Prisons and Courts Bill abandoned
Government policies kicked into the long grass ahead of UK election
The prime minister’s calling of a snap general election has led to the government scrapping controversial legislation that would reform the personal injury sector and overhaul the courts.
Following Theresa May’s shock announcement that an election will be held on 8 June, the leader of the House of Commons, David Lidington, confirmed that the Prisons and Courts Bill has 'fallen' due to a tight parliamentary timetable.
Parliament will be dissolved 25 days before the election date, meaning all parliamentary business must be concluded by 3 May. Although legislation can be pushed through during the ‘wash-up’ period there is not enough time to pass the Prisons and Courts Bill which has yet to be seen by the Lords.
Responding to news of the bill’s scrapping, justice committee chair Bob Neill said he hoped the bill, which was set to introduce online courts, virtual hearings, and hotly debated changes to the PI market, would be reintroduced ‘as a priority’ should the public return a majority Tory government.
‘[The bill] sets out broadly the right agenda and I hope it is something that we be able to take forward. But of course, part of the reform programme does not require legislation,’ he told the Commons. ‘It’s partly about a change of culture, it’s also a part of change of regulations as much as that can be done without that primary legislation going forward and I hope that the government can confirm that it is determined to press ahead with that.’
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said that although the bill was far from perfect, it did contain valuable measures to make prisons fit for the 21st century. ‘With levels of safety, decency, and fairness continuing to slide, the fall of the bill as a result of the election must not derail the vital job of prison reform. The next government, whatever its political complexion, should reintroduce a prisons bill as a top priority.’
Meanwhile, claimant PI lawyers have welcomed the news. Patrick Allen, senior partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, said: ‘We had grave concerns regarding the proposals for whiplash reform and raising the small claims limit. The new government will now have time to re-consider as the current proposals are a direct threat to injured people gaining access to justice.’
Also commenting, Qamar Anwar, managing director of First4Lawyers, said that dropping the bill would provide the PI industry with ‘breathing space’. However, he warned against the sector celebrating just yet: ‘There is every chance that a victorious Conservative government would seek to resurrect the reforms in part 5 of the bill.
‘So now is not the time to sit back and relax – the claimant sector needs to work together and keep fighting the myths peddled by the insurers about fraud and the so-called compensation culture. With huge extra profits and bonuses at stake, you can be sure that the [Association of British Insurers] won’t let this drop and so we need to be out there, making the case for injured people ahead of cynical profiteering at every turn.’
Huw Evans, director-general of the ABI, welcomed a halt to the bill’s passage if it allowed the government to roll the whiplash reforms in with plans to change the discount rate calculation method, currently out for consultation.
‘The task now is to win the argument for both issues to be dealt with as a priority in the new parliament so there are no major delays to much needed reform,’ Evans remarked. ‘Issues like the increased cost of insurance for motorists and businesses and the £6bn bill for the NHS are not going to go away, so the incentives for a new government to act promptly are there.’
Elsewhere, the Criminal Finances Bill looks set to be pushed through, while the Children and Social Work Bill requires royal assent during wash-up to survive dissolution. The election has also impacted the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee inquiry into child maintenance, which despite being scheduled to begin on 26 April, has now been shelved.
Jane Robey, chief executive of National Family Mediation, said: ‘We are naturally disappointed that a great deal of important government work in the field of family law is again being kicked into the long grass. It looks likely that, whatever the outcome of the election, there will be changes in ministerial positions which tends to make it hard for new ministers to speedily pick up the thread of work that’s been developed in the recent past, lengthening delays to change.’
With all political parties polishing their manifestos for publication, it has been reported that the Conservatives will campaign on ending EU free movement and withdrawing Britain from the single market and the European Court of Justice. There is no word yet on the prime minister’s stance on human rights, but speculation has already begun.
‘The huge issue for human rights is whether Theresa May will campaign on a platform of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights,’ commented 1 Crown Office Row barrister Adam Wagner.
‘Important to remember that it is Theresa May and chief of staff Nick Timothy’s long held view that [the] UK [is] better out of ECHR. If Tories going get a large majority from this election (which is possible) then this is the time to take UK out of ECHR too. Also important that ECHR withdrawal may be quite popular policy with public, on current levels of support for “European” human rights.’
Barrister and director of Liberty Martha Spurrier has urged all parties to commit to protecting our Human Rights Act and maintaining the UK’s membership of the ECHR.
‘Human rights are not a commodity to be negotiated away – be it our membership of the convention, our Human Rights Act, or the rights currently protected by the European Union legal framework,’ she said. ‘We call on all parties to use this opportunity – show the people we can trust you with our human rights.’
John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal