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Westminster weekly update: MPs support 2nd reading of Brexit deal

28 October 2019

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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Five things you need to know

1. PM seeks extension; MPs support 2nd reading of Brexit deal

On Saturday (19 October) the House of Commons passed an amendment to a government motion, compelling the prime minister to write to the European Council requesting an Article 50 extension until January 2020. To comply with the amendment, prime minister Boris Johnson sent a letter requesting an Article 50 extension from the EU late on Saturday evening. However, he did not sign this, and briefed the press that it was simply a "photocopy" of the wording in the Benn Act. This was accompanied by another letter, this time signed by Johnson, in which he said he personally believes an extension would be an error. A third missive – a cover note from Sir Tim Barrow, the UK Permanent Representative to the EU – explained that the first letter complied with the law passed by Parliament.

Monday (20 October) saw commons speaker John Bercow MP rule that Johnson could not bring the new Withdrawal Agreement to the House for a second ‘meaningful vote', as to do so would be “repetitive and disorderly.” The government responded by tabling and publishing the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019, which MPs supported at Second Reading. However, the government’s programme motion – the proposed timetable for the Bill, which aimed to see it pass through the House of Commons in just three days – was defeated, as MPs believed it did not allow for appropriate scrutiny. Johnson announced he would allow for more scrutiny on the Bill if MPs allowed him to call a general election on 12 December, which would require a two-thirds majority in the Commons. A vote on an early election will take place on Monday (28 October).

Diplomats representing the leaders of the EU27 met this morning to discuss whether to grant the UK an extension to Article 50 and what form this will take. Meanwhile, Scotland’s Court of Session is currently hearing a case alleging the prime minister broke the terms of the Benn Act by accompanying his extension request with other letters to different effects.

Read the full text of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

2. Queen's Speech vote

MPs approved the Queen's Speech on Thursday afternoon (25 October), by 310 votes to 294.

An amendment proposed by the Labour Party, calling for the government to introduce additional measures on housing, public services and the environment was rejected by 311 votes to 293.

The Queen's Speech was delivered on 14 October and set out the government's legislative agenda for the new parliamentary session. It proposed 26 bills covering policy areas including Brexit, criminal justice, divorce and employment law, immigration, health and the environment.

Thursday also saw prime minister Boris Johnson announce his desire to push for a general election on 12 December. If his motion for an early general election is approved in the House of Commons on Monday (28 October), the agenda set out in the Queen's Speech will not be acted upon unless the same plans are brought forward in the new parliamentary session.

Read more about what the Queen's Speech means for the legal sector

Read a full transcript of the Queen's Speech

Full background notes on each of the proposed bills can be found

3. International Trade committee chair references Law Society to Secretary of State

The International Trade Committee questioned international trade secretary Liz Truss MP on the work of her department. Chair Angus MacNeil MP (SNP) referred to the Law Society twice during the session, asking how the Department will prioritise legal services in future trade agreements and calling the UK a global legal centre. In reply, Truss said: “That is a very important area for the UK; we are world leading in that space. We are working very closely with the Ministry of Justice on promoting legal services internationally.”

Faisal Rashid MP (Lab) asked whether Truss would commit to maintain Europe’s standards on human rights and labour in all future trade agreements. Truss responded that she did not expect to have to sacrifice this in trade deals, and that the US, Australia, Japan and New Zealand – her "four first priorities for trade" – all have high standards in these areas. However, she would not commit to keeping the same standards as the EU.

Owen Smith MP (Lab) asked about checks and balances on trade deals in other parliamentary democracies. Truss argued that in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, "the ability to strike trade deals is ultimately a prerogative power." She said that this should be the case in the UK, and said that the Benn Act was not "entirely helpful" in striking trade deals. Smith responded that "some might say the Benn Act is a great example of Parliament safeguarding the rights of the people in the face of prerogative power being abused."

Read a full transcript of the session

4. Law Society concerns highlighted in Queen's Speech debate

Since the Queen’s Speech on 14 October, both Houses of Parliament have held a series of debates regarding different aspects relating to the government’s proposed legislative programme.

During the debate in the House of Lords on Monday (21 October), Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate (non-affiliated) highlighted the Law Society’s concerns regarding the increased use of release under investigation. He noted that recent figures published in a Law Society briefing show that the number of suspects on bail has dropped dramatically across the country from 216,000 in 2016-17 to 44,000 in 2017-18 and that, in that year, some 193,000 suspects were released under investigation with no conditions or restrictions. He argued that this has led to serious consequences and highlighted an example where “Kay Richardson was murdered by her estranged husband, Alan Martin, in Sunderland last year after police released him under investigation.”

Find out what the Queen's Speech means for solicitors

Read a full transcript of the debate

5. Commission on Justice in Wales publishes landmark report

On Thursday (24 October) the Commission on Justice in Wales, set up by the Welsh Government in 2017, published its report on the future of the Welsh judicial system. The report recommends that responsibility for justice policy in Wales be devolved from the Ministry of Justice in Westminster.

However, the Commission stopped short of recommending the creation of a separate Welsh jurisdiction or legal profession, instead advocating for the continued existence of a shared regulator in England and Wales and warning against the imposition of new barriers for solicitors practising in both nations.

The report makes a number of other recommendations, including that:

  • a Law Council of Wales should be established to promote legal education and awareness of Welsh law
  • all students and professions across Wales should be taught about lawtech
  • professional legal education and examinations for those wishing to practise in Wales should be made available in Welsh

Read the Law Society's response to the report

Read the full report

Coming up this week

Monday (28 October) will see a motion in the House of Commons, tabled by the prime minister, for an early general election on 12 December.

In the House of Commons, Monday will also see Home Affairs oral questions and the Second Reading of the Environment Bill. There will be a general debate on Grenfell on Thursday (31 October). In the House of Lords, Tuesday (29 October) will see the second reading of the Health Service Safety Investigations Bill.

See next week's full calendar of parliamentary business

If you made it this far

Meet the winners of the Law Society's 2019 Excellence Awards. This year's winners have tackled some of the biggest cases in England and Wales, implemented innovative new ways to grow their business and gone above and beyond in their own roles to help our society.

Tags: Westminster weekly update | Brexit

About the author

Alexandra Cardenas is Head of Public Affairs and Campaigns at the Law Society. Public Affairs manages the relationships with parliament and government. She is a dual qualified solicitor in England and Wales (2014), and Colombia (2002). Prior to the Society, she practised as a human rights lawyer and worked at Macmillan Cancer Support and Animal Defenders International.

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