After a round of defeats in the House of Lords earlier this week, the Government yesterday faced further embarrassment after peers voted down a further three proposals included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill.
Government plans to save £350m from the national legal aid bill now look less likely, although the coalition in the commons could still force the bill through as the only elected chamber.
The voting this time concerned proposals to scrap legal aid for appeals against welfare benefit decisions. Peers defeated the proposal by 237 votes to 198, a margin of 39. The amendment was proposed by Lady Doocey, a Liberal Democrat peer.
A second amendment, extending legal aid for higher-tier benefit appeals, proposed by Lord Newton, was also passed.
The voting came at the end of an extraordinary session in the Lords, where every single peer bar the minister proposing the legislation spoke out to question the legislation. Peers from around the house also questioned whether the proposed savings could actually be made.
Lord McNally, a Liberal Democrat, had earlier warned that defeat on the issue of legal aid for welfare benefit appeals would tear the heart of the rationale of the bill out.
Speaking on the issue of legal aid for welfare benefit appeals, Lady Doocey said: "If claimants are denied legal aid, their situation will get worse. This amendment would allow some of the most vulnerable people in society to fight for the benefits for which they are entitled."
Lord Newton cautioned against large-scale cuts to services at a time when some of the most vulnerable in society were at a low ebb.
"This process of change in legal aid is not taking place in a vacuum. It's during turbulence in the benefit system," he said, adding that more than 1 million people were likely to be adversely affected by changes to benefit under the welfare reform bill.
Lord Goldsmith, the former Labour attorney-general, commented on the far-reaching effects which he envisaged the bill having on advice centres.
"The funding for the not-for-profit centres will be cut by 77%. The advice services alliance estimates that 800 specialist advice centres will be lost as a result. The welfare benefits side requires an expertise which most lawyers don't have," he said.
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