Westminster update: prime minister announces general election

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

During a general election campaign, it is well worth trying to speak to all the main party candidates to see what each are offering the justice system.

All candidates will have a website with their contact details. Reach out and drop them an email or give their office a call.

Introduce yourself and let them know you want to talk about the justice system locally, legal services or the work you and your firm do across the constituency.

Candidates will want to hear the stats, facts and figures behind the issues you are talking about.

Being able to explain that over 1% of the UK workforce is employed by legal services demonstrates the amount of people that have an interest in strong justice commitments.

Find your candidate

What you need to know

1. PM announces general election

On Wednesday 22 May, following positive announcements regarding inflation and economic growth, the prime minister surprised politicians and pundits alike by calling a general election for 4 July.

Most of Westminster had anticipated an autumn election, but Rishi Sunak chose to fire the starting gun early.

Sunak painted himself as the man who brought economic stability back to the country following the turbulence of the Truss administration (although not mentioning her directly).

He characterised this election as a vote between himself and Sir Keir Starmer, arguing that now the country had turned a corner, the country should not risk a Labour government.

Sir Keir spoke a short time after Sunak, showing his excitement that the country had finally been given a general election.

Starmer leant on his record in changing the Labour party as a microcosm of the change he could bring to the country.

Throughout the upcoming election period, we will be working to ensure the issues affecting the profession are at the forefront of every party’s political agenda.

We will be working to see our key recommendations and priorities reflected in each of the parties’ manifestos and we will be identifying and sharing ways our members can contribute to the debate over the course of the campaign.

We will also produce explainer pieces across social media, our website and through this report to keep our members up to date with everything we are doing and every important event along the way.

2. Criminal legal aid: time runs out for more funding

One major impact of the decision to call a general election is that there will now be no progress on providing adequate criminal legal aid funding until after the general election.

The government’s indecision and delay on funding the criminal legal aid system has effectively kicked the issue into the long grass, we said today.

Towards the end of 2023, the Law Society took the government to court for its failure to adhere to the Bellamy Reports recommendation of an 15% increase in legal aid fees.

The Law Society won this judicial review on several counts, proving the government had acted “irrationally” in its dismissal of the recommendation.

Since this win, we have been engaging regularly with the Ministry of Justice to ensure members get access to the support they need.

However, the government has continually failed to take this matter seriously and now, with a general election called and all parliamentary work halted, we must inform our members no action will be taken until the next parliament.

Our president Nick Emmerson said: “four months on from our High Court victory, the government’s failure to act quickly on the ruling and the strong evidence submitted by us has meant that time has now run out.

"The urgent investment needed in criminal legal aid has effectively been kicked into the long grass.

“Despite the lord chancellor’s commitment to accelerate the necessary decisions, which he made in good faith to us, the timetable of a general election has left our members without the money they urgently need for many more months.

“The criminal justice system is on its knees and is in desperate need of funding. With a huge backlog of criminal cases to be heard, criminal defence lawyers are needed more than ever to provide access to justice.

“The next government must provide the investment needed to secure the future of the criminal legal aid firms who have reached crisis point.”

3. Post Office Bill rushed through

The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill was rushed through remaining stages in both houses on 23 May as part of the “washup” process, by which unfinished legislation is fast-tracked before parliament dissolves.

Key outstanding issues discussed by peers included:

  • the precedent the bill sets for interference in the judicial process
  • the inclusion of DWP prosecutions
  • a review of computer evidence
  • the inclusion of cases that have already been considered by the Court of Appeal

We have been working closely with the Lords to test the appetite for a purpose clause to ensure that it is clear that the legislation does not set a precedent for parliamentary intervention in the justice system.

Despite initially seeming supportive, Lord McNicol (Labour) noted that “Labour has been looking at a purpose clause but ultimately believe that in the circumstances the bill is clear enough”.

Lord Arbuthnot (Conservative) moved amendment two which would bring the thirteen cases considered by the Court of Appeal into scope of the bill.

He was supported by Lord McNicol, Lord Fox (Liberal Democrat) and Baroness Brinton (Liberal Democrat) and seemed to believe he had the support of the government.

However, the minister Lord Offord in fact rejected his call for the inclusion, stating that “this bill is unprecedented and constitutionally sensitive”, and that it is important to respect the decision of the judiciary.

Lord Arbuthnot was not convinced and pushed his amendment to a vote – a rare move during washup – which was lost.

No other non-government amendments were moved, but several technical amendments were added to the bill.

The bill then moved to the Commons for final approval and is scheduled to receive royal assent later today.

The government committed to:

  • a review of the Justice Select Committee’s report into private prosecutions
  • reform of the law around the use of computer evidence
  • an independent investigation into prosecutions involving Capture software (the predecessor to Horizon)

These may be picked up in six weeks’ time by the next government, whichever party wins the election.

4. Victims and Prisoners Bill clears remaining stages

On Tuesday 21 May, the Victims and Prisoners Bill was back in the Lords to discuss amendments on:

  • the Upper Tribunal
  • imprisonment and detention for public protection sentences
  • greater protections for victims of domestic violence

The justice minister Lord Bellamy opened the debate with new government amendments to allow the secretary of state to refer release decisions made by the Parole Board to the High Court rather than the Upper Tribunal.

This amendment was warmly welcomed by both the Liberal Democrat and Labour peers.

The government also tabled a group of amendments on imprisonment for public protection (IPP) and detention for public protection (DPP) prisoner release conditions, ensuring the secretary of state has the discretion to veto certain release conditions.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (crossbench) pushed his amendment to change the release test for those imprisoned under a IPP or DPP, compelling the secretary of state to consider the potential danger to, rather than safety of, the public before release. However, his amendment fell by 91 votes to 192.

Baroness Royall (Labour) argued for amendments to extend Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements to all those convicted of sexual or domestic crimes and ensure notification of domestic abuse and stalking convictions to relevant parties under the Sexual Offences Act.

She pushed both her amendment to vote, winning both by margins of 211-208 and 203-198.

On Thursday, the bill was back in the Commons for its remaining stages before parliament prorogued.

Only one amendment was made, relating to a right to erase personal data, which has been included in the bill.

The bill was then approved by the Commons and received royal assent on 24 May. 

5. Bills dropped in parliamentary wash up

As parliament dissolves prior to the general election, several pieces of legislation now no longer have the time to pass through their remaining proceedings.

In parliamentary terms, these bills have now fallen and will not be enacted. The bills affected are the:

  • Data Protection and Digital Information (No.2) Bill
  • Renters Reform Bill
  • Criminal Justice Bill
  • Sentencing Bill
  • Arbitration Bill
  • Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill
  • Courts (Remote Hearings) Bill
  • Litigation Funding (Agreements) Bill
  • Artificial Intelligence (Regulation) Bill

We are disappointed that key pieces of legislation that are important to many areas of the profession have fallen.

The Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill became law on 24 May. 

Coming up

Parliament will prorogue at the end of today’s business, before being dissolved on 30 May ahead of the general election.

All bills that were not put through wash up will fall and will not become law.

Parliament will next meet in July after the general election.

If you made it this far:

As we enter a key moment in British political history, we will be extremely active in emphasising the importance of the sector and the significant challenges it faces.

Throughout, we will be engaging with members to showcase our work.

Keep an eye out for our guides and tools to help get involved and boost the reach of our work!

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS