Hillingdon Law Centre

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th February 1979.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

10.23 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Crowder Mr Peter Crowder , Hillingdon Ruislip Northwood

Nearly 500 years ago a statute was enacted in the reign of Henry VII which provided that Every poor person … shall have … writs … therefore paying nothing to your Highness … and the Lord Chancellor shall assign … learned counsel and attorneys for the same without any reward taking thereof". It was from that statute that the modem community law centres first came into being. The House will agree that a law centre is entitled to find and use any remedy available at law for its clients, but, if it is in receipt of public funds, it is not entitled to show affiliation to any political party or to promote any party's programme.

For some years, my constituency, which lies within the London borough of Hillingdon, has felt serious concern about the activities of the Hillingdon law centre. Incidentally, I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) in his place at this late hour because his constituency also falls within that borough.

Although the councillors always supported the provision of a service of free legal advice and representation for the residents of the borough, the council is, naturally, unwilling to fund subversive and socially destructive activities under the guise of community work or educational work. I wish to emphasise that there is evidence of a political trend in this direction. Whereas it is most desirable for citizens to be aware of their rights and obligations under the law, the efforts of this law centre appear to he somewhat misdirected in certain instances.

Let me give an example. Not long ago, in that centre was to be found a poster headed "Trouble with social security?" That poster depicted an officer of the Department of Health and Social Security as a Nazi blackshirt with an SS armband. Naturally, such a representation was deeply offensive to the staff of the DHSS who work to help their fellow citizens who are in need, and, fa from helping those in need of assistance to seek it, it was calculated to deter them from taking their problems to the agency of government whose aim is to help them.

There was another instance. When we faced the trouble at Grunwick, the centre displayed posters urging support for the pickets who were acting to deny the company's employees who wished to work their right of freedom of action. To my mind, that constitutes political activity of a most reprehensible character within the centre.

Recently, the leader of the council visited the offices of the law centre, where he found a poster of a revolutionary nature displaying the words "Support Revolutionary Socialism". That poster was displayed on the wall of an office in the centre.

Hon. Members will understand that there is natural concern in the borough of Hillingdon that political propaganda of this nature, which of course is acceptable in other circumstances, is to be found in a centre which is kept going at public expense, and that concern is felt very keenly and deeply, especially by my constituents and, I think, those of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge.

Let me refer shortly to the history. After meetings between the leader of the council and representatives of the management committee, from which it was clear that the management committee remained unable or unwilling to control the activities of the staff, the policy committee of the council at its meeting on 3 July considered its future policy towards the law centre. It resolved to discontinue funding with effect from 30 September 1978 and to investigate alternative means of providing a legal advice centre.

On 23 October, there was a further meeting between the chairman of the law centre management committee, a member of the committee representing the Law Society, the leader of the council and the chief executive at which an interim agreement was reached as a basis for the law centre to continue until the end of the current financial year. The basis of the agreement was that the management committee would reconsider and form its own composition and constitution in agreement with the council, the staff of the law centre would not in that capacity indulge in political activities, the management committee would reduce the activities of community workers to the giving of legal advice, which is the purpose for which the centre was established, the new management committee would reconsider its general policy with the approval of the council as a funding agency, and, finally funds should be made available to enable the centre to continue for the remainder of the year, subject to the conditions which have been mentioned.

That agreement was subsequently endorsed by the management committee and the policy committee of the council. As a result of activity by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson), who is out of the country at the moment, a meeting was convened with no less a person than the Lord Chancellor. The meeting, held in the Lord Chancellor's office, was between representatives of the council and the management committee. There was at that stage every hope of a satisfactory long-term solution being reached. However, it was not to be. On 19 December last year, the management committee approved a revised constitution which flew in the face of the interim agreement which had been reached. It contained no proposals to eliminate the community work which the council finds unacceptable and proposed a composition of the management committee which the council considers will not ensure a committee representative of the community.

The council has now suggested amendments to the constitution to accord with the interim agreement reached and has resolved not to fund the centre after 31 March this year unless the management committee comes forward with acceptable proposals before that date.

Photo of Mr Bruce Douglas-Mann Mr Bruce Douglas-Mann , Merton Mitcham and Morden

Does not the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the proposals now being put to the management committee would deprive the law centre of the opportunity of taking up cases which involve conflict with the council? Where a law centre is operating in any area, it is inevitable, because the council is the major landlord and responsible for the maintenance of the streets and for the enforcement of public health, that the centre must come into conflict with the council from time to time if it is doing its job properly. The structure now proposed by the Hillingdon council would deprive the law centre of the opportunity to fulfil the basic functions of a law centre.

Photo of Mr Peter Crowder Mr Peter Crowder , Hillingdon Ruislip Northwood

I am glad I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. I have been speaking only this evening to the leader of the council. That is far from being its attitude. The council is anxious that this law centre should work on the basis of the guidelines set out by the Lord Chancellor and should be completely nonpolitical.

At the last meeting, the management committee adopted an uncompromising attitude and gave notice to the staff. The present position is that the law centre will close on 31 March, taking away from the residents of the borough a useful legal service, only because the intransigent management committee is unwilling to restrict its activity to legal advice and representation. What is the solution? I am glad to see that the Solicitor-General is to reply on behalf of the Government.

I suggest that further discussions should take place on the lines laid down by the Lord Chancellor. I would like to refer particularly to guidelines 3 and 4, namely, that a law centre shall be under the control of a management committee, the majority of whose members should normally represent the interests of the recipients of the law centre's services, and that no local or central Government representatives shall be ex-officios chairmen, vice-chairman or secretary of the committee.

A law centre's primary objective should be to provide a legal service for people living or working within its catchment area. In performing this service, it is entitled to seek out those who are either not aware of their legal remedies and, I stress, Obligations or who may have a fear of law and lawyers. I hope that, as a result of my having raised this matter on the Floor of the House of Commons, this centre will remain in being on the guidelines set out by the Lord Chancellor.

10.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Shersby Mr Michael Shersby , Hillingdon Uxbridge

I am very grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. Crowder) for the opportunity to intervene briefly in this debate. He has been able to bring to the attention of the House a matter of great concern to the people of Hillingdon and the Members of Parliament for constituencies in the borough. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson) would have taken part in the debate had he been present, but we all know that he is unavoidably detained by his parliamentary duties.

My hon. and learned Friend has set out the position, but perhaps I may add a few details. The Hillingdon council, although it has always supported the provision of a legal service in the borough, is unwilling to fund the so-called educational work which the law centre management committee wishes to undertake as part of the general law centre activities. Secondly, the council is insisting that the management committee should adhere to the interim agreement reached on 23 October 1978. Unhappily, however, it seems that the management committee is unwilling to confine the work of the law centre to a free legal advice and representation service and is very keen to undertake this so-called educational or community work.

Perhaps I might say something about what that work might be if the law centre were to receive the agreement of the council to go ahead with it. I would draw on the memorandum of evidence by the law centre's working group to the Lord Chancellor and his advisory committee, entitled "Towards Equal Justice". It says: Another part of the educational work of the law centre is to talk with small and large groups in the area where the centre operates. The members of a tenants' association may wish to know how to enforce their rights in dealing with their landlords, those of a youth club their rights in a police station and those of a local authority social service department a whole host of things. There is not a word there about the tenants' obligations to their landlords, be they private or municipal. There is not a word about the obligations which a member of a youth club has to uphold the law or to assist the police in their duties. What, in any case, would members of a youth club be doing at a police station such that they would need the advice of the law centre on their rights only and not their obligations?

It is this rather anti-establishment attitude which worries people in Hillingdon and elsewhere. It is one of the aspects of the matter which has rightly led the council to confine its agreement to a legal service being operated in the borough—which is far from being an area of social deprivation. In fact, the law centre is located in Hayes, which is a prosperous area with local industry in close proximity to London airport.

