Whatever one thinks about the House of Lords, peers clearly have the right to amend the Brexit bill – and ask the House of Commons to think again about some of the details of the process the government wants to embark upon.

Some people think it is atrocious that unelected peers, who started debating the Brexit legislation today, should have any say at all over Brexit given that voters have expressed their will in a referendum. There are even dark threats that the Lords could be abolished, neutered or in some way reformed if it dares to touch Theresa May’s bill.

But the Supreme Court has rightly said that the prime minister cannot trigger Article 50 unless it gets parliament’s green light given that the legislation authorising the referendum didn’t do this – and the House of Lords is a legitimate part of the constitution that has a say on all laws. If one thinks it shouldn’t stick its oar in on this most vital topic because it is unelected, one is effectively saying that it shouldn’t pipe up on anything. But one should then be campaigning to reform the House of Lords as a good thing in itself, rather than linking it to this particular issue.

In any case, there’s no chance of the peers blocking the triggering of Article 50 – any more than there was of MPs doing so. The issue rather is whether any conditions should be attached to the legislation.

Two proposed amendments have particular merit. These are to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already here; and to ensure that parliament gets to approve any deal the government concludes with the EU before that agreement is put to the European Parliament. There are also useful amendments designed to ensure that parliament is properly informed during the Brexit process.

The two key issues came up in the House of Commons debate and, in both cases, the government made partial concessions in order to buy off dissent from Tory MPs. It said that parliament would have to approve any change to the status of the 3 million or so EU citizens living in the UK, meaning that ministers couldn’t take away their rights without MPs’ and peers’ approval. But that’s not as good as guaranteeing their rights now – something which, among other things, would help get the Brexit talks off to a good start

The government also said that it intended and expected to put any draft divorce deal to parliament for approval before that agreement went to the European Parliament. The snag is that, in the same breath, it said that we would quit the EU without any deal at all if our parliament refused to bless it. This is not satisfactory. If May comes back with a dreadful deal, parliament must have the right to consider all alternatives – including sending her back to the negotiating table and asking the people in a referendum whether they still wish to quit the EU.

If the Lords changes the Brexit bill in these ways, MPs can still overturn the amendments. Indeed, given the government’s in-built albeit slim majority in the Commons, this is likely. However, this should not deter peers from having their say. Indeed, they don’t just have a right to give their view; they have a duty to do so.

by Hugo Dixon | 20.02.2017

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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