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Westminster update: Internal Market Bill – previous PM quotes Law Society

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

Palace of Westminster

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Five things you need to know

1. Internal Market Bill: previous PM quotes from our brief

Last Monday saw the third sitting of the Internal Market Bill’s committee stage, covering Clauses 41-45 – the elements we've urged MPs to remove due to the potential for breaching international law.

As expected, no non-government amendments could gather enough support to be carried, so the Clauses were largely unchanged – except for government amendments which would prevent the time limit of judicial review of regulations created under the Bill from being extended, guarantee a Commons vote on all decisions to breach international obligations.

We were mentioned three times in the debate. Ex-prime minister Theresa May MP quoted directly from our joint briefing with the Bar Council, referring to this section:

“These provisions enable Ministers to derogate from the obligations of the United Kingdom under international law in broad and comprehensive terms and prohibit public bodies from compliance with such obligations. They represent a direct challenge to the rule of law, which include the country’s obligations under public international law.”

The section of her speech including this quote was clipped by various news outlets, including the BBC and the independent, and shared widely on twitter.

SNP Justice spokesperson Joanna Cherry QC MP also quoted directly from our briefing, referring to a section outlining how Clause 45 “would exclude judicial review of any regulations made under clauses 42 and 43 on grounds of incompatibility with domestic law…as well as international law,” and shadow brexit minister Paul Blomfield MP said the government’s “disregard for the rule of law has been condemned by the Law Society and the Bar Council.”

Chair of the Justice Select Committee Sir Bob Neill MP thanked the government for its “constructive tone” and said the Parliamentary lock the amendment government adopted from him was to ensure that the powers could only be used if the Commons was satisfied that “bad faith on the [EU]’s side” had taken place.

Blomfield said that the opposition were against the government’s amendments that further limited opportunities for judicial review, and said that “if the Government are, as they say, acting reasonably, they should not be afraid of scrutiny or of challenge.”

The debate took place as nearly 5,000 people wrote direct to their MP to raise concerns with the Bill using our campaign action. The Bill is likely to meet further significant challenge in the Lords, and we'll continue to brief throughout its progress.

Read the transcript

Read our joint briefing with the Bar Council (PDF 245 KB)

Watch May’s speech

2. Chancellor announces Winter Economic Plan

Last Thursday, the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, gave a statement to the House of Commons announcing a 'Winter Economic Plan' to support the economy and protect jobs in the wake of new government restrictions aimed at tackling the spread of coronavirus.

The package of measures announced by the chancellor include:

  • a new Jobs Support Scheme, through which the government will subsidise wages for people in work as a way to incentivise firms to keep employees on with reduced hours, rather than having to make them redundant
  • extension of the self-employed grant on similar terms as the new jobs support scheme
  • spreading the repayment of tax deferrals over 11 interest free payments, rather than requiring a lump sum repayment in March as was previously the case
  • extension of the guarantee for the Coronavirus Business Intervention Loan Scheme for up to 10 years

On the same day we published our submission to the government’s comprehensive spending review, which will set government departments’ budgets for the next few years. Our submission focuses on three priorities for the spending review:

  • protecting the Ministry of Justice’s current budget and committing to ensuring that it rises yearly at least in line with inflation
  • prioritising targeted budget increases for the Ministry of Justice to improve the working of the justice system, including support for legal aid and the restoration of legal aid for early advice
  • investing for the future to help law firms weather the significant economic difficulties facing the legal sector and to unleash the full potential of legal services to drive the recovery from COVID-19

Find more details on the Winter Economic Plan

Read our submission to the spending review

3. Overseas Operations Bill Second Reading

Last Wednesday, the Overseas Operations Bill had its second reading debate in the Commons.

We briefed beforehand, outlining our concerns around the introduction of a statutory presumption against prosecution for certain cases, and time limits for others. The Bill passed by a margin of 331 to 77.

Shadow defence secretary John Healey said “many legal experts… say that the Bill, as it intends, will be a significant barrier to justice” and then quoted directly from our briefing, saying “the Bill creates…a limitation period for a select group of persons in specific circumstances, i.e. armed forces personnel alleged to have committed offences overseas.”

During the debate, defence secretary Ben Wallace MP accused the Labour party of operating “illegal wars” which has since been widely reported on.

