The Conservative government has added a “chilling” detail to its Great Repeal Bill that cuts to the heart of its real agenda. According to The Times, the bill will remove [paywall] UK citizens’ right to sue the government for breaking the law.
If this comes to pass, it could essentially place ministers above the law. And they’ll be free to do whatever they like.
Pick and choose
As a member of the EU, Britons currently have the right to sue their government if it damages them in failing to uphold EU law. This has been the case since a European Court ruling in 1991, known as the Francovich ruling. But The Times reports the government has added a clause to the Great Repeal Bill that reads [paywall]:
There is no right in domestic law on or after exit day to damages in accordance with the rule in Francovich.
Parliament will debate the bill next month. And if it passes with this clause but without an equivalent UK-focused provision, citizens could lose the right to legally challenge the government if it breaks its own laws.
Not what it says on the tin
When the government first raised the notion of a repeal bill, it assured people that the bill would be empowering. Prime Minister Theresa May said the bill would ensure that:
our laws will be made not in Brussels but in Westminster. The judges interpreting those laws will sit not in Luxembourg but in courts in this country. The authority of EU law in Britain will end.
But with this clause included, it appears the bill will empower the government much more than the people. As David Hart QC, who practises environmental law, commented [paywall]:
This seems to be a blatant way of government seeking to avoid responsibilities. If you take an area like pollution it means that the government will escape any liability under the Francovich principle for past and future breaches.
Calm down, dear
A government spokesperson, however, insisted that the ability for citizens to sue their officials would remain. The spokesperson said [paywall] the Francovich ruling is “linked” to the EU and therefore “no longer relevant” after the UK leaves. But they said [paywall]:
After exit, under UK law it will still be possible for individuals to receive damages or compensation for any losses caused by breach of the law.
According to The Times, the spokesperson provided [paywall] no evidence on how the government would ensure this right remained. And many seem unconvinced that the government will provide another like-for-like clause that ensures it does so. The director of human rights group Liberty, Martha Spurrier warned [paywall]:
This chilling clause, buried deep in the bill’s small print, would quietly take away one of the British people’s most vital tools for defending their rights… Putting the government above the law renders our legal protections meaningless. It exposes a clear agenda to water down our rights after Brexit.
The long way down
The controversial clause will confirm a long-held belief for some: that the Great Repeal Bill is a vehicle through which the Tory government will strip people of certain rights. And for ministers, there are few more helpful rights to remove than this one. Because if people have no chance at legal redress for the government’s actions, it can essentially act with impunity.
So it’s important the public and opposition parties challenge this clause, and get the Tory government to legislate to protect this right. Because if it doesn’t, we’re all in for a rough ride ahead.
– Write to your MP and raise your concerns about this clause.
– Join The Canary if you appreciate the work we do.
Featured image via Tom Donnelly/Flickr