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Westminster weekly update: Prime minister's Brexit motion defeated

18 February 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

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Five things you need to know

1. Prime Minister's Brexit motion defeated

Yesterday the House of Commons rejected the government motion that acknowledged the ongoing negotiation process and reiterated MP’s support for the prime minister’s strategy, by a margin of 45.

Notably, many members of Conservative backbench bloc the European Research Group abstained, which was a significant factor in the motion’s defeat.

They justified doing so by saying that the government seemed to be ruling out a no-deal Brexit in referencing Conservative backbencher Caroline Spelman’s successful non-binding amendment from 29 January, which called for such a scenario to be avoided.

Exiting the European Union secretary Steve Barclay MP responded by saying that parliament had already passed legislation stipulating that the UK would leave the EU on 29 March, and claimed that 'the legislation frankly takes precedence' over Spelman’s amendment.

Read the debate

Read the Law Society's guidance on a no-deal Brexit

2. Committee considers the role of the magistracy

On Tuesday the Justice Committee took evidence from members of the senior judiciary and justice minister Lucy Frazer QC MP on the role of the magistracy.

During the session, Lady Arbuthnot of Edrom, chief magistrate, observed that there are 15,000 magistrates across England and Wales, which she argued was less than required. Victoria Prentis MP (Conservative) asked if the closure programme had had an impact on the profile and morale of magistrates.

Lady Justice Macur, senior presiding judge, said that a fear of the unknown would always affect morale and would cause anxiety amongst any workforce. She argued that travelling further afield had also caused huge inconvenience to those who were volunteering and some were not able to travel.

She stressed that it may end up having a big impact on the justice system further down the line. Lady Justice Macur also noted that without the immediacy of local magistrates’ courts, it may stop people from more rural areas from applying which would affect recruitment and diversity of backgrounds.

Justice minister Lucy Frazer QC MP said that the government had upped recruitment processes, and she noted that they had recruited over a thousand more magistrates in the past year. 

She said that morale was a main factor for people leaving and the government were speaking to them about this. They were rolling out new recruitment methods to encourage a larger variety of people to take up the public service.

Ellie Reeves MP (Labour) asked if the Government were still looking to abolish Local Justice Area’s (LJAs) and Frazer confirmed that they were. Reeves then asked how they would mitigate travel times and costs of magistrates.

Frazer said that the MoJ were looking at utilising technological means of hearing cases, that would allow magistrates to hear proceedings from outside of their LJAs. The MoJ were looking to maximising the advantage gained from any spending and this would enable them to do that.

Robert Courts MP (Conservative) asked if courts were lagging behind on video link technology. Justice minister Lucy Frazer QC MP explained that there were IT issues in courts, and there are very vocal opinions around video links.

Following this, Courts asked if the administration of justice was affected by the failings of video links to which Frazer replied that it would be something that they would be exploring in the coming review. She argued that it did more good for justice than bad because it allowed evidence to be heard that otherwise would not make it.

Justice minister Lucy Frazer QC MP also explained that they were working with HM Courts and Tribunals Service and the judiciary on the strategy for the magistracy and she stressed that the government understood the importance of the magistracy for the justice systems.

Watch the session

3. Westminster Hall debate on human rights

On Tuesday a Westminster Hall debate was led by SNP MP Tommy Sheppard on human rights in the UK.

Moving the debate, Sheppard raised concerns regarding the protection of human rights in the UK as a result of Brexit. Noting the assurances from government that human rights will be protected in the UK and not diminished, he observed that there could be divergence between the UK and EU member states going forward in respect of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). 

He raised concerns regarding the government’s commitment to the Human Rights Act. He closed by arguing that human rights should be central to all of government’s activities and not seen as the concern only of the Ministry of Justice or of lawyers and legal departments.

Responding on behalf of the opposition, shadow solicitor general Nick Thomas-Symonds MP spoke about the history of the ECHR following the Second World War and argued that the same principles are as important and relevant in 2019 as they were when it was first introduced. He said that the Labour Party are committed to the ECHR and the Human Rights Act 1998.

Responding for the government, parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice Edward Argar MP said our reputation and commitment to human rights will not end with our exit from the EU. He said that after the UK has left the EU, it will continue to afford its citizens access to well-established domestic and international mechanisms to bring their case and obtain appropriate remedies. 

He closed by arguing that human rights are central to the way we live now and to the way we wish to live in the future. They are an integral part of the society of which we wish to be a part, and a reflection of our identity as individuals and as a country.

Read the debate

Watch the debate

4. Mental Capacity Bill reaches final stages in the Commons

The Mental Capacity (Amendment) Bill was debated at report stage and third reading in the House of Commons.

The Law Society’s concerns were raised twice by Liberal Democrat Spokesperson Norman Lamb MP who raised the conflict of interest of care home managers in the new liberty protection safeguards scheme that is introduced by the Bill. He also noted our concerns about the capacity of care home managers to undertake the responsibilities they are being given in the new system.

The government tabled a number of amendments to the Bill including to broaden the provision of advocacy for cared-for people. A number of MPs raised issues about the speed with which the Bill has gone through the legislative process, the role of care home managers and the code of practice not yet being published. 

The Lords will now consider the Commons amendments to the Bill on 26 February.

Read the debate

5. Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill receives Royal Assent

Tuesday saw the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act complete its journey through parliament with the granting of Royal Assent.

The Law Society made numerous representations during previous stages of debate, including providing oral evidence to the Public Bill Committee. These representations helped secure amendments which removed provisions that would have restricted the right to access confidential legal advice from a solicitor.

While the Act now becomes law, the provisions relating to the seizure of legally privileged material and access to confidential advice from a solicitor will not come into force until the government publishes, and parliament approves, the Schedule 3 Code of Practice. 

The code will influence the enforcement of these provisions, and its publication will provide the Law Society with an opportunity to make further representations.

Read our parliamentary briefing that was distributed ahead of report stage in the House of Lords

Read the transcript of Richard Atkinson’s evidence to the Public Bill Committee

Coming up next week

Next week sees the Commons chamber dominated by statutory instruments preparing for a no-deal Brexit.

On Thursday, there will be a general debate on potential future trade deals, with discussion focusing on Australia, New Zealand, the US, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In the Lords, the European Union Committee will receive oral evidence on Wednesday from Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK permanent representative to the EU.

View the upcoming parliamentary business

If you made it this far...

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Tags: Westminster weekly update | human rights | 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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