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Westminster weekly update: New government unveils programme

23 December 2019

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

One thing you need to do

Read our reaction to the Queen's Speech

Five things you need to know

1. Conservative Party secure majority

The general election held on Thursday 12 December returned a large majority for the Conservative Party, after they made gains from the Labour Party across the country.

The morning after the election, the prime minister Boris Johnson said that he would “repay the trust of voters” and “get Brexit done”. He said that his government would leave “the European Union as one United Kingdom, taking back control of our laws, borders, money, our trade, immigration system, delivering on the democratic mandate of the people.” On domestic policy, he reiterated his commitment for 20,000 new police officers as well as further investment in the NHS and to be carbon neutral by 2050.

The Labour Party lost seats across the north of England, including seats such as Bolsover (formerly held by Dennis Skinner), North West Durham (former Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights Laura Pidcock) and Sedgefield (former seat of Tony Blair). Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn confirmed that he would not contest another general election as leader of the Labour Party, and that he would oversee “a process now of reflection on this result” in the party before stepping down as leader.

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson narrowly lost her seat to the SNP by 149 votes. Following her defeat, she resigned the leadership of the Party. Ed Davey and Baroness Sal Brinton have assumed control of the party in the short term until a new leader is elected.

Amongst the English and Welsh MPs returned to parliament are 37 solicitors, 29 barristers and 6 others with a background in the law or the legal services sector.

On the Monday following the election, the government conducted a minor reshuffle, to fill vacancies of those standing down or losing their seats at the election. It is widely expected that a wider reshuffle will take place at the beginning of February, once passage of the European Union Withdrawal Bill has been secured.

Read our response to the election

2. Legislative programme unveiled in Queen's Speech

Thursday (19 December) saw the State Opening of Parliament following the general election, and the delivery of the Queen's Speech outlining the government's legislative agenda for the new session.

Criminal justice was a key part of the Conservative Party’s election platform, and it also formed one of the central themes of the speech. Of particular note for solicitors are the announcements of a bill aimed at implementing international agreements on cross-border justice issues and a Royal Commission on the criminal justice process.

The government’s pledge to ensure that the necessary legislation is in place to ensure that the UK ratifies the Withdrawal Agreement and leaves the European Union on 31 January also featured prominently, and the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill was introduced in the House of Commons immediately after the Queen's Speech took place.

Read our response to the Queen's Speech

Read more about how the Queen's Speech means for solicitors and the law

3. Brexit Bill passes first milestone

Last Friday the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons by a margin of 124 (358 for to 234 against).

The Bill, which received its first reading on Thursday, will implement the negotiated UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement and provide a range of delegated powers to ministers and devolved authorities to implement citizens’ rights provisions. It is altered from the version which the prime minister unsuccessfully attempted to pass in October, differing on the following key issues:

  • a clause has been included that allows various lower courts of England and Wales the power to disapply integrated EU case law. This would be implemented through future regulations, and we will be engaging find out the government’s proposed plans
  • the Bill now includes provisions preventing ministers from agreeing to an extension to the transition period (which the Withdrawal Agreement allows, but the government is against). It also removes MPs’ veto power over extension. The provisions allowing ministers to extend the life of the standing service provision (under which the UK makes financial payments to the EU) beyond March 2021 are also removed. However, it is worth noting that while the government has included this legislation intended to prevent an extension beyond 31 December 2020, it has a significant majority and would be able to reverse this decision through further legislation
  • the role of MPs in approving the start of future relationship negotiations, the government’s negotiating mandate, and any future relationship treaty has been removed

The Bill will return when the House sits again on 7 January for two days of committee scrutiny before its third reading on 9 January.

Read the Bill (PDF)

Read the second reading debate

4. Labour leadership race begins

Following the announcement that the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn intends to step down, Labour MPs have begun to declare their intention to stand for the leadership.

To date, two candidates have formally announced their intention to stand. On Wednesday (18 December) Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry MP (a barrister) launched her bid in a Guardian article, in which she said that she wants Labour to have “a leader and team in place with the strategic vision to foresee and exploit Johnson’s failings,” and that she had a history of “pummelling” the prime minister at the despatch box when he was foreign secretary.

In a piece for the Guardian on Friday (20 December), Shadow Treasury Minister Clive Lewis MP announced his intention to run in the election. He argued that ‘certain necessary truths’ could not go unspoken during the coming months and that he was running to ensure they are addressed. He promises to further democratise the Labour Party, saying that the party “[doesn’t] need foot soldiers, [they] need an army of activists who think critically, treat each other with respect and have a serious democratic stake in the movement.”

Other possible candidates expected to run but who have not yet formally declared include Brexit secretary Keir Starmer MP, shadow business, energy and industrial strategy secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, Lisa Nandy MP, and Jess Phillips MP.

The Labour Party's National Executive Committee will sit on 6 January to set the leadership election timetable. Potential candidates will need the nominations of 10% of MPs or MEPs – as there are currently 202 Labour MPs and 10 Labour MEPs, giving a total of 212 potential nominators, each candidate will need the backing of 22 parliamentarians.

Candidates will also need the backing of 5% of constituency Labour parties or “at least three affiliates (at least two of which shall be trade union affiliates).” This means the support of around 33 constituency parties would be requires – if this barrier is missed, there are 12 unions and 19 affiliated societies.

Successfully nominated candidates will then be voted on by members, affiliated supporters (e.g. union members), and registered supporters using the alternative vote system, with all votes given equal weight, to decide a winner.

5. MPs begin to target key parliamentary positions

On Tuesday (17 December), parliament returned following the election and elected the speaker of the House of Commons. The existing speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP, was returned unopposed.

In the previous parliament, select committees had been an important and influential voice, as they scrutinised government policies and actions, and made recommendations to government. Following the general election, MPs will now begin to jostle to become chair of key select committees.

Chairs of select committees are elected by the whole House of Commons, but are allocated to individual parties on a proportional basis. To run for the position of chair, an MP must nominate themselves, accompanied by the signatures of 15 members elected to the House of Commons as members of the same party, or 10% of the members of that Party, whichever is lower.

With Christmas falling shortly after the Queen’s Speech, and with rumours of a wider cabinet reshuffle planned for late January/early February, the allocation of Select Committee chairs will take longer in this parliament than usual. On Friday (20 December), a motion was agreed by the House of Commons to extend the usual timetable for the allocation of select committee chairs by several weeks. This will inevitably mean that Select Committees are unlikely to be fully formed in the near future, and may not be in full operation until early March.

MPs will also have the opportunity to enter the Private Members' Bills ballot, a lottery which allows backbench MPs to propose a Bill in a specified period of time during the parliamentary session. The ballot will be drawn at 9am on Thursday 9 January, and the first Bills will be heard in early February.

Coming up this week

Parliament returns on 7 January 2020, with the Commons due to give further consideration to the European Union Withdrawal Bill all week.

The House of Lords will be debating the Queen's Speech, and on Wednesday will focus on it's announcements relating to the justice system.

Tags: Westminster weekly update | Parliament | Brexit | Conservatives | Jeremy Corbyn

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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