Pressure will mount on Theresa May’s government to secure guarantees for EU citizens living in the UK after the House of Lords overwhelmingly backed changes to the Brexit bill. Peers voted by 358 to 256 for an amendment to the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill which gives the Prime Minister the authority to trigger Article 50 which starts the procedure. It means the legislation will return to the Commons for a rethink, although the Government indicated it would overturn the Lords’s vote.
Mrs May says she will not act on EU nationals until she receives the same assurances for British citizens in other EU countries. Lib Dem peer Baroness Ludford, who proposed the amendment said: “The Government is not holding EU citizens here as hostage and a bargaining chip for British citizens in the rest of the EU, but for other goals and it is disingenuous to inflame the fears of British people settled elsewhere in Europe that their case will be undermined by a unilateral move by the British government.”
However Lord Tebbitt, a Cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher and a noted Eurosceptic, said more emphasis should be placed on UK citizens abroad, rather than Europeans in Britain. He said: “If we are to be concerned about anybody’s rights after Brexit to live anywhere on this continent of Europe it should be our concern for the rights of British people to live freely and peacefully in those other parts of Europe. Today we seem to be thinking of nothing but the rights of foreigners. Why is everybody here today so excited about an amendment which looks after foreigners and not the British?”
Labour peer Baroness Hayter said EU migrants in the UK “need to know now, not in two years’ time or 12 months’ time” whether they will have the right to remain. “They simply can’t put their lives on hold. Some are planning schools for their children, renting or buying a home or acting as carers. Some are receiving healthcare, many more are working in our health service. All should have their uncertainty removed, particularly as the reality is many would have other rights to remain under the European Convention on Human Rights. But do we really want to plug up our courts and cause these people dismay by forcing them to court in order to assert these rights?”
Tory peer Viscount Hailsham said failing to back the amendment “would involve an act of retrospective legislation and policy which I happen to believe would offend natural justice and also I suspect the principles of human rights legislation”.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the EU said: “We are disappointed the Lords have chosen to amend a bill that the Commons passed without amendment. 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.”