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Westminster weekly update: Prime minister makes statement to the commons

28 January 2019

Last Monday the prime minister made a statement to the Commons, setting out her intention for proceeding with the Brexit process.


She tabled a neutral and amendable motion, which will be voted upon tomorrow. Speaker of the House John Bercow will select which amendments will be debated on the eve of the debate (Monday 28 January).

Currently, three amendments aim to rule out a no deal situation, tabled by Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper, and Caroline Spelman respectively. Cooper's brings forward legislation compelling the government to seek to extend the Article 50 process; Reeves' calls on them to do the same; and Spelman's only calls on them to avoid no deal, method unknown.

Labour have signalled they may whip in support of both or either of the Reeves or Cooper amendments, although the party leadership has made it clear they would favour a short (three month) extension. However, many Labour MPs in leave-voting constituencies, including shadow ministers, have voiced their dissatisfaction with this step, and would likely rebel.

Beyond Brexit, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill returned to the House of Commons for consideration of the Lords' amendments. The Law Society has successfully lobbied to remove a provision that would allow a border officer to listen in to a confidential legal consultation between a solicitor and their client, and was named multiple times during the debate.

On Wednesday the attorney general appeared in front of the Justice Select Committee. He expressed his determination to resolve the issues relating to disclosure which he described as a stain on our criminal justice system, and defended the Crown Prosecution Service from criticism.

This week in Parliament

Monday 28 January

House of Commons

  • Housing, Communities and Local Government Questions
  • Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill - 2nd Reading

House of Lords

  • Further debate for purposes of section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018
  • Oral question - Reforming Sexual Offences Legislation - Lord Campbell Savours

Tuesday 29 January

House of Commons

  • Treasury oral evidence session on the UK's economic relationship with the European Union
  • Debate on motions relating to section 13 of the European Union

House of Lords

  • Oral question - discussions with ministers and the heads of police forces about security issues relating to Brexit
  • European Union oral evidence session on No Deal Planning
  • Science and Technology oral evidence session on forensic science in criminal investigations
  • Orders and regulations - Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments; Mutual Recognition of Protection Measures (Amendments) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019
  • Orders and regulations - Jurisdiction and Judgments (Family); Civil Partnership and Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Amendments etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Wednesday 30 January

House of Commons

  • Ten Minute Rule Motion - European Union (Requirements Relating to Withdrawal) - Dr Sarah Wollaston
  • International Trade oral evidence session on the impact of UK-EU arrangements on wider UK trade policy
  • Ninth Delegated Legislation Committee - draft Jurisdiction and Judgments (Family); Civil Partnership and Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Amendments etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Thursday 31 January

House of Commons

  • Attorney General Questions

Last week in Parliament

Monday 21 January

House of Commons

Prime minister's Statement - Brexit Next Steps

The prime minister delivered a statement to the Commons, which set out the next steps and how she intends to proceed with the Brexit process:

  • Theresa May tabled a 'neutral' motion, which acknowledged that MPs have considered the statement. The Commons will vote on the neutral motion, which will be amendable, on 29 January 2019.

  • MPs began tabling amendments and Speaker of the House John Bercow will select which amendments will be debated on the eve of the debate, next Monday (28 January).

  • May began her speech by announcing that she had met backbench members from all parties, adding that she regrets Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn 'has not chosen to take part so far...given the importance of this issue'.

  • May ruled out a second referendum claiming it would damage 'social cohesion' and set a bad precedent for future referendums. She acknowledged fears about leaving the EU without a deal, stating that the only alternatives were agreeing a deal with the EU or extending Article 50, which the EU would be unlikely to agree to without a clear plan ahead.

  • Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab MP later urged May to rule out extending Article 50, claiming that this would give businesses certainty and assure the general public. May did not commit to ruling out extending Article 50 and responded saying: 'What I'm working for is a deal that will secure the support of this House such that we will leave on 29th of March.'

  • Following media speculation this weekend, May affirmed the government's commitment to the Good Friday Agreement whilst expressing her concerns about the Northern Irish backstop. She said the government would consider independent voices outside of Parliament as well as allowing confidential committee sessions that would update Parliament without undermining ongoing negotiations.

  • In a nod to opposition MPs, especially from Labour, May said that concerns over environmental and workers' rights would not be eroded after Brexit, and that Parliament would be able to consider any future changes by the EU in these areas.

  • May said that the government is committed to protecting the rights of EU citizens on 'broadly the same terms' as now, adding that she would waive the £65 application fee for those wanting to apply for settled status. Those who already applied would be reimbursed. The Labour leader and MPs from across the house said they welcomed this announcement.

  • Responding to her speech, Jeremy Corbyn accused May of being 'in denial' and asked which of her red lines is 'she prepared to move on'. Defending his decision not to engage in direct talks with the prime minister, Corbyn said the government offered 'no flexibility', and called for the government to make greater concessions on the customs union and single market.