That is the situation in which the council finds itself, and it is determined to discharge what it sees as its responsibilities to the ratepayers of Hillingdon, to spend their money wisely and to ensure that it is legal advice, rather than educational or community or political advice, that is being given in the area.

I am personally grateful to the Lord Chancellor, as I know are my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. The noble Lord has gone a long way to try to resolve this matter. There is a good chance of resolving it satisfactorily, given good will by the members of the law centre management committee, many of whom are personal friends, and who I know strongly believe that the provision of legal advice is a desirable activity in the area.

We now need a genuine understanding by the management committee of the law centre that there is genuine concern about this work. The committee should accept the council's offer of continued funding at the rate of £45,000 a year, based on the new constitution. That is a considerable prize to those who wish to continue the law centre work in Hillingdon, as I do. I believe that, if the opportunity is grasped now, the law centre will be able to continue. If the opportunity is not taken, there is every chance that the centre will be closed. I hope that will not happen.

10.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Crowder) for raising this subject and to both hon. Members who have taken part in the debate for expressing the hope that there is still time to save the Hillingdon law centre. The House will understand that I am anxious not to say anything which will make that less likely.

When the annals of the law centre movement are written, they will show that Hillingdon law centre featured prominently in the movement's early years. This is not the first time that the centre has attracted public attention. The first occasion was in 1976. The argument then was whether the Law Society should grant a waiver from the solicitors' practice rules. Those rules forbid touting for work by solicitors.

But the point about law centres is that their services must be known to those whom they are intended to benefit. Happily, those difficulties were overcome with the help of the Lord Chancellor, who acted as a mediator, and of a number of solicitors who used their common sense and powers of persuasion. So completely were they overcome that I am told that in the present dispute the centre has benefited from the goodwill of the Law Society.

I do not believe that the various agencies which offer advice are in competition. The private profession, the law centres and the citizens advice bureaux have a contribution to make. I wish that the resources were so plentiful that the problem was to choose between them. But the need is so vast and the resources so circumscribed that the primary need is to co-ordinate those activities so that each supplements the others. When people are aware of the need to take advice, persuaded that it is worth while, and encouraged to seek that advice, the private profession will also benefit.

Now, the Hillingdon law centre is back in the news. The Hillingdon borough council, which is the centre's funding agent, has expressed concern that, in addition to individual case work, the centre has undertaken what is sometimes known as community work.

Community work is not necessarily wicked. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) gave some examples which do not seem to require discouragement. Community work means offering legal advice to groups within the community or the residents of a locality with a collective problem, preparing leaflets on welfare benefits or employees' rights, or educating groups in various aspects of the law. Sometimes that may extend to offering advice in a campaign for the redress of a grievance.

It would be wrong to approach the matter without a sense of perspective. These activities normally form a small part of a centre's work. The primary role of such a centre is to give advice on individual cases. I understand that in two years this centre has dealt with 3,056 individual cases.

However, I make no secret of my view that a law centre is not simply a substitute for a firm of solicitors. On 25 September 1974 I spoke to the Legal Action Group in London. What I said was subsequently published in the LAG bulletin under the title "Law and the Little Guy."

I ventured to suggest that people with a problem are not interested in theoretical distinctions between the various methods of redress. A politician might offer legal advice; a lawyer might suggest a press campaign; a law centre might seek to redress a grievance by more than one method. That is proper.

But it is sometimes difficult to decide when activities of this kind have reached the limits of the functions of a law centre. One law centre, in its annual report last year, said: To provide these people and communities with greater access and greater confidence in using the various professional services and, indeed, self-help procedures available, means inevitably some slight redistribution of power in society. However, organisation to achieve a common goal (whether it be workers joining a union, or tenants fighting for repairs) is clearly a political decision and one in which many of those who fund law centres believe law centres should not be involved. Such involvement becomes more intolerable when the opponent is the local authority. In addition, and partly as a consequence, the council has now objected to the constitution of the management committee. There have been discussions about this and some willingness to make concessions, but there remains a dispute as to whether the management committee should consist purely of nominated representatives, as the council wishes, or whether some members should be elected.

