‘Ludicrous, immoral and wicked’: Bach bites back at LASPO
Lord (Willy) Bach, the peer who led Labour’s opposition to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill in the House of Lords, stepped down last week as shadow legal aid minister, a couple of days before the measure received royal assent to become an act.
The former legal aid minister condemns the act, which seeks to save £350m a year by cutting legal aid scope and eligibility, as ‘outrageous legislation’ that will harm the ‘disabled, poor and vulnerable, and those least able to defend themselves’.
The act removes legal aid for vast areas of law, including most private family work, welfare benefits, housing, debt, employment and clinical negligence. In passionate speeches against the bill, Bach called the cuts ‘ludicrous’, ‘counter-productive’, ‘immoral’ and ‘wicked’.
Bach took to social media site Twitter to campaign against the bill, styling himself with the appropriate handle @FightBach.
He can barely disguise his anger at the way the cuts have been made, saying: ‘If it was done at a time of plenty it would be bad enough, but to be done at a time of austerity is absolutely shocking.’ What is particularly insidious about the legislation, he says, is that it works to the government’s advantage, denying people the chance to get the help they need to challenge decisions made by arms of the state.
With the passing of the act, Bach says the British justice system, admired throughout the world, has lost something ‘very precious’ by denying its open citizens access to justice. ‘It’s all very well and a good thing having Russian multi-millionaires fighting their cases in London courts, but what a contrast to taking out of our justice system the poorest and the most vulnerable.’
Some important concessions and amendments were made to the bill, including a power to add areas of civil law back into legal aid; dropping the provision to introduce means testing for advice at the police station; to retain legal aid for obstetric clinical negligence cases; and to exempt mesothelioma victims from the reforms to conditional fee agreements.
The government lost 14 votes in the House of Lords, the second biggest rebellion in parliamentary history. Bach commends those within parliament and campaigners outside who fought to oppose the bill, praising the Law Society’s ‘first class’ campaign. He pays particular tribute to his colleague Lady Scotland, for her efforts to secure legal aid remained available for more victims of domestic violence than the bill originally covered.
But he has a special category of those Liberal Democrats, who while making noises expressing concern at measures in the bill, voted with their coalition partners to push the act through.
‘Crucial parts of this bill would not have gone through if the Lib Dems had voted as they talked. That’s not a bad definition of hypocrisy, is it?’ he said.
With the removal of funding for social welfare law, Bach is concerned about the future of law centres and Citizens Advice. He laments: ‘You’ll find that many will close down or take on different forms than they have now.’
Pledging his support, he says: ‘The not-for-profit sector is entitled to do all it can to survive the next few years, until hopefully happier times come again. If that involves them doing things they wouldn’t really want to do, but so they can stay alive and help the people, they will have my personal support.’
Likewise, he recognises the work done by legal aid solicitors in private practice and accepts that the bill will make it hard for some to continue. ‘It’ll be a crying shame if they find themselves unable to do this work. They too must find ways to survive by cross subsidy or whatever.’ Bach’s commitment to social welfare law is long standing. As legal aid minister in the last 18 months of the Gordon Brown’s Labour government, and with the belief that like his football team, Leicester City, the legal aid budget was not going up, Bach sought to make savings from the criminal legal aid budget.
A former criminal barrister, he moved to cut the fees of criminal lawyers, replacing hourly rates with fixed fees and introduced Crown court means testing.
Bach was also keen to reduce considerably the number of criminal law firms and introduce price competitive tendering for criminal legal aid work; plans that were criticised by many, but which both the current government and the opposition would seek to introduce.
He says: ‘I made myself pretty unpopular, particularly with my ex-colleagues at the criminal bar and I dare say with solicitors too, when we announced are intention in terms of criminal legal aid.’
But he stands by the decisions taken as part of the government’s response to the changing economic times, saying: ‘I’m convinced that what we said was the right way to go. It was not comfortable and we took on serious opponents, but it was the right thing to do.’
In office, he was consistent in his policy to protect legal aid for social welfare law. While other funding was being reduced, funding for social welfare legal aid actually increased under his tenure, an achievement he is very proud of. In Jack Straw, Bach says he had a ‘sympathetic secretary of state’, who understood that at a time of economic difficulty it is even more essential to look after the civil legal rights of those at the bottom end of society.
His zeal for social welfare law springs from the fact that it was something that he came to late, though perhaps, with Emmeline Pankhurst as his great aunt and a suffragette grandmother who spent three weeks in Holloway prison, a commitment to social justice is in his genes.
‘I’m a dangerous person - I’m a convert to social welfare law,’ he says, confessing a ‘negligible’ awareness of social welfare law while he was at the bar. ‘It was only when coming into the job that I realised how crucial it is.’
The individual act which he is most proud of is intervening to save the South West London law centre from closure. His epiphany, he says, came after being ‘given a really hard time’ at the Law Centres Federation annual meeting in Birmingham. More seriously, he adds: ‘It was just seeing the kind of work done on really small amounts of legal aid money to change people’s lives.
He continues: ‘That’s what changed me. After that I was absolutely convinced that if you were going to have a decent legal aid system you need a proper component that looked after civil legal aid.
‘We succeeded in maintaining social welfare legal aid right up until the end. Unfortunately the government has backed away from that in a particularly cowardly fashion and picked on those that can least defend themselves,’ something which he says is ‘unforgivable’.
Bach says he intended to leave the front bench some time ago, but was determined not to go before this bill made its way through parliament. From now on he says he hopes to play some part in working with the not for profit sector and with legal aid solicitors, to see how they can survive for the next few years, as well as helping his party build up an enduring social welfare law policy.
Though he says he is depressed by the post-LASPO situation, Bach is hopeful for the future.
‘The time will come when we will restore social welfare law to the leading position it should be in our system of legal aid,’ he says, expressing confidence in the instincts and ability of the Labour justice team. ‘It we have anything to do with it, social welfare law will come back and come back in a strong way.’
Bach concludes: ‘Out of the ashes of the situation we are in now, is an opportunity for us to find a way of establishing social welfare law as an essential part of the legal aid system that cannot just be cut to ribbons, as it has been, by this act of parliament.’
Facts about Bach
Baron William Stephen Goulden Bach was born on 25 December 1946. He went to Westminster School and then New College Oxford, before being called to the bar by Middle Temple in 1972. He practised as a criminal barrister and became head of chambers at King Street Chambers in Leicester in 1996.
When Tony Blair made him a peer in 1998, he took the title Baron Bach of Lutterworth. The following year he became a government whip. Between November 2000 and June 2001 he was a parliamentary under-secretary of state in the then Lord Chancellor’s Department. Following the election he became defence procurement minister. Following the 2005 general election, he moved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as minister for sustainable farming and food. Bach was made legal aid minister in 2008, where he remained until the May 2010 election.
He is married, with three children and is a supporter of Leicester City FC, who he laments finished only ninth in the championship - despite its owner spending loads of money on players.