Judicial Review and Courts Bill (Second sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: † Sir Mark Hendrick, Andrew Rosindell
† Barker, Paula (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
† Cartlidge, James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
† Crawley, Angela (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP)
† Cunningham, Alex (Stockton North) (Lab)
† Daby, Janet (Lewisham East) (Lab)
† Fletcher, Nick (Don Valley) (Con)
† Hayes, Sir John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
† Higginbotham, Antony (Burnley) (Con)
† Hunt, Tom (Ipswich) (Con)
† Johnson, Dr Caroline (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
† Longhi, Marco (Dudley North) (Con)
McLaughlin, Anne (Glasgow North East) (SNP)
† Mann, Scott (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Marson, Julie (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
† Moore, Damien (Southport) (Con)
† Slaughter, Andy (Hammersmith) (Lab)
† Twist, Liz (Blaydon) (Lab)
Huw Yardley, Seb Newman, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Richard Leiper QC
André Rebello OBE, Senior Coroner, Liverpool and Wirral area
Sara Lomri, Deputy Legal Director, Public Law Project
Ellie Cumbo, Head of Public Law, The Law Society
Louise Whitfield, Head of Legal Casework, Liberty
Louise Finer, Head of Policy, Inquest
Stephanie Needleman, Acting Legal Director, Justice
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Programme Director for Refugee and Migrant Rights, Amnesty International UK
Dr Joe Tomlinson, Senior Lecturer in Public Law, University of York
Aidan O’Neill QC
Michael Clancy OBE, Director of Law Reform, The Law Society of Scotland
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 2 November 2021
[Sir Mark Hendrick in the Chair]
Judicial Review and Courts Bill
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of Witnesses
André Rebello OBE and Richard Leiper QC, gave evidence.
Richard Leiper: My name is Richard Leiper QC. I am a specialist in employment law and related civil matters. I am also chair of the advisory council of the litigant in person support strategy. In that capacity, I was part of a shadow online rules committee that was chaired by Mr Justice Langstaff.
André Rebello: I am André Rebello. I am the senior coroner in Liverpool and the Wirral and the honorary secretary of the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales, the judicial association for coroners. I have been a coroner for over 28 years, and I welcome, with some caveats, all the provisions relating to coroners in the Bill.
André Rebello: A coroner’s jurisdiction is inquisitorial. It is an inquiry; it is not litigation. In the vast majority of inquests in which the state is represented—apart from some very high-profile inquests—those representing the state are actually representing, in effect, a body corporate, to provide a voice to an organisation. They often facilitate the proceedings, assist the court and, more often than not, assist bereaved families to understand the issues before the court.
André Rebello: As you will recall from the Justice Committee hearings with the chief coroner, the deputy chief coroner and myself, more than 95% of inquests are heard by coroners sitting alone. The coroner has an enabling role, and it is the coroner who carries out an inquiry. Only the coroner can call evidence, and you will also recall that the coroner’s court is the only court where no one actually brings a case to prove. We are led by the evidence, and the coroner’s role is to level the playing field.
André Rebello: Where there is representation, you should recall that from section 41, where the properly interested persons are identified, they have rights with regard to disclosure of advance information, but thereafter their duty is to assist the court in finding the true facts as to who the deceased was, when and where they died, and by what means and in what circumstances they came by death in certain cases. That is all done without determining criminal liability by a named person or any question of civil liability. This is an inquest, not litigation.
André Rebello: Lots of things caught my eye, however, I am a judge and not the Executive. It must be for the Executive to make policy. However, I will reiterate the issue of the national shortage of pathologists desperately needs addressing. The fees have not been increased for over 20 years and that is something which must affect the number of pathologists available to facilitate coronial investigation.
Richard, do you wish to respond to this question?
Richard Leiper: No thank you.
Richard Leiper: One of the things that people need to appreciate about the conception here is how broadly it could be applied. It is intended or, at least, it empowers there to be rules which cross employment tribunals, first-tier tribunals, all civil proceedings and all family proceedings, and it would need to be dealt with on a very narrow incremental basis.
I see two particular issues. First, there is not an existing infrastructure for an online process. Essentially, this rule committee would be laying rules which could be seen to tread on the toes of the existing rule committees for civil procedure, for family law, for employment tribunals and it would set down rules which somehow put in place the process which, for example, would tread on the toes of an employment tribunal—so, how a claim was initiated.
The online rule committee would be setting a rule which provided a wholly new way of a process being initiated. That would need the buy-in and support of the tribunal process, because there is not, as yet, the underlying infrastructure. That is in contrast, for example, to the civil procedure rule committee, where the entire infrastructure of the civil court process is there, and the judges know where they fit in and what they are supposed to be doing. Here, this has judges being told that there is a new process which has an online procedure, and they will not have a clue how that is supposed to operate.
If you start broadening it, it becomes cross-jurisdictional. For example, someone who wants to bring a claim against their employer that involves a breach of contract claim and an unfair dismissal claim, but one of which would normally go to a civil court and one to an employment tribunal. How can that be pulled together? Who would be the judge that dealt with it, and how would the procedure move forward? These are enormously difficult questions, which brings me to a second point.
The current composition of the committee is a total of 6 people. That is in contrast to the civil procedure rule committee, which has 18 members. The family procedure rule committee has 18 members. To me, given the potential breadth of the rule that could be set by this committee, having one senior judge, a couple of other judges, one practitioner, one layperson and one computer person is simply not enough. That is partly because the scope for the procedures would be trespassing on areas which it is likely that no member of the committee would have any knowledge of.
For example, I have no knowledge at all about family court proceedings—how they begin, how they proceed, or what the interests of the various parties would be. Yet, if there is just one practitioner, who could be a barrister, a solicitor or a legal executive—each of whom have different perspectives on how the system operates, how it impacts on clients, other parties and so forth—there will not be the wealth of knowledge, even with consultation with people who do know, to enable effective online rules. The composition of the committee is my single greatest concern.
Richard Leiper: I could not agree with that more. I think it is exactly the right concept to have. It will help litigants. There is provision so that those who do not have the means of doing things online would have the alternative of doing so through more traditional mechanisms, but I completely agree with the process because it should simplify the system to enable people to access justice more freely.
I could not agree more with the underlying concept. It is more a matter of ensuring that the infrastructure is in place to carry that through, so that it can become effective. That has two parts. First, it means having a properly composed committee with the expertise that can be brought to it and, secondly, having the infrastructure behind it so that it is not just a rule committee setting what needs to happen on high, but it gets the buy-in of everyone who will implement it and of how it will operate.
Richard Leiper: I am not one for large committees, which can be counterproductive, but we are talking about an enormous amount of work that will need to be undertaken across a wide range of practice areas. I suggest that the composition was akin to that of the civil procedure rule committee and of family law, so having more judges and more practitioners. The committee has only one person who can bring the knowledge of the lay-advice sector, whereas I think both the civil procedure rule committee and the family procedure rule committee each have two lay members. It needs a wider composition akin to those of the existing rule committees—which seem to operate perfectly successfully—where people are able to bring together the knowledge and direction of what they want to achieve through the online rule committee, but also bring particular practice or individual knowledge to the development of those rules.
Richard Leiper: I guess that the biggest risk is of technological failure of some kind, because this is wholly dependent on having the underlying technology operating successfully. If there is a failure, then it could lead to disaster. It is about ensuring that there is the funding and knowledge behind it to be able to support a process that would need to be implemented in a small area at first—I would think—ensuring that it was successful, and then gradually broadening it so that one could have confidence in its effectiveness. It is about having the comfort that there is going to be the technological and financial support behind it to ensure that it works.
Richard Leiper: I suppose there are two answers to that. One is yes. The other, which is my personal view, is that it seems to reflect the processes that are already in place into the existing procedure rule committee. This appears to have been the accepted approach since about 2005, and it seems to be replicating that. It does seem to give a substantial power to the Lord Chancellor in this regard, which I personally find surprising. However, it seems to be the way that things have operated for some time.
André Rebello: Perhaps I misspoke. When a coroner sits alone, the coroner still hears evidence, and witnesses still come to court. It is just that there is no representation for any of the interested persons; the coroner hears evidence and makes finding and determinations. There is a real issue, though, with remote hearings in that, although many people have found advantages with them, the coronavirus easements did not apply to coroners’ courts. Coroners’ courts have only been able to work through remote hearings by using rule 17 to receive video evidence.
The provisions in this Bill are to bring coroners’ courts in line with other courts. However, there is a real issue in regard to the Equality Act 2010; not everyone can participate in the rule of law and in open justice through remote hearings. Any judge presiding has to be very careful to make sure that everyone can participate. I suspect there are more disadvantages in remote hearings than in having everyone in court, where you can fully appreciate how people are following the proceedings. In the 95% of cases where there is no representation, the coroner still hears evidence. It is not as if the coroner is just reading statements; evidence is still heard.
André Rebello: No. Basically, with remote hearings, there are all kinds of AV infrastructure challenges with regard to recording what has been said, and people with hearing difficulties being able to follow Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Technically it is quite difficult. It is also difficult for a coroner to evaluate evidence, because they do not have the people in front of them to judge.
Further, there is a danger with remote hearings that we will lose courts. If people can have all hearings remotely, there is a danger that we may not have a court infrastructure in future, for when justice needs to be seen to be done. The correct procedure in my view is that most things should be dealt with in court, and remote hearings should be used where necessary, but that should not become the norm.
André Rebello: Under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the coroner can receive evidence by video, under rule 17 of the inquest rules. I have certainly received evidence from Australia and, I think, South Africa, with doctor witnesses who had moved overseas and then given evidence. I see no reason why coroners should not receive evidence from overseas. However, if people can attend, it is important, because it is a lot easier to give an explanation about the means someone comes by the cause of death, if everyone is in the courtroom, and everyone can follow the proceedings.
If Parliament brings in remote hearings for coroners and brings them in line with the Courts and Tribunals Service courts, the Chief Coroner will have to issue some very firm guidance on how and when it is used, because I do not believe it should become the norm.
André Rebello: Absolutely; if someone needs to attend court and they cannot attend other than remotely, that is fine. At the moment, the legislation relating to coroners allows witness evidence to be given remotely only under rule 17 of the coroner’s inquest rules. The easements that would be provided by the Judicial Review and Courts Bill would enable coroners’ courts to be far more flexible, with people appearing remotely, and also broadcasting. At the moment, under section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925, it is unlawful for a coroner’s court—or any court—to broadcast. The purpose of remote hearings is for participation.
André Rebello: I have no problem with that proposal, that being another tool in the bag, as and where it is necessary, that is needed. My own preference is to go into court and record the hearing that I would have had, so that people can apply for a copy of what has been received and they can actually hear what has occurred. Certainly, it takes a lot longer to write down a considered decision than to go into court, go through the evidence orally and speak to it. Something that could take me five to 10 minutes in court, could take me an hour and a half to write down the issues, the law being applied, the rulings, the findings, determinations and conclusion, and then all the reasons which you would need for a considered judgment. That would be far, far more time consuming and may well take up far more coroners’ time. I appreciate not all coroners have access to courts all the time, and they cannot just go into court, so this is a very useful proposal, which I am sure will be used as and when needed.
André Rebello: Absolutely. We should bear in mind that coroners are judges like any other judge, and every judge is an independent judicial office holder. No other judge, other than a properly constituted appellate court, can tell another judge how to decide something or do something. However, it is important to have guidance to ensure consistency not only between coroners, but internally for each coroner. What you have to bear in mind is that every coroner determines the facts of the case on the very facts that are before the coroner. No two cases are actually the same. If the Chief Coroner is minded to issue guidance, that can only help to make these things work.
When you look at the provisions, the ability to merge coroner areas is something that has been long needed, because at the moment you can only merge unitary authorities, not parts of those authorities and that has delayed the coroner reform project. It is sensible that the disapplication of reportable deaths under covid continues because we are not out of the pandemic. On remote hearings, we should be brought in line with the Courts and Tribunals Service, with some guidance to ensure consistency, so that that facility is used where necessary, but not overused, because the rule of law and open justice is very important and people should be able to attend to see justice being done.
As we have just discussed, written inquests, without going into court, will have their need when coroners are struggling to get a court. The ability to discontinue cases when we have not ordered a post-mortem is long over needed. Occasionally, we will have a GP abroad who knows the cause of death and there is no one else qualified to give a cause of death. The only way the coroner could open up the facility to discontinue that case would be to order an unnecessary post-mortem. The proposal will enable coroners to open an investigation and when the GP returns, to discontinue and have the death registered.
That does raise another issue that the Bill does not cover, and I am sure that Members will be aware that the sunset clause in the Coronavirus Act 2020 expires in March next year. The law used to be that a doctor had to treat a patient in his or her last illness and, relying on regulation 41 of the births and deaths regulations, had to have seen the patient within 14 days of death, or seen the body after death. The Coronavirus Act gave an easement, enabling 28 days to be used, whereby any doctor had seen the patient and any other doctor could see the body after the death. It looks as if that part of the Coronavirus Act will expire before Parliament has a chance to bring into force the medical examiner and death registration provisions. There will be a big lacuna in the work coroners are carrying out. If doctors are not seeing patients face to face and cannot issue death certificates, far more cases will be unnecessarily reported to the coroner. If there is any way to continue that coronavirus easement on death certification, it would be greatly appreciated, particularly by the bereaved.
