Parliamentary ping pong

Parliamentary ping pong

The legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill suffered 11 defeats in the House of Lords, far more than the controversial NHS reform bill that was recently signed into law.

The bill came back to the House of Commons on Tuesday, and the government announced that it was prepared to accept three of the amendments but would seek to disagree the other eight. It has agreed to accept that the new director of legal aid casework should be independent; that legal aid should be preserved for appeals to the upper tribunal, court of appeal or supreme court in welfare benefits cases; and to amend the bill’s definition of domestic violence.

On domestic violence, justice secretary Ken Clarke said: “It was never in doubt that there would be legal aid for the protection of victims of domestic violence. Domestic violence is an issue that this Government, like any Government, including the previous one, take extremely seriously. As now, it was always intended that legal aid would remain available for victims of domestic violence who were trying, for example, to obtain protective injunctions to defend themselves in such cases. In domestic violence cases there is no means test so even the super-rich can obtain legal aid if they are seeking an injunction for reasons of domestic violence, although I hope that not too many of them will.” He went on to detail extensions to the definition of domestic violence, The government will also extend from one to two years the time period in which a victim of domestic violence can claim legal aid.

The Commons voted to disagree the other eight amendments by substantial majorities, in the range of 300 – 250. These amendments included such disparate matters as the Lord Chancellor’s functions, legal aid for appeals against official decisions about entitlement to welfare benefit, the mandatory use of telephone advice lines and the cost of expert reports in clinical negligence cases. Other amendments would have returned legal aid to victims of the asbestos-related condition mesothelioma, to victims of all industrial diseases, to all children and to all damaged through clinical negligence in the care of the NHS.

Whatever the individual merits of each subject Ken Clarke made it brutally clear that it is really all about money. He said: “The scope of legal aid goes to the heart of our attempts to reform and improve the justice system, because targeting funding where it really counts is fundamental, first to the savings the Government are having to try to make in this area as in any other. There is no doubt that the present level of legal aid provision is on any measure unaffordably expensive.”

The bill is now in the official state of ping pong, defined on the House of Commons website as when “the Bill travels back and forth between the two Houses, until both Houses agree on the text of the Bill.” Next event is next Tuesday.

Right at the very end of the debate there was a bizarre exchange, recorded in Hansard thus:

Helen Jones: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the last debate, many of us were dismayed by the conduct of the Minister, who giggled and grinned through descriptions of people dying of mesothelioma and what they suffered. I have to say that in almost 15 years in this House, I have never seen conduct that so demeans a Minister of the Crown and is so damaging to the reputation of the House. Is there anything that you can do to ensure that in future Ministers pay proper attention to such serious debates and conduct themselves as would be expected from a Member on the Treasury Bench?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. The Minister is welcome to respond if he wishes, but he is not under any obligation to do so.

Mr Djanogly indicated dissent.

Mr Speaker: No, he is not going to respond.

This post was written by:

- who has written 460 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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