HC Deb 26 February 1985 vol 74 cc187-8 4.23 pm
Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall)

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing order No. 10, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the imminent closure of law centres in the Vauxhall constituency. The matter is specific because it affects two law centres in my constituency. It is urgent because one of them, the Stockwell and Clapham law centre, has already received notice of no further funding from the end of March of this year. It is important because of the manner in which Ministers have changed their policy on law centre funding and have acted without due notice or warning. For instance, the Lord Chancellor in a letter to Lord Elwyn-Jones dated 19 November 1984 said that the Government acknowledged the part to be played by law centres in the provision of legal services where this suited local circumstances. He fully appreciated that law centres are now seen as playing an important part in the provision of advisory services.

The Lord Chancellor's Department, in a letter to Simon Hillyard of the Law Society dated 20 November 1984, said that after the abolition of the Greater London council, Government policy is to provide traditional support for London boroughs to help individual local authorities to take on support for purely local organisations or projects. It is envisaged that this scheme covering law centres will be separate from, and additional to, the normal urban programme arrangements, but that the criteria for support should be broadly similar.

In its 34th annual report published in January 1985, the Legal Aid Advisory Committee made two significant recommendations in paragraph 441. The first was that law centres should be treated as an essential part of the national network of legal services. As the committee put it, the Government

should take on responsibility for their core funding and the basis of that funding should be sufficiently assured to allow law centres to pursue viable recruitment and staffing policies and to promote long term planning. Its second recommendation was that the first priority should be to ensure the survival of existing law centres without waiting upon the aftermath of changes in local government and urban programme policy to see what support borough and district councils choose to provide.

In a letter dated 10 January 1984 to the Confederation of Law Centres, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), said: I also appreciate the points you make about the particular uncertainties which have faced law centres given relatively short term support under the urban programme while longer term policy is discussed between Departments. However, these discussions are in fact continuing and until they are complete I do not foresee our being able to grant approvals of more than two years duration. I stress, Mr. Speaker, the emphasis upon two years' duration. It is not a matter of two weeks or six weeks. Yet in a letter to Mr. Barry O'Keefe, chairman of the management committee of the north Lambeth law centre dated 20 February, 1985, the Under-Secretary stated that he was afraid that advice-giving projects such as the north Lambeth law centre were not a partnership priority and that he had therefore decided not to review the law centre's funding any further. The—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make the speech that he would make if his application were to be granted.

Mr. Holland

I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that there should be a debate on the Adjournment of the House on law centre closures since this is a matter of concern not only to my own constituents but to others. Such law centres carry an enormous work load. They deal with thousands of cases every year. None of the cases which such law centres carry concerning education, immigration, social security or employment are eligible for legal aid. Therefore, this is an urgent matter. Within six weeks, there will be people whose cases are now being handled by such law centres who will have nobody to represent them in courts or in tribunals.

In his report on the disorders in Lambeth, Lord Scarman urged that resources to the boroughs should be increased in order to prevent an explosion of protests on the streets. Ministers at first respected this recommendation, but those who are now responsible for the inner city partnership claim that the law centres, at six weeks' notice, should go to their local authorities for funding.

I feel that I hardly need to draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that yesterday the House debated the rate capping of specific councils such as Lambeth. This poses an intolerable "Catch-22" dilemma for local councils. If Lambeth were to support the law centres it would risk breaking the law by exceeding the rate capping limits. If the law centres are closed, no Minister and no hon. Member should be surprised if people take the law into their own hands. This is an urgent matter, Mr. Speaker, and the House should, in my view, debate it now.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 10, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely, the imminent closure of law centres in the Vauxhall constituency. I have listened with care to the hon. Member, but I regret that I do not consider that the matter that he has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 10. I cannot therefore submit his application to the House.