Westminster update: local election results show worrying signs for Conservatives

Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
The palace of Westminster in the evening.
Photograph: Thomas Riebesehl

One thing you need to do

Read our fresh ideas for 21st century justice in our interim report from our 21st Century Justice Project.

We identified areas where the civil justice system is failing those who need to access it most.

We also outline new, practical ideas to help people on low incomes and small businesses solve their legal problems.

Law Society vice president Richard Atkinson explained: “With a general election expected this year, all political parties must urgently consider what they will do to protect and enhance a civil justice system that is the cornerstone of the rule of law, a healthy economy and a fair society.”

What you need to know

1. Local elections: worrying signs for Conservatives

Last week’s local elections point to a tough set of results for the Conservatives and big wins for Labour, indicating that the latter may be on course for victory in a general election expected later this year.

The Conservatives lost 474 council seats and 10 councils, while Labour took control of eight councils and added 186 new councillors. The Liberal Democrats are up 104 seats, while the Greens are up 74.

To compound issues for the Tories, the party fell to a distant second behind Labour in the Blackpool South by-election, escaping a third place finish by only 117 votes.

The swing of 26.3% from the Conservatives to Labour ranked as the third highest by-election swing to Labour since the Second World War. This result suggests that Labour could be on course for a significant majority in a general election.

There was, however, some good news for prime minister Rishi Sunak as Ben Houchen won re-election as mayor of Tees Valley. Though the Tories lost the West Midlands mayoralty in a closely-run race.

Despite the dismal set of results for the Conservatives, senior MPs have played down the possibility of a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.

2. Probate delays: we give evidence in Parliament 

We gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee’s probate inquiry on Tuesday (30 April), following the increasingly lengthy delays that people are facing when they file for probate.

While His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCTS) has been attempting to combat these delays, the witnesses at the session all said that they are concerned about the sustainability of improvement.

The Law Society’s Ian Bond, member of the Wills and Equity Committee, called the improvements “fragile” and said that while more staff have been hired to process cases recently, their knowledge and experience is much less than previously.

Sophie Wales, director of Regulatory Policy at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), said that, while there have been improvements, firms do not want to tell their clients because they cannot guarantee that delays will not increase again.

All witnesses called for HMCTS to collaborate with users and stakeholders in any future reform, to ensure that modernisation is effective and not done just for the sake of it.

Ian Bond called for better communication from HMCTS, stating that both practitioners and clients would benefit from there being a clear comms strategy for probate matters.

He added that clearer signposting and guidance would also help matters.

3. President of the Supreme Court questioned on ECHR

The Supreme Court President Lord Reed appeared before the House of Lords Constitution on Wednesday (1 May).

There, he discussed topics including the relationship between the Supreme Court and Parliament, and improving diversity in the former.

Lord Reed spoke about his desire to improve visibility of the Supreme Court.

He noted that increased awareness of its role had led some to formulate the impression that it has become an “activist” institution.

To address this, the Supreme Court runs outreach programmes and has also held sittings outside of London.

Lord Reed also addressed the perceived tensions between Parliament and the Court, and the role of the Court as a constitutional check and balance.

The president said he has worked with the Justice Select Committee, the speakers of both Houses and individual parliamentarians to try and build a greater understanding of the constitutional balance and boundaries between the legislative and judicial branches.

He added that, overall, he has a positive relationship with ministers.

The session also touched on the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Deputy president of the Supreme Court Lord Hodge noted that the Supreme Court is involved in recommending candidates to replace the British judge on the Strasbourg Court when his term ends.

He was keen to highlight that ECHR judges are the only judges who are elected by parliamentary assembly.

Furthermore, Lord Reed highlighted the Supreme Court’s initiatives to promote judicial diversity, noting that two of the four new justices appointed recently were women.

The president outlined outreach programmes that the Supreme Court runs in schools and universities to encourage diverse groups to become lawyers and ultimately judges.

4. Post Office (Horizon Systems) Offences Bill passes through the Commons

Monday (29 April) saw the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill move through both committee stage and third reading in the Commons.

Despite the bill having cross-party support, there was a strong debate over the government’s decision to bring Northern Ireland in scope but not include Scotland.

In a rare act of unity, DUP members supported SNP amendments to extend the bill to Scotland.

Marion Fellows (SNP) proposed the amendment and acknowledged that “no one in the legal profession really wants this bill. It is breaking all precedent, but for a really good reason.”

She would not be drawn on accounts that the lord advocate was against accepting this legislation from Westminster, amid reports that she would prefer those who are wrongly convicted to use the established route of appeal under Scots Law.

Business minister Kevin Hollinrake (Conservative) defended his position, noting that “we feel it is more appropriate for the Scottish government to bring forward proposals to address prosecutions on this matter in Scotland, and for those to be scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament.”

He added: “The first minister has previously made public comments suggesting that the UK government’s approach to the criteria in our legislation was too broad in relation to the convictions it would quash.”

Liam Byrne (Labour) pressed his amendment to widen the scope of the bill to include convictions that have been upheld by the Court of Appeal, which was supported by the chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill (Conservative).  

Sir Bob also put forward a proposal for the addition of a sunset clause, with a view to ensuring the anomalous position created by the bill does not remain on the statue books permanently.

The minister disagreed with the arguments for a sunset clause, arguing that creating a cut-off point would not give victims the justice they deserve and reaffirming that the legislation as drafted “does not set a precedent”.

The bill will now move to the House of Lords for its second reading on 13 May.

Coming up

The Law Society is working on a number of bills in Parliament:

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