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Westminster update: Internal Market Bill passes second reading

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. Internal Market Bill passes second reading despite concerns

Last Monday, the Internal Market Bill passed its second reading by 340 votes to 263 – a majority of 77. Thirty Conservative MPs abstained from voting with the government, and two voted against the Bill, with notable abstainees including former attorney generals Jeremy Wright QC MP and Geoffrey Cox QC MP, and former chancellor of the exchequer Sajid Javid MP.

The prime minister, when proposing the Bill, defended the powers that would allow for a potential breach of international law by arguing that they are “an insurance policy, and if we reach agreement with our European friends, which I still believe is possible, they will never be invoked.” He went on to suggest that the passing of the Bill does not constitute the exercising of these powers.

The government has now reached agreement with the majority of Conservative backbenchers who were dissatisfied with the Bill. An amendment originally tabled by chair of the Justice Select Committee Sir Bob Neill MP (Conservative), which would give MPs a vote on a Commons motion before the powers to disapply aspects of the legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement could be invoked, has been adopted by government – this makes the Bill much more likely to pass the Commons without serious changes. While the amendment would allow for more scrutiny and is a positive step, it does not go far enough to prevent potential derogation of international obligations.

We briefed jointly with the Bar Council, recommending that Clauses 41-45 (which allow for breaches of international law) be removed and urging support for amendments to this effect. We have also been voicing our concerns in meetings with senior ministers and officials, and will be briefing MPs again before the third sitting of committee stage (on 21 Septempter), when the relevant clauses will be discussed. This is alongside our ongoing campaign action, which has helped over 3500 people write to their MPs to #DefendTheRuleOfLaw.

Read our joint briefing with the Bar Council

Read the second reading debate

Read the first sitting of committee stage debate

Read the second sitting of committee stage debate

2. Lord Keen resigns over rule of law

Last Wednesday, advocate general for Scotland and Lords government justice spokesperson Lord Keen offered his resignation to the prime minister.

In his resignation letter Lord Keen said it had been a privilege to serve in government under three different prime ministers, but that he had “found it increasingly difficult to reconcile" his obligations as a lawyer with the government’s intentions concerning the Internal Market Bill. He said he had “endeavoured to identify a respectable argument” for Clauses 42-45, but that it was now clear that this would not meet the government’s policy intentions.

He closed the letter by observing that the government “faces challenges on a number of fronts” and the Internal Market Bill in its present form “will not make this any easier.”

This was the third resignation over rule of law concerns and the Internal Market Bill, with head of the government legal department Sir Jonathan Jones having resigned last week, and the prime minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion Rehman Chishti MP having resigned last Monday.

3. Prime Minister questioned by Liaison Committee

Last Wednesday, the prime minister gave evidence to the House of Commons Liaison Committee. On the Internal Market Bill, Future Relationship Committee chair Hilary Benn MP (Labour) asked why the prime minister was not prepared to rely on Article 16, rather than breaking laws.

In response, the prime minister directed Mr Benn to what the attorney general had said - that the government was trying to provide protection against “extreme interpretations of the protocol” and the legal advice given was that the government had needed to go further than Article 16.

Justice Select Committee chair Sir Bob Neil MP (Conservative) raised concerns around maintaining practical criminal justice cooperation with the EU, and specifically that the UK would lose access to the European Arrest Warrant, Europol and Eurojust, and criminal justice information systems. He asked what steps were being taken to ensure access was enabled.

The prime minister answered that the safety and security of UK citizens remained a priority and that he believed there was ample scope for cooperation. He said that negotiations were ongoing about data exchange and he hoped an agreement could be reached soon.

Neill also referred to the importance of data to financial services and British legal sector, which on its own is worth £60 billion to the economy, and asked if the prime minister was ‘prepared to take personal charge in driving this forward, given its importance both to the legal sector as a whole and the UK as a jurisdiction of international choice.' The prime minister answered he would be following each dossier closely.

In answer to a question around the Brussels II arrangements, the prime minister said that he hoped common sense would prevail, as everyone had a stake in the issues.

Read the transcript

Watch the session

4. MPs debate coronavirus support schemes

Last Thursday, MPs debated two backbench motions relating to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and support for freelance and self-employed workers.

There was a consensus amongst MPs of all parties that the job retention scheme has been a success, with 1.2 million employers across the UK having furloughed 9.6 million jobs at a value of £35.4 billion. Nonetheless, several MPs called for the scheme to be extended.

The financial secretary to the Treasury, Jesse Norman MP, argued that the scheme must eventually come to an end as it would be “irresponsible to trap people in jobs that can exist only because of government subsidy.” He further noted that while the job retention scheme is being wound down, the government is continuing to provide the Job Retention Bonus - a one-off payment of £1,000 - to employers for each furloughed employee they bring back to work.

With regard to support for self-employed workers, a number of MPs expressed concern at significant gaps in the government’s support schemes.

In response, the exchequer secretary to the Treasury, Kemi Badenoch MP, stated: “The government understand the crucial role that the self-employed, including members of partnerships and freelancers, play in this country’s economy.” She noted that they hadn’t been forgotten, but that “we have not been able to help everyone in the country exactly as they would have liked.” She said that the government had considered the case for extending support to those paid through dividends, but claimed such a scheme would have been too complex to implement. She noted that the government had also not been able to include the newly self-employed in the existing schemes due to concerns over potential fraud.

We've been calling for an extension of existing support schemes for the self-employed to ensure solicitors whose profits exceeded £50,000, or who take their income in dividends rather than salary, are able to benefit. This recommendation was included in our submission to the Treasury ahead of the chancellor’s July statement.

Read the debate on the Job Retention Scheme in full

Read the debate on self-employed support in full

Read our submission to the Treasury

5. Upated crown court fees for criminal defence solicitors

The Ministry of Justice introduced a new fee last Thursday for unused material in Crown Court cases following lobbying by ourselves and other groups.

The payment covers the time defence solicitors spend scrutinising evidence provided by the prosecution. The fee will be available for Crown Court work, both in cracked trials – where defendants have a last-minute change of heart on their plea – and for full trials.

Read our press release

Coming up this week

Last Monday, the Internal Market Bill will have amendments to its most contentious elements discussed in the third sitting of committee stage, and the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill will have its second reading on Wednesday. We'll be briefing ahead of both.

The lord chancellor and ministers in his department will be questioned by MPs on Tuesday, and the law officers will receive the same treatment on Thursday.

In the Lords the Counter Terrorism and Sentencing Bill will have its second reading on Monday, and Tuesday will see a debate on UK-EU negotiations.

If you made it this far

Our president Simon Davis has written an article in the Gazette defending the rule of law as non-negotiable, in light of the Internal Market Bill and language senior government figures have used around 'activist lawyers.'