Government suffers defeat in Lords over controversial Brexit bill

9 November 2020, 23:12 | Updated: 10 November 2020, 09:11

Boris Johnson's government has suffered a heavy defeat in the House of Lords
Boris Johnson's government has suffered a heavy defeat in the House of Lords. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

The Government has been heavily defeated by 433 to 165, majority 268, in the Lords in the first of a series of votes on stripping law-breaking powers from the controversial Internal Market Bill.

Conservative former leader Lord Howard of Lympne led the calls for the Prime Minister to "think again" and remove the contentious parts of the UK Internal Market Bill, warning that the Government is using the language of "law breakers" everywhere.

Cross-party amendments were tabled to strike out clauses linked to the most contentious part of the Bill, namely part five, which gives ministers the power to breach the Brexit divorce deal - known as the Withdrawal Agreement - brokered with Brussels last year.

The House of Lords voted 433 to 165, majority 268, to remove section 42 - one of the disputed clauses - and section 43 was removed without a vote.

This was the first of two expected votes to remove the relevant sections that make up part five.

Ministers have insisted powers to override the Withdrawal Agreement are needed to protect the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but critics argue the powers are not necessary.

Following the defeat of key parts of proposed Brexit legislation in the Lords, a Government spokesperson said: "We are disappointed that the House of Lords has voted to remove clauses from the UK Internal Market Bill, which was backed in the House of Commons by 340 votes to 256 and delivers on a clear Conservative manifesto commitment.

"We will retable these clauses when the Bill returns to the Commons.

"We've been consistently clear that the clauses represent a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the UK's internal market and the huge gains of the peace process.

"We expect the House of Lords to recognise that we have an obligation to the people of Northern Ireland to make sure they continue to have unfettered access to the UK under all circumstances."

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Lord Howard said the UK would set a “lamentable example” if it breaks international law and said the Government needs to “think again”.

He told the Lords: “There have been some suggestions that opposition to this part of the Bill is in some way the last charge of the remainers.

“That suggestion has a very dangerous implication for those who advance it. It implies that only those who voted for us to remain in the European Union care about the rule of law, or the importance of keeping one’s words, or the sanctity of international treaties.

"Fortunately, I am in a position which enables me confidently to contradict that implication. I voted and campaigned for Brexit and I do not for one moment regret or resile from that vote."

Former prime minister Sir John Major said the legislation had "damaged our reputation around the world".

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Baroness Angela Smith, Labour's leader in the House of Lords, said in a statement: "I am sure some in Government will initially react with bravado and try to dismiss tonight's historic votes in the Lords.

"To do so, however, would underestimate the genuine and serious concerns across the UK and beyond about ministers putting themselves above and beyond the rule of law.

"The Government should see sense, accept the removal of these offending clauses, and start to rebuild our international reputation."

The division list showed 44 Conservative peers rebelled to vote to remove clause 42 from the Bill.

They included Lord Howard, ex-Brexit minister Lord Bridges of Headley and former chief whip Lord Young of Cookham.

Those opposing clause 42 of the Bill also included nine bishops, 115 independent crossbenchers, 156 Labour peers and 81 Liberal Democrats.

A further 38 Conservative peers rebelled to oppose clause 44.

During the debate, Independent crossbench peer Lord Judge - a former head of the judiciary - advised the House of Lords should be "neither complicit nor supine" and should vote against clauses in the Bill.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, raised concerns that the Bill "fails to take into account the sensitivities and complexities of Northern Ireland and could have unintended and serious consequences for peace and reconciliation".

Tory Lord Cormack said the law-breaking clauses in the Bill must go and threatened to vote against them "again and again" if necessary.

But party colleague Baroness Noakes argued the Bill was a "responsible approach by the Government to protect the interests of the UK but particularly the interests of Northern Ireland".

Concluding the committee stage debate, Cabinet Office minister Lord True said it is "entirely proper and constitutional" for Parliament to legislate "in a manner inconsistent with international law".

He added: "That is an age-old principle underpinning our constitution."

The Bill will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords before it returns to the Commons, where the Government has said it plans to retable the clauses removed by peers.

The vote comes after US president-elect Joe Biden warned that Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement cannot become a "casualty" of Brexit

The Financial Times has reported Mr Biden will stress this point during his first call with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the coming days.

Earlier on Monday, Environment Secretary George Eustice said it could be possible to pick up on US trade negotiations with Joe Biden's administration where they were left with Donald Trump.

Asked about whether talks had to start again from scratch, Mr Eustice told BBC Breakfast: "It doesn't if the new administration is happy to pick up where the previous one did.

"That is possible and something that we will be exploring, but it's just too early to tell really.

"It may be that obviously the time that it takes for a new administration to take root means there's some slippage in time, but we'll see once they're properly in place."

He also assured US President-elect Joe Biden that there will be no need for a hard border within the island of Ireland.

He said: "We are putting in place the facilities that will be needed to check agri-food goods as they enter and we're developing the customs procedures that will be needed for goods at risk of entering the EU.

"All of that work is being done and because that work is being done there will be no need for checks on the Northern Ireland border."

He also insisted the UK is "committed to the spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement".