Westminster update: Chancellor delivers spring declaration

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What do you want to know

1. The Chancellor delivers the Spring Declaration

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, delivered his spring statement Wednesday, March 23, announcing a number of changes to the Office for Budget Responsibilities’ tax and economic forecast.

In response to the rising cost of living, the Chancellor announced a 5p fuel tax cut and raised National Insurance thresholds by £3,000 to support those on low incomes. The Chancellor also acknowledged that the economic situation in the UK remains deeply uncertain due to rising inflation and events in Ukraine.

Along with the cost of living measures, the Chancellor announced a new tax plan, which he said would allow the government to cut taxes and help grow the economy. The plan includes a government commitment to work with businesses ahead of the budget in the fall to find the most effective way to cut taxes.

As part of this plan, the government will examine the operation of the apprenticeship tax, demanded by the Bar, and the means of reforming the tax credits for research and development.

Finally, he underlined his intention to reduce the basic rate of income tax from 20p to 19p by the end of this legislature in 2024.

Read our response

2. MPs question the Lord Chancellor

Justice Matters took place on Tuesday, March 22, with MPs question the Lord ChancellorDominic Raab, on human rights reforms, law firms working for Russian clients and criminal legal aid.

Debbie Abrahams (Labour) cited the Bar’s view that reforms to human rights law fail to recognize the significant benefits the law has achieved, while calling for the reforms to be abandoned. Raab responded that he was aware of the Law Society’s views but would “respectfully disagree”, and said he stood up for the rights of victims and the public.

Shadow Lord Chancellor Steve Reed asked what was being done to stop UK law firms ‘acting as enablers of Russian criminals’. Legal Aid Minister James Cartlidge said the rule of law meant everyone had the right to be represented by a lawyer and noted the strict regulations lawyers follow.

Afzal Khan, the shadow minister for legal aid, asked how the government intended to prevent criminal lawyers from being forced out of the profession. The Lord Chancellor said the government had published a detailed response to the Bellamy review of criminal legal aid and had “matched Bellamy’s recommendations on the amount of investment” for criminal legal aid.

Read our response to the Human Rights Act consultation

3. Peers debate effect of Covid-19 on courts

Peers debated the constitution committee report on the effect of the pandemic on the courts Wednesday (March 23). Committee chair Baroness Taylor (Labour) presented the report, noting the severe strain on the justice system before the pandemic due to cuts to the courts and legal aid.

Regarding the response to the pandemic, Baroness Taylor argued that the court experience was uneven, with higher courts performing better than less well-resourced lower courts. She also expressed concern about the experience of vulnerable users, noting the Law Society’s concerns about how vulnerable court users may use technology.

Responding on behalf of the Government, the Minister for Justice, Lord Wolfson, set out the measures taken by the Government to respond to the pandemic. These steps included implementing security measures in courtrooms, deploying technology to enable remote hearings and opening the Nightingale Courts.

Turning to legal aid, Lord Wolfson spoke of the government’s response to Sir Christopher Bellamy’s report on criminal legal aid, which proposed investment in the sector.

4. The Attorney General answers questions

Questions from the Attorney General took place in the House of Commons on Thursday March 24, with MPs raising questions about Russian war crimes and Strategic Public Participation Prosecutions (SLAPPs).

The Chairman of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill (Conservative), has asked the Attorney General to consider sending British lawyers to the International Criminal Court to support its investigation into Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Attorney General Suella Braverman said she was pleased with the suggestion and called on any lawyers who wish to support this work to get in touch with the Law Society or Bar Council so these efforts can be channeled.

Clive Efford (Labour) criticized the government for being slow to ban the use of SLAPPs and called for urgent action to end this form of litigation. The Attorney General said the Lord Chancellor had recently announced action to target the practice and that measures would be introduced to protect the public interest and “end the abuse of our legal process”.

Future

We will work closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

Judicial Review and the Courts Bill: The bill will pass report stage on March 31. Read our briefing on the bill

The Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: The Bill will return to the Lords for consideration of Commons amendments on March 28. Read our briefing on the bill

Vocational Qualifications Bill: The Bill will return to the Lords for consideration of Commons amendments on March 29. Read our briefing on the bill

Building Safety Bill: The bill will pass report stage in the House of Lords on March 29.

Nationality and Borders Bill: The Bill will go to the House of Lords for consideration of Commons amendments on April 4. Read our briefing on the bill

If you have come this far…

Read our advice on what the Economic Crimes Act means for law firms