Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

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Mr. Browne: In relation to his earlier exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), the hon. Gentleman will know that this is a reserved matter. The way to achieve proper consideration is to devolve the issue, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will argue for the devolution of this and other matters to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about giving information to the Committee, he will know from reading the report why it was inappropriate constitutionally for me to appear before the Committee. We have no objection to sending officials to appear before the Committee. Indeed, they did so, and answered the questions that the Committee asked.

Mr. Davies: Of course I accept both those points. The Conservative party is very much in favour of devolution and of moving forward with the devolution agenda. We hope that, at least after the next election, there will be a new raft of devolved powers. Law and order will be devolved to Northern Ireland institutions and we are all looking forward to that. I agree entirely with the Minister's logic.

The Minister and I differ on the question of whether sending officials to a democratic assembly is a fair substitute for ministerial accountability. There is a qualitative difference between sending officials and sending a Minister. The Minister is responsible for policy on the matter whereas officials can only explain or attempt to justify policy decisions made by the Minister. Although sending officials is better than nothing, it is an anomaly that the Minister cannot answer directly to the Assembly. In a sense, I have been asking questions as a proxy for the Committee.

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The Minister dealt with my allegation that the order was a cost-cutting exercise. He denied that entirely, and that is on the record, so anyone who wishes to contest the Government's position will now know exactly what they are contesting. The Minister took the initiative in denying my other allegation: that, in the view of the Assembly Committee, the provision that an appeal in a compensation case will no longer be to the county court but to a tribunal was incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. The Minister has obviously received legal advice that it is compatible with the Human Rights Act, but at least the positions have been clarified.

I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to one or two other important comments made by the Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly. One, with which I have some sympathy, is the suggestion that it is unfair to exclude the first 28 weeks of unemployment from compensation. For anyone to lose earnings for six months—unless they are extremely rich—is a serious matter, and it is not clear to me why the first 28 weeks are excluded. I see that the Minister is turning around to his advisers and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, and I can probably give him the reference to the relevant part of the report—at least I shall be able to find the passage if the Minister challenges me to do so. It is in paragraph 82, on page 22 of the report by the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee.

Another of the criticisms made by the Committee, with which I have some sympathy, concerns the Government's proposal that in determining an award the Secretary of State should have regard to any payments made in respect of private health care, or received from private health insurance. It seems bizarre, indeed perverse, to discourage people from taking out private health insurance to provide for the hazards of life, and to tell them that if they do so they will lose the money because it will be offset against any claim under the compensation scheme. I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with that criticism and the others I have mentioned. This is a good opportunity for the Minister to comment directly, rather than through officials or otherwise, and to do so publicly.

There are one or two proposals by the Committee that I sympathise with less—I do not suggest that we should buy them all. I am broadly sympathetic to the Government's desire to reduce legal and bureaucratic costs, although I of course understand why the Law Society and other solicitors' bodies are, to put it mildly, in two minds about the proposal. We should all approve of public money being used first and foremost in a compensation scheme to pay compensation rather than to cover costs. I also have difficulty with the Assembly's suggestion that there should be discrimination on grounds of sex and age between compensation awards for exactly the same type of injury.

Last week I met representatives of several victims' organisations, relating particularly to Omagh and Eniskillen, and I was quite shocked at the number of victims from Omagh who still have outstanding compensation claims. After all, the atrocity was three

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and a half years ago. This is not the time or place to mention individual cases, and of course I cannot give a comprehensive quantitative analysis of the position, because I did not meet every victim. However, I was struck by the fact that many claims were outstanding, and I wonder whether the Minister can tell us, or write to me with, the exact numbers of unsettled claims from that period.

I was much relieved to hear from the Minister that Parliament will have a separate opportunity to examine the scheme as opposed to the order under which it is made. I am particularly grateful for that because otherwise the Henry VIII aspect of the order would make the whole exercise meaningless. Article 2 of the order, with its definitions, struck me greatly. Obviously, the whole order—whether a person can obtain money—turns on what a criminal injury is. A circular argument is involved. The article states that

    '''criminal injury', 'loss of earnings' and 'special expenses' have such meaning as may be specified''.

