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2 March 2017

The House of Lords meddled in the Brexit process this week.

Unelected members of the House of Lords put a spanner in the works last night by voting to amend the government’s major European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill and secure rights of EU nationals living in the UK. The government had hoped to remain vague on the issue so they could leverage the rights of EU nationals to secure reciprocal guarantees for British expats in Europe.

Reciprocal rights

Numbers from the United Nations estimate that 1.2 million British citizens currently reside in the European Union. By introducing a commitment to securing the rights of European citizens in the UK, the government risks losing essential bargaining power when fighting for the rights of British citizens.

Yet despite the risk posed to British expats, who have settled in foreign countries and pursued dreams abroad, the unelected House of Lords backed the amendment in a 358 to 256 vote. Brexiteers have long supported maintaining legal rights for EU nationals, but never at the expense of British expats who deserve the backing of our government.

As Lord Tebbit rightly explained in the Lords: “it seems to me the first duty of this Parliament, of the United Kingdom, is to care for the interests of the citizens of this kingdom. So, if we are to be concerned about the rights of anybody after Brexit to live anywhere on this continent of Europe, it should be concern for the rights of British people to live freely and peacefully in those other parts of Europe. Somehow or other, today, we seem to be thinking of nothing but the rights of foreigners”.

Commons fight back

Once the Lords passes the amended Brexit bill at a third reading, it will enter a process of parliamentary “ping pong” where it will be shuffled between the elected lower chamber and the unelected House of Lords until the wording is agreed.

The government vows to combat the amendment when it returns to the Commons later this month and with only a small number of Tory rebels on the government benches, whips are confident of success. Ken Clarke was the only Tory MP to oppose the Brexit bill when it passed through the Commons for a first and second reading, and most speculate that few will join him to rebel against the government on this amendment.

And Mrs May is optimistic about her chances for success too, with the government determined to stay on track with the Prime Minister’s original deadline of the end of March as Downing Street confirms that the Brexit timetable “remains unchanged”. In fact, they aim to beat the deadline and invoke Article 50 in two weeks – a fortnight ahead of schedule.

The future of the Lords

But the latest campaign of the unelected peers puts the future of the chamber at risk as the will of a few hundred party political cronies comes into clear conflict with the democratic will of 17.4 million British voters.

Among the peers who have been working to stall Brexit are Labour operatives Peter Mandelson and Neil Kinnock – two former European commissioners who have raked in big sums of money working for the European Union and who are set to benefit financially in the future when they take home fat European Union pensions. How is it just that they are able to interfere with the democratic will of 17.4 million people when they have such a vested interest?

Former UKIP leader and Brexit icon Nigel Farage hit out at the second chamber, saying during the course of his LBC show that “once this is all over, I think the House of Lords has to go”. He agreed with the principle of protecting rights for EU nationals, but disagreed with the role of the unelected Lords: “I hate the fact the House of Lords may well in principle have done the right thing but I don’t like their meddling”.

Mr Farage may have a point. In an age of direct democracy where people are used to exercising free choice and making their own decisions, the presence of an unelected upper chamber filled with party political cronies who have been rejected by the electorate is looking more and more like an anachronism. It’s time for a major rethink.