Thursday 19 December saw the state opening of Parliament following the general election and the delivery of the Queen’s Speech, setting out the government’s legislative agenda for the first session of the new parliament.
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 is set to be introduced in the House of Commons on 20 December 2019.
This article highlights some of the key bills announced in the speech that will be of most relevance to solicitors.
The Queen began her speech by stating that the government’s priority is to ensure that the UK leaves the European Union on 31 January. The government will bring forward the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill in order to ratify and implement the current Withdrawal Agreement.
The government will also bring forward a series of bills to “make the most of the opportunities that [Brexit] brings for all the people of the United Kingdom”. These bills include an Agriculture Bill, a Fisheries Bill and a Trade Bill.
The government will also bring forward an Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill to implement a new points-based immigration system that will “welcome skilled workers from across the world”. The speech also mentioned that doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals would be given fast-tracked entry to the UK through a new visa.
The government’s background briefing notes that further legislation will be required in this session in addition to the bills outlined in the speech in order to implement the future relationship that is agreed with the EU before the end of the implementation period on 31 December 2020.
With regard to global free trade, the background briefing states an ambition to have 80% of the UK’s external trade covered by free trade agreements by 2022, with the government set to prioritise trade agreements with major economies including the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Japan.
- European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill – this bill will implement the Withdrawal Agreement in domestic law, ensuring that the UK leaves the EU with a deal on 31 January 2020 with an implementation period lasting until 31 December 2020
- Trade Bill – this bill will allow the UK to roll over existing trade deals that it is currently party to through its membership of the EU and will establish a new independent body to protect UK firms against unfair trade practices or unforeseen surges in imports
- Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – this bill will end free movement of people in UK law, and will implement a new points-based immigration system from 2021. New visa schemes will also be created to fill shortages in public services, including the NHS, and for top scientists and researchers
Financial and legal services
The speech included a commitment to bring forward a Financial Services Bill to support the UK’s financial services sector and a Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill to facilitate cross-border justice.
The government’s background briefing states that it will continue to progress the draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill to combat money laundering in the property market.
The background briefing also highlights the £25 billion per annum contribution of legal services to the UK economy, noting that the UK accounts for around 6.5% of global legal services fee revenue. It also cites ensuring the UK is a world leader in fintech through the Sector Strategy as one of the ways the government is supporting the financial services sector.
- Financial Services Bill – this bill will seek to ensure that the UK maintains world-leading regulatory standards and remains open to international markets after it leaves the EU
- Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill – this bill will aim to maintain and strengthen the UK’s role as a world leader in delivering justice across borders on civil and family justice issues, and make it easier for UK individuals and families who become involved in international legal disputes to access justice. This would include clarifying in legislation the domestic implementation of the 1996, 2005 and 2007 Hague Conventions, as well as giving the government the power to implement further international agreements on private international law
Justice, and specifically criminal justice, was a central theme of the Queen’s Speech. The government has announced seven new criminal justice bills, as well as ambitions to introduce bills on three other issues, and has committed to establishing a Royal Commission to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice process in England and Wales.
The government has also announced that the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, both of which were first introduced under Theresa May’s premiership before falling at the dissolution of Parliament, will be reintroduced in the new session.
- Counter Terrorism (Sentencing and Release) Bill – this bill will increase prison sentences for most serious terrorist offenders
- Sentencing Bill – this bill will increase prison sentences for the most serious violent and sexual offenders
- Serious Violence Bill – this bill will create a new duty on various public bodies, including schools, police, councils and health bodies, to work together to prevent and reduce serious violence within communities, as well as introducing new court orders to target known knife carriers
- Sentencing (Pre-consolidation Amendments) Bill – this bill will make technical changes to the law to consolidate the law on sentencing procedure in England and Wales in line with the Law Commission’s Sentencing Code
- Police Powers and Protections Bill – this bill will establish a Police Covenant on a statutory footing, introduce a new test to assess police officers’ driving abilities, and create new powers for police officers to tackle unauthorised encampments
- Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill – this bill will ensure that any refusal by those convicted of certain offences to disclose specific information to victims is considered by the Parole Board during release assessments
- Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill – this bill will aim to minimise conflict during divorce procedures and remove the requirement for applicants to make allegations about their spouse’s conduct or demonstrate a period of separation
- Domestic Abuse Bill – this bill will create new protections for victims of domestic abuse
- Extradition (Provisional Arrest) Bill – this bill will enable police officer to arrest those suspected of committing serious crimes in a ‘trusted country’ outside the UK without having to apply for a warrant first
- Foreign national offenders legislation – this bill will increase the maximum penalty for foreign national offenders who return to the UK in breach of a deportation order
- Victims law reform – the government has committed to developing and implementing a Victims’ Law to guarantee victims’ rights and the support they can expect, with a consultation to begin early next year alongside the publication of a revised Victims’ Code
- Espionage legislation – this bill will modernise existing offences and create new ones to deal with the threat of hostile state espionage
- Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice Process – the government has committed to establishing a Royal Commission on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice process in England and Wales, with the terms of reference to be set out in due course
Historical allegations against armed forces personnel
The speech mentioned that the government will seek to bring forward proposals to “tackle vexatious claims that undermine our armed forces”. The government has committed to providing a full response to the consultation on its proposals that ran between July and October.
Constitution and democracy
The Queen’s Speech announced the government’s intention to establish a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to “examine the broader aspects of the constitution in depth and develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”. Further announcements on the composition and focus of the Commission will be made “in due course”.
Other key themes
The Health Service Safety Investigations Bill, which was introduced just before the dissolution of the last Parliament, has been revived as part of a package of healthcare reforms which will also see the Mental Health Act amended to increase patient autonomy.
An Employment Bill will be brought forward to protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU.
On housing, the government will protect tenants through a Renters’ Reform Bill, and will work with the Law Commission to take forward a comprehensive programme of reform to end unfair practices in the leasehold market. This will include a ban on the sale of new houses as leaseholds, and a reinvigoration of commonhold tenure.
A Building Safety Bill will enhance regulatory regimes for building safety and require builders of new homes to belong to a New Homes Ombudsman.
The speech also outlined the government’s commitment to spend 2.4% of GDP on research and development by 2027 and increase the tax credit rate for R&D to 13%.
- Health Service Safety Investigations Bill – this bill will establish a Health Service Safety Investigations Body (HSSIB) to investigate patient safety concerns and make recommendations for improvements
- Reform of the Mental Health Act – the government has committed to responding to the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act’s recommendations and bringing forward proposals to increase patient choice and autonomy
- Employment Bill – this bill will create a new enforcement body for workers’ rights, give rights to all workers to request more predictable contracts, increase leave entitlement for neonatal care and unpaid carers, and explore making flexible working a default unless employers have good reason not to
- Renters’ Reform Bill – this bill will abolish the use of ‘no fault’ evictions, give landlords more rights to gain possession of their property through the courts, and professionalise letting agents