“Online pleas compromise open justice principles by removing the opportunity for the plea hearing to be witnessed/observed.”
It sounds like you may agree, Mr Rebello. To what extent do you think online pleas are compatible with the principles of open justice?
André Rebello: I am not sure that is a matter for a coroner, because I deal with inquisitorial proceedings in which there are no pleas.
Richard Leiper: This might relate to the Crown court part of the Bill, which I do not think either of us deals with. Online pleas would be an aspect of the criminal process.
Three questioners wish to be called a second time. I will call them in the order in which they indicated.
Richard Leiper: I should not. I sit as a recorder in the Crown court, but I would not hold myself up as having the necessary expertise.
Richard Leiper: Again, that is an issue for the Crown court section of your discussion, rather than the civil side of things.
André Rebello: Actually, there are many. With the easements in the Coronavirus Act, we are just about keeping our heads above water in the coroner service. Under the Coronavirus Act, any doctor could have treated the patient—it does not have to be the doctor who certifies the death, provided that the other doctor sees the body after death—and we have been able to get medical examiners and other doctors to issue death certificates. These are all deaths from natural causes, which should not ordinarily be reported to the coroner. Hopefully, the statutory medical examiner service will alleviate quite a lot of the deaths that come the coroner’s way, which cause a lot of concern for bereaved families. Unfortunately, a lot of deaths are reported to the coroner unnecessarily. At the moment—gosh—probably 20% or 30% of deaths being reported now do not need to be reported. Doctors could issue, but for whatever reason, the deaths are being reported—I suspect that doctors are busy trying to get back to normal and see patients.
I have concerns about the coronavirus easements lapsing before we bring in the new death certification and medical examiner provisions. I raise this on the record to flag that I can see a storm brewing in, probably, April of next year.
Richard Leiper: I do not see any particular issues with them, but they do seem primarily administrative in that they are reflecting changes. There are issues about the composition of the tribunal, which I suspect some people may have concerns about. There has been quite a substantial shift in tribunals being presided over by a judge alone rather than being supported by members, for example, but in my experience, that has not been unsuccessful. The provisions seek to further that, as I understand them.
Richard Leiper: Yes. On where it fits, I do not know why, historically, it has not fallen within the Ministry of Justice; it has always been slightly out on a limb in that it has not.
Richard Leiper: As I understand it, they are desperately trying to recruit more judges, which is an underlying problem. Another problem that I do not think the Bill would address is the financial support and infrastructure for employment tribunals. Individual employment tribunal centres are essentially fractured in the IT that they have, as I understand it, and that has caused significant problems, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, when remote hearings were almost impossible because the tribunal just lacked the software and infrastructure to be able to do them. There has been a chronic underfunding of the tribunals system for a very long time, and if the backlog is going to be dealt with, the system desperately needs that support.
Richard Leiper: Yes—well, not problems, but it has meant that more people have been able to bring their claims. I do not see that as a problem, but it has created more cases that need to be dealt with, yes.
I thank both our witnesses for being present today and giving evidence, which I am sure the Committee has found very useful indeed. We will now move on to the next panel of witnesses.
Examination of Witnesses
Sara Lomri, Ellie Cumbo and Louise Whitfield gave evidence.
We are now going to hear evidence from Sara Lomri, deputy legal director at the Public Law Project; from Ellie Cumbo, who is head of public law at the Law Society; and from Louise Whitfield, who is head of casework at Liberty. We have until 3.30 pm for this panel, and we will try to make sure that the questions are fairly sharp. If the answers can be equally sharp, we will get more questions in and I am sure it will be much more fruitful. I can see two of the three witnesses on screen, and the third witness is present in person. First of all, can each of you briefly introduce yourself, and then we will open it up to questions?
Sara Lomri: Hello, I am Sara Lomri. I am the deputy legal director at the Public Law Project.
Ellie Cumbo: Good afternoon, my name is Ellie Cumbo, and I am the Law Society’s head of public law.
Louise Whitfield: I am head of legal casework at Liberty. I will be talking on behalf of Liberty, but I have been a judicial review specialist for 20 years, so I may refer to my experience in practice previously.
Sara Lomri: I am happy to go first, and thanks for the question. Ultimately, the short answer is no, they are not justified. IRAL, which you were talking about this morning—Lord Faulks’s review—asked for lots of evidence. They were asked to review administrative law in a really short timeframe, and they were not able to go into the kind of level of research detail that we would have liked them to, but they nevertheless did a valiant job. They gathered evidence from right across the public law world. Although some of their recommendations are slightly mirrored in the Bill, the Bill in fact goes so much further, and we really cannot see the evidence base for the proposals put forward in the Bill. The Government say that the proposals will, for example, give judges more flexibility, save time and money and promote the rule of law. We think exactly the opposite. I am happy to go into that in more detail now, or to let my colleagues answer and come back in.
Sara Lomri: Absolutely not; in fact, quite the contrary. We think that clause 1 will draw judges further into potentially political ground where they will be asked to look at the impact of implementation of the order, and they may be drawn into further satellite litigation around what order is available.
I think it is fair to say, and I do not think this came out in any of the evidence given this morning, that JR is a remedy of last resort. As a solicitor, I represent individuals who bring judicial review. The cases are about hospitals and care homes closing, policies discriminating against service personnel and disabled children being denied proper care. It absolutely is a last resort. It is really hard to access legal aid for judicial review, which is heavily restricted.
It is a very low-volume jurisdiction. Around 4,000 applications are issued a year and, of those that get permission, only a third or so proceed to trial: that is fewer than 1,000 cases a year. Of course, a few of those cases will feel very political to the Government, but that really is the absolute minority of judicial review cases—which, in any event, is a low-volume jurisdiction. I will leave that point there.
Ellie Cumbo: It is not for the Law Society to speculate on the motives—we are interested in the effect. I want to draw particular attention to the proposal to create prospective-only quashing orders, which appears in clause 1. It is important to understand that that is a drastic new suggestion that did not arise in the report by the independent review of administrative law. Its effect would be to remove a remedy from a person who successfully challenges a decision and proves that it is unlawful. Is it not the most basic requirement of a justice system that, if someone brings and wins a case, they are entitled to an effective remedy? The proposal really is very difficult to justify, and is a radical departure from the expectations that I suggest all of us—including all of your constituents—have of an effective justice system.
The point that we are most concerned about, which also appears in clause 1, relates to the statutory presumption. It is less drastic, in the sense that presumptions do, of course, exist in the law. However, it is difficult to understand the justification for creating a new set of remedies and then creating a presumption that those are the default remedies, in the absence—because there can be none—of any evidence as to their effect as a remedy. We are concerned that there is simply no justification for the Government’s own rationale for those particular provisions in clause 1.
Louise Whitfield: I would like to add that I think there is no justification, because there is no evidence the proposals will improve public-body decision making. One of the main benefits of judicial review is that it holds public bodies accountable—not just central Government, but all sorts of public bodies that make decisions affecting people’s day-to-day lives. If it improves public body decision making, we would expect to see reforms that were going to help that.
In actual fact, Liberty thinks that the reforms will hinder the ability of public bodies to make good decisions because they will be tempted to gamble more. The proposals create a risk of incentivising the public bodies because they will not have to put right the wrongs that are found by the court. It will buy them a couple of years while the case is fought out, and they will know that there is a good chance of getting a prospective-only remedy or some suspended quashing order, even if it is found that the policy or decision was unlawful. That is the other piece of the jigsaw: it lacks any justification for saying that the proposals will improve the quality of public body decision making.
Sara Lomri: That is right. We say that the best evidence puts it at around 5.7%. We are particularly concerned that, in response to IRAL, the Government agreed that there should be judicial supervision of the decisions of the upper tribunal, particularly in relation to refusals of permission to appeal, citing the significant cost as a reason to abolish Cart JRs.
In actual fact, the total cost save is around £364,000 to £400,000 a year. The data relied on by IRAL was incorrect—it has agreed that it was incorrect—and, in fact, it looks more like 5.7% to 6% of Cart JRs are successful. In fact, there is not a significant cost. It is £364,000 per year which, given the constitutional principle at stake, is not a significant cost.
Ellie Cumbo: I would just say again this is a really drastic suggestion. Remember, it is for Parliament, not Government, to decide when to oust the jurisdiction of the courts and remember that the effect of it is to prevent a remedy when a decision has been found to be unlawful. The importance of that should not be underestimated. Parliament is supreme and has that right, but it must be considered on a case-by-case basis, as long as the circumstances are appropriate. We would welcome an indication from Government as to when they would consider it appropriate to ask Parliament to pass future ouster clauses.
Sara Lomri: I would tie it back to an article by David Davis on 25 October, in which he talks about the Government’s plans to restrict the use of judicial review in this Bill as an obvious attempt to avoid accountability. He refers to previous attempts by previous Governments, so obviously it is not just this Government, but David Cameron’s Government and before that Tony Blair’s Government attempting the same thing in a different guise. PLP would say that consideration of ouster clauses is constitutionally really problematic. We understand that it comes up from time to time, but it is not in this Government’s best interest to do that. It will really impact the way in which decisions by this Government and future Governments can be held to account.
Louise Whitfield: I echo those points. Liberty’s concern is that this is the death of judicial review by a thousand cuts. It would chip away at the fundamental right of citizens to challenge Government and other public-body decision making. If we start down the road of ouster clauses, the question is when will it stop and what else will be subject to ouster clauses until we are left with virtually no judicial review at all?
Ellie Cumbo: I am happy to say on behalf of the Law Society that we support the creation of suspended quashing orders. That enhances remedial flexibility and how can that be anything but a good thing? As I have already indicated, our concern is with the presumption that those then become the default remedy, when they do not already exist and there is no evidence base as to the extent to which they are an effective remedy.
Sara Lomri: PLP would add that the judges already have those powers. There are cases where suspended orders have been made, but the judges have used them very sparingly. I heard earlier today your witnesses talking about increasing discretion and flexibility for judges. Absolutely, clause 1 does not do that. As the Lord Chancellor said in The Daily Telegraph on 17 October, it is about trying to mandate judges and that is really problematic for the reasons that we have already set out.
Sara Lomri: We think that they are dealt with by the judiciary itself. It does have that power, and it is not needed in the Bill.
Louise Whitfield: Liberty’s position is the same: the judiciary has the power. We do not see that there is a difficulty in legislating to clarify that it does have the power, but it is the presumption that becomes problematic.
One of the points that is missing from this debate and discussion is that this will actually add a very considerable layer of further complexity and cost and take up more court time, in a way that will make judicial review less accessible and less clear. There are already hearings just about remedies. If you add on top of that a whole layer of arguments about six different factors as to whether you should get an immediate quashing order or a suspended quashing order, I think, based on my experience, you are going to have a lot of very lengthy legal submissions in writing and further hearings; you will have to list the hearing before the same judges who heard the original trial. It is going to increase costs, and it is going to make the litigation more risky for claimants. It is going to be off-putting because of the difficulty in advising people about their chances of getting the order to which we say that they should be entitled if it has been held that something is unlawful.
“an increased appetite for political litigation, and, more worryingly, an appetite for putting judges in an invidious position, by asking them to decide essentially political matters on applications for judicial review.”
That also reflects the view of Lord Sumption who, the witnesses will be aware, has commented:
“Allowing judges to circumvent parliamentary legislation, or review the merits of policy decisions for which Ministers are answerable to Parliament … confers vast discretionary powers on a body of people who are not constitutionally accountable for what they do.”
He added that
“if we keep asking judges to answer inherently political questions, we are ignoring the single most important decision maker in our system: the British people.”
There is clearly a problem. We have heard that from other witnesses this morning. The problem needs to be solved. I have some sympathy with the view that the Bill does not go far enough and that we could do more. However, the idea that we should do nothing seems to me to ignore the facts.
Ellie Cumbo: If I may say so, I have not heard facts. I have heard assertion; I have heard the opinions of two people, neither of whom have been recent practitioners. On behalf of the Law Society, I do not think that we would agree that we have seen evidence that there has been an increased politicisation of the courts. In any case, it is not up to the judges to decide what cases come before them. This question is largely about the remedies available in judicial review; that is what the Bill seeks to focus on. Our view is that judicial discretion is what enables a proportionate remedy that correctly responds to the facts of the individual case to be made.
Ellie Cumbo: Certainly, but, as I say, I have seen no evidence to suggest that that is what is happening.
I will give you some evidence in a second, but others may want to comment first.
Ellie Cumbo: I was actually going to make a slightly different point that actually enhances the ability of the Bill to protect judges from any assertion that they are in fact dabbling in matters of policy, which is that the provision we were just talking about earlier—to create suspended quashing orders—is not entirely clear on the face of the Bill. What it actually says it may do is allow for conditionality in suspended quashing orders: in other words, you would introduce a quashing order that would take effect only in the event that certain conditions laid down by the courts are or are not met. That is, arguably, inviting judges to pass a view on what an acceptable policy solution in those circumstances would be. We would welcome some clarification on that point of the Bill in order to ensure that it is very clear that judges are not being invited to pass policy.
