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LordBach4x3.jpgWilly Bach on tackling the dire consequences of the Coalition’s LASPO Act

Many people, across and beyond both politics and the legal professions, will remember the fight during 2011/12 that Labour and Crossbench peers put up against the Coalition governments notorious Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill. That legislation took away access to justice from many people, by taking vital areas of social welfare law – including housing, debt, employment, benefits and Immigration – out of the scope of legal aid. 

As a result, there has been a massive drop in the legal advice citizens can now get at a difficult moments in their lives. The Bill also took private family law out of the scope of legal aid.  Justice Minister and Liberal Democrat Peer Lord McNally took the Bill through the House and the Coalition suffered a record number of defeats for its time in office. But the Bill eventually became law.

The consequences of this rotten piece of legislation are the background to the ‘Right to Justice’ report, published by the Fabian Society and to be debated in the Lords today.  I chaired the related Commission of experts over a 20 month period, with the members chosen for their professional expertise rather than ideological leanings.

We heard from many witnesses and all of us on the Commission were left in no doubt that a crisis was developing in our much admired justice system, with many people no longer able to get the legal help they need. The foreword to our report read: “We live at a time when the rule of law is under attack. Too many powerful institutions pay lip service to the concept of access to justice without having sufficient regard for what it actually means. It is, after all, fairly simple: unless everybody can get some access to the legal system at the time in their lives when they need it, trust in our institutions and in the rule of law breaks down. When that happens, society breaks down.”

Our main conclusion, which owed much to my Labour Lords colleague Charlie Falconer, was that any government found it too easy to escape its responsibility towards ensuring access to justice. 

Over recent years, judges have with courage and perseverance (most recently in the Unison case regarding tribunal fees) stated the constitutional position. We felt however, that there needed to be a statutory basis for a right to justice – something that would hopefully force government to take it every bit as seriously as the rights to a good health service and a decent education. A proposed ‘Right to Justice’ Act would establish an independent body, The Justice Commission, to be led by a senior judge who would enforce, advise and monitor implementation. 

Part two of our report argues for urgent action to put right some of the injustices caused by LASPO, with 25 recommendations – including a widening of the scope of legal aid, and the need for early legal advice in matters of family laws. While these reforms would cost around £400m each year, the sad truth is that the government has saved £900m with its cuts – almost double what it intended. 

Finally, our report welcomes the idea of consensus towards our proposals. Access to justice should be above party politics. Whatever our affiliations, we all surely want to live in a civilised country under the rule of law?

Lord Willy Bach was Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords during the passage of the LASPO Act, and now serves at now serves as Police and Crime Commissioner for Leicestershire. He tweets @FightBach

Published 14th December 2017

Judgement call

Willy Bach on tackling the dire consequences of the Coalition’s LASPO Act

PhilHunt2015.jpgPhilip Hunt on the need for proper financial support for those entering higher education

 

With nearly 80% of students unlikely to pay back their student loans in full, the Conservative’s obdurate refusal to end the system looks more perverse than ever. Although committed to a review, its continued defence of current arrangements does not bode well for students. And the latest report from the National Audit Office (NAO) into the higher education market is a devastating critique of the government’s approach.

The bottom-line of the report is that students taking out huge loans don’t think they are getting value for money from universities. One root cause of this is that most students are not properly equipped to make informed financial decisions that will have a long-lasting impact on their lives. The NAO found that 58% of 15 to 18 year olds have not had any appropriate financial education – something that can help avoid potential mis-steps.

The Department of Education has made some attempt to solve this problem by publishing comparative data for courses on student satisfaction and average graduate incomes. But only one in five prospective students have used this data, with it dropping to just one in 25 for those considering part-time courses. A huge worry, when undergraduate loans in England are the most expensive in the industrialised world.

In any case, the decision about whether or not to go to university begins much earlier than that and the help and support is woefully inadequate. Careers advice in schools has been heavily cut back and alternatives to universities may not always get a fair hearing.

The government frequently uses the language of the market to describe the university sector, and the recently enacted Higher Education and Research Act makes it quicker and simpler to enter the market. But if students can’t make an informed choice on what and where to study – and understand the long-term implications of taking on debt – then the market approach favoured by the Conservatives is doomed to fail.

