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3 May 2006 : Column 503WH—continued

Advice/Legal Services (Hull)

4 pm

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I have a cold and hay fever, so I apologise for my voice, Mrs. Anderson.

I am pleased to have secured this debate, and I am very pleased indeed that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister will respond on behalf of the Government, as I know that she has a personal commitment to good legal advice services across the whole of the United Kingdom. Before I entered the House of Commons, I worked in a law centre for many years and in the field of social welfare law. I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend worked in a law centre in north London a few years ago, so perhaps she will be able to identify with some of the comments that I shall make about law centres.

I believe that all Members agree that access to good quality advice and legal representation when people need it is vital. I want to use my time this afternoon to say a little about the community legal service, which has been an enormous success overall and a real tribute to the Government's commitment to legal advice in this country. I also want to say something about the particular circumstances of Hull and, finally, the specific problems in respect of legal representation in Hull.

The Access to Justice Act 1999 set up the Legal Services Commission and, out of that, the community legal service, which is a flagship policy for the Labour Government. It is absolutely right that the aims and objectives of the community legal service are at the centre of the Legal Services Commission. The community legal service is the framework for a comprehensive local network of good quality legal and advice services that are supported by co-ordinated funding and based on the needs of local people. By working together, the Legal Services Commission, local authorities and other agencies and funders can make the most effective use of resources, which we all know are limited, to fund services that really meet the needs of local communities, be it through private practice solicitors, advice agencies or law centres.

The regional Legal Services Commission spent a great deal of time planning and mapping services in the different areas of the country to identify what already existed and what needed to be put in place, and I fully support the work that it did. I was still working as a lawyer in Paddington when the regional Legal Services Commission identified the needs in west London, and it was a breath of fresh air to sit down with other agencies to look at the services that were being provided and where the gaps were.

Having discussed the importance of the community legal service and recognised its potential, I want to say something about Hull, which is a city that is often overlooked. It has high levels of deprivation—it is ninth in the deprivation statistics for 354 local authority areas and districts—and there is poor health, low educational achievement and a low skill base in the general population. To add to its problems, it is geographically tucked away in a corner of east Yorkshire. It is about 60 miles to Leeds and about an hour on the train to Doncaster, so people in Hull generally want to access
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services in Hull. They do not want to have to travel for an hour or more. It is worth saying that Hull has one of the lowest car ownership rates in the country, so public transport is another key issue. Until recently, it was not as good as it could have been.

Hull is obviously a city that is ripe for good, co-ordinated advice services and representation. It has always had a good, vibrant network of voluntary and community sector advice agencies. It has an excellent citizens advice bureau, and Age Concern offers advice to older people. Mind is very active, and Choices and Rights gives advice to people with disabilities and champions getting rid of barriers that they encounter.

For 15 years, Hull also had the Humberside law centre. Unfortunately, it closed just before I became a Member of Parliament, but I know about it from its reputation when I worked in law centres. I remember reading about a solicitor called Humphrey Forrest, which I thought was a striking name, who worked at the Humberside law centre. He took a case in the 1990s for trawlermen who were put out of work but received no compensation when the fishing industry in Hull collapsed. Normally, if a business collapses, people are entitled to redundancy and various other payments, but those people had received nothing. Humphrey took the case for a large group of trawlermen in Hull and succeeded in making legal history by getting redundancy payments for them. Humberside law centre had a good reputation in employment law.

The centre also offered free advice and representation for disadvantaged groups in the city. It provided immigration advice and representation at tribunals, and, as I mentioned, advice on employment issues and representation at employment tribunals. Finally, it offered specialist telephone advice to agencies in Hull that dealt with people on a day-to-day basis. If they were not quite sure about the legal ramifications of someone's problem, they could contact the law centre. Overall, Humberside law centre performed a worthwhile function in the city.

The centre was called Humberside law centre, not Hull law centre. It was funded by Hull city council, which has always taken a progressive approach to legal services and recognised the need to invest in advice services to get around some of the problems of social exclusion. The centre was also funded by North East Lincolnshire council, North Lincolnshire council and the East Riding of Yorkshire council. For whatever reason, the three country councils decided to withdraw funding. That left only the money from Hull city council, which was not enough to sustain the law centre. Unfortunately, it closed in 2005, and the city lost experts in social welfare law.

I mentioned Humphrey's landmark case, but the law centre also had a reputation for dealing with disability discrimination cases. One case struck me, as a dog lover, as important. A woman in Hull who was hearing-impaired had a hearing dog. She was turned away from restaurants and cafes when she took her dog with her. Most restaurants and cafes now would recognise a guide dog and allow it to enter, but a hearing dog was a new thing then, and people were not aware of or did not understand the services that it provided to the owner. The law centre was able to help that person achieve recognition of the disability rights of hearing-impaired people in that city.
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I became an MP in 2005, and, because I had an interest in advice services I spoke to many groups in Hull who were offering advice to my constituents. At the basic level—I believe it is called level 1—the general signposting and advice services that are available in the city are good, but many organisations told me that there were few places in the city to refer constituents who had more complicated legal problems or complex issues on which they needed advice. I want to comment on a few of the areas where there are problems.

