Westminster update: Joint Committee on Human Rights publishes report on Overseas Operations Bill
Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
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1. Joint Committee on Human Rights publishes report on Overseas Operations Bill
Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Overseas Operation Bill last Thursday. We submitted evidence to the inquiry. We're quoted in the text of the report:
In the government’s own words, the bill “raises the bar” for prosecution of service personnel/veterans.
In our written evidence to the committee, we conclude that the presumption against prosecution creates a “quasi-statute of limitation” which is “unprecedented” in the criminal law and presents “a significant barrier to justice”.
The committee’s recommendations and conclusions broadly match the positions we took in our briefings on the bill and our response to the committee and include:
- presumption against prosecution – a presumption against prosecution should not be created, and therefore the corresponding clauses should be removed from the bill
- limitation period for human rights and civil claims – the introduction of an absolute time limit risks breaching the UK’s human rights obligations and preventing access to justice
- duty to consider derogating from the ECHR – the UK cannot lawfully make a derogation unless the Article 15 ECHR conditions for derogation are met. Clause 11 “appears to do nothing except require the minister to consider whether it would be appropriate to make a derogation where those conditions are met, and where such a derogation was necessary to ensure that the UK remained in compliance with its international obligations.”
- wider implications of the bill – the committee regrets the impact that the introduction of this bill has already had on the reputation of the Armed Forces and of the UK internationally, and calls on the government to consider very carefully the message that it sends to troops about accountability and compliance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law
The Bill will have its report stage and third reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday 3 November.
2. Spending review announced for 25 November
Last Wednesday, the Treasury announced that it has set 25 November as the date on which this year’s spending review will be concluded and published.
The Treasury had previously announced that the spending review will set departmental budgets for only the year ahead, with the full comprehensive spending review delayed until next year.
This one-year review will focus on addressing the ongoing economic impact of COVID-19 amid the resurgence of the virus in parts of the country, emphasising three central themes:
- tackling COVID-19 and supporting employment through a plan for jobs
- supporting public services to continue to fight against the virus
- investing in infrastructure to level up the country, drive economic recovery and ‘Build Back Better’
We've already made a submission to the Treasury as part of the spending review’s call for evidence. Our submission focused on three themes:
- protecting the Ministry of Justice’s current budget and committing to ensuring that it rises yearly at least in line with inflation
- prioritising targeted budget increases for the Ministry of Justice to improve the working of the justice system, including support for legal aid and the restoration of legal aid for early advice
- investing for the future to help law firms weather the significant economic difficulties facing the legal sector and to unleash the full potential of legal services to drive the recovery from COVID-19
3. Government will consider grace period proposal for registered European lawyers
Last Thursday, members of the House of Lords debated the Services of Lawyers and Lawyer’s Practice (Revocation etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 in Grand Committee. We briefed beforehand and were mentioned twice in the exchange.
Government whip Baroness Scott of Bybrook spoke to the legislation, as the Ministry of Justice has not had a spokesperson in the Lords since Lord Keen’s resignation.
Shadow justice spokesperson Lord Ponsonby said the Labour Party would not oppose the regulations, and that they were “necessary but regrettable.”
Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate (Conservative) made similar points to our briefing ahead of the debate, and argued that it would be “very helpful and a positive gesture if a grace period could be afforded to those [RELs] who need more time to requalify, even if they reach three years of being first registered after 31 December” – in line with one of our policy proposals. Baroness Scott said she had taken note of the grace period proposals, and that she would discuss this with the Ministry.
Baroness Scott acknowledged that “the UK legal services sector is one of the leading and most attractive in the world,” and said that the government “are committed to championing the sector both through promoting legal services overseas and maintaining its competitiveness.”
Lord Ponsonby argued for the “benefit to the UK of keeping the legal profession as open and welcoming as possible while maintaining the high standards that have led us to the strong position that we hope to maintain.”
4. Lords discuss COVID-19 support for small businesses
Last Thursday, saw the House of Lords consider an oral question from Lord Cotter (Liberal Democrat) on the support the government is providing to small businesses during the pandemic.
The business minister, Lord Callanan, noted that the government so far provided fiscal support totalling nearly £200 billion. He noted that key support measures, such as loan guarantee schemes, grant funding and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, were designed to be accessible for business of all sizes. He also noted that the government has launched a review of business rates.
Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted (Liberal Democrat) raised the issue of the large numbers of self-employed people who remain ineligible for income support schemes and asked if the government could devise a scheme to help them.
In response, Lord Callanan stated that the government has paid out more than £11 billion to more than 900,000 small businesses, and that those that are ineligible for the self-employed income support scheme grant extension may still be eligible for other elements of the scheme.
We've recently updated our public guidance for members on the Job Support Scheme, which is set to replace the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme as soon as England comes out of national lockdown.
5. APPG commences legal aid inquiry
Last Thursday, the APPG on Legal Aid held its first evidence session as part of its inquiry into legal aid. The inquiry is being framed as the Westminster Commission into the Sustainability of Legal Aid.
The first session of the Commission focused on criminal legal aid. Richard Miller, our head of justice, was among the seven witnesses who spoke at the session.
During the session, Miller argued that the criminal justice system has been seriously underfunded, leaving all parts of the system having to do more with less. This has led to real pressures on the justice system, impact on practitioners and access to justice. He argued that while it is not all down to funding, without adequate funding, none of these problems can be resolved.
Coming up next week
The Commons returns from recess today, and will scrutinise the Overseas Operations Bill in its remaining stages before the Lords, as well as debating the Environment Bill in committee.
The International Trade Committee will question trade secretary Liz Truss MP on the work of her department, and the Women and Equalities Committee will question a series of ministers on the gendered economic impact of the pandemic.
The Lords will see the remaining two sittings of committee stage for the Internal Market Bill, which will cover the contentious Part 5 of the Bill.
There will also be committee sessions with ministers on UK-Japan negotiations, and the Finance Bill.