The “Brexit Bill” has completed its passage through the House of Commons. The Bill, which would give permission to the Prime Minister to invoke Article 50, thus triggering the process of Britain’s exit from the EU, was passed unamended. Second reading in the House of Lords is scheduled to begin on 20 February.
The Policing and Crime Bill has received Royal Assent. The Policing and Crime Act 2017 includes measures to reform the police disciplinary and complaints systems to ensure that the public have confidence in their ability to hold the police to account. Among the changes are strengthening oversight of complaints about the police, revising the definition of a complaint, and renaming the existing police complaints body, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, to the Office for Police Conduct (OPC) and reforming its structure, governance and responsibilities.
The Public Accounts Committee has published a report, Protecting information across government. The report suggests that the Government has taken too long to consolidate and co-ordinate the agencies involved in cyber security. It also criticises the lack of coordination across the public sector in data protection, and inconsistencies in the recording of breaches and oversight of costs and performance.
The Home Affairs Committee has published a report on Asylum accommodation, looking at whether COMPASS (Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services) contracts have been an effective means of providing accommodation and support to asylum seekers. The inquiry found that despite the existing inspection regime for asylum accommodation, some of it was “substandard, unsanitary and in some instances, unsafe to live in”. The report makes recommendations for how the system of providing asylum accommodation might be improved upon, both in the long term by the successor to COMPASS, and more immediately in the case of more pressing concerns.
The UK Government has launched a Government Transformation Strategy, which sets out plans for using digital services to transform the relationship between citizens and the state. Among the priorities are to ensure people and businesses have a more coherent experience when interacting with government services, and to make better use of government data, ensuring that government data is properly managed, protected and (where non-sensitive) made available and shared effectively. This includes improving effective and safe data sharing, making better use of data to improve decision making, and transforming the way that government’s major repositories of data are stored and managed.
The Supreme Court has held that an unmarried woman was entitled to receive a survivor’s pension following the death of her partner. The court concluded that the pension constituted a “possession” within the meaning of A1P1 of the ECHR and that her status was relevant for the purpose of article 14. Therefore any difference in treatment between an unmarried partner and a spouse or civil partner would need to be objectively justified. In this case, the court found that attempts to justify the policy of differential treatment were characterized by general clams, unsupported by concrete evidence and disassociated from the particular circumstances of the appellant’s case.
The Minister for Courts and Justice, Sir Oliver Heald, has confirmed that plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights are on hold until “we know the arrangements for our exit from the European Union”.
The Scottish Parliament will nominate Rosemary Agnew as the next Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO). Rosemary Agnew is the current Scottish Information Commissioner, a post she has held since 1 May 2012. She will succeed Jim Martin as SPSO.
Legal aid and access to justice
The Scottish Government has announced an independent review of legal aid in Scotland. The review will be chaired by Martyn Evans, chief executive of the Carnegie Trust, which seeks to improve wellbeing for those who are disadvantaged. It is expected to last a year.
The Government has published its report into the review of Employment Tribunal fees. The report finds no conclusive evidence that the introduction of fees has prevented individuals from making claims. This is because although there has been a marked drop in numbers of claims to the tribunal, the use of ACAS pre-claim conciliation has increased since fees were introduced – conciliation was considered to be effective in helping just under half of the people who refer disputes to them (48%) avoid the need to go to Tribunal. The government has proposed increasing the income threshold for fees remission and to increase publicity of the Help with Fees scheme.
The Ministry of Justice has responded following its consultation last year, Transforming our justice system. The MoJ intends to continue with proposals to provide assisted digital facilities for users who have trouble with using technology, and to introduce an automatic online conviction and standard penalty procedure for railway and tram fare evasion. The Department does not intend to proceed with the proposal to introduce a single member panel as the default position in the unified tribunals. Instead, panels will consist of one, two or three members.
Equality and discrimination
The Welsh Government has announced that it will accept all of the recommendations of an independent report, Talented Women for a Successful Wales. The report, which was commissioned by the Welsh Government, aimed to identify ways to increase the number of women studying and working in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. Recommendations included changes to education and childcare policies.
The Fawcett Society has announced a review of sex discrimination law. The review will be led by retired High Court Judge Dame Laura Cox, and responds to concerns that long established rights could be eroded or weakened as a result of Brexit.
The UK Government has published its response to the report of the Work and Pensions Select Committee on its inquiry into the work of HMRC and Concentrix on tax credits. Among the recommendations it has agreed to are to have HMRC review all cases where Concentrix amended or terminated a benefit award but an appeal was not requested by the claimant.
The Ministry of Justice has published the latest safety in custody statistics to September 2016. The Justice Secretary responded to the statistics, stating that rates of violence and self-harm are too high. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has suggested that prisons should be downsized and the overall prison population should be halved.
The Home Secretary has announced the curtailment of the “Dubs amendment” scheme to bring unaccompanied children from migrant camps in Europe into the UK. The Home Secretary suggested that the scheme had encouraged people traffickers. It was originally envisaged that up to 3000 children might be brought to the UK under the scheme. The actual total will be approximately 350.