John Howell (Henley) (Con)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I will not speak for very long, but I want to raise an important point about international arbitration while wearing my hat as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution, which looks at arbitration, mediation and other forms of dispute resolution.
I was pleased to see that the withdrawal agreement commits us to international arbitration to resolve any disputes between us and the European Union as we exit it. That is a very positive step forward and a good compromise to have received from the European Union. I pay tribute to the authors of the withdrawal agreement for getting the EU to agree to that. I put so much emphasis on international arbitration because it is arguably a cheaper and much quicker way of resolving disputes. As we have heard, we are a leading centre for arbitration, as the number of people who come to us from around the world indicates. They do that because of our distinguished judges and arbitrators, and because English law is admired around the world.
I raised that issue with the Lord Chief Justice this week, and I asked him how secure he is in believing that we will be able to continue with this regime after Brexit. He said, first, that it is difficult to see it continuing unless we do something about the fact that the number of judges is so diminished at the moment. That is a very important point. Arbitration is not solely based on judges, but we need judges with a great deal of experience.
The second thing he said—I made this point in an intervention—is that we need to be more aware of the alternative centres that are emerging around the world to deal with arbitration. I mentioned Singapore, which has put tremendous effort into developing a commercial solution. I hope that in the summer recess—assuming we still have one—I will be able to go out to Singapore to see for myself how its arbitration courts work and what sort of cases they deal with. We should be concentrating on those important things.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) said that legal services make an enormous contribution to the UK's economic activity. I will not repeat what he said about them, other than to underline their phenomenal contribution.
I want much more emphasis to be put on tying up the elements that I have mentioned. We should not take for granted our legal position as the pre-eminent jurisdiction for arbitration. Our officials need some fight to ensure that we keep our jurisdiction and our reputation so that we can continue with that.
I stress the importance of ensuring that we have some sort of reciprocal arrangement for the family courts. My hon. Friend mentioned Brussels II and the maintenance regulations that apply to it. It is not the ideal form of governance of the situation with the European Union, but it is undoubtedly better than what preceded it, and we should be very careful about throwing it out.
I was disappointed not to see more in the withdrawal agreement about the protection of legal services. There is a gap there. It would have been nice to see more about how they will operate in the new environment and about how qualifications will continue to be recognised beyond the transition period. Those points have already been made, but I am happy to make them again because they are important and we need an answer.
John Howell (Henley) (Con)
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Surely one of the biggest threats to the UK comes from Singapore, which is developing a good range of courts to tackle commercial issues. I have raised the subject on several occasions, but there does not appear to be a united Government front to see off the threat from Singapore.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Other jurisdictions are also mounting challenges. We must avoid doing anything that might impair the reputation of the sector.
My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. I am not sure that I heard him mention the family courts in his list of things that we need to establish good relationships over. The family courts are very important, because sadly the amount of work that they undertake—on both sides of the channel—is growing. There is enormous mutual responsibility for them.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. The Brussels II regulation is a single legal instrument that helps families resolve disputes about divorce and the custody of children where they involve parties in more than one EU state. Under the regulation, EU courts automatically recognise judgments on matrimonial and parental responsibility that are delivered in other states. That will no longer apply to the UK when we have left the EU. Similarly, the maintenance regulation, which helps to ensure the payment of maintenance in cross-border situations, will no longer apply.
My hon. Friend is stressing the role of the family courts, but he might also want to mention the ability to handle child abduction equally on both sides.
That is entirely right. Some of the worst examples, before we developed the mutual enforceability of judgments, related to child abduction. In cases involving non-EU states, in which we are a third country, the parent here—frequently the mother—was at a significant legal disadvantage and did not have the protections that we have under the current arrangements, particularly the recast Brussels arrangements. I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that issue.