Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

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Mr. Turner: As the hon. Gentleman is criticising what he sees as a defect in the scheme, at what point does he think that one should recognise such partnerships?

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman jumped the gun. I was going to stop short of criticising the Minister simply on the grounds of a difference of opinion. The implication of the order is that a greater status is ascribed to formal marriage than to cohabitation. My main concern is not that that distinction is made. That should be debated at another time, and I do not intend to go into detail here. Same-sex relationships cannot be recognised under current British law, and under the order they are, in effect, discriminated against in the operation of the compensation scheme. I would be grateful for any comment that the Minister may be inclined to give, and for an acknowledgement that the issue needs to be handled in a wider debate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman at least understands my view, even if, to judge by his rather sombre demeanour, he may not agree.

Mr. Turner: I apologise for looking sombre. I can do nothing about my face.

The problem is that the hon. Gentleman has set a hare running and seems to have no particular view about what should happen to it.

Lembit Öpik: I am beginning to think about the debate on 18 March. Many hares, foxes and other animals will be running around, and I expect to continue an animal-based debate then.

If I were in the Minister's place, I would seek to ensure that same-sex couples were legally recognised just as heterosexual couples can be recognised by marriage. That is why I am cautious about going down that track, because the matter should be debated in another place. I simply ask the Minister for a brief comment without going into a long debate about how we treat same-sex couples.

The Chairman: Order. I remind the Committee that we are discussing an order and not the wider issues.

Mr. Skinner: The hon. Gentleman has already started taking drugs.

Lembit Öpik: Tempted though I may be to respond to the hon. Gentleman, I will return to the specific detail of the order. However, I hope that I was in order, Mr. Atkinson, so that I can seek a brief response from the Minister to my point. I will continue the debate in the Strangers Bar with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner).

I voiced another concern in the Grand Committee—that the order explicitly provides the potential for discrimination on the basis of character in the implementation of the compensation scheme, and thus may violate sections 6 and 7 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Since that has not changed, the Minister clearly still does not believe that that is an

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issue. I now understand what the Government are trying to do. I simply want to put down a marker that we must be careful that the scheme is not open to legal challenge on the basis of human rights. The order has been directly designed to improve the human rights of victims, so it would be rather contradictory if it resulted in such a challenge.

The hon. Member for Stafford made an interesting intervention. As I understand it, his question is answered by the order itself. Article 4(6)(a) to (d) gives the Secretary of State pretty much unlimited powers to raise or reduce the compensation. I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Kidney: My question was about when the provision may be altered, rather than how.

Lembit Öpik: As I am still smarting from an occasion when I tried to help the Minister on an amendment and he pulled the rug from under me and supported the Tories, and as my offer of advice was free, I shall leave the Minister, on his much higher salary, to finish dealing with this point. Article 4(6) says that the Secretary of State may ''at any time'' alter the provision, but I shall not do the Minister's work for him because he will probably contradict me as soon as I finish speaking.

The next step is implementation of the scheme. The arrangements could work extremely well, but there is a danger that the scheme will not be satisfactory with regard to using the courts instead of the Victim Support Northern Ireland scheme. On balance, however, the Minister is right to try this approach. Will he ensure that there is ongoing monitoring of how the scheme is implemented? If, after one or two years, the scheme does not seem to be working as well as we all hope, will there be an explicit and formal opportunity for us to modify it to make it more effective? I am sure that the order will improve matters; the challenge is to ensure that we do not harm people in the process. If there is to be a review process, it would be helpful for the Minister to assure us that if, despite the best will in the world, injustices result from the way in which the scheme has been designed, there could be retrospective payments for those who have suffered those injustices.

5.42 pm

Mr. Skinner: Many years ago, we faced the prospect of having to take cases of pneumoconiosis involving miners to common law. We knew that if there was a typical common law series of cases, 100,000 or more miners could theoretically go to court, but we tried to avoid that by introducing a tariff system in 1976.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): It was 1974.

Mr. Skinner: My hon. Friend was working on this issue with regard to the Yorkshire coalfield at the time and knows all about it.

We knew that we could be trying to settle the miners' cases for many years and that lawyers would take a large slice of money out of the scheme, so we begged and prayed for the cases to be settled out of court. The Labour Government therefore introduced a tariff, which culminated, I think, in the 1976

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settlement, and from time to time, people such as my hon. Friend and others ensure that we have a review. In fact, we have just been talking about having another review as soon as possible.

All I will say on the scheme that we are debating is that it will not be perfect. Ours was not, but it was a sight better than staring down the barrel of 100,000 miners going to court, with all the legal consequences.

The question of cost-cutting has been raised. It is conceivable—I have no proof, but I mention this in passing—that the costs of the middle man or woman will be cut. If the tariff scheme takes large legal expenses out of the equation, it will be utterly beneficial. The scheme that we tried was not exactly like this one, but it has worked in about 90 per cent. of cases; there have been few appeals. It was a broadband settlement, and people with pneumoconiosis were paid at 10, 20, 30 per cent., as laid down by the Government in consultation with the industry. By and large, that is how it worked. If only the chronic bronchitis and emphysema cases had been dealt with in the same way and had not gone to court, where the Welsh nationalists took them, we might have settled those cases as well. This scheme is a possibility not only for Northern Ireland, but if it is as successful as the one that we had in the 1970s, there is half a chance that we might cut out the middle man in many other cases and similar situations. That will be beneficial.

