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Westminster update: clauses allowing breach of international law removed from Internal Market Bill

Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

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1. Clauses allowing breach of international law removed from Internal Market Bill

Last Tuesday, the EU-UK Joint Committee released a statement addressing outstanding issues relevant to the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, including matters related to the Internal Market Bill.

An agreement in principle has been found on border checks and the application of state aid under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

As solutions have been found to these issues, the UK government has agreed to withdraw clauses 44, 45 and 47 of the Internal Market Bill, and not introduce any similar provisions in the new Taxation Bill.

These clauses would have allowed ministers to breach the UK’s international obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement.

We've campaigned against them from when the Bill was first published, and have run two member actions on the issue. Our concerns on these clauses have been raised in the Commons by spokespeople for the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, and by former prime minister Theresa May MP.

Last Monday, before this was agreed, the House of Commons debated the Lords’ amendments to the Bill and reinstated the controversial clauses.

We briefed before the debate, and was mentioned three times by MPs from the SNP and Labour Party:

  • SNP BEIS spokesperson Drew Hendry MP argued that the Bill is “not worthy of this or any other Parliament,” and referred to former Law Society president Simon Davis’ comments about the rule of law not being negotiable
  • shadow natural environment minister Ruth Jones MP quoted our assessment that the provisions removed in the Lords would “enable ministers to derogate from the United Kingdom's obligations under international law in broad and comprehensive terms and prohibit public bodies from compliance with such obligations”
  • SNP backbencher Stuart C. McDonald MP quoted directly from our briefing, saying that the government’s planned actions constitute a “very real and direct threat to the rule of law, which includes the country’s obligations under public international law”

Read the EU-UK Joint Committee statement

Read the debate on the Internal Market Bill

2. Justice questions in Commons

Last Tuesday, Justice Oral Questions took place in the House of Commons.

We were mentioned twice, as part of an answer from the lord chancellor on judicial diversity and as part of a question and answer on the Spending Review settlement for the courts backlog.

Matt Western MP (Labour) noted the court system was at breaking point and referenced our call for further funding to break the backlog.

The lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP said the Law Society and Bar Council had called the Spending Review settlement “encouraging” and said it was not “the end of the story”. He added he was confident the courts could return to pre-COVID levels in the new year.

Seema Malhotra MP (Labour) raised the employment tribunals backlog and asked when action would be taken to respond to this. Courts minister Chris Philp MP said £110m had been made available for clearing the backlog and said that since October disposal rates were running at 740 a week, higher than before the pandemic.

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy MP said the government had caused “outrage” by refusing to publish submissions from the independent review of administrative law. He asked if the lord chancellor would publish submissions and the HRA review in full. The lord chancellor said what was published was a matter for the review, but the review itself and the government’s response would be published.

Asked by Sarah Owen MP (Labour) about why there were no BAME Supreme Court justices, the lord chancellor said this was a product of the supply into the legal profession. He was working with the Law Society and others to “help and support BAME candidates ahead of any application processes to level that playing field.”

Read the Justice Oral Questions transcript

3. Launch of Law Society report – Race for inclusion: the experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic solicitors

Last Wednesday, Law Society vice president I. Stephanie Boyce launched our new research into the experiences of Black, Asian and minority ethnic solicitors.

Rt. Hon. David Lammy MP, shadow lord chancellor was interviewed by the vice president for the event and gave his views on what needs to be done to achieve equality of experience and opportunity in the legal sector. He reiterated that diversity in the sector was vital in securing trust from Black, Asian and ethnic minority people using the justice system. This was followed by a panel discussion on the findings of the report with members of the profession.

Some key findings from the report include:

  • just 8% of partners in the largest firms are black, Asian or minority ethnic and this has only risen by 1% since 2014
  • experiences vary between minority groups - although 17% of the profession identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic, 10% of this number is made of Asian solicitors while only 3% of the profession identify as black
  • there is a significant ethnicity pay gap - the average salary for white solicitors is £36.13 per hour compared to £27.01 per hour for black, Asian and minority ethnic solicitors - a difference of £9.12 per hour
  • discrimination was reported by 13% of black and ethnic minority solicitors and 16% reported bullying

Read our race for inclusion report

4. Law officers questioned by MPs

Last Thursday, the attorney general, Suella Braverman QC MP, and the solicitor general, Michael Ellis QC MP, answered questions in the House of Commons.

We were mentioned once; Jessica Morden MP (Labour) echoed our call for early legal advice and legal aid to be funded properly to help tackle the courts backlog.

Morden referenced our call for early legal advice to be funded to ensure judicial time was used efficiently as possible and asked what the attorney general was doing to ensure that early legal aid and legal advice were funded properly.

The attorney general said she was working with all departments to ensure publicly funded lawyers were funded. The CPS had made changes to its system for fees paid to advocates and £51m had been invested into the criminal legal aid fee scheme.

Afzal Khan MP (Labour) said it was disappointing to see no further funding for legal aid practitioners, with no “rise in payments for 25 years”, he asked if the attorney general agreed that legal aid practitioners should have been included in the Spending Review.

The attorney general raised the £51m in increased spending and said the next phase of CLAR would “ensure the market meets demand, provides value for money for the taxpayer and provides high quality advice for defendants”.

Read the transcript

5. Commons and Lords approve evictions pause

This week, the Commons and Lords considered the Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction and Taking Control of Goods) (England) Regulations 2020, which prevent bailiffs from enforcing evictions from residential properties in England until 11 January, on Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 December respectively.

We briefed MPs and peers in support of the regulations, while recommending that the government extend the pause beyond 11 January for tier 2 and 3 areas.

In the Commons the justice minister, Alex Chalk MP, noted that given the 14-day notice period for an eviction, evictions will not resume in England until 25 January at the earliest, except in certain serious circumstances.

The minister noted that new court rules introduced in September provide protections for both landlords and tenants, for example by requiring landlords to send the court information about the impact that the pandemic has had on their tenant and implementing a new review stage has so that tenants can access legal advice.

Peter Kyle MP, shadow justice minister, argued that the regulations are not a ban on evictions, as landlords may still send eviction notices to homes and the courts remain open to hear possession claims. He claimed that the regulations will only delay a “looming evictions crisis”, and asked whether the government would extend the pause for tier 2 and 3 areas after 11 January, as suggested by our briefing.

In the Lords, a number of peers highlighted the fact that the regulations will not prevent problematic rent arrears from accruing.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Conservative) noted that the regulations will mean that landlords cannot take possession of a home even when tenants are up to 18 months behind on rent payments, while Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Conservative) claimed increasing rent arrears could exacerbate mental health issues for tenants.

Both Houses voted to approve the regulations, which have already come into force under the “made affirmative” procedure.

Read the transcript of the Commons debate

Read the transcript of the Lords debate

Coming up next week

On Monday, the House of Commons will review the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Liability for Wrongful Trading and Extension of the Relevant Period) Regulations 2020. The remaining stages of the Taxation (Post-Transition Period) Bill takes place on Tuesday. The National Security and Investment Bill continues in committee stage.

On Thursday, the Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU will hear oral evidence on the progress of negotiations from Michael Gove MP and Lord David Frost and Cabinet Office questions will take place.

In the Lords, the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill will return from the House of Commons. Amendments to the Bill will be considered on Monday.

View all upcoming parliamentary business

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