HL Deb 08 May 1985 vol 463 cc718-31

7.38 p.m.

Lord Elwyn-Jones rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps are being taken to protect law centres from closure.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Government what steps are being taken to protect law centres from closure. There is by now general acknowledgment and indeed appreciation of the great value of the 55 law centres up and down the country to our society and to the administration of justice. The Royal Commission on Legal Services, in its report in 1979, said this: 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. The report continues: The Lord Chancellor's Legal Aid Advisory Committee summed up informed opinion thus in its evidence. '"… We think that law centres are, and should be, here to stay and that they are making a vital contribution to legal services.' That was the tribute from that authoritative source.

The law centres are run largely on a voluntary basis, mostly by young men and women with a social conscience. As the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux—which, incidentally, also feels itself under threat—has written, law centres provide a full legal service in areas of law and neighbourhoods neglected by private practice. They have pioneered new methods of supplying legal services, discovered statutory provisions and procedures which previously lay dormant and brought legal remedies to people who thought the law offered nothing for them.

The Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Aid pressed the Government in its last report to take immediate action to unify central support for legal services and ensure the survival of services threatened by changes in local government; in particular, the law centres dependent upon the urban programme. It said in its report that law centres in particular should be treated as an essential part of the national "network" of legal services and the Lord Chancellor should take on responsibility for their core funding. That is the advice which the noble and learned Lord received, but, alas!, he has indicated that he will not take it on; that it is within neither his power nor his authority, surprisingly enough, to undertake that responsibility.

In a letter which I had the honour of receiving from him dated 21st March this year, the Lord Chancellor wrote: decisions relating to the urban programme and to the funding of individual projects within it are matters for the Secretary of State for the Environment and not for me. But no help came from him. The Secretary of State has indeed written: It is, and always has been, the case that projects are given urban programme support for a limited period only…. It is then for the local authority to decide on main programme funding. So the buck is passed by the two Ministers concerned to the source least able to sustain it.

Twenty-five of the law centres are in rate-capped authorities and eight others are in authorities facing abolition. The Law Centres Federation fears that all 33 could fold up unless there is central policy funding. The situation in two law centres, in particular, reached crisis point a week or so ago. Looking back a little, in November 1983 the Government published a White Paper stating that legal services should be provided by the private sector supplemented by law centres. They also stated that a decision about financing law centres was under consideration.

In fact, since 1982 there has been a steady retreat by urban programme managers from law centres. In the 1984–85 round, no new law centres at all were funded despite several bids, and some local authorities with inner area programmes needing law centres were discouraged from putting forward proposals. This is the first urban programme round for many years in which there have been no new law centres.

But the situation is far more serious than that. In this round, two law centres were refused further urban programme grant after 1st April at six weeks' notice only, and a third was offered only half a year's further funding. No law centres are nowadays renewed on urban programme for more than two years at a time. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has graciously maintained the commitments into which I entered before 1979 for seven centres. For that we are grateful, but he has certainly given no indication of taking on any further commitments—on the contrary.

The two law centres that were most urgently threatened, and about which I made urgent sounds in the House not so long ago, were the North Lambeth Law Centre and the Stockwell and Clapham Law Centre. Those two law centres are at present surviving off six weeks' grant from the Lambeth Borough Council. As the council has not made a rate, it is unable to provide more grant at this time. After being cut from the urban programme at six weeks' notice on 18th February, those centres wrote protesting and there was public activity followed by a meeting on 15th April with local Members of Parliament, representatives of law centres and Sir George Young, the Secretary of State.

At that time and since, the law centres have been carrying on with current work and doing advice work, but not taking on any litigation work which involved hearings more than six weeks ahead. This means that most of the needy cases which cannot reach fruition in such a short time are not taken on in this period. Most litigation and negotiation cases are not legally aidable—for instance, education problems and immigration cases—so those people will have to find redress elsewhere. I understand from the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux that, among the papers that they have been considering, is one on the extent to which their work and that of the law centres work is interwoven—in particular, the work of the Clapham CAB with the Stockwell and Clapham Law Centre—so that they, too, are adversely affected.

Following a letter from the President of the Law Society, which has shown much sympathy in regard to this problem, Sir George Young wrote to the law centres on 1st May to say that he had written to Lambeth Council to indicate that he would be prepared to consider a short extension of urban programme grant, subject to the council's plans and inviting Mr. Knight's comments. The letter to the council apparently mentioned three months as the period of grant which Sir George has in mind.

As it is, the centres in question are almost half way through that period now. They understand that Lambeth Council has replied to the effect that it could take on the law centres if it were not being rate-capped, and I shall be interested to know whether the noble Lord the Minister who is to reply will give an assurance to the Lambeth Council that it will not be. I doubt whether he will.

As to the Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre, it was offered half a year's renewal of urban aid grant for 1984–85. At present, the situation is that the borough council there has said that it cannot find any extra money fully to fund the law centre for the second half of the year. If that is the case, the law centre stands to close by the end of September at the latest. It could be earlier, if it decided on a wind-up period.

I have indicated that there has been rejection of any concept of further legal aid law centre proposals in the present round. South Tyneside, Hartlepool and Langbaurgh have been refused and strong pressure has been put on both Oldham and Bolton metropolitan boroughs not to include law centre plans in their inner area programme bids. So there is a wholesale campaign going on or so it appears, for the purpose of defeating the law centres.

Unless the Government take some action in the next month it is likely that the three law centres in London which I have mentioned, which are under immediate threat, will close their doors to the poor people needing them. What is certain is that under present policies of no Government action and the decline of support for the urban programme, next spring, with both the proposed abolition of seven councils, with the potential non-renewal of urban programme grants, affecting up to 20 law centres, and the rate-capping of many more, several law centres will close up and down the country.

I believe that the damage which this would cause to our social fabric would be serious. In my view the closure of these law centres will have serious consequences. They serve the poorest districts and provide access to justice to the most disadvantaged people in the community, especially in the inner city areas. Desperate people, denied rights and denied access to justice, could turn to desperate measures. It has happened before; it must not be allowed to happen again. The Government must act.

7.51 p.m.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, on asking this Question, which is extremely timely at this juncture in our affairs. Since the first law centre was set up in North Kensington in 1970 they have developed apace, and we have 55 law centres today. It is right, as the noble and learned Lord observed, that the Benson Commission spoke warmly of the work of the law centres and that the Lord Chancellor's own Legal Aid Advisory Committee, in their 34th report in January this year, suggested that the core maintenance of the law centres should be taken over by the Lord Chancellor's Department.

In the light of the public debate that has gone on—there was an article in the Sunday Times towards the end of April this year which said that there was a passing of the buck in Whitehall which accounted for the crisis growing with regard to the future of the law centres—it is surprising that neither the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor nor a Minister from the Department of the Environment is responding to this debate today.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there is the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I have great admiration for both the skill and the style of the noble Lord who is to reply, but in the light of the importance of this whole matter I think it is a great pity that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is not to reply to this debate. I think that the legal profession certainly expected him to do so. It is widely thought that he personally has very great sympathy for the law centre movement, which has developed apace. Yet we are all aware of this clash of interests, as it were, within the Lord Chancellor's Department, and of the clash of interests between one of the great departments, the Department of the Environment, and the Lord Chancellor's Department on this matter. Therefore, I believe the time was ripe this evening, in response to the Question asked by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, for an authoritative statement on behalf of the Government as to the future of the law centres.

It seems to me that in the present economic climate, particularly with rate-capping and so on, the option of local funding of law centres is not a reliable option for them for the future. It is known, of course, that the Lord Chancellor's Department took over seven law centres. This was under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, originally, and the noble and learned Lord the present Lord Chancellor has continued with the funding. Indeed, he has sent in his officers twice a year to insist on a degree of accountability within those law centres. We know that under the urban programme other law centres have been funded. But what of the future?

It is absolutely right to say that the law centres have fulfilled a great need within the country. They have been geographically situated, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, has pointed out, largely in the inner city areas. They are generally to be found with a shop front in the shopping areas. They are different from the normal solicitor's office. They are not only geographically accessible but they are accessible at all times—many of them are, at least—for emergency advice. North Kensington has 50 volunteers. They cover the whole spectrum of political opinion. I am the head of a set of chambers which has within the ranks of its members all shades of political opinion. I know that members of my chambers have come forward—younger members of all parties—to partake in the voluntary work of' the law centres.