To give an example, I understand that a character called Jolyon Maugham—I am inclined to say, wearing my inverted snobbery on my sleeve, that there were not many Jolyons on the council estate that I grew up in—is going to take to judicial review the appointment of the new chair of the Charity Commission, at least according to reports. That is despite the fact that in parliamentary answers it has been made clear that that appointment has been an open and fair competition in line with the Cabinet Office’s governance code on public appointments, as regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Even where the process has been entirely fair and reasonable, the judicial review is being used as a way of asserting—one might go as far as to say campaigning—for political ends.
Ellie Cumbo: I do not want to continue to speak if my colleagues would like to join in. I will just say that I am not familiar with the merits of that case and cannot comment on it. I would return to the point that the Bill is primarily looking at the remedies that should be available in the event that a decision in that case was found to be unlawful. Our view, as stated already, is that remedies should be effective whatever the impugned decision is.
Sara or Louise, do you want to join in?
Sara Lomri: Yes, I would love to. The assertion around the increased number of political cases and litigation remains just that; Lord Faulks and the IRAL looked at this and there was no such finding. At PLP, we advocate for and promote evidence-based approaches to policy. We know that there are around 4,000 applications for judicial review every year and around 1,000 get to trial. We know that in the majority of cases defendants win, not claimants.
In terms of the cases that you, Mr Hayes, and the Attorney General are talking about, there are probably a handful over a couple of years. It is understandable why those cases may take up a lot of oxygen, and of course we cannot talk for Jolyon Maugham and what that case is about.
I am a solicitor and I represent individual, marginalised, disadvantaged people who have no option but to use judicial review to hold the state to account. By passing this Bill you are going to make it harder for those people: the vast majority of users of judicial review on a day to day basis. You are going to make it hugely more difficult for them to get access to justice.
Louise, do you want to add anything?
Louise Whitfield: I have nothing to add to what my colleagues have already said.
Sara Lomri: I do not have the stats in front of me to compare the number of JRs in the immigration jurisdiction and at the upper tribunal as opposed to the High Court, but I can quickly try and find those.
The judicial reviews that we are involved with are around how decisions of the state impact poor and marginalised individuals. There are issues around welfare benefits, special educational needs, discrimination against all kinds of individuals, and particularly disability discrimination and difficulties around getting access to public services. That is the mainstay of our work. I am not sure that anybody who uses the immigration justice system feels that they are getting any kind of special treatment.
We say that Cart JR—if that is what was behind the question—remains a really important procedural safeguard for the most vulnerable, marginalised and disadvantaged individuals, to make sure that unlawful and erroneous decisions do not go unchecked.
Sara Lomri: I would just say yes, I absolutely agree with that.
Louise Whitfield: I have not practised immigration law either—like Sara, I cannot comment on the figures—but a lot of the judicial reviews that I have been involved in over the last 20 to 25 years have been the kind of low-level day-to-day decisions that affect people. A lot of the debate has focused on the high-profile cases.
People hear about judicial reviews that go to trial over completely random issues, such as where Richard III should be buried and that kind of thing. In actual fact, judicial review is really important, if not essential, for day-to-day stuff such as whether you are entitled to a blue badge and whether rail replacement buses should be wheelchair accessible, and for loads of issues such as whether you should be supported to live independently in your home when you are old and disabled and struggling on your own, or whether you should have access to particular drugs or healthcare.
The reason why those cases do not get much publicity, but are really important, is that they settle pre-issue. They settle pre-issue because we have the opportunity, within an effective pre-action protocol, to say to a public body, “We think this decision is wrong; please put it right.”
If you go down the road of these reforms and make remedies harder to get, and there is more opportunity for public bodies to put off the day of giving in—or to know that even if what they have done is found to be unlawful, they will not have to address the wrongs that people have suffered previously—that will just make it harder for individuals to use judicial review effectively. That can only be a bad thing.
Ellie Cumbo: I understood the question to be about Cart and this idea that immigration cases are privileged—I think that is what you said. It is important, in the interests of strict accuracy, to say that Cart judicial reviews are available outside of immigration. Mr Cart himself was challenging a decision of the child support and social security tribunal. He was seeking to vary his child support. While I am on this, it is also worth saying that he ultimately lost; he was unsuccessful in securing a judicial review of his own. He merely won the principle that judicial review should be available in certain circumstances.
Sara Lomri: In relation to Cart JRs, we are talking about a constitutional principle. Public Law Project and others are saying that that price tag of £350,000 to £400,000 is worth it and a good use of resources.
When we talk about Cart JRs, we talk about the case of G, who had been seriously mistreated in Nigeria and trafficked to the UK. The Government agreed at the first-tier tribunal that she was a victim of trafficking, but the tribunal came to a bunch of erroneous decisions, including that the evidence that supported her being a victim of trafficking was not substantiated, and came to the wrong decision. She brought a Cart JR, which was successful. As a result, she and her child were not returned to Nigeria, where they invariably would have been killed. That is the price tag.
We say that that is such an important procedural constitutional principle that the tribunal’s decisions should be reviewed from time to time by the High Court—by a judge who is more senior, has more time to consider the evidence, and who is sometimes better placed to make those decisions. Yes, we think that is an efficient, much better use of scarce resources.
Sara Lomri: It is the same amount that DCMS spent on its art collection in 2019-20. When we are talking about constitutional principles, I do not think we can say that is too much money.
Ellie Cumbo: Could I come in briefly on that point? We entirely agree that judicial resource is precious. As one of your earlier witnesses said, more of it would make an enormous difference to the issues we are dealing with, such as the backlog in courts at the moment. However, there are other interests that it must be balanced against, including that once again, in these cases, we would be talking about an unlawful decision by the upper tribunal. I think it is a reasonable expectation that unlawful decisions should be able to be challenged.
I would make a second point about resource. If we take the Public Law Project’s figure of around 5.7%—so around the 6%—that is not incomparable to the number of rape reports that lead to a conviction: nobody would argue that that is a waste of resource.
Is that the end of the answers?
Ellie Cumbo: Yes, from me.
Sara Lomri: Just in response to Tom Hunt’s point, originally, yes, IRAL made a claim that Cart cases had a very low success rate. In order to answer that question, we have to get into the weeds of how cases are brought and how they are reported. IRAL said that there were 12 cases that had been successful, which points to a success rate of 0.22%.
In fact, there is significant difficulty because Cart cases are not reported. Also, because of the way they are brought—through a different stream, and they do not go to hearing—it is hard to get to the data. Through the work that we did with practitioners and people we know who have been involved in Cart JRs, we came up with a figure of more like 5.7%.
The Government’s revised figure—following our successful challenge to that, which went via the Office for National Statistics, and they agreed with us—is something in the range of 3%. Other researchers have had a look at it, and they have said between 5% and 10%. Our own data indicates 5.7%, which is why we give that figure—and we think it is hugely more reliable than the Government’s 3%.
I am conscious of the time, and we have three more questions to come. Paula Barker.
Sara Lomri: Ellie, I am not trying to drop you in it, but could you answer that first? I feel like you have more to say about online than we have.
Ellie Cumbo: The Law Society would probably not get into the detail of deciding which cases it would be appropriate for. What we do have is quite a comprehensive set of views on the types of proceedings in which online proceedings are appropriate—rather than the types of cases, if you see what I mean. It is going to depend not just on what the case involves, but on the nature of the parties. If it is helpful, I would be very happy to provide that to you after today. I am probably not in a position to itemise it right now.
The only thing I would say that I think would serve as a general Law Society position on this part of the Bill is that we have a particular concern about unrepresented litigants or, in criminal proceedings, defendants taking part in online proceedings. There is a real danger of the formality not being clear to them in the absence of expert advice, and these can be life-changing decisions, so we would have real concerns about the fact that, as drafted, the Bill does not seem to make any distinction between represented and unrepresented parties.
Sara Lomri: Public Law Project, like others, remain very concerned about digital exclusion and the blurring between digital assistance and independent legal advice, which we say remains extremely important. Further than that, I know that you will hear from other witnesses later on, including Justice, and we would support what they say on online courts. Later on today, you also have Dr Joe Tomlinson, our ex-research director, who will also be able to flag some headlines in terms of PLP’s response to the online issue.
Sara Lomri: In terms of the headline answer to that question, we would say preserving and promoting legal aid, and ensuring that independent legal advice remains a viable option for those using online justice systems.
Paula, I am conscious of the time.
I think the Minister wants to come in briefly now. I will then move to Liz Twist, and then to Caroline.
Could Members please indicate who they want to direct the question to.
I said the Public Law Project.
Sara Lomri: We do not accept that it is about bites of the cherry. It is about fair systems. For example, in the case of G, the Government accepted that she was a victim of trafficking and the first-tier tribunal came to an erroneous decision. The High Court then corrected that erroneous decision. If the Cart JR had not been available to G, a victim of trafficking from Nigeria who was on the verge of being returned with her child back to her traffickers, that erroneous, unlawful decision would have held. It is not about bites of the cherry; it is about correcting unlawful decisions, and erroneous errors of law.
Sara Lomri: Why it does not summarise it very well is because it is trying to paint a picture of our client group, who are the most marginalised and disadvantaged people in society, as having some kind of privilege that most people do not have. This is just not the case. This is about correcting unlawful decisions; most people do not have to go through this. Most people—thankfully, because we live in a good and democratic society—do not have to hold Governments to account,. However, when they do, we hope that those systems are fair and work properly.
Ellie Cumbo: We do have a concern about that provision, in clause 42, I believe. We believe that the abolition of local justice areas obviously risks forcing parties to a case to travel much greater distances, at great cost to themselves and to the courts in the event of delays and cases having to be taken off as a result. There is also a point of principle around justice being seen to be done at that local level where it feels like it relates to the community from which all parties are drawn. What we would ask is for a consultation with local stakeholders before those provisions go ahead.
Ellie Cumbo: I do not think we have considered that question in detail. Possibly the Magistrates Association would be best placed to comment, and we would usually defer to them. If you would like us to provide an answer at a later date, I am very happy to do that.
Sara Lomri: Absolutely. When I was talking about—
The legislation that I am talking about would not actually affect whether or not a child with special educational needs, or a disabled person, was able to bring a judicial review of the Government’s decisions on their behalf. It does not really apply to this Bill—or have I misunderstood?
Sara Lomri: I think you have. I was painting a picture of the kinds of clients that I represent when using judicial review. Clause 1—
Order. I am afraid that we have come to the end of the time allotted for this panel. I thank the three witnesses for their evidence.
Examination of Witnesses
Louise Finer, Stephanie Needleman and Steve Valdez-Symonds gave evidence.
Welcome to the new witnesses. It is good to see all three of you physically present. We will have none of the technical difficulties that we had earlier, although it is important that people attend, whether virtually or in person. Could you please introduce yourselves before we begin the questions?
Steve Valdez-Symonds: My name is Steve Valdez-Symonds, I am the refugee and migrant rights programme director at Amnesty International UK. For the purposes of these proceedings, it is probably relevant that I have experience of practice in the immigration field, including many years of representation before the immigration tribunals of various iterations, and training and supporting practitioners in understanding the law and procedures, and many years’ experience of parliamentary advocacy, including representing those practitioners in that.
Stephanie Needleman: I am Stephanie Needleman, I am the acting legal director at Justice. Justice is an all-party law reform and human rights organisation that works to strengthen the justice system in the UK. Our vision is for fair, accessible and efficient legal processes that protect individuals’ rights and uphold the rule of law.
Louise Finer: My name is Louise Finer, I am head of policy at Inquest.
Your sound is very low indeed. Could you move a bit closer to the microphone?
Louise Finer: I was trying to socially distance, but it is more important that you can hear me. We are an organisation that supports families through the inquest system. I bring that experience to this Committee.
Stephanie Needleman: There are two provisions in the Bill that we are concerned about in terms of safeguards. There is the new allocation procedure for online pleas, for adults in clause 6 and for children in clause 8. While the Government have said that this will be accessible only through the common platform, which as I understand can currently only be used by legal professionals, there is nothing in the Bill that would guarantee that a defendant would only be able to enter an indicator plea or trial venue with access to legal advice. We would like to see something in the Bill that guarantees that.
We oppose the use of the procedure by children. We do not think that even with a safeguard of access to legal advice that it is an appropriate procedure for use by children. The criminal justice system considers children to be inherently vulnerable, and there is a whole process in place in the youth criminal justice system that recognises their rights and works to guarantee them, and this system would allow that whole system to be bypassed.
“has attained the age of 16”
rather than the usual age of 18? Could that be covered?
Stephanie Needleman: Clause 4 is not something that we have looked at in particular detail. As I understand it, the automatic online conviction process in the Bill is only available to 18-year-olds. The single justice procedure that it builds on is also only available to 18-year-olds, and the section 12 procedure in clause 4 is available to 16-year-olds, and that does appear to be an inconsistency that is unjustifiable.
Stephanie Needleman: The same concerns as we have with using the new online allocation procedure for children. There is a whole system set up to protect vulnerable children within the criminal justice system, and those safeguards are being bypassed.
Stephanie Needleman: That is not a clause we have looked at in particular detail, unfortunately.
