Chris Bryant: Access to justice should be a right for all. So what are we doing putting it at risk?

A Political Life

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Everyone was scandalised earlier this year when they found out that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler's phone, and pleased, I suspect, when her family was able to settle with the paper for a substantial sum a couple of weeks ago.

But the Government's Legal Aid (and lots of other things) Bill will make it impossible for many people to get justice because it will make no-win no-fee agreements virtually a thing of the past.

I know what you're thinking. Surely those dastardly parasitic lawyers, who loiter around accident and emergency units (metaphorically at least), inciting people to sue councils, hospitals and anyone they think has a pot of gold, have had it coming. Surely the Conditional Fee Agreements have fuelled a culture of litigation. Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. We should definitely tighten the screw on ambulance-chasers.

But when it comes to libel and privacy cases, it's a bit different. The big media companies have deep pockets; they employ hideously expensive lawyers, and they are ruthless. The Dowlers of this world stand absolutely no chance of matching that kind of firepower and could never afford to take the likes of the News of the World to court without a no-win no-fee agreement. Nor for that matter could I have started my case seeking judicial review of the Metropolitan Police decision not to notify the vast majority of victims of phone hacking.

It's not difficult to put this right. There are a couple of simple amendments to the Bill which would protect libel and privacy cases. The Dowlers wrote to David Cameron, begging him to support these amendments a few weeks ago. If Cameron was not just shedding crocodile tears when he met them, he should help get these amendments through. There's real injustice when there is no equal access to justice.

Not the best moment to attack Murdoch

While I'm being nice about lawyers, let me add lobbyists to the list of the unfairly hated. Lobbying is a vital part of the system, as I learnt with the Mental Health Bill. Without the briefing and lobbying of the mental health charities (and the pharmaceutical companies), I wouldn't have been half as effective as a member of the committee. Of course, we need transparency, and big bucks shouldn't entitle people to access, but lobbying can be honourable.

I was a lobbyist once (so was David Cameron, by the way), for the BBC in Brussels, and one of my proudest achievements was that I helped to see off Rupert Murdoch's attempt to have the BBC licence fee declared illegal state aid. I'm not sure I was very tactful, though. I was chatting to a friend at a party when a pretty young woman sidled up.

"What do you do?" she asked.

"I'm head of European affairs at the BBC."

"So what does that mean?"

"I'm there to make sure Murdoch doesn't win any battles in Europe."

We continued chatting for a while before she moved away. "You know who that was?" asked my friend. I shook my head. "Elisabeth Murdoch," he replied.

Enjoy the lordly battles while they last

The most rococo element of our glorious constitution must be the by-elections for hereditary peers. You might have missed this year's four contests. In March, 24 men stood when Lord Strabogli died. Lord Hanworth was elected. In May, the Earl of Lytton saw off the Duke of Somerset.

And in July, the successors of prime ministers Asquith and Macmillan, plus 18 others, lost to Lord Ashton of Hyde in the eighth round of one contest, and Viscount Colville of Culross saw off the poor old Duke of Somerset (again) in the 14th round of another.

My favourite hereditary skirmish remains the June 2005 contest when Viscount Montgomery of Alamein defeated the Earl of Effingham by 11 votes to eight in a field of 26. All very Blackadder.

Their lordships know that this is a load of bunkum so they've been considering a Bill that would get rid of these by-elections. Sensible, you might think. But actually it's part of a cunning plan to tidy up the most manifestly bonkers elements of the present system so that nobody bothers to tackle the real problem, which is the fact that this is a house of patronage.

Incidentally, I note that Lord Hacking stood twice this year. For a moment, I wondered whether Andy Coulson had been ennobled but it turns out this is the third Baron Hacking, once a Tory, then Labour and now a crossbench soul.

Fifty years of PMQs – and the odd poke

This week, we celebrated, rather quietly, the 50th anniversary of Prime Minister's Questions. The first Prime Minister's Answer, on 24 October 1961, was brief and immensely polite. Macmillan just said, "Yes, sir." It's not quite like that these days. Raucous doesn't do it justice.

There was one notable feature of this week's session. Out of 27 backbench members called, 13 were women, more than I have ever seen before. Back in 1961, Dame Irene Ward was the first woman to ask a PMQ. An unmarried Tyneside Tory MP (my, things have changed) for 38 years, she regularly made a stir. In 1968, she was thrown out of the Commons for refusing to budge from in front of the mace to allow a vote to be announced. As the Sergeant dragged her away, she shouted, "Parliament no longer exists. It has become a dictatorship." She also caused pandemonium in the House when she expressed herself dissatisfied by an answer Harold Wilson had given her. "I will poke the Prime Minister," she said. "I will poke him until I get a response." Cue for much male parliamentary sniggering.

People thought it a slip of the tongue, but I suspect she had more of a wicked sense of humour. On another occasion, she asked a minister why women in the Navy had to wait longer than men for new uniforms. "How long," she demanded, "is he going to hold up the skirts of the Wrens for the convenience of the sailors?"