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The vote for Brexit was not a vote against human rights

By Bella Sankey, Director of Policy at Liberty

Following the Brexit vote there has been a rise in divisive rhetoric from politicians. This tone causes human rights’ activists to worry that in the negotiations for Brexit the fundamental rights of marginalised groups will not be protected. In this article Bella Sankey of UK human rights organisation Liberty highlights activists’ concerns following the referendum, while examining how the government has responded to the vote by refusing to guarantee rights.

Five months ago, before the EU referendum, then-Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech that could have come from a human rights’ activist. In a tribute to the late Jo Cox MP, he said: “Where we see hatred, where we find division, where we see intolerance, we must drive it out of our politics and out of our public life and out of our communities.”

Just days later, following the referendum result to leave the EU, we witnessed a surge in hateful abuse across the country, reminiscent of the 1970s.

Given the outpouring from Mr Cameron and many other MPs that followed Jo Cox’s murder, you would have hoped that our leaders would have embarked on this next chapter with one thought underpinning their every move – the need to embed human rights’ values at the heart of the transition. But the new Government’s actions since have resolutely failed to live up to those warm words. As we embark on two years of negotiations over laws touching virtually every part of life, it seems that our rights and the cohesion of our society are under grave threat.

In September, Justice Secretary Liz Truss reaffirmed the Government’s plans to scrap the Human Rights Act. At October’s Conservative Party Conference, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced plans to force companies to publish lists of their foreign workers.

And behind the speeches and press releases, the Department for Education started forcing schools to contribute to a national list of foreign-born children – which can be shared with multiple third parties, including – we fear – to monitor and deport migrant families.

Ministers appear blind to how their words and actions foster the division they – publicly at least – abhor in our communities. The Prime Minister has dogmatically interpreted the referendum result as a mandate for slashing rights and bashing migrants. Our Government is installing a form of authoritarian populism – forget ‘take back control’. This is Executive dominance.

As we embark on two years of negotiations over laws touching virtually every part of life, it seems that our rights and the cohesion of our society are under grave threat

The vote for Brexit was not a vote against rights – the rights of migrants or anyone else.

Yet the Government set the tone with its early refusal to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. They see those who have chosen to build their lives here not as human beings with friends, families and a stake in British society – but as human bargaining chips.

Liberty has already submitted a briefing to Joint Committee on Human Rights demanding our Government guarantees EU nationals the right to stay and commits to protect their legal rights – particularly to healthcare, employment and education.

Another group most under threat are refugees. In Theresa May, we have a Prime Minister who still thinks like a particularly mean-spirited and divisive Home Secretary – obsessed with her immigration cap – a failed gimmick she can’t bear to acknowledge.

For years the Government has been openly hostile towards refugees and contemptuous of its international obligations, repeatedly refusing to join the rest of Europe in accepting our fair share.

EU laws set minimum standards to ensure fairness and dignity for those seeking sanctuary in the UK. We must maintain these protections as fundamental to our response to the ongoing refugee crisis – or risk trashing our hard-earned reputation for offering sanctuary to those in desperate need.

And as ministers get down to the detail of drafting a Great Repeal Bill, the danger is that a raft of other rights and freedoms are chipped away too. The European Communities Act 1972 provides a host of rights – including many in the equality sphere – that must be matched word for word when the time comes.

Equality law is particularly at risk in Northern Ireland. Rules preventing employers from discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation or age aren’t enshrined in Northern Irish law – so could go with the Brexit bonfire.

Social ties have loosened, and chasms have opened across our national map

And in recent years we’ve seen ministers chip away at many equality and workers’ rights laws that aren’t backed up by an EU mandate. Employment tribunal fees, unfair dismissal and trade union voting thresholds have all come under attack. Without EU laws acting as a backstop against further rights-restricting legislation, there is a very real chance more could be lost. There is real confusion over what will happen to decades of rulings by the EU Court of Justice, many of which have aided the progressive realisation of rights in the UK. The court spurred reforms to our equality law to protect pregnant and transgender people, banned discrimination against relatives of those with disabilities, and has helped employees fight discrimination in the workplace.

If we are to come through the Brexit negotiations with our rights intact, the Government must urgently commission an independent audit to set out every single line of legislation, and every EU Court of Justice judgment that contributes to the bedrock of rights protection. Everything from workers’ rights and data protection to equality legislation and children’s rights must be included.

Social ties have loosened, and chasms have opened across our national map. With so much at stake, it’s vital that we root our new settlement in the principles that enable us all to rub along together – whatever our race, creed, religion or region. These principles are laid out in our Human Rights Act – a law which remains our most powerful tool for holding the Government to account.

Now, as we look to the future, we must continue to assert the values we aspire to: compassion, respect, tolerance, dignity, fairness and justice. Human rights values that unite us and can help build consensus and progress where there is division and fear. At Liberty the business of protecting fundamental rights and freedoms will continue, day-in, day-out, just as it has for the last 82 years.

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