HC Deb 24 July 1987 vol 120 cc648-54 12.30 pm
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important issue of the continued funding and extension of funding of law centres. The last time the House debated law centres was on 13 March 1986, at the unfriendly hour of 2.46 am. That debate was held on a motion moved by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) and concerned two law centres in his constituency—in Gateshead and Newcastle. Since then, an early-day motion has been tabled in the name of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) and signed by 70 other hon. Members from both sides of the House—a sign that the whole concept of law centres has support from all hon. Members.

This morning's debate will, I hope, elicit from the Minister a clear statement about the standing and future funding of law centres. The funding of law centres is in a state of chaos. A wide range of organisations have been funding them. Law centres began in Britain in 1970. The first law centre started in north Kensington with donations from local charitable organisations. It was because of the success of the north Kensington law centre that the Lord Chancellor's Department took on funding in 1974.

In the past 17 years a number of law centres have opened and closed, and there are now 57 such centres in Britain — for a population of more than 55 million people. It is a sad fact that only one person in 10 lives within the catchment area of a law centre. Geographically, the position is even worse. There is only one law centre in Scotland, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland. In the east midlands, there are two in Leicester and one in Nottingham — no more. One law centre — Sandwell — closed this year, as its urban aid programme ran out.

The existence of law centres has the endorsement of every organisation that is active in the area of legal services. The Royal Commission on legal services in 1979 stated: 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. It has dispelled the possibility of complacency over the institution of the legal aid scheme, has emphasised the importance of a wider distribution of legal services and has shown the desirability of enabling and encouraging lawyers to take up work elsewhere than in their traditional areas of activity and types of practice". The chairman of the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee, in the preface to the 35th annual report in 1984, said: Whether it be provided through the Green Form Scheme, through Duty Solicitors, Law Centres, CABX, Tribunal Assistance Units, or other independent advice agencies, good early advice is the foundation of the Legal Aid Scheme … Our concern is to ensure that access to justice which these agencies represent is preserved undiminished, even in times of financial restraint". In the Archbishop of Canterbury's report, "Faith in the City", published in 1985, there was a paragraph that stated: The value of the role and the current need of the Centres and their present financial predicament could not be more clearly set out than in the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee's Report. We wish to give the fullest support to the proposals of the Lord Chancellor's Committee and recommend that they be implemented immediately". In the debate in 1986 the Minister's predecessor said: 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."—[Official Report, 13 March 1986; Vol. 93, c. 1251.] It may be useful if I chronicle the activities of law centres. Without wishing to be patronising, I believe that very few Members of Parliament have worked in, visited or sought advice from a law centre. The centres are based on the concept that justice must be open to all members of the public, and they provide a vital resource for unmet legal needs in a community. Their arrival in 1970 transformed the legal landscape. For the first time, a solicitor entering practice did not have to concentrate on providing business for profit, but could concentrate on assisting people without the constraints of financial incentive. The law centres deal with a wide range of casework and issues. They provide information about rights. They give advice and information to other agencies, such as citizens' advice bureaux, they give information to individuals and groups and they take up cases. This country is not the only one that has law centres. Other countries, notably Holland and the United States, accept and promote the idea of public legal services.

Before coming to the House I worked in the North Leicester advice centre. There are two law centres in Leicester, the Leicester Rights law centre in the centre of the city, and the Highfields and Belgrave law centre, which became the North Leicester advice centre and the Highfields advice centre earlier this year. The Leicester Rights law centre received a grant from central Government which ended in March 1986. Both centres provide valuable assistance to local people. In housing matters, advice and assistance is given against unscrupulous landlords. Immigration matters such as visa extensions and appeals are also dealt with. In matters of crime, young people are assisted through the processes of the law. The centres also handle issues of welfare rights, employment and small claims in the county court. In the past six months, the North Leicester advice centre has assisted more than 3,000 people and last year the Leicester Rights centre dealt with thousands of inquiries from local people. Both organisations have immense community support. On 23 October 1985, the Leicester Mercury stated: The concept of the centre is an excellent one. It exists to give a handy, low-cost or free legal advice service to those who live in the areas, who have problems with the legal system. Yet there are very few such centres in the east midlands. There is one in Nottingham, but none in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire county or Derbyshire, although there are moves to set up a centre in Derby.

