Thank goodness for the House of Lords. Our noble lords and ladies are really coming up trumps in amending ill-thought through anti-humanitarian bills sent to them by the House of Commons. They are already doing much needed sterling work to get rid of the worst parts of Andrew Lansley’s health proposals. Now they have added legal aid, especially in relation to domestic violence, to their victory roll.
The House of Lords secured a real triumph yesterday evening when it passed a Labour amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill urging the protection of victims of domestic violence from funding cuts. The amendment got through with 238 votes for to 201 against, a majority of 37, despite, as reported by the BBC, Justice Minister Lord McNally telling the Lords, “This government is absolutely committed to supporting action against domestic violence and supporting the victims of domestic violence whether through legal aid funding or other means.” Peers evidently thought otherwise.
The Attorney-General under the last Labour Government, Baroness Patricia Scotland, was the driving force behind this amendment. Scotland, a strong and committed campaigner, founded the Global Foundation for the Elimination of Domestic Violence to undertake concrete action on this horrific form of abuse. I was privileged to meet her a few months ago to discuss how MEPs and the EU as a whole could work with her organisation to combat violence to women and children. Her amendment in the Lords was supported by former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair and Baroness Butler-Sloss, one-time head of the Family Division of the High Court.
Pulling no punches, Patricia Scotland warned that women and children could die if the legal aid proposals went through. The Tory-led coalition’s now discredited plans would have meant that medical evidence from a GP, A&E counsellor or women’s refuge would not have been sufficient to qualify under the bill’s original proposals. And it was, of course, all about cuts. The government wants to £350 million from the legal aid budget and deemed domestic violence services suitable for the axe.
Domestic violence is a hidden crime. The National Federation of Women’s Institutes, one of the most respectable organisations in the country, said that they felt the proposed new rules would fail victims too scared or traumatised to go to the police. This is borne out by the fact that two-thirds of women using Women’s Aid refuges in 2010 did not report the first incident to the police, typically waiting until three to five incidents.
Let’s hope that the Tory-led coalition will now understand just how important it is to provide adequate legal aid services to domestic violence victims. This is not an area of policy where governments can cut willy-nilly. The consequences are far too grave. We need more resources to combat violence and abuse against women and children not Tory cut-backs.