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Westminster update: Chancellor unveils plan for jobs
Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
One thing you need to do
We've launched our new Return, Restart, Recovery campaign – a campaign to support the national recovery effort from coronavirus and reinforce the role solicitors and their firms will play.
Five things you need to know
1. Chancellor unveils "plan for jobs"
Last Wednesday the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced a “plan for jobs” in a statement to the House of Commons.
The plan comprises three parts, with policy proposals to support people to find jobs, create new jobs, and protect existing jobs. We made recommendations to the Treasury ahead of the statement on the steps the government could take to help the legal services sector recover from coronavirus.
The chancellor announced a Jobs Retention Bonus to incentivise employers to bring staff back from the furlough scheme. When the scheme ends in October, firms will be given £1,000 by the government for every staff member who is brought back from furlough and kept on the payroll until the end of January, so long as that employee is paid at least £520 per month. This potential bonus will be open for every one of the nine million people currently on furlough.
The chancellor also announced a temporary Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) relief, to take effect immediately and remain in effect until the end of March 2021.
Under the proposal the threshold property value at which SDLT begins to be paid will be raised from £125,000 to £500,000, with the aim of stimulating a property market in which transactions fell by 50% in May.
Job prospects for young people was a key focus of the plan, and the chancellor announced the creation of a £2 billion “Kickstart” scheme to create new six month work placements for 16-24 year olds deemed at risk of long term unemployment.
Where firms create such work placements and offer training to these “kickstarters”, the government will cover the costs of 25 hours a week’s worth of salary at the National Minimum wage for the six months.
The chancellor also announced new funding for apprenticeships, which will see employers receive £2,000 per new apprentice aged under 25 brought on, and £1,500 per new apprentice aged 25 and over.
We've welcomed the measures set out in the chancellor’s statement.
2. President appears before Constitution Committee
Last Thursday Law Society president Simon Davis gave oral evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee on the constitutional impacts of COVID-19. Also on the panel were Caroline Goodwin QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association and Derek Sweeting QC, vice chair of the Bar Council.
The session started with the committee chair, Baroness Taylor, asking the panel to give their general impressions of the the impact of the COVID-19 on courts and tribunals and the challenges they have faced.
Simon highlighted how many parts of the criminal system were already in crisis pre-pandemic due to underinvestment, court closures and cuts to legal aid, and that COVID-19 had exacerbated this.
He praised the reaction of all those involved in responding to the crisis in the process including judges, lawyers, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) staff, victims and claimants but made clear that these successes should not mask the problems. He said the impact varied depending on whether a physical presence was needed or not and that there had been a serious impact where clients are not digitally enabled.
He also set out our position on extended court hours, highlighting how this would put a strain on the already substantial pressures on the criminal defence system.
The committee raised the question of pop up courts and the success of remote hearings, with the panel all agreeing that improvements needed to be made to the existing court estate and sitting hours for judges needed to be looked before any new radical changes were introduced.
All agreed that funding was urgently needed across the justice system - but in particular the criminal justice system - to ensure public confidence was maintained and access to justice and the rule of law preserved. Simon Davis made the point that the justice system now needed to be treated like the NHS and that prevention was key.
3. Domestic Abuse Bill clears Commons
Last Monday the Domestic Abuse Bill cleared its passage through the House of Commons following Report Stage and Third Reading.
During Report Stage, a number of government amendments were made to the Bill with the support of the House of Commons, including adding children under the description of potential victims of domestic abuse, and an amendment to ensure that special measures are available for victims of domestic abuse in civil and family cases.
There were also amendments relating to cross-examination of witnesses, and a new clause which aims to prohibit the use of the so called “rough sex” defence by making it clear that consent to serious harm for sexual gratification is not a defence.
New Clause 22, which would have provided recourse to public funds for domestic abuse survivors, and New Clause 33, which would have allowed for the commissioning of specialist domestic abuse services for victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse were voted down after debate.
