the validity of retained law, which noble Lords will note repeats a theme I followed with regard to Clause 5.
The Bill is a bit of a yo-yo when you want to find out what rights exist. Noble Lords might think that the rights are saved. Paragraph 1(1) of the Schedule rules out the possibility of a challenge but in paragraph 1(2) the possibility comes back in again, either if there is a European court decision before exit day or if an unspecified provision is made in regulation. My Amendment 40ZA would amend the provision about that regulation, adding,
“or … the challenge relates to general principles of EU law”.
I have already spoken, in the context of Clause 5 amendments, about the fact that the EU legislation—more or less, except the treaties—is all secondary legislation and challengeable as to validity. I repeat that that gives individuals and businesses rights that I do not consider it proper to take away, even if the court making the final decision is no longer the European court. I therefore want to make it clear that such a right continues. As explained previously, retained EU law will contain many things that correspond much more to what would be in UK secondary legislation that could be struck down, so it is not such an outrageous proposition. I will not spend further time repeating what I said, save to say again that taking back control was never cast as meaning a general removal of rights from individuals and businesses.
The third sub-paragraph of paragraph (1) of the Schedule states:
“Regulations … may … provide for a challenge which would otherwise have been against an EU institution to be against a public authority in the United Kingdom”.
My Amendment 40A would basically change “may” to “must”. I do not see companies currently lining up to take their regulators to court so I do not envisage any tsunami of cases. This is just to ensure that what appears to be promised actually happens.
There are then two amendments in the names of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on which I will leave them to elaborate. My reason for signing them is the same: I am not satisfied with the notion that the general principles of EU law are merely to give the courts a way of flavouring interpretation in a non-fatal way. Although that may well be sufficient for many purposes, it is not the continuity of rights and rule of law that is currently enjoyed. For that reason, I seek the deletion of paragraph (3). I also support the retention of environmental protection as defined in Article 141.
Lastly, I come to my Amendment 63, which would amend Clause 6 but is directed to the same ideas of challenge to validity. It states that notwithstanding anything else in the Bill, there remains a right to challenge validity on the basis of proportionality. Many noble Lords have spoken eloquently on the issues of fundamental rights and human rights. I am now being a bit more mundane and flagging up the importance of proportionality, particularly for business and single market legislation, where it can affect competitiveness. At Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford, said,
“we had a lot of influence in the EU: pro-free trade, pro-markets, pro-business, pro-proportionate legislation”.—[Official Report, 30/1/18; col. 1389.]
He was right, but one of the reasons why we kept going on about proportionality was that we do not have it in our own law. Our domestic test for irrationality is a lesser test, and we did not want to have to rely on CJEU salvation.
At the moment, yes, our courts have to consider proportionality when there is an EU dimension, and they will become responsible for more decisions that previously were taken by the European court. This means more consideration of wording that has been nowhere near a parliamentary draftsman and has been negotiated with the principle of proportionality underwriting everything. I cannot count the number of times that less than perfect and overprescriptive wording has been justified in a trialogue by the Commission, Council and parliamentarians with, “But it’s subject to proportionality”—and I was not always there to change it. So that attitude has to be understood and applied. I am concerned that, when we have, as I am sure we will, some continuing alignment of regulations post Brexit, the deeper test of proportionality will not be considered and applied by government or public authorities unless they know that the ultimate sanction of striking down is available to the court. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, also subscribed to by my noble friend Lady Bowles. The amendment is primarily a probing one, to seek clarification from the Government on what they are seeking to do here. Paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 states:
“No general principle of EU law is part of domestic law on or after exit day if it was not recognised as a general principle of EU law by the European Court in a case decided before exit day”.
So if one allows for the double negative, it rather suggests that, if it was a general principle of EU law that had been determined by the European Court in a case before exit day, it will continue to be part of domestic law. Having reached that point, the following paragraph says:
“There is no right of action in domestic law on or after exit day based on a failure to comply with any of the general principles of EU law”,
and that no,
“court or tribunal or other public authority may, on or after exit day … disapply or quash”—
and so forth.
I am intrigued about why, having apparently established that there is a general principle of EU law that becomes part of our domestic law, when what is given away with one hand is taken away with another, one is not allowed a remedy based on that general principle of EU law. It would be helpful if the Government could clarify that.
The matter was raised in the report of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, which at paragraph 117 of its report quotes Professor Alison Young, who wrote:
“Schedule 1 to the Bill makes it clear that ‘there is no right of action in domestic law on or after exit day based on failure to comply with any of the general principles of EU law’ … This prevents claims of the nature found in Benkharbouche, where the Charter was used independently from other provisions of EU law. … But claimants will still be able to rely on general principles of EU law, which protect fundamental rights. They will not be able to use these general principles on their own, but they will still be used to interpret EU-derived law, which then in turn could be used to disapply legislation. For the claimants in Benkharbouche, the stronger remedy currently found under EU law for the protection of fundamental rights will disappear”.
Again, I seek clarification from the Government as to why they believe that these protections should disappear as currently found in EU law. Indeed, the committee in paragraph 120 concludes:
“The effects of excluding the Charter rights, retaining the ‘general principles’, but excluding rights of action based on them, are unclear … We recommend that the Government provides greater clarity on how the Bill deals with the general principles and how they will operate post-Brexit”.
I sincerely hope that the noble and learned Lord will take the opportunity when replying to the debate to respond to that recommendation from the Constitution Committee and give us a clarification.
There was also one specific point, on which I would ask for a view from the Government Front Bench. The provision in paragraph 3 is:
“No court or tribunal … may, on or after exit day … disapply or quash any enactment … because it is incompatible with any of the general principles of EU law”.
I assume that that would mean to any enactment pre exit, which could of course include an Act of the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, would the provision in paragraph 3 prevent any challenge being made to an Act of the Scottish Parliament passed before the exit day on the grounds that it was outwith the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament because it was incompatible with those general principles, but not on the grounds that it was incompatible with any other pre-exit European Union law?
In other words, if other EU law had been satisfied but there was still a problem or it was still not compatible with EU principles, would an action that had been raised before exit day on the grounds that it was incompetent have to fall because no court could make a determination of it because of this paragraph? Some clarification on this point would be welcome. It would appear that a principle is established, but not the remedy that might go with it.
My Lords, I have a similar question for the Minister. In paragraph 1(1) of Schedule 1, we are told:
“There is no right in domestic law on or after exit day to challenge any retained EU law on the basis that, immediately before exit day, an EU instrument was invalid”.
