European Union flag hanging on a flag pole

What does Brexit mean for equality and human rights in the UK?

How will leaving the European Union (EU) affect equality and human rights in Britain?

What has our membership of the EU got to do with equality and human rights in Britain?

While we remain a member of the European Union (EU) equality and human rights in EU law protect us in Britain. These include:

Until the UK formally leaves the European Union, EU law applies in the UK either directly in some instances, or when it is written into UK law, such as when an Act of Parliament is passed to apply an EU directive.

What is the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union?

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union brings together the essential human rights of everyone living in the European Union.

When Britain leaves the EU, the Government have said the Charter will no longer have effect in UK law.

Find out more about the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

What is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)?

The ECHR protects the human rights of people in countries that belong to the Council of Europe, which is a completely different organisation to the EU. The UK will still be signed up to the ECHR when it leaves the EU.

In Britain our human rights under the ECHR are protected by the Human Rights Act 1998.

Find out more about the European Convention on Human Rights.

What is the British Bill of Rights?

We do not currently have a British Bill of Rights. This was included in the Conservative government’s 2015 election manifesto. It was planned as new legislation to replace the Human Rights Act.

How will Brexit affect UK equality and human rights law?

Leaving the EU does not affect our rights under the ECHR, as this comes from the Council of Europe, not the EU.

The impact of Brexit on our equality and human rights will depend on the laws that are passed to deal with leaving the EU.

The Government published a White Paper on a Great Repeal Bill on 30 March 2017. The White Paper provides some clarity about how equality and human rights concerns will be addressed. For example:

  • existing EU law in place at the point the UK leaves the EU will be preserved 'wherever possible'
  • the protections in the Equality Acts 2006 and 2010 will be retained after we leave the EU
  • worker’s rights that arise from EU law will continue to be available in the UK
  • current European Court (CJEU) case law will be preserved, but the Bill will not provide any role for the CJEU in the interpretation of new laws and will not require our courts to consider future CJEU’s case law
  • the Charter of Fundamental Rights will be removed from UK law

If these provisions are brought into law, many existing protections under EU law will be preserved.

In addition, many protections in EU law, especially equality rights, have already been written into UK law by legislation, which will stay the same unless withdrawn by Parliament.

In light of the government intentions explained in the White Paper, the most significant effect of Brexit on equality and human rights are likely to be:

  • the loss of the Charter of Fundamental Rights which includes some rights which are not in the Human Rights Act, for example on the rights of the child and a general right to non-discrimination. The Charter also provides a stronger way of enforcing human rights, in some cases, than the Human Rights Act.
  • the loss of the guarantee for equality rights provided by EU law. As a result of Brexit a future government could seek to pass laws which repeal or weaken our current rights below the standard of EU law rights

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech at the opening of the new Parliament and was published in the House of Commons on 13 July 2017.

What equality and human rights law comes from the EU?

EU law has led to changes in UK law, which protect equality and human rights. These include:

  • data protection: including greater protections for individuals around the information held about them
  • human trafficking: including greater protections for victims of trafficking
  • rights of victims of crimes: making sure that victims of crime, and their family, have the right to information, support and protection
  • disability rights: including improved protections at work and Braille labelling for medicine
  • workplace discrimination: including protection on grounds of religion or belief, sexual orientation and age
  • equal pay: making sure that men and women receive equal pay for equal work.

What equality and human rights law didn’t come from the EU?

  • the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR): came from the Council of Europe, not the EU
  • non-discrimination in employment on grounds of sex, race and disability: already existed in UK law
  • the public sector equality duty: comes from domestic law in England, Wales and Scotland. Find out more about the public sector equality duty
  • non-discrimination in the provision of goods and services: already existed in UK law.

Last updated: 20 Jul 2017