Westminster weekly update: Cabinet reshuffle underway

Alexandra Cardenas
Alexandra CardenasThe Law Society
Houses of Parliament

One thing you need to do

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Five things you need to know

1. Cabinet reshuffle

A Cabinet reshuffle began last Thursday, with several new appointments made and other ministers returning to their former posts.

Suella Braverman MP has been appointed attorney general, succeeding Geoffrey Cox QC MP. Braverman is a former barrister and last held office in 2018 as a junior minister in the now defunct Department for Exiting the European Union.

Robert Buckland QC MP was reappointed to his existing role as lord chancellor.

Other key appointments include: Rishi Sunak MP as chancellor of the exchequer; Stephen Barclay (a solicitor) as chief secretary to the Treasury; Brandon Lewis (a barrister) as secretary of state for Northern Ireland; Alok Sharma as secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, and Oliver Dowden as secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport.

The reshuffle continued on Friday, with changes at junior ministerial level. Chris Philp MP and Wendy Morton MP have been moved from their positions at the Ministry of Justice, with Philp appointed as a parliamentary under secretary of state at the Home Office, and Morton appointed as parliamentary under secretary of state at the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, as well as an assistant whip. As of writing, their replacements have not been announced. Lucy Frazer MP has been reappointed to her previous role as minister of state for prisons and probation.

Read the latest updates on ministerial appointments

2. Government to legislate to stop early release for terrorism offences

Last Tuesday, the government introduced legislation into the House of Commons which aims to end the automatic early release of people convicted of terrorist-related offences.

The Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill then completed its passage through the House of Commons last Wednesday.

During the Commons stages of the Bill, many of the contributions from MPs focused on whether retrospectively applying the legislation on those already serving their sentence was in compliance with the European Convention of Human Rights. The lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP argued that he believed it is compatible with the Convention rights. The Bill does not engage the provisions of Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights because it relates to the way in which the sentence is administered, not a change in the nature of the penalty itself. Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill MP (Conservative) argued that case law has made it clear that the administration of a sentence is not part of the penalty, and therefore it should not be deemed incompatible. Later in the debate, he argued that the Bill was necessary to protect the public. Kenny MacAskill MP (SNP) said that retrospectivity is rare, and must be done right. He welcomed the extensive consideration into the matter.

The lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP noted that the provisions of the Bill would likely affect around 50 people serving a sentence currently. Former prime minister Theresa May MP (Conservative) raised the issue of risk, and noted that even with the measure in the Bill, terrorist offenders will still be released at some point. She said that rehabilitation is important, both in prison and when they are out of prison. Kenny MacAskill MP (SNP) said that it is one thing to detain terrorists for longer, it is another to do something constructive with them when you have them. The lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP said that the government is constantly looking at these rehabilitation programmes to make sure they are properly calibrated.

The Bill passed of its Commons stages with support across the chamber. The Bill will now progress through the House of Lords when it returns from recess on 24 February 2020. It is anticipated that the Bill will receive Royal Assent by the end of the month.

Read the debate in the Commons

Read the bill (PDF)

3. Law Society mentioned in Lords debate on the use of algorithms in the public sector

Last Wednesday the House of Lords held a short debate, led by Lord Clement-Jones (Liberal Democrat) on the steps the government has taken to assess the full implications of decision-making and prediction by algorithm in the public sector. We were mentioned three times during the debate by peers citing findings from its report on algorithms in the criminal justice system.

Lord Clement-Jones referenced the concerns raised in our report and highlighted our recommendations on oversight, registration and mitigation of risks in the justice system. Lord Taylor of Warwick (non-affiliated) stated that he was “most worried about the Law Society’s concerns”, highlighting the risk of unconscious bias affecting the outcomes of data-based predictive policing tools and leading to discriminatory outcomes for BAME communities. Lord Stunell (Liberal Democrat) meanwhile noted that the Law Society, among other organisations, had concluded that it is difficult to know the full extent of the use of AI in the public sector.

In closing the debate, Baroness Barran (parliamentary under-secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport) noted that the UK is a world leader in artificial intelligence, and cited a PwC report that estimated that AI could add almost $16 trillion to the global economy.

She noted that the government has taken a number of steps to maintain public trust in AI, including establishing the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, developing a data ethics framework and a guide to using artificial intelligence, and creating a draft set of guidelines for AI procurement.