I understand why that should be so, by reference to EU law principles, because at the moment you cannot challenge, in our courts, the validity of an EU instrument; you have to go to the Court of Justice. I am not sure whether the provision in paragraph 1(1) prevents, after exit day, a challenge to a provision of retained EU law brought by reference not to EU law but to common law principles. For example, are challenges on the grounds of legal certainty, the presumption against retrospectivity, or proportionality, which has already been mentioned, prevented by paragraph 1(1)?
I do not think that the courts have accepted that proportionality can be a challenge by way of judicial review where you are not raising an issue of EU law or convention law—but we have come a very long way towards recognising proportionality as a principle of the common law. That is one reason why I am asking this very important question. I simply do not know whether you can challenge retained EU law after exit day by reference to traditional common law principles.
One reason why this matters is that the Supreme Court, in the HS2 case, suggested that this might be possible under existing law. As was raised in the debate last Monday, we should also bear in mind that, under Clause 2, retained EU law includes statutory instruments that do not owe their legal basis to the European Communities Act. They include statutory instruments enacted through other mechanisms, albeit that they are linked to EU law. At present, one can challenge those instruments by reference to traditional common law principles. Therefore, if Clause 1(1) were intended to prevent such a challenge after exit day, it would be a significant change in the law.
The noble and learned Lord is absolutely right. If retained EU law were to be categorised as primary legislation, such challenges could not be brought. But the Minister resisted that suggestion in our earlier debate. I am concerned with the Bill as it is at the moment. What is the Government’s intention in this respect?
My Lords, that short exchange has demonstrated how complicated this area is and how important the general principles of EU law are in it. It is, perhaps, late at night to be discussing this but it is extremely important because of both the principles and the way they operate. If one looks at it in this way, and takes the Government’s intention not to take away rights as a part of this process, one has to recognise that the architecture which provides rights at the moment is quite complicated. As a commentator has said, there is no single, simple answer to restoring the position in the light of what the Government propose to do.
Amendment 41, which stands in my name, follows the principle the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, initiated by saying that the general principles of EU law should continue to be capable of giving rise to rights which can be enforced by our courts. The point has already been made that there is a difference between these general rights existing as a way of interpreting other rights—as an interpretive technique—and giving rise to freestanding rights themselves. Paragraph 3 of Schedule 1 prevents any action being founded in contravention of one of the general principles or rendering any Executive act unlawful or disapplying any legislation, including secondary legislation, on the grounds that it offends these general principles.
The general principles of EU law have been critical to a number of legal decisions relating to people’s rights. One of those often cited is the case of John Walker, who brought a case for equal protection in pension rights for his same-sex partner, a claim upheld by the Supreme Court which recognised that prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was a key principle of EU law. As I apprehend it, without that the case would not have succeeded.
The principle of effectiveness of remedies has also been relied upon. When the Supreme Court struck down employment tribunal fees that disproportionately affected disadvantaged women and low-paid workers, the principle of effectiveness of remedies was relied upon. Cases concerning caps on compensation and equal pay cases have depended upon the general principle that we find in the EU principles. The amendment standing in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, seeks to enable those general principles to continue to have that effect in our law. It is important that they do for a couple of other reasons. Take, for example, something that was raised in the other place. What if there is a principle of EU retained law which is deficient, defective, does not operate properly or is disproportionate? Without being able to rely upon the general principles of EU law, it may be that all the court could do if faced with that would be to say that either that principle or that particular Act or that particular piece of law, though deficient or defective, has to continue to operate because there is no principle by which it can be struck down, and that would be a loss.
The other reason goes back, I am afraid, to the debate that we had last week on the charter and the Government’s assertion that the charter is not necessary because all the rights are otherwise protected under our law. Of course, at the time the charter was drawn up we were still a member and, in many people’s minds at least, were expected to continue to remain a member of the European Union with all that that implied, including the continued application of general principles. But if one looks—
If the noble Lord will allow me to make this point, he can then, of course, intervene. If one looks, as we did briefly last week, at the reasons given by the Government in their right by right analysis for why certain rights would, according to them, continue to exist, we see—I take this from the JCHR’s analysis—that 16 out of 50 of the rights are based, in part at least, on the general principles of EU law. If the general principles of EU law have no more value than as an interpretive tool, that principle would disappear. That means that those rights that the JCHR saw could continue to exist and give rise to rights only because of the general EU rights.
When we were having the debate about the charter, I specifically asked the noble and learned Lord whether principles which were referred to in the charter were actionable or not, and he said that in his contention, they were not actionable. I am not simply trying to make some forensic point, but I seek clarity from him as to why in that context he said that the principles were not actionable—I can well understand his answer, because principles are rather difficult to identify as regards a clear breach, for example—but he now says that the Bill is wrong and that principles should somehow be actionable.
I am grateful for the question, because it enables me to clarify that point. There are two sorts of principles. I was talking in answer to the noble Lord’s question last week about the principles which are contained in the charter itself. The charter says that it is a charter of rights and principles, and the principles there—it is not that easy to identify which are principles and which are not—are not actionable in themselves. They may become actionable, because as they are aspirational tools, they are then implemented into law and are actionable at that stage. The principles we are talking about here are different. These are the general principles of EU law, which are, for example, the principle of legal certainty, the principle of proportionality, and the principle of non-discrimination. These are different in that sense; they are general rather than specific principles, and they are actionable at the moment. That is why the Walker case I mentioned gives rise to a remedy, as did the other cases where the Supreme Court struck down tribunal fees as being disproportionately high for particular categories of workers.
That is why we believe it is important to keep this. It is one element of the architecture to retain rights. I remind noble Lords that the Prime Minister made it clear that the intention was that rights would continue the same the day after exit as the day before. To remove general principles in this way, and the ability to rely upon them, will fail to keep that promise. This amendment also—it has been referred to already—specifically proposes that the general principles of EU law should include those which are contained in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Those are environmental principles of huge importance: the precautionary principle, the principle of polluter pays and the principle for preventive action. Those principles and the others I referred to need to continue to operate to keep in place the rights that people enjoy at the moment.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their brevity.
Amendment 40ZA, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, seeks to ensure that challenges to validity could continue on general principles of EU law grounds. I will address concerns raised on general principles in more detail later. First, Schedule 1 generally ends the ability to bring challenges on validity grounds to what will become retained EU law after we leave the EU. We recognise, however, that in some circumstances, individuals and businesses may be individually affected by an EU instrument. For example, a decision of an EU institution or body may be addressed directly to an individual or business. After exit, they would continue to be able to challenge such decisions—in so far as they apply in the EU—before the CJEU, and to have them annulled. Of course, the converted form of the decision would however remain in force within the UK as retained EU law.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, asked whether paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 would, after exit day, prevent a challenge to a provision of retained EU law by reference to common-law principles. I understand that the answer is no, it would not, and it is not intended to do so. I hope that that meets the position that he raised with me a moment ago.
