House of Lords votes against immigration amendment to Legal Aid Bill by small majority
Not every battle can be won – but as they go, this was a close one.
This week saw the issue of immigration advice receive justified attention in the House of Lords, in a lively debate followed by a vote on an immigration amendment moved by Labour peer Lord Bach regarding the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. Unfortunately the amendment was rejected by a slim majority of peers, closing the scope for major wins on immigration and legal aid during the passage of the Bill. However the depth of concern expressed by peers during the debate was encouraging, and could potentially support campaigning for specific legal aid concessions on immigration in the future.
So what was the significance of this week’s debate and vote in the Lords? As covered in previous blogs the Bill has been at a critical stage in recent weeks, as it has reached the final stages of its consideration in the House of Lords before returning to the Commons. On the 5th March the ‘Report stage’ of the Bill began - the period when the House of Lords debates and votes on proposed amendments to the Bill put forward by other peers. Amendments that are successfully voted through by the Lords would then need to receive agreement in the House of Commons before the final Bill is agreed.
The complexity of the Bill and the length of its journey through parliament over the past six months has made it difficult for many community organisations to input their perspectives. As highlighted in a meeting organised by MRCF and MRN a year ago, many migrant support groups have been particularly concerned by the proposed cuts to immigration – which would take the vast majority of immigration cases (no matter how complex) out of the scope of legal aid in the future. Migrant community organisations already deal with the desperation of many clients needing help who can currently be referred onto legal aid advice providers, but who would be denied publicly funded support in the future. Although they report that changes to the legal aid system have made getting advice and representation more difficult for their clients than in the past, legal aid funding still ensures that many can access justice who would otherwise be unable to get help.
In recent weeks, however, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, MRN, the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum and the Migrants Resource Centre among others have been supporting inputs from community groups and migrant advocates. Actions have centred on building support for tabling and voting through key amendments to the Bill – most notably Lord Bach’s amendment which opposed taking immigration out of the scope of legal aid – during the report stage of the Bill which began on 5th March.
As part of wider lobbying, in recent weeks groups including the Refugee and Migrant Network Sutton, Latin American Women’s Rights Service and the Ukrainian Migrant Network among a number of others, wrote to their local MPs and to key peers, reminding them of the need to have accessible legal advice in this complex area of law. At a recent meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration a number of peers and MPs heard directly from migrant support organisations about the impacts of the proposed changes. Read a blog by Esma Dukali from the Al-Hassaniya Moroccan Women’s Association about representing her organisation in Parliament here.
But what was the outcome of all of this? Bad news in the short term, but potentially encouraging for future campaigning. Lord Bach’s amendment was defeated, late on Monday evening, in an extremely close vote at 198 votes to 179. However, the level of cross-party debate – with all peers who spoke expressing concerns about the Bill – was extremely encouraging, and sent a strong message to the government that this blanket removal of most immigration cases from legal aid should be kept under close review.
The Bill will now return to the Commons before it is finally passed, and there will be no further opportunity for further amendments on immigration to be put forward before then. In the future, however, there will be much work to do to build support among MPs over the need to fund specific, and particularly complex, immigration cases out of the public purse. As highlighted by today’s report by Young Legal Aid Lawyers, MPs will inevitably feel the heat as migrants with nowhere to turn arrive at their constituency surgeries asking for help – we can expect that this issue will continue to be of real concern to them with potential for campaigning at a later date.
Thanks to all those who took part in recent advocacy work on immigration and the Bill. We may have lost this latest skirmish, but there will be many more stages in what is likely to be a much longer battle.