BISHOPS were split in the House of Lords on Wednesday. A vote on the Brexit Bill left Peers arguing over the location of the moral high ground.
The amendment in question, moved by the Opposition, states that, within three months of triggering Article 50, the Government must bring forward proposals to ensure that legally resident EU citizens and their family members “continue to be treated in the same way with regards to their EU derived-rights and, in the case of residency, their potential to acquire such rights in the future”.
The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, and the Bishops of London and St Albans voted against the amendment. The Bishops of Leeds and Newcastle voted in favour. It was carried by 358 votes to 256.
Dr Sentamu argued that the best way to guarantee EU citizens’ right to remain was to “call the bluff” of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, “by saying that we have now triggered Article 50, we will talk about it, and unilaterally give the guarantee. It will be much quicker than the three months proposed in this amendment.”
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has said that she wants to guarantee EU citizens’ right to stay in the UK, but as part of a deal that also guarantees the rights of British people living elsewhere in the EU, estimated to number 1.2 million. A spokesperson for Chancellor Merkel has said that there is “complete unanimity” among EU member states that negotiations on these rights cannot not take place until Article 50 is triggered.
Baroness Hayter, who moved the amendment, said that it was “completely wrong” to suggest that those backing the amendment did not care about British people living elsewhere. She argued that, at the point of negotiation “there could be one country, with a very small number of UK citizens living there, which, for some unrelated reason, held up the agreement”.
Dr Sentamu’s position was criticised by Peers. Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb questioned whether he understood the “moral obligation” on the Government: “These people are not bargaining chips.”
Lord Clark of Windermere asked whether the Archbishop understood “the pain, suffering, and uncertainty of individuals working in our health service”.
This was rejected as an “invidious suggestion” by the Archbishop, whose speech referred to his opposition to Idi Amin’s eviction of Ugandan citizens.
The Conservative Peer, Viscount Ridley, was critical of “inflaming” fears, with “spurious mentions of the edict of Nantes and Idi Amin”.
Appeals to morality were made on both sides. Some argued that the Bill gave precedence to EU citizens living in the UK, over Britons living elsewhere in the EU.
“I am puzzled to hear it suggested that abandoning one million of our British citizens in the EU is the moral high ground,” said Lord Green of Deddington.
“The moral ground is fairness”, said Lord Mackay.
This call for fairness resonated with the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, who voted against the amendment.
“As well as the many emails and letters I had received from foreign nationals currently living in the UK, I had also heard from many UK nationals living in other parts of the EU,” he said on Thursday. “I believe that, in the long run, the interests of both groups have to be balanced and that the best way to do that is to negotiate for both groups at the same time.”
He did not believe that the Lords could “handcuff the negotiating hand of the Prime Minister when she triggers Article 50, by predetermining the outcome of one area of the negotiation before we start”.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, wrote in a blog that he had felt “conflicted” when it came to voting, but that he had eventually voted in favour of the amendment, “because I think the Government has not explained the reciprocal linking of the situations of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU. We have some power in the case of the former, but none in the case of the latter.”
There was “no bargain to be struck”, he argued: EU negotiators knew that the UK could not evict EU migrants, “because much of our construction, academic, agricultural, and NHS sectors would cease to function”.
He had tried to listen to the debate through the ears of other Europeans, he said. “We do speak as if we are holding a private conversation. We spent over 40 years telling European partners that they are corrupt, lazy, and incompetent . . . and now we expect to get a great deal from them?”
Noting that the moral high ground had been “claimed repeatedly”, he argued that there was “never any definition of what makes a position moral in the first place. What we usually mean is that the ground I stand on is moral, whereas the ground you stand on is not. This is a poor – and rather grandstanding – way of conducting a moral argument. The language of ‘moral gesture’ was used by several speakers, and I know what they mean. But Parliament is there to do moral good, not to make gestures. This way lies trouble.”
The amendment would not slow down the triggering of Article 50, he said, or frustrate the Government’s will. “But it does make a statement that our democratic institutions should not bow to unconvincing arguments about process, and have the duty to raise questions of moral purpose. . . even where the language of such gets messed about.”
The Bill will now return to the House of Commons. A spokesman for the Prime Minister has said that she remains “committed” to triggering Article 50 by the end of March.
“Our message to MPs is that we expect this Bill to go through unamended,” he said.