Domestic courts currently have no jurisdiction to annul an EU measure or declare it invalid, and we do not believe it would be right to hand them a new jurisdiction which asks them effectively to assume the role of the CJEU in this context. This amendment would effectively ask our courts to consider whether the EU acted incompatibly with the general principles when it made an EU instrument. Generally speaking, this is a function that we do not consider it appropriate to confer on domestic courts.
Therefore, although I appreciate the points raised by the noble Baroness, the amendment would undermine the Government’s stated policy of a clear exclusion of both validity challenges and general principle challenges provided for within Schedule 1. However, we recognise that there might be some limited circumstances in which it would be sensible to maintain the ability to challenge retained EU law on validity grounds. The Bill therefore contains a power set out in paragraph 1(2)(b) of Schedule 1, to which the noble Baroness alluded, which would enable the Minister to make regulations providing for a right of challenge in domestic law to the validity of retained EU law in specified circumstances.
Sub-paragraph (3) sets out that those regulations may provide that a challenge which would previously have proceeded against an EU institution may, after exit, proceed against a UK public authority, because of course there would be no EU institution against which it could be directed. I seek to reassure the noble Baroness that the word “may” is there as a precautionary term lest, in the context of trying to make such a regulatory power, it be perceived that there is no easily identifiable body against which the matter can be directed. However, the intent is that it should be possible to proceed against a public body in those circumstances.
Can the noble and learned Lord envisage the circumstances in which such regulations would be made? Will Ministers have to decide between now and exit day a category of matters for which such regulation is to be provided, or are we to await a case coming up which ought to have been the subject of regulations which are then made? That surely cannot be possible.
Perhaps I may suggest to the Minister a circumstance in which this might arise. The day after exit day the Court of Justice gives a judgment saying that a provision of EU law is invalid. Nevertheless, that provision will be part of retained EU law—it will be part of our law even though it has been abolished in the EU. That might be a circumstance in which the Minister wishes to act.
I fully acknowledge that that is most certainly a circumstance that could arise. Of course, one might address that circumstance by Parliament legislating to reflect the outcome of that post-Brexit decision. However, I fully acknowledge that, depending on the way in which one constructs the departure on exit day, one might find that what one has retained as EU law ceases to be EU law almost immediately after one has left the EU. I believe that that has been acknowledged on a number of occasions. Indeed, it could lead to the development of two parallel jurisprudences—one for retained EU law and one for EU law. That is an inevitable outcome of our decision to leave the EU but to retain in our domestic law that which was EU law at the point of our departure. I fully acknowledge that, but it might also be a circumstance in which potentially one would seek to exercise the exceptional regulatory power that is referred to.
Reference was made to Amendments 41 and 42, tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, which seek to retain indefinitely in domestic law rights of challenge based on the general principles of EU law. If agreed to, these amendments would empower domestic courts to quash administrative actions or secondary legislation or, indeed, even go as far as disapplying an Act of Parliament on the ground that it breaches one or more of the retained general principles of EU law—that could take place long after we have left the EU. That is why we have to have a point in time at which we have certainty as to the scope for such challenges, and that is reflected in the schedule.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, acknowledged, Amendment 41 would go even further. It seeks to set out an ostensibly broader definition of which general principles are to be retained under the Bill. In that context, he alluded to Article 191 of the TFEU, which deals with environmental issues. I take issue with him as to whether the polluter pays principle and the precautionary principle are both now accepted as general principles of EU law. I would suggest that there is considerable doubt as to whether the former, in particular, constitutes what is recognised in EU law as a general principle, so I have some difficulty with that amendment.
I come now to Amendment 63, also tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles. It is, I apprehend, intended to retain this right of challenge but solely for the principle of proportionality, as she indicated, and specifically including where retained EU law is to be treated as primary legislation. It would also appear to permit the possibility of a challenge on the basis of invalidity of EU law, as well as judicial review of such legislation. It is our position that the general principles of EU law, such as proportionality, non-retroactivity and fundamental rights, will be kept in our domestic law, but in order to assist in interpreting retained EU law and not to give rise to additional stand-alone rights. Whereas some general principles are now set out expressly in EU treaties, the general principles were those that were first recognised by the European Court of Justice. They are essentially judge-made and determined as principles on the basis of case law. It is those principles that we are dealing with.
I come back for a moment to Amendment 41, which goes beyond just the issue of proportionality. It would undermine the approach that we are seeking to take if we were to pursue it. In particular the inclusion of Article 191 in the amendment risks going further than the existing principles that are, as I say, set out in EU law and consequently in UK law today.
Leaving aside Article 191—we can argue about that and there is a decision that appears to demonstrate the point: the case of Artegodan, where the court appeared to be willing to extrapolate from the precautionary principle a general principle of EU law—does the Minister accept that, so far as the other general principles of EU law are concerned, to exclude them from the ability to found a cause of action and not just be an interpretative tool would be a diminution of the rights that people currently have and would include a diminution of many of the rights that the Government are saying are already protected under English law?
So that the Minister does not have to bob up and down, may I also ask him a question? He talked about our approach in this Bill. That leads me to reflect on how far the approach in this Bill fits, for instance, the Prime Minister’s speech on Friday, in which she envisaged not only strong commitments in the area of trading goods but binding commitments in competition law. The noble and learned Lord talked earlier about how there would be EU law and then retained EU law in this country, the interpretation of which could diverge. How will the Prime Minister’s commitment to binding commitments in some areas to stay fully aligned with EU law be reflected in this construction of the Bill? If we diverge, would we then have to have domestic legislation to bring us back on track with the EU?
The noble Baroness is confusing two distinct issues. The Bill is about the retention in domestic law of EU retained law at the point of Brexit. The Prime Minister was addressing our future relationship with the other 27 members of the EU in the context of our seeking to align in some areas and not align in others. This will be the subject of negotiation which is about to commence and will apply in agreeing a transitional period, and then our post-transitional period relationship with the other EU 27. They are two distinct issues.
On the noble and learned Lord’s observation about the general principles, these are retained as an interpretive tool. It may impact upon the matter of remedies but not on the issue of rights. One has to bear in mind that distinction.
Reference was made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, to the case of Benkharbouche, which was a classic example of where the issue of rights had to be distinguished from the issue of remedies. There were rights arising under Article 6 of the convention but there was an also an issue as to whether or not certain principles arising by reference to the charter were also in play. I believe it was Article 46 of the charter that was referred to by Lord Sumption, who delivered the opinion of the court. The point was that while the rights could be identified by reference to the convention or the charter, the particular remedy there arose by reference to the charter. I acknowledge that that is the case.