Defence secretary Ben Wallace MP insisted that the new presumption against prosecution is “not an amnesty... or the decriminalisation of erroneous acts". He said personnel who break the law would still be investigated, but that the government would not accept “vexatious hounding of veterans and our armed forces by ambulance-chasing lawyers motivated not by the search for justice, but by their own crude financial enrichment." Healey argued that the presumption “clearly creates the risk that the very gravest crimes, including torture and other war crimes, go unpunished if an incident does not come to light for five years or if the investigations are drawn out beyond that deadline.”

We'll continue briefing throughout the Bill’s passage through Parliament.

Read the transcript

Read our briefing

4. Law and justice questions

Last week saw question sessions in the House of Commons for the Justice ministerial team and the Attorney General.

During the justice questions session, we were referenced twice, in relation to our positions on the Internal Market Bill and the rule of law.

Shadow lord chancellor David Lammy MP (Labour) argued the Internal Market Bill breached international law, and that both us and every living former prime minister agreed.

He asked if the lord chancellor risked bringing the law profession into disrepute. Responding the lord chancellor said he was working to ensure the government obeyed the rule of law. He stated that he acted as a minister of Her Majesty’s government.

Chair of the Justice Select Committee Sir Bob Neill MP (Conservative) asked if the government’s acceptance of a parliamentary lock on the Bill had only come about from backbench pressure and the influence of the lord chancellor.

Responding, the lord chancellor said he wanted to find a way through the problems that Brexit had thrown up.

Conservative MPs Gareth Bacon, Ben Spencer and James Daly asked about the steps the government had taken to improve criminal legal aid provision.

Responding justice minister Alex Chalk said additional funding was being put in through the initial part of the criminal legal aid review. He said there should be a system which offered attractive rates to support those coming into the profession.

Shadow legal aid minister Karl Turner MP (Labour) asked what plans the government had to reform and properly fund the criminal legal aid system. Responding, justice minister Alex Chalk said the government had put more money into the criminal defence profession.

During Attorney General questions, there was again a focus on the Internal Market Bill and the rule of law.

Shadow solicitor general Ellie Reeves MP noted the widespread concern about the Bill and the ability to breach international law.

The attorney general, Suella Braverman QC MP responded saying that whether the government should breach international law is a political debate not a legal argument. She argued that the Bill is founded on a robust legal footing and that the Bill protects our country.

In addition, later in the session the solicitor general praised the work of solicitors in assisting to deal with the backlog of cases across the court system.

Read the transcript of justice questions

Read the transcript of attorney general questions

5. Our lockdown report

Last Friday, we published a new report, Law under lockdown: The impact of COVID-19 measures on access to justice and vulnerable people.

This report examines how the measures introduced in response to COVID-19 have impacted vulnerable people that solicitors support. It analyses how their rights and the duties owed to them have been affected by changes in the way state authorities have discharged their responsibilities and provided services during the pandemic period from 23 March 2020.

In doing so it focuses on the extent to which access to justice and legal advice has been maintained for these people to ensure their ability to challenge their situation in the face of extraordinary emergency measures.

With the government due to hold the six-month review of the Coronavirus Act 2020 this week, there is now a vital opportunity to ensure that the measures in place remain suitable, and to address the adverse impacts that have emerged.

Throughout the report we make detailed recommendations for improving the immediate situation and ensuring that lessons are learned from this period and put into practice when shaping responses to future emergencies.

In the report we identify three themes that the government’s six-month review must consider:

  • adapting or removing measures to reflect the current situation
  • ensuring access to justice and legal advice for those most at risk
  • improving information, data collection and evaluation

Read the report

Coming up this week

This week will see the Internal Market Bill return to the Commons for its remaining stages, before it goes to the Lords for further scrutiny.

The House will also decide whether temporary provisions under the Coronavirus Act will be renewed, and ministers from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will answer questions from MPs on the work of their department.

In the Lords, a motion under the Coronavirus Act will also be debated, and the Immigration and Social Security Bill will have its report stage.

If you made it this far

Join us on 2 October from 12pm to 2.30pm for a seminar on the comparative international perspectives of the commercial courts to mark the Opening of the Legal Year and the 125th anniversary of the commercial court.

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