Peers manoeuvre as Legal Aid Bill makes stately progress

The shadow-boxing continues in the Lords. All kinds of detailed and important-sounding amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) were debated in the upper House yesterday - but then, in a dance as mannered as any 18th century minuet, were withdrawn rather than being pushed to a vote.

So what's going on? Is this serious processing of legislation, or some kind of bizarre Westminster ritual?

The first thing to realise is that the government needs to tackle ballooning spending on legal aid, and LASPO is their chosen instrument. But that makes it a deeply controversial bill. It attempts to exclude several types of legal action from Legal Aid and contains sweeping proposals to reform civil litigation - and it has aroused the ire of lots of powerful lobbies - especially but not exclusively, the lawyers. But in the Lords you need to pick your moment carefully and maximise support - tactics and timing are the key to defeating the government.

Those on the Coalition side who are uncomfortable about the bill are seeking to use the tortuous eight days of committee stage to stage shows of strength to extract concessions from their ministers, rather than to defeat them in an actual vote.

So the critics, who range from queasy Lib Dem lawyers to industrial grade Thatcher-era cabinet ministers, put their arguments at committee stage and then withdraw their amendments, while reserving the right to "return to the issue at report stage". This gives ministers the chance to find ways of placating them, without inflicting an actual defeat. It also avoids the pitfall of seeking a vote before support has been fully mobilised - because peers are normally reluctant to inflict a defeat on a government before ministers have been given a chance to compromise, and once something has been voted on in committee, it cannot be revisited (in the same form) later.

Which is why the whipping around the committee stage debates is light to non-existent, except for the occasional surprise raid. I understand the Lib Dem peers who're doubtful about sections of LASCO have indicated they won't vote against the government before report stage.

That might not matter on an amendment Lord Tebbit is putting next Monday, to reinstate clinical negligence as a cause for legal action which would be eligible for legal aid. Labour and some Crossbenchers look likely to support him, and he may be able to win the day….

But ministers mostly worry about the prospect of a gathering of the rebel clans…and there are plenty of issues where that could happen: on legal aid for employer liability/health and safety cases, in professional negligence cases, on changes to the law on squatting, and on the considerable changes proposed to the whole system of civil litigation.

There is a good chance that peers will substantially rewrite large sections of this bill - and with the end of the Parliamentary year looming, they will be in a good position to make many of their changes stick.

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