News that the House of Lords had passed a major amendment to the Article 50 bill this week has prompted talk of a crucial defeat for the Government, a bloodying of the nose for Brexiteers everywhere.
Yet in reality the outcome of the amendment, which seeks to protect the rights of EU migrants currently living in Britain, is likely to be far more complicated, as the bill granting Theresa May authority to trigger Brexit enters its most esoteric stage.
If the Lords chooses to amend a piece of legislation, this can trigger a process known as ‘ping-pong’ whereby the bill is bounced back and forth between the two houses of Parliament until a resolution is reached on the final wording of the statute. It’s a process understood by few people outside Westminster and can cause headaches for the most accomplished of political commentators.
So we called on two highly distinguished members of the Lords, Labour peer Baroness Hayter (who put forward the EU migrants amendment) and crossbencher Lord Green, to talk us through what happens next and map out what Remainers (and Brexiteers) can expect.
More amendments likely
Wednesday’s amendment - which was put forward by Hayter along with representatives of the Labour and Lib Dem sides, and a cross-bencher - was actually only one of several revisions which have been put forward as the Lords scrutinise the Article 50 bill. However, as Lord Green explains, “many of the other amendments are what are called probing amendments, to see what the Government’s response will be, but with little chance of going through. They haven’t all been heard yet.”
The amendment was unusual in that it was put to a vote at the committee stage of the process, rather than the report stage, which is not scheduled to take place until next Tuesday (March 7). Hayter says that in this case it was decided to vote early because the fate of EU migrants is such a crucial aspect of the Brexit negotiations, and by holding the vote early they have given the Government more time to formulate its response.
Several other amendments could be put forward when the bill enters report stage. Hayter says that, for Labour, the major one is to ensure Parliament has a vote on the final Brexit deal.
She explains: “Mrs May at Lancaster House promised a vote in both houses of Parliament, and minister David Jones gave a further concession that the vote would take place before the European Parliament voted on it. But we feel this isn’t good enough, and want it formalised.
“This amendment will be voted on Tuesday and put forward by the myself, on behalf of the Labour Party, but supported by a Cross Bench Peer - Lord Pannick, who represented Gina Millar at the Supreme Court, a Conservative, and a Lib Dem - Lord Oates.”
The EU nationals amendment, and any other amendments passed on Tuesday, will then be put before the Commons. Although the date has yet to be confirmed, it is almost certain to take place on Monday March 13.
Green, who voted against the EU nationals amendment, says: “When the Government deals with the amendments in the Commons it might defeat both by putting them to a vote. If the Government wins, the bill comes back to the Lords without the amendments, and the Lords can decide whether to include the amendments again.”
Back and forth
Hayter says that, while the Government can decide to hold the vote at any time, the revised bill is likely to bounce back to the Lords the same day – leaving peers with little time to consider their response in the event of an evening vote.
If the Lords were to dig in its heels and send the bill back once more to the Commons, with the amends reinserted, this is when the ping-pong process could really kick off, with the two houses bouncing the document between themselves in a prolonged face-off.
There’s no limit to the amount of times the Lords can amend any legislation it scrutinises, and under the terms of the Parliament act the process can drag on for a maximum of six months before the Government is finally able to overrule the Lords and force the bill through.
But it seems likely the issue will be resolved in days, rather than months. Green says: “There won’t be too many pings and pongs. Labour have made it clear they won’t get into an extended ping-pong. A lot of Labour people feel they need to accept the referendum.” Hayter, for her part, also believes the importance of the issue will demand a swift response.
Yet the Lords amendment has thrown up a most unwelcome bump in the road for the Government, and Mrs May must surely be hoping there are no further unwelcome undulations along the way.