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Westminster update: Law Society mentioned during Overseas Operations Bill debate
Your weekly update from our affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
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1. Law Society mentioned during Overseas Operations Bill debate
Last Wednesday, the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill received and passed its second reading in the House of Lords.
During the debate, several of our concerns were raised, particularly those centred on the new presumption against prosecution and the way it interacts with the UK’s international legal obligations, and the limitation period for civil and human rights claims.
Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick mentioned us, quoting from our briefing and referencing us as a critic alongside the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Defence minister Baroness Goldie characterised the bill as dealing “with the issue of unreasonable delay,” and said it also “endeavours to provide greater certainty to our service personnel and veterans that the unique pressures – and they are unique – placed on them during overseas operations will be taken into account when decisions are being made as to whether to prosecute for alleged historical offences.”
Shadow defence spokesperson Lord Touhig countered that the bill “is part of a pattern: a pattern from the government of disregarding international law and risking Britain’s reputation.”
2. National Security and Investment Bill completes passage through House of Commons
Last Wednesday, the National Security and Investment Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons.
We briefed MPs ahead of the debate, supporting two clauses that sought to establish a clear set of criteria for assessing risks to national security.
Tom Tugendhat MP (Conservative) argued that while a strict definition of national security may stop the government from adapting the law if necessary, a framework was required.
Tugendhat continued that “lawyers and businesses throughout the United Kingdom” needed a “clear, transparent and predictable process” to demonstrate what was required throughout the scrutiny process. This would remove unnecessary applications and give the review team more capacity to focus on complex cases. This was echoed by BEIS shadow minister Chi Onwurah MP (Labour), Stephen Kinnock MP (Labour) and Sir John Hayes MP (Conservative).
These clauses were criticised by Katherine Fletcher MP (Conservative) as being too limiting. Fletcher argued that the government required “flexibility to be nimble as threats evolve”.
BEIS parliamentary under-secretary of state Nadhim Zahawi MP gave a statement to a similar effect, maintaining that the secretary of state must provide “as much detail as possible on the factors that will be taken into account when considering national security”. All amendments put to the House were voted down.
The bill has now been introduced into the House of Lords, and the second reading debate will take place on 4 February.
3. Urgent question on the criminal courts backlog
Last Wednesday, shadow lord chancellor David Lammy MP asked an urgent question in the House of Commons on the backlog in the criminal courts.
Courts minister Chris Philp MP responded, noting COVID-19's impact on the courts system and spoke about the additional government support to date.
£110m had been invested to increase court capacity, 19 nightingale courts have been opened and the rollout of Cloud Video Platform is allowing 20k remote hearings each week. He added that no decision has yet been made on extended hours, following the HM Courts and Tribunals Service consultation at the end of last year.
On safety, Philp said that courts had been declared safe by Public Health England and Public Health Wales and there was no evidence court staff were testing positive for COVID-19 at a higher rate than the community.
Lammy opened his reply criticising the size of the criminal backlog, with estimates showing it will take 10 years to clear. He argued that the Crown Court backlog predated the pandemic and a decade of court closures and reduced sitting days had caused this.
Lammy called for lateral flow testing to be implemented across the system and for more Nightingale courts to be opened.
4. Rebels defeated on genocide amendment to Trade Bill
Last Monday, the Trade Bill received its third reading in the Lords, with amendments made there discussed in the Commons the following day.
In the Commons, several Conservative backbenchers rebelled against the government whip and voted in favour of an amendment introduced by opposition parties in the Lords. The amendment would have required government to reconsider any trade deal with a country found by the high court to be committing genocide.
Trade minister Greg Hands MP argued that the amendment contravened principles of parliamentary supremacy, and said the government could not support it.
Nevertheless, it was only narrowly defeated (319 to 308) and several senior Conservatives supported the amendment, including former leader Iain Duncan Smith MP, Defence Select Committee chair Tobias Ellwood MP, Foreign Affairs Select Committee chair Tom Tugendhat MP, and Nusrat Ghani MP.
The amendment was tabled by crossbench peer Lord Alton, a former Liberal and Liberal Democrat MP, who says the Lords will seek to introduce a similar amendment which respects parliamentary supremacy, perhaps by adding in a vote on revoking the respective trade deal after the High Court’s judgment.
5. Her Majesty's Criminal Justice Chief Inspectors report on the courts
On Tuesday, the four criminal justice inspectorates covering probation, constabulary and fire and rescue services, the CPS, and prisons issued a joint report expressing “grave concerns” about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the courts backlog.
In their view, the courts backlog is the greatest risk facing the justice system. The report also covered the impact the pandemic was having across their inspectorates.
To solve the challenges faced by the justice system and help drive recovery, they are calling for greater cooperation across criminal justice agencies and for the government to provide increased funding and more direction.
The chief inspectors appeared before the Justice Select Committee on the same day to give evidence on their report. During the session, they said the backlog could lead to “denials of justice” and the criminal justice system needs to be more efficient.
Coming up next week
On Tuesday, the Justice Select Committee will hold a session on court capacity and the future of legal aid. The Environment Bill will progress through its remaining stages.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee will hold a session on the impact of COVID-19 on homelessness and the private rented sector on Thursday.
In the Lords, the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill will commence committee stage on Monday and Tuesday respectively.
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We've submitted our recommendations to HM Treasury on supporting the legal services sector for the 2021 Budget.