Is that not part of the point? An expectation has been built up by what has been said—that, on Brexit date plus one, people will be in the same position. The noble and learned Lord is admitting that they will not be in the same position because they may have rights but they will no longer necessarily have remedies.
No, I do not accept that. I certainly do not accept that that is the position under reference to the Walker case. However, I am content to come back to the noble and learned Lord on that question on the Walker case but I do not accept that it falls in the way he indicates.
Perhaps I can make some progress. We remain of the view that after we cease to be a member of the EU there is a real risk of allowing general principle challenges to continue indefinitely, which is what these amendments would allow. Simply put, this would not be in keeping with our undertaking—our promise—to return sovereignty to this Parliament.
Of course we are aware of the concerns that have been raised, particularly about the impact on those whose cause of action precedes exit but who are unable, for whatever reason, to issue proceedings before some change takes effect. That is why we brought forward amendments on Report in the other place to provide reassurance that where a breach of the general principles occurred or gave rise to a potential claim before exit day—that is the important point—individuals and businesses will still have the opportunity to make certain claims based on the breach of the general principles of EU law for a period of three months after exit date. That period of three months after exit date is taken to mirror the period normally allowed in the context of applications for judicial review. That strikes a balance between ensuring that, on the one hand, individuals and businesses will still have the opportunity to bring these challenges and, on the other hand, delivering the result of the referendum and maintaining our parliamentary sovereignty.
While we believe that the compromises we have already made on the general principles of EU law have improved the Bill, the Government are looking again at these issues to see whether this part of the Bill can be improved in keeping with some of the concerns that have been expressed. That is because we understand the complexities of the issues that arise in the context of Schedule 1 and we are looking at those at present.
With that, I hope that the noble Baroness will see fit to withdraw her amendment.
Perhaps I may explore that with the noble and learned Lord. The point I was making was that if the Acts were passed before Brexit day and they were challenged on the basis that the alleged incompetence was that they were not consistent with the general principles of EU law, would that challenge fail on Brexit day plus one, because it would mean that the court could no longer determine it?
In the event that an Act of the Scottish Parliament was enacted beyond the competence of the Parliament, it would not and would never have been law. That is the position pursuant to Sections 28 and 29 of the Scotland Act 1998. I hope that that clarifies the point, but if I have misunderstood the noble and learned Lord—
I thank the noble and learned Lord for his response and all noble and noble and learned Lords who have spoken in this debate. I think that it has been confirmed that it is every bit as bad as I thought it was, and in fact I am not even sure that it is not worse. We now seem to have some kind of parallel jurisprudence which appears not to be actionable either under general principles or under common law, so we have created a kind of lacuna that cannot be approached. I also reject the fact that we would not be going on indefinitely applying general principles because the whole point is that we have the law as it is in the snapshot until such time as we change it. While I understand that one would not necessarily want to go in for a sudden wholesale redrafting of things, as amendments are necessary—especially if we avail ourselves of some of the mechanisms we have talked about where an Act of Parliament is going to be needed either because it is primary legislation or because we have put that on as a safeguard—these things are going to be revised and updated. I am still concerned and it is something that along with others we might want to return to on Report. However, for now, with the leave of the Committee I shall withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 40ZA withdrawn.
Amendments 40A to 42 not moved.
43: Schedule 1, page 16, line 27, leave out paragraph 4
My Lords, it is not easy to generate a great deal of excitement at this time of night about an item of jurisprudence, but I rise to speak about the Francovich principle, which is extremely important both as a general principle—in fact, I do not think that there is any more important principle in our legal system—and as an instrument for driving ever-better standards of governance and of output by the public sector. Let me explain this briefly.
The Francovich case, as I think noble Lords will know, and certainly all noble and learned Lords will know very well, is a piece of jurisprudence dating originally from 1991 that has been with us for 25 years. It has become very much part of the scene, and I think that without exaggeration I can say that it is part of the political and legal culture that we have created in the European Union over that time. It has been extended by jurisprudence so that it covers states, public authorities and agencies as well as local government, and more recently it has also been extended to cover the private sector. What the principle says is that where an individual, a corporate body or a state body has been in breach of union law and corporate or private individuals have suffered thereby, they have the remedy that the courts concerned are able to impose damages proportionate to the losses incurred by those who have suffered as a result of the bad governance concerned.
When I say that it is a very important principle and a very important pragmatic instrument, let me explain that. Surely the very important principle here is that the state must be subject to the law. If I go out and break the law, I can be arrested, charged and eventually fined, or even sent to prison in certain cases—and I can certainly be sued for civil damages for negligence, breach of the law et cetera. If, however, state bodies are immune from the law, the relationship between the citizen and the state is very different from the one we like to think exists in a constitutional democracy. That principle is very important and it will cease to be enshrined in law if we do not amend the Bill as it currently stands.
The valuable, pragmatic instrument to which I referred is simply that the existence of the Francovich judgment, which—as the Library told me—has been cited by over 300 cases since and has played a major part in many decisions. If I had more time I would digress on the bad planning decisions that have been reversed and the beaches and rivers that have been cleaned up as a result of the working of this principle. The principle drives better government the whole time.
I dare say that the Government, in their contribution to the debate, will say, “It doesn’t matter because when we leave the Union we can fall back on judicial review”. Judicial review is a creation, of course, not of European jurisprudence but our own jurisprudence; it is a very valuable principle and a valuable achievement over the past 50 years. In my view, as I have already argued, it is not quite as important or valuable as the Francovich principle, but nevertheless it is a splendid thing. There is a big difference between judicial review and Francovich, because under judicial review, you cannot get any damages. You can spend £3 million or £5 million—I have no doubt that noble and learned Lords will tell me any amount of money you want—by running the case, but you will not get the damages that you would get under the Francovich case. All of us who have been involved in government know that there is nothing more terrifying for any Minister than the prospect of being exposed as responsible for the loss of money in their department. Indeed, the political life expectancy of any Minister who finds himself in that position is frankly a matter of hours rather than days. So the risk of having damages awarded against one is a very real threat to anybody in a position of responsibility—chief executive of the local council, chief executive of an agency, a Minister or whoever—and it makes everybody stop to think extremely carefully. That is what we are talking about in the amendment.
Going through the Bill, all of us face a great difficulty. We have a choice to make and I do not think that any one of us is completely clear on how we should make it. Hopefully, we will have taken a decision by the time the Bill emerges from Report, but it may take a little while yet. The choice is this: do we believe the Bill or the Government? If we believe the Bill, all these rights and remedies and protections are disappearing. That is what the wording of the Bill before us says—that Francovich has been abolished—quite unambiguously and clearly. In other parts of the Bill, as we have seen today and on other occasions in Committee, it is the same story. We were talking earlier about family rights and labour rights and so forth, and it looks as though some of those are not being protected—even animal rights are not being carried forward on the same terms, with the wording being changed and softened and so on. There are subtle ways in which rights and protections are being withdrawn. That is what you get from reading the Bill.
