Westminster weekly: Commons waters down Lords war crimes amendment

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

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Read our press release on our new polling, which reveals that the public overwhelmingly backs the British military being held to an equal or higher standard than the average citizen, and thinks that it's important the UK is seen as upholding the rule of law.

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1. Overseas Operations Bill – Commons waters down Lords war crimes amendment

On Wednesday 21 April, the House of Commons debated the Lords’ amendments to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) bill.

The armed forces minister Johnny Mercer was sacked ahead of the debate – although it was reported he intended to resign – and said the departure was over legal protections for British troops deployed in Northern Ireland. While this bill is only relevant to overseas deployments, the government has pledged to bring forward legislation on domestic operations in a future session.

The removal of the duty to consider derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights, something we had campaigned for, was accepted and the long title of the bill was amended accordingly.

The Lords amendment removing genocide, torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes from the scope of the presumption against prosecution meanwhile was partially accepted, with the presumption applying to war crimes left in place. We had supported this amendment as a bare minimum improvement to the presumption.

Several other amendments – on investigations, actions brought against the crown by service personnel, and a duty of care to personnel – were rejected.
 
The shadow defence secretary, John Healey, critiqued parts of the bill as protecting the Ministry of Defence rather than service members.

Others on the Labour benches, and some on the Conservative backbenches including former Brexit secretary David Davis, criticised the government for allowing war crimes to be covered by the presumption against prosecution, something we spoke out against in our briefing and press release.

Davis indicated that if the Lords did not accept the retention of the presumption against prosecution for war crimes he would rebel against the government on the issue, and encourage colleagues to do the same.
 
The bill will now return to the Lords. If they accept the Commons’ changes, then the bill will receive Royal Assent when the parliamentary session ends on 29 April. If not, it will return to the Commons, likely at the end of next week. We will continue briefing on the presumption against prosecution and the civil claims limit.  
 
Read our briefing on the Overseas Operations Bill

Read the debate on the Overseas Operations Bill

2. National Security and Investment Bill completes House of Lords passage 

On Thursday 22 April, the National Security and Investment bill passed its third reading in the House of Lords and completed its passage through the upper house.

The third reading was a formality as all amendments had been dealt with at report stage the previous week. We had worked with a number of peers throughout the bill’s passage to table a series of amendments on areas of concern, but none of these amendments were successful.

During the third reading debate, Lord Grantchester (the Labour business spokesperson) thanked the Law Society by name for the assistance and insight we had provided to peers on the bill.

The bill will now proceed to the Commons for consideration of the amendments made by the Lords.

Read the National Security and Investment Bill transcript

3. Parliament trade group publishes Law Society evidence

On Wednesday 21 April, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Trade and Export Promotion, chaired by Lord Waverly (Independent) and Gary Sambrook MP (Conservative), published their review of trade strategy, to which we gave evidence.

This review was chaired by Lord Lansley (Conservative), and “aims to push for Britain to be clear and active in shaping the strategy for sustainable trade".

Our evidence, which is replicated in full, covers the important role legal services plays in international trade, and which liberalisations should be sought for this important sector in future trade negotiations.

We outlined what mechanisms the government can use to secure key rights, and argued it is important not to sacrifice areas of strength, like legal services, for quick wins.
 
This is reflected in the report’s recommendations, which advises the government to produce “a coherent sub-strategy on trade in services covering the spaces in which the government is expecting to play an active role in further trade liberalisation”.

Read the review of UK trade strategy report

4. Justice Select Committee review COVID-19's impact on criminal law

On Tuesday 20 April, the Justice Select Committee held its first oral evidence session as part of its inquiry into how COVID-19 has affected criminal law.

The inquiry will be reviewing the creation of new criminal offenses to enforce lockdown regulations and how the offenses have been enforced by the police, the CPS and the courts.

The committee heard evidence from former civil servants, journalists and practitioners. Witnesses criticised the speed at which COVID-19 legislation had been passed, often in their view without enough scrutiny or debate in Parliament.

There were also concerns raised about how well the public understood the new offenses and it was noted that there were examples of both the public and police forces misinterpreting the law and enforcing aspects that were intended to be guidance, especially around social distancing.

The chair of the committee, Sir Bob Neill (Conservative), asked about the need for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’s provisions around remote juries.

Witness Joshua Rozenberg QC said he could not see how remote juries would reduce the courts backlog and why this step would be needed after social distancing was no longer required in courts.

Watch the Justice Select Committee session

5. Minister addresses ethnicity pay gap reporting

On Tuesday 20 April, Kemi Badenoch, the minister for equalities, gave a statement in the Commons on the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities' report.

During the session, Theresa May (Conservative) asked about publishing ethnicity pay gaps, claiming that business groups have called for such reporting to be introduced. Badenoch responded favourably and said the government will take it into account in their response to the report.

We've been calling for ethnicity pay gap reporting as part of a range of measures to address inequality in the profession, as identified in our ‘race for inclusion’ research into the career experiences of Black and ethnic minority solicitors.

Read the ethnicity pay gap statement

Read our race for inclusion report

Coming up next week

On Monday, the House of Commons will consider Lords amendments to the National Security and Investment bill and the Domestic Abuse bill, while the Finance bill will be considered by the Public Bill Committee on Tuesday.

Tuesday will also see the Justice Committee continue its review into the impact of COVID-19 on criminal law, as well as oral questions to the Treasury.

In the House of Lords, peers will consider the Commons’ amendments to the Overseas Operations bill on Monday, and there will be an oral question on the effectiveness of the law in respect of leaseholders and property management companies responsible for the upkeep of communal areas in blocks of flats on Thursday.

Parliament will then prorogue after business has concluded on Thursday, and will return for the Queen's speech on 11 May. No parliamentary business will take place in the intervening time, and any bills that have not either received Royal Assent or been subject to a carry-over motion will fall. 

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