Fast-track for second reading of legal aid and sentencing bill condemned
Lawyers and MPs have expressed outrage at the government’s attempt to fast track the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill through Parliament.
Following the first reading of the bill on Tuesday 21 June, it was confirmed this week that the second reading will be on Wednesday 29 June.
Parliamentary protocol is that there should be a period of two weekends in between the first and second readings of a bill.
This convention has in recent history been departed from on five occasions in relation to terrorism, economic and Northern Irish legislation.
Law Society president Linda Lee expressed ‘outrage’ at the move.
Lee commented: ‘The government is hell bent on introducing a piece of legislation that will increase crime, weaken social cohesion and cost taxpayers more than it cuts.’
She added: ‘This is a government that is running scared of proper scrutiny and debate. They are fast tracking the bill through parliament to silence the public.’
Lee noted the prime minister David Cameron had gone back on his words to listen to opposition by ignoring Parliamentary convention.
In the 2008-09 Report of the House of Lords Committee on the Constitution, the government at the time said: ‘The government firmly believes that all members of both Houses are entitled to a full explanation of why a piece of legislation is being proposed for fast tracking; and we would expect to be held account for its timetabling.’
Lee said: ‘The Law Society would like the government to explain why it is taking this extraordinary step.’
MPs were also concerned that the bill, which has 120 clauses, makes major changes to the funding and operation of the justice system and has constitutional implications, is being rushed.
Shadow justice minister Andrew Slaughter told the Gazette: ‘Allowing only eight days between publication of the Bill and the main second reading debate breaks the convention that Parliament should have sufficient time to scrutinise a Bill.
'This is no way to run a department or a government.’
He added: ‘We wait to see if the evidence sessions and detailed scrutiny in committee will be similarly constrained.’
Yvonne Fovargue, Labour MP and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, also objected: ‘There is concern that the bill is being rushed and we are working hard to ensure that a Bill which has major implications for large numbers of our constituents is given sufficient time for scrutiny and full discussion of amendments and implications.’
Legal Action Group director Steve Hynes accused the government of ‘playing fast and lose’ with Parliamentary procedure: ‘This bill is not on the same level as terrorism legislation that has been rushed through in the past, and unlike the terrorism legislation, this is not a bill where there is cross party consensus.’
Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, added: ‘We are appalled at the speed with which they’re trying to push this through.’
Director of JUSTICE, Roger Smith concluded: ‘It’s regrettable, but the bill itself is worse.’