Brexit Bill Debated in House of Lords as Theresa May Looks on
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Theresa May made a rare appearance in the House of Lords on Monday to sit in and watch the debate on the Brexit Bill allowing her to trigger article 50. Despite the added pressure from gate crashers such as the Prime Minister, Peers are expected to defy government instructions to “respect the Brexit decision” and push for amendments to be made to the Brexit Bill.
“If people ever find out what we do they will close us down.”
Said a former Liberal colleague in the Lords, Ralph Dahrendorf, explaining he was against getting a lot more publicity for what the House of Lords does. No doubt he would have been horrified by the deluge of publicity that the Lords are going to get in the next fortnight as the “Brexit Bill” goes through the House. A lot of it will be written and said by a media that rarely watches what we do, and even more rarely understands it. And they will take a lot of their information from their usual sources “down the other end” (the House of Commons) where knowledge of the Lords is abysmal at all levels!
Brexit Bill in House of Lords – What Happens Next?
So here’s an idiots’ guide of how we do things and how the Brexit Bill will proceed in the House of Lords. In procedural terms it’s a Government Bill and a House of Commons Bill like any other. It is brought “up” to the Lords with a message that the Commons have passed it and “request the agreement of the Lords”. It starts with a formal First Reading – just an announcement that it has arrived. There is then a Second Reading debate which is what is happening this week.
This is a general debate on the merits of the Bill and any suggestions speakers make for changes. Any Lord can take part – you put your name down in advance and stand up to speak when you reach your turn on the list. Out of the 800 or so Lords entitled to turn up, almost 200 put their names down for this important debate.
The Lords rarely try to block a Government Bill at Second Reading or make any amendment – the last attempt I remember was on the Health and Social Care Bill (the NHS bill) six or seven years ago. The view is generally taken that the Government has the right to have its new legislation considered by the House (ie the Lords).
Indeed, it’s usually the view that the Lords should not try to block or wreck a Government Bill that has been approved by the elected House of Commons. On the other hand we have not just the right but the duty to “scrutinise and revise” bills where they need improvement, and to challenge the House of Commons to “think again” when we think they have got it wrong.
This work is mainly done at Committee stage and Report stage. Committees in the Lords consist of the whole House and on this Bill the Committee will take place (next week – 27th February and 1st March) in the Chamber. The debate will take place on amendments that peers put forward, in groups that cover similar topics or proposals. Any peers can speak during these grouped debates and the movers of each amendment will then press (“test the opinion of the House”) or withdraw them in turn. Most will be withdrawn or “not moved” after the Minister has replied to each group with the Government’s view on each one. It is possible that one or more could be put to a division (a vote), but the important issues will probably wait to be voted on at Report stage.
Report Stage of Brexit Bill in House of Lords
The Report stage (and unusually the Third Reading) will both take place on 7th March, on one day. This will mean that three or perhaps four big questions can be put to the vote. The procedure is as at Committee – debate takes place on groups of amendments and at the end of each grouping there can be a division on one or more amendments in the group. It’s a time-consuming process of queuing to shuffle through the lobbies (corridors where peers are counted as they go through by the tellers waving white wands and pressing old-fashioned clickers). Big divisions can take at least 15 minutes each.
This Bill timetable is a compromise – it will take longer than the Commons took, where there was a guillotine to rush it through. In the Lords there will be weekends between the three main stages but these gaps are quite a bit shorter than usual. It will require quite a lot of self-discipline if the Lords really want to have votes on the main issues at reasonable times (not in the middle of the night when many older peers go home) – and the opportunities for filibustering by Government Leavers are huge since the custom and practice is that any peer who wants to speak on an amendment can do so.
The final decision is on a motion that “This Bill do now pass”. There is very little doubt that the Lords will pass this motion. The question is whether they will have the desire and the strength of purpose (and procedural competence) to do so in a different form and to require the Commons to consider the changes they have made. And whether, if the Commons do not accept these changes (which in practice will mean a willingness to compromise by the Government) the Lords will have any stomach to press their views during the ensuing “parliamentary ping-pong” as the Bill passes between one House and the other.
Interesting times for their Lordships. A test for the British media over whether they can make sense of what we are doing (though I suppose there is no hope on that score in the right-wing tabloids). A test too for the Dahrendorf proposition!