This lawmaker is an ass

Sometimes I despair, I really do. It may not seem like it but I do try not to be too political on this blog but when you are faced with the sort of nonsense the government is coming out with regarding the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) all you can do is have a rant. So here’s mine.

This week peers finally got around to detailed debate of LASPO.  The legislative process dictates that bills should get a thorough examination in both houses, but most who listened to the debates in the Commons didn’t feel the government engaged at all.  It’s probably fair to say hopes weren’t too high for major concessions in the Lords, but at least there was an expectation of proper debate.

Well, some peers did engage in proper debate, which, given the severity of the proposed cuts to the legal aid budget, is exactly what they should be doing.  And then there’s Lord McNally, who, as I never tire of repeating, freely admitted at a liberal democrat fringe meeting that he isn’t a lawyer and so can’t possibly be expected to understand all the minute details in the bill.

Responding to an amendment that would require an independent review to assess the impact of the bill he brushed off the rising tide of criticism of the legal aid proposals by saying LASPO was suffering from ‘report fatigue’.  I know sometimes governments can spend far too much time setting up commissions, reporting, focus grouping and consulting before they finally kick something into the long grass but seriously, does he think this bill should be passed on a wing and a prayer?

Obviously the answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’.  McNally must be the only minister ever not to read (or get his civil servants to read) reports from ‘very interested parties’ regarding government policy.  Those ‘very interested parties’ are exactly the people he should be consulting, in particular so he can overcome his lack of legal qualifications.  I’m quite sure some of his colleagues have been reading reports from the insurance industry.  In any case, the way to deal with critical reports is to refute them with facts.

However, as Lord Bach, who is leading the opposition’s charge, said on tabling the amendment, the government had ‘failed to get to grips with the serious consequences of their proposed legislation’.  This is not mischievous politicking by Bach.  At least five judicial reviews have been started against the bill, all of them suggesting the government has failed to acknowledge the impact it will have on particularly vulnerable claimants.

The government’s own impact assessment has shown the bill would result in ‘reduced social cohesion’, ‘increased criminality’, ‘reduced business and economic efficiency’ and increased costs for other departments.  Quite astonishingly it appears undaunted and unbowed and is ploughing ahead regardless.

Lord Bach couldn’t quite believe it either: ‘These are pretty extraordinary statements.  The government cannot be accused of not being honest. They are honest to a fault if this is what they say will be the consequence of their bill. However, they can be criticised for putting forward a bill which, in their opinion, will have those consequences.’

McNally’s response to concerns raised about the increased number of litigants in person and the extra court time these would take up was similarly disparaging:  ‘It is important to point out that [as a result of the reforms] there will be significantly increased numbers not going to court at all’.  Well, quite.

Time and again McNally refused to concede even a single issue.  His indignance at the failure of any peer to refer to the economic situation is typical ‘I have to say that we were one hour and 40 minutes into today’s deliberations before anyone….mentioned the economic situation we faced when we came into office’.  I would suggest that I have barely heard a minister refer to the situation of the vulnerable people who will be affected by the cuts.

I’m not stupid, and neither are the people opposing these proposals, from Lord Tebbitt, Lord Mackay and Boris Johnson to Citizens Advice, the Children’s Commissioner and the Bar Council.  However, I am beginning to wonder about Lord McNally.  He seemed a bit put out that ‘from the debate today one would think that this is going to bring down society as we know it.  I do not believe that it will.’

But it’s his government that admits the cuts will result in ‘reduced social cohesion’, ‘increased criminality’, ‘reduced business and economic efficiency’.  That strikes me as at least undermining society, probably quite a lot, even if not quite bringing it down.  And if people don’t feel they can enforce their rights anymore, whether that’s challenging a state decision about their benefits or making a claim for clinical negligence, where does that leave us?

I do feel a bit guilty about giving McNally such a bad time, after all, on this one he’s just the messenger boy, or the patsy.  I am sure he is probably a decent man and so I rather like to think he doesn’t believe a word he is saying.  Nonetheless, when something as depressing as LASPO is on the cards, you have to get your kicks somewhere:  so I fear, McNally, you are an ass.

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