The issue is most pronounced when it covers students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Just over a quarter of students are from low participation areas as opposed to nearly 60% from those with the highest. Moreover, they tend to go to the lowest ranked universities and end up with the largest level of debts, following the abolition of maintenance grants.

This is hardly consistent with the statement made by Theresa May on becoming Prime Minister that she wanted a country that works for everyone. One of the best ways to achieve that is through social mobility via higher education. But last year saw the steepest fall in applications for 30 years.

Universities are rightly coming under much greater scrutiny. There is huge concern about the high level of fees and poor value for money felt by so many students. I will be pressing Ministers today to acknowledge that the system is broken and ask for a commitment to give current and future students a fairer deal.

Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum

Published 13th December 2017

A future fair for students

Philip Hunt on the need for proper financial support for those entering higher education

Wilf_4x3.jpgWilf Stevenson on the government’s back tracking on its original plans for data protection

Today, we begin Report stage of the government’s Data Protection Bill, with two days of debates this week and a final day in January. In normal circumstances, we would have used the gap since Committee to hone our amendments, build alliances with crossbench peers and others and plan, strategically, to win votes on key issues where we believe Ministers should think again.

But we live in interesting times – as revealed recently during the latter stages of Lords consideration of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill. Following a fairly normal Committee stage, with no hint of concessions, the government changed gear before Report and delivered a raft of amendments on all our key issues. In the end, we hardly needed to vote at all. And the legislation, having started at our end of Parliament and now with the Commons, has changed out of all recognition – nearly doubling in size. Indeed, to our delight, it has become not so much the framework Bill it set out to be but one with a ‘Financial Inclusion’ mission at its heart.

We now seem to be in much the same situation on the Data Protection Bill. As made clear at Second Reading, Labour supports this Bill and want to make sure it passes – albeit after due scrutiny. But we are also driven by the needs of business to have certainty about the rules that will be applied in this key component of our economy, both in the medium and long term; as well as the need for consumers – especially vulnerable people and children – to be protected in the digital world.

Since Committee stage, Ministers have been at pains to highlight a willingness to find common ground, and to offer meetings and discussions on proposed amendments – many of which we have been able to sign up to. Two of these key issues come up for debate today, on issues that in other times we would have been preparing to push to a vote.

The first deals with the widely held view that the Bill should set out clearly that citizens have enduring and important rights to privacy and the protection of their personal data, as set out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The government were initially dead set against this approach. But they appear to have modified their position and it is clear that the key question left to be determined is the form of words to be used to amend the Bill rather than the principle itself. Looking at the two related amendments to be debated today – one from ourselves, the other from government – there is more that unites us on the issue than divides. With a bit more discussion, we could arrive at an agreed wording before Third Reading and I hope Ministers will consider that approach.

The second big issue today is over whether or not the government should introduce a statutory code, enforced by the Information Commissioner to set out the standards by which online services protect children’s data. This ‘age appropriate design’ approach was contained in an amendment proposed by crossbencher Baroness Kidron and received all party support at Committee – including major contributions from Conservative backbenchers Baroness Harding and ex-minister Baroness Shields. Again, following discussion and debate, Ministers have shifted their position significantly. There is now an amendment so comprehensive in scope it has been signed by Baronesses Kidron and Harding and the Labour front bench, and it will go into the Bill without a vote.

I would like to think that the reason for the unusual generosity towards our initial amendments to these Bills in the Lords is the force of the arguments we have presented, and the wide level of support we have garnered around the House. But that is clearly only part of the story: I sense that Ministers are at least as concerned about the difficulties that would stem from trying to reverse Lords amendments when the Bill reaches the Commons. Tenuous ‘majorities’, Brexit negotiating headaches and all that…  It is not how peers usually go about our scrutiny and revision role nor how the government normally responds. But if such orchestrated manoeuvring in the dark leads to an Act that gets us to a better place on important legislation, I for one will not be complaining.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara is a member of Labour’s frontbench in the House of Lords and its spokesperson on the Data Protection Bill. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 11 December 2017

Manoeuvres in the dark

Wilf Stevenson on the government’s back tracking on its original plans for data protection

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