Westminster update: lord chancellor unveils sentencing overhaul

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
The palace of Westminster in the evening.
Photograph: Thomas Riebesehl

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What you need to know

1. Criminal justice reform: lord chancellor unveils sentencing overhaul

On Monday, the lord chancellor and secretary of state for justice Alex Chalk delivered a statement to the Commons on criminal justice.

Chalk announced new measures on:

  • keeping dangerous prisoners incarcerated for longer
  • releasing low-level prisoners on probation sooner
  • fast-tracking the deportation of foreign offenders

Among the most significant announcements the lord chancellor made was a commitment to legislate for a presumption that custodial sentences of less than twelve months in prison be suspended, with offenders given community sentences instead.

On the other side of the spectrum however, legislation will also be brought forwards to ensure that those convicted of serious sexual offences remain in prison for the entirety of their sentence.

To help ease the pressure on prison capacity, the government will extend the Early Removal Scheme to allow foreign national offenders to be deported up to eighteen months before the end of their sentence, up from twelve currently.

Meanwhile an additional £400 million will be allocated to provide 800 new prison cells.

2. Ministers avoid questions on Mental Health Act reform

Ministers answering questions on health and social care failed to give any commitment that a mental health bill will be brought forward in the upcoming King’s speech. They focused on the rollout of initiatives that had previously been launched.

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (Labour) said that there was cross-party support for the draft Mental Health Bill, but since the joint committee on the draft bill had published its report in January, they had heard nothing from the government.

She called on the minister to commit the government to include reform to the Mental Health Act in the King’s speech.

The minister, Maria Caulfield, paid tribute to the work of Allin-Khan, but did not say anything about the King’s speech or a Mental Health Bill.

When asked about investment into mental health services more generally, Caulfield said that any further funding would have to be considered in a spending review.

However, she said that the government had made a record investment of £15.9 billion into mental health services in the past year, which is 28% more funding than in 2018.

The health secretary, Steve Barclay, said that funding for mental health is £2.3 billion more this year than it was four years ago, with investment being made into 160 mental health crisis cafes.

Abena Oppong-Asare (Labour) asked why it has taken the government so long to bring forward a suicide prevention strategy, and why they continue to drag their feet about a new Mental Health Bill.

Again, Caulfield dodged the question and did not answer as to when a new Mental Health Bill might be published.

3. Attorney general quizzed on negative rhetoric, deserts and backlogs

MPs questioned the attorney general on court backlogs, legal aid deserts and the role of solicitors in civil society.

Raising the role of lawyers, SNP MP Chris Stephens criticised justice ministers for attacking lawyers and highlighted remarks made by the home secretary accusing "lefty lawyers" of undermining the law.

He asked if the attorney general agreed that she should stand up for the profession instead of "deflecting blame from the serial ineptitude of a broken Home Office”.

Victoria Prentis, the attorney general, said she often meets with legal leaders to celebrate their achievements and to hear their concerns. She added that lawyers acting in the best interests of their clients should never be criticised, but noted it is the strong tradition of lawyers in this country that they simply act for their client and “do not necessarily associate themselves with the cause”.

Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry highlighted that many women are struggling to get the legal help they need on issues from domestic violence to employment and benefits. She asked the attorney general to work with the lord chancellor to address the disproportionate impact legal aid deserts have on women.

The attorney general replied that access to justice for everybody is at the top of her agenda.

Labour MPs also focused on the courts backlog, asking what message it sent to victims when, after being forced to wait years for their case to reach court, offenders were bailed rather than jailed.

Prentis highlighted the lord chancellor’s announced plans for increasing prison places and said the government is working to reduce victim attrition in the system.

Coming up:

The government will deliver its autumn statement on 22 November.

We have made a formal submission to the Treasury with our recommendations for supporting the justice system and legal sector, and we will continue to push these with MPs and ministers.

The parliamentary session will soon come to a close ahead of the King’s speech on Tuesday 7 November.

Before that date, we will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills:

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