Theresa May is heading for a fresh showdown with the House of Lords over Brexit after Labour said it was “confident” of defeating the Government on EU citizens’ rights and on giving Parliament a say over the final deal with Brussels.
Shadow Leader of the Lords Baroness Smith signalled that a coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrat, rebel Tory and crossbench peers now had the numbers to win crunch votes on the two issues in coming weeks.
Ahead of another week of debate of the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill in the Lords, she said that she still hoped ministers would cave to the pressure and pre-empt any defeat by tabling concessions.
But Baroness Smith said that if the Government was not prepared to guarantee rights for EU nationals living in the UK, or to write into legislation moves to give Parliament a vote on the final Brexit deal, defeat was looming.
In an interview with HufPost UK, the Labour peer also:
- geared up for a fresh Brexit battle by warning the Tories would use the forthcoming Great Repeal Bill to bypass Parliament and water down environmental and consumer rights
- slammed former Lords Speaker Baroness D’Souza for ‘inaccurate’ claims that peers fiddled their allowances by leaving taxis running to claim attendance
- welcomed Theresa May’s decision to sit on the steps of the Throne in the Lords, as proof that she had a ‘more mature’ approach to the Upper House than David Cameron
- warned she was ‘really worried’ about the impact on the Northern Ireland peace process of a ‘hard Brexit’ imposing new borders with Ireland
- urged Jeremy Corbyn to ‘refresh’ Labour’s own numbers in the Lords with new peers as older ones retired
- said there would be an ‘outcry’ if ministers tried to cut peers out of plans to enact Brexit regulations
- said that “most of the public didn’t really understand what the Labour party position was” on Brexit during last year’s EU referendum.
Although the House of Commons voted by five-to-one to pass the historic Brexit bill this month, peers hope that they can persuade ministers to think again on key issues that will affect the UK once it quits the EU in 2019.
May wants the bill to clear the Lords soon so she can trigger the two-year Article 50 process of quitting the EU by the end of March.
But the House of Lords has an in-built anti-Conservative majority and is ready to defy threats of retaliation by voting for EU citizens’ rights and a new, written pledge to give Parliament a vote on the eventual Brexit deal hammered out with the other 27 EU states.
In an intervention that worried some ministers, former judge Lord Hope said last week that the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Brexit process was that legislation - not just verbal assurances - was needed to give MPs and peers a final say.
Speaking ahead of the Committee Stage of the bill this week, Baroness Smith seized on his words to urge the Government to think again.
“The crossbench convenor in the House of Lords is a former Supreme Court judge and says there has to be legislative approval to allow for Parliamentary approval in order to conclude the deal.
“So there’s an opportunity for the Government to be able to amend the bill themselves, so I hope they take that. But if not, that’s something that’s really important to us, that Parliament should have a say.”
HuffPost understands the EU citizens vote could be held this Wednesday if the Government refuses to back down.
Smith said she hoped ministers would relent by Report Stage next month.
“That’s when the Government has time to reflect on what’s said in the House of Lords. If we vote on those key issues at Report Stage, we might have got something from the Government in the meantime.”
Baroness Smith was less confident about a concession on the issue of EU citizens’ rights, but made plain that the Lords was now set to defeat the Government on the issue.
Some three million EU nationals currently live in the UK and campaigners are urging ministers to give them unilateral rights after Brexit.
As revealed by HuffPost last week, a Labour amendment on the topic now has Lib Dem, rebel Tory and crossbench support.
“I’m not necessarily confident we will have a concession, but I am confident that the House of Lords will take a very strong view on it,” Baroness Smith said.
“Just taking soundings around the House, listening to peers from all parties, they really think the Government should have been stronger on this from the beginning. We’ve had UKIP on TV saying they would support this as well.
“While the Prime Minister is holding out, she’s making it more difficult for UK citizens in European countries. It’s not fair on our citizens in Europe or European citizens here that they are not getting the assurances that they really need and that I think the public expects them to have.”
