The government’s controversial legal aid bill has suffered its ninth defeat in the House of Lords. The bill has now suffered more defeats in the Lords than either the health or welfare reform bills.
On Monday, the third day of Report, the government seemed to have hit on a strategy to reduce potential defeats by the simple expedient of not starting the debate until after six o’clock, a ploy bitterly objected to by the opponents. The government won two battles – on legal aid for immigration (198 to 179) and debt management and relief (194 to 151). The session continued till well past eleven o’clock, and proposers of amendments felt forced to withdraw rather than press to a division with attendance reducing as the evening progressed.
Reading ‘Hansard’ it was like the last movement of Haydn’s Farewell symphony where, during the final adagio, one by one, each musician stops playing, snuffs out the candle on his music stand, and leaves in turn, so that at the end there are just two muted violins left – in this case the indefatigable minister of state Lord McNally and Lord Thomas of Gresford.
The debate on day four, Wednesday, commenced at the more civilised time of mid-afternoon, and the government promptly lost three votes. Baroness Grey-Thompson (Crossbench), the former Paralympic athlete, proposed amendment 119 against the mandatory use of telephone advice lines. She said of the amendment: “It seeks to remove the provisions for both a mandatory telephone gateway and the delivery of legally aided services exclusively by telephone. Instead, the amendment would insert a duty to promote the plurality of provision and the delivery channels in order to have regard to the needs of clients when procuring services. The Government risk excluding vulnerable people from accessing meaningful and effective legal advice.”
Lord Phillips of Sudbury said that “where the person needing help is poor, confused and deprived, the notion that one should add to that catalogue of disadvantage the inability to access the only advice that will work for them – face-to-face advice – would be a terrible indictment of our claim to be a democracy where we are equal before the law.” The House agreed by 234 votes to 206.
Amendments 132AA and 132AB, covering proposals to alter ‘no win, no fee’ agreements for damages for respiratory and industrial disease, led to two more defeats. Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench) moved a new clause in amendment 132AA, to exclude victims of the asbestos-related condition mesothelioma from the bill’s reforms. It was supported by 189 to 158. By the narrower margin of 168 to 163, peers voted to exclude victims of all industrial diseases from the changes on an amendment proposed by Lord Bach (Labour).
The government got one back when Lord Beecham’s amendment, on the conditional fee agreements system and qualified one-way cost-shifting and uplift in general damages, was defeated by 237 votes to 189.
Battle recommences next Tuesday. By my reckoning the government are currently down 9 – 4 overall. But the victories could be pyrrhic if the government just reverse them in the Commons.