  • Corbyn said Labour would back amendments that would rule out no deal and not rule out the option of a second referendum.

Home Secretary's Statement on Domestic Violence and Abuse

The home secretary made a written ministerial statement regarding domestic violence and abuse, and the upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill.

Read the home secretary's statement. Below the statement is summarised in two parts:

Domestic Abuse Bill

The home secretary published the draft Domestic Abuse Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. This means that the Bill will not be formally introduced in either of the Houses of Parliament yet.

A joint committee of both Houses will be established 'as soon as practicable' to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny. Once the joint committee has reported, the government will introduce the Bill 'as soon as parliamentary time allows.'

The draft Bill will:

  • include the first ever statutory government definition of domestic abuse, which is to include economic abuse

  • establish the office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner and set out the Commissioner's functions and powers

  • provide for a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order

  • prohibit perpetrators of abuse from 'cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts and give the court discretion to prevent cross-examination in person where it would diminish the quality of the witness' evidence or cause the witness significant distress'

  • create a statutory presumption that complainants of an offence involving behaviour which amounts to domestic abuse are eligible for special measures in the criminal courts

  • enable domestic abuse offenders to be subject to polygraph testing as a condition of their licence following their release from custody

  • place the guidance supporting the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme on a statutory footing

  • ensure that where a local authority, for reasons connected with domestic abuse, grants a new secure tenancy to a social tenant who had or has a secure lifetime or assured tenancy (other than an assured shorthold tenancy) this must be a secure lifetime tenancy

  • support ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence by extending the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the criminal courts in England and Wales to further violent and sexual offences.

Transforming the response to domestic abuse consultation

The home secretary noted that on 8 March 2018 the Home Office launched a comprehensive public consultation to address domestic abuse from prevention through to rehabilitation. The home secretary published the response to the consultation.

The consultation ran for 12 weeks and received 3,200 responses, and the Home Office ran themed roundtables and national roadshows.

The home secretary noted that the consultation response is a cross-government effort, recognising that change needs to occur across all statutory agencies including courts, police, schools, social care, housing, welfare and healthcare.

Tuesday 22 January

House of Commons

Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill - Consideration of Lords Amendments

On Tuesday the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill returned to the House of Commons for consideration of the Lords' amendments. Among the amendments being considered were Lords amendments 12, 34 and 35, which were supported by the Law Society and which would remove the provisions in the Bill and in schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000 that would allow a border officer to listen in to a confidential legal consultation between a solicitor and their client.

The Law Society was mentioned three times during the debate. These mentions are highlighted in bold in the summary below.

Next steps

All the Lords' amendments, including the three above, were agreed to by the House of Commons. The Bill will next receive Royal Assent and become law.

The government will need to bring a code of practice for Schedule 3 to the Bill to both Houses of Parliament for debate and approval before the provisions in Schedule 3 can come into force. There will also be a public consultation on the code of practice, and an opportunity for the Law Society to advocate for further safeguards around the seizure and use of legally privileged material under the Schedule.

Summary of the debate

Speaking for the government, Ben Wallace MP (Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime) said:

  • He recognised the concerns raised by the shadow security minister, Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, around the provisions in the Bill that would give officers the power to listen in to confidential legal consultations between solicitors and their clients.

  • Lords amendments 35-7, 39 and 40 address these concerns by instead giving a senior police officer the power to direct that a detainee consult a different solicitor to the one they had chosen where there are reasonable grounds for suspicion of impropriety on the part of the chosen solicitor.

  • This provision reflects the suggestion made by the Law Society in its evidence to the Public Bill Committee last year, and will apply not only to people detained under schedule 3 to the Bill but also to people detained under schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000.

  • Lords amendment 25 would require authorisation to be given or withheld by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner whenever authorities seized material that is alleged to contain confidential or legally privileged material. Where authorisation is withheld the commissioner can direct that the seized material be returned to the individual, and that any information taken from it is not used and is destroyed.

  • Further details on the process for examining retained property, including where it contains confidential material, will be set out in the schedule 3 code of practice. He confirmed that there would be a public consultation on the code of practice before it is debated in both Houses of Parliament for approval.

Nick Thomas-Symonds MP (Shadow Minister for Security) said:

  • He was pleased that the amended Bill maintains and preserves the right to receive legal advice in private, which he noted is a 'very important principle'.

Gavin Newlands MP (SNP, Paisley and Renfrewshire North) said:

  • The ability to speak to a legal representative in private is a fundamental right that should not be infringed.

  • Both the Law Society of Scotland and the Law Society of England and Wales have reinforced that point in evidence to the Public Bill Committee.

