Legal aid debate should not be obstructed through misuse of fina

AlanHowarth_cropped.jpgLord Alan Howarth of Newport is a Labour Backbench Peer and former Education Minister

There’s a real danger that the Government will use procedural devices to close down parliamentary debate on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill when the Lords sends amendments for consideration to the Commons.

The LASPO Bill is extremely contentious, particularly in Part 1 which would remove public funding to support legal advice, assistance and representation in many areas for people on low incomes.  The Bill would deny help in disputes with employers, landlords, the benefits system, and the health service when medical negligence may have occurred. Part 2 introduces changes that would prevent people in civil litigation receiving the full amount of compensation that a court might award them.

Labour believes it is a fundamental principle in a liberal society that everybody should be equal before the law and have equal access to the remedies that the law provides.

This was common ground between the political parties until the Coalition Government abandoned the principle in this legislation.

The only argument that Ministers have offered in defence of a Bill which deprives poor people of their rights under the rule of law is that the Ministry of Justice must make its contribution to reducing the deficit. Yet independent academics have demonstrated that the measures in the Bill will not achieve the savings claimed for them.

Labour Peers, supported by crossbenchers and a few Tory and Liberal Democrat rebels, defeated the Government eleven times, including on support for victims of domestic violence, for children, for people on social welfare benefits, for victims of medical negligence, for people suffering from terminal industrial diseases, and on providing face to face advice rather than relying exclusively on a telephone gateway.

Why do we anticipate that the Government will use its majority in the Commons to prevent Parliament resolving these points of disagreement through a proper process of constructive debate and dialogue between the two Houses?

The precedent is in the Government’s recent treatment of Lords’ amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill. In that instance, when the Lords sent amendments on seven issues where the Government had been defeated, the Government used the whip to impose a very tight timetable through a Programme Motion. Then, in the short debates permitted, the Minister, Chris Grayling, used as his main argument that, as the Lords amendments had public expenditure implications, they challenged the historic financial privilege of the Commons and should therefore be rejected.

No one disputes that amendments from the Lords that would entail higher public spending are classified  as involving financial privilege. We accept that it is for the Commons, and not for the Lords as an unelected House, to determine matters of taxation and of public expenditure. That was established centuries ago in resolutions of the Commons of 1671 and 1678. However, almost every piece of legislation carries expenditure implications and the Lords is a revising and advisory House in a bicameral Parliament.

It has been customary for the Commons to consider the advice that the Lords offer and not to brush us aside at the outset by asserting financial privilege without substantial debate. It is a matter of political judgement – there is no requirement – as to whether Ministers seek to close down debate immediately, advising the Commons to reject Lords amendments on grounds of privilege. The Government should not hide behind 17th Century resolutions of the Commons to prevent the Lords in the twenty-first century from playing its proper part in the legislative process.

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