Ministers suffer fresh Lords defeat over Brexit 'power grab'

Posted On: 
25th April 2018

Theresa May's Brexit plans have suffered another bruising defeat in the House of Lords as peers demanded curbs to the "heavyweight" powers set to be granted to ministers by the flagship EU exit bill.

The defeat marks the latest trouble for the EU Withdrawal Bill in the House of Lords
Credit: 
PA

The EU Withdrawal Bill, currently undergoing detailed scrutiny in the House of Lords, aims to transfer existing legislation from Brussels onto the UK statute book when the country leaves the bloc.

But it also hands ministers extensive powers to plug any gaps in UK legislation, and currently says changes can be made to a vast swathe of laws "as the minister considers appropriate" - without consulting parliament first.

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Critics have argued that the so-called Henry VIII powers amount to a "power grab" by ministers, and peers from across the House of Lords today backed an amendment seeking to rein in the powers.

Peers voted 349-to-221 in favour of a cross-party amendment from crossbencher Lord Lisvane which rewords the Bill to say the powers can only be used if "necessary”.

Thirteen Conservative rebels - including former ministers Lord Deben and Lord Green - broke ranks to side against the Government. Eighty-six crossbenchers, including former top civil servants Lord O'Donnell and Lord Turnbull, also backed the amendment.

Tabling the changes, Lord Lisvane said his amendment was about restoring "the balance of power between ministers and parliament" in the face of the Government gaining "heavyweight" powers.

He added: "Whichever side of the Brexit argument they stand [on], people might reasonably believe that taking back control would be under the sovereignty of parliament rather than ceding swathes of power to the executive."

Speaking ahead of the vote Lord Goldsmith, the Labour former attorney general, said: "If this House has a responsibility it is, I would respectfully suggest, to ensure that we do not give the executive more power than is necessary in order to achieve their objectives. This amendment would achieve that."

But Brexit minister Lord Callanan warned that the amendment would leave the UK statute book "in a far worse state" after Brexit and make it harder for ministers to plug any holes in the law.

Ministers also performed a significant u-turn on another aspect of the Bill, using a government amendment to scrap a clause that would have given them the power to set up entirely new public sector organisations without first consulting parliament.

Commenting on that concession, Lord Newby - who leads the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, also echoed the promises of the Brexit campaign.

“Providing proper scrutiny to the Bill and its technical mechanisms is parliament taking back control, not ministers," he said.

“On this issue we have wrestled the Brexit procedure back from a government hell-bent on pursuing their own agenda and granting themselves more and more powers to do so without due process."

Today's votes are the latest in a string of defeats for the government in the Lords, with Conservative peers also peeling off to urge the government not to rule out staying the customs union and to keep the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights in UK law.