I do not think that we sufficiently appreciate how important these law centres are for the wife who is thrown out of her home with her children late at night—she wants to know where she can obtain advice and she may need representation the next day—and for the people who suddenly find that a child has been snatched from home. To whom are they to turn for advice? There is the juvenile who is arrested and whose parents urgently seek advice. It is that kind of person who so often has resorted to the law centre for advice. I am sure that nobody in the House will doubt that the law centre fulfils a very important social need It has overcome the problem which is so often met—I have met it very often in rural areas, but it is equally true of urban areas—and that is the shyness of people about consulting a solicitor and their fear of a solicitor's office.

I speak from a rural background, and I know that very often the solicitor is considered fairly high up the social scale. People are rather afraid to consult Mr. Jones the solicitor except in cases of dire need. But I think that the law centres in the inner city areas have to a large extent enabled people who have shied away from consulting solicitors to seek advice because of the different nature of the approach—the shop front, very often; the informal approach, and so on. Personally—I am expressing a very personal view—I have always thought that there was a case for a salaried service of legal advice, medical advice and dental advice in certain of our inner city areas. The general principles which might apply to the rest of the country need not necessarily apply in certain areas of that kind.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt. I am entirely in sympathy with what the noble Lord is saying, but how is it that these women who get turned out of their houses in the middle of the night know about the law centres?

Lord Hooson

My Lords, the law centres are enabled, by virture of an agreement with the Law Society, to advertise very much more than ordinary lawyers are able to advertise. They also publicise. One of the important functions of the law centres has been to educate and to inform people of rights—people who otherwise would not know. It is particularly true with regard to such topics as immigration and nationality, and the rights of people to obtain a different status within this country.

But in direct reply to the question of the noble Earl, they inform people through advertising and the word gets around. There is a 24-hour service 365 days of the year in some of these law centres. The centre is publicised and a telephone number is given which the public can ring to obtain advice from people who are reasonably expert. People can be virtually guaranteed legal representation in court the next day, if they consult a law centre.

The people who consult lawyers and advisers at law centres and who should really go to see a private solicitor are handed over to a solicitor. One has found, for example, solicitors' private practices being set up in certain areas where they did not exist before, very close to a law centre. The two work very well together. In fact, I believe that there is a very good relationship between the Law Society and the law centre movement.

I have said enough. The virtues of the law centres are obvious to everyone. Those who are appointed to permanent posts at law centres are not well paid. They are reinforced by the voluntary action of young people by and large, who have a considerable social conscience. As I said, in my experience those people cover a whole spectrum of political views.

It would be absolutely tragic for this movement, which has blossomed so much since 1970, to wilt and wither for lack of funding. The truth is that in the present difficult economic climate the prospect of future funding from local authorities looks very bleak, or at the very least unreliable. The Department of the Environment is not promising anything with regard to the future. I believe it is really up to the Lord Chancellor. We know that he has the courage, the determination and the skill to grasp this nettle and to extend the help that has been given to seven law centres to the other law centres and provide them with a reliable future.

8.1 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones for putting this Question. I am concerned about law centres because as a GP I often see patients who need the kind of help and advice which law centres provide. My patients invariably tell me that they are going to consult the law centre at such and such a place, and I ask them to return and tell me what advice they have received. One finds that the law centre has given them appropriate advice and has helped and acted for them.

In my work with black community organisations and poor blacks in London I find that they are very much helped by law centres. In fact, I put down my name to speak about the plight of the Stockwell and Clapham law centre, about which my noble and learned friend has already spoken. That particular law centre caters for the black community in that part of the world. It specialises in dealing with immigration and education law advice. The centre is extremely helpful to the people who use it. At the moment it is existing on a month-to-month grant from Lambeth Council, and with Lambeth in its present situation the centre knows that it cannot be sure of what will happen next.