Stephanie Needleman: Yes, we are very concerned about the disproportionate impact of the AOCSSP—a catchy acronym. That builds on the single justice procedure, and there are clear issues with that that have not been addressed by the Government. There has been some research by Appeal, which shows that the vast majority of those being prosecuted under the single justice procedure are women for non-payment of television licences.
We are concerned about the impact on ethnic minorities. Racial disparities permeate the criminal justice system, and we are concerned that a disproportionate number of ethnic minority individuals will also be unduly criminalised through the automatic online conviction process, as well as those with mental health conditions or neurodivergent conditions who may have particular difficulties understanding the process or the implications of going through the process, pleading guilty and receiving a conviction.
As it stands, there is nothing within the process that would screen for any vulnerabilities, and there has also been no assessment by the Government, as far as we can see, of the equalities impact of the Bill. Back in 2017, these measures were originally floated in the Prisons and Courts Bill, and there was an equalities statement which recognised the potential adverse impact on people with protected characteristics. There has not been an update to that equalities statement as far as I have seen. As it stands and given the issues with the single justice procedure that it builds on, we think that the procedure should not be in the Bill. However, it definitely should not proceed without a review of the current evidence available in terms of what impacts it might have on those groups with protected characteristics and vulnerabilities.
Stephanie Needleman: Absolutely. That is also a concern of ours in terms of people understanding what the process involves and, importantly, what the outcome of that process is going to be. Obviously, with the automatic online conviction, that outcome is a criminal conviction. We are worried that the process encourages people to go through it and plead guilty without properly understanding what impacts that can have later in life. I know it is currently only for summary and non-imprisonable offences, but those can still have serious implications—a criminal record, increased insurance costs, loss of employment and educational opportunities. This is not just for trivial offences that will not have an impact on people’s lives. Similarly, with the online plea, understanding the implications of where a case is heard—and the seriousness of going to the Crown Court and having the greater sentencing powers available there—is incredibly important. There should be provisions built in to ensure that defendants understand those. Having legal representation in the context of the allocation procedure goes some way to dealing with that.
“challenges to legislation on the grounds of discrimination are becoming increasingly common in the UK, usually brought by campaigning organisations which lobbied unsuccessfully against the measure when it was being considered in Parliament, and then act as solicitors for persons affected by the legislation, or otherwise support legal challenges brought in their names, as a means of continuing their campaign.”
They are assisted in that, are they not, by the principle of proportionality, which confers on courts a broad discretionary power that risks undue interference of the courts in the sphere of political choices. That is very bad, is it not, both for a democratic society and for the role and reputation of courts, because the separation of powers—well, I do not need to lecture witnesses on the separation of powers. They know what it means. We have a problem that needs to be solved by legislative means. The Bill is a welcome start in that respect, is it not?
Who is the question directed at?
I am happy for any or all to take it.
Steve Valdez-Symonds: I am happy to respond to that on behalf of Amnesty. With respect, I think that is to misunderstand the role of the courts. The courts manage—indeed, you make a reference to the Supreme Court giving clear direction about its view to all the other courts below it as to how to manage the matters that are brought before it, including matters that raise the issue of proportionality. Proportionality, where it applies, is a question of law on which courts need to rule. That is why we have a judicial system, not for Parliament to try to predetermine how courts should exercise that role and perform their judicial function, in ensuring that administrative bodies act proportionately, according to the law and according to its interpretation as clearly set down now by the Supreme Court.
I was reading out a court judgment, so there are a number of distinguished judges who share the view I articulated, as you know, that proportionality has become a problem and the Supreme Court has interfered in matters of high politics. That is the argument that has been made by the Attorney General, Lord Sumption and others. That is not my view; it is the view of those who want to see the courts doing what they traditionally did. It is a long-established and time-honoured principle that courts do not become involved in matters of high politics and the argument I am making—or reflecting—is that that is now a problem. We saw it in the Miller case and there is no guarantee that the Supreme Court would not act as it did in the Miller case again. We need to do more to clarify and make certain the respective roles of those who are chosen by the people and who are accountable to them, and those who are not.
Steve Valdez-Symonds: If I may, I will make two responses to that. First, with respect, you started reading from the Supreme Court’s judgment on the question that you were concerned about, I understood from you, in support of what the Supreme Court had ruled and the direction it has given therefore to all the courts below it as to how judicial proceedings on the matter in question should be performed in future. It seems to me that the matter is addressed by the Supreme Court in black and white in front of you.
As for the wider question, the issue is clear that the Government set out—commissioned—a review of judicial review. It had eminent evidence from many public bodies, including many Government Departments, about whether there were concerns. Its overriding finding on judicial review generally was that there was no problem. Again, for reasons that have also been given earlier, I do not see that there is any need for this interference, frankly, with the way in which courts perform their constitutional function.
A good argument for a process of judicial review is that the grounds on which it is exercised have altered. As you know, the Attorney General has made clear her concerns about this, as have a number of senior lawyers, former Supreme Court judges and others. The argument I am making is by no means an unusual or untested one. You will have heard it many times before. I am simply saying are not the Government right at least to address those concerns?
Steve Valdez-Symonds: With respect, all I can do is refer to the previous answers and say that I think the Government are not right. Of course, there were many voices, including judicial voices, that have considered that the situation is satisfactory as it is, including the review that the Government commissioned.
Steve Valdez-Symonds: I do not accept what you have articulated, but you started by reading from a very recent Supreme Court judgment, which I understood you to agree with. I do not really see what you see as the problem. The Supreme Court has ruled on the matter. It is the highest authority for all the courts that will have to deal with the matter in the future and there is no ruling.
Steve Valdez-Symonds: I do not think I can add any more. I am sure the Government’s review spent considerable time with considerable amounts of evidence—more time than this Committee will have to consider these things, unfortunately—came to a clear conclusion that there was no need essentially to revise the way in which judicial review works. It was working perfectly well—we agree with that.
Sir John, my interpretation of what you are saying is that you want to widen the scope of the Bill. The scope of the Bill is already set, so with the indulgence of the Committee, I move to the next questioner, Andy Slaughter.
Louise Finer: Thank you for the question. On clauses 37 and 38, we feel that, although they might be appropriate in some circumstances, they introduce some very real risks into the coroner service. Reflecting on the recent report by the Select Committee on Justice, and the extent to which it identified the continuing problem of inconsistencies and, essentially, a postcode lottery, depending on the coroner who hears the case, we are really concerned that there need to be some strong safeguards on clauses 37 and 38, to ensure that, in the kinds of cases that Inquest supports, day in day out, no new risks are introduced through the Bill.
What concerns us about these two clauses is very significant decisions being taken that could lead to the proper interrogation of evidence being curtailed at an early stage, when families would often not have legal representation to be able to argue the case to continue an inquest, or for an inquest to be heard. The kinds of cases that we have seen, were these clauses to be in place, include some where initially evidence suggested a death by natural cause, but where, as the inquest progresses, further evidence comes to light that suggests that the situation was anything but.
To refer briefly to one case, Laura Booth died in hospital after a routine eye procedure. She became unwell and developed malnutrition, due to inadequate management of her needs. In that case, the coroner was not initially going to hold an inquest, because it was considered a natural-cause death, but the family pushed for an inquest. The inquest reached such critical findings that it would have been quite shocking for that not to have occurred, had the inquest been discontinued. It was found that her death was contributed to by neglect, and that there had been a gross failure of care. We are suggesting that safeguards need to be built in, to ensure that cases such as that, which really need to be heard, in the context of a coronial system, where there is already a significant amount of discretion, should not be discontinued, and are in fact heard as appropriate.
On clause 39, on remote hearings and juries, we are really worried and broadly agree with the evidence of André Rebello. His conclusions were quite damning, to be frank, of the risks of remote hearings. Again, there may be some circumstances in which a remote hearing is appropriate. We see them as potentially very advantageous for pre-inquest hearings. A remote process can be very efficient. We do know some families who are happy to go ahead with a remote hearing but, of the families we support, that is a very small minority. Overwhelmingly, the families we have supported recently have very negative views and impressions of remote hearings.
We take issue with the Government’s justification for that aspect of the Bill, which we think is weak and unevidenced. It claims that remote attendance will reduce distress. We are not sure what evidential basis there is for making that claim. It certainly does not match up with our experience of the many families we are supporting at the moment. Although there may be some benefits to opening up the ability to join remotely, we do not see those as being introduced as an add-on and an advantage, but more as a taking away.
The argument about bringing coroners’ courts into line with other courts in terms of remote attendance glosses over the fact that the inquest process is quite a different process from that in other courts. We think there needs to be much more exploration, consultation and development and evidence to justify the proposal.
An inquest process can be a very traumatising experience for a family already traumatised. Imagine yourself having to sit through the inquest process and hear evidence about how a member of your family died. They may have been a long way from you in a prison or in a secure setting when they died. You may have no knowledge of how they died. The inquest process may be your first opportunity to find that out. Imagine doing that in your front room, without the support services that you would have in person at a hearing. We think that there are very, very real risks that families could be retraumatised and put through more distress rather than, as the Government claim, their distress being reduced.
We are concerned about remote juries. We have had recent experience of juries sitting in adjacent rooms to the coroner, and the coroner is then unable to see the jury as they would were they in the same room. We have seen some very concerning things, including jury members falling asleep, eating packets of crisps and so on and so forth. All such things would be much harder to safeguard against the more remote the setting. We think the Government need to provide more evidence to support their claims about remote hearings, to evidence much more clearly how they would work in the context of the inquest and how they would ensure that families were not put through more distress or their ability to participate effectively undermined.
Louise Finer: Our view is that this Bill presents a crucial opportunity to address the inequality of arms that is at the heart of the inquest process. There have been many calls from authoritative reviews and inquiries to address this and it is a disappointment to us that there is nothing in the Bill to address that inequality of arms. The Justice Committee report—so recent—was absolutely clear on this point. It makes no sense that on the one hand Members are concluding that and on the other a Bill is introduced that does nothing to address that. There are many other issues in the Justice Committee report that remain unaddressed in the Bill.
The inequality of arms is acute. One example came last week in the Westminster Hall debate on the Justice Committee report. Tim Loughton MP referred to the Shoreham air disaster. He said that he supported the case for public funding for inquests because of his experience of the Shoreham inquest. Very early on it was unclear whether the families would get funding for legal representation, but it was immediately clear that all of the 18 public bodies represented at the inquest would have automatic access to funding to represent themselves. Yet there was a big question mark over whether the families of the victims would receive funding for inquests. We acknowledge that the Government are bringing forward some measures to address the means test for exceptional case funding, and we welcome those, but we do not think that they go far enough. We very much hope that the Bill will seize the opportunity to do something about that.
Louise Finer: I will be as brief as I can. There are many issues in the Justice Committee report and many recommendations for an appeals process, a coroner service inspectorate, and a national coroner service, which would help to eliminate the inconsistency in the system. We support all those recommendations and would welcome any of them being incorporated in the Bill. Most importantly, the Justice Committee called for families to be put at the heart of the inquest process. What we are concerned about is that clauses in the Bill could actually go the opposite way. Instead of putting families at the heart, it could make it even harder for families to participate effectively.
If we have time at the end. We have got three more questions that one or more of the panel may wish to answer. I call Tom Hunt.
Steve Valdez-Symonds: I do not regret the use of the word. I was drawing attention to the fact that there was considerable interference in the functioning of a judicial function in the tribunal system and the way in which the Government were legislating not just in this Bill—this is an important factor, which is not before this Committee—but in the Nationality and Borders Bill at the same time. If it is passed in its current form, it will impose direction on judicial figures in the tribunal system as to how they may perform their judicial function, and how they must or must not weigh and assess evidence and appellants in front of them, pre-empting what will be in front of them by statute.
It is a grave concern that at the same time as withdrawing in this Bill the oversight of our constitutional courts to ensure that the tribunal system works properly according to law, the Government are seeking to legislate to incapacitate those tribunal systems to manage independently and fully their own judicial functions. That is the effect of provisions in the Nationality and Borders Bill. You can look at them in clauses 16, 20 and 23. Provisions like that, although not going anywhere near as far—dating back to 2004, the time of the ouster that this Committee has discussed that was put forward by the Labour Government—have caused much confusion already.
Steve, I really should have pushed Tom on this because it falls outside the scope of the Bill.
I think the witness tried to justify it in an explanation relating to a different piece of legislation.
Okay, we will continue.
Sorry, Steve, you were answering.
Steve Valdez-Symonds: The point I have made is that you cannot properly look at these two Bills in isolation, because clause 2 of this Bill affects whether there is any constitutional court scrutiny of whether the tribunal system performs the functions that Parliament has set it up to perform. At the same time, you have legislation to impede that tribunal’s functions about whether it can perform those duties. You have legislation from the very Department whose decisions it will be responsible for regulating—the Home Office. I think it perfectly appropriate to raise the concern that if that sort of interference were going on in the courts of other countries, we would, as I said, describe it as tyranny. [Interruption.]
Sorry; we are not taking questions unless they have been indicated. Tom has indicated that he has finished his questions. I call Paula Barker.
Order. We are not having a separate meeting on the side.
Thank you, Chair. Ms Needleman, what are your views on the powers provided to the Lord Chancellor by the OPR provisions, and do you believe that they cause a democratic deficit?
