The government’s trade bill – which will give ministers powers to give up disability rights protections in exchange for deals with other countries – proves disabled people were right to be concerned about the impact of Brexit, say campaigners.
Disability and human rights organisations have written to trade secretary Liam Fox to express alarm about the bill, which gives ministers “delegated powers” to change legislation including the Equality Act in exchange for future trade deals.
These trade deals are those previously agreed with other countries by the EU, and which have already been scrutinised by the UK parliament and the EU, but which could now be altered post-Brexit.
The trade bill was passed by MPs this week but will now be debated in the House of Lords.
The letter, sent by Liberty and signed by organisations including Disability Rights UK (DR UK), Disability Law Service, RNIB and the UK human rights consortium Just Fair, tells Fox that the bill as it stands includes “no safeguards to prevent ministers from using these new powers to remove rights granted by Parliament”.
And it says the powers could be used, for example, to change parts of the Equality Act that require public transport to be accessible for disabled people.
The letter adds: “We urge you to add a commitment to the text of the Bill to protect human rights and equality laws during the process of legislating for the UK’s exit from the EU.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has told Disability News Service that it shares the concerns in the Liberty letter.
EHRC’s own briefing document on the bill warns that the delegated powers currently in the bill are “wide enough to allow a future reduction in the protection of fundamental rights”, such as on worker’s rights, equality and non-discrimination, inclusion of disabled people and access to social protection.
Sue Bott (pictured), deputy chief executive of DR UK, said: “Ever since the referendum result, we have been concerned about the potential impact of Brexit on disabled people.
“We think it is a matter that should concern us all, however people voted.”
DR UK has drawn up a manifesto on what the disability rights sector should be seeking from a post-Brexit Britain, including the need to retain the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Bott said: “The trade bill, in allowing ministers to change laws like the Equality Act to gain international trade agreements, demonstrates that we were right to be worried and for this reason we agreed to be a signatory to the letter put together by Liberty.
“Words and platitudes are not enough. We need our rights guaranteed in legislation, not watered down.
“This bill demonstrates that we have to be vigilant in defending our hard-won rights.”
Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty, said: “This trade bill turns crucial protections into bargaining chips.
“With no consent from parliament or the public, ministers would be able to dispose of vital protections against discrimination and prevent equal access to jobs, education, transport and public services simply because another country thinks equality gets in the way of trade.
“Human rights are not up for negotiation – MPs must press the government for a cast-iron legal commitment that they won’t be undermined in the name of trade.”
The Department for International Trade (DIT) failed to comment on the call for an explicit commitment in the bill that it would not be used to undermine rights.
Despite the concerns raised in the Liberty letter and by EHRC, a DIT spokesman claimed it was “wrong to state that the continuity powers in the trade bill can be used without parliamentary scrutiny, and we have made a clear commitment to parliamentary debate on any changes which may have to be made in order to transition these from EU to UK agreements”.
He said the trade agreements had “already been scrutinised by parliament and the EU” and the government had made clear that it would keep these agreements “the same as much as possible and only make technical changes when needed”.
He said DIT would respond to Liberty’s letter in due course.
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