Another mega-bill makes its way to the House of Lords
Déjà vu all over again in the House of Lords, as peers launched their consideration of yet another controversial mega-bill.
This time it is the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, and it's clear from the speeches in Monday's Second Reading debate that a lot of peers are distinctly unhappy about much of the content. The need to find compromises and soothe concerns will tax even the political skills of the wily Justice Minister, Lord McNally, not least because most of his Liberal Democrat colleagues looked pretty green around the gills about cuts to legal aid, which, critics say, will restrict access to justice.
That issue will be one of the biggest flashpoints. There are considerable worries about the implications of reducing entitlement to legal aid for, among others, welfare and housing cases. Critics claim the changes would make life harder for vulnerable people and result in thousands of people clogging up the courts by bringing cases and representing themselves - where solicitors would cut a deal instead.
Which is why the Lib Dem ex-judge Lord Thomas of Gresford has put down amendments allowing the Lord Chancellor to reinstate some legal aid entitlements if the courts are engulfed by a wave of amateurish cases brought by so-called litigants-in-person (lawyer-speak for people representing themselves). That's just one of a phalanx of amendments brought by Lib Dem peers alone… Already eight days have been set aside for detailed Committee Stage debate of the Bill, starting on December 22, and extending, probably, to March next year. More may yet be needed. Of course there are plenty of other issues for peers to chew on - restrictions on judicial discretion, new restrictions on no-win no-fee litigation, and plenty more.
This is where that déjà vu comes in. The House of Lords is clogged with big bills which peers want to amend in all sorts of ways. The long running Health and Social Care Bill - with Day 8 of Committee stage due on Monday - the Protection of Freedoms Bill, and, of course, the Welfare Reform Bill which is now being debated in detail in Grand Committee, but is due to go before the whole House again for Report Stage, and with a considerable number of amendments piling up. And lurking in the background is the Scotland Bill - which is designed to implement the proposals of the Calman Commission to increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
It's been in legislative limbo for rather a long time - the Second Reading was back in September, and no date has yet been announced for the Committee Stage. When it returns, probably in the new year, it is likely to be entangled in the intricate political battle around a Scottish independence referendum. Peers like the former Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth are planning amendments to hold the referendum under the authority of Westminster, rather than Holyrood. He and others could tie the Bill in knots for quite a while if it does return. There is an argument that the debate on extra powers for the Scottish Parliament has moved on since Calman, and that even more devolved powers should be offered. One possibility is that the Bill could be shelved on the promise that an "I can't believe it's not independence" package of powers will be offered next year.
At the moment this is no more than speculation - but with so much heavy-duty legislating to be done in the Lords, before the current Parliamentary year ends in late March or early April, something may well have to give.