Willy Bach on why the government must respond to Parliament after its latest Lords defeat over legal aid provision
In the Lords today, I will press Ministers on a matter of some significance – that is if you believe governments should both keep their promises and listen and act on what the House of Parliament says.
The background is this: on April 17th last year, in order to ensure the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill through the Commons, the then Lord Chancellor made a concession that legal aid would continue to be available to those citizens who were taking a point of law to a First Tier Tribunal. Unfortunately, Ministers backslided from this pledge and proposed a much weaker and much rarer alternative in an affirmative Draft Order. When this Order was debated in the Lords in December, there was a strong view expressed across the chamber that the alternative was a breach of the government’s undertaking and should be withdrawn. Peers decided a more generous concession was needed and on the subsequent vote, the Order was defeated – a very rare event indeed.
Now 36 days on, we still don’t know what Ministers intend to do. Early indications were that they would respond in a manner that would disgrace a spoilt child by refusing to bring anything back at all.
If they do this, it will be a serious breach of their duty to Parliament which is surely to respond positively to a decision made in either House. It will also represent a further breach of the concession the government made to get the LASPO Bill through in the first place. Above all, it would be an outrageous act towards those few citizens who might have received some legal advice through legal aid even under the original Order. They would lose out simply because of Ministers’pique at being thwarted. Surely we can expect better than that?
At Justice questions in the Commons just before Christmas, the Lord Chancellor answered a similar query by saying the government were still considering what to do about the Lords’ defeat on the Order. Maybe that will still be their position this afternoon. One can only hope a little post-Christmas generosity may have got through to the Ministry of Justice and Ministers keeps their word.
What we are talking about here is our fellow citizens’ rights to access justice and whether governments should keep their word to Parliament, and take heed of what it decides. That is why this matter and the answer it receives is of real importance.
Lord Willy Bach is backbench Labour Peer and was previously Shadow Justice Minister in the Lords
Published 8th January 2013