The first area, as I believe many MPs will recognise, is immigration advice. At present there are no solicitors offering immigration advice in Hull, so constituents who want advice have to go to Doncaster, or sometimes London or Leeds. I understand that the Legal Services Commission has now entered into a contract with a firm of solicitors in Doncaster, but as I said at the outset, Doncaster is 60 miles away. I have been told that people often do not receive their travel expenses when they travel to Doncaster. Often, those people do not have a penny to their name. There may be some confusion around solicitors and disbursements. I understand that money is available to allow clients to travel to obtain advice, but my constituents are not receiving that advice or having their travel expenses repaid.

We have an excellent project in Hull—the Leo Schultz project—but it cannot provide the legal representation work that is so badly needed. Its funding is under pressure because it receives funding from the Big Lottery Fund and the council, but the funding from the Big Lottery Fund depends on council funding, which is guaranteed only to November. So potentially, Hull is in a real mess with immigration advice and I think we all know that decent, good immigration advice for asylum seekers and overstayers is vital to the health of the local community; so immigration is a real problem.

Employment is the other issue that I want to focus on. Only one private firm of solicitors in the community legal service directory in Hull offers employment advice and assistance at tribunals. That firm, Myer Wolff and Manley, said that it was exceptionally busy and might take on race, sex and disability discrimination cases if it had a solicitor available, but there is no other provision through the community legal service or any other advice body. The only other place where advice can be obtained is the citizens advice bureau. When the law centre closed, money was put aside for the citizens advice bureau to develop expertise in representation, but to date that has not happened.

Immigration and employment representation are two key areas that have been identified in the community legal service plan as priority areas in Hull, but at the moment they are not at the level they should be. On employment particularly, the Government have introduced a great deal of new legislation to give employees rights in the workplace and we need to ensure that those employees can enforce those rights when they need to.

No advice on community care is available in the city at the moment. Age Concern flagged that up to me as a matter of concern, especially for older people with mental health problems.
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Education law is a Cinderella service. There are not many practitioners in education law but parents, particularly those with disabled children, often want good legal advice on the special educational needs options open to them and on what their children can expect.

The situation with housing is better. We have the independent housing advice centre in Hull, which is excellent and offers representation work. However, again, it tells me that it misses the law centre and the back-up that it could have provided.

In 2000, the Consumers Association said that in terms of who provides quality advice—local and specialist community advice services—law centres were considered the best. I know that Humberside law centre, despite having funding problems, as most law centres do at some stage, was quality assured. It had specialists in social welfare law. It also operated a second-tier referral approach to agencies, providing them with access to specialist help. It operated training courses for groups and organisations in the city and, importantly, it operated an educational policy to try to encourage and educate people about their rights.

I wanted to have this debate today because I feel that we are missing a trick on representation work. I know that the community legal service has recently identified a strategy called "making legal rights a reality" and I believe that it is looking at community legal advice centres in urban areas which will have match funding with local authorities. I welcome that because it may be a positive way forward. However, we had a very good law centre in Hull for many years and I believe that we need something similar to carry on the work that it started and to allow my constituents to have the level of legal advice and representation that they deserve. Just because they are tucked away in a far corner of east Yorkshire does not mean that they should not have the best legal advice and legal representation that they can get. The lawyers who devote their careers to law centre work can provide that very special, holistic approach to dealing with some of the most disadvantaged people in our society and ensuring that they are able to enforce their legal rights. Sometimes they do not even know that they have a legal remedy. That is why I wanted this debate today.

4.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) for choosing this subject for debate today and for bringing the far corners of the city of Hull and the needs and interests of its constituents to us here in the House of Commons. She has been a breath of fresh air for her constituency and the House since her election. I have had the opportunity of being on a Standing Committee with her. It is nothing but good news that Hull has her as a Member of Parliament to bring to us and to life the issues of concern to her constituents, as she has done today.

We all readily recognise a number of the things she said, particularly that there is something to be said for a law centre being based in and part of a community so that it can look around for the issues and understand the community to which it is trying to provide legal services.
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Humphrey Forest identified the general problem of redundancy among people who had been working in the fishing industry and sought a legal remedy for them when they might not have thought that they had any legal rights. That is telling and thought-provoking.

I agree that it is unfortunate that the law centre was closed. Sometimes, adding together the individual bits of advice given, enumerating the number of cases taken on and looking at the categories they are in does not explain the whole story, and my hon. Friend has told the whole story today. I will ensure that the Legal Services Commission considers her points and responds to them fully.