During the Bill’s Third Reading, lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP said that the passage of the Bill by the Commons “marks an important milestone in our shared endeavour to provide better support and protection for the victims of domestic abuse and their children.” He noted that the Bill was improved during the course of the debate, with certain aspects strengthened after close scrutiny.
The Bill will now move to the House of Lords for further consideration.
4. MPs question attorney general
Last Thursday the attorney general and solicitor general answered questions in the House of Commons.
The session focussed on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) case backlog, the case of Belly Mujinga, domestic abuse prosecutions, contempt of court for media reporting, unduly lenient sentence scheme and support for law firms during COVID-19.
Labour MP Feryal Clark asked what discussions have been had with the chancellor of the exchequer on the effectiveness of Government support for law firms during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Solicitor general Michael Ellis QC MP said the CPS has made changes to its system for paying fees to advocates to ensure payment for work performed and the Ministry of Justice were working closely with practitioners to understand the impact of COVID-19.
The Legal Aid Agency has streamlined the process for interim, and hardship payments, including lowering the threshold for when such claims can be made.
The solicitor general said that on 30 March, CPS had announced measures to allow interim invoices to be raised which was just one measures being used to support those working on Crown Prosecution cases.
Labour MP Jeff Smith asked what discussions she has had with the CPS on its role in reducing the backlog of cases waiting to come before the courts. Responding, attorney general Suella Braverman praised CPS staff and outlined cross-government discussions to progress work through the courts.
Following this, Smith asked whether Judge only led trials would not take place. In reply, the attorney general said nothing had been decided but that she was committed to jury trials.
Justice Committee chair and Conservative MP Bob Neill sought assurances that the CPS would be given sufficient resources to ensure that the courts could return to work and tackle the backlog of cases. Responding, the attorney general welcomed the fact that the CPS had coped “remarkably well”, adding that there were 300 new prosecutors.
Shadow solicitor general Ellie Reeves asked for confirmation when the Nightingale Court would be up and running and how many victims of sexual violence were still waiting for the case to be heard in court. Responding, the attorney general said many measures were under consideration in the court recovery plan, although no decisions had been taken yet.
5. Counter-Terrorism Bill agreed by committee
The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill finished its progress through committee stage last Tuesday and will next return to the House of Commons for Report Stage.
During the sitting last Tuesday, the opposition brought forward a number of probing amendments around provisions in the Bill relating to Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). None of these were put to a vote, as the opposition sought instead to raise specific concerns and seek explanations from the government of key provisions.
Conor McGinn MP, shadow justice minister, moved amendment 69, which would have raised the standard of proof for imposing a TPIM from “has reasonable grounds for suspecting” to “on the basis of reasonable and probable grounds, believes” (Joanna Cherry MP and Kenny MacAskill MP of the SNP had tabled a similar amendment). This amendment reflected a recommendation made in our briefing to MPs.
Justice minister Chris Philp MP argued that the change in the standard of proof is necessary to enable police forces to address future risks that may arise, and noted that the Bill retains the existing requirement that a TPIM be considered “necessary” to prevent a terrorist threat.
McGinn also moved a series of amendments relating to provisions in the Bill allowing TPIMs to be renewed indefinitely, which again reflected key concerns raised in our briefing.
In response the minister Chris Philp stated that the gap between automatic expiry of a TPIM after two years and the imposition of a new TPIM presents a risk to the public, and as such the Bill seeks to address this. He also noted that TPIM extensions remain subject to a right of appeal.
All of these amendments were withdrawn without a vote, and the Bill was ultimately passed.
Coming up this week
As the last full sitting week before summer recess, the government are looking to progress more substantive legislation ahead of the seven week break.
The changes to SDLT, as announced by the chancellor in his summer statement, will be put before the Commons in a new Bill. We'll also see departmental question sessions covering the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office.
Meanwhile, the Lords will see the return of the Business and Planning Bill for Committee Stage, and peers will have the opportunity to debate the Finance Bill for the first time in its Second Reading.
If you made it this far
The Law Society of England and Wales and the Bar Council of England and Wales have sent a joint letter to Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, setting out their grave alarm at the adoption of the new national security law by the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress.