Comment: Legal aids cuts are a civil liberties issue

If the Liberal Democrats really want to prove they are the party of civil liberty, they'd better gear up for a fight.

By Elliot Dunster

Civil liberties are back on the agenda. Last week the justice secretary was forced to defend policies that would introduce ‘secret courts’ amid an outcry over proposals to give intelligence agencies increased powers to monitor the electronic communications.

Lined up against him were ‘outraged’ Liberal Democrat MPs – including the 17 who signed Julian Huppert’s letter demanding a different approach. They made it absolutely clear to their party leader that civil liberties are at the heart of their party’s identity and are not up for compromise.

Ken Clarke's could be forgiven for feeling exhausted after fending off all those irate Lib Dem over Easter, but the next civil liberties issue is just around the corner and it comes from his own department.

The legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill is due to return to the Commons on April 17th when MPs will consider the astounding 11 amendments passed by the House of Lords.

When the bill was last in the Commons, ten Lib Dem MPs rebelled against government proposals to cut legal aid for vulnerable people appealing complex cases. These same MPs would have been lobbying hard this week to ensure that such proposals are dropped from the final bill.

It would not have gone unnoticed by the justice secretary that six of those Liberal Democrats who signed Julian Huppert’s letter of protest were amongst those who rebelled; alongside Simon Hughes and Tom Brake.

Their concerns are understandable. Laspo, as the bill is known, proposes to remove social welfare law from the scope of legal aid, including appealing against official decisions, such as benefit eligibility. This will have an adverse and disproportionate impact on disabled people and leave them unable to properly challenge decisions when they are let down by the system. The bill also proposes to limit access to legal aid for domestic violence victims and for children under 18.

For Liberal Democrats, these are equally issues of access to justice and civil liberty.

The Lib Dems have challenged the proposals from the start, including in several party conference motions calling on the government to protect legal aid. Most recently, their spring party conference in Gateshead saw a motion on civil liberties include an amendment on legal aid.

When the bill was last in front of the Commons a Liberal Democrat amendment was tabled which sought to retain legal aid for assistance in challenging official decisions via a review or an appeal. But to campaigners' dismay, the amendment was not put to a vote. However, an alternative amendment saw ten Lib Dems go through the lobby with their Labour counterparts.

As the bill entered the House of Lords, Liberal Democrat opposition continued despite Tom McNally, the minister leading the bill, himself being a member of the party. A very similar amendment to that tabled in the Commons was pressed to a vote by Lib Dem peer Baroness Doocey and was passed by 237 votes to 198 – a significant margin.

Throughout the passage of Laspo, there has been much to remind Ken Clarke just how important matters of civil liberties are for Liberal Democrats. And as he prepares for the start of next week’s ping-pong on the bill, he would have been sorely reminded by the strength of their opposition to secret courts and online ‘snooping’.

For those Lib Dem MPs who have been firm in their opposition to parts of this bill, they will have been reinvigorated by the party huddling around civil liberties and I am sure it will strengthen their steel in negotiations with the justice secretary.

If this steel does not prove successful in getting the government to back down and accept the Lord’s amendments, they do have another way to prove they are genuinely the party of civil liberties – by voting against the bill next week.

Elliot Dunster is the parliamentary officer at disability charity Scope. Previously he worked as a researcher for an MP. Scope is campaigning on the issue of legal aid to ensure disabled people and their families continue to have access to justice.

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