Human Rights: British Government's Brexit Plans Face Challenge Over Social Protection

Brexit European Union flag London
A European Union flag in front of Big Ben outside the British Parliament, March 28. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Britain's parliament is set to debate a crucial step in the Brexit process—granting pro-EU MPs a chance to frustrate the government's plans and setting up a high-stakes battle for Prime Minister Theresa May.

The government published its "Repeal Bill," a major piece of legislation which will convert EU law into British law while stopping new EU laws affecting Britain, on Thursday.

Designed to create continuity after Britain leaves the European Union, the bill is supposed to ensure that the legal framework remains once the country formally leaves Europe—a complicated process given that there are about 12,000 EU regulations currently in force, the majority of them affecting the U.K.

But the bill controversially does not include a provision to transfer into British law the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, a document first published in 2000 that lays out the rights of EU citizens.

The government believes that the charter does not need to be included because it was designed only to gather together existing EU rights, rather than create new ones, and therefore all the rights in it should be protected under the other laws covered in the bill.

But the opposition Labour Party's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer told The Guardian before the Repeal Bill was published that Labour would vote against the bill if it did not meet certain conditions, one of which was the inclusion of the Charter. A Labour spokesperson could not confirm to Newsweek whether the party was now planning to make good on its threat.

Voting down the bill would not stop the Brexit process—Britain has already notified the European Union of its intention to leave—but it would cause chaos for the government and raise a huge question mark over Britain's ability to function smoothly after its departure.

Meanwhile, the regional governments in Scotland and Wales have said they will attempt to block the bill unless the U.K.-wide government makes substantial changes.

In a joint statement, Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon complained that the bill did not guarantee that powers brought back to Britain from the EU would be handed down to the regional governments, instead handing them to central government first, with a promise that where appropriate they will be devolved further.

The two regional governments do not technically have to approve the bill. But it is convention for central government to seek their approval on legislation that affects them, and if they blocked the legislation it would create significant political problems for the U.K.-wide government going forward.

The Scottish National Party, which is in power in Scotland, also has 35 MPs who could challenge the bill in the Westminster parliament.

Given May's governing Conservative Party does not have a majority in parliament, any parliamentary challenge is a potentially serious threat to the government.

Conservative MPs with the support of the Democratic Unionists, a small Northern Irish party that has agreed to back May on some issues, provide the prime minister with a working majority of only 13. That means just a handful of rebels from her own party would need to defect if all other opposition parties voted against it.

The bill will be debated in parliament in the coming days.