Protests at Conservative-led Hammersmith & Fulham Council's decision to cut its grant to the Hammersmith and Fulham Community Law Centre by 60 per cent have escalated into a battle between Labour and Tory MPs and councillors.
There have also been interventions from Ed Miliband, minister for the third sector, Andrew Pelling, Conservative MP for Croydon Central, Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush, and Emily Thornberry, Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury.
The dispute began in April when the law centre discovered its local authority grant would be cut by £160,000 (Third Sector, 2 May). The centre said that Conservative councillors who served on its management committee had implied that they were not comfortable with funding an organisation that regularly sued the council.
The council denied the accusations, saying it had reviewed its funding of the voluntary sector and was offering grants to new organisations as a result.
A public meeting about the cuts was attended last week by about 500 people, who heard speeches from Slaughter, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee and Nick Seddon, author of Who Cares?, a book on charity financing. The meeting was chaired by Clive Coleman of Radio 4's Law in Action.
At the meeting, Deborah King, a barrister from the Hillingdon Law Centre, said her organisation had also had its grant cut by £50,000 by the local Conservative council. She called on local authorities to protect legal services for ordinary people.
"Legal centres are about communities providing their own services and galvanising civil society," she said.
Toynbee said the Hammersmith and Hillingdon cases were examples of the wider problems suffered by voluntary organisations and commercial firms providing legal aid. She said the legal aid reforms the Government was working on would lead to a loss of access to legal services by many vulnerable people.
Slaughter said the cuts made by Conservative councils were a form of "social engineering". He added: "The campaign against these organisations has been an overtly political one."
Speaking on behalf of the Conservative party, Hammersmith & Fulham councillor Harry Phibbs said legal charities continued to be one of the most heavily funded sectors, second only to services for children and older people. Seddon said the situation in Hammersmith & Fulham was a good example of how charities needed to diversify their sources of income.