Westminister update: Economic Crime Bill approved by Commons
Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
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1. Economic Crime Bill approved by Commons
The Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill was approved by the House of Commons on Monday (7 March), with an expedited timetable seeing all stages of debate take place in a single day.
We have welcomed the:
- introduction of the bill, and briefed MPs on our support for the principles and aims of the legislation
- government’s overarching ambition to improve the transparency of property ownership in the United Kingdom, and
- creation of the new register of overseas entities, which we have supported since it was first proposed in 2017
Our briefing nonetheless identified ways of strengthening the bill and closing any potential loopholes in the new framework. Our recommendations were cited by the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill (Conservative), who referenced the Law Society five times during the debates.
In particular, Neill highlighted our concern that there could be a discrepancy between a person with significant control and a beneficial owner – which we argue needs to be reflected in the bill’s provisions – and echoed our call for a clarification of the relationship between the new regime and existing frameworks.
The minister at the debate, Paul Scully, noted Neill’s concerns and agreed to look into these.
The wider debate also saw discussion of law firms acting on behalf of Russian clients. Liam Byrne (Labour) moved an amendment calling on the government to establish an inquiry into the use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which was not pushed to a vote.
The only amendments that were passed by the Commons were those brought by the government. Of these, the most important were:
- an amendment bringing forward the implementation date for the new register of overseas entities from 18 months after the bill’s enactment to six months, and
- a series of amendments streamlining the process by which a minister can make designations for the purposes of sanctions regulations
Following the Commons debates, the bill was debated at second reading in the House of Lords on Wednesday (9 March). Committee stage and all remaining stages will take place on Monday next week, and any amendments will be agreed between the two Houses in the following days.
2. Courts backlog: MPs criticise "meagre" government target
The Public Accounts Committee published its report on the criminal courts backlog on Wednesday (9 March) which criticised the government’s target of reducing the Crown Court backlog to 53,000 cases. The target was described in the report as “modest” and “meagre”.
The Law Society was quoted in the report, which highlighted our evidence on the severe pressures on recruiting and retaining solicitors. We welcomed the report and raised the urgent need for investment in capacity across the justice system. In particular we called for the implementation of the 15% uplift in legal aid rates recommended by the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid.
The committee also addressed the time cases take and recommended that the Ministry of Justice explores with the judiciary what reasonable expectations can be set around how long it should take for a case to be completed in the Crown Court.
The report made further suggestions on judicial recruitment and argued the government would not be able to recruit enough judges to tackle the courts backlog properly. The report was also concerned that judicial diversity may be “overlooked” as the Ministry of Justice tries to appoint more judges to hear cases.
The government will respond to the report and its recommendations by May.
3. Civil legal aid: peers approve early advice pilots
Peers approved a pilot scheme for legal aid for early advice in housing, debt and welfare benefits on Thursday (10 March), following approval in the House of Commons last month. The early advice pilots will begin in April and last until March 2024, taking place in Manchester and Middlesbrough.
The Law Society was mentioned twice during the debate, with Lord Thomas of Gresford (Liberal Democrat) noting our research that the link between early advice for legal problems and downstream benefits is “persuasive”. Labour’s Shadow Justice spokesperson, Lord Ponsonby, also highlighted our legal aid desert maps showing the limited number of legal aid providers in the pilot areas.
Justice Minister Lord Wolfson welcomed the pilots and said they were needed to provide “robust evidence” on the value of early advice. He noted the evidence gathered by other groups was not “quantitative”.
Lord Wolfson also defended the three hours of advice available as part of the pilot, arguing that there is currently little evidence of how much time participants would use and the pilot would help establish this.
4. Nationality and Borders Bill completes report stage
The Nationality and Borders Bill completed its report stage on Tuesday (8 March). Peers debated elements of the bill that would give the immigration tribunal powers to fine practitioners who it believes are wasting the tribunal’s resources.
Baroness McIntosh (Conservative) moved an amendment to remove these powers from the bill. She argued that they could set a dangerous precedent and could discourage legal representatives from taking cases, who may fear being fined for acting on behalf of their clients. Baroness McIntosh also added that lawyers are well regulated already, and further powers are unnecessary.
Lord Sharpe, the government’s Home Affairs spokesperson, said the government is committed to making the immigration and asylum system more efficient. He noted there are concerns about some legal representatives wasting judicial resources during immigration proceedings.
Lord Sharpe also argued that, provided a legal representative was acting reasonably, there would be no need for a fine to be issued, so there should be no effect on legal representation.
The bill will begin its third reading in the House of Lords on 14 March.
The Law Society will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:
- Economic Crime Bill: The bill will have its committee stage in the House of Lords on 14 March. Find out more about the bill
- The Judicial Review and Courts Bill: The bill will have its report stage on 28 March. Find out more about the bill
- The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: The bill will return to the Lords for consideration of Commons amendments, a date has not yet been set. Read our briefing on the bill
- Professional Qualifications Bill: The bill will have its remaining stages in the Commons on 14 March. Read our briefing on the bill
- Building Safety Bill: The bill has completed its committee stage and a date for report stage has not been set.
- The Nationality and Borders Bill: The bill will have its third reading in the House of Lords on 14 March. Read our briefing on the bill
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