The UK’s House of Lords has voted by 358 to 256 – a majority of 102 – to amend the Brexit Bill to offer unilateral protection of the rights of EU nationals resident in the UK, in defiance of the wishes of the government.
The amended bill will go back to the House of Commons on March 13 and 14, where the government is likely to order Conservative MPs to vote to remove the change. This is expected to push back the earliest date when the bill could be finalised, though it could still happen this month.
The government wanted to push through the bill in its most basic form – simply giving the prime minister the power to trigger article 50, the EU’s exit clause. It passed through the House of Commons unchanged and ministers had urged the Lords to do the same. Prime Minister Theresa May even sat in on the start of the debate in the Lords to add to the pressure.
However the Lords, including seven Conservative rebels, ignored a last-minute letter from Home Secretary Amber Rudd who insisted it remained a priority for the government to negotiate on the issue of EU expat rights and the rights of Britons in EU counties when the ‘Brexit divorce’ discussions get under way. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn reportedly described the result of the Lords vote as “great news”, despite having previously told his MPs to vote against amendments to the bill.
The amendment accepted was amendment 9b by Labour peers including Baroness Hayter (all proposed amendments are listed here – with most recent drafts at the top). It says that within three months of article 50 being triggered, ministers must bring forward proposals to ensure that EU citizens legally resident in the UK when the Brexit Act is passed, maintain all their rights, including the ability to acquire permanent residence for those who have not been in the UK for the required five years.
During yesterday’s debate Viscount Hailsham was the first among Conservative MPs to speak out in favour of the change, saying: “I do ask your lordships to take the high moral ground and give reassurance to the millions who have made their home here in the expectation that they will continue to live and work here."
He added: “This House can in fact make a unilateral decision and indeed a unilateral guarantee and that is what we should do.
“Let us all remember how shocked we were when Idi Amin expelled the Asians from Uganda, so shocked that we offered them refuge in this country.”
Those in favour of the UK guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights argued this is something within the UK’s power to do – as opposed to protection of UK residents in the EU – and will create goodwill for the UK and an expectation on the EU to follow suit.
The government says it can only give such a guarantee as part of a deal on UK citizens. But former civil service head Lord Kerslake said: “However you think about that argument, it is using [the EU citizens in the UK] as bargaining chips”.
He said the three million EU citizens in Britain had come “in good faith” and contributed to the country.
Baroness Hayter, who is Labour’s shadow Brexit Minister, said: “These people need to know now – not in two years' time or even 12 months' time. They simply can't put their lives on hold.”
Labour peer Lord (Melvyn) Bragg, the former television presenter, said EU citizens had been “reduced to pawns in a government tragedy”.
Those opposed included the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who said the bill should not be like a “Christmas tree” with “baubles” attached to it. And former cabinet minister Lord Tebbitt said the peers should not prioritise foreigners. “Why is everybody here today so excited about an amendment that looks after the foreigners and not the British?” he said.
Former chancellor Lord Lawson, who lives in France, said there was “clearly” no danger to EU citizens in the UK and the amendment was “deplorable”.
A number of campaigners for the rights of expats have welcomed the decision, including the Remain In France Together (RIFT) group, although with reservations about wording related to ‘legal’ residence, in view of the fact that the UK has been applying very strict interpretations of EU law with regard to applications by EU citizens for permanent residency cards. It has been hailed as a courageous move, especially after a previous amendment on the UK staying in the single market – which would also have guaranteed rights of expats on both sides – was voted down by the Lords earlier this week.
RIFT, and other member groups of a 'coalition' for expat rights, had backed an alternative amendment by Lord Oates, which added a pledge to prioritise the matter of Britons' rights in the EU once negotiations start, however the group reports Lord Oates as saying he may attempt to reintroduce wording on Britons' rights next week.
Investment manager Gina Miller, who led the legal case which led to the Brexit Bill, said: “Having fought so hard to put parliament at the centre of the EU withdrawal bill that will enable government to trigger article 50, I am absolutely delighted that the House of Lords have exercised their duty in an honourable manner, in voting to give EU citizens certainty.
“The government should not be playing politics with people’s lives and should be demonstrating to the world that the British values of fair play and moral decency are ones that they will govern by. If EU member states were to use UK citizens in their countries as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations, the UK government will be able to stand proud and shame such actions.”
However, she added that it was also important to uphold parliamentary sovereignty after the negotiations, and she is therefore also backing amendment 17 in the names of Lord Pannick (as a crossbencher), and Baroness Hayter (Labour), Lord Oates (Lib Dem) and Lord Hannay (crossbencher) requiring that the terms of any agreement on our exit from the EU or any decision to leave with no deal must be put to parliament for approval.
“Such decisions cannot be left to the government alone,” she said.
“Adding these two amendments to the EU withdrawal bill will not interfere with the Prime Minister’s self-imposed end of March timetable, and will strengthen her position by creating legal certainty and negating the possibility of future legal challenges.”
There will be further debate in the Lords at the ‘report stage’ next week.