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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 May 2018

UK government suffers 15th Brexit defeat in Lords

Upper chamber demanded additional environmental safeguards to be added to EU withdrawal bill

Britain is keen to sign quick free-trade deals around the world to compensate for a reduction in trade with the EU after Brexit. Getty Images
Britain is keen to sign quick free-trade deals around the world to compensate for a reduction in trade with the EU after Brexit. Getty Images

Prime minister Theresa May’s government suffered its 15th defeat on legislation that will end Britain’s membership of the European Union on Wednesday when parliament’s upper chamber voted in favour of adding environmental safeguards to the bill.

Mrs May has to get the bill approved by both chambers of parliament well in advance of Britain’s exit on March 29, 2019, but the House of Lords, the unelected upper house, has demanded major changes that will force a showdown over coming weeks.

The Lords voted 294 to 244 in favour of a change to the bill which would force the government to maintain the EU’s environmental principles. The government argues that Brexit will allow Britain to improve environmental protections through separate legislation.

Mrs May’s Conservative government has already suffered high- profile defeats on core Brexit issues such as whether Britain should leave the EU’s single market and customs union.

Martin Callanan, a junior Brexit minister who is a member of the House of Lords, said the government had listened to constructive suggestions to improve the legislation which is now due to return to the lower house.

“However, during the bill’s journey through the House of Lords some changes have been made that conflict with its purpose or are designed to frustrate the entire exit process and so we are considering the implications of those decisions,” he said.

While the more powerful House of Commons can overturn the changes, they may embolden rebels in Mrs May’s own party who favour a softer EU exit.

Ministers have accused the House of Lords, where the Conservatives do not have a majority, of making unnecessary changes and have indicated they will fight some of them back in the Commons.

That process, known as ‘ping pong’, is not yet scheduled, but will be a key test of the PM’s ability to govern effectively and to deliver on her Brexit plans with just a slim working majority in the Commons, where she relies on the support of a small Northern Irish party.

The latest defeat comes as it was reported in the Daily Telegraph that Britain will tell Brussels it is prepared to stay in the European Union’s customs union beyond 2021 as ministers remained deadlocked over a future deal with the bloc

Ministers meeting on Tuesday agreed that Britain should try to stay aligned with the customs union if technology needed to operate borders under one of the government's proposals is not ready in time for 2021, the Telegraph reported. Officials have warned it may not be in place until 2023.

A spokeswoman for Mrs May declined to comment on the Telegraph report.

Meanwhile, Britain’s trade minister Liam Fox will invite overseas investors on Thursday to submit bids for financing £30 billion ($40 billion) of projects to help the world’s sixth-largest economy cope with the upheaval of leaving the European Union.

Investors will be offered the chance to fund 68 projects across 20 sectors of the economy, including technology, housing and retail, and many of the projects are outside London in less affluent parts of Britain.

The Department for International Trade will promote the projects to investors overseas and more will be added in the coming months.

“This is a bold and ambitious programme, building on the UK’s position as the leading destination for foreign investment in Europe,” Mr Fox said in a statement.