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Explainer: Britain's Lords sharpen knives for EU exit laws, but can they block Brexit?

From Reuters - January 22, 2018

LONDON (Reuters) - Legislation to end Britains European Union membership begins months of debate in the upper house of parliament this month and is likely to be given a rough ride by largely pro-EU lawmakers.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill repeals the 1972 law that made Britain a member, and transfers EU laws into British ones. It was approved by 324 to 295 in the lower House of Commons on Jan. 17 and begins its journey through the House of Lords on Jan. 30. It is expected to take until the summer for it to become law.

Prime Minister Theresa Mays Conservative Party does not have a majority in the unelected House of Lords, raising fears among Brexit supporters that the 2016 referendum decision to leave the EU could be thwarted.

But, although Mays government is expected to suffer defeats on some parts of the bill, lords are not expected to block Brexit outright, or indeed influence the final shape of the future relationship between Britain and the EU.

Heres why:

1. What does the House of Lords do?

The House of Lords is a mix of political appointees, members who inherited their positions, and non-political experts on a range of topics. Members are referred to as peers.

Their primary functions are to hold government to account, revise and improve legislation, and consider public policy.

The Lords is secondary to the directly elected House of Commons in setting policy, and any changes it makes to legislation can be overruled.

As such, it would be extremely unusual for the Lords to agree an outright block on such a major policy as Brexit, particularly one backed by a referendum. The two main parties observe a convention that the Lords should not block policies in the manifesto of the ruling party.

2. Why the fuss?

Short of blocking Brexit, the Lords can change how Britain enacts its EU exit by adding caveats and restricting the governments powers. It could also inflict politically embarrassing defeats on the government.

Mays Conservatives have 248 representatives in the 794-member chamber. The next two biggest parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, have 197 and 100. The rest do not follow party voting instructions.

This means the government is outnumbered and must pacify opponents or win over non-political peers, known as crossbenchers, to defeat attempts to change the legislation.

Given the anti-Brexit leaning of many peers, and concerns in that the legislation gives ministers unconstitutional powers, the government is expected to suffer several defeats on aspects of the bill.

3. What could change?

Objections raised in the Lords will be either political orconstitutional.

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