Westminster update: government lacks understanding of costs and benefits report finds

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

One thing you need to do

Read the judgment from our successful judicial review of the government’s failure to increase criminal legal aid fees in line with the Bellamy Review’s recommendations.

The judgment acknowledged that the system is “slowly coming apart at the seams”, finding that the government’s decision not to increase criminal legal aid rates in line with the review was irrational and must be retaken. 

What you need to know 

1. Legal aid: government lacks understanding of costs and benefits, report finds

A report published Friday 9 February by the National Audit Office has found that the Ministry of Justice does not know whether everyone eligible for legal aid can access it and needs to do more to ensure the sustainability of the legal aid market.

The NAO acknowledges that the MoJ has “achieved its aim of significantly reducing legal aid spending” but says the department “lacks understanding of the full costs and benefits” of its reforms.

The report recommends that the MoJ work closely with stakeholders to boost its understanding of the costs and benefits of legal issues removed from the scope of legal aid by its reforms.

It should also improve its research on the impact of the removal of early advice for housing and debt issues.

Finally, the NAO recommends the MoJ work with providers and professional bodies to create a workforce strategy to look at the pipeline of future legal aid lawyers.

We have welcomed the report.

Both the civil and criminal legal aid systems are on their knees, with evidence showing it is becoming increasingly difficult for legal aid providers to sustain a business.

The removal of early advice has had a significant impact on family cases, while our recent judicial review victory clearly demonstrated the significant strains on criminal legal aid providers.

2. Economic Crime Act: minister grilled by select committee

Small business minister Kevin Hollinrake gave evidence to the Business and Trade Committee on the implementation of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act. Flanked by DBT officials and representatives from Companies House, he gave an overview of the scale of change in how the UK tackles economic crime.

The hour-long scrutiny session was chaired by Liam Byrne (Labour) who pushed all four witnesses on the speed and effectiveness of the reforms.

Despite a comprehensive grilling, Byrne concluded that loopholes in the system remain, stressing that “at best we have half a plan to fix what is a full-scale international scandal”.

Both the minister and DBT officials were keen to highlight that the act marks a huge reform of how we tackle economic crime.

There are over 50 pieces of secondary legislation that will need to be laid over the next 18 months to ensure that all measures are fully implemented. This is the normal process for implementing such wide-ranging reforms, but it means that we will not see complete change until the end of 2025.

Anthony Magnall (Conservative) questioned whether there is a clear cross-government strategy on tackling economic crime, noting the most recent Economic Crime Plan from the Home Office does not mention DBT.

When asked which minister has overall responsibility for anti money laundering and counter terrorism finance; Hollinrake noted that it was a complex, cross government issue with involvement from the Home Office, DBT, FCDO and the treasury.

Following the session with the minister, the committee also heard from officials at HMRC, the SFO and the NCA, as well as those from Transparency International, UK Finance and the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies.

The committee will consider the evidence and publish a recommendation report to government, to which DBT will respond.

3. New restrictions on protests announced

The government announced new restrictions on protests will be introduced through an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill on Thursday 8 February.

The new powers will include the ability to arrest protesters who wear face coverings to conceal their identity, a ban on the use of flares on marches and criminalising climbing on war memorials.

The punishments for these new offences will range from up to three months in prison to a £1,000 fine.

Ministers have argued these new restrictions are needed following protests in recent months that went beyond freedom of expression into inciting hate and committing crime. To tolerate this would be “radicalising in itself”, according to Tom Tugendhat, the security minister. These measures will build on similar measures brought in last year.

Responding for Labour, Dan Jarvis, shadow security minister, broadly welcomed the measures on fireworks, though acknowledged there are legitimate reasons why some protesters may want to cover their faces, including dissidents protesting outside an embassy. He said Labour would scrutinise the measures to ensure they do not curb the right to protest unnecessarily.

The Criminal Justice Bill is currently awaiting its report stage in the House of Commons.

Coming up:

The chancellor of the exchequer will give his Spring Budget on 6 March.

We have made a submission to the treasury outlining steps the government can take to unleash the economic potential of legal services.

We are working on a number of bills in parliament:

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill will begin its committee stage in the Lords on 12 February

Victims and Prisoners Bill began its committee stage in the Lords on 24 January.

Renters (Reform) Bill will have its report stage in the Commons, date to be announced.

Criminal Justice Bill will begin its report stage in the Commons, date to be announced.

Leasehold and Freehold Bill will have its third reading in the Lords on 27 February.

Sentencing Bill will have its committee stage, date to be announced.

Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Bill will begin its committee stage in the Commons on 20 February.

Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill will have its committee stage in the Lords, date to be announced.

Arbitration Bill will have its Lords committee stage, date to be announced.

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