Stephanie Needleman: The provisions relating to the online procedure rules give significant power to the Lord Chancellor. The Government have themselves recognised that the broad powers provided to the Lord Chancellor could have a significant impact on access to justice and that some of those powers should therefore be subject to a requirement to obtain the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice. However, there is a slight lacuna in the Bill, in that two powers are not subject to the same concurrence requirement.
Those are the power to require the online procedure rule committee to make rules, and a broad Henry VIII power to make consequential amendments, the latter power being subject only to a consultation requirement and the former to no requirements at all. That undermines the point of having a concurrence requirement in the first place. As Lord Judge pointed out on Report of the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill—the previous iteration of these rules—taken together, those powers overrule the very rules that the Government themselves made subject to the concurrence requirement because of the wide-ranging impact the provisions can have on access to justice.
Stephanie Needleman: Absolutely. As I said before, we do not think this procedure, as it stands, should be introduced at all, because of the lack of evidence and the concerns around protections in relation to the identification of vulnerabilities and inequalities. However, if it is introduced, we at Justice are calling for it to be restricted to non-recordable offences only.
Currently, the Bill would allow the procedure to be used for a range of offences that would cause people to have a criminal record. That could impact parents when it comes to failing to provide for the safety of children at entertainments, for example, or it could impact pub-goers and pub owners in relation to the offences of being drunk in a public place or selling alcohol to a person who is drunk. If the procedure is to be introduced, we would call for it to be for non-recordable offences only, because the implications of being convicted of those are smaller.
Andy, we have a bit of time left. Would you like to come back to your earlier point?
Stephanie Needleman: I will take clause 1. Justice supports the introduction of suspended-only quashing orders. We think that, after Ahmed, the law could do with clarification, and that putting statutory suspended quashing orders on a statutory footing makes sense. We envisage that the orders would be used in exceptional circumstances such as those that existed in Ahmed, where there had to be retrospective legislation to deal with the issues it caused.
Crucially, suspended-only quashing orders come into effect and have retrospective effect, even if it is slightly delayed. However, prospective-only quashing orders do not have retrospective effect, and we oppose those measures. You have heard a lot of arguments about why they undermine the rule of law; in particular, they do not afford a remedy to the individual claimant in front of the court, and more generally to other people in the same situation as claimants. For example, if someone paid tax under a regulation that was later found to be unlawful, they would not be able to reclaim the excess tax they had paid, because the Bill as currently drafted requires the regulation to be treated as lawful up until the point of that judgment. In relation to benefits, if ineligibility criteria were later found to be unlawful, under the Bill people would not be able to reclaim benefits that they would have been entitled to, because the unlawful ineligibility requirements would be deemed to have been lawful at the time they claimed their benefits.
We are particularly concerned about the presumption. We have heard from various people in Government that the provisions increase judicial flexibility, but the fact that there is a presumption is entirely opposed to the idea of increasing judicial discretion and flexibility. The presumption constrains judicial flexibility and remedial discretion by requiring the prospective-only quashing order to be used in certain circumstances. We are concerned that the prospective-only quashing order will have a chilling effect on judicial review. Even if a prospective-only quashing order would not in any one case be given, the fact that the presumption for it exists in the first place creates a chilling effect, as it is an additional factor for a claimant in deciding whether to bring a judicial review in the first place. It may also make it harder to obtain legal aid, because the merits criteria require there to be sufficient benefit to the litigant if successful. Those are our main concerns about clause 2. I will let Steve talk about clause 2.
The Minister has indicated that he would like to ask a quick question. Steve, could you answer quickly so I can try to squeeze him in?
Steve Valdez-Symonds: I will do my best, and I will be led by you. I will say nothing about clause 1; we agree with the concerns raised. I ask the Committee to think back to the evidence of Professor Feldman. He is someone who supports clause 2, but he does so having expressed great disquiet about it in principle, and we agree with that. The principle of the matter is that statutory bodies, including statutory tribunals, which have limits on their powers set by Parliament, are required to be ordinarily subject to review by our constitutional courts to ensure that their powers are exercised properly and within the powers that are set, rather than, as he put it, being permitted to determine for themselves where the limits of their powers are. That is what clause 2 is removing.
There is nothing exceptional about Cart judicial review for immigration matters or the other tribunal matters that it relates to, except for the fact that it is a highly restrictive form of judicial review because of the particular practice direction by which the High Court has operated ever since the Supreme Court decisions in Cart and Eba, which curtail both the process, to make sure that it is less truncated, and the much higher test that has to be passed for the judicial review to succeed.
Professor Feldman then goes on to reach conclusions for suggesting why he none the less, despite his great disquiet, thinks it is appropriate to interfere in this way. There are several reasons why I think he is wrong about that, and why I think he misunderstands some of the things that have happened—including since Cart and Eba, and including those that are happening by legislation now—which more closely curtail the prospect of justice in this tribunal system. Perhaps in view of the direction from the Chair, I will write to the Committee immediately afterwards and spell out what those things are, so that the evidence is in front of you.
I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions of this panel. I thank the panel for making the time and effort to appear before us physically, which was much appreciated. Apologies to the Minister on the final question.
Examination of Witnesses
Dr Joe Tomlinson, Aidan O’Neill QC and Michael Clancy OBE gave evidence.
We have a fully virtual panel of three members this time. May I ask each panel member, starting with Dr Joe Tomlinson, followed by Aidan O’Neill and Michael P Clancy, to introduce themselves?
Dr Tomlinson: Thank you. I am Joe Tomlinson, senior lecturer in public law at the University of York. I study all aspects of the public law system, and I have a particular interest in judicial review. Of particular interest to discussions today, I suspect, is that I have a particular interest in empirical studies of judicial review and immigration judicial review.
Aidan O'Neill: I am Aidan O’Neill. I am a QC at the Scottish Bar and also the English Bar. I suppose that I practise primarily in the fields of public law and constitutional law. I have been involved in a number of recent cases that involved constitutional issues, among them Miller (No. 1) and the Cherry-Miller case, which referred to the prorogation of Parliament, and the Wightman case about article 50 and whether it could be unilaterally revoked. My area of practice is within judicial review on both sides of the border.
Michael Clancy: Good afternoon, Chair and Committee members. I am Michael Clancy. I am the director of law reform at the Law Society of Scotland. I have a particular interest in constitutional law and some aspects of immigration law, and I am delighted to be here and to answer, or attempt to answer, your questions.
Thanks very much for attending today’s meeting. I will start with Dr Caroline Johnson.
Dr Tomlinson: I do not have the exact full set of statistics to hand, but I would happily supply those to the Committee. The general picture of judicial review is that ordinary judicial review, by which I mean non-immigration cases, is around a few thousand cases issued every year. Numbers have been declining in recent years. On the immigration side, for a good period of time—a couple of decades—there have been more immigration judicial review cases. They are obviously mostly heard in the upper tribunal now. The numbers fluctuate for a variety of complicated reasons, but my understanding is that they have been coming down in recent years. Cart is a small subset of judicial reviews. I can provide the full statistics to the Committee, but that is the overall picture.
Dr Tomlinson: If you do not mind, I would like to comment on the figure, which is an important starting point. The original figure provided by the independent review of administrative law was 0.22%, which is an incredibly low success rate, but that figure was arrived at through the IRAL’s expert panel simply looking at published judgments. The Cart procedure is such that it is very unlikely to produce public judgments, so the panel looked only at a very narrow sample of the overall case load. The 0.22% figure is basically flawed. It is not correct, and the Ministry of Justice has since accepted that and provided a new figure of 3.4%, as I understand it. In various ways, I think that is also a deflated figure. Importantly, success is measured in the narrowest way possible. With a wider definition of success, you can get to a higher success figure.
It is difficult to say with any precision what the figure is, but I can say it is certainly not 0.22%. It is 3.4% with a very narrow definition of success, and it is higher than that if you have a different definition of success. The best figure, although it is not a precise figure, is that about one in 20 cases are successful. Of course, one in 20 is a relatively high success rate. You are challenging judicial decisions, so you would hopefully expect them to be of better quality, and so on. In my view, the success rate is not as low as the initial figure that was put out suggests.
Dr Tomlinson: Again, I am not trying to dodge the question. It is very difficult to define in a precise way what success in a judicial review looks like. To take one example, most strong cases settle relatively early in the procedure. Settlement is a really important part of the judicial review system, but the way they show up in the statistics is that they look like withdrawn cases. The various statistics that we have vary, but I think we can accurately say that the Cart success figures are lower than the average judicial review success figures. By how much would be very difficult to say precisely, but one in 20 is still a reasonable success rate.
Dr Tomlinson: I think the figure that Professor Feldman is relying on in making that claim is the success rate after a hearing. As I have just explained, many judicial reviews—the majority of them—do not reach a full hearing. When you get to that point, the success and failure rate is roughly 50:50. It obviously goes up and down in various directions ever year, but it is roughly 50:50. Overall, the success rate is potentially a bit lower, depending on how you define success. Again, I would say that potentially the best explanation for why success rates are lower in Cart judicial reviews is that you are talking about judicial decisions, rather than administrative decisions, being challenged by judicial review, so you can potentially expect a better quality of decision that is likely to withstand judicial review a little more robustly.
Dr Tomlinson: Would you remind repeating that point? My connection dipped for a moment.
Sorry, there were two questions there. Before the witness had the chance to answer the one about the percentage of cases, you came up with another one. Were you clear on the first question, Joe?
Dr Tomlinson: I think so, yes. The headline point is that the statistics we have on judicial review—as a wider point, what the Government collect on judicial review could be much better—only give you a limited insight on success rates overall at different stages.
On the second question, if I have understood correctly, yes, obviously, Cart judicial reviews are of a slightly different nature, in that they challenge decisions of the tribunal. However, there are good reasons potentially, still, to provide judicial review of those decisions. Ultimately, what is at the base of those cases are the rights of individuals. While I can see there is a distinction to be drawn there, which was extensively dealt with in the initial Cart decision by the Supreme Court, the distinction in some ways is immaterial to the rights of the people who bring these cases.
Aidan O'Neill: The first issue, of course, if one takes the 5% figure by way of success—I agree with Joe Tomlinson that it is a high figure—is that one always goes back to the idea: is it better to let one innocent person be convicted of a matter or to let nine guilty go free? In a situation where you have one in 20 Cart or Eba judicial reviews being successful after a hearing, that shows that there has been an error in law in relation to the specific individual case, which has potentially incredibly serious consequences when one is dealing with asylum and immigration cases. In principle, I do not think it is a question of playing with numbers and saying, “Well, only 5% are successful, so it does not matter—we can get rid of the whole position in terms of allowing errors of law to be identified and reviewed at second instance and by way of judicial reviews in other cases.”
I also agree with what Joe Tomlinson has said, which is that in the Cart and Eba situation, one is dealing with the fact that judges, both at first instance and in the upper tribunal, have looked at the matter and therefore are legally trained already, but they are not infallible. That is the whole point about judicial review; matters are not infallible. One would hope that there would therefore be a much lower percentage of areas in which they have been shown to err in law than is the case for simple administrative bodies, which are not necessarily particularly legally qualified and are certainly not judicial bodies.
I would be wary of the attempt to compare matters that are not alike by saying that there is a 50% success rate on non-immigration judicial reviews. I must say I would be very surprised at the basis of that statistic, but if it is the case, then—[Inaudible.] The point is that you are stopping those 5% of cases ever being rectified, and that is not a situation that I think Parliament should properly be allowing.
Last point, Caroline, because there are other questions. Actually, Michael just wants to come in on your previous question, before you make your final point.
Michael Clancy: I agree with what Aidan O’Neill has said. Of course, in Scotland it is a different question in some respects, because as far as I recollect from the IRAL report, there were no statistics about the situation of judicial review in Scotland. The scale of things like that in Scotland is quite different, and one might expect only 100 judicial reviews to get to the Court of Session in any one year. The proportionality arguments about the use of judicial time and the expense are of a different order and would need to be separately vouched, I would say, before the same kind of decision taken in relation to Cart would be taken in relation to Eba-type cases.
Let us remind ourselves exactly why we have judicial review, which perhaps creates a tension between what one might describe as ministerial legality or quango legality judicial reviews and other types. Lady Hale said in Cart that
“the scope of judicial review is an artefact of the common law whose object is to maintain the rule of law—that is to ensure that, within the bounds of practical possibility, decisions are taken in accordance with the law, and in particular the law which Parliament has enacted, and not otherwise.”
I think that that grounds us on the basis for having a law of judicial review, and it is something that we should not depart from without very serious consideration indeed.
Unless you have a really pressing question, Caroline, I would like to move on to the next speaker, because you have taken quite a bit of time.
Right, one quick question and one quick answer.
Who wants to take that?
Aidan O'Neill: I do not understand the question. How does the judiciary make sure that—
Some people say that 0.2% of the judgments are incorrect, and some people say 5%.
Aidan O'Neill: Nobody is saying 0.2% reputably. I do not think one can take that on board. The IRAL report even accepts that its figure was wrong, so do not even start on that. You start with the claims made subsequently when this Bill was introduced, which were that the figure was at least 3%. That massive change was made in response to work done by academics such as Joe Tomlinson. Let us not start from 0.2%; let us use the better evidence we have heard so far, which is at least, or around, 5%. Ask me the question on that basis.
