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Will Brexit undermine the protection of human rights in the UK?

As one of the richest London boroughs, ‘land-banking’ is common practice in Kensington. A significant number of flats and houses are owned by investors, who keep the buildings empty and hope to see a rise in property prices over the longer term. It is argued that the practice reduces the supply of housing stock, and helps keep house prices out-of-reach for many local residents.

Following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, suggested that newly-homeless families should be temporarily rehomed in some of these vacant properties. The issue was highlighted in a recent TV interview when, asked how he would approach the issue, Corbyn responded by saying: “Occupy, compulsory purchase it, requisition it, there’s a lot of things you can do”.

Compulsory purchase orders have been used in the UK to acquire land for development of infrastructure for centuries – many of the early 18th and 19th century railways could only be achieved by compulsorily purchasing the land on which the tracks were to be laid. And more recently, the 2012 London Olympics were only possible as a result of hundreds of houses on the site being compulsorily purchased.

This suggestion to requisition or compulsorily purchase these ‘land-banked’ homes poses two questions; how is compulsory purchase affected by the European Convention on Human Rights, and would that be likely to change post-Brexit?

The UK signed up to the Convention in 1953, and the First Protocol clearly states that every person is entitled to “the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions”, which would include houses, land and property. Read on its own, that would seem to imply that Corbyn’s suggestion would be contrary to the home-owners’ human rights, but on closer inspection, there is an exemption.

The Government is entitled to override the First Protocol where:

  • it is lawful to do so,

  • it would be in the public interest,

  • it would be in accordance with the general principles of international law, and

  • it would be a reasonably proportionate action.

So, the question becomes: would it be in the public interest to requisition empty investment properties around Grenfell Tower, and allow the surviving families to live there until alternative accommodation could be found? Would that be a “reasonably proportionate” action?

Regardless of your personal views on Corbyn’s suggestion, the answer to the second question of what will happen when the UK leaves the European Union (particularly as formal Brexit talks are beginning this week) is simple; nothing changes.

Whether we have a ‘hard’ Brexit (i.e. leaving the single market) or a ‘soft’ Brexit (i.e. leaving the Union, but remaining part of the single market) or something in-between, the European Convention on Human Rights is entirely separate, and nothing to do with the European Union. The UK is a member of the Convention by virtue of being party to the Council of Europe, and Brexit will not affect that – the UK will remain a member of the Council of Europe after March 2019.

Hence the Convention will remain binding on the UK.

It is entirely possible that, at some point, the UK Government may decide to repeal the Human Rights Act, and replace it by a British Bill of Rights. Indeed, this has been a favourite proposal of the Conservative Party for the past 10 years. However, it is never going to be the radical change of human rights law that some on the Left fear … because even if the UK repeals the Human Rights Act, the UK will still be a party to the Convention, and international law would require the UK to abide by the Convention.

At best, a British Bill of Rights, whether introduced before or after Brexit, will do little except ‘tinker around the edges’ of human rights law in the UK.

Unless, of course, the UK Government decides to withdraw from the Convention itself, which would be an altogether more radical step. And we’ve seen no sign that any part of the UK Government has put forward serious proposals to do that.

Therefore, Brexit will have no impact on the protection of human rights in the UK, and Corbyn’s comments about the Grenfell Tower residents would not, from a human rights perspective, be judged any differently post-Brexit. Whether it would be a “reasonably proportionate” action to use compulsory purchase to buy empty investment properties in the locality of Grenfell Tower is something that would be undoubtedly decided by the Courts.  For the displaced residents of Grenfell Tower, their need is now, and compulsory purchase orders may not be the solution.


These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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