  • Richard Atkinson, Co Chair of the Law Society Criminal Justice Committee, stated in his evidence to the Public Bill Committee that the UK's criminal justice systems have an excellent reputation but that their very 'cornerstone is legal professional privilege…not access to a lawyer'.

  • He welcomed Lords amendments 12, 15, 35-37, 39 and 40, which ensure that the right to consult a lawyer in private is protected.

  • That while he recognised the government's rationale for including a power to allow an officer to direct that a detainee consult a different solicitor to the one they chose, he would have preferred if that power had not been included in the Bill.

  • He also welcomed amendments 33, 34 and 38, which confirm a detainee's right to be informed of their rights on the face of the Bill.

Read the full transcript online.

Housing Secretary's Written Statement on Housing Redress

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire MP made a written statement on housing redress on Tuesday, outlining the government's response to its consultation on strengthening consumer redress in housing. Read the full statement.

In the statement, the Secretary of State announced a number of measures that the government would be taking forward in response to the consultation. These include:

  • Bringing forward legislation to require all private rented sector landlords, regardless of whether they employ an agent for full management services, to be a member of a redress scheme.

  • Introducing legislation, when parliamentary time allows, to require all freeholders of leasehold properties, regardless of whether they employ a managing agent, to be a member of a redress scheme.

  • Proposing to bring forward legislation to create a similar requirement on all developers of new build homes to belong to a New Homes Ombudsman and will consult on the detail of that legislation in due course.

  • Proposing the establishment of a new Housing Complaints Resolution Service – a new single access portal through which consumers will be able to seek help to resolve complaints and access redress when they have not been able to resolve disputes with their landlord, property agent or developer.

  • Establishing a Redress Reform Working Group with ombudsmen and redress schemes to help drive the programme of reform, including the establishment of the resolution service. This group will seek to:
    • develop a comprehensive 'Code of Practice' on complaint handling for the whole housing sector; and
    • understand how to deal with complex and difficult cases, which may not fit easily within the remit of redress schemes, and how to better enforce decisions.
     

Read the full government response to the consultation.

Wednesday 23 January

House of Commons

Justice Committee Oral Evidence Session - Attorney General

On Wednesday the attorney general gave evidence to the Justice Committee on his work. Read the full session. Key contributions are summarised below.

Disclosure of evidence

  • He commended the Justice Committee's report on disclosure, and the National Disclosure Plan.

  • He reported that when he became attorney general, he delayed publication of his predecessor's review of disclosure arrangements so that he could review it and add his own contribution to the review.

  • He observed that issues related to disclosure are not isolated and cross many organisations and departments.

  • He said that changing the culture is key to resolving disclosure of evidence but will also help to build stronger cases. He argued that this can be brought about by stronger leadership.

  • He expressed his determination to resolve the issues relating to disclosure which he described as a stain on our criminal justice system. He defended the Crown Prosecution Service from public criticism.

  • He has regular meetings with the Lord Chancellor, parts of the judiciary and others to address some of the issues in the justice system. He spoke about wanting to achieve greater coordination between the elements of the justice system.

Criminal legal aid fees

  • He noted that the government is launching a review of criminal legal aid fees. He said he has concerns regarding fees paid to criminal legal aid lawyers, and supported an increase in prosecution fees.

The attorney general also spoke about how he sees his role as attorney general fits into the Cabinet and the House of Commons, and of the accountability of the attorney general. He spoke about the work of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office. He also answered questions regarding Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme.

Urgent Question on Courts IT System Failure

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Lucy Frazer QC MP, responded to an urgent question on failures in the IT system in our courts service, tabled by Shadow Justice Minister, Yasmin Qureshi MP.

Watch the urgent question, and read a transcript of the session. A summary is included below:

The Minister's initial response

  • Frazer apologised to those affected by the IT issues which was caused by an infrastructure failure in their supplier's (Atos and Microsoft) data centre. She acknowledged how frustrating the situation is.

  • The issue has affected HMCTS, the Legal Aid Agency, Probationary services, and the Ministry of Justice, leaving many unable to log-in. The Prison Service has not been affected.

  • She noted that services are still operating, and contingency plans are in place to ensure that trials go ahead.

  • Yesterday (Tuesday 22 Jan) service was restored to 180 court sites, and today, 90% of staff have working computer systems. Work continues to restore services and the remainder of court sites are expected to be fully operational by tomorrow morning (Thursday 24 January).

  • She thanked all staff for their patience and acknowledged those working to rectify the issue.

The Opposition's response

  • Qureshi raised concerns on the failure of multiple IT systems. She noted that she saw these failures first hands on a court visit last week.

  • She asked the Minister to confirm whether any defendants have been released without trial, what the cost to the Ministry of these failures has been, whether Microsoft or Atos will pay financial penalties, and whether all costs associated with this failure will be recovered from them.

