Seeking assurances

Willy Bach

Willy Bach on amending the Coalition's rushed and retrospective 'back to work' legislation 

Since it came to power almost three years ago, the Coalition government has been responsible for bringing forward some terrible legislation. One only has to recall the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, the Health and Social Care Act 2012, the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Each and every one of these Bills was divisive, wrong-headed and deeply unfair – often to the poorest in our country.

To that shameful list, we can now add the Jobseekers Bill, currently being rushed through Parliament by a fast-track device. After the Commons dealt with the legislation in just one day, Peers tonight we will be obliged to deal with scrutiny of the Bill – at Committee, Report, and Third Reading – in what promises to be a long, long evening. This is all deeply unsatisfactory, especially as the government’s business managers decided to give the Lords an extra week’s break over Easter.

In short, the Bill represents the Coalition’s attempt to overturn a Court of Appeal ruling that the regulations implementing the sanctions regime for claimants failing to participate in mandatory Back to Work programmes were unlawful. Instead of testing the matter as fast as possible in the Supreme Court, the government are hurtling through as blatant an example of retrospective legislation as can be imagined. Lord Pannick, the Crossbench Peer and lawyer said at the Bill’s Second Reading, it “offends against a basic constitutional principle that people should be penalised only for contravening what was at the time of their act or omission a valid legal requirement”.

A claimant is of course entitled to appeal against an imposed sanction, if they can show good cause or reason. But something essential to a person’s right to appeal is about to disappear.It is the right to legal advice, paid for if the person is eligible, by legal aid. Today, a person who wished to appeal to the First Tier Tribunal would be entitled to legal aid for such advice. In a week’s time, that entitlement will have gone – the government having abolished it in the LASPO Act. 

Many of those sanctioned will be eligible today; they are young, on Job Seekers Allowance and unlikely to have many assets. Part of the value of legal advice is that it weeds out the hopeless case, and encourages the case with merit. Its greatest value however, is that it is fair and has been a respected part of our legal system.

So tonight I will be asking the Minister to report to Parliament regarding whether the advice given to claimants is adequate, bearing in mind that many who would have had access to legal aid to take their case to appeal will now no longer have that option. This is especially necessary for those whose cases have been ‘stockpiled’ since the Court of Appeal ruling – as they would have been entitled to this had the government not by its own actions stopped the process. 

These are among the issues I will raise tonight against this disgraceful little Bill.

Lord Willy Bach is a backbench Labour Peer and was previously Shadow Justice Minister in the Lords

Published 25th March 2013


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