HC Deb 13 March 1986 vol 93 cc1240-54 2.46 am
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

I rise to put the case for the continuation and extension of the funding of law centres in this country. I have vested reasons for doing so because in my constituency I have two such centres which are not only active but are providing an essential and proven service to the people of Gateshead and Newcastle.

The Benwell law centre in Newcastle and the Gateshead law centre owe their existence to the financial support they have relied upon from the local authorities via the urban programme. However, that is coming to an end and their continued existence will depend on the willingness and ability of the two local authorities to bear the full weight of the costs of running the centres once the inner area partnership funding ceases. For Benwell that is imminent. The funding for the centre ceases on 31 March this year and to date the city council has not been able to give a detailed answer on future support. I am aware that the council is sympathetic and supports the continued functioning of the law centre. However, whether funding can be maintained at the same level as hitherto is a question which the authority has to consider, along with all the other priorities which are under scrutiny as a result of the attitude of the Government to local government finance, which has resulted in the rate capping of the city council.

Similarly, but not so urgently, the Gateshead law centre will lose urban programme funding support at the end of this year. Gateshead council is sympathetic and recognises the important role that the centre has played. The council is committed to support the centre from 1 April 1987, but the centre does not yet know where funding is to come from for the three months from December this year to April.

Much time and effort is taken up by these two centres in securing funding for their continued existence. That time would be much better spent providing the necessary help which they exist to provide. A similar problem exists in other parts of this country. Often it arises directly from the abolition of the metropolitan county councils and the totally inadequate arrangements that the Government have allowed for the continued support of these and similarly placed organisations. As a result of these and other pressures, several law centres may close in April, having exhausted all apparent means of continuing unless the Government intervene to help. Centres in Liverpool, Paddington and Hillingdon are under threat of closure. Others, particularly in London, are facing major cuts in services, if not closure, and in common with Benwell and Gateshead, many others face an uncertain future.

The Government's attitude was summed up in a letter to the chairperson of the Law Centres Federation in reply to her letter expressing concern at the position. Referring to Lord Elton, the letter from Lord Elton's private secretary stated:

he and his colleagues have always made it clear that it is in the end the local authorities which must decide which voluntary organisations they will support. These grants are primarily for local services, and the decisions on priorities must be local ones. One of the objectives of abolition was to bring local government decisions down to what is at present the lower tier of local government, which is closer to local needs. Lord Elton has asked me to say that he is very sorry that two of your centres are in danger of closing, but that he is unable to interfere with the decisions of the local authorities. This position must be rectified. It is not sufficient for the Government to argue that the local authorities should find the money to continue funding. First, the provisions of section 48 of the Local Government Act 1985 will provide an answer only where metropolitan or London authorities jointly agree to funding. That will not happen and is not happening where some authorities see the service as being confined to a district. Secondly, the Government's own regressive policies towards local authorities have led to a situation where many councils have been squeezed beyond the squeaking of the pips. Thirdly, law centres often represent clients who have a grievance against the local authority, which would suggest that their independence from direct local authority control would be preferable. That would not necessarily obtain for long if they were 100 per cent. financed by the councils. Yet the refusal of Ministers to extend urban aid grant or to offer any alternative means of support will result in either that or closure. The Government must not stand idly by and watch these vital public services close. The case for their existence is made and the Government should accept it and provide the necessary finance.

Lest the Government have somehow missed what has been going on, I remind the House of the valuable service provided by the law centres. There are 57 law centres in the United Kingdom, serving deprived inner areas. They provide a free advice service by trained legal and specialist workers. Their opening hours often suit working people in particular. Some operate a 24-hour emergency service. They are complementary to general legal services and are supported by the Law Society. They run advice sessions out of office hours, sometimes outside the centre itself. The Gateshead centre, for example, runs sessions from the borough council's mobile community bus. Because many of their clients are on low incomes and much of the case work does not qualify for legal aid, few private solicitors can deal with it. Matters with which private solicitors can deal are often referred to them by the law centres. One typical centre estimates 40 such referrals each week.

