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Party conference season begins

19 September 2017

This week, party conference season has begun with the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth (16-19 September). It continues with Labour (Brighton, 24 – 27 September) and Conservative (Manchester, 1 – 4 October). The public affairs team is attending these conferences and running a comprehensive programme of activities.


Last week, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill passed its Second Reading with a comfortable majority, by 326 votes to 290, and Labour's Reasoned Amendment fell by 318 votes to 296. Amendments to the Bill have already been laid to be considered at Committee Stage.

The Lord Chief Justice presented his annual report to Parliament and a session held before the Justice Select Committee. Both Bambos Charalambous MP and Bob Neill MP, chair of the Committee, raised concerns on the flexible operating hours pilot scheme on the legal profession. The Lord Chief said that it was important to use the courts efficiently and ensure output was maximised. However, he acknowledged that it was important to protect working mothers.

Two new inquiries were also announced. The Justice Select Committee launched a pre-legislative scrutiny inquiry into the draft clause assumed rate of return on investment of damages published on 7 September in Annex A to Command Paper 9500.

The Exiting the EU Select Committee announced an inquiry into the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to help to inform Parliament's consideration of the Bill. The first evidence hearings scrutinising the Bill are likely to take place in the second week of October and witnesses will be announced in due course.

This week in Parliament

  • Both Houses will be in recess for Party Conferences and will return on Monday 9 October.

Last Week in Parliament

Monday 11 September

House of Commons

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill passed Second Reading

Second Reading of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill concluded and the Bill was passed at a vote by 326 votes to 290. Labour's Reasoned Amendment fell by 318 votes to 296.

The Law Society's briefing specifically raised concern about clauses 7 and 9, and about the role of the devolved administrations in the process.

The main points from the closing speeches of the debate were as follows:

Government

  • Closing the debate on behalf of the Government Lord Chancellor David Lidington MP noted the Bill provided "a coherent, functioning statute book and regulatory system on the day that we leave and thereafter".
  • He noted that there were concerns about the future of various rights and said all those "conferred as a result of EU regulations or judgments of the European Court, are continued by this Bill on a United Kingdom legal basis".
  • He said that from exit day, EU Treaties would cease to apply but that the general principles of European law would be retained in United Kingdom law for the purposes of interpreting retained EU law. He added that existing rights would also continue to operate in UK law undisturbed by the Bill.
  • He confirmed that individuals would be able to challenge secondary legislation and administrative action by way of judicial review, and said that the Bill did contain safeguards. He also noted that sunset clauses were in place to curtail these powers after two years.
  • He stated that the devolved administrations would continue to have the powers they had so far, and that they would gain "significant" additional powers from those repatriated from Brussels. However, he noted this was not a straightforward process and that would involve continuing discussions.

Labour

  • Shadow Minister for Exiting the EU, Matthew Pennycook MP, closed the debate on behalf of the Opposition.
  • He said that Labour accepted that the Brexit process required legislation to disentangle the UK from the European Union's legal structures. However, he pointed out that the Labour party did not support the Bill in its current form as it contained powers no "sovereign Parliament should allow".
  • He specifically noted the issues raised by clauses 7, 8, 9 and 17, saying that they were "extraordinary in their constitutional potency and scope" and "so extensive in its potential application that it could extend to every facet of our national life".
  • He also criticised the Government's decision not to publish the legislation in draft form before the summer.

Next steps

The Bill will now move to Committee Stage, where it will be discussed for eight days by a Committee of the Whole House, where the Bill can be amended. Dates for the Committee Stage have not been confirmed but will take place after the conference recess.

Read the full transcript from the debate.

House of Lords

Financial Guidance and Claims Bill

The House of Lords debated the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill on the 3rd day of Committee Stage. Read the Law Society's briefing setting out our priorities for the Bill.

Peers moved a series of probing amendments on statutory reporting of guidance; the creation of a commissioning framework; the impact of FCA regulation on the body and the Rules of setting and enforcement of the standards were clarified  and transparency and accountability of monitoring compliance discussed.

Peers also discussed amendments relating to powers and funding mechanisms for devolved authorities and to obligate the FCA to promote financial inclusion. Further amendments on advice on annuities and powers conferred on ministers to dissolve the Body were also discussed.

Read the full debate transcript.