What is more, the Government continually tell us that all the Bill does is make sure that there is no legal uncertainty at the time of Brexit and that we will simply carry forward retained law into British law. In fact, there is an agenda in the Bill that is quite blatant to anybody who reads it. It is not a hidden agenda; it is quite obvious. It is a kind of power grab by the Executive at the expense of the citizen. The European Charter of Fundamental Rights is going, which is clearly a loss to the citizen. Again, the Executive cannot have the charter prayed in aid against them.
The most concerning aspect is of course the Henry VIII clauses that we have not yet come to, which constitute an extraordinary power grab by the Executive at the expense of Parliament. We have it here again with the Francovich issue. Again, it is a power grab by the Executive, who want to abolish this because it is a trial and a problem for them and the state. They have to perform or else they have to pay up and get humiliated. That is what we see.
It is very difficult to know whether that is the truth or whether the truth is what we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, on the last group of amendments, which was put very appealingly and I am sure with great sincerity: that no rights are being removed at all, that there is no weakening or erosion—I think I quote his words exactly—and that all the rights and protections are being carried forward. I only hope that it is so. But if they are being carried in the case of Francovich and the other case as well, let us see it in the Bill. Let us remove the ambiguities in the Bill, because there is a clear contradiction between what we are being told about no rights and protections being abolished and the fact that we have here in front of us—I will quote it if anybody wants—the text referred to by the amendment, which would abolish this particular paragraph. So which is it: the very alluring picture we were given by the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, half an hour or an hour ago, and the similar picture given by the Prime Minister in her speech on Friday, or is it the Bill? That is the problem.
I hope that this matter can be resolved. I hope that the Government will tell us that we can set our minds at rest, that the assurances we have been given override the apparent message of the Bill, that if there are any problems or anomalies they will be sorted out on Report and that, among other things, the Francovich principle will be upheld and preserved.
I will make one final point. I dare say it will be said by the Government on this subject that Francovich will not be appropriate after we have left the Union because we will not be part of it any more and the whole purpose of Francovich is to provide a remedy to those who are disadvantaged by the non-observance of Union law in the European Union. My view is that we should make sure that those people who currently enjoy those rights and remedies—which is all our citizens—should continue to enjoy them in respect of the same laws as they do at present, in other words in respect of retained law. There could be a very reasonable and attractive agenda that would say that we should extend the Francovich principle from a Union law or a retained law to the generality of law in this country—British law, English law, Scots law et cetera. I would be very much up for that and in favour of it, but I see that as slightly complicating the issue and I fear that I shall be told that this Bill is not the right vehicle—that is probably correct—in which to achieve that purpose. But my purpose is to make sure that we continue to have the rights that we enjoy today—and if we accept the amendment we will achieve that.
My Lords, I must advise the Committee that if this amendment were agreed to, I would be unable to call Amendments 44 or 45 for reasons of pre-emption.
My Lords, for those of us who have real enjoyment in the law, a nice bit of law at three minutes past midnight is rather like a comforting, calm, creamy cup of cocoa, but I recognise that not everybody is of the same view. With that in mind, I propose to elide in the remarks I am going to make comments on Amendment 45, which appears in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and on Amendments 48 and 50, which appear with the same names. That should save time in a few minutes because I understand that we intend to complete that group as well.
These amendments are designed to retain the so-called Francovich principle. I congratulate the noble Lord who has just spoken on summarising it very well. I will add a little bit of flesh on it because I wish to try to tease out of the Minister a welcome response to those of us who seek to preserve at least part of the Francovich principle, although I would happily pass to him the burden of perfected drafting.
In the Gina Miller litigation, in which the noble and learned Lord and my noble friend Lord Pannick played starring parts, the Government in their submissions place considerable weight on their intention to enact what was then called a “great repeal Bill”. As the Supreme Court understood it, that Bill would—and this is a quotation from the majority judgment at paragraph 34,
“repeal the 1972 Act and, wherever practical … convert existing EU law into domestic law at least for a transitional period”.
Surprisingly, in relation to the Francovich principle, there has been no conversion and no transition. I ask the Minister to explain whether that really is the position that the Government wish to maintain.
The Francovich principle is a principle of existing EU law which requires damages to be available where three conditions are met: first, that the rule infringed was intended to confer rights on individuals—I am sure that we would all applaud that; secondly, that the breach was sufficiently serious to give rise to a legal action, which I am sure we would also applaud; and, thirdly, that there was a direct causal link between the breach of the obligation resting on the defendant and the damage sustained by the injured party, and I am sure that we would all applaud that, too. Perhaps the Minister would explain why he wants to get rid of that principle.
To provide a little more explanation for the fascinated non-lawyers here, who may just about be in a majority—
I always listen with great respect to the Government Chief Whip, especially when he sympathetically allows us to debate these issues after midnight.
In Francovich, workers who suffered damage when their employer became insolvent were entitled to compensation under an EU directive which required member states to secure their protection. Since Italy had failed to implement the directive, the individual workers brought a claim before their national courts for compensation from the state for the damage they had suffered due to this failure, and I think that we would all applaud that, too.
State liability is enforced not through the European courts but through national courts, thus the ECJ stipulated that national procedures should determine how state liability is enforced. The procedures for claiming damages from the state before national courts must comply with the principles of equivalence—that is, with the procedures available for comparable claims for damages—and effectiveness, to secure that EU law as well as national law is respected. As long as it respects these two principles, the member state can prescribe its own procedures for claims as regards, for example, proof and time limits —so it is hardly imposing wicked European ideas on the national courts, since they are left to enforce the principles concerned.
The Francovich principle has led to some significant legal actions; perhaps the best known in the UK is the Factortame litigation, which contained five cases concerning fishing rights.
What is the problem with the Bill? It is confusing. I quote from the summarised views of commentators more expert than me on this subject. It is said that Clause 6(1) removes the right to rely on EU law and obtain a reference to the ECJ after the date of exit. Paragraphs 3 and 4 of Schedule 1 plainly remove the ability to rely on EU law or utilise the Francovich principle after the date of exit. Or do they? I ask that because paragraph 27(3) of Schedule 8, which all noble Lords will have been reading carefully in preparation for this short debate, makes it clear that cases begun prior to the exit date are not subject to the restriction that I have described and therefore can continue to rely on Francovich.