We are being asked to approve an order that provides for a scheme for criminal injury compensation, without being given the definition of criminal injury. That is hopelessly inadequate, unless we are to have a subsequent opportunity for debate. The Opposition look forward to that.

5.29 pm

Lembit Öpik: I, too, Mr. Atkinson, welcome your steady and sage guidance. It ensures at least an effective debate, although you sadly do not have the power to predict whether, under a Liberal Democrat Government, there would be less debate about procedure.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): You may not have the power to predict that, Mr. Atkinson, but I do—and there would not.

Lembit Öpik: That was very hurtful but, in the Liberal spirit, I find it possible to forgive the hon. Gentleman. He knows not what he said.

I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). To my great delight, he committed himself at least to the devolution project. That astounds, me but it is exceptionally good news, and I hope that it filters through to his representative, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who has yet to discover the benefits of devolution in Wales. Of course, it may be a veiled application to join the Liberal Democrats

Mr. Skinner: Is he in favour of the euro as well?

Lembit Öpik: I had better not talk about the euro, Mr. Atkinson, or I might get into trouble.

Our debate is about an attempt to codify compensation for people who have already suffered. By the time that the contents of the order and the scheme kick in, the damage and the suffering will already have taken place. We must remember the human consequences of the trouble for which compensation may be offered, and the fact that they cannot ever be fully compensated for by a financial payment. Although we may discuss the matter

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objectively, the true measure of success will be whether the victims feel that they have been treated justly.

In that context, it seems reasonable that the Government should seek to create a more objective code of compensation. That is at the heart of some of the criticisms. The Assembly Committee said that it would be opposed to the introduction of a tariff scheme. Without such a scheme, however, the changes would be tactical rather than wholesale. One must make a judgment on whether one agrees with the Committee or with the Government.

As I said in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee on 13 December, it seems appropriate on balance that the Government should at least try to create a tariff scheme. If the Government can simplify the scheme for those victims, and take away some of the administrative pressure and the hassle of having to drag through a long process, it must be a good idea. It must be a sensible approach. For that reason, I am more persuaded by the Government than I am by those who say that the tariff scheme would not be appropriate for Northern Ireland. We have to make that judgment, and I respect others who hold a different view.

There was a slight contradiction in what the Minister said. If the matter had already been devolved, the Committee would presumably have had great sway in getting its proposals put forward. However, I am not convinced that the tariff scheme would have received the support of the Assembly if the matter had been devolved. That is a matter for another debate, but illustrates the fact that if we are serious about devolution, we must acknowledge that the decisions that we make here may sometimes be slightly different from those that might be made in Stormont.

The second key issue is whether the courts or Victim Support Northern Ireland should be allowed to assess appeals. Just as I am persuaded of the benefits of seeing whether we can make a tariff scheme work, so I am of the view that victims by and large may feel as comfortable or more comfortable working with an organisation whose raison d'etre is to support victims. Add to that the simplification of the process for victims, and I think it is worth trying it out to see whether it works. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford made some valid points, especially in his interventions, and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) also queried it in the Grand Committee. On balance, and to return to the principle that I outlined at the start, we need to see how the clients of the process feel once it has been implemented.

It is important that there is a review so that clients who have been through the process can say whether they found the system helpful. It would be straightforward to make a comparison between those who have used Victim Support Northern Ireland rather than the legal system. We could then decide which is the most effective. If the scheme is a runaway success, it could signal changes for the rest of the United Kingdom.

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In the Grand Committee, I voiced a concern the about the two-year condition on same sex-partnerships and cohabitation. The compensation scheme kicks in if one is married to a victim, but it does not kick in if partners have cohabited, or been a same-sex couple, for less than two years.

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