Liz Truss is facing a potential House of Lords rebellion over proposed legislation to rip up part of the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland amid concerns that it gives ministers “dictatorial” powers to pen and pass laws without scrutiny.
About 50 Conservative, Labour and cross party peers are due to meet on Wednesday morning to discuss how they can amend or halt the Northern Ireland bill which has already passed through the House of Commons.
They will be getting advice from legal and constitutional experts on the options including strategies for delaying the bill or using a process that could collapse it altogether.
Peers have not yet been told when the bill returns for its second reading but are predicting heavy defeats.
They say there is growing concern not just over the well-publicised proposals to enable the government to rip up parts of the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol but ministerial powers the bill would give ministers to introduce new laws as long as they deem them “appropriate”.
“My concern is not so much the Brexit issue, but the constitutional issue. The Henry VIII powers are extraordinary here. In my view we would turn the country into an elected dictatorship rather than a parliamentary democracy and I don’t use those words lightly,” said one peer.
“What is happening here is parliament is going to give a carte blanche to any minister to do whatever they want to do without any explanation, including breaking international law,” they added.
Another said: “We do need to be very careful here that we are not ripping up international treaties” adding that it would be “very very unwise not to have some element of parliamentary inspection”.
The peer said there was “great unhappiness” among some Conservative party peers “and in the main opposition” benches over the prospect of “weakening” parliamentary control.
The earliest the bill, which was tabled by Liz Truss this summer, can be debated in the Lords is the second week in October but there are hopes that it will be delayed to further to enable the EU and the UK to find a negotiated solution to the Brexit row.
One option to scupper the bill’s passage is to put forward an amendment to delay the bill for one day and nine months which would push it into the second half of 2023.
Government sources have defended the bill arguing it applies to a very narrow set of rules, which it feels it must change without the consent of the EU.
Questions have been raised about clauses in the bill that state “a minister of the crown may, by regulations, make any provision which the minister considers appropriate in connection with the Northern Ireland protocol”.
Another proposes to confer similar powers on the Treasury or HMRC.
Katy Hayward, professor of sociology at Queens university and an expert on the protocol said: “The super Henry VIII powers confer upon ministers a licence to legislate far beyond the scope of the protocol.
“If the government’s intention is to use these powers merely to make technical adjustments, why are they so broad and open-ended?”
While Brussels is braced for a bruising battle in the weeks ahead hopes have been raised that the UK would re enter talks with the EU to find a negotiated solution.
Truss is due to meet the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in New York on Wednesday and agreed with Ireland’s prime minister at a meeting in London on Sunday that an opportunity for a new attempt at talks existed.
European relations will also be tested at an EU-UK specialised committee on EU funded programmes due to take place on Thursday. The committee will discuss the UK’s continued exclusion from the flagship Horizon Europe science scheme in retaliation over the UK’s failure to implement the NI protocol.
A government spokesperson said the powers in the NI bill were “restricted” and could only be used in connection with certain provisions, for example changing VAT rules in NI and “necessary” to deliver arrangements such as green and red lanes for trucks.
“Our preference has always been to find a negotiated solution to the issues of the protocol, but we need to act to protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. Our legislation avoids a hard border, protects the integrity of the UK and safeguards the EU single market,” the spokesperson said.