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Westminster weekly update: Parliament debates legal aid

09 November 2018

The Law Society was referenced extensively in a Westminster Hall debate on the future of legal aid on Thursday last week.


The Law Society briefed MPs ahead of the debate and our campaigns were raised. Early advice was a key theme, while shadow justice minister Gloria De Piero MP reiterated the Labour Party's commitment to a review of the legal aid means test. Among the numerous MPs to mention the Law Society by name were Andy Slaughter MP (who introduced the debate) and Bob Neill MP (Chair of the Justice Select Committee).

Last week also saw the annual Budget, which dominated the media cycle. The announcement was presented by the government as an end to austerity, and included a pledge of £21.5m extra funding for the 'wider justice system'. Our summary of the Budget can be found in last week's report.

The Lord Chancellor spoke at the Spark 21 conference on women in the law on 7 November. In his speech he referenced the importance of gender equality in the legal profession and noted our own work on Women in Leadership in Law. He also praised our president, Christina Blacklaws, saying 'I want to pay tribute to Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society, not just for getting the toolkit published, but in her wider leadership on this issue, where she is making women in leadership in law a key theme of her tenure. That drive for change should inspire others to follow suit.' Read a write-up of the speech.

The Justice Select Committee also took oral evidence this week from Richard Heaton, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, as well as Mike Driver, the Ministry's Chief Financial Officer.

This week in Parliament

Monday 5 November

House of Commons

  • Housing, Communities and Local Government Questions
  • Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee oral evidence session on leasehold reform
  • Treasury Select Committee oral evidence session on the Budget 2018

House of Lords

  • Tenant Fees Bill - Committee Stage

Tuesday 6 November

House of Commons

  • Justice Select Committee oral evidence session on Ministry of Justice annual reports and accounts
  • Home Affairs Select Committee oral evidence session on modern slavery

Last week in Parliament

Tuesday 30 October

House of Commons

Treasury Select Committee oral evidence session on economic crime

The Treasury Select Committee held a final evidence session as part of its inquiry into economic crime. The full session transcript can be read here.

The witnesses included three Ministers from the government:

  • John Glen MP, Economic Secretary to the Treasury
  • Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP, Minister of State for Security at the Home Office
  • Robert Buckland QC MP, Solicitor General.

In the session, Mr Wallace noted that the Home Office would launch the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy on Thursday 1 November.

A summary of the key points is below:

  • Money laundering: Committee chair Nicky Morgan MP said neither the Home Office or associated bodies were anti-money laundering supervisors, and she asked who the Minster had to give information to, in order for action to take place. Security Minister Ben Wallace said he had 'one stick', which was to prosecute. He singled out estate agents as being a 'weak link' in combating money laundering, commenting how little suspicious activity reports (SARs) were reported by estate agents.

  • The responsibilities of banks: Conservative MP Simon Clarke asked about the role banks ended up playing in the regulatory system. He noted UK Finance's point that banks had become the de facto regulator due to less stringent regulation from other supervisory authorities. Glen stated that banks had a responsibility to work with the FCA, and others, to deal with risks, and they had to participate in responsible capitalism. Wallace agreed and noted that banks are subject to multiple regimes. He said that government has been working together with the banks on SARs reform. Wallace hoped this process would lead to quality referrals, not quantity, but equally felt that there had to be a consequence to not completing any referrals.

  • Brexit: Rushanara Ali MP (Labour) asked about the kind of sanctions the UK might introduce post-Brexit. Wallace said it was a matter of fact that, as members of the EU, the UK could not lay down unilateral sanctions. Post-Brexit, he said, the UK could focus sanctions on groups of individuals such as the US had done with regards to Russian individuals. Ali asked if there were areas where multilateralism had held the UK back and also suggested that, post-Brexit, the government may cave in on these issues to attract investment. Wallace wished to be very clear that the City of London had to have a reputation for 'cleanliness and security' to survive outside of the EU. The growth in financial regulation and bribery and corruption regulation was extra-territorial, he added, and other countries could still sue and prosecute the UK. Therefore, it was in Britain's interest to pitch the City of London as 'clean and secure'.

