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A battle lost but we’ll keep fighting for a fair Brexit

Dianne Hayter on protecting EU citizens' rights and ensuring a meaningful parliamentary vote

Over the past fortnight, the House of Lords has passed two important Labour-led amendments to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, by majorities of 102 and 98, asking Ministers to do two very straightforward things.

The first was to make it clear that EU citizens, whether the 1.2 million Brits living abroad or the 3 million Europeans who have made our country their home, should not be treated as bargaining chips. All to be traded off against one another as part of the Article 50 negotiations.

The amendment would have enabled millions of people to feel secure about their status. That’s why we have called on Theresa May to act unilaterally and tell EEA nationals resident here that they will continue to enjoy the same fundamental rights after Brexit as when they arrived in the UK. Not just the moral course of action but also in the national interest.

Despite our passionate, well informed and pragmatic arguments, the Commons voted us down. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are stubbornly maintaining their position, telling those based here that they must wait until the EU27 have agreed how they will treat UK nationals.

Nobody should lose their rights retrospectively and it was in Mrs May’s gift to give this assurance. Unfortunately, the government’s stubborness on this issues has extended the uncertainty faced by millions for the foreseeable future.

Our second demand was for Ministers to place their commitment regarding a meaningful parliamentary vote at the end of the negotiations onto the face of the Bill. The European Parliament will vote on the terms of the divorce settlement, and on any future trade deal between the UK and the EU27. This is enshrined in the EU Treaties and the government should give a similar statutory right to our own Parliament. Especially as the referendum campaign that focused so heavily on parliamentary sovereignty and the largest vote in the history of the Lords.

By rejecting our amendment, the government has shown that its primary objective – indeed, its obsession – has been to pass a ‘clean’ bill. Rather than to acknowledge the genuine concerns of all parties in both Houses and act in the national interest.

Today’s proceedings at Parliament demonstrated that debates on this legislation have run their natural course. The elected House has voted down amendments on these issues for a second time and with increased majorities. It is not for the unelected Chamber to challenge its primacy.

That's not to say Labour Peers will let the government embark on the Article 50 negotiations without challenge. We will return to these issues and others, and continue to hold Ministers to account throughout the negotiations.

The assurances offered by the Secretary of State this afternoon may have prevented a majority in favour of our amendments in the Commons, but more information is clearly required if we are to take the government’s promises seriously. That is why I am asking for a clear timetable in relation to how the Prime Minister will secure the rights of EU citizens, and for greater clarity over the role of Parliament in the event of there being no deal at the end of negotiations. We will not let these issues drop or fade away. 

Labour has fought hard during all stages of the Bill – in both the Lords and the Commons – and we have also been clear that this is just the start of the withdrawal process. We may have lost these two particular battles but nothing will prevent us from fighting for a fair and progressive Brexit. In doing so, we will also explore every parliamentary opportunity available to us to hold the government’s feet to the fire on the guarantees that Ministers have made to Parliament.

Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Brexit Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 13th March 2017

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