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Westminster weekly update: Parliament resumes

13 January 2020

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. Withdrawal Agreement Bill passes though House of Commons

Yesterday the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (WAB), which will implement the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the Prime Minister, passed its third reading in the House of Commons with a majority of 99 (330 for, 231 against) after three days of debate at committee stage. The Bill was passed unamended, as was to be expected with the significant government majority. We briefed MPs on our concerns ahead of the debate.

During the second day of committee stage debate (Wednesday 8 January), we were mentioned four times. Previous chair of the Justice Select Committee and Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill raised our concerns on Clause 26, which deals with the circumstances in which courts are able to depart from EU law once the UK has exited the European Union. He argued that the government ‘run the risk, as the Law Society fairly points out, of, ironically, dragging our courts into areas of potential political controversy,’ and recommended that the Clause should have a ‘very wide and early’ consultation that goes beyond the senior judiciary and ‘could include experts like those who serve on the Law Society’s Brexit Law Committee — that is fundamental to the workings of our financial services.’

Shadow Brexit minister Thangam Debbonaire MP, while criticising the government’s decision to reduce the role of Parliament in scrutinising future relationship negotiations, observed that ‘members may not realise that the Law Society has recommended reinstating the scrutiny role.’ SNP home and justice spokesperson Joanna Cherry QC MP informed members that ‘many independent bodies, such as the Law Society of England and Wales and the Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, have suggested, as my amendments do, that the test should be narrowed to an objective test of necessity,’ referring to the determining factor for the use of extensive delegated powers provided for in the Bill.

The Bill had its first reading in the House of Lords yesterday, and will have its second reading there on Monday 13 January. Committee stage will run through the rest of the week, with report stage running from Monday 20 to Tuesday 21 January, shortly followed by third reading, when the Bill will be returned to the Commons for consideration of any amendments. We have already briefed relevant peers on our concerns, and will update them on our support for amendments when they are tabled.

Read the transcript of the first day of committee stage debate

Read the transcript of the second day of committee stage debate

Read the transcript of the final day of committee stage debate

2. Law Society mentioned in Queen's Speech debate

Wednesday (8 January) saw the second session of debate on the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords, with the agenda including home affairs, justice, constitutional affairs and devolved affairs.

We were referred to several times during the debate by shadow justice spokesperson Lord Beecham, who said: “The Law Society calls on the Government to ensure adequate funding across the whole criminal justice system, not just a few parts of it. This will include the need to ensure availability of legal representation by increasing fees and updating the means test to increase it in line with inflation since 2010, given that the present level falls well behind.”

He noted that while there will be a 'belated' piloting of an early advice scheme for housing legal aid, that “we will have to see the extent to which effective changes are made.” He referred to the existence of legal aid deserts, “where 37% of the population live in local authority areas with no legal providers for housing law cases.”

He went on to refer again to us, stating: “The Society raises further issues, including concerns about the apparent failure to proceed with the court modernisation programme embodied in the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure Bill).” He noted that “since 2010, the Ministry of Justice budget has been cut by 40%. This translates to applications for employment tribunals collapsing, legal advice services reducing from 3,266 in 2006 to less than 1,500 in 2015, and by 2017 there was a reduction in legal aid providers by 20% - presumably by now there has been an even greater reduction. Moreover, many courts have been closed, others are in poor repair videolinks are sparse, and waiting areas sometimes fail to provide separate facilities for parties in domestic abuse cases.”

Lord Beecham concluded by stating that there is a need to ensure that the legal system and proper advice and representation are accessible and that other critically important services are properly funded, to assist both the parties and the courts.

Read a full transcript of the debate

3. Justice and constitutional affairs raised during debate on Queen's Speech

During debate on the Queen's Speech in the House of Lords on Wednesday (8 January), multiple points were raised on justice-related issues, including the Royal Commission into the criminal justice process, the role of the judiciary and constitutional affairs.

Opening on debate, justice minister Lord Keen of Elie stated that the government's planned Royal Commission into the criminal justice process will “deliver a fundamental review of some of the key issues affecting the system now, and which may do so in the future.” He said that the government will set out the terms of reference for the Commission, including details on scope, duration and membership in due time.

Responding, Lord Tyler said that the proposed Royal Commission “raises vital issues of priority, principle and practicality,” and that “the purpose of the process is to ensure that justice is done for the citizen, not just for the convenience and funding restraints of the state.”

Several peers raised concerns about the implications of the proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission upon the independence of the judiciary, including Lord Thomas of Gresford, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws and Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, who argued that it would be a “terrible mistake now to rush into hasty legislation to deal with what some describe as judicial overreach.”

Others raised concerns about the scope, nature and independence of the Commission, and potential repercussions if it were to fail to respect democratic institutions.

Read a full transcript of the debate

4. Labour leadership contest begins

The Labour leadership race has begun following Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to resign in the wake of the Party’s defeat at the general election last December.

A meeting of the Party’s National Executive Committee on Monday (6 January) set the timetable for the leadership and deputy leadership elections, with candidates initially required to reach 22 nominations from Labour MPs and MEPs, before seeking further supporting nominations from constituency Labour Parties and Party affiliates including trade unions.

The ballot of members will open on Friday 21 February and the result of the election will be announced at a special conference on Saturday 4 April.

In the race to become leader, four candidates have so far received the required number of nominations from MPs – shadow brexit secretary Keir Starmer MP (63 nominations as of 10 January), shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey MP (26 nominations), Lisa Nandy MP (24 nominations) and Jess Phillips MP (22 nominations). Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry MP (9 nominations) and Clive Lewis MP (4 nominations) will be hoping to secure the support of colleagues to reach the threshold before nominations close on Monday 13 January.

Two candidates have so far reached the required number of nominations in the deputy leadership contest. Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner MP (71 nominations) and Ian Murray MP (29 nominations) may be joined by shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon MP (18 nominations), Rosena Allin-Khan MP (16 nominations) and shadow women and equalities minister Dawn Butler MP (14 nominations).

See the current number of nominations for each candidate

5. Brexit secretary answers oral questions in House of Commons

On Thursday (9 January) the secretary of state for exiting the European Union Steve Barclay MP, and ministers from his department, answered questions from MPs.

Labour MP and previous chair of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee Hilary Benn MP asked about the government’s announcement that the Department for Exiting the European Union would be folded back into the Foreign Office as of 31 January, inquiring as to which minister will take responsibility for "the very important negotiations that are about to begin." The Brexit secretary responded that confirmation of responsibility will be announced "in the usual way" by the prime minister, but did not give a timescale.

In response to several Conservative MPs tabling questions on whether the UK will be required to comply with EU law and European Court of Justice (CJEU) rulings after the UK leaves the EU, Brexit minister James Duddridge MP responded that "the current role of the European Union institutions, including the European Court of Justice, and the obligation to comply with European Union law as it is now end with the implementation period on 31 December 2020." He noted that citizens’ rights were an exception to this "to give businesses and individuals certainty."

Read a full transcript of the session

Coming up this week

Next week will see continuing debate on the Queen's Speech in the House of Commons, while the Withdrawal Agreement will begin its passage through the House of Lords on Monday (13 January).

View the upcoming parliamentary business

If you made it this far

23 December 2019 marked the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which allowed women to qualify as solicitors and barristers, sit on juries and serve as magistrates.

Read more about 100 years of women in the law

Tags: Westminster weekly update | Parliament | Labour

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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