Law Centres

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:57 am on 13th March 1986.

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Photo of Mr Stuart Holland Mr Stuart Holland , Vauxhall 2:57 am, 13th March 1986

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In its 34th annual report, published in January 1985, the Legal Aid Advisory Committee made two significant recommendations in paragraph 441. The first was that the law centres should be treated as an essential part of the national network of legal services. The second recommendation was that the first priority should be to ensure the survival of existing law centres without waiting for changes in local government and urban programme policies to see what support borough councils and district councils could provide.

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

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