Westminster update: Lords remove contentious sections of Internal Market Bill
Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
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Five things you need to know
1. Lords remove contentious sections of Internal Market Bill
Last Monday, the House of Lords debated and amended the Internal Market Bill in Committee. The entirety of part 5 of the bill (clauses 42 to 47), which would have given ministers the power to breach the UK’s obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement, was removed.
44 Conservative peers voted against the government, including former party leader Lord Howard, as well as Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Greens, and a significant number of crossbenchers.
We briefed before the debate urging the removal of clauses 43 to 47.
We were mentioned twice in the debate by Baroness Macintosh of Pickering (Conservative), who reiterated our argument that the Neill amendment (which added further parliamentary scrutiny to the powers allocated to ministers) did not affect the substantive criticisms of the bill. She argued that this is “trying to elevate to a matter of process what is offensive and obnoxious in this part of the bill.”
Former lord chief justice Lord Judge, the convenor of the crossbenchers and a central critic of the bill, argued that “suggestions that this is all lawyerly are deeply offensive,” going on to say “the rule of law is something to which every country and every citizen of every country has a passionate commitment.” He had previously led the critique of the bill at second reading, where he tabled a regret motion that also let to a historic government defeat.
Lord Fox, the Liberal Democrat BEIS spokesperson, accused the bill of threatening potential for EU and US free trade deals, and said it was “not just bad law” but “absolutely terrible politics.”
Cabinet office minister Lord True spoke for the government, saying that nothing in the bill is conceived to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. He argued that the bill was vital for the government to fulfil its manifesto promise to “maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market”.
The bill will go to report and third reading in the Lords, before returning to the Commons.
It's unlikely it will be debated again in the Commons until December, and Lords across parties have made clear their intention to repeatedly oppose any reinstatement of part 5 of the bill.
The government has committed to retabling the clauses in question when it returns to the Commons. However, if a deal with the EU is achieved, the offending sections will likely be dropped.
2. Lord chief justice addresses remote hearings and courts backlog at Justice Select Committee
Last Tuesday, the Justice Select Committee heard evidence from lord chief justice Lord Burnett of Maldon.
Chair, Sir Bob Neill MP (Conservative), opened the session asking the lord chief justice for his response to recent government comments on lawyers.
The lord chief said, “the vitality and independence of the legal profession is an essential hallmark of a society governed by the rule of law”.
In response to a question from Andy Slaughter MP (Labour) on the effect of comments from the government about the legal profession, the lord chief said he was aware of the sense of unease because it had been conveyed to him by the president of the Law Society.
The session moved on to how courts were adapting to the second wave of COVID-19. The lord chief felt that in March facilities for remote hearings were “dreadful”, but technology has improved.
Paula Barker MP (Labour) raised concerns about police forces facilitating remote remand hearings, with the lord chief deeply regretting that all police in England and Wales will withdraw from the video remand hearing scheme in December. He felt that if the problem is money then the “home secretary and lord chancellor should be in a position to sort it out.”
The session considered the lord chancellor’s comments that the courts backlog could be ended by Easter.
The lord chief noted that in magistrates’ courts there is a good deal of optimism that by Easter the position will be where it was in March 2020. In crown courts this is more difficult due to the complexity of cases and would not be possible. The lord chief said it will be vital next year that there is no limit on sitting days, he would be “disappointed” should funding not allow for this.
When questioned on the court reform programme, the lord chief said the Ministry of Justice is putting in its bid for funding and it would be regrettable if the Treasury did not fund this properly.
3. Government quizzed on Royal Commission
Last Monday, Lord Ramsbotham pressed the government on plans for the Royal Commission on the criminal justice process, as outlined in the Queen’s Speech of December 2019.
Responding on behalf of the government, Baroness Scott of Bybrook said the government remain committed to establishing a royal commission on criminal justice, but the government have been prioritising the response to the coronavirus crisis and the impact on the criminal justice system.
She said a budget has been allocated for the commission’s work, a team of officials has been established and work is underway to determine the terms of reference and the options for the chairs and commissioners. She later described the commission as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the challenges in the criminal justice system.
4. MPs debate support for SMEs
Last Tuesday, MPs held a Westminster Hall debate on support for SMEs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elliot Colburn MP (Conservative) opened the debate by noting the importance of small businesses, which at the start of 2020 accounted for three fifths of UK employment and over half of annual turnover in the UK private sector. While he praised the support that has been provided so far by the government for these businesses, he highlighted a number of gaps and areas where further support is needed.
He noted that approximately 250,000 SMEs are believed to be locked out of the bounce back loan scheme because they do not bank with one of the 28 accredited lenders, and argued that grants for businesses need to be higher than the maximum of £3,000 currently offered in order to support SMEs with their cashflow.
He also called on the government to clarify the roadmap out of the current lockdown in England in order to give businesses the certainty they need to prepare for the future.
John Glen MP, economic secretary for the Treasury, responded on behalf of the government. He noted the extensive support provided by the government so far, including helping 1.2 million employers to furlough 9.6 million jobs and paying out £41.4 billion in grants. He stated that as of 20 September over £50 billion worth of loans had been provided to businesses.
Regarding support for the self-employed, he noted a third grant will be available for November to January covering 80% of trading profits, with a fourth grant due to be made available from February to April next year.
5. Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill receives royal assent
Last week, the Immigration and Social Security Bill was added to the statute book having passed both houses.
The Lords accepted the second round of Commons amendments on 9 November, and the Bill received royal assent on 11 November.
We campaigned for amendments time-limiting immigration detention and improving access to justice for legal detainees, which were successfully implemented in the Lords. However, the government removed these amendments in the Commons.
Coming up next week
The Commons begins the week with questions for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
On Tuesday, there will be a Westminster Hall debate on COVID-19 and employment rights. MPs will continue to debate the Environment Bill in the committee stage on Tuesday and Wednesday.
On Wednesday, the International Trade Committee will be hear from Tony Abbott, adviser to the Board of Trade. Oral questions to the Department of International Trade will take place on Thursday.
The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill enters report stage in the House of Lords next Wednesday. On Thursday, the Lords will consider Commons’ Amendments to the Private International Law Bill.