by Ann Higgins

Readers may remember that in our last newsletter we raised a number of concerns about how our present government is using its 79-seat majority to unpick our democracy. Sadly we have to report that they continue their efforts apace.

Here are some updates:

  • The Police, Crime and Sentencing Courts (PCSC) Bill is still in its committee stage in the House of Lords which should now finish on 22 November and then pass to its report stage in December for voting on the amendments discussed. Then it should go back to the Commons for MPs to vote on any amendments passed by the Lords probably in the New Year. Unusually, the government has decided to try and introduce (some might say sneak in) its own amendments via the Lords without allowing the Commons to discuss them first. These amendments include the very specific new offences of “locking on” and “going equipped to lock on” which are aimed at protestors who lock themselves to railings or equipment and propose unlimited fines and/or six months imprisonment for those convicted which they also want to extend to all those convicted of obstructing a highway, raising the existing fine of £1,000.
  • A further amendment seeks to introduce “Criminal Disruption Prevention Orders” which will effectively give a criminal court the power to issue an injunction on those “likely to commit offences” from attending particular protests. The level of evidence required and how these orders might be challenged by those affected is not clear. Stop and search powers are also to be extended to allow the police to stop anyone in the area of a protest to search for items that could be used to cause “serious disruption”. Better not be carrying any cable ties with you anywhere near any demos!
  • Another new and unwelcome addition to an existing bill is the Home Secretary’s proposal to widen the Nationality and Borders Bill to extend the existing power to remove UK citizenship by removing the requirement for notice to be given, which is already limited to serving the notice on someone’s last address if their whereabouts are unknown.  If passed, Clause 9 would permit a person’s citizenship to be removed with no notice at all, if either it was not reasonably practicable to find them, or if it should not be given in the interests of national security, or in the interests of the relationship between the UK and another country, or it’s otherwise in the public interest.
  • Passing to the Elections Bill, I should rectify an omission from the last newsletter which is that it seeks to change the few English elections that use a form of PR, e.g. Mayoral and Police Commissioner elections to FPTP. Perusing a recent debate on the Bill on Hansard I found this extraordinary claim by Christopher Pincher, Minister for state at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Committees:

Supporting first past the post is a long-standing Conservative commitment. It is in our manifesto and it reflects the view of the British people, as expressed in the 2011 referendum, when 67% of them voted for first past the post. The House will of course want to know that in my constituency of Tamworth 77% of electors voted for it.

Of course those of us with memories longer than those of the Minister will remember that there was a mere 42% turnout in the 2011 Alternate Vote Referendum so that the claim that the rejection by 67% of those who voted (a mere 28% of the electorate) was a vote by the British People for FPTP is at best a bit of a stretch, particularly when, as was pointed out in the debate, the question posed in the 2011 referendum related to a specific form of PR, and was not a referendum on all forms of non FPTP voting methods as the government would now have us believe. Indeed, the London Mayoral elections have been conducted on a supplementary vote system since 2000, which begs the question why the government has not seen fit to try to change it in the decade since the 2011 referendum.

  • Another point well made in the debate was that yet again the government was trying to introduce amendments at a late stage in the bill, in this case after the Commons committee stage had taken place, thus preventing the normal discussion and evidence taking that would have then have taken place. More evidence, if such is needed, of this government’s willingness to ride roughshod over normal procedures that are designed to give Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise proposed legislation. The debate is well worth a read to see the anger with which the opposition greeted these proposals but predictably the motion to allow these amendments to be considered was won by the government by 309 – 186 votes.
  • Moving onto the Judicial Review and Courts Bill and the government’s plans to “reform” judicial review (which look to many including the Law Society like the government attempting simply to deter people from challenging it), it had its second reading on 26 October and has now passed to the committee stage. As with other bills discussed above, there are rumours that the government intends to introduce late amendments one of which may be to propose a mechanism to overturn court decisions it doesn’t like. As the Institute for Government says in a recent blog:

In principle, parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament is entitled, at least as a matter of UK law, to overturn any judgment it likes. But legislation which overturns judgments also engages another important constitutional principle: the separation of powers. Parliament makes laws, but it is the courts who interpret, apply and enforce them.

Suppose that a government which enjoyed a large majority, and strong party discipline, got into the habit of legislating to overturn the court’s ruling every single time it lost a case. The government would effectively become the judge in its own case, giving itself carte blanche to act without any regard to its legal obligations.

That would ultimately be bad news for citizens, in two ways. First, it would be uncertain: they would struggle to find out what the law was if they could not rely on judgments of the court to tell them. Second, it would be unfair: the government’s interpretation of its legal obligations is partisan, and that is exactly why independent courts are needed to answer these questions.

It would also be bad news for Parliament: though legislators might try to place legal obligations on the executive, those obligations would not count for much if ministers could evade enforcement.

No one is suggesting that the government will go that far. But, as the hypothetical at least demonstrates why, as with reform to judicial review, the government needs to show restraint. The easier it is for ministers to decide that judgments against them should be overturned, and the more often this happens, the greater the risk to fairness, certainty and the constitution. The government has said that it wants to “restore the balance” between the courts and politicians; that should not mean equipping ministers with weights to tip the scales in their favour.

  • Finally on this subject some interesting responses to David Davis’s Guardian article about judicial review which we featured in our last edition; as one of their correspondents says, he never expected to find himself in agreement with David Davis.
  • However, we could not conclude this update without reference to the Owen Paterson debacle which still rumbles on to the extreme discomfort of the government. With a stunning disregard for the democratic norms of Parliament, the government tried to change the procedure governing the disciplining of MPs who are adjudged to have breached the rules on standards mid-stream, solely to benefit one of their own. They appear to have been genuinely shocked by the anger this evinced, including on their own backbenches and were forced into an immediate U-turn, which was then derailed by Christopher Chope, (the Honourable Member for upskirting) objecting to their new bill. This was eventually accepted but is limited only to a review of the rules on second jobs etc., and not to the absolute ban for which the opposition was contending. Looks as if it’s business as usual for the Tories, when they think they can get away with it.

Impact of the £20/week cut in UC on Cornwall – Cornish MPs’ response – update

Following up the responses we received from two of the six Tory Cornish MPs to our letter to them about the impact of removing the £20/week uplift to Universal Credit, which took effect as from 12 October, we have now received a further response, this time from Derek Thomas, MP for St Ives.

Dear xxx,
Thank you for your email – and apologies that I have not replied before now.  The problem with the £20 uplift, as I have always maintained, is that it was badly targeted – which is acceptable when helping recipients to cope with a pandemic, but should be changed when the situation returns to normal.
As you will have seen, the budget last month helped those on Universal Credit by reducing the taper from 63p to 55p, meaning that those on the lowest wages will take more money home. Together with the increase in the national living wage, and the rise in the income tax threshold, this will do more for low-earners than the Universal Credit uplift, as well as providing incentives for them to work.
For those who are not able to work – and, in this constituency, most of these people have not been transferred on to Universal Credit and so were not eligible for the £20 uplift anyway – the government has introduced support that is, again, better targeted, including the new £500m Household Support fund which will support the most vulnerable members of society. 
Kind regards,
Derek Thomas
Member of Parliament for West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (St Ives)

Naturally he ignores the effect of the NI increase on UC claimants who are in work, paints the lack of the uplift for many UC claimants as some sort of benefit, and forgets entirely about the rise in inflation which affects all claimants and is currently running at 4.2% per annum, the highest since December 2011.