Westminster update: new Labour leader

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

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One thing you need to do

We're developing resources and guidance on the coronavirus situation, to support our members through this difficult period.

Read our guidance and updates on coronavirus

Five things you need to know

1. Coronavirus update from Paul Wilson, our director of public affairs

As the coronavirus crisis continues, we've pressed ahead with our work advocating on behalf of our members, and working with the profession, regulators and the Government to support solicitors through this crisis.

Sustainability for businesses remains a key concern for members. Last week I ran through some of the issues we have identified with the support package available, and what we are doing to fill in any gaps. We continue to make the case to senior stakeholders across government, with a view to strengthening the support on offer.

We've produced a toolkit which law firms and practitioners can consider when looking at how to strengthen their businesses in these challenging times. The toolkit includes tips for firms to preserve their cashflow, an online tool to determine your firm’s eligibility for government support measures, and video-insight from managing partners and senior leaders on how to weather this storm.

Another area where we've heard concerns is regarding domestic abuse. You'll no doubt have seen reports of a spike in cases of domestic abuse during the coronavirus outbreak, and concerns at the difficulties facing victims attempting to access support and advice. It's vital that every effort is made to support refuges and advice services, and to ensure that victims are signposted to legal advisors to ensure access to justice. We've been making this case to government, and were pleased to see the financial support offered to charities and the voluntary sector, including domestic abuse services.

We're also raising concerns with the existing guidance regarding applications for an injunction. Currently, it presumes that complainants can get time separate from the alleged abuser to fill in an application, which may not be possible through this difficult period. We believe the guidance should provide alternatives for those who are unable to do this, and to offer further support for those who have disabilities or face language issues in a period when access to advice services and physical courts is limited.

In addition, we continue to believe that there is a need for non-means tested legal aid to be made available for individuals affected by domestic abuse, and we believe this is now urgently required in response to coronavirus, to ensure that victims can access the protections that they desperately need. We've also recommended a relaxation of the domestic abuse gateway regulations during this time so that solicitors are able to certify that an individual is a victim of domestic abuse for the purposes of obtaining legal aid. Doctors are simply too busy to provide evidence of abuse at this time and victims urgently need to access the advice and representation they need.

Over the coming weeks, we'll continue to respond to the challenges facing the profession and make the case to government for further support where necessary. All of our guidance and advice can be found on our website, which is updated continuously to give you the most up to date information possible.

I hope you all had a restful Easter. Do not hesitate to contact us if you have any queries. You can contact us at coronavirus@lawsociety.org.uk.

Read our coronavirus advice and guidance

Use our business continuity toolkit

2. Keir Starmer elected Labour leader, David Lammy appointed shadow lord chancellor

On Saturday 4 April the Labour Party announced that Sir Keir Starmer had been elected as the new leader of the party. Starmer won with an absolute majority of votes cast in the first round, receiving 56.2% of votes from Labour Party members and affiliated organisations. Rebecca Long-Bailey followed in second place with 27.6% of votes, with Lisa Nandy coming in third place with 16.2% of votes.

At the same time Angela Rayner was announced as the new deputy leader of the party, winning in the third round of the deputy leadership contest with 52.6% of the vote. Rosena Allin-Khan came second with 26.1% while Richard Burgon came in third with 21.3% of votes.

Former barrister and director of public prosecutions Starmer appointed a number of new faces to his shadow cabinet, including David Lammy (a barrister and author of the Lammy Review into the treatment of BAME people in the criminal justice system) as shadow lord chancellor. Among the key shadow cabinet appointments were:

  • Anneliese Dodds - shadow chancellor of the exchequer
  • Nick Thomas-Symonds - shadow home secretary (barrister)
  • Lisa Nandy - shadow foreign secretary
  • Rachel Reeves - shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
  • David Lammy - shadow lord chancellor (barrister)
  • Lord Falconer - shadow attorney general (barrister)
  • Emily Thornberry - shadow international trade secretary (barrister)
  • Jo Stevens - shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary (solicitor)
  • Jonathan Reynolds - shadow work and pensions secretary (solicitor)
  • Rebecca Long-Bailey - shadow education secretary (solicitor)
  • Andy McDonald - shadow employment rights secretary (solicitor)
  • Ed Miliband - shadow business secretary

Junior shadow ministers have also been appointed. At the Ministry of Justice, Karl Turner (a former criminal barrister) has been given the legal aid brief, Alex Cunningham has been given responsibility for courts and sentencing, Peter Kyle will lead on victims and youth justice, and Lyn Brown will shadow the prisons and probation brief.

3. Justice Committee quizzes lord chancellor on coronavirus response

On Tuesday the lord chancellor gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee on the MoJ’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. We were mentioned during the session by the lord chancellor, who referenced some of the points the Society has made about ensuring the viability of legal aid firms during the shutdown. The meeting was held in private due to a lack of technical capacity in the House of Commons.

In response to questions about court hearings during the lockdown, the lord chancellor said that many hearings aside from jury trials (which are more complex) are proceeding digitally, with privilege of discussions being maintained and justice being seen to be done. He noted that there had been a tenfold rise in the number of cases dealt with by phone or video and the latest figures showed that 3,000 cases had been done that way, with 500 done directly. No jury trials are currently continuing after the lord chief justice decided, in consultation with the lord chancellor, to suspend them, but the Government is looking at how jury trials can be resumed while observing social distancing guidelines.

James Daly MP (Con) asked about criminal legal aid solicitor firms, noting that many were concerned about their finances as a result of a sudden drop in work. The lord chancellor said he was looking for constructive suggestions from colleagues and legal professionals to help assist in understanding the challenges so that representations could be made to the Treasury. He noted that the hardship payments threshold in crown court cases had been changed to £1,000 from £5,000 and the evidence requirements relaxed, while debt repayments to the LAA have also been pulled for some firms. He stated that the LAA would facilitate and fast-track as many claims as possible to help with cash flow, but that it was equally important to keep work going by allowing for digital hearings, which would allow solicitors and barristers to bill. He said the Law Society and Criminal Bar Association had made similar points, and his officials were examining them so that they could be put to the Treasury.

Kenny MacAskill MP (SNP) asked whether bail reviews could be speeded up to help reduce numbers in prisons. In response the lord chancellor said if there were opportunities to allow bail on conditions addressing Bail Act concerns, courts were ready to hear them and deal with them expeditiously. However, he also said that a combined approach of listing and hearing bail applications would only make a substantial difference if used alongside other measures.

Read the full summary of the session

4. Home Affairs Committee considers the police approach to coronavirus

On Monday the Home Affairs Committee heard evidence from representatives of the Police Federation of England and Wales, the Police Superintendents’ Association and four forces' chief constables on the police approach to coronavirus.

In response to a question from Tim Loughton MP (Con), West Yorkshire Police chief constable John Robins cited the criminal justice system as one of the biggest long-term policing challenges. Employees of other criminal justice agencies have not been designated key workers, which has led to a backlog of cases and concerns for the welfare of alleged victims and witnesses.

Sergeant Simon Kempton - operational lead for Covid-19 at the Police Federation of England and Wales - expressed the need for clear and consistent communication and guidance for police forces. He said that the government’s messaging must be aligned with legislation to give the police confidence in enforcing the law.

Citing research from Refuge showing an increase in reports of domestic abuse during the lockdown, Stephen Doughty MP (Lab) how police forces have been responding to the increased risk. Sergeant Kempton said that police are aware that they can't always send people home if they are at risk from domestic violence. He added that normally two officers would attend a domestic abuse case, but in the current circumstances that is not always possible. Chief superintendent Paul Griffiths - president of the Police Superintendents’ Association - noted that victims of domestic abuse are less able to come forwards than previously, and that the onus is on police forces to reach out to potential victims effectively through media channels and helplines.

Stephen Doughty MP also asked about how police forces are dealing with mental health related incidents. In response Sergeant Kempton said police forces are trying to make sure they have the specialist knowledge and resources available to deal with these issues, but that reduced staffing levels during the lockdown for specialist social services could lead to people falling through the gaps.

With respect to the changing demand on police services, Superintendent Griffiths said that they are clearly seeing a downward trend in public offences, as well as a dip in emergency calls, non-emergency calls, arrests and custody. However, police forces are concerned about a potential increase in crimes committed in private spaces, such as domestic abuse and child sexual abuse. Griffiths also noted that there is concern around a change in demand for police services in relation to instances of cybercrime, online crime and technical crime.

Watch the session in full

5. Treasury Committee probes economic impact of coronavirus

On Wednesday the Treasury Select Committee held an evidence session on the economic impact of coronavirus, hearing from witnesses Jim Harra, First Permanent Secretary and Chief Executive of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), and Cerys McDonald, Director of CV-19 policy co-ordination at the same department.

Chair Mel Stride MP asked whether the new job retention scheme would arrive on time and on budget. Harra said HMRC were working flat out to ensure the IT system for the scheme will be ready, and that live testing began this morning. Harra said the vast majority of enquiries and applications should be dealt with by the system, but they are making extra staff available for assistance calls when the scheme goes live on 30 April.

Rushanara Ali MP (Labour) asked about the delay in providing income support to the self-employed, who will not receive money until June. Harra said he expected that those who qualify for the grant will be contacted by mid-May, and are trying to deliver earlier than June. He went on to say this scheme should cover 3.8 million people, as it does not cover those who earn over £50,000.

In response to a question about people in tax debt, Harra said deferral had been given to £3.8 billion worth of tax debt, and more was expected due to the VAT and self-assessment deferral opportunity. He revealed that the VAT deferral is worth around £30 billion and the self-assessment deferral, £13 billion. He said when recovering in the future, HMRC will not be forcing people to pay deferred tax if they cannot, and there will be no late payment penalties or interest.

Angela Eagle MP (Labour) asked what the process for deciding and announcing the scheme extensions, if necessary, would be. Harra said he imagined this would come from the chancellor and the Treasury.

Watch the session in full

Coming up this week

Parliament is currently in recess, returning Tuesday 21 April. However, some select committee business is proceeding as usual during the recess.

Today the Justice Select Committee will hear from the prisons minister, Lucy Frazer QC MP, alongside a number of prisons and probation organisations. Wednesday will see the Home Affairs Committee hold an evidence session on Home Office preparedness for Covid-19 with the Victims' Commissioner, Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Children's Commissioner. And on the same day the Treasury Select Committee will be taking evidence on the economic impact of coronavirus from UK Finance and the Finance and Leasing Association.

If you made it this far

Read our press release on the need to ensure domestic violence victims are adequately protected during the lockdown.