Order. Janet Daby.
“Online pleas compromise open justice principles by removing the opportunity for the plea hearing to be witnessed/observed.”
What is your view on that?
Michael Clancy: I am not entirely sure that I can comment competently on what is happening in the jurisdiction of England and Wales. It is certainly the case that there have been trials in Scotland of not only online pleas, but online trials with juries distanced from the courtroom. I do not know whether Aidan O’Neill would have more practical experience. The situations in the two jurisdictions are quite different, and my latest information is that we have almost reached pre-covid levels of conduct of trials in Scotland, which may have an element of online activity.
Of course, there are distance issues with some courts in Scotland. I remember one solicitor describing the fact that being able to conduct trials or provide pleas to court from Inverness in three courts in rural areas over the online system was actually quite a boon. I do not know whether that goes so far as to answer your question, but it is an observation that I can make from the Scottish jurisdiction.
Would anybody else like to respond?
Aidan O’Neill: Echoing what Michael Clancy has said, I would just say that, at least anecdotally in terms of the situation in Scotland, full criminal trials, rather than simply online pleas, seem to have been working quite well. In fact, in terms of satisfaction levels, jurors seem to quite like the idea of turning up at a cinema, rather than at a court, and being more comfortably seated and better looked after while still being able to see and, apparently, participate in the criminal trial that is taking place elsewhere.
That is not answering the detail of your question, which I think was more directed towards the idea of things going online meaning less public participation. I would have thought that that was really a matter depending on the software or program used to allow for greater observation by the public online. On some levels, it is easier for the public to participate when cases and trials are online, precisely because they do not have to go all the way into court—the physical location—to watch it. I am unsure whether that addresses what it was you were asking.
Would you like to respond, Dr Tomlinson?
Dr Tomlinson: I have spent quite a lot of time looking at the online proceedings question in England and Wales, and there are lots of interconnecting challenges around the move to online hearings. I have not spent much time looking at the criminal context, but rather at the use of online proceedings in tribunals. The challenge there with open justice is that online proceedings can potentially enhance open justice in various ways, but also diminish it. There is a real need for clarification of strategy in terms of key things like open justice, but also other areas, such as digital exclusion, in the reforms that we are seeing.
Michael Clancy: We do take the view that the provisions of clause 2 engage legislative consent, otherwise known as the Sewel convention, which would require the consent of the Scottish Parliament. The reason for that is a piece of law that is a bit complicated and a bit tricky. Nevertheless, you began by identifying that judicial review of administrative action is part of the definition of Scottish private law, which is contained, as you say, in section 126(4) of the Scotland Act 1998. That is a significant element in terms of recognising that it is a devolved matter exclusively; it is not split between the reserved areas of law and the devolved ones.
I freely recognise that the Government have taken steps in terms of new clause 11A(5) of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, which states:
“Subsections (2) and (3) do not apply so far as provision giving the First-tier Tribunal jurisdiction to make the first-instance decision could…be made by…an Act of the Scottish Parliament, or…an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly passed without the consent of the Secretary of State.”
However, while the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to modify the law relating to reserved matters, paragraph 2 of schedule 4 to the Scotland Act makes provision that applies only to the rules of judicial review insofar as
“the rule in question is special to a reserved matter”.
Special to a reserved matter would of course be a rule that would relate to something like an immigration tribunal, employment tribunal or employment appeal tribunal. Those are the kind of tribunals that one would think about.
In the 2010 Supreme Court case of Martin v. Most, there was a decision that a general rule that applies to both a reserved and devolved matter is not special to a reserved matter. Therefore, our conclusion is that if we follow the rule in Martin v. Most we get to the position where the decision in Eba—in fact, all judicial review matters under Scots private law—engage the Sewel convention and would therefore require the consent of the Scottish Parliament to be complied with, because of course it is declared in section 28 of the Scotland Act that
“the Parliament of the United Kingdom will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.”
Of course, section 28 provides that the UK Parliament can always legislate for Scotland. That is not in dispute. It is whether the Sewel convention is engaged. I hope that that answers your question.
Very quickly, as we are running short of time and we have a number of questions to come.
Aidan O'Neill: Absolutely. I think the Sewel convention is engaged because, apart from anything else, the reform proposed in the Bill would also require an amendment of section 27B(3) of the Court of Session Act 1988, because that embodies the Cart/Eba test, and that is a statute falling within devolved competence. At the moment, I do not see that the Bill attempts to amend that Act, and I think it needs to do so if it is to apply properly in Scotland. That makes it plain that it is a Sewel convention issue.
“Ultimately, law cannot guarantee individual liberties or good governance unless it is supported by a culture of responsible politics”.
He went on to say:
“The risk of too much intervention by the law in politics is that it can undermine the culture on which law itself depends for its effectiveness in relation to other matters…Responsible politics requires incentives to listen to other points of view and to conduct civilised debate to convince others. None of that is necessary if the authority of the law can be enlisted to force the views of one side on the other.”
Inasmuch as this Bill goes some way to redress the balance between that authority and the democratic will of Parliament, is it a helpful and useful step? In what ways might it go further in redressing that imbalance?
Aidan O'Neill: I am happy to speak briefly on that. There is not an imbalance. We are all subject to the rule of law—Parliament as much as the Executive and the courts—and it does involve a mutuality of respect. There is absolutely no doubt about that, but the Parliament has to respect the basic fundamental rights and the procedures by which those have been maintained over centuries in this country without a revolution. It is all a matter of that maintenance of a mutuality of respect, and I have seen absolutely no evidence to suggest in any way that there has been any breach by the courts of those basic fundamental principles in which all three organs of government—courts, Parliament and the legislatures generally, and the Executives of the Union—seek to respect the rule of law and fundamental rights, and the procedures that allow those to be vindicated.
Just one follow-up, John, because I am trying to get everybody in.
Aidan O'Neill: I am not sure whether it is the general view. I am certainly speaking from my own experience, having been involved in a number of cases of some import over the past 30 years of my practice. But I am also echoing the views set out in the formal response to the IRAL consultation by the Faculty of Advocates, which generally said that one thing that one ought to avoid in any discussions of the constitution is the notion of absolutism and of the zero-sum game—that if courts say something, that means that somehow the rest of us are—[Inaudible.]
We all benefit from the dialogue that goes on and the maintenance of a balance of powers. Frankly, I would not accept any suggestion that the courts have in any sense in recent years or earlier overstepped the boundaries of their stating what the law is, and the obligations that fall upon all of us to respect it, whichever position we are in. “Be ye never so high, the law is above you”, and that applies of course to lawyers and the courts as well, but it does involve this mutuality of respect, so I am sorry, I am afraid that when one looks at the evidence, there is absolutely no basis for declaring that the courts in recent years or earlier are overstepping any mark.
Secondly, we have heard—particularly this afternoon—about the effect on individual litigants, and that some of the provisions may be a discouragement, whether in mounting a case in the first place or in obtaining a remedy. What is your view on that?
Dr Tomlinson: I have concerns about both provisions. I will summarise my view in headline form.
In relation to clause 1, I would first like to clarify that I do not think it reflects what IRAL proposed; it goes further that what IRAL proposed. The risk with the changes to remedies is that they will leave some individuals without a remedy in their particular case—for instance, where a remedy is prospective only. There will also be a potential chilling effect on claimants. Why would you bring a case if there were a chance that your remedy is not going to apply to you? Why would you take the various risks involved? It is okay, in an academic sense, to separate out the issues of remedies and say, “They come at the end of the case,” but the practical reality is that claimants consider what will potentially come out of a case at the end, so remedies are relevant to that initial analysis on whether to bring a case in the first place.
Clause 1 also potentially puts judges in a position of having more power, in terms of remedies, than they have currently. Given the points that have been made today and in discussion with this panel, I am not quite sure that the way that will operate in practice is what is intended. I think clause 1 will leave some significant uncertainty that might also generate further litigation.
I have already spoken about clause 2, but very briefly, there are two really important points. One is the point of principle: does Parliament want to enact an ouster clause and is that a thing that Parliament should be doing? The second key point is the use of judicial resources: is Cart judicial review a proportionate use of judicial resources? The really basic calculation, to my mind, is that you have a roughly one-in-20 success rate. The cost of those cases is around £364,000 a year according to the MOJ’s figures—not a great deal of money. As I said earlier, the success rate is potentially higher than that.
The financial figures produced by the Ministry of Justice are, I think, a little bit too high in various respects—they include, for instance, the cost of cases won by claimants. Overall, I think there is a question there: is that cost worth it, given the kinds of errors that this Cart system protects against? There can be reasonable disagreements about that. My view would be that the cost of the jurisdiction is worth it because of the errors that it protects against—you have heard case studies of the impacts of those errors today. Those are my concerns in relation to clauses 1 and 2.
Michael, do you want to come in? I know you tried to get on the previous question—I do apologise. If you can, please keep it very short. We only have seven or eight minutes left, and two Government Members want to come in.
Michael Clancy: Thank you, Chair. On clause 1, we were delighted that the Government decided to adopt a remedy that was in section 102 of the Scotland Act, allowing for the suspension of an order to give the parties time to fix the problem.
On clause 2, I made reference to the case of CM (Petitioner) in my written evidence to the Committee. It comes to the conclusion that the first tier, upper tier and the Lord Ordinary in the Court of Session may have misunderstood the claimant’s evidence in CM, and that a remedy for that is an extraordinarily well-placed provision for access to justice.
Turning to the last question prior to this one, I align myself with much of what Aidan O’Neill said. His quotation of Lord Denning—that no matter how mighty you are, the law is above you—is very apposite. I am not a politician and I am not going to get involved in a political debate, but it may be the case that the transformation of our legal system from one of a distribution of powers between Parliament, the judiciary and the executive into one where there is much more separation has given voice to some of the concerns. However, we are still in the early days of having that more strict separation of powers, and at some point in the future, when there is a change of Government, I think views might be quite different.
Marco Longhi, followed by the Minister. You have five minutes, so a very quick question from yourself, Marco.
Just one of the panellists. Who wants to take it? They do not look willing. Are you directing it at anybody in particular?
Dr Tomlinson: I would point out that Cart judicial reviews are not just immigration cases. While the caseload is made up mostly of immigration matters, they are not necessarily all immigration cases. My view would be that there are lots of different appeal routes and mechanisms across the justice system and in different areas of the justice system. As I said earlier, there can be reason for disagreement about that, but in my view the Supreme Court in Cart got the question right, and I think its reasoning was correct that the procedure that is potentially open to review in a Cart judicial review is one where there needed to be a limited—I stress limited because the Supreme Court made it limited—scope for review, and that has proven to be a relatively successful and cheap way of picking up important errors that affect people’s lives.
You have a minute and a half to answer.
Aidan O'Neill: My experience—paradoxically much to my surprise—has been remarkably positive: that remote courts have worked. In the area that I am primarily involved in, which is public law but also employment cases involving witnesses and the like, there has been greater efficiency, so long as there is the proper ability for people to watch as part of access to justice. From a user perspective and from my experience, there are certainly positive benefits to it, but as Joe Tomlinson said, one must be aware of the potential negativity involved in terms of digital access and the like. However, open justice is an absolutely central point, and now that we have courts that are available online, just as the Supreme Court has been, I see that as a positive development.
Thank you very much; that is spot on. I thank the witnesses for attending today’s meeting. We have greatly appreciated your contributions and I thank you on behalf of the Committee as a whole.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Scott Mann.)
Adjourned till Thursday 4 November at half-past Eleven o’clock.
Written evidence reported to the House
JRCB01 Law Society of Scotland
JRCB02 Fish Legal
JRCB03 INQUEST (Briefing for Committee Stage: Part 2, Chapter 4, Clauses 37, 38 and 39)
JRCB04 INQUEST (Briefing on funding for the bereaved at inquests)
Subsidy Control Bill (Fifth sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Caroline Nokes, † Mr Virendra Sharma
† Baynes, Simon (Clwyd South) (Con)
† Benton, Scott (Blackpool South) (Con)
† Blackman, Kirsty (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
† Bowie, Andrew (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)
† Buchan, Felicity (Kensington) (Con)
† Esterson, Bill (Sefton Central) (Lab)
† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)
† Flynn, Stephen (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
Hollinrake, Kevin (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
† Kinnock, Stephen (Aberavon) (Lab)
† Malhotra, Seema (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
† Millar, Robin (Aberconwy) (Con)
† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)
† Scully, Paul (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
† Stafford, Alexander (Rother Valley) (Con)
† Tomlinson, Michael (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Whitley, Mick (Birkenhead) (Lab)
Kevin Maddison, Bradley Albrow, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 2 November 2021
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
Subsidy Control Bill
We now continue the line-by-line consideration of the Bill. The selection list for today’s sitting is available in the room. It shows how the amendments have been grouped together for debate. Amendments grouped together are generally on the same or a similar issue.
I beg to move amendment 34 in clause 32, page 17, line 10, at end insert—
“(c) the subsidy database is subject to routine audit to verify the accuracy and completeness of entries.”
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to ensure that the database is subject to routine audit.
With this it will be convenient to take amendment 39 in clause 33, page 17, line 27, at end insert—
“(3A) A public authority must ensure that all entries made under this section are accurate and complete”.
