Both Houses of Parliament have risen this week for Easter recess, and will return on Monday 11 April.
It has been a challenging week for the government following the sudden resignation of pensions secretary and former party leader Iain Duncan Smith last Friday. His resignation came after the chancellor's budget announcement earlier in the week, which included further cuts to disability claimants. He was swiftly replaced by former Welsh secretary Stephen Crabb MP, who within days publically reversed the cuts in the House of Commons.
On justice issues, there was a debate in the House of Commons on 24 March on the issue of court closures, following the Ministry of Justice announcement in February of the closure of 86 out of the 91 courts and tribunals.
The debate was hosted by Liz Saville Roberts MP (Plaid Cymru) and Helen Hayes MP (Labour). The Law Society briefed a number of MPs and Helen Hayes specifically sought a briefing from us. The lively debate included contributions from number of MPs from around the country who are engaging with the issue, and the Law Society was cited on a number of occasions, notably on HMCTS's misjudgement on travel times and on court capacity.
Monday 21 March
House of Lords
Amendments tabled - Immigration Bill
The House of Lords, following the third day of the report stage of the Immigration Bill.
Read the list of Amendments to be moved on the report.
Ministry of Justice
Press release - Crown Court broadcasting
Proposals to launch a pilot that would see television cameras allowed into the Crown Court for the first time have been announced by the Ministry of Justice and the Lord Chief Justice. The minister for courts and legal aid Shailesh Vara MP announced a not-for-broadcast trial that will film judges' sentencing remarks in eight courts in England and Wales.
The cameras would be able to film the sentencing remarks of nominated senior judges in eight courts across England and Wales as part of a not-for-broadcast pilot.
Justice minister Shailesh Vara said:
"My hope is that this will lead to more openness and transparency as to what happens in our courts. Broadcasting sentencing remarks would allow the public to see and hear the judge's decision in their own words".
Lord Chief Justice the Right Honourable the Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said:
"I am interested to see how this pilot progresses and will work with the Ministry of Justice to assess the impact of cameras in court".
The pilot will take place in the Central Criminal Court and in the Crown Court at Southwark, Manchester (Crown Square), Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Leeds, and Cardiff. Safeguards will be put in place to make sure victims continue to be supported and the administration of justice is not affected.
The cameras will film only the judge. The filming of all other court users, including staff, victims, witnesses, defendants and advocates will remain prohibited. The government will work with broadcasters to support the pilot at no cost to the public.
Tuesday 22 March
House of Commons
Written answers - Alternative Dispute Resolution
Following a question tabled by Nick Thomas-Symonds MP (Labour) on the estimate of the number of cases being dealt with by the courts which could be resolved through a form of ADR, the minister for the courts and legal aid Shailesh Vara answered that his department has no estimate, though the government fully supports and encourages the use of ADR and other alternatives to court.
Wednesday 23 March
Nothing to report.
Thursday 24 March
House of Commons
Backbench business debate - court closures
Liz Saville Roberts MP and Helen Hayes MP hosted a debate on the issue of court closures in the House, with the minister for the courts and legal aid Shailesh Vara in attendance. Ms Hayes began the debate by making it clear that the Ministry of Justice had not fully outlined to the House the scale and wider implications of the proposed closures, and that making the announcement on the last day before February recess made proper scrutiny by the House impossible.
Ms Hayes went further, by stating that it was a miscalculation by the government to close those courts before the modernisation process had been put in place (or indeed piloted), stating that putting "the cart before the horse" was a "risky way to treat justice". It was agreed by a number of members that it would have been prudent for the MoJ to bring to the House a proper plan of action to mitigate the inevitable access to justice implications.
Ms Hayes also asserted that there has been not forethought into what a national standard of court access should look like, and no assessment of what access to the court and tribunal service should be available.
The issue of local justice was raised by several members, including Kevin Foster (Conservative) and Andrew Bingham (Conservative), who, citing evidence provided by the Law Society, highlighted to the minister that given increased travel times and the merging of a number of courts, local magistrates in many cases would no longer be involved in judicial issues local to them. The issues of the impacts on court staff, prison and probation officers, as well as police and jurors, had not been properly reviewed by HMCTS, with increased costs offloaded to other parts of the justice system, and further infringements on access to justice.
Geography was another key issue raised to the minister. Madeline Moon (Labour), the member for Bridgend, highlighted that the simple geographical location of justice services being moved to other local courts had not been taken into account, including public transport concerns. She also raised that the digital services in South Wales, particularly poor broadband coverage, meant that remote video conferencing for certain cases were also unviable.
The minister responded by saying that these concerns would be taken into account, asserting that the courts and tribunal system is in need of urgent reform, and that maintaining underused and dilapidated court buildings costs the taxpayer £500 million a year.
He went on to outline that closing these courts in poor quality buildings would raise £40 million to re-invest in the justice system, and save taxpayers £27 million per year.
Press release - Tier 2 visas
Today the government announced its response to two reviews of Tier 2 policy by the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).
The main points of the announcement:
- Larger sponsors of Tier 2 migrants will be charged £1,000 per migrant per year, with a reduced rate of £364 per migrant per year for small businesses and charities; and
- there would be an exemption for graduates switching from Tier 4 to Tier 2
The Immigration Skills Charge is subject first to the Immigration Bill getting through Parliament and then secondary legislation probably not in place before October.
In setting the levy at £1,000 the Home Office has accepted advice of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).
Lord Bates explained that the ISC will be collected by the Home Office, implying that it would be paid up front when a worker is sponsored, as was recommended by the MAC. The money collected would then be reinvested in the up-skilling of UK workers. Lord Bates said that 'for far too long it has been an automatic thought to recruit people from outside the European Economic Area without giving proper attention to whether those skills are there in the resident labour market'.
Lord Bates resignation as minister of state for the Home Office
The Queen has approved the resignation from government of the Rt Hon Lord Bates as a minister of state at the Home Office. This will take effect at the end of the month (March 2016).
Lord Keen of Elie QC will act as a Lords spokesperson for the Home Office in addition to his other responsibilities as Advocate General for Scotland, and will not take on the ministerial role in the Home Office.
It appears Lords Bates' role will be split between:
Lord Keen as Home Office spokesperson
Defence minister Earl Howe to lead on the Immigration Bill and Investigatory Powers Bill in the Lords
Internet safety and security minister Baroness Shields and home office minister Lord Ahmad will also take bills through the House (Home Office spokesperson suggested it will be ad-hoc)
Iain Duncan Smith resigns as secretary of state for work and pensions
Iain Duncan Smith unexpectedly resigned as work and pensions secretary last Friday night, citing the government's "political" cuts to welfare spending as his reason.
His departure triggered a mini reshuffle which saw Stephen Crabb replace him at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Alun Cairns was promoted to the Cabinet as Welsh Secretary, in addition to being appointed as a Privy Councillor.
Friday 25 March
Nothing to report.