This is not the way in which an important service should function. Law centres should receive core-funding from central Government. I join with other noble Lords in making a plea to the Government—and I am very glad that the noble and learned Lord is on the Woolsack—that the Lord Chancellor should undertake to see to it that there is core-funding for these law centres. Local authorities should of course be encouraged to supplement such core-funding. Voluntary organisations and individual volunteers also help in funding them, and that also should be encouraged. But basically there should be funding from central Government on which the law centres can count and from which they can develop their work. I hope that when the noble Lord the Minister replies he will be able to assure the House that the Government really will take this point on board.

It would be the saddest thing if law centres, which are a recent development but which have already proved to be extremely valuable, were allowed to wither simply because central Government are not prepared to help fund them. I hope that the answer from the Government Front Bench will be something that I can applaud.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Gifford

My Lords, I rise with enormous personal sadness to contribute to the plea which my noble and learned friend has made for action to keep law centres open. I say "enormous personal sadness" because I was in at the birth of the law centre movement. It started in 1968, which has not been long for a major new service to develop in our country. In 1968 two things happened. One was the publication of a very well-researched report, published by a committee chaired by the then Mr. Sam Silkin, who is to be a Member of your Lordship's House, recommending that law centres, which had their precedence in the United States, should be developed in this country.

A report was all very well, but it did not create anything for the people who were deprived. A group of people who lived in North Kensington got together and said, "We must do something about the deprivation which we see before us now". There were in North Kensington, as there now are there and in other communities where law centres operate, people at the bottom of the ladder, people whose rights were being abused. In that area there was one individual solicitor who undertook legal aid work, and there was one in a neighbouring borough. There was a massive need recognised by all community organisations.

After a lot of fund raising we persuaded two charities, the City Parochial Foundation and the Pilgrim Trust, to fund a very modest amount for the launching of a law centre in 1970. I remember that the Lord Chancellor, who then, as now, was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, sent a message of greeting and support on that initiative. The centre was opened by the president of the Law Society.

That was the beginning of a movement which, as the years went by, was recognised as being capable of providing to those in great need a service which the normal mechanisms of the legal profession could not provide. It is not an original remark—indeed, I believe that my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones was the author of it—that law centres reach those parts of the community which other agencies cannot reach.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

Not me, my Lords!

Lord Gifford

Well, my Lords, I have heard otherwise, but I will accept the credit for the first public statement of that remark.

As my noble and learned friend has said, law centres were recognised far beyond the immediate communities they served. They were recognised by the Royal Commission. They were recognised by the Lord Chancellor's legal aid advisory committee. They were recognised by the Law Society and by local solicitors. From the early days when solicitors and law centres had a slightly uneasy relationship, with solicitors wondering whether these new agencies were going to take work out of their mouths, there has come to be a co-operation between private practitioners and law centres which is absolutely admirable. The law centres recognise that they cannot solve everybody's individual problems and that good local solicitors are needed. The local solicitors realise that there are areas which they cannot possibly cover.

It is not to the prestigious bodies, it is not to the Law Society that I want to give the best accolade for the development of law centres around our country. It is to the people of 'the areas which they serve. A few years after it started, after its staff had been doing important work at night in going to police stations to safeguard the rights of those who were arrested, someone said to the director of the North Kensington law centre, "The streets are safer for your presence". Tenants who have been evicted can say the same thing. People who have been able to claim benefits that they did not know about have been able to say the same thing. Employees—particularly those in firms where there is no trade union membership, and in firms employing immigrant and foreign workers—whose rights have been defended, can say the same thing. Tenants in council multistorey blocks, where the disrepair can sometimes make living a hell, and where local authorities were not fulfilling legal obligations, have been able by acting through the law centre to make the authorities do so. Those tenants can also say the same thing.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the development of the law centre movement which has now taken in hundreds of young lawyers, some of whom are still working in law centres, others of whom have moved into other areas, and which has taken in many other non-legal workers, has done a service to the legal profession. It has helped to improve the good name of lawyers in areas where lawyers were regarded as something of an enemy, as people who were always acting for the other side.

Now, my Lords, this recognised movement, which has grown from one law centre to 55 in the space of only 15 years, faces not decimation, not even a halving, but the prospect that 33 at least of their number will not receive continued funding from the sources which so far have funded them, particularly from the Department of the Environment. I find that a quite appalling situation. But what is more appalling is that the Government have not taken responsibility for it. On the contrary, they are busily saying for one reason or another (each Department is saying this) that it is not for them to face the problem.