Baroness Barran also noted the recently published report on AI from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, highlighting its recommendations for greater transparency in the use of algorithms; new guidance to ensure that algorithmic decision-making abides by equalities law; the creation of a single, coherent regulatory framework to govern AI; the formation of a statutory body to advise existing regulators on relevant issues; and proper routes of redress for citizens who feel that decisions are unfair. She said that the government will respond to these recommendations in due course.

Read our report on algorithms in the criminal justice system

4. Attorney General's Office questioned on public legal education

Last Thursday the solicitor general responded to questions in the House of Commons on behalf of the government’s law officers.

During the question session, Liz Twist MP (Labour) asked about the effectiveness of the CPS in prosecuting cases involving domestic violence. She noted that the number of domestic abuse-related cases have risen. Responding, the solicitor general Michael Ellis QC MP said that domestic abuse offences are horrific crimes and that it is important that victims are provided with robust protection. He said the CPS has led the implementation of a national domestic abuse best practice framework for magistrate court cases. Shadow solicitor general Nick Thomas-Symonds MP asked why police referrals to the CPS in domestic abuse cases fell by 11% despite the number of incidents and crimes recorded by the police having increased. Responding, the solicitor general Michael Ellis QC MP said he understands why this is a cause for concern. He said there is a cross-government review of the criminal justice system’s response to this matter and that action is being taken.

Jessica Morden MP (Labour) asked about the public’s understanding of the law, and the rise of litigants-in-person due to legal aid cuts. Responding, the solicitor general Michael Ellis QC MP said that he engages regularly with others across government on improving the public’s understanding of the law. He noted that during Justice Week there will be a “big legal lesson” delivered in schools around the country, and he will be attending the MP drop-in session during the week. He argued that public legal education provides people with vital awareness, but that legal aid is also vital. Stuart C. McDonald MP (SNP) said that understanding of the law is vital for the rule of law, and noted remarks made by president of the Law Society Simon Davis on the importance of judicial review. He called for the government to stop attacking judges. Responding, the solicitor general Michael Ellis QC MP said that public legal education provides valuable insight and awareness to young people, in particular about rights and responsibilities.

Geraint Davies MP (Labour) asked about the effect of Brexit on legal protections on human rights and the rule of law. He asked about the institutions of our democracy and raised concerns about threats to the Human Rights Act. Responding, the solicitor general Michael Ellis QC MP said that the UK has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, fulfilling its international human rights obligations and upholding the rule of law. Leaving the EU will not change that. He said that we practised human rights before the 1998 Act and we will continue to do so.

Justin Madders MP (Labour) asked about the level of CPS resources and its ability to comply with its disclosure obligations. Responding, the solicitor general Michael Ellis QC MP said that the proper disclosure of unused material is vital if there is to be a fair trial. There has been an £85m investment in the CPS and an increase in the number of police officers.

Read the full session

5. President appears on Brexit panel alongside Alberto Costa MP

Last Wednesday Law Society president Simon Davis appeared on a panel in Parliament, hosted by the British Italian Conservatives, discussing ‘Brexit and the Law: what next?’ He outlined the importance of the law, legal sector, and services to the prosperity and proper functioning of the UK, and argued they should be prioritised in future relationship negotiations. He addressed the contribution Italian lawyers and firms make to the legal sector of England and Wales, and reassured attendees that the sector and Law Society will always welcome and value global talent.

Alberto Costa MP, who resigned from a parliamentary private secretary role in early 2019 so he could champion amendments related to Brexit and citizens' rights, thanked Simon for his comments and praised the contribution of the legal sector. He said a key government priority was ‘getting Brexit right for each of the legal systems in the UK’ and that he was pressing the Government to do this from the back benches.

Also speaking was council member Maria Memoli, who addressed our Brexit priorities in greater detail. She particularly stressed the importance of seeking to accede to the Lugano Convention and the effect not doing so would have on businesses, consumers and families.

Read our transition period guidance

Coming up this week

Parliament will be in recess next week, with both Houses returning Monday 24 February.

If you made it this far

We published a new community care desert heatmap, which shows how cared-for people fighting to get vital welfare services or remain in their own home are being denied support by a shortage of community care legal aid provision.

More than 37 million people in England and Wales live in a local authority area without a single community care legal aid provider, including over 7.5 million people aged 65 and over.

Find out more about our community care deserts heatmap