Next in the queue

Thanks to pretty solid Liberal Democrat support, the Health and Social Care Bill has cleared the Lords - but the Coalition whips cannot afford to rest upon their laurels.

There's going to be an almighty battle over the next bill in the queue - the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill - which has already seen more government defeats (nine) than any bill in living memory.

To be sure the stakes are nowhere near as high over LASPO, as it's known in the trade. The sums of money involved are trivial in government terms, mere tens of millions, set against the billions involved in changes to legislation on the NHS or the welfare system.

Nor is the political salience anything like as great - intricate changes to the criteria for legal aid don't grab the voters' attention.

But look at the issues: the battles fought through a long and increasingly tetchy report stage have huge importance to individuals. In fact, they are quintessential Mumsnet material: care, welfare, children, domestic abuse.

So far peers have defeated the government on:

  • Adding a clause exempting those making claims related to industrial diseases generally from the obligation to use their damages to pay part of their legal fees. The government lost by five votes.
  • Exempting those making claims related to industrial respiratory diseases (the debate focused on mesothelioma) specifically from the obligation to use their damages to pay part of their legal fees. The government lost by 31 votes.
  • Continuing to cover the cost of expert reports into cases of clinical negligence (the debate revolved around mistakes which left parents required to provide lifetime care for a brain-damaged child). The government lost by six votes.
  • To require the Lord Chancellor to ensure that victims of domestic violence have access to civil legal services, in accordance with the financial eligibility criteria laid out elsewhere in the bill. The government lost by 37 votes.

In all, the Lords have defeated the government nine times on LASPO, with one day of report and the third reading debate to go.

The major reason for this is the strong crossbench opposition to much of the bill. Figures assembled by the ever-helpful Constitution Unit show the crossbenchers breaking overwhelmingly against the government on amendment after amendment, while quite large numbers of Conservative and Lib Dem peers have failed to register a vote.

(Of course there are always caveats to any figures about peers not appearing to vote - the figures don't distinguish between a genuine abstention, in the sense of a refusal to support, and those peers who are ill, or too frail to attend, or simply away on business - which is a constant issue in a House where most members have other jobs.)

Labour has been a bit more successful at getting its troops out - and that, combined with their crossbench support, has resulted in the succession of defeats for the government.

The crossbenches include a large number of senior lawyers and retired judges who, naturally enough, are keenly interested in legal issues - and they seem to have been swung crucially by the crossbench super-lawyer Lord Pannick. His speeches and his campaigning offstage have both proved highly effective - he fronted the cross-party alliance of dissident peers which included the Conservative former social security secretary Lord Newton and the Lib Dem Lady Doocey, as well as Labour's Lord Bach. The alliance defeated the government's proposals to curb legal aid for challenges to rulings on welfare benefits. And in doing so he has emerged as a sort of arbiter of such issues - a lot of peers will now, it seems, follow his lead.

The question now is whether he and the crossbenchers in general will be prepared to stick to their guns and insist on keeping the changes they have made, if MPs vote to reverse them.

They have every incentive.

If they can keep LASPO pinging and ponging between the Commons and the Lords for long enough, after its third reading in the Lords on 17 April, the end of the parliamentary year will begin to loom. Remember, bills not passed by both Houses at the end of a session (3 May, in this case) are lost - so the government could be forced to compromise or see the whole thing disappear, forever, into legislative limbo.

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