Will the Lords amend the Brexit Bill?

VIDYA RAM | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on February 17, 2017

Transformative edge: The British parliament

The question arises from a general mood of worry and fears of democracy being stifled in Britain

What role should an upper legislative house have when it comes to a piece of legislation that would fundamentally transform a nation’s future? The power of upper houses vary across the world, and in Britain the House of Lords has by convention been expected to pass major legislation — particularly that included in a government’s election manifesto — rather than transform, or abandon it entirely.

Next week, the role of the House of Lords will come under the global media spotlight as it returns from recess to commence deliberation on the Brexit Bill — the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill that would give the British government the power to begin negotiations to leave the union.

A successful strategy

The legislation had to go through parliament after the Supreme Court ruled that the triggering of Article 50 — which gives EU member-states a two-year period to withdraw — could not take place without parliament’s consent.

The government’s strategy of keeping the Bill as brief as possible — it is limited to two clauses — paid off in the House of Commons. The legislation was passed swiftly on February 8 without amendment. Opposition efforts to guarantee the future right to remain in the UK for EU citizens already resident here, to remain in the single market, and requiring the government to abide by a promise of the ‘leave’ campaign in the run-up to the election to put money that would no longer be spent on EU membership into the NHS were thwarted.

While the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party opposed the Bill, Labour chose to support it, with only 52 of its MPs rebelling. While the Labour leadership had campaigned to remain in the EU, leader Jeremy Corbyn argued that Labour had supported the legislation that introduced the referendum in the first place, and therefore had to respect its outcome. Many struggled with the decision of how to vote, with one Conservative MP saying she voted in favour of the Bill against her “longstanding belief” that Britain’s interests were best served by remaining in the EU because of the need to respect the referendum result. Others who had campaigned to remain in the EU during the referendum said they chose to support the legislation because their constituencies had voted to leave.

While the Bill’s smooth passage through the Commons was anticipated, its Lords journey is much less certain, with many members clearly indicating that they intend to introduce amendments regarding negotiations with other EU states. Many amendments have been tabled by members of the House of Lords. Others require the government to subject the final deal agreed with Europe to a parliamentary vote, and a second public referendum. The government does not have the majority it does in the Commons.

Lords history

The House of Lords has a long history of standing up to government legislation, and introducing significant amendments. This year, the Lords succeeded in blocking planned reforms to the higher education system that included giving private companies a bigger role. Last year the House introduced an amendment into immigration legislation, requiring the government to take more action to help unaccompanied refugee children in Europe. In 2013, it was Lords that pushed the government to add an amendment to equality legislation, requiring it to include caste in anti-discrimination legislation (after consultation).

While the leader of the Labour group in the House of Lords has indicated her party would not seek to “block or sabotage the process” to ensure the government could meet its March-end timetable for triggering Brexit, there are strong indications that members may stand firm on certain amendments. Dick Newby, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group told The Guardian that he was confident of the success of the amendment seeking to guarantee the rights of EU citizens, and a parliamentary vote on the final deal. A number of members have spoken publicly of their intention to oppose the Bill or only accept legislation with conditions. Peter Hain, a former Labour cabinet minister, has spoken of his intention to vote on “principle and conscience” and only vote for the legislation should two amendments — on securing an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and maintaining single market access — be accepted.

Within government circles there are clear anxieties about what the Lords could do with the Brexit legislation. Brexit Secretary David Davis saying that he expected the legislation to “ping pong” between the two houses. In early February, an anonymous government figure told the BBC that any attempt to block the Bill could result in a public outcry to abolish it. While the government has distanced itself from those comments, they’ve been reiterated by a number of Conservative politicians.

Great public interest

“We are going through a very worrying and dangerous phase in the history of our country, where democracy is in danger of being stifled,” says Lord Karan Bilimoria, the crossbench member of the House of Lords and founder of Cobra Beer. He points to the real expertise of members of the House, including former EU ambassadors, legal experts, economists, and former civil servants. “We want to highlight a lot of the challenges and complexity (of leaving the EU) that the government has tried to brush aside, and we must if necessary amend the Bill to protect the interests of the country,” he says. “It’s our duty to challenge, debate and scrutinise.”

He believes that the government’s approach has been representative of its wider approach to Brexit, which was (until the supreme court forced its hand) to have as little parliamentary involvement as possible. He rejects the government’s argument that parliament needed to respect the will of the people by giving the government a free hand. “Firstly this was an advisory referendum and secondly the nature of the referendum was open-ended: Everyone knows what stay meant but the question of what leave means is entirely open-ended. Leave on what basis?”

The upcoming debate has spurred greater public interest in the House of Lords. The right wing press has attempted to brand those intending to challenge the government as out of touch, unelected figures determined to wreck the will of the people (they have held off from the vile attacks that were launched on the judges who stood up for parliamentary scrutiny, who were dubbed “Enemies of the People” ). But to those hoping the Brexit legislation could either be amended or blocked if guarantees aren’t given, the Lords have given new hope. A number of pro-EU campaign groups have been urging members of the public to contact members of the House, with databases of how to contact them being shared across pro-EU groups. “I’m getting hundreds of emails, really well thought out and reasoned, passionate messages, saying essentially please help save our country,” says Lord Bilimoria.

Published on February 17, 2017
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