May I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) for having sought the debate? I am grateful to him for two reasons. First, he has raised a matter which is of considerable importance to the Labour party and which we take very seriously. My second reason for being grateful to him when he speaks of the work of the Benwell law centre and of the law centre in Gateshead is that he is speaking for the community in Tyneside. As his neighbour there, I appreciate the points which he made on behalf of the community that we both represent.
Before being elected to the House, I was a councillor for the Walker ward and an official of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union. As a full-time trade union official, I used to deal with the advice services that the union offered. In both that capacity and as a councillor I know that the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) are equally true for the community on Tyneside. Even as a Member of Parliament I often feel that I cannot give to all the cases that come to my surgery the in-depth attention which they deserve. If an hon. Member goes into a case as a professional adviser, he finds that he is neglecting other duties. As both my hon. Friends have emphasised, there is a need for independent advice based on something other than the more formal provision of legal services.
The debate touches on two strategic issues—the principle as to whether law centres are a good thing, and who should take responsibility for funding law centres and more general advice services. My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge rightly quoted the 1979 report of the Royal Commission on legal services. In regard to the principle of the existence of law centres he could equally have quoted the 35th report of the Law Society, which said on page 57:
The Society has continued to express concern to the Government about the severe effects on law centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux which may well result from the legislation abolishing the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county authorities. Law centres and advice agencies are also in an uncertain financial position as a result of other restrictions on local authority expenditure and changes in policy on the use of the Urban Programme. Urban Programme policy is now unhelpful to law centres and advice agencies. Bids for this form of funding have all been rejected by central government despite many being given high priority by their sponsoring local authorities.
That was the Law Society being supportive of law centres. Equally my hon. Friend the Member of Tyne Bridge could have quoted the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee on legal aid. The Lord Chancellor's own advisory committee is supportive of law centres. In other words, there is no lack of support for these centres, either in the legal profession or in the bodies most closely concerned with giving advice to those who are in charge of our legal services.
Even the Government seem to accept that law centres are, in principle, worth while. Earlier this week, at a meeting of the Advice Services Alliance, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) said:
Society would break down if it were not for the work of advice centres.
I regret that I came in part way through his remarks on that occasion. I may have missed his explanation of why the Government were being niggardly over the funding of law centres, which he said were essential to preserving the fabric of society.
The Labour party takes the view that the Lord Chancellor should take a lead in this matter. The whole issue of funding goes further than law centres and the nation's network of advice centres, citizens advice bureaux and so on. The overall provision of legal services faces a financial crisis greater than at any time in recent history.
The Solicitor-General will recall our recent debates on the funding of the new Crown prosecution service. I hope that we shall soon debate the cuts in legal aid provision. He will be aware of the litigation that is now taking place, with the Lord Chancellor being sued by members of the Bar because they regard their funding as inadequate and consider that their representations on the subject were not adequately considered.
It is against that background that we are discussing, in proportionate terms, the small work of the law centres. It is not simply a question of the contribution that they make to the provision of legal services. We must bear in mind the work that they undertake. They do not cover the type of work that family solicitors do. Their work is different and they touch areas of the community that, by and large, solicitors do not reach. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall cited examples from his constituency. Similar cases could be given from any inner city.
The Lord Chancellor continues to say that he will not take responsibility for the further funding of law centres. Indeed, he claims that he has no statutory power to do so. That is a red herring because the last Labour Lord Chancellor found it possible to take on the funding of time-expired law centre projects in inner cities. The present Government continue to fund those projects but refuse to take on any new law centres.
My hon. Friends and I gave the Government an opportunity, during the passage of the Administration of Justice Act, to give the Lord Chancellor the powers he needed to provide the necessary funding. It was clear from the Government's arguments on that occasion that not only did the Lord Chancellor not have the necessary powers to fund law centres, but that he did not wish to have such powers. The argument is that these are matters for local provision, not that there will be any extra local funding for it—funding must be from existing resources. All credit is due to Newcastle city council for taking on the Benwell law centre in spite of being rate-capped and having to find the money from stretched resources. That demonstrates the commitment that the local representatives give the law centre's work. It is wholly reprehensible that the Government do not share that commitment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall was right to stress independence. An organisation that is to provide advice should be independent of the local authority, as many of the issues that it will deal with concern the local authority. My experience is that the local authority as landlord is often involved. We can test the sincerity of the Government's argument about local responsibility in the case of a new law centre for Huddersfield. I understand that the Department of the Environment is considering whether it should be provided with urban aid as a new project. Kirklees council, which has submitted the bid, has made it a priority. That is the local view. I hope that, at least for the experimental period, the Department will feel able to let such a bid go through. If it does not, that will show what a sham and a hypocrisy is the Government's claim that these matters should be determined locally. The Government will be saying that the Lord Chancellor should not provide central funding and that although there is local support for a scheme, it should not go ahead.
Law centres serve the very inner-city communities that are bearing the brunt of the recession. Law centres do not touch on the generality of solicitors' work but provide a service that would not be provided otherwise, except by volunteers and diligent councillors and Members of Parliament who have limited provisions for staff, most of whom are underpaid or volunteers. Their work touches on that done by other advice agencies and the trade union movement. Their resources are stretched and they spend much of their time worrying about funding and whether they will continue. Against that sorry background, we are asserting, on behalf of the Parliamentary Labour party, the case for law centres and the case for Government funding.
I should like to conclude by mentioning something that always irritates me when we have these debates at 3.30 am. When I attended the meeting to which I referred earlier, a representative of the Conservative party was present, as was a representative of the Liberal party in the form of its environment spokesman, and, quite separately, there was a representative of the Social Democratic party. They claim to be two separate parties. It has emerged that they have two, three or perhaps four policies. Always, when there is a public platform their righteous views—often their self-righteous views—will be expressed.
But whenever I am here making out a case in the early hours of the morning, as I have a duty to do on behalf of the Opposition, not a spokesman of the alliance is present. In Committee stage on Bills it is left to the Government and the Opposition to conduct debates until the early hours of the morning. Alliance Members do not show their faces. Even in the morning Committee debates they turn up, make their speeches and go away again. Then they have the nerve to suggest that they are something new in politics. They are not; they are something very old in politics—skivers. They do not turn up when they ought to.
The Solicitor-General and I are used to looking at each other across the Despatch Box in the early hours of the morning because of the workings of the Consolidation Bill procedure. I appreciate that the Solicitor-General has come here to tell us the Government's views on these matters. My only fear is that he will say that he has come here as the agent of the Lord Chancellor. I am afraid that the Lord Chancellor, as we already know, has little sympathy for the case that we have made out tonight.