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Westminster update: release under investigation to be reduced as pre-charge bail consultation concludes
Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
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We've submitted our recommendations to the Treasury on supporting the legal services sector for the 2021 Budget.
Five things you need to know
1. Release under investigation to be reduced as pre-charge bail consultation concludes
The Home Office responded to its consultation on pre-charge bail and published a written statement in Parliament setting out its proposals for reform to bail and the process of release under investigation.
This follows our criminal justice campaign activity on release under investigation, which highlighted the issue and raised concerns about the accused and victims being left in limbo with no updates on their case for an unlimited time. Our research generated significant press coverage on the issue in 2019, leading to the consultation.
Following the consultation, the current presumption against the use of pre-charge bail will be removed. The government believes this will help reduce the numbers of those released under investigation. The government will also increase the police pre-charge bail period to three months, with extensions at six and nine months, authorised by the police, with magistrates approving any extension beyond nine months.
The reforms will also aim to ensure victims play a role in the pre-charge bail process, are kept informed as cases progress and have their views taken into account during the process.
The government intends to legislate to bring these changes into effect as soon as parliamentary time allows.
2. The Law Society gives evidence to the Justice Select Committee
Last Tuesday, the Law Society’s Richard Miller appeared before the Justice Select Committee alongside Derek Sweeting QC of the Bar Council and Beverly Higgs of the Magistrates Association to give evidence on court capacity and the future of legal aid.
Miller spoke about safety in the courts given the new variant of coronavirus and the need for trials to be held remotely wherever possible. On tackling the courts backlog, he argued that rolling out further Nightingale courts and providing early legal advice would deliver more capacity than proposals like COVID operating hours. Miller also called for urgent action to make the criminal legal aid system sustainable, including an interim increase in rates. Without action it would be “too late to save many firms” and the system “will not be sufficient to train and retain new lawyers”.
Asked to suggest one improvement for the criminal legal aid system, Miller suggested improving the relationship between the work done and the payment for it. For civil legal aid, Miller argued that restoring early legal advice and making it economically viable could be one step taken to improve the system and also tackle the backlog.
3. Government announces plans to reform Mental Health Act
Last Wednesday, the government published a White Paper on reforming the Mental Health Act.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Matt Hancock, secretary of state for health and social care, said the White Paper outlines plans for a “landmark” new mental health act, which will ensure that patients are put at the centre of decisions about their own care; that everyone is treated with respect; and that the law is only used to compel treatment where absolutely necessary.
Hancock outlined four pillars to the planned reforms.
First, patients will be given a voice in their own care, with a new right for patients to choose a person to represent their interests and improved access to the tribunal.
Second, the reforms will address disparities in application of the Mental Health Act through a previously announced patient and carer race equality framework.
Third, patients within the criminal justice system will be supported with timely transfers from custody to care settings where appropriate.
Finally, the reforms will improve how those with autism and learning disabilities are treated under the act by restricting the scope to detain such people, limiting detentions to 28 days and seeking to provide more support in the community rather than in institutional settings.
We responded to the publication of the White Paper, calling for the reforms to be backed up by proper funding to ensure they are effective.
The White Paper is now open to consultation, with representations due by 21 April 2021. The government will respond to the consultation later this year before bringing forward a new Mental Health Bill.
4. Ministers questioned on services and impact assessment
Last Thursday, international trade secretary Liz Truss MP and ministers from her department answered questions from members in the Commons.
SNP environment spokesperson Deirdre Brock MP said that the prime minister has “admitted that the deal is not up to the job on trade and services, and Brussels has made it clear that access will be restricted further if there is divergence from the EU’s standards.” She asked whether it is “the government’s intention to give up access to that market, or will the UK remain wedded to the EU’s regulatory framework?”
Trade minister Greg Hands MP responded for the government, arguing that Brock was “wrong to characterise the treaty… as not being good for services.” He said that the agreement includes “good provisions on business travellers, excellent provisions on legal services, and very, very good provisions on digital and data,” before expressing surprise that there was not more support for this element of the deal.
Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry MP (Labour) asked when an economic impact assessment for the UK-EU trade agreement would be forthcoming, observing that each of the 30 new trade agreements that have been before the House since the UK officially left the EU in January 2020 have each had such a document.
Truss said this was the responsibility of Taskforce Europe, not the Department for International Trade. Thornberry suggested that “since [Truss] was in the Cabinet, she might know when the impact assessment was going to be published” and asked again why such a document had not been published. Truss encouraged Thornberry to “move forward and focus on the areas for which the Department for International Trade has responsibility.”
5. Mini-reshuffle sees new business secretary appointed
Last Friday, a mini-reshuffle took place, as Alok Sharma MP became full-time COP26 president.
Kwasi Kwarteng MP has been appointed the new secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy. He was previously minister of state at the department. Before entering politics Kwarteng worked in the financial services sector, and he is married to a solicitor.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP has become minister of state at BEIS.
Coming up next week
On Tuesday, there will be an oral evidence session to review COVID-19's impact on prison, probation and court systems. The National Security and Investment Bill will progress through its remaining stages on Wednesday. There will also be a Treasury Committee oral evidence session on the economic impact of coronavirus.
In the Lords, the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Operations) Bill will have its second reading on Wednesday.