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Government suffers defeat in Lords over plan to start negotiations to leave EU

The Government has suffered a damaging defeat in the Lords over its plan to start negotiations on leaving the EU at the end of this month.

Ignoring stern warnings not to amend the Brexit Bill, peers backed a Labour-led move to guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in the UK by a majority of 102.

Voting was 358 to 256 after a passionate and sometime ill-tempered three-hour committee stage debate on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill.

The defeat means the Bill, which was passed unamended by the Commons, will now have to return there for further consideration by MPs.

It could put at risk Theresa May's timetable for triggering Article 50 to begin Brexit talks by the end of March.

Shadow Brexit minister Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town warned against EU nationals being used as "bargaining chips" in negotiations to quit the EU.

Lady Hayter said the concerns of EU nationals here and British expats living in Europe shouldn't be "traded against each other".

Urging ministers to remove the uncertainty, she said: "These people need to know now - not in two years' time or even 12 months' time. They simply can't put their lives on hold."

Home Secretary Amber Rudd wrote to every peer yesterday urging them not to back the Opposition amendment to the legislation and was present for part of the debate - sitting on the steps in front of the throne like the Prime Minister did at the Bill's second reading.

But it failed to persuade peers that the Bill should pass unamended and become law as quickly as possible.

Labour's amendment to the Bill, tabled with Liberal Democrat and crossbench support, calls for ministers within three months of triggering Article 50 to bring forward proposals ensuring the rights of EU citizens living here continue post-Brexit.

The debate exposed divisions on the Tory benches. Former minister Viscount Hailsham urged the Government to move unilaterally and peers to take the "high moral ground" by backing the amendment.

But Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Tebbit sparked jeers when he said the debate seemed to focus on "nothing but the rights of foreigners".

Tory former chancellor Lord Lawson of Blaby said that with a home in France he would have liked to see the Government give an "unconditional assurance" to EU citizens living here.

But he said he could not agree with the amendment because it had "no place in this Bill whatever".

Lord Lawson said there was no chance of Parliament approving the expulsion of EU citizens legally resident here - "so there is no danger whatever to EU citizens resident in the UK".

For the Liberal Democrats Baroness Ludford said: "The Government ought to accept that the weight of opinion is in favour of that unilateral guarantee which will then trigger similar rights for Britons abroad."

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