Westminster update: Shadow cabinet reshuffle

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

Palace of Westminster

One thing you need to do

Join the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for its virtual event on “solving the court backlogs”.

Taking place on Tuesday 7 December, 1pm to 2pm, the event includes guest speakers I. Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, and Derek Sweeting, chair of the Bar Council.

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What you need to know

1. Shadow cabinet reshuffle

On Monday, the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer reshuffled his shadow ministerial team.

In a fairly major shake-up of the Labour frontbench, key justice-related posts were affected.

Former shadow lord chancellor David Lammy moved to become shadow foreign secretary, with Steve Reed taking his place as shadow lord chancellor. Reed has been the MP for Croydon North since a by-election in 2012 and served as shadow local government secretary from 2020 until his appointment as shadow lord chancellor.

Shadow attorney general Lord Falconer left the shadow cabinet and was replaced as shadow attorney general by Emily Thornberry. Thornberry is a former human rights law barrister and has been active on justice issues in her time as an MP. First elected in 2005, she previously served as shadow attorney general under the leadership of Ed Miliband MP from 2011 until 2014. She later served in a number of shadow cabinet posts including as shadow Brexit secretary, shadow foreign secretary and most recently shadow international trade secretary.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds was also moved from his post, to become shadow international trade secretary, replacing Emily Thornberry.

Yvette Cooper, formerly the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was appointed as the new shadow home secretary. Cooper is a former shadow home secretary and was work and pensions secretary in the last Labour government.

The Law Society is writing to key shadow ministers to congratulate them on their appointments and seek meetings.

See the full shadow cabinet

2. The Law Society gives evidence to the Home Affairs Committee

On Wednesday 1 December, our head of public law, Ellie Cumbo, gave oral evidence as part of the Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into the investigation and prosecution of rape. Cumbo told the committee that the drop in rape prosecutions was partly driven by the lack of resources across the justice system and argued that if the recent end-to-end review of rape is to improve the justice system’s approach to rape prosecution, its recommendations must be properly funded.  

In response to questions on whether there should be independent advocates for complainants in rape cases, Cumbo said there is a distinction between advice and advocacy, and that the latter could have a negative effect on justice. However, she said the Law Society could support advice for victims on challenging the police or Crown Prosecution Service on disclosure, dependent on the specifics of the policy.

On the question of whether certain types of evidence should be made non-disclosable in rape cases, Cumbo noted that while a blanket ban would likely not be in the interests of justice, there are questions to be asked about how the current system of disclosure of evidence works and whether it is effective.

Finally, the committee asked about the wider sustainability of the justice system. Cumbo highlighted figures showing the decline in the number of criminal legal aid firms since 2010 and referenced our duty solicitor heatmap, showing areas of the country where there is likely to be a future shortage of criminal solicitors.

Watch the evidence session

Read our press release for the session

3.  Leasehold Reform Bill passes second reading in the Commons

On Monday 29 November, the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill passed its first hurdle in the House of Commons without a vote after the opposition gave its qualified support to the bill.  

The housing minister Eddie Hughes opened the debate, noting that the bill is the first of two planned bills in this parliament that will reform the leasehold system. In her response, the then shadow secretary of state for housing, Lucy Powell, welcomed the bill, but argued that it fell short in three areas.

  1. The bill would not prevent freeholders from recreating something akin to monetary ground rents in the form of service and administration charges.
  2. The bill would only apply to new leases, and would do nothing for existing leaseholders.
  3. Powell questioned why the bill will not implement the government’s commitment to ban the sale of new leasehold houses.  

There was some discussion of the advice provided by conveyancing solicitors to purchasers of leasehold properties with onerous ground rents. Robert Jenrick (Conservative) argued that some solicitors failed to give appropriate advice, and thus “failed in their duty to their clients”. Stephen Hammond (Conservative) advised ministers to “talk to the Solicitors Regulation Authority about whether this should be looked at as a corollary of the work being done by the Competition and Markets Authority”.  

The Law Society has been briefing members of both Houses in support of the central aims of the bill. We will brief MPs again ahead of the first sitting of committee stage, which is due to begin on Tuesday next week.  

Read the transcript

4. The Lord Chancellor appears before the Justice Select Committee

Tuesday 30 November saw the lord chancellor, Dominic Raab, give evidence to the Justice Select Committee on the work of the Ministry of Justice. MPs queried Raab on his approach to human rights, the courts backlog and other areas of justice.

The Law Society was mentioned during the session, with committee chair Sir Bob Neill (Conservative) referencing our concerns on probate registration, including delays in in the probate system and issues with the online system.  

Raab shared his approach to overhauling the Human Rights Act (HRA), noting there would be a consultation “relatively soon”. He said he believes there's a strong case for overhauling the procedural framework of the HRA. Raab was especially concerned that UK courts had often gone further than the legislation anticipated, especially when it came to the application of the right to family life in deportation cases.   

Addressing the Crown Court backlog, Raab highlighted funding secured at the recent spending review and noted the difference video technology was making in lowering the backlog of cases.

Though he would not give a timeline for clearing the backlog, he did say he was working closely with the judiciary on a plan to address the challenge it poses.  

Turning to legal aid, James Daly (Conservative) asked about how growing legal aid deserts would be addressed. The lord chancellor said that legal aid spending is the same as spending on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which he argued shows the substantial amounts committed to legal aid. Raab said he had received the report of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid that same day. He did not provide a date for his response to the report but said the government would publish its response alongside the recommendations.

The review had been anticipated to be published by the end of the year.  

Watch the session

5. Ministers questioned on scope of economic crime levy  

On Monday 29 November, the Treasury Select Committee questioned economic secretary to the treasury John Glen and security minister Damian Hinds, as well as officials from the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation and the Home Office.

The session touched on the introduction of the economic crime levy, currently being debated in parliament as part of the Finance Bill.  

Hinds argued that the levy will be “a gamechanger in terms of a sustainable line of resourcing for this area, particularly on money laundering and economic crime” in a response to a question on resourcing by Scottish National Party treasury spokesperson Alison Thewliss.

Thewliss, who has previously raised our concerns on the fairness of the levy in a debate on the Finance Bill, responded that “most people would rather you took more money off criminals than take it off people who are trying to do the right thing”. The minister conceded that the government does want to fund more activity from recovered proceeds of crime.

Glen said that levy was consulted on to ensure it is fair, and that no firm would pay more than 0.1% of its revenue.   

Read the transcript

Coming up

The Law Society will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

If you made it this far...

The Nationality and Borders Bill returns to the House of Commons next week, and we'll be briefing ahead of the debates.

Read our president’s response to the home secretary’s comments on the UK’s asylum system, which touch on the bill.

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