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Law Centres

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:43 am on 13th March 1986.

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Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Tunbridge Wells 3:43 am, 13th March 1986

I, too, join in expressing my appreciation of the value of the service rendered by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) in giving us this opportunity to discuss the standing, future and funding of law centres.

I share a certain amount of sympathy, too, for what has been said about the so-called alliance parties by the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), who is the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary neighbour in the north-east. I can contribute an illustration of the propensity to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred from a Committee in which I took part recently. A representative of the SDP-Liberal alliance declared his opinion that the amendment under discussion had not been made out in argument, whereupon he voted for it. Engagingly, he declared himself to be in two minds and rather split, a difficulty which he was frank enough to describe as not unfamiliar to him and his colleagues.

I listened with care to what the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge said about the two law centres in his constituency. I have particulars of the funding that each of them has received. Benwell law centre has received a grant of £65,000, which expires in 1986. The Gateshead law centre received a grant of £59,000. As the hon. Gentleman said, the arrangements for that funding expire in 1987. I was very glad to hear that Newcastle city council has taken over the funding of the Benwell centre. I say that because I take the view that law centres are, to use the words of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East very largely a good thing, for the reasons expressed tonight, especially those put forward by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland), in whose constituency I lived before he took responsibility for it.

I well understand some of the problems that come the way of law centres in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. In the main, law centres deal valuably with those problems. That is my position, and I believe that it is the attitude of the entire Government.

The Government must take into account the second of the issues which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East identified: who should be responsible for the funding? There is no conflict between the views that I have just expressed and the view that has been taken consistently by the Government and their predecessors that, with the exception of seven law centres which the previous Lord Chancellor made a commitment to fund, law centres should be funded from local sources. The most obvious source is the local authority. It is the most obvious, but it is not the only one available. In a recent debate in another place, a persuasive case was made for the practicability and desirability of law centres looking elsewhere in their communities—perhaps to local businesses—for their funding.

My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, for whom I must appear as agent or spokesman, has consistently taken that view. It may be helpful if I explained a little about it. The Government's policy, which has been made abundantly clear, is that the appropriate source of funds is a local one.

It is interesting that the first law centre was established only in 1970. About 59 of them have been established piecemeal in response to perceived local needs, and they have obtained their funds from a variety of public and charitable sources. It is right that several reports from the Royal Commission on Legal Services and the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Aid have recommended that law centres should become an integral part of the provision by central Government of legal services to the public, that there should be a considerable expansion in their number, and that they should receive central Government support through the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The Government do not dispute the usefulness of law centres in some areas, as shown in those reports, and most recently in the report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's commission on urban priority areas. However, the Government do not accept that law centres are agencies for which central Government should assume direct and general responsibility. In the White Paper, "The Government Response to the Report of the Royal Commission on Legal Services", the Government said: The needs of the public for legal assistance are most appropriately met by lawyers acting in private practice supplemented, where this suits local circumstances, by law centres. The White Paper also said that the Government did not believe that a sufficient case had been made for direct ministerial responsibility for the availability of legal services in any area.

I note the point made by the hon. Member for Vauxhall in his illustration of the difficult school case. He said that, in such a case, someone could not go to a solicitor and expect a similar investigation. I understand that point. But there is a wide range of local advisory services, including the citizens advice bureaux, which the Royal Commission saw as the front-line provider of such services. If I remember correctly—and I believe that I am right—there still exists in Lambeth the Stockwell "good neighbour" scheme. I would be surprised if there were not others of a similar character in other districts of the hon. Member's constituency, which attract people of good will and expertise, and which would be able to help in the kind of case that he mentioned, without a law centre having to be available.