Westminster update: PM announces staff can return to offices from 1 August

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. PM announces staff can return to offices from 1 August

Last Friday the prime minister held a press conference in which he outlined measures the government is taking to control localised outbreaks of coronavirus and prepare for the possibility of increased virulence in the winter, and a timeline of new steps that will be taken to help return more of society to normal.

The main announcement was that from 1 August employers will be given “discretion” to make decisions about how staff can work safely, whether that be by continuing to work from home or by beginning to ask more employees to return to workplaces.

The prime minister stressed that before making any decision employers must consult with their staff, and that any return to workplaces will be conditional on the business’ ability to follow coronavirus workplace guidance and ensure the safety of their employees.

In other announcements, the prime minister declared that anyone may use public transport, while encouraging alternative transportation where possible. Schools, colleges and nurseries will open for all children in September, and conferences and business events will be allowed to resume from October.

The prime minister expressed hope that all of society will be able to return to normality by November at the earliest.

In terms of controlling the virus, the prime minister announced new powers will be given to local authorities and central government ministers to tackle localised outbreaks by closing premises and transport networks, restricting events and imposing stay at home orders where necessary on a local basis.

We're urging firms to follow health and safety guidelines and carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment before asking staff to return to offices. Our safe return to the office toolkit is available to help firms with this process.

Read our press response to the announcement

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Take a look at our blueprint for firms facing local lockdowns

2. Lord chancellor answers Justice questions

Last Tuesday lord chancellor Robert Buckland MP and his ministerial team answered oral questions in the House of Commons. The session covered a range of topics including supporting domestic abuse victims, legal aid, access to justice, the court backlog, and the Lammy Review. We briefed MPs ahead of the session and was mentioned by shadow justice secretary David Lammy MP.

Lammy asked why the Bar Council, the Law Society and others had been warning the government of the need to review criminal legal aid long before it was announced.

Responding Buckland said the government had completed part one of its review, had implemented the expediated requests of the Bar and the solicitor profession, and were moving on to part two.

Wera Hobhouse MP (Liberal Democrat) asked a question that was briefed out by us, argued that restoring legal aid for early legal advice would speed up cases proceeding to trial and help with other issues. She asked for legal aid for early advice to be restored.

Responding, Buckland said legal aid was available for criminal trials depending on a means test and £5 million had been allocated for extra provision of early legal advice.

Shadow legal aid minister Karl Turner MP said legal aid lawyers were now expected to work extended hours with no extra pay and asked what representations had been made to the Treasury for more funding.

In response, justice minister Alex Chalk MP said the government have eased the rules on hardship and interim payments to enable the early drawdown of payment for work done, and for solicitors the government has doubled the number of opportunities to seek payment on account.

The government is also accelerating work on the criminal legal aid review because they want to put between £31 million and £51 million into the profession as soon as possible. Chalk said that funding will be released before too long.

Fleur Anderson MP (Labour) asked if the government would assess the impact of a system paying a fixed fee on legal aid lawyers and the most disadvantaged. Responding, Buckland said this issue would be looked at in the second stage of the criminal legal aid review.

Read the transcript

3. Peers discuss Royal Commission on criminal justice

Last Wednesday Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbench) asked a question in the House of Lords regarding the Royal Commission on criminal justice following up on a question he asked in June.

We briefed peers ahead of the session and Lord Ramsbotham mentioned our work in highlighting how the criminal justice system is not working as it should.

Lord Ramsbotham asked when the government would announce the chair, the timings, and the terms of reference of the Royal Commission on criminal justice.

Responding, justice minister Lord Keen of Elie said the government is carefully considering these points. Following up, Lord Ramsbotham asked when, given that the Royal Commission was announced in December and many, including the Law Society, have highlighted that the criminal justice system is not working in an efficient or effective way, the lord chancellor would seize the opportunity to make much needed reforms.