  • Failing to prevent economic crime offences: Labour MP Catherine McKinnell asked Solicitor General Robert Buckland when it would be made an offence for failing to prevent economic crime. Buckland said the call for evidence on this completed last year and was pleased his department had a lead on the issue. He added that the Criminal Finances Act had created an offence of failing to prevent tax evasion, but suggested a clear course had been set for the development of criminal law in this area.

  • Mortgage prisoners: Rushanara Ali probed John Glen on what measures he would take to help people who took out mortgages pre-crisis but since affordability checks do not have access to competitive rates. Glen said there is a determined effort to resolve this, but Morgan intervened and requested that Glen write directly to the TSC on this issue.

  • Companies House responsibilities: Conservative MP Stephen Hammond noted Companies House was not subject to requirements to carry out anti-money laundering checks, and asked if Buckland was concerned about this. Buckland noted Companies House were in possession of significant information, and that he hated to think opportunities were being missed in the way they operated. However, he did not wish to overburden government agencies, but felt this was a very important question to be asked.

  • National Economic Crime Centre: Nicky Morgan asked what National Economic Crime Centre (NECC) was designed to do, to which Wallace said it was to increase collaboration between all the involved departments. He said that 'partnership and sharing' was key and the net was about building an intelligence picture.

Thursday 21 June

House of Commons

Westminster Hall debate: the future of legal aid

On Thursday 1 November a Westminster Hall debate took place on the future of legal aid, tabled by Andy Slaughter MP (Lab).

The debate was positive for the Law Society: our parliamentary briefing was quoted extensively throughout the debate, and numerous mentions were made of all of our campaigns and a number of our other priority issues. Of particular note:

  • Early advice was a key theme of the debate, with numerous mentions of our campaign and its arguments. Lines and statistics from our briefing and overall campaign messaging was widely used by both Conservative and Labour MPs, highlighting the growing cross-party support for this issue. In response, the Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said: 'The point that it is useful to nip problems in the bud and address them at the outset, so that they do not escalate, has been made and heard'.
  • There were three mentions of legal aid deserts, which was included in the House of Commons debate pack – which highlights how impactful the heatmap has been over the past few years.
  • Gloria De Piero MP (Shadow Justice Minister) committed Labour to reviewing the legal aid means test (which we have been recently pushing to the Shadow Lord Chancellor Richard Burgon as part of our means test campaign) and re-asserted Labour's commitment to return all funding for early legal advice.
  • Bob Neill MP (Conservative, Chair of the Justice Select Committee) also mentioned the shortage of criminal duty solicitors, and used data from our campaign heat map.

In addition:

  • Liz Saville Roberts MP (Plaid Cymru) welcomed our LGFS ruling.
  • There was a mention of the Justice Week Survey by Ellie Reeves MP (Labour).
  • There were seven mentions in total of the Law Society by name.

A full summary is as follows:

Early advice

  • Andy Slaughter MP (Lab) mentioned our early advice campaign, called for legal aid for early advice to be restored, and mentioned how the 'lack of early housing law advice on disrepair issues can lead to health, social and financial problems, the tab for which will ultimately be picked up by the NHS and local authorities. Prevention is better than cure'. He also mentioned our research – 'a recent report commissioned for the Law Society found that restoring early legal help would save the taxpayer money'.

  • Teresa Pearce MP (Lab) mentioned the Law Society by name and our early advice campaign, stating that the removal of legal aid for early advice in family law resulted in a 56% decrease in mediation.

  • Bob Neill MP (Con, Chair of the Justice Select Committee) and Alex Chalk MP (Con) mentioned early advice and stats from our briefing, saying that it is 'essential' although didn't mention TLS by name.

  • Bambos Charalambous MP (Lab) called for the government to restore access to early advice so disputes can be resolved fairly and reasonably, and so people do not embark on ill-advised, costly litigation.

  • Ellie Reeves MP (Lab) highlighted the impact a lack of early advice can have on the state, citing lines from our briefing: 'The cost to the NHS when someone lives in a house in total disrepair is likely to be far greater than the cost of early legal advice to resolve the housing issue. As others have said, the extent to which the legal aid budget was cut is a false economy'.

