Members of the House of Lords once again gave the Government a further bloody nose over proposals to cut legal aid.
Peers are in the final stages of scrutinising the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which attempts to save £350 million by limiting the availability of legal aid. But so far the House of Lords is far from convinced.
Following three defeats on Monday night, the Government lost three more. Most significantly, the Lords voted to keep legal aid for people who need advice and support to appeal incorrect decisions about their benefits – most of these people are disabled.
This advice can be crucial in ensuring that disabled people receive the support to which they are entitled and, at a time of such a dramatic overhaul of the welfare benefits system, it is more important than ever before.
Scope and our supporters have been campaigning tirelessly on this issue – particularly calling on the Lords to save legal aid for disabled people in the innovative Lords Help Us campaign. And we were heard.
There were some particularly powerful speeches from Peers who demanded that the Government not take this vital advice away. Introducing the debate, Baroness Doocey said that “the decision to press ahead with the proposals… sends a very confused message to the disabled people that the Government have promised to protect.”
Lord Low added, “The proposal to remove legal aid for welfare benefits cases represents a triple whammy for disabled people”, while the Bishop of Exeter called on his own experience with his disabled daughter to call on the Government to save this legal advice, which gives “essential help to ensure that disabled people have access to the benefits and support to which they are entitled”.
This is a significant victory for campaigners, and we are now determined that the Government sits up and thinks about the impact that this Bill will have on disabled people.
However, the battle is far from over. The Bill will now return to the House of Commons where we can expect the Government to try to force through the changes. We saw the Government use ‘financial privilege’ to reject the changes that the House of Lords made to the Welfare Reform Bill, and we must work to keep up the pressure on MPs to make sure they realise how important this help and advice is to disabled people so that this not repeated.
We called upon Peers to help us save legal aid, and they did. Now we must ask MPs to finish the job.