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Theresa May steps up Brexit Bill pressure on peers

Theresa May ramped up pressure on peers over Brexit by attending the opening of a crucial debate in the chamber of the House of Lords.

In a highly unusual move, the Prime Minister sat on the steps in front of the Royal Throne as Lords leader Baroness Evans of Bowes Park urged peers not to frustrate the passage of a Bill which will give Mrs May authority to launch EU withdrawal negotiations under Article 50.

Her presence, in a position she is entitled to occupy as a member of the Privy Council, was seen as a visual warning to peers not to seek to block or delay the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal Bill) in the Upper House, where the Government does not enjoy an in-built majority.

Speaking during a by-election campaign visit to Stoke ahead of the debate, the Prime Minister said peers should "pay attention" to the fact that the Bill was passed unamended by a large majority of MPs in the House of Commons.

And she added: "Properly there will be debate and scrutiny in the House of Lords, but I don't want to see anybody holding up what the British people want, what the people of Stoke-on-Trent voted for last year, which is for us to deliver Brexit, to leave the European Union."

Around 190 peers are expected to speak during the two days set aside for the Bill's second reading, the first opportunity for the upper chamber to debate the legislation.

No votes are expected during second reading, but the Government is braced for a battle over EU citizens' rights and a meaningful parliamentary say on the final Brexit deal when the Bill returns for its committee stage next week.

Opening the debate, Lady Evans said she was "confident" that peers would take a "constructive approach".

"This Bill is not the place to try and shape the terms of our exit, restrict the Government's hand before it enters into complex negotiations or attempt to re-run the referendum," she said.

Labour's leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith of Basildon, confirmed her party will seek to amend the Bill but stressed that MPs will "as always, and quite rightly, have the final say".

"We will not block, wreck or sabotage the legislation before us. Whatever our personal views, disappointments and genuine concerns for the future, that is not the role of this House," said Lady Smith.

"But, I've also said, neither should we provide the Government with a blank cheque."

Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords Lord Newby said the Government's approach was "little short of disastrous" as he called for a second referendum on the final deal.

"We now have a country more deeply divided on Brexit than ever," he said.

"The anger of those who wanted to leave is now matched by the growing anger of those who wish to remain - particularly young people.

"If, at the end of this process, we are to come together as a country, we need to dissipate this anger. We believe that giving the people the final say will help to do so."

Former EU commissioner Lord Mandelson insisted he voted as "a patriot" for Britain to remain in the 28-nation bloc.

The Labour peer, who served as business secretary, said claims the UK would enjoy the same trade benefits after breaking with Brussels amounted to "a fraud on the public".

But former Tory leader Lord Hague condemned Tony Blair's call for pro-Europeans to form a new cross-party movement to reverse the outcome of last year's referendum as a "great mistake".

He warned that any attempt to "rise up" against the result would lead to the most "bitter, potentially endless conflict" seen in British society for decades.

Meanwhile, Brexit Secretary David Davis said the UK will continue to be a "good European citizen" after leaving the EU, following talks with Estonia's chief Brexit negotiator Matti Maasikas in Tallinn.

Speaking at the start of a two-day trip which will also take in Latvia and Lithuania, Mr Davis said that on justice and home affairs issues, Britain would " try and get as close as we can to where we are today".

Meanwhile, the Guardian claimed that quitting the EU with no free trade deal and falling back on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules could saddle British exporters with £6 billion in extra tariff costs.

The newspaper said its analysis of trade figures compiled by the United Nations and World Bank suggested that the 204 billion dollars worth of British goods bound for Europe each year would be hit with 7.6 billion dollars in new tariffs under current WTO rules, equivalent to £6.1 billion.

Commenting on the figures on behalf of the Open Britain campaign group, Labour MP Owen Smith said: "The Government is threatening to leave with no deal with the EU, which threatens only UK manufacturing and industry. These are real jobs and workplaces and this would cause real damage.

"The Government need to start being honest with people about the consequences of their reckless 'Brexit at any cost' policy.

"This underlines why it is so essential to have a democratic check and balance at the end of negotiations, with a meaningful vote in Parliament.

"If we give the Government a blank cheque, it will be working people who pay the price."

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