If this attitude persists, if law centres lose the funding they now have from central Government through the Department of the Environment, then it will be first of all a kick in the teeth for those who have worked for low salaries, grappling for long hours with the problems that I have described. It will be not only a rejection of the advice of all those bodies which are most able to give advice in this matter; much worse than that, it will be condemning people in need to being unable to receive the advice they should have. It is saying in effect, "We do not care about your problems".

Only Government can help. Local authorities are heavily pressed at the moment. They are being urged to cut down their funding; they are being rate-capped; they are being penalised. In any case they are not the best bodies to fund law centres. Local authorities have many of the legal duties which law centres are there to enforce. They are the highway authority, the housing authority, the social services authority, the education authority. Again and again they find themselves in opposition to clients of law centres who have rights which, quite properly under the law, they seek to enforce. It seems to be suggested that it is for the local authorities to fund law centres, but they are the wrong body to fund law centres. The funding body should be further removed from the interest they have in many of the cases. The proper funding body is the Government, and the proper funding Minister is the Minister who has been recommended by the Advisory Committee—the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor.

My Lords, I want to end my speech tonight with a plea to the noble and learned Lord. I know he looks with goodwill upon law centres and upon the work they have done, and upon the contribution which they can make in the future. I urge him to take part, even briefly, in this debate, to say that he will use his influence in Cabinet, as a Cabinet Minister, to find a solution to this problem of the continued funding of law centres. The noble and learned Lord has said he does not have the legal powers. I find that very hard to believe, since his predecessor, my noble and learned friend, financed seven law centres, including the one in North Kensington, which he rescued from the kind of crisis situation which other law centres find themselves in now. There must be legal powers for the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. If not, it would be simple. We could have a short Bill through this House by which the legal powers could be given. As the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said, the noble and learned Lord has the power and the ingenuity, and, I believe, the goodwill, to ensure that law centres continue to give the help which they give at present.

Should anyone be mistaken, it is not just the members of the Labour and Liberal Parties who make this plea. A pamphlet has been written and printed by the Society of Conservative Lawyers making the recommendation that the funding of law centres should be put on a permanent and central footing; that one single Government department should be responsible for the funding of law centres; and that law centres should ultimately be accountable to that department, which should be the Lord Chancellor's Department. The writer of that pamphlet, having surveyed law centres, said his view was that the members of the public who have used them have received a generally excellent service at modest cost to the public purse. It is not a matter of political controversy, or should not be.

The goodwill that would be created by a positive response to the Question being asked tonight would cross party frontiers. It would be felt by those in the legal profession, but above all by those in need of the services which law centres must continue to give.

8.18 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, we are, indeed, fortunate that this Question about the steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to protect law centres from closure is being raised tonight by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones. It is an issue on which he has a certain proprietorial interest, as he has explained, and one on which I face him with some trepidation. It was during his time on the Woolsack that the law centres movement spread its wings, and it was the noble and learned Lord himself who, so I understand, first stepped in on behalf of the Government of the day, between 1975 and 1979, to save seven law centres from closure when the local authorities who had previously supported these centres withdrew that support.

The noble Lord, Lord Gifford, has just talked about the legal powers for granting law centres. This funding by central Government, as the noble and learned Lord will remember, is given without specific statutory authority, but under the authority of the Appropriation Act. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has continued providing funds to the seven centres in question. He has no present plans either to reduce or discontinue that funding, nor to extend it in any way.

In the words of 1066 And All That, law centres are a Good Thing. Yes, I agree with the noble and learned Lord that they operate to general acclaim. Again, I agree with every noble Lord who has spoken about their excellence.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to some of the points that have been raised and to clarify the Government's position on the funding of, and responsibility for, law centres—a position which is often misunderstood. Before I do that, I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, that when I or one of my fellow Lords in Waiting is speaking from this Dispatch Box we are speaking for the whole Government. We are just as much a Member of the Government as is any other Member of the Front Bench.

Law centres are voluntary organisations, established by concerned individuals who see a need in particular areas for the type of service a law centre can provide. As all such voluntary organisations do, they seek their funding where they can: from local authorities, Government departments, charitable trusts and the public at large. The result is that law centres receive funding from a variety of sources, and the pattern varies from one centre to the next.

The very first law centre, set up in Kensington in 1970, relied largely on charitable donation. Subsequently, a large role in funding has been played by local authorities, and this is as it should be. Local councillors, as locally elected representatives, are best placed to reach a view on the priorities for support within the overall resources available to them. Local authorities now support around 50 law centres. Much of this support is given without the aid of specific central Government grant, and even where central grant is given it has been the local authority itself which has taken the steps to provide funding. So apart from what I might call, with respect, the "Elwyn-Jones seven" public sector support for law centres is a result of local initiative. Let me make it clear that the Government have no statutory responsibility for funding law centres, although my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor lays down guidelines within which they operate.

I am well aware of the view of the Royal Commission on Legal Services which did, of course, recommend that there should be a national network of law centres, with central funding; as have other bodies which have been referred to in the debate. We have been giving this extensive consideration and our view is, as I have said, that decisions on the need for law centres are essentially local matters. The local authorities are the public sector bodies best placed to judge whether or not to give support. We have no proposals to set up a specific source of central funding for law centres.

Since the publication of the report of the Royal Commission on Legal Services consideration has continued within Government on a range of possible initiatives on the funding of the responsibility for law centres. However, it has been very difficult to reconcile the natural limits of the remits of the Department of the Environment and the department of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor with the main recommendations of the Royal Commission. I cannot honestly say that I think the prospects of a specific national funding scheme for centres are very high.

Nevertheless the Government have given substantial support to law centres, through the urban programme, to help them get established and demonstrate their value locally. Twenty-eight of the local authority funded centres are supportd by the urban programme. The urban programme, is, as your Lordships will know, a special allocation taken out of the existing programmes of the Department of the Environment, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of Health and Social Security, and the Department of Transport. The resources are then directed to deprived inner urban areas in a particular way. The local authorities concerned draw up inner area programmes, which set out local strategies for tackling urban decay, and put forward for approval a series of projects which fall within those strategies. Once projects are approved by Ministers, the local authority pays 25 per cent. of the cost, and the Government 75 per cent.

Although the urban programme began life in the 1960s as a revenue programme under Home Office management, it is now mainly a capital programme, and its principal objectives are to prompt economic activity in the inner cities through infrastructure and environmental improvements, promotion of job creation and training activities, stimulation of new business, and so on. This change of direction, which we have continued and which is correct, was initiated by the Government of which the noble and learned Lord opposite was a distinguished member. It also tackles some of the housing and social problems which are associated with inner city decline. The programme operates through a flexible mechanism which can provide a concentration of funds into a particular action area, or can bring together the efforts and funds of different agencies, or can promote and experiment with innovative approaches which might not readily find a place in main programmes. It specifically seeks to create partnership between public, private and voluntary sectors. In short, to misquote the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, it reaches the parts other programmes cannot reach.

But the urban programme is not, and has never been intended to be, a substitute for local authority and central Government main programmes. This is particularly the case with revenue funding for on-going projects, whether run by the local authority or a voluntary body. The urban programme provides funds for such projects on a fixed-term basis, usually either four or five years.

Initial funding for law centres under the urban programme has been given on a two-year basis and decisions on the renewal of urban programme funding for time-expired law centres have generally been made on a one-year basis, as it would have been undesirable to commit valuable urban programme resources in the long term had a new initiative on law centres been produced. There has never, under any Government, been any policy of funding law centres under the urban programme on a more extended basis than applies to all other voluntary projects.

Lord Gifford

My Lords, before the noble Lord moves on from the urban programme, he prefaced that part of his speech, as I understand it, by saying that it was difficult to reconcile the remits of the Department of the Environment and the Lord Chancellor's department, and that therefore there was no prospect of implementing the Benson Commission recommendations. That sounds very much like bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. If the will is there, cannot the noble Lord suggest ways of reconciling these limits? It cannot be as difficult as all that.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, when he reads the Official Report tomorrow, will see that I did not quite say that. I said that it was difficult, as we see it at this moment, to reconcile the two deparments to which I referred with the recommendations of the Royal Commission's report.