The Shadow Cabinet minister said that beyond the EU Withdrawal Bill, the bigger battle for the House of Lords would come over Brexit Secretary David Davis’s ‘Great Repeal Bill’, expected in the Queen’s Speech in May.
The legislation intends to transpose all EU regulations into British law in one go, but Labour fears Parliament could be bypassed as May uses so-called ‘Henry VIII’ clauses to reduce the amount of time MPs and peers have to discuss individual changes.
Thousands of Statutory Instruments - secondary legislation that does not have the full Parliamentary scrutiny that primary legislation receives - are expected to accompany the new bill, on everything from medicines regulation to agriculture rules.
Baroness Smith said the Great Repeal Bill would take up most of the Lords’ time over the next two years.
“I think the key thing in the Queen’s Speech, which is going to dominate us all, will be the Great Repeal Bill.
“Apart from its pompously inaccurate name, the Great Repeal Bill, I have got a number of concerns. One is just the sheer volume of the stuff we will have to deal with, and also the complexity.
“The ones I am most worried about are environmental protection and consumer protection, I think they’re the ones where we are going to see the greater push from some Conservatives to water down protections. We will obviously be on our guard of course with employment protections, but I think there’s less of a push to water those down.”
She was also wary of claims that ministers had backed off a plan by former Tory Leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, to clip the wings of peers in the wake of the humiliating tax credits defeat for George Osborne. Under the Strathclyde plan, the Lords would see their powers to vote on statutory instruments removed.
“I think the threat is still alive, it came about on tax credits and all we did was ask the Government to look again at a particularly bad policy, which they tried to slide through by a statutory instrument, which means it wouldn’t get the same scrutiny as legislaiton,” she said.
“So when we asked them to look again, they went apoplectic about it and tried to curb our powers. That doesn’t bode well.
“The Leader of the House of Lords has said it’s not our intention to legislate on Strathclyde, but the Leader of the House of Commons, David Lidington, takes a slightly different view. So it is a sword of Damacles, but we are not easily bullied or intimidate on things like this.
“I think if the Government tries to say to the House of Lords, you mustn’t look at statutory instruments, there will be an outrcy about this. It wasn’t that the Lords overstepped the mark, the Government just didn’t like what we said.
“Strathclyde is quite interesting because when he was Leader of the Opposition and there was a Labour Government, he overstepped his mark lots and lots of times. He was always backing fatal motions.
“The key is for the Conservatives there has never ever until now been a Conservative government that didn’t have an automatic majority in the House of Lords. Previously, they had hereditary peers, which Labour removed, and then when they got into power with the Liberal Democrats they had an automatic majority. They’ve found that hard. But as Labour government, we’ve never had a majority in the House of Lords, you manage it, you get on with it.”
BARONESS SMITH ON….’TAXI-RUNNING’ PEERS
In a BBC documentary on the Lords last week, former Speaker Baroness D’Souza said “many” peers claim their £300-a-day attendance allowance despite contributing “absolutely nothing”.
Baroness D’Souza also made headline news when she added: “I can remember one occasion when I was leaving the house quite late and there was a peer – who shall be utterly nameless – who jumped out of a taxi just outside the peers’ entrance, left the engine running.
“He ran in, presumably to show that he’d attended, and then ran out again while the taxi was still running.”
But Baroness Smith hit back at the allegation, countering that it didn’t ring true.
“I think that her story doesn’t stack up, if I’m honest because you haven’t been able to park a taxi outside the House of Lords entrance there since 2012. So I do worry about the accuracy of her inference from that.
“We do have people that rush back, as I’ve done on a number of occasions when I’ve left my keys on my desk and had to go back at the last mintue to get into my flat.
“It’s also unfair. You see in the documentary peers working very hard on the housing bill, they’re challenging the Government, you’ve got Oona King trying to get amendments through to help families who adopt children.
“All this hard work is going on and then she says something like this and I think people are very disappointed in her. I don’t think it’s accurate and her criticisms are unfair. Any place of work you get some people work a lot harder than others, but I think those criticisms are unfair on the work we do.”