This amendment would require public authorities to ensure that all entries on the subsidy database are accurate and complete.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma, and to debate amendments 34 and 39.
The clause provides that the
“the Secretary of State must make arrangements for the provision of a database of subsidies and subsidy schemes for the purposes”
of transparency as required by the trade and co-operation agreement—the TCA. The database must be accessible to the public free of charge, and public authorities who are obliged to upload details of subsidies or schemes should be enabled to do so. The Secretary of State may direct the Competition and Markets Authority to take on responsibilities for maintaining the database in the future.
Clause 32 mandates the Secretary of State to arrange for the database to be set up, and we support the creation of the database. We recognise that it is vital for there to be transparency over subsidies in the new regime. However, we are again concerned that key details are missing from the Bill. In order for it to function effectively, the legislation should require public authorities to make sure that their entries on to the database are accurate and complete. This is particularly important given that interested parties will use information on the database to assess whether subsidies meet the subsidy control principles and, if not, whether they should be challenged before the Competition Appeal Tribunal. Surprisingly, the Bill does not contain any obligations on local authorities or public authorities to make accurate and complete declarations. I hope the Minister will agree that that is a gap in the legislation and is one that we need to see addressed.
To resolve the problem, Labour has proposed amendment 39, which would establish an explicit duty on public authorities to ensure that their entries on the database are accurate and complete. That is the least we should expect, but I am afraid that the evidence suggests that not all entries entered even over the past 11 months have been accurate or complete. In many cases, they have not been either.
Secondly, the Bill does not place the database under any order or control mechanism. Whose responsibility is it to verify that the information on the database is accurate and complete? Again, given that the information entered on the database is crucial for effective transparency of the regime, does the Minister not agree that this is a significant gap? If the database does not have any regular audit function and if inaccurate or incomplete information entered on to it is not checked, this poor information may lead to misguided legal challenges or, indeed, to harmful subsidies failing to be addressed. The other consequence is that it reduces overall confidence in the database and the information in it. Over time, that would undermine the regime.
In the evidence given on Tuesday 26 October, Alexander Rose of DWF said that since 11 pm on 31 December 2020 only 501 subsidies had been entered on the database. He highlighted that
“of those 501, some 257 are recorded as having a zero or nil value. —[Official Report, Subsidy Control Bill Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 52, Q73.]
He gave some frankly shocking examples of schemes that had not been accurately reported. He also questioned the database’s completeness and said that there was no way that only 501 subsidies had been awarded since the entries began.
The Minister may also remember the example of the Tees Valley Capital Grant Scheme. It was listed as having been posted on the website on 1 April 2020, but the website did not even exist on 1 April 2020. Given how vital subsidy entries will be to ensuring that subsidies meet the principles, it is clear that such complacency cannot be allowed to govern the new database under this regime. We need to get it right from the start. Expectations therefore need to be clear and they need to be defined in law. Let us remind ourselves that this is public money. Faith in the system requires good-quality information that is accurately reported, and we need to ensure that there will be a value for money check on the subsidies being proposed.
As the current database is clearly not working for those purposes, it is vital to address that point. Part of this may be about the design of the website for data entry itself, but the expectations of Parliament need to be clear on public authorities. It should be understood that there will then be real consequences if the database contains inaccurate information. We cannot control that if it is deliberate, but we need to put the safeguards in place so that the subsidies are used as intended.
Amendment 34 would ensure that the database was subject to routine auditing. We are open to discussions with the Government and stakeholders on which body is best placed to conduct such an audit. However, we believe that ultimately the responsibility lies with the Secretary of State to ensure that the database contains accurate information and is fit for purpose. I hope that the Government recognise the importance of both amendments in ensuring that the new regime is effective and transparent.
It is nice to be here again, Mr Sharma. Thank you for chairing the Committee.
This is an important part of the Bill. It is vital that the database is as full as possible and that people can find the information that they need. The points that were made in the evidence sessions about searching through the database were also incredibly important. There need to be search terms that people can use so that they can look through the database to find the information that they need. The regime will work only if people can find subsidies that are relevant. Improvements to the search function need to be among the other improvements.
I got the Library to put together some figures. As of 26 October, there were 501 subsidies on the database, but 245 of them—nearly half—did not have an amount specified. I know that this is a precursor system and it is not yet fit, but that shows how important it is that we have a framework and the details in place so that public authorities know what information they need to provide and that anyone wanting to challenge the information is able to find that information on the site. So 245 entries did not specify an amount, but about £1.6 billion is currently registered on the database. In addition, 138 entries did not specify where they are from—whether that is England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland—but given the way challenges are likely to work, and given principle F in schedule 1 about competition within the United Kingdom, it is incredibly important that the entries make it clear where they are from and where the subsidy has been given. The principles include a requirement that a subsidy does not affect competition between the regions. It is therefore important that that is one of the criteria that the Secretary of State specifies.
The links on the database are an absolute nightmare. If we go to any of the subsidies, it says, “Click here for more information”. Some of the links take us just to gov.uk, but other links take us to a local authority landing page. That is not right. It does not give us the details of the scheme. It would be more helpful if people were required to upload the details on to the website for the database rather than having the freedom to upload the details on to their own website. They could put them on their website and then take them down the next day. Even if there were a checking process when the information first went up, they could immediately remove it. Having the backroom systems in place so that there is enough space and server capacity on the website to store all the information would be incredibly helpful and probably provide better transparency.
I just want to pull out a couple of further things from the statistics that the Library provided. Of the subsidies recorded on the database that specify the region they are from, 30% are from England. I refuse to believe that only 30% of the subsidies that have been given in the UK since the system was started were in England. Some 21% were from Scotland, and I also refuse to believe that 21% of the subsidies that were given in the UK were given in Scotland. That just cannot be possible.
I completely agree with the amendments that have been proposed. I am not looking to argue with the Minister about the requirements set out and the strength of the database; I am just looking to ensure that the guidance that authorities have to abide by is very strong. I would rather there be too much information on the website than not enough to enable people to mount their challenges. We will come to this later, but there will be very little time for people to make a challenge. They should therefore not have to spend quite a while rummaging around trying to find the details that would enable them to make an informed challenge. I would be keen to hear the Minister make it clear that he intends a significant amount of information that is as accessible as possible to be on the website. People should be able to search the website and, if possible, a system should be in place to ensure that authorities that do not upload full information face a slap on the wrist. They should face some sort of sanction or negative consequence for failing to do their duty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
Clause 32 sets out the obligation for the Secretary of State to provide a database for subsidies and subsidy schemes, so that public authorities can adhere to the transparency requirements set out in the Bill, including those in clause 33. We have discussed the operational subsidy database. That was put in place to ensure the UK would be able to meet its international subsidy reporting obligations from 1 January 2021. It will continue to be adapted over the coming months to ensure it is fit for purpose for the future subsidy control regime.
The Government are committed to digital best practice in the monitoring and development of this database and all the databases that we oversee. The database uses the service standard specified by the Government Digital Service. The contract we have with our supplier is flexible—both to implement this Bill and to ensure that we can make improvements as we monitor and evaluate how it is being used.
Will the Minister clarify his comments on digital standards? There are two key issues here. One is the content and the functional design of the database. The other is the technical design and the ease of use of its search facilities and so on. Will he comment on the quality of what can be searched for and on the duty to include accurate information on the database? Will he say a little more about how he sees them being delivered?
: I will try in my remarks to develop some of the issues with public authorities and their statutory duties.
We have made minor improvements since the database came online in March and we will make changes in the coming months. We will reflect on what has been said in the Committee and throughout the Bill’s passage and by stakeholders and public authorities.
Amendment 39, tabled by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston, and amendment 34, tabled by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, focus on ensuring the accuracy of the information that is available on the database.
Amendment 39 would require public authorities to ensure that their database entries are accurate and complete. Amendment 34 would create a new obligation on the Secretary of State to subject the database to routine audit to ensure that entries on the database were accurate and complete. Although I agree wholeheartedly that it is important that the information on the database is correct and complete, the amendments are unnecessary for several reasons.
First, the obligations on public authorities set out in clause 33 are clear. If an authority uploaded data that was inaccurate or incomplete, its statutory obligations simply would not have been discharged properly. Amendment 39 is therefore superfluous.
The incentives faced by public authorities also mean that there is no need for amendment 34. If the public authority does not properly fulfil its obligation to upload the required information, the clock for the end of the limitation period does not start, so the subsidy or scheme could be challenged indefinitely. This gives public authorities an in-built incentive to ensure that the information that they upload is timely, complete and accurate.
Who decides whether the information is complete and that the clock has started, or does that happen only in the event of a challenge? How does somebody who is challenging know that, even though they are outside a month, it does not matter because the clock has not started?
Effectively, it is for the challenge. It is a loose framework. It is not like the state aid regime, where permission has to be sought and waited for before going ahead with a subsidy. It looks back at the subsidies and schemes that have been made. I shall return to the database and the issues raised about its integrity and accuracy, which I hope will illustrate some of the points.
The Minister has stated, in effect, that public authorities that do not protect information might not be in line with their statutory responsibilities. I am not clear where, in the Bill as drafted, there is a requirement on public authorities to ensure that all entries that they place on the database are accurate and complete. It is fine to say that a public authority must ensure that an entry that it makes must be maintained on the subsidy database for six years, beginning on the date the entry is made, but where is the requirement for the information to be accurate and complete?
It is as with every statutory duty placed on a public authority. The Bill contains a statutory obligation on public authorities to upload subsidies on the transparency database—in most cases, within six months. With any breach of statutory duty—whether it is on the face of the Bill or otherwise—a public authority can be challenged in judicial review in the courts. That is why I say that the amendment is superfluous: the net effect is exactly the same.
Members referred to the Teesside scheme. The reason the database was not live on 1 April 2020 was that that was the date when the scheme was set up rather than when the subsidy was paid. Subsidies that are not part of the scheme are dealt with differently.
On the database being full of gaps and of poor quality, in the evidence sessions Professor Rickard described it as “excellent”. It is worth noting that the database is still a relatively new tool. It continues to be developed to ensure that it is fit for the purposes of the new subsidy control regime. We are open to suggestions on how it can be improved and we expect to make further improvements in the coming months before the new domestic regime comes into force next autumn.
We have heard examples about the number of zeros. At the moment, the database is unable to show subsidy schemes and awards that follow. The ones with a zero are part of the scheme and are dealt with differently. An enhancement to the database is planned for the coming months that will show scheme-only entries, which will get around the issues that arose previously.
On the other issues—geography or some of the information that the hon. Lady was talking about earlier that may want to be challenged—any person who wants to challenge a scheme or subsidy or to find out more about data that is not on the database can put in a pre-action information request. Again, that stops the clock. The six-month period is not affected by that, because someone can make such a request, get that information and judicially review it later.
I am finding the logic of what the Minister is proposing quite difficult to follow. With the requirement for completeness and accuracy, we could prevent a lot of wasted time and money, possibly on the part of public authorities or enterprises that may consider a challenge on the basis that information was incomplete, where a public authority may decide not to put information on the database completely. It is important, given the functions in the Bill and the powers to be exercised, that we have as accurate and complete information as possible. There is no point in saying that judicial review or a pre-action protocol may be used later to correct information that was not provided earlier. That strikes me as building huge inefficiency into a system that could be more efficient and more accurate and could better achieve the Government’s intended outcomes. The Minister has not answered where the duty is on a public authority to ensure that its entries are accurate and complete. It is not here in writing.
I want to clarify a point that the Minister made about the Tees Valley Capital Grant Scheme. The scheme might have started on a particular date, but if the date listed on the database is eight months prior to the database existing, that is not accurate. It can be listed, but it should also be possible to say when a scheme might have started. There are different parts to the information, so ensuring its accuracy is important. Other parts of the Bill hinge on the date when something is listed, so that cannot be inaccurate—it would have a knock-on effect on the actions that can be taken and the powers that people have.
The scheme that we are referring to was created under the state aid rules—under an entirely different regime when we were still a member of the framework. It is additional information rather than subsidy control—specifically, UK subsidy control. Payments are still being awarded, despite the fact that it was an EU state aid scheme in the first place.
On the public authority duty, we are looking at similar aims. I used the word “superfluous” because public authorities clearly have a statutory duty and a requirement to carry out statutory duties. If we put something on the face of the Bill, the net result will be the same. How do you challenge someone who does not want to adhere to their statutory duties? You judicially review them.
That is why the Bill does not provide for any sanction for the failure to upload a subsidy. There is a strong incentive to do so, because the sooner the subsidy scheme or stand-alone subsidy is uploaded, the sooner the limitation period for digital review under the cap will expire. The Bill sets out the statutory obligation on public authorities to upload subsidies on to the transparency database, in most cases within six months.
Any breach of a public authority’s statutory duty can be challenged by judicial review, which is why the amendments are, although worthy in their aims, superfluous to the requirements of the Bill. I therefore ask that amendment 34 be withdrawn.
I have listened to the Minister. Our difficulty is that the amendments seem to be fundamental to the integrity of the whole regime.
The Minister alluded to obligations on local authorities. I cannot see any in writing. I shall not press amendment 39, as I would like further to explore whether there are, by proxy, obligations on which we can look to draw. If not, I would like to bring this back at a later stage.
