The House of Lords inflicted an embarrassing defeat on the UK government last night by demanding that ministers give guarantees to EU nationals living in the UK before triggering the formal Brexit process.
Peers defied Downing Street with an amendment to legislation needed to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, risking a delay to the start of talks with the European Union as the bill “ping pongs” between the two houses at Westminster. The vote will throw down the gauntlet to potential Tory rebels in the Commons, most of whom refused to break ranks when the issue was debated by MPs.
Labour shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said the vote left Prime Minister Theresa May “increasingly isolated”, while the SNP’s Europe spokesman Stephen Gethins said the Lords had “done what the House of Commons failed to do”.
A spokesman for the UK Brexit department said the government was “disappointed” by the defeat. He said: “The Bill has a straightforward purpose – to enact the referendum result and allow the government to get on with the negotiations.
“Our position on EU nationals has repeatedly been made clear. We want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals living in other member states, as early as we can.”
The House of Lords voted by 358 to 256 in favour of an amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill requiring the government to put forward a plan on how to protect EU nationals’ rights within three months of triggering Brexit.
The amendment will now need to be debated again by the Commons, where the government is expected to strip it from the legislation. A similar amendment was defeated in the Commons by a majority of 42, with just three Tory MPs rebelling.
Labour shadow Brexit minister Baroness Hayter said EU nationals should not be used as “bargaining chips”, telling peers yesterday that Europeans living in the UK and Britons in EU countries had contacted her in their hundreds pleading not to be “traded against each other”.
She 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.”
Campaigners and opposition parties said a guarantee would not be an empty symbol, with dozens of cases being highlighted of EU citizens having requests for permanent residence refused on technicalities. Almost 30 per cent of such requests to the Home Office since the EU referendum have been rejected, it emerged this week.
Ministers had repeatedly called for the bill to be approved by peers unamended, after the House of Commons rejected any changes to the legislation last month.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd wrote to every peer, telling them that EU nationals would not be treated with “anything other than the utmost respect”, and warning that a unilateral guarantee could make it harder to raise the issue in Brussels.
Downing Street claimed Mrs May sought to resolve the issue in early meetings with European leaders, but the attempt was refused because EU rules do not allow any exit negotiations before Article 50 is triggered. The German government has denied that Angela Merkel refused to consider a request for an early mutual guarantee of expats’ rights.
Lord Tebbit, a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, was one of those who criticised the amendment, telling peers: “Somehow we seem to be thinking of nothing but the rights of foreigners.”
Others, including the Archbishop of York, argued the bill should be allowed to progress unamended so that formal negotiations on a mutual guarantee could begin as soon as possible.
Earlier, during Scottish Questions in the House of Commons, Labour MP Ian Murray criticised the government’s promise to seek an early agreement on EU nationals during negotiations as “not very reassuring”.
Mr Murray urged Scottish Secretary David Mundell to “end this disgraceful uncertainty on residency rights for EU nationals” and ask his Cabinet colleagues to back the amendment if passed by the House of Lords.
“If he does not, he will send out a very strong message that he is willing to use the lives of EU nationals as a bargaining chip for a hard Tory Brexit,” Mr Murray said.
Mr Mundell said ministers “do not believe that the Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50) Bill is the place” to resolve the issue of EU citizens’ status.