Tuesday 12 September

House of Lords

Chancellor of the Exchequer evidence session before the Economic Affairs Committee

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, gave evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee. In this session, the key points he raised were:

  • The Government would seek to agree transitional arrangements that largely preserved the status quo.
  • When the UK leaves the EU, it will leave the Single Market and Customs Union. However, the Government hopes to get an arrangement to operate across borders trading goods and services in much the way that it does now. The impediment to this is the desire to negotiate third party agreements during the transition – the UK wants to negotiate third country trade deals but not implement them in that time.
  • The Autumn Budget will be delivered on 22 November.

Read the transcript of the full evidence session.

Wednesday 13 September

House of Lords

Financial Guidance and Claims Bill

The House of Lords debated the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill on the 4th day of Committee Stage. Peers discussed a number of amendments, which would extend the scope of the Bill to cover areas such as personal injury claims, credit hire and commissioning of medical reports. They also discussed amendments that would place a duty of care on claims managements services to all customers, not solely those identified as vulnerable.

The Government confirmed its intention to consult on this. Peers also noted concern about the rise in holiday sickness claims. Government confirmed it would be reviewing again their position on whether to extend the regulatory scope of the FCA to claims management companies in Scotland.

Read the full transcript.

Thursday 14 September

House of Commons

Attorney General Oral Questions Attorney General Oral Questions took place in the House. The main points:

Serious Fraud Office

  • Jo Stevens MP (Lab) asked what plans the Government had for the future of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).
  • Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC MP said that the SFO worked to tackle issues around bribery and corruption and that the Government would consider funding and cooperation matters in the future.
  • Jo Stevens noted that there should be a greater level of permanent funding for the SFO.
  • The Attorney General said that it was unlikely that funding arrangements would change significantly, but added that there was an argument for greater levels of core funding.
  • Bob Neill MP (Con), Chair of the Justice Select Committee, asked if the Government would merge the SFO into the National Crime Agency (this measure was announced in the Conservative manifesto).
  • The Attorney General said the future of the SFO would pertain its requirement to be effective and independent in combating economic crime.
  • Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, Shadow Solicitor General, asked if the Attorney General would give his support to the future of the SFO.
  • The Attorney General said cooperation between organisations in terms of dealing with economic crime was critical.

Brexit

  • Martyn Day MP (SNP) asked what assessment the Government had made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the functioning of the different national legal systems in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
  • Responding, Solicitor General Robert Buckland QC MP outlined the discussions the Government had had with devolved administrations on the issue.
  • Martyn Day MP mentioned the Law Society's policy position on this and asked for more details on what the Government's approach to Brexit would be.
  • The Solicitor General said that a UK-wide approach would be taken where necessary but the devolved administrations would be fully involved.
  • Gavin Newlands MP (SNP) asked if Brexit would mean an erosion of human rights in different parts of the UK.
  • The Solicitor General said that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights did not had anything substantive to EU law, but added it would still be transposed into domestic law by the EU Withdrawal Bill.

Modern slavery

  • Michael Fabricant MP (Con) asked what progress the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had made in improving conviction rates for offences of modern slavery.
  • The Attorney General responded that the CPS was dealing with an increasing number of cases and that the Modern Slavery Act could help address them.
  • Philip Hollobone MP (Con) asked which region of the UK was best at prosecuting modern slavery and how best practice could be shared.
  • The Attorney General noted that experiences could vary across different regions, but agreed it was important to share best practice.

Domestic violence

  • Diana Johnson MP (Lab), Laura Pidcock MP (Lab), Nick Smith MP (Lab) asked what discussions the Attorney General had had with the CPS on cases involving domestic violence.
  • The Attorney General said that he regularly discussed domestic violence cases and there had been an increasing incidence of the crime within the UK.
  •  Laura Pidcock MP suggested that electronic only evidence submissions was the most effective way to capture evidence from victims of domestic violence.
  • The Attorney General outlined the work done by Government to enable vulnerable witnesses to not have to give evidence in court in person, and pointed out that other measures to encourage people to come forward with evidence would be considered.

Read the transcript.

Lord Chief Justice evidence session before the Justice Select Committee

Following the publication of his 2017 Report on 7 September, the Lord Chief Justice was heard by the Justice Select Committee in a one-off session.