I have mentioned the support for law centres of the Law Society, and I should add weight to that by drawing attention to the comments of the Royal Commission on legal services, which in its 1979 report said:

The impact of law centres has been out of all proportion to their size, to the number of lawyers who work in them, and to the amount of work it is possible for them to undertake. The volume of work they have attracted has shown how deep is the need they are attempting to meet. Far from standing by and allowing a vital service to die, the Government should be taking urgent steps to secure the future and plan the expansion of law centres. The Gateshead centre alone, with the equivalent of five full-time workers, received more than 6,000 inquiries and handled 500 cases last year. The demand—the need—especially in our inner cities, far exceeds the ability of the current level of service to provide. Only one in 10 people have access to a law centre. To reduce the service would be madness and completely contrary to all sensible opinion and everything that has been and is being said about inner-city problems. Even this Government cannot deny that the case for the continuance and expansion of an independent law centre network is irrefutable.

The position was adequately summed up during the recent conference of all major advice networks in the United Kingdom. In a joint declaration they spelt out the needs of the nation in the following terms:

We need a coherent national strategy for the funding and development of advice and law centres. Central Government should ensure that existing services are preserved and that there is an expansion to meet the need. This may be attained through a mix of central and local government funding, but responsibility for achieving it must rest with Central Government. A national policy must aim to provide a network of advice and legal services that are comprehensive, competent and well publicised, accessible to people in need, independent enough to act in the best interests of their users, sufficiently diverse to meet a wide range of needs, planned and delivered with the involvement of local people and accountable to the local community, supported by adequate back-up facilities—information, training and specialist expertise, able to provide effective feedback to central and local government, nationalised industries and other public and private bodies, so that they may act to remedy malpractice, inefficiency or unfair treatment of individuals and groups. These centres have huge support from individuals, and communities using them, because they provide services that are genuinely needed. Thousands of volunteers throughout the country are involved in the staffing and management of advice and law centres. The case for advice and law centres is not in dispute. We are all united in defence of existing services and in the need to ensure that policy-makers and funders at national and local level take their responsibilities seriously. Working together we can maintain and develop the much needed network of advice and law centres. The Government are fond of promoting themselves as the guardians of law and order, but there is more to law and order than arming the police force with plastic bullets and riot gear. There is also the problem of access to the law, and proper representation. Justice cannot be the sole prerogative of the rich and mighty. If the ordinary man or woman in the street believes that justice can only be obtained if it can be paid for, the Government have no right to parade their concern for justice and equality under the law.

By supporting law centres, the Government can demonstrate more concern for fair treatment by that one act than by all the empty rhetoric that often accompanies discussion of law and order from the Government Benches. I hope that the Government will have the good sense to accept the great weight of argument in favour of law centres and make provision for adequate and continuing funding.

2.57 am
Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall)

I am glad to have the opportunity, even at three o'clock in the morning, to address the issue of law centres and their funding, as in my view it is of crucial importance, not least to inner city areas like Vauxhall which I represent and to Lambeth.

The law centre projects have been on time-expired funding in the context of the inner city partnership arrangements which, in the early 1970s, were part of the consensual politics of the country. In other words, the Conservative Government in the early 1970s supported the inner city partnership schemes and recognised that there were special needs in areas of stress in the inner city which needed special financing if they were adequately to begin to remedy the needs of those in the inner city. Such needs are dealt with and represented by law centres. Some of those needs are dramatic while others seem relatively mundane, but they are not mundane to my constituents.

Inner cities have special problems in education, not least as the problems are frequently compounded by the lack of a stable home environment which may reflect the under employment, insecure employment or unemployment of the parent or parents concerned. The borough of Lambeth, for example, has the highest proportion of single-parent families in the country. Schools must try to cope with under-achievement. With chronically high unemployment—the rate ranges from one third to two thirds and in individual wards may reach 100 per cent. of school leavers—it is not surprising that staff are under considerable pressure in the classroom.

I wish to deal with the role of law centres in education issues, and to pay tribute to teachers in inner-city schools, especially those in my constituency, who are doing the best that they can in extremely difficult circumstances, to deal with problems in the classroom, not least as their level of pay is falling behind previous or comparable levels. The following example was dealt with by a law centre and it is unlikely that it would have been dealt with in another way.

The child was suspended from school and the parents wanted to appeal against expulsion. The child was suspended because the school said that he needed special education and claimed that the parents refused to co-operate. A law centre in my constituency obtained a report from an independent child psychologist which showed that there was nothing wrong with the child. The law centre had sight of an Inner London Education Authority psychologist's report which said that the child needed extra help with reading and no more. The school was using the report of a hospital psychologist, who was not making progress with the parents, and so, in the view of the law centre, was not making progress with the child. The school said that the child was disruptive, and many children are undoubtedly disruptive in school. There was a substantive issue of judgment on the merits of the case for suspension.

The law centre remedied the position by discovering that the hospital psychologist had mistakenly given information about the child's brother. Irrespective of the merits or demerits of the case, there had been wrongful identification. The law centre could help the parents, whereas a solicitor would not normally be able to take such a case, and the parents would have had difficulty in obtaining legal aid.

That is a major matter to the individual and family concerned. Many of my constituents, especially those without employment and receiving social security benefits, could not necessarily obtain legal aid in seeking to represent their children's interests. Although apparently mundane, it is important for those concerned.

In other cases, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), if the funding of law centres was to be passed to local authorities there could be—prima facie—a conflict of interest between the local authority's obligations and its obligations to individuals who wished to bring a case against the council.

Often these cases appear mundane, such as complaints about housing conditions. But, again, they are serious for those concerned. There may be a case of eviction. As the Member for an inner city constituency, I frequently face individuals coming to my weekly advice surgery with notice of eviction from the council. It may have arrived on the Friday and may mean they have to be in the court on the Monday. Such individuals do not necessarily know how to cope with their claim against eviction when such notices may be ill-founded.

The housing officers in my constituency have an extremely difficult job. There have been cuts in the housing investment programme, the rate support grant and, therefore, in central Government assistance. The housing problem which was evident when I became a Member in 1979 is now a housing crisis. This has been compounded by the abolition of the GLC. When I became a Member it was quite feasible to move several hundred or several thousand people a year on GLC nominations. That has now come to an end. We now have inter borough nominations which are a "no hope" application for a housing transfer.

There are people, sometimes as many as five, living in one bedroom accommodation. This accommodation is often chronically damp—many of the estates were built in the 1930s or 1940s. Later system-built estates—are not proofed against heat loss.

When the council cannot offer a remedy, some of my constituents resort to the non payment of rent. They hope that this will bring pressure to bear on the council. Others have been in difficulties because of the horrendous problems which have been caused with regard to housing benefit. Because of the pressure on social security offices due to rising unemployment, the Government wished to transfer housing benefit to local authorities. The local authorities protested that it would be difficult to cope, not least because of successive changes in Government legislation. Therefore, the delays in the payment of housing benefit are considerable. As a result, many families in my constituency, not least some of the single parent families, have been withholding rent because, rightly in my judgment, they have given priority of feeding or clothing their children and themselves.

In such cases, matters should and can be remedied by law centres. They are not the type of problems on which people in the inner city areas can automatically apply for legal aid nor the types of problems which solicitors would necessarily take up or in respect of which they would make an application for legal aid. It is because so many of those who are worst afflicted by these problems do not have the financial resources to go to a private solicitor that they cannot get adequate redress without a law centre.

The problems affect the state of mind of people in the inner cities. People come to my advice surgery who are desperate about their housing conditions, who are living in one room because all the other rooms are damp, or who are in over-crowded accommodation where the council is technically in breach of its legal obligations. For example, teenage children of different sexes are sleeping in the same rooms because of such conditions, and the council cannot remedy the problem because it no longer has access to GLC nomination elsewhere in London, and because of the cuts in housing investment. In such cases, law centres fulfil an important function in being able to represent the interests of those who lack the resources to raise their case.

A further important matter is immigration and immigration procedure. Again, any Member of Parliament in an inner city area is likely to be familiar with the claims made by individuals against deportation orders, and of the complexities in many, if not most, of the cases. Individual Members, I am sure, do the best that they can in seeking to represent the interests of their constituents to see that justice can be done, or, if that is over-ambitious, that effective representations are made to Ministers.

However, representations to Ministers are more effective if they are assisted by professional advice from those specialising in immigration affairs, in law centres. In my weekly advice work, I can easily have between 25 and 35 separate cases to deal with in one evening, which may involve 45 or 50 people being in my surgery. Without being a permanent advice worker ones self, there is no way in which one can do adequate credit to the needs and the demands of those who are bringing the case on education, housing or immigration, unless one has the assistance that is made possible not just by the citizens advice bureaux but by the law centres.

Immigration is especially important, given that the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants does the best that it can, but the United Kingdom Immigration Advisory Service, which also does its best, is not an independent body and does not have the relative autonomy in these cases that the law centres have. The means of redress for such grievances, are essential. Mundane though they might be in the cases of education or housing, such cases are more serious and dramatic in immigration.

When it comes to policing, the matter is all important, as are the complaints about policing made by my constituents in the Lambeth and Brixton areas. On previous occasions, I have paid credit to the enlightened policing at the commander level in my borough, and I have in mind especially the extent to which a fragile peace was kept on the streets between 1981–85. This in large part was due to the enlightened policing and openness of approach of the former police commander, Alex Marnoch. However, I cannot certainly say the same below senior level in the borough of Lambeth. On the street at the ordinary young police constable level there are forms of behaviour which, while in some cases no doubt impeccable and excellent, in other cases are clearly provocative and disturbing to my constituents.

I have it in mind, for example, to cite not just the direct experience of my constituents or my own indirect evaluation of the problem but the kind of report which was made by The Economist following the events which took place at the end of September last year where the journalist concerned directly reported racist behaviour by police, assault by police on individuals who, in the judgment of the journalist, had committed no offence and then, in the police station itself, offensive behaviour again used by police even in the charge room.

If these cases cannot be adequately remedied, they lead to a build-up of pressure and social discontent. Again, I am not saying that in each individual case the integrity of police officers should be impugned. The problem is that, when the standards which we should expect of policing fall, when it is not simply the perception of individuals that they are being discriminated against but in particular of black people in my constituency that they may be discriminated against, then the problem potentially gives rise to considerable social discontent. The difference is then expressed when the threshold is lowered and when disorders occur, as they occurred in 1981 and again following the shooting of Mrs. Cherry Groce in my constituency of Vauxhall, Lambeth.

If one is young, whether one is black or white, and one has been picked up without due cause and put in the back of a van and kneed in the groin or maltreated on that occasion, the next time one sees a police officer on the ground with other people around, one will not be likely to move towards the scene to assist the officer to recover. Unfortunately, it is more likely that worse consequences may follow for the police themselves.

It is in these kind of cases following events in September of last year that the role played by the Brixton law centre was extremely important in enabling people who felt that they had grievances following the disorders—whether they were grievances with regard to the police or other grievances with regard to individuals—to come forward and state their case, and for an evaluation to be made of the evidence in the cases arising from those disorders.

As the Member of Parliament for a constituency called Vauxhall but which, indeed, includes a large part of central Brixton, I found it extremely useful that the law centre, in a very sober and serious-minded way, convened meetings of private solicitors, and other interested parties and was able to take an overview of cases. For instance, following those disorders, people who on some occasions had been picked up off the street in snatch and grab seizures were being taken to police stations with no adequate information being given. Tnen they appeared in court. Nobody knew in which court they would appear and nobody was necessarily in a position to represent them. I put it to senior police in Lambeth at the time that this was a potentially dangerout situation—I stress dangerous—inasmuch as if innocent people were being charged but were not adequately represented in the courts this gave rise to secondary grievance which itself, if a further incident occurred that was comparable to that of the shooting of Mrs. Cherry Groce, could trigger a further chain of events.

Again I pay credit to the senior police, because they grasped that and they were willing to co-operate with the law centre as a reputable, estabished body that could adequately represent the interests of those being charged. The system did not work perfectly by any means. But in principle it meant that the police were co-operating by indicating to the law centre, and to the duty service that was staffed by the law centre, who had been charged, in which court they would appear, and at what time, and also be seeking to ensure that they were represented.

I do not want to suggest that disorder or disturbances in inner cities are provoked simply by policing, although in the case of Mrs. Cherry Groce—and in 1981—the underlying cause was policing. As soon as a disorder has started it is clear that serious offences are committed by individuals against other members of the public and that the due process of the law should obtain, that charges should be brought and that sentences should be passed. However, the cases that I have just cited include many that do not come within that category. Failure to provide due process and means of legal redress for those who cannot afford access to private solicitors becomes a matter of importance to inner city peace.

The Government appear several times over to have changed their policy on the funding of law centres. In a letter to Lord Elwyn-Jones dated 19 November 1984 the Lord Chancellor said:

The Government acknowledge the part to be played by law centres in the provision of legal services where this suits local circumstances. I appreciate that law centres are now seen as playing an important part in the provision of advisory services. There was also a letter from the Lord Chancellor's Department to Simon Hillyard of the Law Society dated 20 November 1984 which said that after the abolition of the Greater London Council Government policy would be to provide traditional support for London boroughs to help individual local authorities to take on support for purely local organisations or projects.

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 the law centres should be treated as an essential part of the national network of legal services. The second recommendation was that the first priority should be to ensure the survival of existing law centres without waiting for changes in local government and urban programme policies to see what support borough councils and district councils could provide.

I shall be very interested in the Government's response on the funding of law centres. At present both individuals and local councils are caught in a "Catch 22" type dilemma. I raised this matter in a debate on 26 February 1985, but there has been no adequate long-term response by the Government. Tonight, I began by saying that law centres come within the category of funding of time expired projects. The needs of the inner cities are not time expired. The needs of the inner cities—the desperate unemployment and the chronic housing situation—have increased rather than decreased. The cases which are being brought and the grievances which are to be remedied have increased rather than decreased. Yet if a borough such as Lambeth were to take on a major share of the funding of law centres, with rate capping and ceilings on rate expenditure, it would have to choose between law centre provision, social services provision or provision, for example, for the 4,000 Cantonese refugees from Vietnam, who are in my constituency and whom I am glad to seek to help, but who are here as a result of Government policy and Government invitation. The local council would be in the invidious position of having to choose between cutting alternative projects for those in need. The catch 22 position is that if Lambeth were to support law centres, it would risk breaking the law itself by exceeding the rate capping limit.

I stress that if law centres do not continue to be funded by central Government, no Minister and no hon. Member should be surprised if people take the law into their own hands. This is an urgent and important matter on which we expect a significant response from the Government.

3.26 am
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

May I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) for having sought the debate? I am grateful to him for two reasons. First, he has raised a matter which is of considerable importance to the Labour party and which we take very seriously. My second reason for being grateful to him when he speaks of the work of the Benwell law centre and of the law centre in Gateshead is that he is speaking for the community in Tyneside. As his neighbour there, I appreciate the points which he made on behalf of the community that we both represent.

Before being elected to the House, I was a councillor for the Walker ward and an official of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union. As a full-time trade union official, I used to deal with the advice services that the union offered. In both that capacity and as a councillor I know that the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) are equally true for the community on Tyneside. Even as a Member of Parliament I often feel that I cannot give to all the cases that come to my surgery the in-depth attention which they deserve. If an hon. Member goes into a case as a professional adviser, he finds that he is neglecting other duties. As both my hon. Friends have emphasised, there is a need for independent advice based on something other than the more formal provision of legal services.

The debate touches on two strategic issues—the principle as to whether law centres are a good thing, and who should take responsibility for funding law centres and more general advice services. My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge rightly quoted the 1979 report of the Royal Commission on legal services. In regard to the principle of the existence of law centres he could equally have quoted the 35th report of the Law Society, which said on page 57: The Society has continued to express concern to the Government about the severe effects on law centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux which may well result from the legislation abolishing the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county authorities. Law centres and advice agencies are also in an uncertain financial position as a result of other restrictions on local authority expenditure and changes in policy on the use of the Urban Programme. Urban Programme policy is now unhelpful to law centres and advice agencies. Bids for this form of funding have all been rejected by central government despite many being given high priority by their sponsoring local authorities. That was the Law Society being supportive of law centres. Equally my hon. Friend the Member of Tyne Bridge could have quoted the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee on legal aid. The Lord Chancellor's own advisory committee is supportive of law centres. In other words, there is no lack of support for these centres, either in the legal profession or in the bodies most closely concerned with giving advice to those who are in charge of our legal services.

Even the Government seem to accept that law centres are, in principle, worth while. Earlier this week, at a meeting of the Advice Services Alliance, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) said: Society would break down if it were not for the work of advice centres. I regret that I came in part way through his remarks on that occasion. I may have missed his explanation of why the Government were being niggardly over the funding of law centres, which he said were essential to preserving the fabric of society.

The Labour party takes the view that the Lord Chancellor should take a lead in this matter. The whole issue of funding goes further than law centres and the nation's network of advice centres, citizens advice bureaux and so on. The overall provision of legal services faces a financial crisis greater than at any time in recent history.

The Solicitor-General will recall our recent debates on the funding of the new Crown prosecution service. I hope that we shall soon debate the cuts in legal aid provision. He will be aware of the litigation that is now taking place, with the Lord Chancellor being sued by members of the Bar because they regard their funding as inadequate and consider that their representations on the subject were not adequately considered.

It is against that background that we are discussing, in proportionate terms, the small work of the law centres. It is not simply a question of the contribution that they make to the provision of legal services. We must bear in mind the work that they undertake. They do not cover the type of work that family solicitors do. Their work is different and they touch areas of the community that, by and large, solicitors do not reach. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall cited examples from his constituency. Similar cases could be given from any inner city.

The Lord Chancellor continues to say that he will not take responsibility for the further funding of law centres. Indeed, he claims that he has no statutory power to do so. That is a red herring because the last Labour Lord Chancellor found it possible to take on the funding of time-expired law centre projects in inner cities. The present Government continue to fund those projects but refuse to take on any new law centres.

My hon. Friends and I gave the Government an opportunity, during the passage of the Administration of Justice Act, to give the Lord Chancellor the powers he needed to provide the necessary funding. It was clear from the Government's arguments on that occasion that not only did the Lord Chancellor not have the necessary powers to fund law centres, but that he did not wish to have such powers. The argument is that these are matters for local provision, not that there will be any extra local funding for it—funding must be from existing resources. All credit is due to Newcastle city council for taking on the Benwell law centre in spite of being rate-capped and having to find the money from stretched resources. That demonstrates the commitment that the local representatives give the law centre's work. It is wholly reprehensible that the Government do not share that commitment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall was right to stress independence. An organisation that is to provide advice should be independent of the local authority, as many of the issues that it will deal with concern the local authority. My experience is that the local authority as landlord is often involved. We can test the sincerity of the Government's argument about local responsibility in the case of a new law centre for Huddersfield. I understand that the Department of the Environment is considering whether it should be provided with urban aid as a new project. Kirklees council, which has submitted the bid, has made it a priority. That is the local view. I hope that, at least for the experimental period, the Department will feel able to let such a bid go through. If it does not, that will show what a sham and a hypocrisy is the Government's claim that these matters should be determined locally. The Government will be saying that the Lord Chancellor should not provide central funding and that although there is local support for a scheme, it should not go ahead.

Law centres serve the very inner-city communities that are bearing the brunt of the recession. Law centres do not touch on the generality of solicitors' work but provide a service that would not be provided otherwise, except by volunteers and diligent councillors and Members of Parliament who have limited provisions for staff, most of whom are underpaid or volunteers. Their work touches on that done by other advice agencies and the trade union movement. Their resources are stretched and they spend much of their time worrying about funding and whether they will continue. Against that sorry background, we are asserting, on behalf of the Parliamentary Labour party, the case for law centres and the case for Government funding.

I should like to conclude by mentioning something that always irritates me when we have these debates at 3.30 am. When I attended the meeting to which I referred earlier, a representative of the Conservative party was present, as was a representative of the Liberal party in the form of its environment spokesman, and, quite separately, there was a representative of the Social Democratic party. They claim to be two separate parties. It has emerged that they have two, three or perhaps four policies. Always, when there is a public platform their righteous views—often their self-righteous views—will be expressed.

But whenever I am here making out a case in the early hours of the morning, as I have a duty to do on behalf of the Opposition, not a spokesman of the alliance is present. In Committee stage on Bills it is left to the Government and the Opposition to conduct debates until the early hours of the morning. Alliance Members do not show their faces. Even in the morning Committee debates they turn up, make their speeches and go away again. Then they have the nerve to suggest that they are something new in politics. They are not; they are something very old in politics—skivers. They do not turn up when they ought to.

The Solicitor-General and I are used to looking at each other across the Despatch Box in the early hours of the morning because of the workings of the Consolidation Bill procedure. I appreciate that the Solicitor-General has come here to tell us the Government's views on these matters. My only fear is that he will say that he has come here as the agent of the Lord Chancellor. I am afraid that the Lord Chancellor, as we already know, has little sympathy for the case that we have made out tonight.

3.43 am
The Solicitor-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

I, too, join in expressing my appreciation of the value of the service rendered by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) in giving us this opportunity to discuss the standing, future and funding of law centres.

I share a certain amount of sympathy, too, for what has been said about the so-called alliance parties by the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), who is the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary neighbour in the north-east. I can contribute an illustration of the propensity to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred from a Committee in which I took part recently. A representative of the SDP-Liberal alliance declared his opinion that the amendment under discussion had not been made out in argument, whereupon he voted for it. Engagingly, he declared himself to be in two minds and rather split, a difficulty which he was frank enough to describe as not unfamiliar to him and his colleagues.

