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.