It is totally unacceptable that law centres, which have proved to be essential legal services, should have to compete each year for the morsels thrown into the trough of expenditure on public legal services and that law centre workers and their clients should have to go through the annual funding crisis. It is unacceptable for the Government to pass the buck to local authorities. Central Government are responsible for the provision of legal services, for the administration of legal aid and for the administration of justice. They should therefore have responsibility for central funding of law centres. The burden cannot be placed on local authorities such as Leicester and Nottingham, which do not have the resources to cope because of central Government cuts in grant allocation. Without central Government funding there is a real fear that a number of law centres will have to close next year.

The pursuit of justice cannot be made cost-effective. Out of a total law centre bill of £7 million, only some £750,000 comes from the Lord Chancellor's Department and with grants from other Departments total funding does not exceed one seventh of the bill. Forty out of the 57 law centres are totally dependent on local authority finance. It is not good enough that people have access to legal services just because they happen to live within the boundaries of a Labour-controlled authority. I am sure the Minister will say that it is all a question of' money. Indeed, it does turn on money. It is only the Government who wish to evade their responsibility.

In a letter from the general secretary of the Law Society, Mr. Bowron, dated 21 October 1986 to the Lord Chancellor's legal aid advisory committee, he said: The Law Society has supported secure central government funding for law centres for a number of years and remains of the view that this is the only way to avoid the waste of resources and the disruption caused by annual funding uncertainties. Uncertain funding also results in difficulties in planning and developing law centre services.

The Law Centres Federation, which has campaigned for a number of years as the shop steward of law centres, said in February 1984: Funding should be provided by Central Government, either directly through an appropriate Government Department or Departments, or through an intermediary body. The advisory committee, in its 34th report, said: We concluded that they should be treated as an essential part of the network of legal services, that your Lordship should take on responsibility for their core-funding and that 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. Our views have only been strengthened by developments since our 34th Report was published. The Society of Conservative Lawyers, in a pamphlet published a couple of years ago, called for the law centres to be expanded in number and put on a permanent arid central financial footing. It said: The members of the public who have used law centres have received a generally excellent service at a modest cost to the public purse. There must be no excuse for wriggling. Centrally funded national networks of law centres funded by central Government must be the way forward. One way to pay the cost is perhaps to abolish the role of private solicitors in the legal aid system and to ensure that all public money is dispensed on public legal services. I hope that the Government will look to a new approach.

There must be sufficient funds to provide services throughout the area, not just to inner-city areas, but to the outer estates and rural areas. There are parts of my constituency — Netherhall, Humberston, Rowletts Hill, Thurnby Lodge, Northfields and Goodwood in the outer estates of Leicester—that do not have any legal services because they are not in the inner-city areas. Local people there have exactly the same problems as people in the inner-city areas. They have problems with housing and welfare rights and they need assistance in exactly the same way. They do not necessarily have the transport facilities to go into the inner-city areas to get the legal advice that is available to others.

I am sure that the Minister has heard the story of Cinderella. Law centres are the Cinderella of the legal services movement. I hope that he will be the fairy godmother and that he will wave his wand and send Cinderella to the justice ball by announcing the statutory and central funding of a network of law centres. To refuse centrally to fund the only organisation that can ensure that justice is accessible to all our people might be interpreted by some as showing that only the well-off should have access to legal advice and, therefore, to justice. I am sure that the Minister would not want such a misinterpretation to occur. Justice is too sacred a commodity to be available only to certain segments of our society. It lies at the very heart of democracy and it must be equally available to all.

12.44 pm
The Solicitor-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on his good fortune in obtaining this debate at a reasonable and appropriate hour for such an important subject. I welcome the opportunity in this new Parliament to set out once again the Government's approach to the funding of law centres.

The background to the hon. Gentleman's case for greater central funding of law centres lies in his experience of his own local law centre in Leicester, in which he has been employed in recent years. He has spoken in general terms of the problems of funding law centres, and I know that there were some specific problems in regard to the funding and management of one particular law centre in Leicester. I now understand from the council that, after a number of management changes, the new board is working well and the city council now proposes, indeed has undertaken, to return the law centre to management by the local community. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I both welcome that.

