08 January 2018
The Trade Bill – part of a raft of legislation triggered by the UK’s decision to leave the EU – will have its second reading in the House of Commons today and tomorrow, and it gives the government sweeping powers that could be used to erode human rights.
Both the Equality Act and the Modern Slavery Act could be under threat due to a clause in the Bill that allows ministers to unilaterally amend primary legislation without a democratic vote, a briefing from human rights organisation Liberty has warned.
Clause 2 provides the government with the power to make any regulations they “consider [appropriate] for the purposes of implementing an international trade agreement”, including those that “make provision [for] modifying primary legislation that is retained EU law”.
Liberty highlights that the definition of “retained EU law” appears to include UK legislation that puts EU directives into effect, thereby including the Equality Act 2010 and Modern Slavery Act 2015, which together provide vital employment protection to vulnerable groups such as migrant workers, and anyone who may be discriminated against or exploited due to their race, sexual orientation, gender, faith, disability, or any other protected characteristic.
Clause 2 of the Trade Bill would allow the government to change these laws with little to no parliamentary oversight in order to appease the demands of other nations during trade negotiations.
“This can be done without regard for fundamental human rights, specifically, those protected by domestic primary legislation,” Liberty explained.
“For example, the government could reach an agreement with a foreign state on the provision of services, such as transport, and make changes to the Equality Act. This could include removing the duty on service providers to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities, making access to transport more difficult for one in five of the UK’s population.
“A similar scenario can be envisaged with regard to banking and financial services, with amendments being made to the Equality Act to allow for the less favourable treatment of transsexual people when entering into insurance contracts.”
Elsewhere, the Trade Bill is under fire for providing yet more extraordinary powers to the government to implement Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) without the approval of parliament. Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clauses have become a common feature of FTAs, allowing multinationals to sue national governments for loss of profit as a result of laws passed through the democratic process. For instance, in the past, states have been taken to court for implementing a National Minimum Wage, thus increasing labour costs.