Responding, Lord Keen said the terms of reference of a royal commission cannot be altered so it is critical those terms of reference are finalised with care. A small team of civil servants in the Ministry of Justice is working to establish the Royal Commission and it is anticipated that they will transition to make up the secretariat for the commission, which the Government hopes to have operational from the autumn.

Baroness Kennedy of Cradley (Non-Affiliated) asked for more detail on timings. Lord Keen said the government anticipates that the Royal Commission will be able to commence its work in the autumn, having before it a finalised set of terms of reference. Lord Keen noted the government wishes it to report within 12 to 18 months; accordingly, the terms of reference will have to reflect that timescale.

Read the transcript

4. SNP call for transition period extension

Last Wednesday the House of Commons debated an SNP motion on COVID-19 and Brexit, calling on the government to immediately accept any EU offer of a transition period.

SNP Commons Leader Ian Blackford MP noted that “2020 has become a year like no other, and this Government must adapt and do what is right by their citizens,” and spoke to the four options for extension identified by the Institute for Government:

  • amending the end date of the transition period in the withdrawal agreement
  • creating a new transition period to begin on 1 January 2021, which would mean striking a new agreement alongside future relationship negotiations
  • including an implementation phase as part of the future relationship treaty
  • creating an implementation phase to prepare for a potential no-deal exit

Junior minister for Scotland Iain Stewart MP responded, saying “the Brexit debate is over” and arguing tthat “having a deadline concentrates minds.” He reiterated that there would be no extension, and argued that there will be “huge trading opportunities for businesses in Scotland and across the UK as a result of the trade deals we strike.”

The Labour Party front bench did not participate in the debate.

Read the transcript

5. Parliament approves stamp duty holiday

Last Monday the Stamp Duty Land Tax (Temporary Relief) Bill passed through all its stages in the House of Commons. The Bill will implement the temporary stamp duty relief in England announced by the chancellor last week, which will see the threshold property value at which stamp duty begins to be paid raised from £125,000 to £500,000 until the end of March 2021.

Economic secretary to the Treasury John Glen MP argued that the Bill would help revive a crucial industry that adds £39 billion a year to the UK economy. He noted estimates that 175,000 sellers were prevented from coming to the market between March and May this year, while HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) data indicates that residential property transactions in May were about 50% lower than the same month last year.

He said the recent reopening of the home buying and selling market had seen some tentative progress made, with transactions in May 16% higher than in April, and that this relief would help maintain that momentum. He said the cut would see nine out of 10 people buying their main home pay no stamp duty at all, with some buyers able to save up to £15,000.

Speaking for the opposition shadow financial secretary Dan Carden MP questioned whether the relief was an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money given that buyers of second homes and overseas buyers would also be able to benefit from the relief, while first time buyers in many parts of the country would see comparatively little to no benefit.

He also noted that the opposition would be seeking to amend the Bill to call for a report on the effects of the tax relief on different classes of buyers.

Jesse Norman, financial secretary, argued that second home buyers would not be disproportionately benefited, as they would still be liable to pay the 3% surcharge for second home purchases. He also argued that Labour’s amendment was unnecessary as HMRC already monitors stamp duty and publishes statistics on a regular basis. Ultimately the opposition did not oppose the Bill, and it was passed unamended.

Read the full transcript of the debate

Coming up this week

Despite the Commons rising for recess at the end of Wednesday, this week remains busy.

The Trade Bill and the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill will both go through their remaining stages on Monday and Tuesday respectiveley, and attorney general Suella Braverman will be questioned by the Justice Committee on Tuessday.

In the Lords the Business and Planning Bill will have its report stage and third reading on Monday, and the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill is due its second reading on Wednesday.

The Upper House will also see an oral question on the political situation in Hong Kong on Tuesday, and the Constitution Committee will receive evidence on COVID-19 implications from the lord chancellor and the chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service on Wednesday.

View all upcoming parliamentary business

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Take a look at our blueprint for law firms on how to navigate local or area-specific lockdowns.