The Lord Chief summarised the main points of his report on the progression of the reform programme, recruitment within the judiciary, Brexit, and access to justice. This will be Lord Thomas' last appearance before the Committee as the Lord Chief retires at the end of September. The main points were as follows:

Brexit

  • Alex Chalk MP (Con) expressed concerns about Clause 6 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which covers the interpretation of retained EU law, and said that it needed clarification.
  • The Lord Chief said that there was a "very substantial risk" that the judiciary could find itself in the position to make de facto policy decisions on continuing EU law, and argued that proper guidance from Parliament was needed.
  • He added that the Law Commission might play a role, but there were problems around speed and its expertise of the negotiations process.
  • The Lord Chief also mentioned that it was vital to dispel myth around the possibility that Brexit could affect the stability of English commercial law. He said that London should remain a centre for dispute resolution.

Court modernisation programme

  • Bambos Charalambous MP (Lab) asked about the status of the court modernisation programme.
  • The Lord Chief said thatthe programme was "a building project" and that it was progressing well. He added that it was important to get the balance right between reporting in a transparent way to Parliament and protecting commercial confidentiality.
  • Both Bambos Charalambous MP and Bob Neill MP (Con), chair of the Justice Select Committee,raised the issue of the pressure of the flexible operating hours pilot scheme on the legal profession.
  • The Lord Chief said that it was important to use the courts efficiently and ensure output was maximised: "You want to be sure you can give people that degree of certainty so they can make the arrangements to prepare cases properly and can make requisite arrangements at home. I think it is worth experimenting". However, he acknowledged that it was important to protect working mothers.
  • He also said that there would be the need for further court closures: "In the end it is a question of how radical are we prepared to be in providing a much better service or do we spend the money on maintaining buildings which are under-utilised?"

Private law

  • The Lord Chief said that the rise in private law cases was "deeply worrying". The process was essentially adversarial and could make disputes worse.
  • He noted that people still sought court decisions, especially when they didn't have access to legal advice and representation.
  • The Lord Chief added that there were three solutions: going back to the old legal aid system, providing litigants in person with a lawyer in court, or an organisation such as the Citizens' Advice Bureau could be used. He noted that there was not straightforward solution.

Independence of the judiciary

  • Bob Neill MP asked whether the Lord Chief felt that politicians adequately defended the independence of the judiciary.
  • The Lord Chief said that, although the relationship with the current Lord Chancellor was good – he noted his PhD dissertation - it was crucial that all branches of the state worked together to clarify for the public how the Constitution worked.
  • He added that more work was needed to explain the duty of the various branches to express their own views, while showing respect for one another.
  • Victoria Prentis MP (Con) asked what more could be done to educate Parliament about the role of the judiciary.
  • The Lord Chief noted thatworking relationships could be "entirely civil" even if participants held different views and made different decisions within their respective areas of authority.

Recruitment

  • Recruitment remains a "serious problem", especially in the High Court.
  • The Lord Chief said that he was confident the Senior Salaries Review Board (SSRB) would address the problem.
  • Bob Neill MP asked whether Parliament should look again at judicial retirement age.
  • The Lord Chief said thatraising the ceiling to 75 might be helpful, but there was a risk around fading intellectual capacity, so the issue needs to be debated.

The transcript of the session will be published shortly.

Committee new inquiries announced

The Justice Select Committee launched a pre-legislative scrutiny inquiry into the draft clause Assumed rate of return on investment of damages published on 7 September in Annex A to Command Paper 9500.

The Committee will accept submissions until 13 October 20 on the objectives of the legislation, fairness, impact, process proposed and whether it be better to review the rate more, or less, frequently than proposed (every three years). The terms of reference can be found here.

The Exiting the EU Select Committee has announced an inquiry into the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to help to inform Parliament's consideration of the Bill. The first evidence hearings scrutinising the Bill are likely to take place in the second week of October and witnesses will be announced in due course. Read the terms of reference.

Friday 15 September

Nothing to report.

Question or comments? Contact the Public Affairs team at parliamentary@lawsociety.org.uk or 020 7320 5858.

Tags: Westminster weekly update

About the author

Alexandra Cardenas is Head of Public Affairs and Campaigns at the Law Society. Public Affairs manages the relationships with parliament and government. She is a dual qualified solicitor in England and Wales (2014), and Colombia (2002). Prior to the Society, she practised as a human rights lawyer and worked at Macmillan Cancer Support and Animal Defenders International.

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