I listened with care to what the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge said about the two law centres in his constituency. I have particulars of the funding that each of them has received. Benwell law centre has received a grant of £65,000, which expires in 1986. The Gateshead law centre received a grant of £59,000. As the hon. Gentleman said, the arrangements for that funding expire in 1987. I was very glad to hear that Newcastle city council has taken over the funding of the Benwell centre. I say that because I take the view that law centres are, to use the words of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East very largely a good thing, for the reasons expressed tonight, especially those put forward by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland), in whose constituency I lived before he took responsibility for it.

I well understand some of the problems that come the way of law centres in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. In the main, law centres deal valuably with those problems. That is my position, and I believe that it is the attitude of the entire Government.

The Government must take into account the second of the issues which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East identified: who should be responsible for the funding? There is no conflict between the views that I have just expressed and the view that has been taken consistently by the Government and their predecessors that, with the exception of seven law centres which the previous Lord Chancellor made a commitment to fund, law centres should be funded from local sources. The most obvious source is the local authority. It is the most obvious, but it is not the only one available. In a recent debate in another place, a persuasive case was made for the practicability and desirability of law centres looking elsewhere in their communities—perhaps to local businesses—for their funding.

My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, for whom I must appear as agent or spokesman, has consistently taken that view. It may be helpful if I explained a little about it. The Government's policy, which has been made abundantly clear, is that the appropriate source of funds is a local one.

It is interesting that the first law centre was established only in 1970. About 59 of them have been established piecemeal in response to perceived local needs, and they have obtained their funds from a variety of public and charitable sources. It is right that several reports from the Royal Commission on Legal Services and the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Aid have recommended that law centres should become an integral part of the provision by central Government of legal services to the public, that there should be a considerable expansion in their number, and that they should receive central Government support through the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The Government do not dispute the usefulness of law centres in some areas, as shown in those reports, and most recently in the report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's commission on urban priority areas. However, the Government do not accept that law centres are agencies for which central Government should assume direct and general responsibility. In the White Paper, "The Government Response to the Report of the Royal Commission on Legal Services", the Government said: The needs of the public for legal assistance are most appropriately met by lawyers acting in private practice supplemented, where this suits local circumstances, by law centres. The White Paper also said that the Government did not believe that a sufficient case had been made for direct ministerial responsibility for the availability of legal services in any area.

I note the point made by the hon. Member for Vauxhall in his illustration of the difficult school case. He said that, in such a case, someone could not go to a solicitor and expect a similar investigation. I understand that point. But there is a wide range of local advisory services, including the citizens advice bureaux, which the Royal Commission saw as the front-line provider of such services. If I remember correctly—and I believe that I am right—there still exists in Lambeth the Stockwell "good neighbour" scheme. I would be surprised if there were not others of a similar character in other districts of the hon. Member's constituency, which attract people of good will and expertise, and which would be able to help in the kind of case that he mentioned, without a law centre having to be available.

Mr. Stuart Holland

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member. He may or may not be aware that the Stockwell and Clapham law centre, for example, has been living from hand to mouth since this time last year because of uncertainty over its funding. I am grateful to him for taking seriously the point which I have raised about inner-city stress. What I would like him to address himself to is how centres can be funded in the context of rate capping. Or, granted the financial pressures on councils, who will provide the safety valve by means of which people can see that they have redress for their grievances through an intermediate procedure, rather than going to the courts. We need more professionalism than simply comes from a "good neighbour" scheme, however well intentioned.

The Solicitor-General

I quite see that local authorities have to operate within the same margins of financial restraint as affect a great many other bodies, including Government Departments, these days. It comes down to a matter of priority. Newcastle city council has found it possible, notwithstanding the other claims made upon it, to take on the funding of the Benwell law centre. I do not doubt that that city council considers itself hard pressed, as many others do, yet it has been able to take on that funding of £65,000. I would not wish to put it on the basis of "where there's a will there's a way", but this illustrates that it is possible.

It is very difficult to gainsay this answer to the hon. Gentleman, that it is a matter of priorities. I agree that where one has had a grant upon which one has come to rely, and where that grant is either taken away or curtailed, one will experience a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty. I sympathise with those who are running law centres and who are in that position. Equally, I am not surprised that local authorities may have been holding out until the last minute, in the hope that representations such as those made this evening would bear fruit and that local authorities would not have to follow the example of Newcastle city council because the money would be made available by Government. I am afraid that I cannot hold out the prospect that the money will be so provided.

