HC Deb 10 June 1985 vol 80 cc631-3
40. Mr. Nicholas Brown

asked the Attorney-General if he will make a statement regarding the Government's policy on the future of community law centres.

The Attorney-General (Sir Michael Havers)

The Government have acknowledged that law centres may have a part to play, where this suits local circumstances, in the provision of legal services. Central Government support for law centres continues to be provided primarily under the urban programme, in accordance with its general principles and procedures. Such centres are seen as essentially matters for local decision and initiative, depending on the value which local authorities and communities place on them, according to local circumstances.

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for accepting that law centres provide a valuable public service. Given the variety of funding sources, would it not be of considerable assistance if the Lord Chancellor accepted responsibility for at least co-ordinating and overseeing the centres in a supportive way? Is the difficulty really that the Lord Chancellor lacks statutory authority to do this, or is it that the Department of the Environment and the Lord Chancellor's Department are passing the issue back and forth from one to the other?

The Attorney-General

There is no question of their passing the buck from one to the other, as has been suggested on a number of occasions. The Lord Chancellor does not have statutory power. He has taken over the seven law centres which his predecessor funded without authority and has maintained their funding. The rest are funded through the Department of the Environment. The Government's view is that circumstances vary so much from area to area that it is much better that a centre should be initiated and maintained by the local area. However, not only local authority money is involved. The centres are also maintained partly by charitable assistance and voluntary subscriptions.

Mr. Franks

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the provision of law centres is at the discretion of the appropriate local authority, that many law centres are provided by Left-wing authorities, and that it ill becomes the Opposition to criticise when the remedy lies in the hands of those self-same local authorities?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend is quite right about one specific case. Because Lambeth has not yet made a rate, it has said that it is unable to assist its law centre. There is no doubt that law centres have provided a necessary degree of assistance.

Mr. Foster

Will the Attorney-General admit that there are very wide gaps in the availability of legal advice on benefits issues or on some aspects of housing, for example? In Newton Aycliffe, in my constituency, hundreds of new owner-occupiers cannot get the advice that they require about the Housing Defects Act, and local lawyers do not seem to have a clue. Could not problems of this sort be more properly handled with a system of law centres up and down the country?

The Attorney-General

Law centres, which were created largely as a result of local initiative, have been able to assist where legal aid is not available in non-contentious matters. The question overlooks the benefit of the help given by citizens advice bureaux, which are often able to provide the kind of information to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Coombs

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the present piecemeal method of funding community law centres gives the impression to many people that the Government are not wholly committed to their value?

The Attorney-General

Community law centres have been funded largely out of Government money, but the initiative should lie with local people — the local authorities, charities and other voluntary bodies.

Mr. Eastham

Is the Attorney- General aware that people will be grateful for his acknowledgement of the value of law centres? However, does he agree that it is unsatisfactory that the law centres do not know from year to year whether they will be able to continue in existence because they have to await a decision on the urban aid programme?

The Attorney-General

The funding of community law centres depends not only upon the urban aid programme, but upon whether local authorities are prepared to state their future plans for their law centres. However, in respect of those law centres which have been given a guarantee of only two years, I can give the House an undertaking that a decision will be taken before the end of the financial year.

Mr. Neale

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that although law centres may be necessary to fill gaps in some areas, in areas where local provision is already made by other organisations, either professional or voluntary, it would be ridiculous for that advice to be duplicated, and even more ridiculous for a national blanket provision to be made for it by the Government? Is it not far better for local authorities in each area to decide whether there is a gap to be filled?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend has set out exactly the reason which caused us to take this decision.

Mr. John Morris

As the Attorney-General has stated that the Lord Chancellor lacks statutory authority over law centres, will he look sympathetically at an amendment to provide such authority during the proceedings on the Administration of Justice Bill?

The Attorney-General

I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that on this matter I am simply the agent of my noble and learned Friend. Therefore, I should have to consult him about it.