Westminster update: national lockdown takes effect in England
Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
One thing you need to do
Check out our COVID FAQs as we enter a new national lockdown.
Five things you need to know
1. National lockdown takes effect in England
Last Thursday new regulations imposing a lockdown across England came into effect after being approved by MPs.
The regulations require everyone who is able to do so to work from home; however, those who are unable to work effectively from home may continue to go into workplaces under an exemption laid out in part 6, clause 4 of the regulations.
Law firms are not required to close under the regulations and courts will remain open, with people legally able to leave home in order to fulfil a legal obligation such as attending court or satisfying bail conditions, or to participate in legal proceedings.
Meanwhile the property market will be able to continue operating as normal, with legal exemptions in the regulations for people completing the process of a home purchase and move.
Following discussions with the government, we've confirmed that while solicitors must try to see clients remotely and deliver their services virtually, if this is not possible clients can meet solicitors in law firms.
The lockdown restrictions will expire on Wednesday 2 December, and during the debate on the regulations the prime minister confirmed to the House of Commons that a fresh vote would be required to extend the lockdown.
After 2 December England will return to a localised tier system based on the severity of the virus in different areas. In Wales, the restrictions already in place as part of the national ‘firebreak’ lockdown will continue until 9 November.
2. Government outlines new economic support during lockdown
Since the announcement that England will be placed under a one-month lockdown, the government has announced a series of new measures to support firms and individuals economically during the lockdown.
The key new measures outlined by the government include:
- extending the furlough scheme until March, through which the government will pay 80% of furloughed workers’ wages up to a maximum of £2,500 per month. As part of this extension, the Job Support Scheme (which was the planned replacement for the furlough scheme) and the Job Retention Bonus will now be delayed until after the end of the furlough extension
- increasing the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme grant for the three months from November to January to 80% of average profits up to £7,500
- extending the deadlines for applications to the government’s coronavirus loan schemes until the end of January
- extending the mortgage payment holiday, which had been due to expire on 31 October
In addition the government has allocated £1.1 billion to English local authorities to provide further support for businesses in their areas, while the up-front funding guarantees for the devolved administrations have been increased to £8.2 billion for Scotland, £5 billion for Wales, and £2.8 billion for Northern Ireland.
This comes on top of existing support measures, including grants of up to £3,000 per month for businesses that are forced to close due to COVID-19 restrictions.
3. Commons passes Overseas Operations Bill unamended
Last Tuesday, the Overseas Operations Bill underwent report stage and third reading in the Commons. It was passed unamended by a margin of 345 for to 260 against, with two Conservatives voting against the whip – David Davis MP and Anne Marie Morris MP.
The days leading up to the debate had seen a degree of media attention for the Bill, with shadow defence secretary John Healey MP writing an op-ed in the Guardian critiquing the legislation, during which he referenced our concerns. The Times ran an op-ed again critiquing the Bill, penned by Davis alongside Labour MP and Sheffield metro mayor Dan Jarvis MP.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace MP said the government was “unable to accept the amendments because they would have undermined rather than strengthened the Bill.” He accused the opposition of being “opposed to [the Bill’s] aims” and implied they were not attempting to amend it in good faith. Shadow armed forces minister Kevan Jones MP argued the Bill “will lead to our international reputation being at stake” and condemned it as “fatally flawed.”
During the debate Davis referenced our view, quoting our assessment that the new presumption against prosecution in the Bill crates a quasi-statute of limitation that is unprecedented in criminal law, and represents a significant barrier to justice. The Bill will now be debated in the Lords, and we'll continue to work with Parliamentarians to have our concerns voiced.
4. Justice questions in Commons
Last Tuesday, lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP and his ministerial team faced questions in the House of Commons across a range of issues.
The lord chancellor was asked about the rule of law and recent language used by members of the government about legal practitioners. Justice Committee chair Sir Bob Neill MP (Conservative) argued that we all needed to moderate language when discussing those that practise the legal profession, to which the lord chancellor agreed.
Shadow lord chancellor David Lammy MP asked whether the lord chancellor agreed that legal professionals were “activist lawyers”. Responding, the lord chancellor said that he had defended lawyers and highlighted that attacks on lawyers were unacceptable.
Shadow courts minister Bambos Charalambous MP asked what steps the government is taking to ensure access to justice, and whether the government would put in place additional measures to support legal aid lawyers during the second lockdown. In reply, justice minister Alex Chalk MP said the government has taken additional measures to improve access to justice during the pandemic. He said legal aid lawyers do an important job and courts will still be open during the national lockdown.
Shadow justice minister Karl Turner MP asked what could be done to ensure equality before the law through access to legal aid during the winter in lockdown. Responding, justice minister Alex Chalk MP said access to justice was of fundamental importance and the government had provided law centres with funding during the pandemic.
Shadow justice minister Peter Kyle MP asked how many crimes would go unpunished before the government proposed a plan to decrease the court backlog. Responding, justice minister Alex Chalk MP said the backlog was being eroded.
Shadow justice minister Alex Cunningham MP asked what could be done to support courts with social distancing and meeting HSE tests on being COVID-secure. Responding, justice minister Chris Philp MP said that the government had done a huge amount of work over the past six months to make courts COVID-secure.
5. Law officers questioned by MPs
Last Thursday, attorney general Suella Braverman QC MP and solicitor general Michael Ellis QC MP faced questions in the House of Commons. Queries around the government’s criticism of the legal profession, the prosecution and conviction rates of rape and government compliance with international law were raised.
The attorney general stated that the government is proud of the UK legal profession but maintained that some lawyers “take advantage of their position and abuse the court process”. Responding to calls from shadow solicitor general Ellie Reeves MP to condemn the comments on “activists” and “do-gooders” made by the home secretary and prime minister, the attorney general said lawyers were not beyond criticism and to deny this would be “a great disservice” to the public.
Following questions on the low levels of prosecution of rape, solicitor general said the charging and conviction rates “continue to increase” in the last four quarters. The Crown Prosecution Service is engaging in an end-to-end review, consulting with survivor groups and the Victims’ Commissioner to ensure victims have the confidence to report crimes.
Geraint Davies MP (Labour) called for the attorney general to resign for failing to ensure government legislation was compliant with international law. Davies used the Internal Market Bill, Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct Bill) and the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill as examples of non-compliance. The attorney general pushed back, stating that parliamentary sovereignty means legislation can be developed “in a manner inconsistent with international law”.
Coming up next week
On Tuesday, the Commons continues to debate the Environment Bill in the committee stage and the Justice Select Committee will hear evidence from the lord chief justice. A debate on support provided to SMEs during the COVID-19 pandemic will also take place in Westminster Hall.
On Wednesday, the Home Affairs Select Committee on Channel crossings, migration and asylum-seeking routes through the EU will be in session. Expect questions to the Home Office, BEIS and Cabinet Office on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday respectively.
The Lords will see examination of the UK Internal Market Bill continue in Committee on Monday. There will also be consideration of the Commons amendments to the Immigration and Social Security Coordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill and questions on the Royal Commission on criminal justice.