The House of Lords is one of the country’s important check and balance schemes. But they have challenged the government with the first defeat on the Bill that should pave the way for Article 50 to be triggered – the key road to adhering to the result of the referendum held in June last year.
Theresa May has long said that discussions around the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK will be held at the same time as discussions about the right of British citizens to remain in the EU. This, to me, seems very fair. Whilst many of the EU citizens living and working in the UK fill vital roles or bring valuable skills, making a promise without knowing whether our own citizens will be afforded the same courtesy if they have chosen, similarly, to move abroad, seems naive. However, the Lords’ defeat of the government revolved exactly around this point, leading Lord Tebbit, a Conservative former cabinet member, to suggest that it was perhaps more important for Parliament to prioritise the rights of UK citizens ahead of those from other countries. And the in the complicated and essential negotiations that will follow, it is important that the ruling bodies of Parliament and the government do not take actions which could detract from the UK’s ability to secure the best deal possible for Britain and our people.
In the House of Commons, to form a majority government, the governing party must have more than half the number of seats. But when we look at the House of Lords, they have just less than a third at 252. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the two main left wing parties in the UK, have 304 together. By its very nature, it is therefore perhaps more difficult for the Conservative government to successfully put a Bill through the House of Lords.
However, the Lords process is not all bad news for Brexit. Their financial affairs committee has highlighted that there is no legal requirement for the UK to pay the £52bn ‘divorce settlement’ that the European Commission have suggested may be due. With the public keen to see an end to money going out of the country into European bureaucracy, this could be popular with the public, but could also make negotiations harder.
The key now is to await the final vote by the Lords. At the time of writing, the Lord’s Leader, Baroness Evans, has suggested to her fellow peers that they should respect the will of the elected chamber if the Lords’ changes are scrapped. However, there is every potential that the Lords could try to frustrate the result, despite widespread suggestions that to do so could lead to their own demise and replacement with an elected upper chamber.
And given the immense public opinion and debate on the matter, the commitments made by the government and Theresa May, and the Leave victory in June 2016, it is hugely unlikely that the Lords could cripple the Article 50 process. If necessary, the Parliament Act can be triggered, which allows the Commons to pass a Bill without the consent of the Lords. It is controversial, but was used to successfully pass the Hunting Act in 2004. However, it requires at least a year to elapse, and would therefore cause a massive delay to the promised timetable of triggering Article 50 this month.
The key thing is this: Parliament exists to represent the views and will of the people. That is democracy, as any political student or graduate knows. At its most fundamental, Parliament is there to do what the majority of people want for the benefit of the citizens of the country. It cannot be the place of Parliament to overrule the will of the people.