MPs have overwhelmingly rejected all the changes made by peers to the government’s Brexit bill and sent the legislation back to the House of Lords.
The Commons overturned five amendments passed by the Lords, including one on unaccompanied refugee children being allowed to join relatives in the UK.
Ministers say they back the principle of the Dubs amendment but the Brexit bill is not the right vehicle for it.
The bill will pass between the Houses until both sides agree on the wording.
The Brexit bill – officially called the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill – ensures the UK leaves the EU on 31 January with a deal.
It passed through the Commons – where the government has a majority of 80 – unamended, but has faced a tougher reception in the Lords, where the government does not have a majority.
Ministers were defeated five times in the Lords earlier this week, including on EU citizens’ rights, the power of UK courts to diverge from EU law and the independence of the judiciary after Brexit.
They also re-instated provisions championed by Labour peer Lord Dubs, which would guarantee in law the right of child refugees to be reunited with their families in the UK post-Brexit.
The bill was also changed to take note of the Sewel Convention, which states that Parliament should not legislate on devolved issues without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Stormont Assembly in Northern Ireland.
As expected, MPs have now removed all these provisions from the bill and sent it back to the Lords in a process known as “ping-pong”.
Peers will now have to decide whether to continue their opposition, to back down, or agree to some form of compromise.
MPs rejected the amendment on citizens’ rights, which would have ensured EU nationals’ existing rights to live and work in the UK would have been automatically recognised in law, by a margin of 338 to 252 votes.
‘Null and void’
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the government could not accept the amendment, which would also have required EU nationals to be given physical documentation detailing their right to remain in the UK – rather than relying on digital evidence alone.
Mr Barclay said it would render the current process in which EU nationals must apply for settled status “null and void” because there would be “no need to register if people could later rely on a declaration that they were already in the UK”.
MPs voted, by a margin of 342 to 254, to remove the obligation on the government to negotiate an agreement with the EU on allowing unaccompanied children who have claimed asylum in the EU and have a relative in the UK to be re-united with their family.
The bill, as agreed by MPs, would only compel the government to make a statement on the issue within two months.
Mr Barclay said the UK had a “proud record” in this area, having taken in more than 41,000 children since the start of 2010, including 3,500 unaccompanied children in the year to September 2019.
But he said there was no point legislating before the UK reached an agreement with the EU on future numbers.
“Legislation cannot deliver the best outcomes for these children as it cannot guarantee that we reach an agreement,” he added.
Labour argued in favour of all five amendments, insisting they were not trying to thwart Brexit but make a “bad bill” better.
‘Trust not enough’
Shadow Brexit minister Thangam Debbonaire said it would be a mistake to take the government’s promises on child refugees at face value.
“The government’s predecessor government has got form on this, promising to take 3,000 children on the Dubs scheme, as originally committed to, and taking fewer than 500 in the end,” she said.
“The government asking us to trust them… is just not good enough.”
Several Tory MPs also urged the government to reach a compromise over the question of whether ministers should have the power to decide in what circumstances courts in England could disregard or set aside certain EU laws.
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis said potential confusion over the issue risked a “great deal of problems for both government and judiciary”, while ex-minister Bob Neill said he backed a compromise tabled by ex-Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay giving the Supreme Court the right to decide.
Once it completes its passage through Parliament, the UK’s exit from the EU must be approved by the European Parliament next week.