The Article 50 Bill and the House of Lords

The last month has been dominated by the passage of the Brexit Bill through the House of Lords, not least as the Government does not have a majority in that chamber so has to work harder to get its way. Despite the efforts of the Government whips they suffered their first defeats on the Bill. An amendment was passed at Committee Stage to allow EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit and another at Report Stage to allow for Parliament to have a meaningful vote on approving (or otherwise) the Government’s agreement with the EU.

There were less formal divisions in the Lords as Peers tend to only press to a vote matters of principle and issues where they believe there is a clear majority. For example, the Liberal Democrat amendment from Lord Teverson to keep the UK inside Euratom only had one speaker against (ironically a former Chair of the Nuclear Industry Association, Lord O’Neill) but once the minister had spoken against it the amendment was withdrawn. So in the end across the Committee and Report Stages only 4 votes formally took place on amendments – two of which passed as outlined above.

No Second Referendum

One of the amendments that did not pass was a Liberal Democrat one to provide for a referendum on the final deal with the EU. While it was clear from the debate this one would not pass it was a matter of principle for the Lib Dems – referendum on the outcome is their key message. It was also the only amendment if taken that would have allowed the Lords to have an extended period of “ping pong” on the Bill where it goes back and forwards between the two chambers until agreement is reached. This would have given the decision back to the people so the Lords as an unelected chamber could argue they are not being anti-democratic. In the end it was defeated by 131 votes to 336. Labour officially abstained (although 22 voted for it and 9 against) but the crossbenchers largely opposed it as did the bishops of the Church of England (who have votes in the Lords). Two Conservatives supported the measure (Baronesses Wheatcroft and Altmann).

Still no Single Market

The other amendment that was voted down was one calling for the UK to stay in the Single Market. This was defeated by 136 to 299 as the crossbenchers largely abstained and those that voted cancelled each other out. Labour were whipped to vote against but also split on it so it was largely only the Lib Dems voting for it although one Conservative did support it (Baroness Wheatcroft).

The amendment to allow EU citizens to stay was backed by 358 votes to 256. The winning coalition included the Labour Party, Lib Dems and two thirds of the crossbenchers. The bishops split both ways.

Strong support for Parliamentary approval of the agreement

The vote to ensure that Parliamentary approval (of both houses) is required for the agreement with the EU was passed by 366 to 268. This was a strong coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrats (with no dissenters) with two thirds of the Crossbenchers but this time 13 Conservative peers rebelled against the Government on this occasion including former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Hesseltine.

The Bill ultimately passed by 95 votes to 340. The only members joining the Lib Dems (who very unusually whipped their Peers to vote against a Bill at third reading) in opposing the Bill were 3 Labour, 3 crossbench, 3 non-affiliated (2 of which are ex-Lib Dems) and 1 Paid Cymru (2 Lib Dem peers also voted for it).

Next Steps

The Bill now returns to the House of Commons (probably on Monday next week) where the Government has made it clear that it will use its majority to overturn the amendments and return it to the Lords unamended. The Labour leadership has said it will instruct its members in the Lords to pass the Bill unamended this time and without the Labour members it is unlikely the Liberal Democrats will be able to maintain the amendments and the Bill will become law allowing the Government to trigger Article 50. However, there are some indications that particularly on the issue of a meaningful vote for Parliament the Conservative rebellion may be greater this time (it was the only amendment that attracted significant Conservative support in the Lords). And while the likelihood is that the Government will still get its way due to Labour rebels and the DUP, it could be a lot tighter.

Should the Government lose it will have to accept the amendment if it still wishes to trigger Article 50 this month.

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