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Ministers seek to overturn Brexit Bill change after Lords defeat

Ministers have signalled they will seek to overturn a change to the Brexit Bill by the House of Lords after peers inflicted the first parliamentary defeat on the legislation.

The upper chamber defied Theresa May, voting by 358 to 256 in favour of an opposition amendment guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals living in the UK after Brexit.

The Government described the result as "disappointing" while sources confirmed they intended to reverse the result when the Bill returns to the Commons.

Despite the setback, ministers are confident they remain on course to meet Mrs May's deadline for invoking Article 50 - marking the start of the formal process of EU withdrawal - of the end of March.

A spokesman for the Brexit Department said: "The Bill has a straightforward purpose - to enact the referendum result and allow the Government to get on with the negotiations."

With seven rebel Conservative peers voting for the amendment along with 78 independent crossbenchers, opposition parties urged ministers to take the opportunity to rethink their position on EU nationals.

For Labour, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said EU nationals should not be used by ministers as "bargaining chips" in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.

"There is a growing consensus that this must be resolved before Article 50 is triggered, and the Prime Minister is now increasingly isolated," he said.

However there was anger among some pro-Brexit MPs at the vote after the elected House of Commons passed the Bill - which allows minister to trigger Article 50 - without amendments.

Labour MP Gisela Stuart, who co-chaired the official Vote Leave campaign, said :"The British people voted in their millions to leave the EU, and their elected MPs passed the Article 50 Bill without amendment.

"The House of Lords should do the same and not seek to frustrate the Brexit process."

Conservative Theresa Villiers, the former Northern Ireland secretary who campaigned for Brexit, said there was wide sympathy for the position of EU nationals but the Bill was "not the right vehicle" to resolve it.

The Government argued that while it wanted to secure the future rights of EU citizens in the UK, it needed to be able to secure reciprocal rights for British citizens living in the EU at the same time.

The Bill is now expected to return to the Commons on March 13 and 14 where a similar amendment was defeated by the Government.

If MPs again reject the amendment it will then "ping pong" back to the Lords where senior opposition peers have indicated they will not seek to defeat the Government again, potentially allowing Mrs May to invoke Article 50 on March 15.

The impassioned and at times angry three-hour debate in the Lords exposed divisions within Conservative ranks over Mrs May's Brexit strategy.

Former cabinet minister Douglas Hogg, now Viscount Hailsham, urged peers to take the "high moral ground" and offer reassurance to the millions of EU citizens who had made their home in the UK.

However another Conservative cabinet veteran Lord Tebbit sparked jeers when he said the debate seemed to focus on "nothing but the rights of foreigners".

Crossbench peer Baroness Meacher said the amendment could be backed by the Commons.

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We understand there are 30 Tories who are saying they will vote to support this amendment.

"Obviously the Tory whips in the Commons are going to work extremely hard with all sorts of bribes to get these people to vote with the Government.

"I believe it can be won in the Commons on the basis of morality and principle and Tories are principled people in general."

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell called on the Prime Minister to immediately guarantee EU migrants' rights.

During a speech in central London, he said: "We've fought to defend the rights of EU migrants here who contribute so much to our public services and our economy.

"The Lords passed Labour's amendment and we urge the Government now to immediately bring forward a guarantee to protect the rights of EU nationals resident here."

A No 10 spokesman said: "The Prime Minister has made clear her intention that the Bill should be passed unamended."

Campaigners from Open Britain have sent legal advice to peers suggesting the Government could face a fresh challenge in the courts if they fail to give Parliament a "meaningful" vote on the final Brexit deal.

The advice by QCs Sir David Edward, Sir Francis Jacobs and Sir Jeremy Lever states the Government will need to pass an Act of Parliament to authorise withdrawal, even if no deal with the EU is negotiated and the UK crashes out without a divorce agreement.

"Actual withdrawal from the EU will need to be authorised by Parliament in a future Act, once the outcome of the negotiations, and the impact on individual and business rights, is known," it states.

Open Britain supporter and Labour MP Chuka Umunna said: "Those who favour hard Brexit used to talk a good game about parliamentary sovereignty but they seek to sideline Parliament at every stage of the Brexit process.

"The Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming by the courts to introduce the Article 50 legislation, but this expert legal advice suggests they may run the risk of it happening again."

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