Theresa May has suffered a fresh Parliamentary defeat over Brexit after the House of Lords voted to keep the EU’s human rights charter in British law.
Peers voted by 316 votes to 245 for a cross-party amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that aims to retain the so-called Charter of Fundamental Rights even after the UK quits the bloc in 2019.
Several senior Tory rebels helped inflict the defeat - by a majority of 71 - including former Cabinet ministers David Willetts, Michael Heseltine and Chris Patten.
The amendment was led by independent crossbencher Lord Pannick, supported by an alliance of Labour former Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith, Lib Dem frontbencher Lady Ludford and the Tory John Gummer.
Pannick said that the Government’s move to ditch the charter - which gives millions of EU citizens political, civil and economic rights - was “unprincipled and unjustified”.
The vote amounts to the third major defeat for the Prime Minister over her flagship Brexit bill in less than a week.
Peers voted last week by big majorities to keep open the option of staying in the EU Customs Union and to maintain protections for workers, consumers and the environment.
Under the Charter, the EU must act and legislate consistently in line with its principles and the EU courts can strike down any laws that contravene it.
On Monday, Justice Minister Lord Keen of Elie sparked heckles as he hit back at the amendment’s backers during the debate, declaring that the adoption of a “body of foreign law” would be “one of the greatest constitutional outrages since 1689”.
“It would also indicate a total abdication of responsibility by this Parliament,” Lord Keen said.
Pannick had hit back that it was up to British judges to decide future interpretation of the charter, and that the UK Parliament would be open to amend it in future.
However, former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge opposed the amendment on the grounds that the EU charter would have allowed Stephen Lawrence’s killers to go free.
He pointed out that in 2003 - before the charter came into force - the Labour government abandoned the common law principle of double jeopardy to allow a second trial of the murderers.
“Article 50 prohibits that provision that was made in primary legislation. The result would have been that two men now serving imprisonment following conviction for murder of that innocent boy would never have been prosecuted to conviction,” Lord Judge said.
He added that he would not have made the point if Baroness Lawrence, Stephen’s mother who attended his memorial service on Monday, had been present for the debate.
Brexit Secretary David Davis came under fire last year when it emerged that he had previously relied on the Charter in a legal challenge against David Cameron’s coalition Government in 2013.
Before his return to the Tory front bench Davis had teamed up with Labour’s Tom Watson to bring a court case against the ‘snoopers’ charter’.
His Labour Shadow Brexit Keir Starmer revealed that Davis’ lawyer had praised the EU charter when he sought to challenge the legality of powers to intercept calls and texts in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014.
Shadow Brexit minister Paul Bloomfield said: “This is a welcome decision from the House of Lords. The future of human rights protections is not a party political issue. It is about the type of country we want to be and the values we want to champion.
“The Government risks leaving a gaping hole in human rights protections. This vote is yet another signal to ministers that their approach to Brexit is flawed and that they need to think again.”
But a DExEU spokesperson said: “We are disappointed that the House of Lords has voted for this amendment in spite of the assurances we have provided.
“The Charter of Fundamental Rights was never the source of rights in the UK – it simply reaffirmed rights that already existed in EU law and the EU (Withdrawal) Bill will convert this EU law into UK law.
“We will review this decision when the Bill returns to the House of Commons to ensure we deliver a workable piece of legislation that provides certainty as we leave.”
Labour’s Lord Goldsmith blogged for HuffPost UK last month that the Lords was simply “trying to help the Prime Minister meet her promise that the same laws will apply on the day after Brexit as the day before”.