As was pointed out by Dame Cheryl Gillan in another place on 14 November last, the Bill is contradictory, in that it both allows continued reliance on Francovich in cases commenced before the date of exit but also removes that right. That appears to mean that a litigant in a case started before the date of exit, and who has a legitimate expectation that the law will not change retrospectively and that he or she will be able to rely on Francovich, will lose that expectation. If I am wrong in that, I am not the only one and I would like a correction, please. All litigants have a legitimate expectation to have their cases heard under the rules applicable not at an arbitrary time, such as the date of exit, but at the time of the breach of the law concerned. This includes EU law at that time, if it was applicable, and on the face of it, the right of a reference to the ECJ if they are dissatisfied. The purpose of the two groups of amendments is to achieve something much simpler, clearer and more just than the conclusion if the complaints I have described are correct.
I respectfully suggest that if a relevant cause of action accrues before the date of exit, the claimant should be able to pursue that cause of action. That would be their normal litigation right, and exit should not retrospectively remove that normal litigation right. As the Bill stands, because of ambiguity there is a risk that some or all Francovich claims, unless they have already been completed, will be extinguished. Surely, that would be an incorrect and unintended consequence. Plainly—and I will deal with this in a moment—there are some concerns about the potential role of the ECJ.
One of the points I was going to make concerned the continued role of the ECJ, but while I am on my feet, I entirely understand the noble Lord’s points about transitional provisions, but will he clarify to the House whether his support would go as far as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in having a continuing Francovich?
No, I would not go so far as the latter part of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Davies. I recognise that if we leave the European Union, as we are doing, we have to have the transitional arrangements that were promised and that were referred to by the learned judges in the Supreme Court, on the basis of submissions that may well have been made by the noble Lord himself.
What I suggest to deal with the ECJ problem is one of two alternatives. One is to allow the ECJ jurisdiction to continue for the very small number of cases likely to arise. I recognise, of course, that that will attract political problems that might better be overcome by a more pragmatic solution. The pragmatic solution is to recognise and clarify that the United Kingdom courts, in dealing with such cases, should apply normal, comparative law principles; the sort of thing that we lawyers are accustomed to when we cite, for example, Australian or Canadian cases before the senior courts. This would mean that the courts of the United Kingdom, in dealing with such cases, should have due regard to ECJ decisions on similar and analogous matters. This would fall, as I say, within the ordinary principles of comparative law, whereby the United Kingdom courts give due weight to useful and relevant decisions in other jurisdictions. Thus we would have at least analogous law applied to the residual Francovich cases. We would have a right to make a claim on the basis of the date when the claim accrued, even if it is not yet quantified and not yet pursued, and the unintended consequences of retrospectivity would be avoided. In my view this would accord with sound legal principle.
I urge the Minister, even at this late hour, to say that he will return to the House with suitable and welcome government amendments for the clarification and preservation of what are proper bases for action.
My Lords, I support Amendment 43, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and supported by the noble Lords, Lord Foster and Lord Foulkes, and to which I have added my name. I also support the thrust of Amendments 44 and 45. I will try to be brief in light of the hour.
Amendment 43 aims to ensure that the Government maintain their pledge not to water down rights if we leave the EU. I do not see why the Bill needs to explicitly remove the right to Francovich protection, which allows citizens—individuals and small businesses—to sue the Government for damages resulting from past breaches of EU law. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will reconsider the removal of this protection; otherwise, we will lose a key last-bastion protection for citizens and small businesses, which allows them some remedy against harm caused to them by government policy.
The Government say that people will still be able to sue in the UK courts, but in practice this power is not normally exercisable. I have personal involvement in this area and have seen how difficult it is to mount a legal challenge against the Government. A judicial review must be launched within a very short timescale, which most ordinary individuals would struggle to meet. When I was helping the 150,000 members of final salary pension schemes, including Dexion and Allied Steel and Wire, who had lost their entire company pension and part of their state pension as a result of flawed laws which failed to properly protect their pension rights when their company became insolvent, despite being obliged to do so by the EU insolvency directive, I had to find lawyers who would work on a no win, no fee basis. Even then, the Government refused to agree not to pursue the claimants for their costs if we lost. These poor claimants faced losing all their assets, including their home, when taking the Government to court. Realistically, most people simply could not take such pressure.
It is unreasonable to remove the last-resort protection that such people have, which would allow them to appeal to the EU courts under Francovich protection for a ruling which would not risk the same costs and difficulties as a UK court action against the Government. If an EU directive was implemented wrongly, and the Government had not introduced sufficient protections, despite being obliged to do so, the amendment would ensure that the Bill does not remove people’s last resort to redress. I hope that the Government will agree to this amendment or produce their own version.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 43, and I support Amendments 44 and 45. I begin by disagreeing slightly with the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. I suspect that I am in a minority: those of us who are not lawyers.
However, I am very conscious that during our deliberations so far we have heard many times that the Bill is intended to ensure that,
“as a general rule, the same rules and laws will apply after we leave the EU as they did before”.
About an hour ago we heard a very powerful reiteration of that from the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, who made it very clear that he believes what the Government seek to achieve. Yet that has to be put alongside the continuing concern in the other place and in many parts of your Lordships’ House that somehow or other Schedule 1 provides the Government with a get out of jail free card—an opportunity to have a series of measures which appear at least to curtail some of the legal rights and remedies we have enjoyed as a result of our membership of the European Union. A glaring example of that was well illustrated by the noble Lords, Lord Davies and Lord Carlile, and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and is contained in paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 in relation to Francovich.
As the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, rightly pointed out, Francovich is not just some right whereby anybody who feels slightly aggrieved by their Government not properly implementing some piece of EU legislation can immediately start action. Three clear criteria have to be met and have already been laid out: that there are rights conferred on an individual, that the breach was sufficiently serious, and that there is a clear causal connection between the breach and the damage sustained by the individual.
It seems clear, at least to me as a non-lawyer, that if paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 remains in the Bill, no retrospective claims under Francovich will be permitted, and certainly not if the proceedings have not been started before exit. In those cases, individuals will lose their ability to claim damages against the state for failure to implement EU laws and directives issued pre-exit. This would mean that the victim of a government failure to correctly implement an EU law must have started action before exit day, but that will not always have been possible and would seem contrary to natural justice. Access to justice, including the ability to challenge the actions of the state before a court of law, is central to the rule of law. If paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 remains as it stands, it seems that access to justice for some people will be denied.
I was in your Lordships’ House some 10 days ago when we heard during exchanges on the Statement on air quality that the High Court had ruled that the Government’s air quality plan, designed to tackle nitrogen dioxide in the air, was unlawful. The Court ruling said:
“It is now eight years since compliance with the 2008 Directive should have been achieved. This is the third, unsuccessful, attempt the Government has made at devising”,
an air quality plan,
“which complies with the Directive and the domestic Regulations."
