Westminster update: Law Society launches SDLT campaign

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

Palace of Westminster

One thing you need to do

Justice Week 2021 is taking place from 1 to 5 March. Why not join some of our events and activities on the theme of rights and justice: the cost of COVID-19?

Five things you need to know

1. Cancel the cliff edge: Law Society launches SDLT campaign

The stamp duty land tax (SDLT) holiday is due to end on 31 March. Ahead of this date, we’re concerned that a cliff-edge end to the holiday combined with a bottleneck in the property market could see thousands of transactions collapse at the last minute, leaving consumers stranded and out of pocket.

We believe that urgent action needs to be taken to address the cliff edge presented by the 31 March cut-off date for the SDLT holiday. We are therefore asking members and the public to write to their MP and ask them to take action on the SDLT holiday, using our quick and easy online tool.

We’ve identified three different options for addressing this problem, to help ameliorate the situation for consumers who are currently in the process of buying a home and for the businesses that are serving them:

a. a short extension of the SDLT holiday, to allow more time for existing transactions to complete before the holiday comes to an end without creating a surge of new transactions

b. implementing a tapered transition period from the end of the SDLT holiday during which buyers can benefit from a reducing SDLT concession, to help smooth the cliff-edge and reduce the risk of a significant impact on consumers and the market

c. introducing a grandfathering scheme for transactions which have not completed by the cut-off date, so that buyers in transactions that have already progressed significantly by 31 March but which have not yet completed can continue to benefit from the SDLT holiday even if they complete after that date

We urge the government to take swift action ahead of the end of the holiday on 31 March, to protect consumers and support the orderly working of the property market.

Write to your MP today

Read more about our SDLT campaign

2. Justice Select Committee hears evidence from civil practitioners

During recess last week, the Justice Select Committee heard evidence from civil practitioners and lawyers working in housing and employment law as part of its inquiries into the future of legal aid and court capacity.

The committee has been holding joint evidence sessions, but will be issuing separate reports and recommendations for the inquiries.

Our work on legal aid deserts was positively mentioned by Simon Mullings, the co-chair at Housing Law Practitioners Association. Mullings was asked about the sustainability of the legal aid system and quoted our 2018 legal aid deserts work, noting the impact of low fees on providers. He went on to call for a rise in fees to increase the sustainability of the system.

The committee was told about the need for early legal advice for housing tenants to be properly funded and the knock-on effect its absence had on evictions. They also heard about the impact the court’s backlog was having on employment tribunals and the need for more investment in staff, technology, and judges.

Witnesses also spoke about how the civil legal aid means test can prevent those on minimum wage from receiving legal aid and the urgent need for a review of the sustainability of the civil legal aid system.

Watch the Justice Select Committee session

3. MPs question international trade ministers

Last Thursday, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and ministers from her department answered questions from MPs on their work.

Truss announced that she had submitted the UK’s formal application to join the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership (CPTPP) earlier this month, and that joining CPTPP would put the UK ‘at the heart of some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.’

Neil Parish (Conservative) asked about progress on the planned free trade agreement with Australia. Minister for trade policy Greg Hands confirmed that the third round of negotiations was concluded late last year, and that the fourth began this week.

Sally-Ann Hart (Conservative) asked how to ensure that ‘as we come out of the EU and out of the pandemic, the UK becomes an even more attractive place to invest.’ Hands said the government announced last year it would be creating a new Office for Investment, jointly led by No 10 and the Department for International Trade.

Dr James Davies (Conservative) asked how the government will assist SMEs in accessing foreign markets. Trade minister Graham Stuart answered that the government is seeking SME chapters in future FTAs.

Read the transcript of Department for International Trade questionst

4. Minister questioned on cladding removal

At Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) oral questions last Monday, the housing minister, Christopher Pincher, outlined the government’s plans to fund the removal of unsafe cladding from buildings under 18 metres in height.

The minister said that in line with expert advice funding would be targeted at the highest-risk buildings, while a long-term, low-interest, government-backed finance scheme would help leaseholders with the costs of removing cladding from lower rise buildings.

He said that under the plans no leaseholder would pay more than £50 per month, and added that more details on the scheme would be published once the government is in a position to do so.

Clive Betts (Labour) asked the minister to confirm that the scheme would be a charge on the freeholder, and that no debt will be placed upon individual leaseholders, nor that the charge would affect the value of leasehold properties. The minister confirmed that the charge would be applied to the building, and that leaseholders’ credit ratings would not be affected.

Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow housing secretary, questioned the rationale behind not making buildings under 18 metres in height eligible for the full cladding removal fund.

The minister argued that the 18-metre threshold is a well-established basis for assessing fire risk, and noted that it was used by Dame Judith Hackett in her recommendations to the government.

Read the transcript of MHCLG oral questions

5. Government announces COVID-19 roadmap

Last Monday the prime minister outlined a four-step plan for bringing the UK out of lockdown. He set out four conditions that must be met at each step:

  • the coronavirus vaccine programme continues to go to plan
  • evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently reducing the number of people dying with the virus or needing hospital treatment
  • infection rates do not risk a surge in hospital admissions
  • new variants of the virus do not fundamentally change the risk of lifting restrictions

The gap between each stage of restrictions being eased is expected to be five weeks, and at least a week’s notice will be given before each stage.

Step one will be split into two parts and will apply across the whole of England. Downing Street said the four tests are currently being met so the first step of lockdown easing in England will proceed as planned on 8 March.

From 8 March:

  • all schools will open with outdoor after-school sports and activities allowed - though a few days' flexibility may be built in to allow measures like testing to be put in place - Families and childcare bubbles will be "encouraged to get tested regularly"
  • recreation in a public space - such as a park - will be allowed between two people for reasons other than exercise, such as for a coffee, drink or picnic
  • each care home resident in England will be allowed one regular visitor, with whom they can hold hands

From 29 March:

  • outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households will be allowed – to include gatherings in private gardens.
  • outdoor sports facilities such as tennis or basketball courts will reopen and organised adult and children's sport will also return
  • people will be able to travel out of their areas - although guidance will likely still recommend staying local, and overnight stays will not be permitted

Step two - at least five weeks after step one and no sooner than 12 April:

  • curfew will be lifted and all non essential retail, pubs and restaurants, gyms and personal care providers such as hairdressers, will reopen

Step three – no earlier than 17 May:

  • restrictions on outdoor gatherings lifted subject to a limit of 30
  • indoor meetings allowed for up to six people or between two households
  • cinemas, pubs, restaurants allowed to open indoors
  • theatres, concert halls, and sports stadiums open subject to capacity limits
  • pilots of larger events will begin using enhanced testing

Step four – no earlier than 21 June:

  • all legal limits on social contact including weddings will be removed
  • night clubs will reopen
  • larger events such as theatre performances above limits set out in step three will resume, subject to testing

We're engaging with the government to clarify key questions regarding how the roadmap will impact on solicitors and their firms. We will also be producing guidance for members on the steps in the roadmap.

Read the press release on ending lockdown restrictions

Coming up this week

This week, the chancellor of the exchequer's 2021 Budget will be delivered and debated in the Commons, which will also see the Justice Select Committee hear evidence on the future of legal aid and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee question the first minister of Wales.

In the Lords, the National Security and Investment Bill will have its first day of committee, and the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill will be in report.

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