U.K. Lords Inflict Further Defeat on May Over Key Brexit Bill

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s upper house defeated Prime Minister Theresa May on her flagship Brexit legislation for the sixth time in eight days, this time attempting to strip ministers of powers she hoped to grant them after Britain quits the European Union.

The House of Lords voted 349 to 221 in favor of an amendment to the government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that would remove the power for ministers to alter regulations returned to British law from EU jurisdiction whenever they deemed it “appropriate.” Instead, changes would be allowed only when “necessary” to allow laws to function as intended. Proposing the motion, the independent peer Robert Rogers, known as Lord Lisvane, said the bill as it stood would give ministers “heavyweight” powers.

"If a minister may exercise these powers when he or she thinks it appropriate, I suggest that this subjective test is inadequate,” Rogers told lawmakers on Wednesday. “I accept that ‘necessary’ is a high bar, but ‘appropriate’ is a bar so low that it would challenge even the most lithe and determined limbo dancer.”

The latest defeat for May follows three amendments that were pushed through by the upper chamber against her wishes on Monday, and two last week. While they can all be overturned by the House of Commons, they demonstrate the scale of the peers’ opposition to parts of the legislation. That may encourage rebels in the lower chamber, where May’s Conservatives hold a wafer-thin majority alongside Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Prior to the vote, Brexit Minister Martin Callanan warned the amendment could leave the U.K. statute book “in a far worse state” by making it harder for ministers to ensure clearer laws.

As in the previous cases, Wednesday’s amendment was sponsored by peers across the political spectrum, including Patrick Cormack, a Conservative, former Attorney General Peter Goldsmith of Labour, Paul Tyler, a Liberal Democrat, and Rogers.

Changes to May’s bill voted through so far would ensure the bulk of EU rules on political, social and economic rights, currently enshrined in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, are written into British law after Brexit. Another would require ministers to seek to stay in a customs union with the EU, while peers also voted to bring in added protections for workers’ rights, the environment and consumer standards.

Wednesday’s session was the third of six in which the Lords will seek to amend the legislation. Labour’s Brexit spokeswoman in the House of Lords, Dianne Hayter, has said she can envisage further defeats for the government in other areas, including protecting the peace process in Northern Ireland, facilitating future cooperation with EU agencies and removing the government’s fixed Brexit day of March 29, 2019 to give added flexibility.

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