The judge, Mr Justice Garnham, added,
“In the meanwhile, UK citizens have been exposed to significant health risks”.
It may be that some individuals will wish to argue, under the rule of Francovich, that they have suffered damage and deserve compensation because of the Government’s failure to implement the 2008 directive. Without Amendment 43, or some similar measure, such individuals will be prevented from seeking justice unless they submit their claim and have their case under way before exit day.
In the other place, many other examples of potential loss of access to justice under Francovich were raised. Initially the Minister there, Dominic Raab, offered assurances that:
“Individuals will not lose their ability to vindicate their rights in court after exit”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/11/17; col. 290.]
It may be—I have no way of knowing—that he believes that to be the case because of Section 16 of the Interpretation Act 1978, which provides that,
“where an Act repeals an enactment, the repeal does not, unless the contrary intention appears ... affect any right, privilege, obligation or liability … accrued or incurred under that enactment”.
So the right to claim under the rule of Francovich post-exit would seem to depend on whether the Bill before us provides an effective and clear contrary intention. Can the Minister tell us clearly whether the Government believe that paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 provides a clear contrary intention, within the meaning of Section 16 of the Interpretation Act 1978?
Certainly, there are some other lawyers who appear very uncertain about that point. For example, the very helpful briefing from James Segan of Blackstone Chambers leads me to conclude that seeking justice by arguing that there was no contrary intention or that it had been introduced ineffectively would lead litigants into a legal quagmire, so I was slightly heartened when in the other place a little later in the deliberations the Minister changed his tune when pressed by, among others, Conservative MPs Robert Neill, Dame Cheryl Gillan and Sir Oliver Letwin. He told them that he acknowledged the importance of legitimate expectations and agreed to see whether these concerns could be addressed, at least transitorily, by regulation rather than in the Bill. I hope that the Minister can update us on progress on that thinking. He has already said in relation to other aspects of Schedule 1 that the Government are willing to do that.
I would have thought that by far the better route to securing the continuation of the rights under Francovich would be to accept Amendment 43 or something like it, and ensure that the Bill makes it clear that when the Government say that the same rules and laws will apply after we leave the EU, they really mean it.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, will he accept that the right to damages under the Francovich principle is more generous to claimants than the common law principle of judicial review under which you very rarely have a right to claim damages as you need to prove misfeasance in public office or something similar? Does he accept that Francovich is more generous? Secondly, does he accept that it therefore follows that paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to the Bill conflicts with the Government’s purpose in bringing forward this Bill, which is to read across all existing rights that are enjoyed under EU law? If he accepts that, what is the justification for making an exception for Francovich damages?
My Lords, it seems to me that if the Government break the law, they should be judged on the basis of the law at the time that they break it and that this is not a Bill in which the Government should seek to advantage themselves by averting that principle.
My Lords, I spoke on this subject at Second Reading in respect of the disputes that arose under the old regime which seem to me to deserve fair treatment. I am aware of instances, in particular relating to small businesses, where it could lead to a very unfair result and deprive genuine claimants of going to the EU courts. The noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, mentioned the note by James Segan, and it raises a question which perhaps my noble and learned friend can answer about whether as it currently stands with paragraph 27 of Schedule 8, which was mentioned, and Section 16 of the Interpretation Act 1978, there could be action under the Human Rights Act. It would be politically unacceptable, apart from anything else, to see claimants pursuing their claims if there were that interpretation.
My Lords, I look forward to the answers that the Minister will give to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I have Amendment 44 which deals with the timing of the Francovich claim. I can be brief. My noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford set out very well what we are talking about. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, indicated the problems to which the Government’s approach gives rise. One can look at it this way: at the moment the Bill appears to say that if the Government were to commit an act that was unlawful—a breach of Union law, for example—before exit day, the Francovich claim could not be brought, except in circumstances where the claim had been brought before exit day. I do not see the justification for that. That amounts to whitewashing an unlawful act and, as has been said—and it seems to me to be absolutely right—it is quite inconsistent with the promise that has been made that we will have the same rights the day after exit day as the day before.
I look forward to the answers to those questions. Even if any change does not go as far as my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford, said, it must at least apply, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, put it, to accrued rights, so that any act which is committed before exit day which gives rise to a Francovich claim should continue to do so.
My Lords, I am obliged. Reference has been made to the Francovich principle. I am not sure there is such a principle, although there is the issue of Francovich damages, which arises from the case that was referred to in 1991. In order to put that into context, since 1991, and in the 20 years following, there have been 22—possibly up to 25—claims for Francovich damages in the UK courts. This is not some wide-ranging citizen or business right for the recovery of damages. There have been very few actual Francovich damages claims. I see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, shaking his head, but I invite him to study the case law.
I am just about to come on to that. I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord for his patience in that respect, and will endeavour to deal with matters as swiftly as I can, given the hour. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, very correctly, pointed out the criteria that apply in determining whether or not there is a claim for Francovich damages: first, that the relevant provision of European Union law was intended to confer rights; secondly, that there has been a serious failure to implement European Union law; and thirdly, that there is a direct causal link between that failure and the loss complained of. I would not go so far as to suggest that Francovich damages are in some sense more generous than those available otherwise under the common law in this country, particularly those available in the context of judicial review. I have to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that damages are potentially available in a claim for judicial review.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, dealt with that point. In practice, damages are not usually available under judicial review. The general view of the public is that there is a very small chance of getting damages that way. That is the difference between that and Francovich, and it is very important.
With respect, it is not. I have to say to the noble Lord that Francovich damages are a rare remedy, as I have already indicated. Damages in the context of judicial review are not so uncommon as the noble Lord was suggesting. They are available as a remedy, albeit in limited circumstances.
Perhaps I can continue just for a moment. I would begin by looking at the Bill against that background. Paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 is perfectly clear in saying the right to Francovich damages is removed, because of course it is related to a breach of European Union law, and it would not be appropriate to continue—in accordance with Amendment 43—after we have left the European Union. The Bill is quite clear in saying that there is,
“no right in domestic law on or after exit day to damages in accordance with the rule in Francovich”.
To that extent, it does deal with the issue raised in the context of Section 16 of the Interpretation Act 1978.