Often the department will provide a breathing space by extending the funding for an additional period, usually in order to allow the local authority to phase projects gradually into their main programme, but long-term revenue funding is quite deliberately not provided. In this law centres are in exactly the same position as other revenue projects. The local authorities have proposed them for support, the urban programme has assisted a substantial number—at a cost of £2.5 million last year—and in due course the local authorities will have to decide whether or not to provide all the funding. They have to take the same decisions for business advice centres, latch-key clubs, support services for the elderly, and many other types of voluntary projects which the urban programme helps to get established. It would be invidious to treat law centres differently under the urban programme, and we have no plans to do so.

We will continue, as we have always done, to negotiate with local authorities on the phasing out of urban programme funding for individual projects. Last year out of 47 voluntary projects put forward by local authorities for further urban programme funding in partnership and programme authorities, and refused, only one subsequently failed to get local authority funding. This year urban programme funding has ended for two law centres in Birmingham and the local authority is continuing to fund them under its main programme. In Lambeth there are two law centres whose position has understandably given cause for concern. Their problem was prompted by Lambeth's refusal to enter into the usual discussions about time expiry. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, who has been referred to this evening and who is chairman of the Lambeth Partnership, has now written to Lambeth offering to extend urban programme funding for three months if that will smooth the way to absorption on to Lambeth's main programme, We are awaiting Lambeth's response.

There are a number of law centres which have received only two years' initial funding under the urban programme, instead of the normal four, because of the discussions which have been taking place following the report of the Royal Commission on Legal Services. The Government undertake to clarify their position on renewal of those grants well in advance of the end of the financial year.

I understand, of course, the concern which is inevitably felt about the effect on particular services of our general policy of constraining local authority expenditure to a reasonable level. I can only say, however, that this is entirely a matter of local priorities. We are confident that within the overall spending levels that we ask local authorities to achieve they will be able, with good management, to maintain all those activities which they think are really needed. The great majority of authorities recognise that voluntary sector activity, if well targeted, is an effective and worthwhile way of meeting needs. Funding of voluntary activity, both by local and central government, has risen substantially in real terms since we came to office. This includes law centre funding.

I suspect that I shall not be allowed to get away quite with that. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, said—I think that I have it correctly—that the buck is passed to those least able to field it, or words to that effect. However, the urban programme cannot be used simply to top up local authority main programme spending. As far as the possible effects of rate capping are concerned, the Government do not accept that there is any contradiction between the encouragement of specific action to deal with problems of deprivation and the general policy to protect ratepayers and to constrain public expenditure within the limits set by the economic strategy. It would be hoped that by finding economies which other authorities—which I must say are usually Conservative run—have been able to do, they would be in a position to run services on the basis of their relative priorities within a reasonable overall spending limit.

Lambeth, which has been referred to this evening, is a case in point. Of course I am not going to tell the noble and learned Lord that there is no danger of Lambeth being rate capped; but, equally, if that law centre is closed, it is at the local authority's door that the blame would lie, as also is the hand-to-mouth existence that has been so graphically described this evening. As I have said, local authorities apply for urban programme money. They initiate it, and the money which is provided by central Government on a 3:1 ratio is for agreed projects. Local authorities therefore know that law centres are needed for their areas, and they also know the temporary nature of urban programme funding.

I feel that I have demonstrated tonight that the Government have given substantial support to law centres. We recognise their worth, and indeed at a national level we have given direct assistance to the Law Centres Federation to help with development work. At local level, we have helped many individual law centres to get established. We have given them a fair wind. But in the longer term it is for the law centres themselves to convince local authorities of the value of their work, and I have no doubt that they will do this with the greatest success.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, I think that I am entitled to say something at this stage. The last observation of the noble Lord that the blame for the closure of law centres must be placed at the door of local authorities is breath-taking in its lack of understanding, comprehension and sympathy. The art of good government is to decide upon and to fulfil the right priorities. In this case the Government have achieved neither.

I see the Whip looking restless at these few words I utter. All that I wish to say in conclusion is that we have found the Minister's replies bitterly disappointing.

House adjourned at twenty-six minutes before nine o'clock.