Today's Telegraph is reporting that Theresa May is "facing a double defeat over the Brexit Bill" (shorthand for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill 2016-17) as peers from across all parties are set to back two key changes: first, extra protections for EU citizens and second, a veto on the final deal. It is reported that these two changes have wide cross-party support, including from a number of Conservative rebels, such as Baroness Alltman.
Baroness Altmann faced the wrath of many in June 2016 when she tweeted that "voting Brexit overrules your own MPs" and "they’re your democratically elected leaders": for example, the Sun's headline screamed "EU do you think you are? Unelected Tory launches bizarre attack on voters" and gleefully reported that Andrew Ridgeley, ex-Wham!, had branded her "a self-aggrandising snob" on social media, and former Deputy Commons Speaker Nigel Evans said that “the concept of democracy that clearly is alien to Baroness Altman." Similar attacks on the Lords are likely if they and Theresa May clash as predicted over the Brexit Bill: press reports this week have repeatedly referred to the Lords consisting of "unelected peers" (see, for example, the Express and the Daily Mail), and both Labour (Alastair Campbell) and Conservative (Oliver Letwin) voices have even suggested that a defeat of the Bill could lead to the House of Lords being abolished.
One of the key issues on which the Lords appear set for a collision course with Theresa May is the issue of the status of EU nationals in post-Brexit Britain. Labour has tabled an amendment to the Bill, and in the past few days Conservative peer Lord Bowness added his signature to it, and others (including Baroness Altmann) have publicly indicated that they are considering it. The Liberal Democrats had drafted their own amendment on this issue, but the Guardian reports that they have now backed Labour's version instead, to maximise the prospects of success.
This has been a key pressure point for the Government since the referendum result. Theresa May has said she will tackle the issue of EU citizens’ rights early in the Brexit negotiations, but has refused to give any guarantees at this stage, instead tying it to the question of the status of UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU. Lobby group the3million argues that:
"People are not bargaining chips. The three million EU citizens who live in the UK are not a commodity to be traded at the Brexit table. We are not ‘negotiating capital’ either. This is because the UK is our home. We call on the Government to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK post-Brexit. These EU nationals need their rights guaranteed now. Not at some distant point in the future.... These EU citizens came to the UK in good faith and they have made their home here. They contribute on every level and in every sector of British society."
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights adopted similar language, recently urging the Government not to use fundamental rights as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations, and emphasising the importance of respect for the rights of EU citizens settled in the UK during the process (Brexit and Fundamental Rights: see our post on that report here). This echoed earlier recommendations from the House of Lords EU Committee Sub-Committee on Justice: Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, in her role of Chair of that Sub-Committee, stressed that the UK had a “heavy moral obligation” to take steps to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK.
It is welcome news for those of us who are EU nationals who have made the UK our home that there is now real cross-party momentum behind an amendment to the Brexit Bill which would provide reassurance and certainty. What is unclear is whether this will force the Government to make concessions at this stage, or whether they will face defeat in the House of Lords and the Bill will then return to the Commons, with Parliamentary ping-pong taking place in the lead-up to Theresa May's self-imposed deadline of the end of March. Committee Stage in the House of Lords commences on Monday, 27th February 2017 - watch this space closely.
Baroness Altmann said she was "deeply distressed" by the failure to guarantee EU citizens' rights and was considering supporting the move. "I've had so many letters and emails and heart-rending pleas from people who've been here for quite sometime," she told this newspaper. They've done nothing wrong. It's almost inhuman [how they are being treated]... It does exercise me that we are being so harsh and cruel."