  • Responding on behalf of the opposition, Gloria De Piero (Shadow Justice Minister) stated that: 'A Labour government will return all funding for early legal advice, because we know that prevention is better than cure. We will re-establish early advice entitlements in the family courts, restore legal advice in all housing cases to protect 50,000 households a year against rogue landlords'

Criminal legal aid/lawyers

  • Bambos Charalambous MP mentioned our criminal lawyers heatmap, saying 'The Law Society's heat map study suggests that criminal defence lawyers in England and Wales could become extinct if nothing is changed. Many criminal law firms have fragile finances and small profit margins. What will happen if those firms close is deeply worrying'.

  • Liz Saville Roberts MP also welcomed 'the recent High Court ruling in favour of the Law Society, confirming that the UK government's latest cuts to the pay of criminal lawyers are unlawful'.

  • Bob Neill MP highlighted Law Society data, saying that in mid and west Wales '60% of criminal law duty solicitors were over the age of 50. That situation clearly is not sustainable'.

Means test

  • Responding on behalf of the opposition, Gloria De Piero MP stated that the Labour Party commits to review the means test

  • Andy Slaughter MP called for the means test to be simplified, saying that it should be 'a simple assessment of gross household income following an adjustment for family size'.

Justice Week

  • Ellie Reeves MP highlighted our Justice Week survey, saying that 'a recent survey commissioned by the Law Society, Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives showed that 78% of people agree that justice is as important as health or education, yet only 20% of the 2,000 respondents thought there was sufficient funding for those who need legal advice'.

General

  • Andy Slaughter MP called for more funding for legal aid. He also mentioned that half of the MPs who responded to a survey carried out by the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid said that the volume of constituency casework had increased over the past year. More than half said they had seen a notable increase in the complexity of that work.

  • Andy Slaughter MP mentioned our briefing/the Law Society by name at the start of the debate, along with a number of other organisations who briefed ahead of the debate, and he also noted our 'expert opinion' on impact of LASPO, along with other organisations.

  • Alex Chalk MP stated that the current state of legal aid means that our 'international reputation is at stake' adding that the legal sector is one of the most important in our economy'. Bob Neill MP added that the system's 'integrity depends on the whole system being properly resourced and funded'.

  • Karen Buck MP mentioned the Law Society by name, highlighting our attendance at this week's meeting of the APPG on legal aid.

  • Kate Green MP argued that the absence of legal aid funding has driven legal aid solicitors and not-for-profit providers out of the market and Jim Cunningham MP (Lab) also flagged that most advice centres are experiencing staff shortages and underfunding.

Responding for the government, Justice Minister Lucy Frazer QC MP stated:

  • 'Legal aid has always been and remains available for the highest priority cases where people are at their most vulnerable'.

  • On legal aid providers: 'When civil legal aid contracts were recently put out to tender, 1,700 bidders took part, but we need to ensure that people who want to do this work are available to do it across the country, not just in high-density areas, and we need to ensure that there is provision in more sparsely populated areas where those contracts are less lucrative'.

  • On early advice: 'The point that it is useful to nip problems in the bud and address them at the outset, so that they do not escalate, has been made and heard'.

Read the full debate.

Attorney General oral questions

Attorney general questions took place in the House of Commons on Thursday.

You can read the transcript of the session, and a brief summary is included below:

  • EU Citizens Rights - In response to questions on the rights of EU citizens, the attorney general Geoffrey Cox QC MP confirmed that the prime minister has guaranteed the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. He said that those guarantees 'will be fair, generous and comprehensive.' He argued that the arrangements under the withdrawal agreement as so far agreed would provide for the comprehensive protection of all the rights of EU citizens, on both pensions and social security.

  • Exploitation of vulnerable people - In response to questions on the exploitation of vulnerable people, the Solicitor General Robert Buckland QC MP said that the Crown Prosecution Service has had 'considerable success' in prosecuting cases involving the exploitation of vulnerable people by gangs. He said the number of offences charged and prosecuted under trafficking and slavery legislation has risen year on year to 340 last year, and last month we saw the successful prosecution of Zakaria Mohammed, who is believed to be the first person to be jailed under modern slavery laws in respect of the exploitation of children.

Question or comments? Contact the Public Affairs team at parliamentary@lawsociety.org.uk

Tags: Westminster weekly update | legal aid | Parliament

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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