Of Legislation, Governance and Society.

Well, there we have it. The 1st May has come and gone, and frankly I am struggling to come to terms with the rapid progression into this year. I surely cannot be the only one pondering where on earth April went. Yet now I must consign myself to the upcoming coursework deadlines and examinations. A few weeks, and my final semester of final year law will come to a close. Utterly surreal, but I digress.

As the month of May dawns, I found myself thinking about April, and the legal happenings in this month. There were interesting legal developments in not just the UK, but also the USA. These developments I feel highlight the role law plays in daily life, how governance affects our lives, and how the political system can impact directly upon the lives of certain individuals, or groups of people. New laws came into effect in the UK in April, and controversial bills were passed in the US. I will look at both in this post, starting closer to home first.

In the UK, there were several new laws which came into force in April 2016. Now that April has left us, it would be interesting to reflect on these new laws, and the policies which inspired them. I will list and explain them accordingly:

You may have to pay more council tax -if you live in England.
In England, if you live in a Band D property – that is, in the middle of the price range for your area – the council tax bill for the upcoming year increased by an average of £58. This was the biggest council tax increase for eight years.

This came to be because more than a hundred councils in England were increasing council tax rates by up to 4%. The plan is to use these rises to fund social care. Bear in mind t hat local authorities are struggling to make ends meet: grant cuts to local government in the past six years have been severe, and the amount they receive will decrease further by 2020.

Water bills will also increase by £2 a year in England and Wales, and this also started in April.

Low-paid workers aged 25+ will now receive the new National Living Wage.
On the 1st April, the new National Living Wage of £7.20 an hour was introduced, giving workers aged 25 and over on the lower end of the pay scale a pay rise of 50p an hour. This had been lauded by the Government when it had been announced by the Chancellor in his 2015 Budget. (There had been comments this was not truly a ‘living wage’, it fell short of this and was rather a higher minimum wage.)  However, the Office for Budget Responsibility had warned that up to 60,000 jobs could be lost as a result as employers try to make savings in an effort to afford paying the new wage.

The new policy has been criticised as unfair for younger workers, as those under the age of 25 will not be paid this new wage. Moreover, the National Living Wage should not be confused with the recommendations of the Living Wage Foundation, which states that hourly wages should be at least £9.40 in London and £8.25 elsewhere.

You must microchip your dog (Great Britain only).
From the 6th April, all dog owners in England, Scotland and Wales will be required by law to microchip their pet, and keep their details up-to-date on an authorised database.

It is hoped such measures will make it easier to find lost and stray dogs- which currently cost taxpayers and charities £33 million a year. However, a senior vet actually advised dog owners to ignore the new law, as apparently the chips can lead to health problems among puppies and smaller breeds.

Non-EU workers who earn less than £35,000 face deportation.
Yes, you did read that correctly. Changes to UK visa rules which came into force on the 6th April mean that overseas workers will not be permitted to remain in the UK for more than five years unless they can prove they earn more than £35,000. Now, should that applies to you, and your five-year visa is due to expire, there is now a real risk you could face imminent deportation.

The new law will not apply to nurses, PhD-level jobs and those on the official ‘Shortage Occupation List’.

Prescriptions are more expensive – if you are in England.
On the 1st April, the NHS prescription charge in England increased by 20p to £8.40 per item. Prescriptions  continue to remain free in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The cost of an NHS dental check-up has also risen by 5 per cent to £19.70.

Other changes to the NHS in April include: the launch of a £150m incentive programme for hospitals to prevent overuse of antibiotics, and a 1% increase in the value of NHS optical vouchers. (These vouchers are specifically for children, people on low incomes and those with complex sight problems.)

Additional property equals more stamp duty.
Second home buyers and buy-to-let landlords now have to pay 3% more stamp duty on purchases over £40,000 from the 1st April. The additional stamp duty means they will now pay £10,000 – a substantial increase of £7,500.

