It was very much a case of one cheer only this week for the mini rebellion which was staged by Liberal Democrat backbenchers against the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (the 'Legal Aid Bill'). However, the fact that amendments hostile to provisions in the bill were tabled by government backbenchers is to be applauded and gives some hope that the bill will be amended in the House of Lords.
Helen Grant, the Conservative MP for Maidstone and The Weald, was most critical of the government’s proposals on domestic violence, arguing that the definition of domestic abuse needed to be more precise and expressing concern about the proposed 12-month time limit on the qualifying criteria to claim legal aid linked to domestic abuse. She also raised concerns about the exclusion of undertakings as a criterion to qualify for legal aid: 'An undertaking is a legally binding document … it is specific and clear, and eminently acceptable in my opinion to be part of the criteria.'
Unfortunately, it must be assumed that Grant was got at by her party whips as she did not vote for the amendments which would have improved the provisions in the bill on domestic violence cases. She was absent from the chamber when the votes were taken, so at least this could be taken as a sign that she could not bring herself to go through the government lobby. LAG believes her comments and those of others in the debate on the controversial domestic violence provisions are sure to be highlighted to peers when they come to consider the bill.
A few Liberal Democrat MPs can be added to the, albeit small at the moment, honours board which LAG is establishing for members of the governing parties who wrestle with their consciences over the Legal Aid Bill and end up losing. Ten made the board for rebelling against the government over an amendment on complex benefits cases: Tom Brake, Mike Crockart, Andrew George, Mike Hancock, Martin Horwood, Simon Hughes, Stephen Lloyd, Greg Mulholland, Ian Swales, and David Ward. Three also voted against the government on domestic violence amendments.
The amendment on complex benefit cases was proposed by Yvonne Fovargue, the Labour MP for Makerfield. In her speech she said: 'It is well known that many problems in social welfare law are interconnected and that clients invariably approach agencies with clusters of problems, which is why the social welfare law cluster of housing, benefits, debt and employment was introduced in the first place.' In her constituency she argued that the number of specialists dealing with social welfare law cases would drop from ten to only two if the changes to legal aid were approved by parliament.
In the debate on the amendment, Tom Brake argued that the proposal on complex cases was suggested by Citizens Advice which 'has calculated the cost impact of its proposal. It says that the current welfare benefits advice spend is £25 million on just under 140,000 cases, and that restricting it to complex welfare benefit cases covering only reviews and appeals, which applies to two-thirds of the current welfare benefit cases, would cost £16.5 million and help around 100,000 people'.
As with the amendments on domestic violence, LAG anticipates that amendments on social welfare law are likely to be hotly debated when the Legal Aid Bill reaches the House of Lords. LAG’s director, Steve Hynes, spoke at a cross-party seminar on social welfare law in the House of Lords on Monday this week. The event was well attended by peers concerned about the Legal Aid Bill. December’s edition of Legal Action magazine will carry a full report on the event along with a feature article on the research which LAG is publishing to coincide with the Legal Aid Bill.