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Westminster update: Government confirms new bill will break international law

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

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Five things you need to know

1. Government confirms new bill will break international law

On Tuesday (8 September), in answer to a question about the Internal Market Bill from Chair of the Justice Select Committee Bob Neill MP, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis MP confirmed that the bill does contain measures which “break international law, in a very specific and limited way.” On Thursday (10 September) in the House of Lords Shadow Attorney General Lord Falconer used a Private Notice Question to refer to the comment and ask the government whether they are committed to the rule of law.

The bill makes provisions concerning the Northern Ireland Protocol and its stipulations on state aid and trade, and aims to guarantee unhindered trade between Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. It also creates secondary powers allowing ministers to provide financial assistance through regulations. The Law Society has briefed parliamentarians ahead of second reading on Monday 14 September, and had conversations with ministers and officials, recommending that the clauses that enact or permit a breach of international law be removed.

Advocate General for Scotland Lord Keen stressed that the government “have not proposed any breach of UK law,” and argued that “on occasions, tensions can arise between our domestic obligations and our international commitments.” He stated that the rule of law is an important constitutional principle and that government remains committed to it.

Lord Keen cited legislation which he considered precedent, including the 1998 Human Rights Act and the 2002 Communications Bill, and argued that the Internal Market Bill provides a contingency. He said that it will be “for the sovereign Parliament to determine whether ministers should be able to deal with such a contingency.” He went on to say that he remains in post and will continue to “encourage and stipulate adherence to the rule of law – understanding that, from time to time, very real tensions can emerge between our position in domestic law and our position in international law.”

Read the bill

Read the transcript of the Private Notice Question

Read the transcript of Lewis’ remarks

2. Prime minister updates on UK-EU negotiations

On Monday (7 September) the prime minister Boris Johnson gave a speech on the current state of UK-EU negotiations. Notably, the speech was distributed to Conservative Party members with the title "I will not back down".

Johnson stressed that that there needs to be an agreement by the European Council on 15 October, and that if an agreement cannot be made by then, the UK “will then have a trading arrangement with the EU like Australia’s”. He went on to say “even at this late stage, if the EU are ready to rethink their current positions and agree this I will be delighted. But we cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it.”

This, coupled with the measures contained in the Internal Market Bill, has led to criticism of the UK government. EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said that the UK wants “the best of two worlds” and urged government to keep to its commitments, saying: “we demand quite simply, and calmly, and until the end, that the political commitments in the text agreed by Boris Johnson be legally translated into this treaty."

We have continually influenced on UK-EU negotiations, urging both sides to agree an ambitious deal that provides for legal services market access and appropriate civil judicial co-operation. We have also regularly warned about the damage to the legal sector and operation of the justice system that would be caused by leaving the transition period without an agreement.

Read the prime minister’s speech

3. UK-Japan trade deal agreed

Today (11 September) the government announced that a UK-Japan trade agreement has been secured – the UK’s first major new trade deal since regaining independence on trade policy.

It was agreed in principle this morning on a video call between International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Japan’s Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu. Government has also said that the deal is “an important step towards joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).” While the text of the agreement has not yet been published, the government’s announcement included some information on movement of business persons:

Improved mobility for business people – securing more flexibility for Japanese and British companies to move talent into each country, covering a range of UK skilled workers to enter Japan, from computer services to construction. This includes commitments that go beyond the EU-Japan deal, for investors, spouses and dependents, and a wider range of intra-company transfers.

Requirements for visas will be clear, transparent, and with an aim that they be processed in 90 days. A worker transferring from their UK HQ to the Tokyo office will be able to bring their spouse and dependents and stay for up to five years.

We have previously submitted evidence to the Commons International Trade Select Committee and the Lords International Sub-Committee on provisions beneficial to the legal services sector in a UK-Japan deal, as well as having regular dialogue with the Department for International Trade, on matters including mobility.

Read the government's announcement

4. Criminal courts recovery plan published

On Sunday (6 September) the Ministry of Justice announced new measures to extend custody time limits for those awaiting trial, as part of a wider criminal courts recovery plan which also includes additional court staff and new Nightingale courts.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, we have been vocal on the growing backlog of cases in our criminal justice system and the need to boost court capacity to respond to that challenge.

At the end of July 2020, HMCTS figures showed the criminal case backlog stood at more than 560,000 across the magistrates and crown courts.

The Ministry of Justice’s criminal courts recovery plan includes measures such as:

  • employing 1,600 court staff to support recovery measures
  • maximising the existing physical estate, for instance through introducing plexiglass screens to separate members of the jury to enable safe use of more court rooms
  • funding for eight additional Nightingale courts that will enable 14 additional courtrooms
  • using video technology wherever appropriate – allowing more cases to be heard remotely
  • exploring new ‘COVID operating hours' – increasing the number of hours that court buildings can be used for trials outside the standard weekday times of 10am to 4pm. This time-limited measure seeks to maximise HMCTS's own estate, while ensuring no one party would be required to attend court for longer

Read the Ministry of Justice’s announcement on custody time limits

Read the Law Society’s press release

5. Party conferences programme

Although all the political party conferences are being held remotely, the Law Society will be participating in a full programme of events at the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative Party conferences.

You can register for each of the remote conferences online:

Full details of our programme of events will be published on our website in the coming days. Some key events are listed below:

Labour Conference, Sunday 20 September, 6pm to 7.30pm

The Law Society, Society of Labour Lawyers and the Bar Council event on the future of the justice system: COVID-19 and beyond

Speakers include:

  • Simon Davis – President, the Law Society
  • Kate O'Rourke – Society of Labour Lawyers
  • David Lammy MP – Shadow Lord Chancellor
  • Ellie Reeves MP – Shadow Solicitor General
  • Lord Falconer – Shadow Attorney General
  • Amanda Pinto QC – Chair, the Bar Council

Open to all – sign up for the event

Liberal Democrats Conference, Monday 28 September, 5pm to 7pm

Rights, Liberties, Justice and Law Society: event on coronavirus and the justice system

Speakers include:

  • Stephanie Boyce – Deputy Vice-President, the Law Society
  • Wera Hobhouse MP – Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesperson
  • Chris Minnoch – Legal Aid Practitioners Group
  • James Sandbach – Chair of Rights, Liberties, Justice

Details to be confirmed. To register your interest email parliamentary@lawsociety.org.uk.

Conservative Party Conference, Monday 5 October, 1pm to 3pm

The Law Society event on return, restart and recovery: unleashing legal services’ potential

Speakers include:

  • Simon Davis – President, the Law Society
  • Rt Hon Robert Buckland MP – Lord Chancellor (invited)
  • Rt Hon Bob Neill MP – Chair of the Justice Committee (invited)
  • Laura Farris MP (invited)

Details to be confirmed. To register your interest email parliamentary@lawsociety.org.uk.

Coming up next week

Next week the Internal Market Bill will receive its second reading, and two sittings of a Committee of the Whole House – meaning it will be discussed in the Commons Chamber rather than in a bespoke Bill Committee. The Liaison Committee – made up of the chairs of Commons select committees – will question the prime minister and there will be a general debate on support for the self-employed and freelance workers during the coronavirus crisis.

In the Lords, the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill will have its third sitting of committee stage, and the EU Security and Justice Sub-Committee will question Justice Minister Lord Keen on civil justice and family law after Brexit.

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