I should add that, back in 1983, the council wrote to Ministers at the Department of the Environment and to my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor in the hope that funding for law centres might be placed upon central Government. However, I have to make it clear that this is not, and never has been, Government policy. In many respects, I believe that the Leicester problem and the Leicester solution to that problem lend support to the Government's view that funding for law centres is, and should be, primarily a matter for local responsibility.

Government policy has been made clear on a number of occasions, and I am glad of the opportunity to restate it today. The Government warmly acknowledge that law centres can have a valuable role to play, depending on local circumstances, in the provision of legal services. They can often usefully supplement the national legal aid and legal advice scheme. They can frequently not only complement and supplement those formal legal services provided by local solicitors and by the Bar, but tie in helpfully with the less formal but often valuable help and advice on legal and quasi-legal matters provided by welfare rights organisations and citizens advice bureaux. However, in all these respects the establishment of and provision of support for law centres are essentially matters for local decision and initiative.

It is instructive to examine the overall provision of law centres. Over the nation as a whole there are now some 60 law centres in operation all of which have come into being since the first law centre was established in north Kensington in 1970. Of these, 57 are members of the Law Centres Federation. The majority are based in inner city areas and 29 out of the 60 are situated in London. Of the 60, all but seven are funded by local government because of the need, as perceived by individual local authorities, for such services in their areas.

In relation to central funding, there has been no change in practice as between the previous Labour Government and the present Government. Between 1974 and 1979 the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn Jones, entered into commitments to fund seven law centres. Of these, four, accounting for nearly two thirds of the direct funding, some £410,000 out of £690,000 last year, are in London, and of the remainder there is one each in Birmingham, Cardiff and Leeds. The remainder of the funding from the Lord Chancellor's Department goes to the Law Centres Federation in London and towards a small contingency fund. Looking at overall national funding of law centres, total annual funding is between £6 million and £6.5 million per annum in last year's terms. Of this, central funding, including some support through the urban programme, amounts to a total of £1.02 million. The remainder, and therefore by far the greater proportion, is funded by local authorities, though it is right—and this is significant for what I shall say later — to remind the House that a proportion of that funding comes from funding to law centres for specific work carried out for individual clients through the legal aid green form scheme.

The House will, of course, be aware and the hon. Gentleman has rightly reminded us that the Royal Commission on legal services and the Lord Chancellor's legal aid advisory committee have recommended that central Government should assume responsibility for law centres and their funding. In its most recent report the legal aid advisory committee pointed again to the difficulties which can be caused by short-term funding commitments on the part of local authorities and other bodies and described the particular experience of Paddington north centre.

It has been argued, and the hon. Gentleman repeated the arguments eloquently today, that this policy can cause difficulty to law centres competing for limited local authority funds. I am also aware of the view that law centres should not have to rely for funds on bodies against whom they may be required to bring proceedings. However, it is a fact of life that the resources of both central Government and local government are inevitably limited and must therefore be subject to conflicting demands. Priorities have to be established. Local authorities are, we believe, considerably better placed than central Government to decide whether a particular local service is required or whether a service currently provided is appropriate to local needs. It is in some respects somewhat ironic to hear a representative of the Opposition arguing for central rather than local funding and control.

The next point is said to be the problem for law centres in litigating against the providers of their funds. I believe that the great majority of local authorities rightly and implicitly accept that the law centre must act in its clients' best interests. From time to time this will mean that a law centre has to act on behalf of its client against its own local authority which puts it in funds. However, the problem is no different in principle in relation to central Government, for the same arguments apply in relation to cases where it is necessary for the law centre to bring proceedings on behalf of clients against central Government or their agencies in circumstances where central Government are the provider of funds.

I should, however, like to put the whole question of law centre funding into the context of overall Government funding for those who need financial assistance to obtain legal aid and advice and say a word or two about the future of such funding as outlined in the Government's White Paper presented to Parliament on 26 March 1987. Total expenditure on legal aid in 1986–87 amounted to no less than £391.5 million, a formidable increase on the 1979–80 figure of around £100 million.

The current figure is provided through five main channels. First, civil legal aid amounted last year to £104 million. Secondly, criminal legal aid, providing for the assistance of a solicitor, and, where appropriate, counsel in defending a case before the criminal courts, reached £177 million last year. Thirdly, legal advice and assistance, also widely known as "the green form scheme", enables a solicitor to give advice on any matter relating to English law and there is an initial cost limit on the amount of advice that can be given. That gave rise to total expenditure last year of just under £50 million. Fourthly, assistance by way of representation, known by the ugly acronym ABWOR, is an extension of the legal advice and assistance scheme which enables the solicitor to represent his client in certain circumstances, chiefly in domestic proceedings in the magistrates' courts, though it was extended in 1982 to cover mental health review tribunals and prison disciplinary hearings in 1984 and it gave rise last year to expenditure of £11.5 million. Finally, there are two statutory duty solicitor schemes. The first statutory scheme was introduced in 1983 and the other in 1986. The latter provides advice and assistance for people detained in police stations in connection with criminal charges. Last year expenditure on that amounted to £20 million.

With the exception of the duty solicitor schemes, all the schemes are means tested. By means of this funding during 1986, about 200,000 individuals received legal aid to bring or defend a civil case. About 500,000 received legal aid in connection with a criminal charge and about 1.2 million received advice and assistance from a solicitor.

The Government's commitment to an effective legal aid scheme was reaffirmed in the recent White Paper. The White Paper proposals, which will be taken forward in legislation in the coming Session as indicated in the Gracious Speech, are that in future responsibility for the administration of civil legal aid is to be transferred from the Law Society to a new, independent, legal aid board. In the context of the hon. Gentleman's remarks—I think that this will be of considerable interest — I draw the attention of the House to chapter IV of the White Paper dealing with future arrangements for the provision of legal advice. There are areas of the law in which the giving of advice is already more widely and effectively provided to many people by advice agencies such as the citizens advice bureaux and other agencies, rather than by local solicitors. Particular subjects, for example, are welfare benefits, housing, and employment. Such agencies, which are again largely funded locally, though with central Government support as well, frequently have either lawyers among their staff or direct access to legal advice on points of law. In a number of fields, building on these developments, the Government believe that the present green form scheme may be able to be improved by a better service at lower cost. The Government are attracted to the principle of using the skills of advice agencies, especially to deal with those areas of work in which their special experience is likely to be greater than that of many solicitors in private practice.

The Government therefore intend to take powers to enable the new board to make alternative arrangements for the provision of advice and assistance for particular categories of work where this would be a more efficient way of providing the service.

The Government will require the board — and in these remarks I am taking up the White Paper—as an early task, to consider the most cost-effective way of providing advice and assistance, including specifically whether better arrangements might be made by making use of advice agencies. Once the board has set up suitable arrangements for contracting with agencies and other organisations for the provision of advice in the specified areas of work—for instance, advice on welfare benefits— these will be excluded altogether from the green form scheme.

Mr. Vaz

Does the Solicitor-General believe that justice should be cost-effective?

The Solicitor-General

I believe that in almost all elements of life, including Government, we should be as cost-effective as possible, and that must apply to justice as well as to other areas of expenditure.

The detailed arrangements could well involve tenders being sought for the provision of advice in the geographical areas covered by the board's area offices, and the form of coverage might well be different in different geographical areas. This may therefore provide a new opportunity for law centres and those who provide legal services through them. Either in their present form or perhaps a modified form, law centres might be able to improve their funding and extend the service that they provide by tendering for and obtaining contracts to provide advice and assistance in particular areas.

I should emphasise that the way ahead will depend on detailed proposals put forward by the new board at the time. The Government will need to be satisfied that all areas of the country are fully provided for in all types of work. Such moves towards new ways of delivering advice and assistance will take place only after the detailed arrangements for the change have been thoroughly worked out. Nevertheless, they offer potentially interesting and valuable opportunities both for those who work in law centres and the public who require such services. It must always be remembered, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General stressed in the debate last week when discussing the future of the services provided by the Bar, that the guiding principle, when deciding how best to make available legal services of whatever kind, must always be the public interest.