Law Society referenced in Professional Qualifications Bill
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1. Law Society mentioned in the Professional Qualifications Bill debate
On Tuesday 25 May, the new Professional Qualifications Bill was debated at second reading in the House of Lords, its first substantive airing in Parliament.
We briefed before the debate, and were mentioned six times.
The minister for investment, Lord Grimstone, opened for the government. He noted the professional experience held by many lords, and acknowledged that “our regulated professions are a national asset, and the professionalism of our services sector is part of the UK’s offering to the world”.
He framed the bill as being primarily to revoke the EU system of qualification recognition and replace it with a new framework, one “global in outlook and tailored to the needs of the UK”.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town, the shadow deputy leader of the House of Lords, spoke for the opposition. Reiterating our ask that legal services be centred in forthcoming trade negotiations, she said it was important that “lawyers operating overseas can carry out a range of functions, including as arbitrators, and partner locally based lawyers.”
She raised our point that the legislation as drafted could allow foreign bars to challenge the independence of UK solicitors and barristers by possibly allowing the government to make decisions on equivalence. She called for an amendment, produced in dialogue with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Bar Standards Board (BSB), to safeguard against this.
2. Lord chief justice appears before Lords committee
On Wednesday 26 May, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, gave evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee in his annual appearance. He answered questions on a variety of topics, from legal aid to the courts backlog and diversity in the judiciary.
The lord chief justice mentioned the Law Society and referenced our research into the ageing of the criminal solicitor profession, adding that it was “absolutely vital” to the administration of justice that there is a “vibrant and capable criminal defence community”.
He also said that the criminal defence community may not be able to keep pace with the volume of work the courts will be handling, due to the removal of the cap on sitting days.
On the courts backlog, the lord chief justice felt the issue needed careful attention. He noted that significant funding had been secured by the lord chancellor to boost capacity and funding was “not a problem for this year”.
Finally, when questioned around the diversity of the judiciary, the lord chief justice described it as a large issue and praised the work of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), though progress had been slower than he would have liked.
He was also concerned about the social diversity of the legal profession and felt this needed “considerable attention”. He referenced ongoing work with the Ministry of Justice, the professions and the JAC to increase this.
3. Lords debate ground rents in Leasehold Reform Bill
On Monday 24 May, the House of Lords debated the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill, which aims to cap ground rents on new leases at a peppercorn, at second reading.
We briefed peers ahead of the debate, and were referenced three times.
One of our concerns with the bill relates to the loose definition of rent. Lord Greenhalgh, the minister leading on the bill, argued that the government’s intention is to avoid a definition that could become open to loopholes.
However, Lord Young of Cookham (Conservative) and Baroness Grender (Lib Dem) both cited our view that this definition could capture service charges and insurance contributions as well as ground rent.
Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Conservative) called on the government to bring forward an amendment to add a strict definition of rent to the bill.
Some peers, including Baroness Pinnock (Lib Dem) and Baroness Andrews (Labour), highlighted another concern we raised, that proceeding with legislation to abolish ground rents on new leases ahead of reforms to the enfranchisement process – that would help existing leaseholders to reduce their ground rents – would risk creating a two-tier leasehold market.
Several peers expressed support for an amendment to reduce ground rents in existing leases to a peppercorn, though Lord Bourne noted the possibility of human rights challenges to such retrospective legislation. The Labour party indicated that it would consider the possibility of bringing forward such an amendment.
The bill will now proceed to committee stage in the House of Lords, which will begin on 9 June.
4. Law Society referenced in Environment Bill debate
On Wednesday 26 May, the Environment Bill had its report stage and third reading in the House of Commons.
We briefed MPs before the debate.
The bill contains plans to establish a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).
Our briefing called for the removal of a clause in the bill that would allow the Secretary of State to direct crucial elements of the OEP’s enforcement functions, thereby curtailing its independence.
We also highlighted concerns that the bill gives the secretary of state sole authority to appoint the chair of the OEP and all other non-executive members. Given the need for the OEP to scrutinise the secretary of state, we are concerned that this provision does not adequately safeguard the independence of the OEP.
During the debate, Jim Shannon (DUP) said that he “was contacted by the Law Society, which has raised some concerns” regarding the appointment process for OEP members and the secretary of state’s extensive oversight over the office’s enforcement functions. He asked: “Will the minister say whether [the] issue has been addressed to the Law Society’s satisfaction?”
Deidre Brock (SNP), Fleur Anderson (Labour) and Tim Farron (Lib Dem) all echoed these concerns.
Farron raised concerns that the OEP “will be funded by and not sufficiently independent from Government, it will therefore always be considered to be speaking with some level of restriction”.
George Eustice (secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs) responded to these criticisms in his opening speech of the third reading. He said that the “bill creates the new, independent Office for Environmental Protection to hold all public authorities to account on reaching…important [environmental protection] goals”.
The bill was ultimately passed at third reading. It will now move on to the House of Lords, where it will have its second reading on 7 June.
5. Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill committee stage debate
On Tuesday and Thursday, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was debated at committee stage following last week’s evidence sessions.
During the week, MPs on the committee scrutinised – line by line – the bill’s sections on the police covenant, additional protections for emergency workers and the reduction of serious violence.
Provisions within the bill to enable data to be extracted from electronic devices were discussed at length. This included the impact on victims of sexual crimes and how the bill would define and safeguard the rights of children in this area.
We gave evidence to the committee last week and will continue to work with MPs as the legislation moves through its committee and later stages.
Coming up next week
Parliament breaks up for recess today, with both houses returning on Monday 7 June.
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