Westminster update: chancellor delivers the Spring Statement
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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What you need to know
1. Chancellor delivers the Spring Statement
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, delivered his Spring Statement on Wednesday (23 March), announcing a number of changes to taxes and the Office for Budget Responsibilities’ economic forecasts.
Responding to the increasing cost of living, the Chancellor announced a 5p cut to fuel duty and raised National Insurance thresholds by £3,000 to support lower earners. The Chancellor also acknowledged that the UK’s economic picture remains deeply uncertain due to growing inflation and events in Ukraine.
Alongside cost of living measures, the Chancellor announced a new tax plan, which he said would allow the Government to cut tax and help to grow the economy. The plan includes a Government commitment to work with businesses ahead of the Budget in the autumn to find the most effective way to cut taxes.
As part of the plan, the Government will look at the operation of the apprenticeship levy, which the Law Society has called for, and ways to reform research and development tax credits.
Finally, he outlined an intention to cut the basic rate of income tax from 20p to 19p by the end of this Parliament in 2024.
2. MPs question the Lord Chancellor
Justice questions took place on Tuesday (22 March), with MPs questioning the Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab, on human rights reforms, law firms working on behalf of Russian clients and criminal legal aid.
Debbie Abrahams (Labour) quoted the Law Society’s view that reforms to the Human Rights Act do not recognise the significant benefits that the Act has achieved, while calling for the reforms to be scrapped. Raab replied that he was aware of the Law Society’s view but would “respectfully disagree”, and said he was standing up for the rights of victims and the public.
The Shadow Lord Chancellor, Steve Reed, asked what was being done to stop UK law firms “acting as enablers of Russian criminals”. The Legal Aid Minister, James Cartlidge, said the rule of law meant that everyone had a right to legal representation and noted the strict regulations lawyers follow.
Afzal Khan, the Shadow Legal Aid Minister, asked how the Government intend to stop criminal solicitors being forced from the profession. The Lord Chancellor said the Government had published a detailed response to the Bellamy review of criminal legal aid and had “matched the Bellamy recommendations on the quantum of investment” for criminal legal aid.
3. Peers debate the effect of Covid-19 on the courts
Peers debated the Constitution Committee’s report on the effect the pandemic has had on the courts on Wednesday (23 March). Committee chair Baroness Taylor (Labour) outlined the report, noting the serious strain the justice system was under before the pandemic from cuts to the courts and to legal aid.
Turning to the pandemic response, Baroness Taylor argued the experience of the courts was uneven, with the higher courts functioning better than the less well-resourced lower courts. She also expressed her concern about the experience of vulnerable users, noting the Law Society's concerns about how vulnerable court users are able to engage with technology.
Responding for the government, the justice minister, Lord Wolfson, outlined the measures taken by the government to respond to the pandemic. These steps included implementing safety measures in court rooms, rolling out technology to enable remote hearings and opening Nightingale courts.
Turning to legal aid, Lord Wolfson pointed to the Government’s response to Sir Christopher Bellamy’s report on criminal legal aid, which proposed some investment for the sector.
4. Attorney general answers questions
Attorney general questions took place in the House of Commons on Thursday (24 March), with MPs raising questions on Russian war crimes and strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).
Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill (Conservative), asked the attorney general to consider sending UK lawyers to the International Criminal Court to support its investigation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. The attorney general, Suella Braverman, said she was pleased by the suggestion and called on any lawyers that want to support this work to get in touch with the Law Society or Bar Council so these efforts could be channelled.
Clive Efford (Labour) criticised the government for being slow to ban the use of SLAPPs and called for urgent action to end this form of litigation. The attorney general said the lord chancellor recently announced action to target the practice, and that measures would be introduced to protect the public interest and “stop the abuse of our legal process”.
We'll be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:
Building Safety Bill: The bill will have its report stage in the House of Lords on 29 March.