I should like also to say a word about the local authorities in this context, because the point has been made that one cannot really expect the local authorities to take on the funding of a law centre which may be financing cases by clients against the council itself. I know that there have been one or two instances of difficulty in that regard. It is regrettable. I regard them as being in the minority. The point is that many law centres are supported by local authorities, acting individually or under the urban programme, and these local authorities implicitly accept that a law centre has a duty to act in a client' s best interests, whoever the other party may be. It is, I think, generally agreed that it would be very unreasonable for a local authority to refuse support for, or to withdraw support from, a law centre because it was, for instance, representing a council house tenant in dispute with the council as housing authority. It would be a rare case in which a local authority withdrew or withheld support on that ground.

I do not think that the claims of law centres for funding can be taken in isolation from other demands on the necessarily limited resources available to the public sector. It is for each individual authority to reach its own decision as to how best it applies the funds that it has available to it. But in the context of the abolition of the metropolitan councils and the GLC on 1 April, it should be borne in mind that local authorities in those areas will, after 1 April, be freed from paying precepts to their respective upper tier authorities. Those subject to rate limitation could apply for a variation of those limitations. In considering such applications the Secretary of State must have regard statutorily to the extent of the authority's commitment to the voluntary sector. That is a significant feature.

I want to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Vauxall about the pressures that exist in an area where there is perceived to be antagonism and, to take his example, discrimination on the part of certain police officers against sectors of the community. I note the tribute that the hon. Gentleman paid to senior police officers in his constituency, but he says that there have been too many instances at lower levels of discrimination and unlawful behaviour on the part of the police.

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 there exists a new and independent Police Complaints Authority. Under the same Act there is now provision, established by the Lord Chancellor, for a 24-hour duty solicitor scheme, whereby access to a solicitor is available on legal aid for somebody who is in a police station, having been arrested. That goes to mitigate the consequences of that which the hon. Gentleman has been describing. It is quite a significant improvement and one for which the Lord Chancellor, who has come in for a fair amount of stick tonight, can take the credit.

Mr. Stuart Holland

I am not sure whether it is part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's constituency experience, but it is certainly part of mine, that if an individual wishes to bring a complaint, for example, through the police complaints procedure, and that individual is not so well schooled as the hon. and learned Gentleman and I might be so fortunate to be, it is extremely useful for a law centre to be able to assist in the formulation of that submission to the Police Complaints Authority. Those factors should no be underestimated, certainly when taken in conjunction with the limited effectiveness of the previous police complaints procedure and the as yet—in my view and I think that of several other hon. Members—not wholly proven track record of the new procedure.

The Solicitor-General

I am sure that it is useful, but it is not indispensable by any means. There is now a sophisticated system which means that once a complaint has been made, however unschooled it may be, it really cannot be stopped. The complaint is registered and it has to be investigated under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority. In the course of investigation, whatever may be lacking in detail and clarity in the original complaint will be supplemented and made good. It is said that there is an unproven track record. Have a heart. The thing has been going for only a short time. But it is an independent body and it is respectably staffed.

Let me say a little more about the extension to legal aid and advice that the Lord Chancellor has produced. They are clear indications of the importance which the Government attach to legal aid. Expenditure on legal aid has more than doubled in real terms since 1979. The Government have extended the scope of the legal aid and advice scheme in the past few years, for example, by the introduction of formal arrangements for the duty solicitor scheme in magistrates' courts, the 24-hour duty solicitor scheme which I have already mentioned for suspects held in custody, the provision of payments to solicitors and counsel on account of legal aid bills, extension of the assistance by way of representation scheme to proceedings in the mental health review tribunals and an increase in the capital allowance for applicants for ABWOR to £3,000. I think that those are signiicant improvements which demonstrate the Government's commitment to legal aid.

As I have said, legal aid, and law centres in particular, cannot expect to be exempted from the constraints of financial stringency which affect us all at the moment. Therefore, I should like to end as I began by expressing my understanding of the anxieties that are felt by those who run legal aid centres, but I should like to revert to the point that just as legal aid centres originated because of the perceived local need for help, so the best sources of funds remain in their own localities. I believe that because those who provide the money tend to wish to have some control over the operation of whatever is being funded it is better that those local centres, responding to local needs, should look to the local authorities and to other local sources for the funds that are needed for the work that they do.

I realise that it would be nice at 4 o'clock in the morning if I could end with something that those who have initiated the debate would like to hear. I hope that I have at least given a genuine indication of my sympathy for the work of the law centres, but I am afraid that I cannot hold out any prospect of the Government acceding to the request that they should take over a statutory responsibility for funding.