The Conservative government is likely to be defeated in the House of Lords over the issue of securing the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, despite a last minute plea from the home secretary, Amber Rudd.
Peers are lining up to support a Labour party amendment – which now has the formal backing of a Conservative, a Liberal Democrat and a crossbencher – calling on ministers to bring forward proposals to protect Europeans resident in Britain within three months of article 50 being triggered.
Losing a vote during the committee stage in the House of Lords means the Brexit bill will have to enter a so-called ping pong between the Houses of Commons and Lords, delaying its passage into law by at least one week.
Rudd sent a letter to peers on Tuesday in an effort to persuade peers not to vote against the government, insisting that there was no question of treating European citizens with “anything other than the utmost respect”.
She said that their status would be the top priority once negotiations were underway but argued that the government could not act unilaterally over the issue because it would risk the status of British people living across the continent.
“They could end up facing two years of uncertainty if any urgency to resolve their status were removed by the UK making a one-sided guarantee,” she said. Rudd argued that the hold-up was because a few EU countries, including Germany, had insisted that they would not negotiate anything linked to Brexit until article 50 had been triggered.
Her letter suggests that the government is not prepared to strike a compromise with peers by setting out a formal promise to bring forward plans within three months, with sources saying they are keen for the Brexit bill to be passed without any amendments.
She also made clear that there would be a separate opportunity to debate and vote on the future immigration system put forward by the government when legislation is laid down in the future.
Labour’s leader in the Lords, Lady Smith, called Rudd’s message “deeply disappointing” and said it had paved the way for a government defeat over the issue.
“To continue to use people as bargaining chips in this way is not only shameful but could have a dire impact on the UK’s economy and essential services,” she said.
“Confirming the rights of those EU citizens living in the UK can only be of benefit to our citizens worried about their future in EU countries but the government’s approach seems to be to sit back and wait for others to blink first.”
The Labour amendment calls for EU citizens and family members legally resident in Britain by the time the Brexit bill is passed – in mid March – to be treated in the same way after Brexit as they are now.
A Labour Lords source said it was highly unusual for peers to force a vote on legislation at this stage, as usually they would hope to keep pressing the government for further concessions.
“A committee stage vote in the Lords is as rare as a white rhino,” he said, but added that it was inevitable “because it is clear that we have exhausted the deliberation and dialogue with the government and we would be wasting our time to have the debate again at report stage. This needs to go back to the Commons to be debated”.
Other issues to be discussed on Wednesday – including the question of a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal – are likely to only come to a vote next week.