Mobile homes and houseboats are exempt from the charge.

State pensions will be paid differently.
For those who planned to retire on or after the 6th April, the manner in which you receive your pension has changed. Instead of a basic state pension plus an additional pension, there will be a flat-rate payment of £155.65 a week. This is an increase from the previous minimum of £120.

This was supposed to make Government pensions easier to manage and understand, but a survey by consumer group Which? found that actually, 44% of 50 to 64-year-olds do not know what the new rate will be.  Moreover, to receive the full rate National Insurance must have been paid for 35 years, meaning younger retirees could lose out.

The lifetime allowance for pensions was also reduced on the 6th April, changing from £1.25 million to £1 million.

Pay may rise for those working in the public sector.
It was estimated that more than one million public sector workers would see their pay rise by an average of 1% this month. The Government claimed this will protect 200,000 jobs in public services such as the NHS and the armed forces, but this proposed increase was described as ‘miserly’ by union leaders.

Social housing tenants’ rents will drop, but housing benefit is changing.
If you rent your home from a housing association or the council,your rent started to decrease by 1% each year for the next four years at the end of April.

The Government hopes this will reduce the amount of housing benefit it pays out, and is planning to reduce the household benefit cap this Autumn 2016 from £26,000 to £20,000 – or £23,000 in London.

A new personal allowance should boost savings.
Another policy announced in the 2015 Budget which was implemented on the 6th April is the introduction of the ‘Personal Savings Allowance’, which will enable people to earn up to £1,000 in interest tax-free.

Previously, earnings on savings were automatically taxed at 20%, so this change should benefit almost anyone with a savings account. Yet if you pay the higher 40% rate of tax, your allowance will be £500. Moreover, the richest earners on the top tax rate of 45% will not have an allowance at all.

A new 10 per cent tax on share dividends with a £5,000 tax-free allowance was also introduced on the 6th April.

The above should emphasise how the law can shape our lives and lifestyles, from how we work to our recreational habits. I think that sometimes we can forget how present and relevant the law truly is. I also think that we sometimes may also forget how many laws and regulations are passed each year, and how frequently our behaviour is governed. But I digress. On to the next part of the post!

It was legislation and policy-making as normal in the UK in April. But in the US, policy-making and legislating took a controversial turn in the same month. The states of Mississippi and North Carolina saw the drafting and voting on bills perceived as anti-LGBT*, and sparked a furious backlash from a consortium of rights activists, community groups and businesses in both states.

Balancing religious interests and the rights of the LGBT* community across America has proved to be problematic, to say the least. States, including Mississippi and North Carolina have started drawing up religious freedom laws largely under pressure from religious groups, due to the US Supreme Court ruling last summer which legalised same-sex marriage nation-wide. It also comes as the trans* community in particular campaign for recognition and protection under the law, for example in being afforded the opportunity to use public toilets which align with their preferred gender identity.

In North Carolina, the state essentially revoked LGBT* legal protections through passing a bill that bars the state’s cities and counties from having their own anti-discrimination rules. Republican legislators in the Republican-controlled General Assembly argued for the enactment of the bill after the state’s largest city, Charlotte, passed an ordinance allowing trans* persons to use the public toilets which aligned to their preferred gender identity.

The General Assembly voted in late March to invalidate the ordinance, which would have come into effect on the 1st April. The new law now requires public schools, government agencies and college campuses to ensure bathrooms, toilets and locker rooms are clearly marked by gender. Consequently, Trans* persons in North Carolina can only use toilets which match the gender listed on their birth certificate .

State Governor Patrick McCrory, who signed the bill into law, said in a press release that “the basic expectation of privacy in the most personal of settings” was violated by “government overreach and intrusion” by Charlotte’s city council.

Republicans in the General Assembly argued it was necessary to intervene to protect women and children, as men could abuse this ordinance to enter women’s restrooms by identifying as trans*. LGBT* advocates however argued this new law places a stigma on the trans* community by perpetrating dubious claims about increased risk of sexual assault. Myself? I feel the law denies the LGBT community legal protections, and denies trans* persons the opportunity to live freely according to their preferred gender.

In Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant signed a controversial bill into law which allows businesses to refuse service to gay couples based on religious beliefs at the beginning of April.

The intention of the bill, the ‘Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act’, is to legally protect those who believe marriage to be solely between one man and one woman, that sexual relations should only happen in marriages and that gender is not changeable. The new law basically permits churches, religious charities and privately held businesses to decline services to people if doing so would violate their religious beliefs on marriage and gender. Government institutions must still provide public services, but individual government employees may avail of the law to opt out. The Governor said the bill “protects sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions”.

Naturally, equal rights advocates argued the new law actively permits discrimination of the LGBT* community – and now on a legal basis. This is also the case with another provision within the bill: anyone who wishes to establish ‘sex-specific standards’ for toilets, dressing rooms etc. may do so.

The Governor of Mississippi took to defending his signing of the bill on Twitter, where he argued the new law does not restrict rights of citizens under the US Constitution. Instead, he argued, the law was designed to ‘prevent government interference in the lives of the people’. (So, a law to restrict the rights and freedoms of a community of citizens is actually preventing government interference in the lives of the aforementioned. Sure.)

Both these cases are examples of the ever-widening divide between social conservatives and diversity-minded corporations, as businesses took to protesting the new laws. PayPal for example announced it had withdrawn from plans to establish a global operations centre in Charlotte, North Carolina because of the state’s recent passage of a law banning anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation. PayPal had pledged to bring 400 jobs and invest $3.6 million in the area by the end of 2017; so such a withdrawal from the city will have a harsh impact. PayPal objected to what it perceived as inequality:

“…becoming an employer in North Carolina, where members of our teams will not have equal rights under the law, is simply untenable.”

Outside of businesses, other lawmakers in the US have raised objections to the new law. Mayors and governors of states including New York, Vermont and Washington, announced a ban on most state-sponsored travel to North Carolina.

Meanwhile in Mississippi, objections have been raised by numerous companies such as Tyson Foods, MGM Resorts International, Nissan and Toyota. They are all major employers in the state.

Whilst I was typing up the above, I kept thinking about the role of law in our lives. As I mentioned previously in this post, law does shape our lives, in more ways than we perhaps realise. Evidently, in the case of the laws passed in Mississippi and  North Carolina, the role of the state in regulating people’s lives cannot be understated. It is also interesting to note the backlash of state citizens to state law; an example in protesting against the governing state and the status quo. Counter-conduct is essentially evident in the boycotting of North Carolina, with what are really ad hoc economic sanctions against the state by national companies.

Regular readers may recall that I studied Jurisprudence and Legal Theory last semester. A consequence of this has been that I now see the law in a different light than before, and understand how it can be viewed from various perspectives. I often find myself questioning the law and our legal system these days, too. I will find myself querying whether the law is merely politics in another form, for example, or I wonder whether there is/there should be a separability of morality from law. Above all else, I will ask myself what exactly is law – and goodness knows, this is a question I will continue to ask for years to come.

It is a fascinating, complex area of legal philosophy, and I feel that it can be seen through news stories such as the implementation of new legislation. For example, we can ask ourselves why we choose to obey the law, or why we have accepted the validity and legitimacy of the law. Is it due in part to a social contract, which we impliedly agree upon so that we accept the law to prevent uncertainty, instability and potential anarchy? Is it because we have agreed to cede power and authority to our elected Parliament and Executive, trusting that they will govern and represent us effectively and efficiency? And are judges truly impartial and neutral? Are they simply to read and give effect to the laws they interpret and adhere to precedence, not to consider the social impact of their decisions?

There many questions to be asked, and many debates to participate in regarding the law. But one thing is for certain: governments have the power and authority to govern our lives, regulate our conduct and even restrict our freedoms.

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