I wonder whether the noble Lord could exercise a small degree of patience while I just complete what I have to say on this topic. But we can take as long as it takes. As I was saying, in terms of paragraph 4 of Schedule 1, the right in domestic law to damages in accordance with the rule in Francovich is removed as at exit date. There is of course a proviso in paragraph 27 of Schedule 8 in respect of claims for Francovich damages which have already been raised prior to exit date—the point that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, made. The potential lacuna is this: there may be accrued rights as at exit date where no claim has been made. We recognise that and it was noted in the other place. We are open to addressing that issue in order to ensure that those accrued rights are not removed by the application of paragraph 4 of Schedule 1. That is something that we are prepared to look at, as I have indicated, because we are aware of the criticism that has been made about the potential removal of rights that have already accrued as at the exit date.
I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord. As I say, we are addressing that issue, which we recognise, and therefore in time for Report we will be determining what our position is. I cannot go further at this stage and I am not going to commit to an amendment, but I make it perfectly clear that we recognise that there is a potential lacuna arising from the fact that while, where a claim has been made before Brexit date it is continued, where the claim has accrued but no claim has actually been made it would be lost by this process. We recognise that there is room for criticism of the legislation on that basis; I am absolutely clear about that.
In these circumstances, I recognise the force of the amendment proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in order to address that issue. I would take issue with the scope of the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, which goes well beyond that and would maintain some sort of claim for Francovich damages in a context quite unrelated to our departure from the EU. I underline that this would not be appropriate.
I mentioned earlier the limited number of cases in which Francovich damages have arisen. That in itself suggests that it might be a proportionate response to the amendments made by the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, to allow for claims that have accrued because they are potentially very few indeed. I recognise that entirely. I am not committing to an amendment at this stage but I will make the position clear by the time we reach Report. In the circumstances, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Before the Minister sits down and we all go to bed, I am very puzzled by his suggestion that there is currently a right to damages in judicial review such that Francovich damages do not add anything. In what circumstances is the Minister suggesting there is a right to damages in judicial review, other than in the very rare cases where you can prove misfeasance in public office?
That is one example of where a claim for damages would arise in the context of a judicial review. There are distinct circumstances in which Francovich damages will arise. The noble Lord will himself recognise that the circumstances in which you can actually establish a basis of claim for Francovich damages are even rarer than those instances in which you can establish one in domestic judicial review.
I do not accept that. It is quite clear, I suggest, that damages under Francovich are provided in circumstances where you would not otherwise get damages because you cannot prove misfeasance but you can prove that the breach is sufficiently serious and that the law was intended to confer a right to damages. That is why I suggest to the Minister that paragraph 4 is taking away something of value.
In response to the noble Lord’s observations, we are dealing in the context of Francovich with the court having to find that there has been a serious failure with regard to an EU obligation, and I suggest that that is not very far from the test of misfeasance in the context of judicial review.
Yes, not drinking cocoa, indeed—absolutely right.
First of all, I must say that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, has misunderstood a number of things. One is that I think he has got it wrong on the issue of damages. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is representative in what he said of the great majority of legal opinion on this subject and of the experience that any of us have had—via our constituents or otherwise—in this area of the law.
The second thing is that I think the noble and learned Lord has misunderstood that the major part of the importance of the Francovich system or jurisprudence is that it is a potential deterrent to those who might be inclined to misgovern us. People know that they are subject to this particular sanction if they do, and that has enormous effect. The fact that the power is used 25 times is not negligible—28 times I think it is in this country and 300 and something times over the Union as a whole. That does not mean to say that it is without effect, or that its effect is limited to those occasions. It would be very naive to say that; its effect is created by the presence of that particular sanction and means of redress for those who have been wronged in this way.
I also do not think that the noble and learned Lord is right in saying that the whole matter of Francovich is not very important because it applies only when there are serious issues. The principle of—to put it in language that I think he will understand—de minimis non curat lex—applies to everything really, in the Roman law tradition anyway. So it is not at all surprising that it applies in this case.
I want to leave the Committee with complete clarity about this, and there are three separate issues here. One is what we do about people who have a claim, or think they have a claim, under the Francovich principle—and I continue to call it that—and it is overtaken by events because they have not litigated before Brexit or they are half way through or they have not expressed their claim or put it in at all. What happens about them? That is important, because it may only be three or four people, and we should always be concerned about justice for anybody. I do not in any way denigrate people who have taken up a lot of time to talk about their particular subject; it is a perfectly respectable concern to have. But my concern is not really with that—mine is to my mind much more significant. Going forward, do we have the Francovich principle or something like it in our own legal system, both to enshrine that principle that the state is subject to the law like everybody else, which as I say is so important, and to make sure that we have that instrument of good government, which has a real deterrent effect on the behaviour of central and local government, public corporations and, indeed, the private sector? That is very important to me.
I disagree very strongly with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, when he says that the Francovich system does not make any sense when we have left the European Union, because there will not be such a thing as European law here. He is quite wrong about that; there will be retained law for decades, no doubt, until it is changed by statute—if it is changed by statute over that time. It is called retained law; it is exactly the same law. The difference may be that, whereas you could litigate under it before Brexit, after Brexit you will not be able to litigate under it at all, which seems completely unreasonable. That means the loss of remedies and rights that we currently have in respect of exactly the same laws, because they are exactly the same provisions with exactly the same wording having exactly the same effect, whether they are today on 5 March, or on 1 April next year after we have left. That is what the whole principle of retained law is, as I understand it—and I think that the noble and learned Lord knows that.
It is my concern in this amendment to make sure that, when the citizens of this country have current rights and protections, they should enjoy all those after Brexit. I thought that the Government were in favour of that principle. We heard earlier from another Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, that he believes that that is the case and favours that principle—and I think that that principle is enormously important.
Then there is the third issue, which I raised—and it is probably not the last time that I shall raise it in this House. The experience of Francovich is such that I believe that it should be carried forward into the whole corpus of law in this country, Scots law and English law. We continue to have these rights and these remedies. I believe their jurisprudence in this case to be a considerable advance of civilisation in the European Union over the last 25 years; there have been many such advances and, if we are going to carry forward the assets that we take over rather than throwing them away on Brexit, we should make sure that we carry forward this one. That is not a matter for this Bill; what is a matter for this Bill is the second point that I make, which is to make sure that in respect of retained law the rights that currently exist will be carried through and not abolished.
I hope that the Government will think about that between now and Report. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter with them before we decide how we can take this matter further. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 43 withdrawn.
Amendments 44 to 47 not moved.
Schedule 1 agreed.
Clause 6: Interpretation of retained EU law
48: Clause 6, page 3, line 32, after “Court” insert “except in relation to anything that happened before that day”
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for what he said earlier. It was well worth waiting up for and rather more stimulating than the cup of cocoa that I referred to earlier. Having said that, I can see no point in prolonging the debate on this amendment. If it is appropriate, therefore, I seek leave to withdraw it.
Amendment 48 withdrawn.
House adjourned at 12.46 am.