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Westminster update: Law Society referenced in National Security and Investment Bill debate
Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
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1. Law Society referenced in National Security and Investment Bill debate
Last Thursday, the House of Lords debated the National Security and Investment Bill at second reading.
We briefed peers on our key concerns and recommended amendments, and was mentioned twice during the debate.
Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat) noted that we had raised a number of concerns with the bill that would need to be examined at committee stage, making particular reference to the bureaucratic expansion the bill would entail.
Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Conservative) highlighted our concern at the lack of a clear definition of national security in the bill.
Responding for the government, Lord Callanan (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at BEIS) argued that not setting out a precise definition of national security allows the government the flexibility to respond to evolving threats. He also stated that the government remains “absolutely committed to the free flow of trade and investment”.
2. MPs call for action on unsafe cladding
Last Monday, the House of Commons held an Opposition Day debate on protecting tenants and leaseholders from unsafe cladding.
The Opposition’s motion called on the government to establish the full extent of dangerous cladding, provide funding for its removal and ensure no costs fall on tenants and leaseholders, and update Parliament monthly on progress.
The housing minister, Chris Pincher, noted that the government has provided £600 million worth of funding to remove unsafe cladding through the building safety programme, and that around 95% of all high rise buildings with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding identified before the start of 2020 have been, or are in the process of being, remediated.
The minister stated that it is “wrong and unjust for leaseholders to have to shoulder unfair costs to fix historical safety defects that they did not cause”, and that for that reason the government has set aside £1.6 billion for cladding remediation. However, he noted that some building owners and managing agents have simply passed the costs on to leaseholders, and so the government is working to develop a financial solution to protect leaseholders, though he stressed there is “no quick fix”.
The minister also stated that the government would soon be bringing forward two bills to implement reforms: the Building Safety Bill to create a more accountable system, and the Fire Safety Bill to update fire safety regulations.
We've called on the government to support leaseholders who are facing significant costs for the removal of unsafe cladding through no fault of their own.
3. MPs debate SDLT holiday extension
Last Monday, the Petitions Committee hosted a virtual debate on the subject of a petition calling for an extension to the current stamp duty land tax (SDLT) holiday, which is due to end on 31 March.
We've been warning that the cliff edge presented by the end of the SDLT holiday could cause significant issues in the market, with demand for conveyancing transactions far outstripping capacity at present. Many transactions could collapse at the last minute, leaving consumers stranded and facing unrecoverable costs.
A number of MPs reflected this concern during the debate, with a consensus emerging around tapering the end of the scheme as the preferred solution.
In his response to the debate, Jesse Norman (financial secretary to the Treasury) thanked the many people working in the sector, including conveyancers, during what he recognised were “challenging circumstances”. He noted that the purpose of the holiday was to help the property sector recover from the downturn in transactions during the first lockdown, and he argued that it has been successful in that respect. He noted that the time-limited nature of the holiday was key in stimulating demand.
4. MPs quiz justice ministers
Last Tuesday, justice oral questions took place in the House of Commons, with the lord chancellor, Robert Buckland, and the ministerial team answering questions covering the courts backlog, safety, domestic abuse and the Human Rights Act review.
The shadow lord chancellor, David Lammy, raised the government’s record of closing courts and said 200 court rooms were needed to tackle the backlog, asking when they would be coming.
In response, the courts minister Chris Philp MP noted the rollout of cloud video platforms enabling remote hearings and pointed to a higher courts backlog under Labour.
Rachael Maskell (Labour) asked what equality assessment had been done on the impact of court delays on sexual and domestic abuse crimes.
Philp replied that judges took this into account when listing decisions were made and some of these issues would be addressed through the rape review.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Labour) said that solicitors had contacted him about safety in the courts and called for video remand hearings to resume as they had during the first lockdown.
Philp said these hearings had been recommenced as much as possible. Public Health England had also said that the courts were safe and COVID-19 infections among staff were at no greater rate than in the community.
Angela Crawley, the SNP's shadow attorney general spokesperson, highlighted the importance of the Human Rights Act in enabling access to justice. She asked if the lord chancellor recognised that “squeezing” legal aid at the same time was stopping people from protecting their human rights.
The lord chancellor said that the review was not looking at the rights themselves, but the mechanisms and these issues should not be confused.
5. Attorney general takes questions from MPs
Last Thursday, the attorney general Suella Braverman and solicitor general Michael Ellis faced questions in the House of Commons. They answered questions around legal aid, apprenticeships and pro bono services.
The shadow solicitor general, Ellie Reeves, called on the government to make non-means tested legal aid available for all victims in the upcoming budget.
Ellis pointed to the increased support that the government has provided for victims of domestic abuse, and said that it was an area of priority for the government.
Asked about the use of apprenticeships in the CPS, Ellis noted the launch of a new solicitor apprenticeship, among others in the CPS, with a new programme being launched to attract apprentices from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Damien Moore (Conservative) asked about the availability of pro bono services amid the pandemic, and in response Ellis thanked legal professionals across the country for how they had “stepped forward and offered their assistance” throughout the crisis.
Coming up next week
We will be giving oral evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee on Wednesday 10 February on reform of the Gender Recognition Act.
Also on Committee Corridor, the Public Accounts Committee will be taking evidence from the Ministry of Justice permanent secretary, Antonia Romeo, on Thursday 11 February.
The Lords will be considering two bills next week: the Domestic Abuse Bill will be in committee on Monday and Wednesday, while the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill will be back for its second day of committee stage on Tuesday.
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