BARONESS SMITH ON…THERESA MAY’S ‘GAME OF THRONES’
When she attended the Lords debate on the Brexit bill, Theresa May became the first Prime Minister in nearly 30 years to sit on the steps of the Monarch’s Throne in the House of Lords.
Baroness Smith said she did not see the tactic as an attempt to “eyeball” peers into voting for the bill.
“I had a slightly different take on this from a lot of commentators. I was really pleased. I think it showed some respect for the House of Lords, I’ve heard people say she was there to be intimidatory. Well I was the only Opposition speaker she listened to, and I wasn’t in the least bit intimidated.
“So I’m hoping that’s a good sign. Because under David Cameron, we saw quite a strange reaction whenever the House of Lords or anyone disagreed with him, it was like a child throwing its toys out of the pram.
“And I’m hoping with Theresa May it’s slightly more mature and if we have disagreements on an issue, she’ll accept that. That’s what happened when we had Labour governments. I’m hoping that’s why she was there.
BARONESS SMITH ON…HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM
“You can’t look at the House of Lords without looking at Parliament as a whole. If you elect the House of Lords, you make the House of Lords more powerful.
“I think there’s a role for a second chamber that’s quite limited in powers, as we’ve got now. We can’t really challenge the Commons, we can ask the Commons to think again.
“I have to tell you, if I was an elected peer then the Government might have a lot tougher fight on its hands on Brexit with a fully elected House of Lords. I’m not saying rule that out but I think you have to look at all the implications.
“We do need to have some reform. The House of Lords is too big, that’s largely a result of David Cameron’s appointments. More peers were appointed in any year under David Cameron than any other Prime Minister since 1958. Part of that was he came in, there wasn’t a majority, he had to give lots of Liberal Democrats peerages and when they changed sides he upped his numbers again.”
BARONESS SMITH ON…THE NEED FOR NEW LABOUR PEERS
Jeremy Corbyn has said that he can “see no case” for more Labour peers, and has appointed only one, Baroness Chakrabarti, since he became leader.
Baroness Smith said: “I don’t envisage any more appointments to the House of Lords in the short term anyway, I think Theresa May would be unwise to do that, she doesn’t need to, while we are looking at reducing the numbers.
“Jeremy probably doesn’t envisage it because he doesn’t envisage any more peers. I think you need to refresh your numbers. We are doing the job of the official Opposition. My frontbench team are absolutely fantastic and really impressive, and our backbench team is working with them.
“But we are all getting older, we are getting smaller in number as well. People retire. People leave us for ‘the other place’, which means they’ve ‘gone upstairs’ [ie died]. But we do have a problem of making sure we can maintain effective Opposition. But perhaps the Government doesn’t want us to.”
Labour peer Lord Liddle said last week that “I hang my head in shame” at the way Corbyn had failed to get move involved in the EU referendum campaign.
Baroness Smith said: “A lot of Labour party members went up and down the country and worked really hard. But where there is doubt is that most of the public didn’t really understand what the Labour party position was.”
BARONESS SMITH ON…THE HIGHER EDUCATION BILL
“We saw the government [in the Commons] saying ‘we don’t want to amend’
“They don’t admit to making any concessions. We are seeing that happen true to form on the Higher Education Bill. I think we are about to see that avalanche of amendments arrive. “
BARONESS SMITH ON…BEING ‘LADY SMITH OF BASILDON’
“There was a place in Basildon called Vange and there was a joke that I should be Lady Ange of Vange. But we didn’t run with that one.
“There’s an Oscar Wilde connection, I’m Lady Basildon on Twitter and there’s a Lady Basildon in An Ideal Husband. There’s a lovely politics quote. ‘I delight in talking politics. I talk them all day long. But I can’t bear listening to them. I don’t know how the unfortunate men in the House stand these long debates.’ I used that in my maiden speech.”
On being Shadow Lords Leader: “It’s strenuous, it’s demanding, but it’s great. There’s nothing else I’d rather do. They are long hours but I feel very fortunate to do it.