  • She argued that 'these failures do not occur in a vacuum,' and noted the significant reduction in funding to the Ministry of Justice.

  • She highlighted concerns regarding the modernisation programme and the reliance on functioning IT systems.

The Minister responds

  • Frazer argued that these issues are not as a result of cuts to the department, but rather an isolated issue with a supplier.

  • She reassured the Shadow Minister that no defendants have been released without trial.

  • She said that the Permanent Secretary is meeting with the Chief Executive of the supplier and they will be looking closely at the contract which includes penalty costs.

  • She argued that upgrading the services IT is one of the clear priorities of the modernisation programme which the government is investing £1 billion into.

Additional questions

  • Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Bob Neill MP (Conservative) called for the Common Platform to continue to be rolled-out and asked the Minister to ensure that the new initiatives that are being brought in such as the digital portals are fully tested before they come into place. Responding, Frazer said the Common Platform and the reform programme are not affected by these issues.

  • Ellie Reeves MP (Labour) highlighted issues across the justice system including prisons being issued urgent notifications, private probation services needing bailouts, trials collapsing due to disclosure failures, Ministry of Justice staff on strike over pay and conditions, and now issues with the Court system. She argued that the cuts to the Ministry of Justice budget have left the justice system at breaking point. Responding, Frazer said the issue has been a result of an issue with a supplier, not government cuts.

  • Victoria Prentis MP (Conservative) noted that her husband was a judge and that he has been affected. She asked when the IT system will be fully restored. Responding, Frazer apologised to all court staff and legal professionals who have been affected. She said that the service has been restored to 90% of users, and that they expect all service to be restored by tomorrow morning (Thursday 24 January).

  • Christine Jardine MP (Liberal Democrat) called on the Minister to acknowledge the stress and disruption this has caused to individuals affected by this disruption to their case. Responding, Frazer reiterated her apology to all those affected.

  • Anna Soubry MP (Conservative) said that while she was grateful for the assurance that this is not related to departmental cuts, she argued that if we had a better, fully funded system then there would be proper contingency plans and these issues would not arise. Responding, Frazer said that the government has invested in court IT modernisation and will continue to do so.

  • Stephen Pound MP (Labour) raised concerns regarding the Common Platform and the impact on the magistracy. Responding, Frazer acknowledged the work and contribution of magistrates.

  • Vicky Ford MP (Conservative) spoke about the impact on the listing team at Chelmsford, which covers all of Essex and Southwark totalling around 30 courts. She questioned whether this was a result of a cyber-attack. Responding, Frazer noted that she had already engaged with Ford regarding this specific issue, and confirmed that it was not as a result of a cyber-attack.

  • Steve McCabe MP (Labour) raised concerns that this is not a one-off event, and that there have been concerns regarding Criminal Justice secure mail (CJSM) service raised over the previous six months. Responding, Frazer confirmed that the CJSM issue was raised on Tuesday night which was resolved by Sunday, and that the courts issue was raised on Sunday. She said the two issues are separate and unrelated. Only 12.5% of users of CJSM were affected in that incident, and all have had access restored.

  • Robert Courts MP (Conservative) asked for reassurance that all court staff have access to the IT services they need. Responding, Frazer gave that assurance.

  • Catherine West MP (Labour) asked what compensation will be made available to court users as a result of this disruption. Responding, Frazer said the disruption has focused on emails and that many court services have continued.

  • Kevin Foster MP (Conservative) asked for assurance that these issues will not affect prison services. Responding, Frazer gave that assurance.

  • Andy Slaughter MP (Labour) spoke about the closure and sale of Hammersmith Magistrates and County Court. He argued that the court service 'is not running well, it is in freefall.' Responding, Frazer spoke about the consultation process for court closures.

  • Matt Warman MP (Conservative) argued that rural constituencies benefit the most from the use of technology, and that the use of technology will always provide 'more good than harm.' Responding, Frazer said that technology has opened the door to more efficient ways of working.

  • Mary Glindon MP (Labour) raised concerns regarding her constituents having to travel further as a result of court closures. Responding, Frazer said she is happy to speak further with Glindon regarding specific concerns she has.

  • Ian C. Lucas MP (Labour) referred to court closures and argued about the impact on access to justice. Responding, Frazer said it is important that the government use its resources well.

  • Nic Dakin MP (Labour) said that his constituents were told that digitisation of the court service would remedy the closure of his local court. He asked what evaluation is being done to ensure where there have been court closures that access to justice continues. Responding, Frazer said it is vital that we continue to reform our courts, and that the Ministry of Justice have received positive feedback on a number of the services they have introduced.

Question or comments? Contact the Public Affairs team at parliamentary@lawsociety.org.uk or 020 7320 5858.

Tags: Theresa May | Westminster weekly update | Brexit | 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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