My hon. Friend is right in saying that we have brought in new rights, such as the right to a minimum wage—I expect that that is important in her constituency—the right for people to request flexible working hours if they have young children, and rights for people with disabilities. However, as she said, if those rights cannot be enforced, they are worthless. They may make us feel good because we introduced them in legislation, but if they are not translated into reality they are meaningless. Her point about ensuring that her constituents, who perhaps need representation but cannot afford to pay for it or who, without an educational approach, may not realise that they have those rights, is important. I want to pass on, through her, my recognition and acknowledgement of the important work done by the community organisations that she mentioned, such as the citizens advice bureau among others.

We in the Department for Constitutional Affairs are committed to ensuring that high-quality legal advice services are available to those who need them but cannot afford them. Those services must be readily accessible at local level.

My hon. Friend made a point about the immigration contract being given to a firm of solicitors in Doncaster, which is 60 miles from Hull and might as well be at the other end of the country for those who do not have a car, if the disbursement policy is not properly applied. I shall ensure that the disbursement issue is looked into; otherwise, the service might as well not be there. I will get the Legal Services Commission to look into the accessibility of the immigration contract and its local impact and to report back to me. I will then write to my hon. Friend.

I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend's comments that, as the service is 60 miles away, it must be better than good in its outreach because it is not in the community. It can respond but it cannot proact. The question is how those outside services are embedded in local community organisations. I know that they work with the Leo Schultz project, which she mentioned. She also mentioned concerns about its sustainability. The organisations also work with the CAB. The question is how embedded and localised services are. I will look into that and get back to her.

The Legal Services Commission has made considerable efforts to alleviate the effect of the closure of the law centre in 2005. Since then, it has let new contracts to cover the categories of law with which the law centre previously dealt. The point about a law centre is that it does not have to go for a contract; it just does the job as it is needed. That work is broader than
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contracts. However, the contracts that have been let include those on debt, welfare benefits and immigration, which I have mentioned.

As a result of issuing new contracts to legal services providers such as Hull CAB, the number of acts of assistance to people seeking legal advice has increased by about 10 per cent. Despite the fact that the law centre is no longer there, the number of items of advice has increased. New matter starts for specialist legal advice have increased by about 10 per cent., which equates to about 4,500 new cases starting in 2005–06, compared with 4,000 in the previous year. Owing to the allocation of a new contract to Hull CAB in respect of debt, the number of matters dealt with in that category has increased significantly, from just three in 2004–05 to 119 in 2005–06. Early this year, a new immigration contract was let, and 70 cases have been taken on in Hull, but I will examine how those cases were dealt with and where they come from, and we will address those points.

Legal Services Commission initiatives such as the housing possession court duty scheme and Community Legal Service Direct have continued to play a role in ensuring that my hon. Friend's constituents have access to the advice that they need. I recognise her point about the housing advice centre. Between April and December, about 200 people from Hull contacted CLS Direct for help with such matters as debt, employment and welfare benefits. Hull's housing possession court duty scheme helped about 40 people a month during 2005–06. In many instances, that advice helped to prevent people from losing their home.

The Legal Services Commission and the Department for Constitutional Affairs are committed to ensuring that there is adequate provision of good legal and advice services and legal aid in Hull, and that those services are accessible to my hon. Friend's constituents. Through the recently published community legal service strategy, the commission will aim to deliver a service resolutely focused on the needs of her constituents. Services will be developed and located in accordance with local need. Priorities will be agreed locally, with the aim of targeting those who are most in need, who are often the hardest to reach. That will be the thrust of the idea of community legal advice centres and networks.

Over the next few months, the Legal Services Commission will work with the relevant local authorities and with my hon. Friend in establishing the way forward for Hull. She obviously has considerable expertise in these matters, as well as a commitment to her constituents, so I will ensure that the commission draws on her involvement with local people. She will see problems coming before they occur and, on the basis of the expertise that she has developed, given her background of working in law centres and in the advice services movement generally, she will be able to help the commission to shape services.

I am well aware that there have been concerns about provision of social welfare advice in Hull. However, the Legal Services Commission is trying to take a responsible and effective approach in addressing those concerns and it hopes that, despite the closure of Humberside law centre, it has made real progress in ensuring that the supply is able to meet demand. With the measures set out in the community legal service strategy, the Legal Services Commission will continue to work with everyone locally to try to improve the
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situation and to focus resources on delivering advice in a way that works through and with local organisations for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in my hon. Friend's community.

My hon. Friend raised a number of points. We are not happy about a situation in which people have rights but there is unmet need, and we certainly do not want things to slip backwards rather than going forward. Therefore, we will work with her to ensure that the Legal Services Commission works with her and the local authorities so that her constituents have access to high-quality legal advice and assistance.

4.25 pm

Sitting suspended.

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