Thursday, 8 March 2012

Government loses crucial votes in Lords on legal aid

Peers in the House of Lords inflicted a number of significant defeats on the government this week over its proposals for legal aid. They were debating the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which has reached the report stage in the Lords. Not only did the government lose the votes, but it lost the argument, as the justice minister, Lord McNally, was often the lone voice defending the bill in some very one-sided debates.

The first defeat came on Monday evening. An amendment from the crossbench peer, Lord Pannick, which gives the Justice Secretary the responsibility of ensuring access to justice within the available resources was approved by a majority of 45. An amendment from Labour’s Baroness Scotland, setting out the criteria for victims of domestic violence to qualify for legal aid, was approved by a majority of 37. A third amendment on the independence of decision-making on entitlement to legal aid was also lost by the government.

Late on Monday night Lord McNally confirmed that the government would amend the bill to allow areas of law to be brought back into scope. Lord Thomas had already told Justice for All supporters that the government was going to agree to this (see news blog for 23 February) and so this announcement had rather lost its impact. The concession does give some hope that any cuts in legal aid could be made good in the future, but it did little to placate opposition to the bill from peers as a bad week for the government got worse on Wednesday night.

For much of the debate on Wednesday, Lord McNally was again alone in defending government policy against an onslaught of criticism from peers on all sides of the House. At one point he rather lost his cool, criticising the non-political crossbench peers by implying that they were being irresponsible by voting for amendments which were against government policy. By the sedate standards of the House of Lords this is about as abusive as it gets and moved Lord Cormack, a Conservative peer, to accuse Lord McNally of 'histrionics'.

The amendment proposed by Liberal Democrat Lady Doocey, with support from Labour, Conservative and crossbench peers, was the most significant defeat for the government of the night. The amendment puts advice on welfare benefits back into scope and was passed with a majority of 39. A second amendment from Lord Newton, a Conservative and former Social Security Secretary, was also passed. Lord Newton’s amendment restores legal aid for appeals. An amendment from Lord Thomas, on complex appeals cases was withdrawn after an assurance that the government would consider this further. The government also lost by a small majority an amendment which would allow medical reports to be paid for by legal aid in medical negligence cases.

Lord McNally argued that the amendments which the Lords voted for would drive 'a coach and horses' through the bill as its main aim is to cut legal aid as a contribution to the government’s deficit reduction programme. He also hinted that the amendments would not be accepted by the House of Commons as they would jeopardise the Ministry of Justice’s budget plans.

LAG believes Lord McNally is guilty of exaggeration. In the context of the £350m saving the government is seeking from the legal aid budget, the amendments passed yesterday would cost less than five per cent of this. LAG argues the government should look at other ways of saving the cash, such as Lord Carlile’s suggestion to use the assets of people accused of a crime to fund defence costs.

The government has two problems it needs to face in the light of these and further amendments likely to be approved next week. First, it is up against a deadline as the parliamentary session is due to end in early May. Also, particularly on the domestic violence and welfare benefits provisions in the bill, there is disquiet among its own backbenchers both in the Lords and the Commons. Ten Liberal Democrat MPs voted for a Labour amendment on welfare benefits in the Commons and more would have rebelled if the government had not successfully talked out a Liberal Democrat amendment. These factors might well force the government’s hand to make further concessions on the bill to ensure it is approved.

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