There is as yet no single accepted constitution for a law centre. Some centres have elected representatives, and some do not. The only conditions which my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has required are that each centre should he independent of its funding agent and of local government or central Government and the Law Society, that it should enjoy freedom to choose its own areas of work, and that it should be free from interference in the advice given to those who consult it.

This word "freedom" is at the heart of the present disagreement. The council has said, in effect, "We do not like the way that the centre has conducted its affairs in the past and we want it to concentrate on providing advice and representation for residents in the borough to the exclusion of community and educational work." It is clear that the council has lost confidence in the centre, although I hope that is only temporary. In consequence it has threatened to discontinue the centre's grant from the end of next month unless the management committee is restructured to its satisfaction.

That leaves the centre with a problem, and it has led to renewed arguments by those who believe that law centres should be funded by central Government. The annual report, which I quoted earlier, goes on: As the community development projects, which were influential in the earlier stages of the Urban Programme discovered, it is dangerous to bite the hand that feeds. Law centres are increasingly convinced that the only long term answer is central funding. I doubt whether central Government funding is the answer. lf, as I hope, the number of centres is to grow, central Government may not be the most suitable funding agent. Law centres are most effective where they are locally inspired, and, money apart, inspiration is what the centres require most of all. They need inspiration for the staff who work in them—often for long hours on low salaries—and inspiration for members of the management committee who are prepared to give up so much of their time, not only to attend meetings but to keep in touch and offer advice and guidance. I believe that that inspiration arises most readily where the local community accepts responsibility for the centre.

But, in any event, the question of funding law centres is being considered by the Royal Commission on legal services. My noble Friend is keenly awaiting its recommendations. As he indicated last week in another place, until the Commission has reported it would not be right to embark upon any major initiative. He hopes to provide some limited support next year for one or two new projects which are in embryo, but it is quite certain that he will not be in a position to accept responsibility for centres which are presently supported by local authorities. Even if it were possible for one existing centre to be offered central funding at this stage, other local authorities might feel that they would be well advised to withdraw grants and leave the taxpayer to rescue the chestnuts from the fire.

There would be calls in other areas which do not yet have law centres but where the problems are no less intense, such as the metropolitan borough of Sandwell, part of which I represent, for central Government funds.

In fairness, I should add that the Hillingdon borough council has not indicated any intention to withdraw its grant purely on financial grounds. I am grateful for the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) posed to the hon. and learned Member for Ruislip-Northwood and for the assurance that the hon. and learned Gentleman gave in return. It is true that we invite local authorities to provide a rod at their expense which will be used partly on their own backs. That so many of them do so is a tribute to their tolerance and to their regard for the rule of law.

This, then, is the unhappy story. For the second time my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has entered the story of the Hillingdon law centre as a mediator between the council and the management committee. He has no financial or other responsibility for the centre, but he is concerned, as are some hon. Members who have put their names to early-day motion 188 and others who have put down the amendment, that those whose legal needs are less easily met through citizens advice bureaux or through solicitors in private practice should have access to legal advice and representation.

My noble Friend's involvement culminated, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, last November in a meeting attended by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr Sandelson), by the hon. Member for Uxbridge, by the leader of Hillingdon borough council, and by the chairman of the management committee. At that meeting my noble Friend formulated the guidelines which were mentioned by the hon. and learned Gentleman, which he suggested that the respective parties might wish to consider. They were generally welcomed, I thought, by all concerned as a basis for further discussion about the centre's constitution, and especially the composition of the management committee. Unhappily, the discussions have faltered over the question whether all the representatives should be nominated or whether some should be elected.

It is my noble Friend's hope, as it is mine, that the two sides to the dispute will reconsider their respective positions and find common ground to enable the law centres to remain in being. He has indicated to them and to me that he will do whatever he can in the way of mediation to attain this end, which must, after all, be in the interests of the people of Hillingdon. It is they whose needs are in some danger of being overlooked in what seems to be a battle of principle, and it is they, Mr Deputy Speaker, whose needs are paramount.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.