The requirement for a routine audit to verify the accuracy and completeness—a duty of the Secretary of State under clause 32—is fundamental. That gap is not filled elsewhere and we should like to press the issue today.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The clause requires the provision of the subsidy database to ensure that the subsidy control regime is transparent and facilitates compliance with our international commitments. It must be available to the public free of charge. Public authorities will be able to upload certain subsidies to the database to meet their obligations under clause 33. The Secretary of State is clearly responsible for providing the subsidy database, and if appropriate the Secretary of State may direct the Competition and Markets Authority to carry out this function on his or her behalf.
I should clarify that the five-year reporting cycle that we discussed earlier was chosen to correspond roughly with a standard parliamentary term and, for consistency, with the monitoring reports of other bodies, such as the Office for the Internal Market. There might be circumstances when reporting within a shorter time period is desirable, such as in the early stages of the new regime, enabling the Secretary of State to assess how well it is bedding in.
The database is a key part of the new subsidy control regime, enabling the public and interested parties to see which subsidies have been awarded and to whom.
I thank the Minister for his remarks. I have made a number of comments on clause 32. He will appreciate why we feel that there are areas to address, but fundamentally we think that the clause is important.
The principle of the database being accessible to the public free of charge is important, but I reiterate the points made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North about searchability. Useability is an additional consideration alongside accessibility, and it should be referred to in further regulations or guidance.
I understand that when the Secretary of State directs the CMA to perform duties on his or her behalf, the powers go to the CMA as a whole. It might be assumed, however, that the subsidy advice unit in the CMA will take on those duties, so will the Minister clarify whether he expects that to be done by the unit or another team in the CMA?
I thank the hon. Lady. We agree on useability. We will look at making the changes to the database, not least because of the Committee’s reflections and those in further parliamentary stages, but also because of the real-time conversations with people using the database—not only people putting data on, but people wanting to read it.
The subsidy advice unit in the CMA will be responsible for the use of the database and delegation. Expertise may be brought in, but it will be for the subsidy advice unit to work on the database on behalf of the Secretary of State.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 32 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Duty to include information in the subsidy database
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 32, page 17, line 21, leave out “£500,000” and insert “£100,000”.
This amendment reduces the threshold for subsidies granted under subsidy schemes to be registered in the database.
Amendment 33, page 19, line 17, after “requirements” insert “with the exception of duties under section 33,”.
This amendment requires that Minimum financial assistance under £315,000 is subject to the subsidy database requirements in clause 33, despite being exempt from the other control requirements in Part 2.
The clause details the specific obligations of a public authority in uploading subsidies and subsidy schemes on to the subsidy database, as it stands in the Bill. It is right that a public authority must ensure that an entry is made in respect of any subsidy scheme unless any agreed relevant exemption applies. The clause also states that a subsidy or scheme must be uploaded within six months of the confirmation of the decision to grant or make a subsidy or scheme, except for tax measures which must be uploaded within one year. Subsection (2) exempts a subsidy from the requirement to be uploaded when the individual award is less than £500,000.
As I said on Second Reading, Labour welcomes the subsidy regime, which will enable subsidies to be granted more speedily while requiring stronger checks to be in place. The Bill presents us with an opportunity to create a more responsive subsidy regime but, as we move away from the EU system of pre-notification, it is vital to ensure that the new regime, which grants subsidies first and then allows them to be challenged after, has appropriate mechanisms for oversight and transparency.
Clause 33, which outlines the obligations that public authorities have in respect of the subsidy database, demonstrates how the Bill seems to fail to provide the checks that we need for subsidies under the new regime. As the Bill stands, subsidies made under a scheme that are worth less than £500,000 do not have to be entered on to the database. I would like to understand the Minister’s justification for that and how the figure of £500,000 was decided on. Amendment 35 would leave out subsection (2) so that there is a requirement to be transparent.
The provision in the Bill is staggering. The sum of £500,000 is significant and could be given multiple times under a scheme without that being transparent. How are we then able to challenge what is being done and, as an interested party, make the possible case against? Does the Minister not agree with Professor Rickard, who said in our evidence sitting last week:
“Through transparency, we can get better compliance and better value for money”?––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 23, Q25.]
I am sure the Minister will agree that we always want to see value for money and that we can help to ensure that the subsidies that are being granted meet the goals that we are setting out to achieve.
I am sure the Minister will also agree that subsidies worth £500,000 or less can have a significant effect on the market. They can distort competition. As such, public authorities should be obliged to enter them on to the database to ensure that their aims and the subsidies can be fairly scrutinised. That is why Labour is proposing amendment 35, which would stipulate that all subsidies should be entered on to the database. We have not suggested setting a minimum threshold for publication; there are proposals on that from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North.
In the system of appeal rather than pre-notification, comprehensive transparency is vital. With the right system, entering subsidies on to the database need not be cumbersome or complicated for public authorities. It can be a straightforward task that is well worth completing for the transparency it provides in the context of every subsidy. We can search the database for the amounts that we might want to scrutinise, but every subsidy should be on the database. That is our starting point.
Amendment 35 would mandate that subsidies given under a scheme are individually also quoted under the scheme’s entry. There will be an amount associated with that subsidy under the scheme; there is no reason why that amount should not be able to be entered and should not be required to be entered.
The amendment would ensure full transparency of all subsidies under the regime and that interested parties had the relevant information needed to scrutinise any subsidy, whether given alone or under a scheme.
I will speak to not only amendment 35, but amendments 32 and 33. I want to address the logic behind the amendments. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the transparency database. It is the key place—the only place—where organisations and local authorities will be able to find information about the subsidies being granted. I imagine that a lot of organisations will be poring over the information on a fairly regular basis to work out whether the subsidies made meet the principles put forward by the Government. It is absolutely, desperately important that we get this right, and I am keen for us to do that from the beginning as far as possible, rather than having to make changes to the legislation afterwards.
I am concerned by what the Minister said earlier about the timing of pre-action information requests; it feels to me that organisations will just make those requests all over the place, no matter when the subsidy was actually registered. If there is no requirement to have full information on the subsidy database and there is no sanction for public authorities that do not do that, people may as well try their hand with the pre-action information request. This encourages the action process to happen, rather than providing people with the information in the first place so that they know that they do not need to make the request.
The logic behind amendment 32 is that subsidy schemes should be easier to implement than subsidies. It should be easier for public authorities to give them out: presumably, the schemes will have been agreed. They will be set up in a certain way, so the process of giving awards under them should be easier—that is literally the point of having subsidy schemes.
I turn to the logic of changing the figure from £500,000 to £100,000 and keeping a floor. If something under £100,000 has been approved as part of a scheme, it is probably going to be not that bad—it will probably be fine. But £500,000 is far too high, which is why we suggest £100,000. As was said in the evidence sessions, the figures are arbitrary—the figures are always arbitrary no matter which one is chosen. However, that was the logic behind having a differential system in place between subsidy schemes and subsidies on the subsidy database.
I like Labour’s amendment 35 and get where they are coming from, but I am more comfortable than them with the more streamlined process of the subsidy scheme.
I move on to our amendment 33, on minimal financial assistance. It would actually amend a future clause—clause 36 —but it makes sense to debate it at this point, as it is specifically on the amount that needs to be provided on the database. My suggestion is that all subsidies not made under a scheme should be part of the database. I am not suggesting that they should have to meet the other minimal financial assistance requirements, but I am suggesting that—this was pretty clear from our evidence sessions on Tuesday—all the subsidies not made under schemes should be registered on that database. They would not necessarily have to jump through the other hoops, but all the public authorities that we are dealing with will have done a huge amount of due diligence before giving a subsidy of any sort. They will have the information and it would not cost them much in the way of time to ensure that it is uploaded. That would increase drastically the amount of transparency and our oversight. As drafted, we will not know whether the system is working, because we will not have access to transparency data on any subsidies under £315,000 or any made in a scheme under £500,000. That is not good enough.
A new system is being set up and the Government have been clear that it is a free-market and permissive system, but neither I nor anyone else will know whether it works if we are not able to see the data and whether public authorities are making far fewer—or far more—subsidies than expected under the scheme. We will be unable to assess the adequacy of the system unless the Minister is willing to make changes to the thresholds for schemes and for general subsidies. Once again, I am not suggesting that we put other duties in place for minimal financial assistance or a requirement that other hoops have to be jumped through; I am suggesting that details are uploaded to the database so that we may scrutinise the data.
There has been a great deal of interest in the thresholds at which the transparency obligations apply, so I will explain some of the detail and logic of those thresholds. Transparency is an important part of the subsidy control regime and key to the enforcement provisions.
As we have heard, interested parties must be able to see subsidies in order to determine whether they may be affected and whether they wish to challenge the subsidy award or subsidy scheme. Any challenge will be made in the Competition Appeal Tribunal through that judicial review. The database is a vital tool in that. To serve its purpose, the aim of the database should always be to enable interested parties to see the subsidies that they may wish to challenge. It is not designed to be a general database of public authority spending; other tools are already available elsewhere for greater financial transparency in that regard and are not limited to subsidies. The transparency requirements in the Bill have therefore been designed to focus solely on those subsidies and schemes that can be challenged on subsidy control grounds.
The Bill provides for various reasons why a subsidy or scheme cannot be challenged on subsidy control grounds, such as a subsidy award given under a published scheme not being able to be judicially reviewed in the CAT on subsidy control grounds. That is because the scheme itself is assessed against the subsidy control principles and is challengeable, rather than the award under the scheme. Another example is minimal financial assistance subsidies, which are considered too small to cause undue distortions. They therefore do not have to adhere to the subsidy control principles and other requirements. Those subsidies do not need to be on the subsidy control database.
The transparency of subsidy awards has costs as well as benefits. Providing the data would create an administrative burden for public authorities, including small local authorities, in addition to the imposed costs for those using the database if excessive, irrelevant or potentially poor-quality data is provided that interested parties have to sift through. Another thing about the impact on public authorities is the cumulative impact. We find that transparency requirements in general tend to fall on a small number of people in local authorities and other public bodies. That is why there is a relatively high bar or threshold—because of that cumulative burden on a few people in local authorities.
Does the Minister not agree that, with public trust in politics and Government at an all-time low, the more transparency that we can have in the system, the better it will be to build trust in the new subsidy control regime? Does he not recognise the serious risk of cronyism and that sunlight is the best disinfectant? Therefore, let us have the maximum transparency, and let us drop this clause from the Bill, as requested by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston in her amendment.
I do believe in transparency, that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and in the importance of this database being as accessible as possible. As I will come on to say, the starting point of many of the thresholds and the amounts that we have been adhering to for many years lie in EU state aid rules. They also reflect the consultation responses that we have received from all parties, which I will come back to. We need to ensure that the benefits of any approach to our database and transparency outweigh the costs, and I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance.
Could the Minister define what he means by the costs of information on the database? Surely, if all the information is available to a public authority that has gone through the process of making a decision about an award, uploading entries and so on should not be an onerous process. What does he see as the cost?
As I say, it is the cumulative costs that, in many ways, were the starting point. As a matter of principle, we should not seek to add duplicative red tape for public authorities—particularly local authorities and other small authorities—without good cause. I will expand on that as I continue.
Perhaps this is an opportunity for the Minister to design a database and an extremely straightforward way of entering information. It does not seem to me that this should be onerous at all. Of course we agree that we should not add red tape, but in the interests of the integrity of the system, of public money and of preventing cronyism and people getting around controls, surely this ought to be part of a public authority’s obligation to the public. Perhaps the Minister could come back on those specific points.
I am sorry to make this point again to the Minister: the EU state aid regime was based on information being available to the public. The whole system was different. There was pre-notification, so by the time a subsidy was awarded, a transparent process had taken place. The proposed regime will not do that. The shift in the system means that safeguards are needed for public money and so that any future scandal does not cause a crisis in the regime. Does not the Minister realise that shifting the regime to a different position from that in the EU will have consequences?
First, moving the subsidy control scheme from pre-notification and pre-approval will mean that the subsidies can actually get to those businesses and interests at the right time, rather than when it is too late or when they would have less of an effect. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North mentioned the pre-action information requests and transparency requirements. We have based this on the consultation responses from people who will be at the cutting edge of the system, and it is also in line with other international examples. We have looked at other examples around the world, which is why I probed our witnesses on what happens in other parts of the world. We have been looking at that with this scheme.
This system, as drafted in the Bill, does strike the right balance in ensuring that people can drill down into this scheme. On the pre-action information request process, if the database is not keeping up with the ever-changing world of subsidies, businesses, environmental impact and other areas relating to subsidies, there are safeguards to ensure that it is as transparent as possible.
Let me briefly deal with some of the thresholds and give a little more information. Public authorities must upload information about all stand-alone subsidies that exceed the minimal financial assistance threshold of £315,000 cumulated over three years, unless they are subject to a specific exemption. They must also upload information about all subsidy schemes.
The Bill provides for transparency of large awards given under schemes—those over £500,000. That was worked out roughly, allowing for currency differences, according to the EU amounts. Although these large awards cannot themselves be challenged in the CAT using the subsidy control requirements, they do provide important information about how the scheme is being used by the public authority, and their size means that the benefits outweigh the costs.