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Tax credit squabbles

30 October 2015

Richard Messingham reflects on a busy week in parliament, with discussion on various pieces of legislation including tax credits, the British Bill of Rights and the Immigration Bill.


It hasn't been an easy week for David Cameron and George Osborne. As predicted by political and media outlets over the weekend, the government suffered a significant setback in the House of Lords on Monday with peers backing two motions that delay the £4.4 billion cuts on tax credits. To make things more difficult for Cameron and Osborne, a growing number of Conservative MPs feel that the tough measures on tax credits may be a betrayal of conservative values, and they are calling for "transitional" arrangements to be put in place to help those affected.

The move has triggered a vigorous debate in parliament. The government has accused peers of breaking a long-standing convention - the Salisbury Doctrine - according to which they do not try to vote down at second or third reading a government bill mentioned in the electoral manifesto. However, House of Commons speaker John Bercow has argued that there was "no procedural impropriety" in what happened, playing down suggestions that the decision to vote against tax credit cuts has created a constitutional crisis. The fact that cutting tax credits was not part of the Conservative manifesto has also led some to concede that the convention does not apply.

Opposition in the Upper House is likely to become a serious concern for Cameron over the next few months, with the vote on the European Union Referendum Bill - which has reached the committee stage in the Commons for amendments - and, almost certainly, on the long-expected Bill of Rights. Both are far from representing an easy win for the government. As a consequence, Downing Street is now looking into scaling down the powers of the House of Lords. The review, commissioned to former cabinet minister Lord Strathclyde, will examine ways of ensuring that MPs are given the decisive role over key decisions on spending and ensure that the Commons has pre-eminence over secondary legislation.

On the European front, pressed by other EU leaders, who are urging the UK to set out its renegotiation demands, the PM has pledged to do it in a letter to European Council president Donald Tusk in early November. At the same time, Cameron has for the first time confronted Eurosceptics. Ahead of his travel to Iceland for a summit of Northern European leaders this week, he said he would "guard very strongly against" wanting to emulate the Norwegian model as some suggest.

As anticipated in the previous Westminster weekly update, the Home Office is expected to publish a draft of the Investigatory Powers Bill next week. According to the Sun, Theresa May will refuse to allow judges to sign off "spying warrants" insisting that, as a matter of national security, secretaries of state are to retain the powers. This follows advice from the attorney general who warned that decisions on warrants made by judges could be delayed by judicial reviews.

Quite timely, on Monday 2 November the Public Affairs team is sponsoring the annual Labour and Conservative Lawyers debate at Portcullis House on whether the House of Lords should be wholly, directly democratically elected. On Tuesday 3 November Richard Messingham will also be attending, along with other colleagues from the policy unit, a summit organised by Lord Bach and shadow solicitor general Karl Turner MP on the review on legal aid by the Labour Party.

Monday 26 October

European Union Referendum Bill

Amendments to the European Union Referendum Bill to be moved in Committee have been published.

Read the amendments in full

House of Commons written questions: Legal aid

Andy Slaughter MP: To ask the secretary of state for the home department, what assessment her department has made of the potential change in the levels of fraud if the funding of insolvency litigation is changed under the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Andy Slaughter MP: To ask Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, what estimate HM Revenue and Customs has made of the amount of tax it will collect should the funding of insolvency litigation change under the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Greg Mulholland MP: To ask the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, what assessment he has made of the potential effect on financial redress for creditors should the funding insolvency of litigation change under the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

House of Commons written questions: Clinical negligence

Tom Brake MP: To ask the secretary of state for health, what assessment he made of the potential effect of the (a) provisions in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 on reducing costs associated with clinical negligence and (b) possibility of the NHS and NHS Litigation Authority causing unnecessary costs in clinical negligence cases before he made his decision to take forward proposals for a fixed-costs regime in clinical negligence.

We will update you when the answers have been published.

Tuesday 27 October

Immigration Bill

The Bill has reached the committee stage where the Public Bill Committee is able to take evidence from experts and interest groups from outside parliament as well as table amendments. The Law Society has submitted written evidence.

Find out more about the Immigration Bill

Justice Select Committee - inquiry into courts and tribunals fees and charges - evidence session

Panel:

  • Frances Crook, chief executive, Howard League for Penal Reform
  • Phil Bowen, director, the Centre for Justice Innovation
  • Ben Summerskill, director, The Criminal Justice Alliance
  • Penelope Gibbs, Transform Justice
  • Richard Monkhouse, chairman, and Malcolm Richardson, deputy chairman, Magistrates' Association

MPs questioned witnesses on a number of issues including access to justice and the practical impact of the court charge. They were also interested to find out whether there was an alternative to the charge. The main points are:
1. The principle that you pay the costs of the trial because you lost that case is different from the one by which the use of our courts carries a charge. This is what is at the heart of the objection.
2. It is a slippery slope in terms of the credibility of the system if the courts are seen as a revenue stream.
3. The criminal court charge seems to have developed an incentive for defendants to plead guilty when they may not be.
4. The justice system requires a fundamental reform, particularly of the lower courts.
5. The economic impact assessment acknowledges that in-flow forecasts for the charge are based on current fine payment rates is entirely implausible.
6. There is no modelling in the impact assessment for what the rest of the system will have to pay extra if more people plead guilty.

