Legal aid bill back in Commons for latest ping pong round

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The government suffered three more House of Lords defeats to its plans to cut legal aid last night, setting the scene for a further tussle in the Commons today. The parliamentary ping pong follows 11 defeats initially inflicted by peers on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of offenders bill, the majority of which were reversed by MPs last week.

The bill seeks cuts in the scope of and eligibility for legal aid to save £350m a year.

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Encouraging peers to ‘listen to the clear and settled view of the House of Commons’, justice minister Lord McNally said last night, 'in a time of austerity, we must make responsible choices about spending public money. We must be rigorous in our decisions about allocating resources'.

But peers said that MPs had spent a total of only five hours last week debating the contested amendments, and Labour’s Lord Howarth of Newport noted that the first four amendments had been dealt with in just 26 minutes.

Peers voted by 233 to 247 in favour of a change tabled by barrister and crossbencher Lord Pannick to restore a duty on the Lord Chancellor to ensure individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs.

The government suffered a second defeat, by 239 to 236, on a vote called by Labour’s former attorney general Lady Scotland to extend the eligibility of victims of domestic violence to public funding to pursue civil actions against abusive partners.

The government defeated votes to reinstate changes that would have retained face-to-face advice rather than impose a mandatory telephone gateway to those seeking civil legal aid; retained funding for welfare benefits cases; and retained legal aid for clinical negligence cases involving children.

On part 2 of the bill, which seeks to remove recoverability of success fees and after the event insurance premiums from losing defendants, the government’s fortunes were mixed.

The Lords voted by 214 to 205 to send back to the Commons an amendment to exempt respiratory disease from the bill.

Crossbencher Lord Alton, who tabled the amendment, told the House that peers should treat respiratory disease case differently to whiplash claims and urged the government not to play 'Russian roulette with the lives of people who have a terminal illness'.

But attempts to widen the scope of the exemption, to include all industrial disease claims, were comfortably defeated by 220 votes to 174.

The bill returns to the Commons today, where the ping pong will continue as the government seeks to get the bill passed before the end of the parliamentary session.

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