Thursday, 26 April 2012
Vote on domestic violence amendment lost
Losing votes is not like losing football matches. Both can turn on luck or chance, but no matter how passionate a team and its supporters are, losing a match is ultimately part of the game, whereas much more can hinge on losing a vote.
Last night Lady Scotland, the former Attorney-General, mounted an impassioned plea in the House of Lords for the government to extend the grounds on which victims of domestic violence can claim legal aid. The vote on her amendment was a draw (238 to 238) which means in accordance with parliamentary procedure that it was lost. If her amendment had succeeded, the government would have been forced to amend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (known as the Legal Aid Bill).
The government has made significant concessions on domestic violence in the debate on the Legal Aid Bill. It moved the time limit on evidence of domestic violence from one to two years but, as Lady Scotland says, imposing a time limit shows a complete misunderstanding of domestic violence and how victims, usually women, will suffer for some years before finally deciding to take action. The government made concessions on the criteria that will be accepted to claim legal aid in a domestic violence case, including entering a refuge, but as Lady Scotland argued:
It is important that we look at the places where applicants go: it is not just to refuges. For example, we know that many councils outsource their provision of outreach services to [Citizens Advice Bureaux] or local third sector organisations, knowing that they can be more effective at satisfying needs than state social services. Those agencies need to be included.
She also argued that the gateway criteria for legal aid do not include information from police over attendances at the matrimonial home. Those with knowledge and experience of dealing with domestic violence all argue that while police may be called many times it is often the case that the victim will not press charges. At the moment the gateway does not include information from the police that there have been a number of attendances at a matrimonial home. On this Lady Scotland said:
The noble Lord will know that many victims do not press the matter on to charge or to conviction. The police may have been called many times, but if there is not a charge or a caution, the applicant-victim will not be able to rely on that for legal aid.
In response to Lady Scotland’s argument the minister Lord McNally listed the initiatives and cash the government is devoting to services to tackle domestic violence: 'One thing that I am most proud of about this government is that we have put funding into domestic violence issues in a very detailed way,' he said. LAG would argue that the small changes to the proposed legislation which Lady Scotland argued for would have ensured thousands of people could seek legal protection instead of being left without help.
The government confirmed last night its previously announced concession on mesothelioma cases, an industrial disease caused by exposure to asbestos. This is the last now of a number of concessions on the Legal Aid Bill which the government has been forced to make. The bill is expected to become law next week.
Votes in the Lords can come down to a combination of luck and circumstances. When Lady Scotland’s motion was debated on Monday this week it won by 239 to 236. More peers opposed to the government's plans could have attended last night, but equally more government peers could have been present, prepared only to follow their whips and not listen to the arguments. What is surprising with the vote last night and throughout the debates in the Lords, is the large number of Liberal Democrat peers who cravenly toed the government line against, LAG suspects, their consciences.
We cannot help but reflect that such crucial votes as last night's should boil down to more than a combination of unthinking party discipline and who decides to turn up, as there is so much more at stake than which side wins.