Read the full transcript

Treasury Committee - inquiry into the economic and financial costs and benefits of UK membership of the EU - evidence session

Panel:

  • Roger Bootle, executive chairman, Capital Economics
  • Simon Tilford, deputy director, Centre for European Reform
  • Professor David Myddleton, former chair of the Institute of Economic Affairs
  • Philippe Legrain, London School of Economics European Institute

MPs asked questions about the following main areas:
1. Balance of trade
2. Investment in the UK
3. Impact of Brexit on financial services
4. Free trade agreements
5. Regulation

Read the full transcript

Wednesday 28 October

Enterprise Bill

The bill is now at committee stage in the House of Lords. Committee stage continues on 2 November when further amendments will be discussed.

Find out more about the bill

Legal Aid Agency - Crown Court Digital Case System

The LAA has announced that, following a successful pilot scheme in Leeds and Southwark, the Crown Court Digital Case System (DCS) is now being rolled out in further seven early adopter areas including Isleworth, Leicester, Liverpool, Merthyr Tydfil, Portsmouth, Reading, and Woolwich. DCS is an online system that reduces the need to handle paper case material across the criminal justice system. It means that case material can be accessed, prepared and presented digitally by the judge, clerk, defence, prosecution and probation.

Read the announcement

House of Lords - short debate: British Bill of Rights

Lord Bach moved a short debate on the British Bill of Rights, asking when the government intends to publish its proposals. In his answer, the minister of state for justice Lord Faulks reiterated that the government will fully consult on the proposals before introducing new legislation. Further details regarding the consultation will be announced in the autumn.

Lord Bach also asked about the Ministerial Code that has recently been amended to remove the reference to ministers having to comply with international law and treaty obligation. Lord Faulks pointed out that neither parliament nor the courts are bound by international law, but a member of the executive is obliged to follow international law, whether it is reflected in the Ministerial Code or not. He concluded saying that all ministers will be aware of their obligations under the rule of law.

Baroness Goudie, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, Lord Lexden, Lord Hope of Craighead, Lord Soley, Lord and Beecham also took part in the debate.

Read the debate in full

House of Commons written answers: Ministers: codes of practice

Andy Slaughter MP: To ask the attorney general, what discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues in the Cabinet Office on the removal from the Ministerial Code of a reference to ministers having a duty to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice.

Jeremy Wright (attorney general): Information relating to internal discussion and advice is not normally disclosed.

Andy Slaughter MP:To ask the secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, what discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues in the Cabinet Office on the removal from the Ministerial Code of a reference to ministers having a duty to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice.

Tobias Ellwood (parliamentary under-secretary of state for the foreign and commonwealth office): Information relating to internal discussion and advice is not normally disclosed.

Thursday 29 October

Ministry of Justice - civil court user survey 2014 to 2015

The MoJ released a report presenting findings from the civil court user survey 2014 to 2015. It provides robust information on the characteristics and experiences of civil court claimants in England and Wales, and on how the profile of claims differs between those made by businesses and those made by individuals.

Read the report in full

Friday 30 October

Shadow Ministerial Team - new appointment

Labour MP Stephen Doughty joined the Shadow FCO team leaving his role of shadow trade and industry minister. He replaced David Hanson, following his appointment to the panel of chairs.

House of Commons written answer: Courts closure

Craig Whittaker MP: To ask the secretary of state for justice, what account was taken of the effect on access to justice in rural areas in his department's consultation on the Provision of the Court and Tribunal Estate.

Craig Whittaker MP: To ask the secretary of state for justice, what plans he has to re-open court room provision in (a) Todmorden and (b) other rural areas.

Shailesh Vara (minister for the courts and legal aid): Access to justice is not just about proximity to a court. We are committed to providing alternatives to travel, for example through making better use of technology, including video conferencing, and exploring whether we can appropriately make use of civic buildings for certain types of hearing. No decision has been taken to close any court. The consultation closed on 8 October and we are considering all responses carefully.

House of Commons written question: British Bill of Rights

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland): To ask the secretary of state for justice, which of the articles contained in the European Convention on Human Rights his department plans to omit in a future British Bill of Rights.

We will update you when the answer has been published.

Tags: politics | Westminster weekly update | British Bill of Rights | tax credits

About the author

Richard Messingham is head of public affairs at the Law Society. He and his team are responsible for supporting the president and CEO to manage the Society's relationships with Parliamentarians, Ministers, civil servants and other major stakeholders of direct relevance to solicitors.
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