Westminster update: shadow justice secretary makes first major speech

Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
The palace of Westminster in the evening.
Photograph: Thomas Riebesehl

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1. “The link between Labour and the law is forged in steel”: shadow justice secretary in first major speech

On Monday 22 April, shadow lord chancellor Shabana Mahmood gave her first major speech since taking up her role in an event at Gray’s Inn that was supported by us and the Bar Council.

In her speech, Mahmood spoke of her desire to see the UK legal sector become the fastest growing in the world.

She said Labour would seek a renewed partnership with the sector as part of its industrial strategy, and that she would partner with us and the Bar Council to create jobs, upskill and achieve growth.

Mahmood set out a clear commitment to upholding the rule of law if she takes office, noting that “sometimes as lord chancellor it is your job to say no”.

The shadow lord chancellor said she would stand up for the law and would never criticise judges for ruling against the government.

She noted the poor state of the justice system at present, and argued that we are seeing the impact of “political choices”, including the unpicking of legal aid in 2012 and the closure of hundreds of courts.

Touching on rape cases in particular, Mahmood said Labour would work with the judiciary to ensure rape cases are a priority in listings.

Mahmood also reiterated her pledge to commission a legal advocate trained in the specifics of rape cases in every police force area, to provide state-funded legal advice to victims.

Furthermore, she expressed reservations about the impact the Post Office Bill will have on the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts, and said that she would be seeking assurances that this approach will be a one-off.

Mahmood finished her speech with the declaration that “justice must be a reality, not just an ideal”.

2. Controversial Rwanda bill passes

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act became law on Thursday 25 April, after weeks of deadlock between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

For weeks, peers had doubled down on amending the bill, in an attempt to remove what they considered to be its worst excesses.

The initial 10 amendments from the House of Lords had already been whittled down to two.

These are measures which crossbench peer Lord Carlile said would be enough to “maintain our legal standards in this country” and make the bill’s progress acceptable.

Notably, the Lords continued to push for an amendment which would instate an independent monitoring committee, in a bid to regulate the policy.

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock praised the “tenacity” of his colleagues in the Lords for holding out for what he called “a significant concession”.

But it was not to be, and with the government holding firm in its rejection of all amendments, peers eventually capitulated last Monday.

Crossbench peer Lord Anderson, whose name was put to the monitoring committee amendment, said that the time had come to acknowledge the “primacy of the elected house and to withdraw from the fray”.

Although royal assent paves the way for deportation flights to get off the ground, it does not mean there will not be further obstacles in the form of legal challenges.

Campaigners are gearing up for litigation to save asylum seekers from deportation, and a clash with the European Court of Human Rights could also be on the cards.

3. Renters Reform Bill finally returns

The Renters Reform Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons on Wednesday 24 April, in a debate which saw our concerns about court backlogs and a lack of housing legal aid raised by several MPs.

The bill is intended to reform the rental market, change grounds for repossession of a property and abolish the use of section 21, or “no-fault”, evictions.

However, it has been extensively delayed, with MPs across the House concerned it will not achieve its aims.

Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke argued the bill does not go far enough to address the challenges in the private rented sector.

She highlighted our legal aid desert maps showing the scarcity of legal advice available to tenants.

Elphick pointed to the government’s plans to carry out a review of the courts system before implementing the abolition of section 21 as a delaying tactic.

She noted there was no mention of court reform around repossession cases in HM Courts and Tribunals Service's roadmap.

Anthony Mangnall, another Conservative MP, focused on the bill’s impact on landlords and said greater safeguards are needed given the expense and costs landlords undergo when renting properties.

He focused on the need for court reform ahead of the abolition of section 21 and noted our briefing which called for greater resourcing for the courts so tenants and landlords can have their cases dealt with faster.

The bill will now move to the House of Lords where it will have its second reading in the coming weeks.

4. Leasehold bill: questions over reform remain

This week saw the first two days of committee stage for the ever-expanding Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill in the Lords.

Peers battled through complex proposals, failed promises, and a lack of clarity from a piece of legislation years in the making.

After day one (22 April), the key question over the outcome of the ground rent consultation and the potential for retrospective capping remained unsettled despite reports in the media over the weekend.

Peers on all sides of the House made renewed calls for certainty over ground rent, leasehold bans for flats, estate management charges and the regulation of property agents.

Labour peers continued their push for an extension of the ban on new leaseholds to include flats.

Meanwhile, a coalition of crossbenchers called for the publication of a draft bill on commonhold so that “we do not remove such an important element of our residential housing market without ensuring that there are at least adequate alternatives that are fit for purpose”.

Day two (24 April) kicked off with a debate over the importance of the rule of law and the need to be cautious when proposing retrospective legislation on marriage value.

The bill as written effectively transfers value from the freeholder to the leaseholder.

Lord Howard (Conservative) was concerned that “if the bill goes through unamended, it will set a dangerous precedent for governments to transfer wealth arbitrarily”.

The debate moved onto lease variation, with Lord Khan (Labour) moving his amendment to ensure that all leaseholders, not just those with residential leases of 150 years or over, have the right to vary their lease to replace the ground rent with a peppercorn rent.

He noted “the Law Commission recommended that the threshold should be set at 250 years on the basis that the reversion is of negligible value at that lease length”.

Lord Khan added: “The government chose not to accept that recommendation and, instead, are proposing a threshold of 150 years.”

This was supported by the Liberal Democrats, although it was not pushed to a vote.

The minister argued that a lower minimum term would create a risk that poorly advised leaseholders might buy out the ground rent when an extension is in fact in their best interest, then find out that they need to extend later and have to pay a higher premium.

Committee stage will continue on 29 April, with freehold estates, service charges and litigation costs on the agenda.  

Coming up

We're giving evidence on the probate system to the Justice Select Committee on 30 April – you can watch the session live.

We're working on a number of bills in Parliament:

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