Mr. Francois: The hon. Gentleman is obviously speaking about something that is close to his heart and of which he has experience. We discussed earlier how frequently the tariffs might be reviewed; will he explain how often the scheme he mentioned tended to be reviewed?

Mr. Skinner: I asked my hon. Friend the Minister about reviews, and it is odd. They have always been uprated and index linked from time to time, but we are asking for a review of the pneumoconiosis scheme to bring it up to date. All I would say is that in about 90 per cent. of the cases, people have been totally satisfied with the scheme. There were initial problems, and the lawyers screamed to high heavens because they were not involved to the same extent as they otherwise would have been. However, the truth is that many people who have claimed for chronic bronchitis and emphysema would give their right arm to be part of a similar scheme and not see the money go where the hon. Gentleman knows that it is going.

Mr. Francois: If I understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, he said that the payments were index linked and there was a review every few years on top of that. Is that right?

Mr. Skinner: No, I said that from time to time, they have been index linked.

Mr. Francois: I thank the hon. Gentleman, but that is not the same thing.

Mr. Skinner: What the hon. Gentleman must understand is that in 1976, when the scheme was settled, every miner who had pneumoconiosis got the money, on a sliding scale of 10 per cent. or whatever

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was attributed to that kind of settlement. Once they received it, that was the end of it. My point about index-linking concerns the applicants who came to the scheme many years later, but the massive bulk was settled in one fell swoop.

5.48 pm

Lady Hermon: It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolsover.

Mr. Skinner: Is it?

Lady Hermon: Yes it is, or I would not have said so.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I believe that the order has much to commend it. First, it is a pleasure to see that it retains the words ''the Secretary of State'' and does not at every drop of a hat substitute the words ''the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acting jointly''.

The Minister kindly addressed some of my earlier points. I apologise for interrupting him so often, but it is helpful to form the debate as we go along because points are sometimes missed later on.

5.48 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.3 pm

On resuming—

Lady Hermon: Perhaps I should speak quickly, Mr. Atkinson, before another Division is announced in the Chamber.

I welcome the good innovative measures under the order. Victim Support Northern Ireland has been the subject of unfortunate criticism by other organisations for not having trained lawyers, but I am pleased that the Government have committed a substantial sum that will not come out of the fund for victims to be invested in the training of the victim support volunteers.

Bereavement awards have not been mentioned today, but I am pleased that they will be replaced by bereavement support payments. A commitment has been made in relation to those who have suffered sexual abuse as children. Unusually, one provision of the scheme will have a retroactive effect to cover those who were abused, but who are currently out of time under the current legislation. It is important to highlight those good points.

The Minister should examine again the issue of consultation. During a recent sitting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, the Minister made a point of stating that hon. Members should understand that the current debate was part of the consultation process. That is important. The Northern Ireland Assembly had an ad hoc Committee of 11 members who were representative of all shades of opinion. It is extremely unusual for all shades of opinion in the Assembly to be unanimous about something, but they were unanimous in opposing this draft order. Members of the Assembly feel that little heed has been paid to their views, and they are concerned about that.

The Law Society felt angry that it had not been consulted at an earlier occasion. The Minister

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responded to an intervention by referring to some of his consultations with the society.

Some people feel that consultation has not been particularly effective, and that nothing that they said was taken on board. It would be helpful to those who will read the records of the Committee's proceedings if the Minister were to assure people that consultation is a worthwhile exercise. That is especially important with regard to people in the Assembly Committee and the Law Society: although they might not see the fruits of their labours reflected in the order, I wish the Minister to state for their benefit that consultation is not a pointless exercise. That is a great concern to them. I spoke with an Assembly Member before I came to the Committee, and that subject was raised during our conversation.

My next point also merits consideration, even at this late stage. There is flexibility to add to tariffs, and to increase tariffs under a review at a set period, and it is right that that is the case. However, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeals Panel for Northern Ireland—to give its short title, it is neatly called the panel—is an important body that has considerable powers when considering appeals against decisions taken on review by the Secretary of State. I know that that comes within the scheme, and I am concerned that a body as powerful as this panel is not even mentioned in the order—apart from a reference in article 7 that states that the Secretary of State will have power to appoint adjudicators.

The definition section in article 2 of the order includes definitions such as that

    '' 'the Board' means the Commissioners of Inland Revenue''.

However, that body is only mentioned once, and therefore it would have been worth while to have included ''the panel'' in the definition section in the order, particularly as the only reference to it in the scheme is a statement that there will be no appeal from decisions of the panel. That should have appeared in the order. I am aware that it is late in the day to state that, but it has greatly concerned me, and I wish the Minister to address that point when he replies.

I turn to a different concern. We have heard suggestions that this is a cost-cutting exercise. The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) attended the sitting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee of 13 December. He asked the Minister

    ''how much the Government estimate that they will save as a result of its introduction?''

The Minister replied:

    ''I shall try to obtain that information during our deliberations.''—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Grand Committee, 13 December 2001; c. 17.]

I do not know whether he has written to the hon. Gentleman about that. As the Committee has expressed concern that this might be a cost-cutting exercise, it may be helpful to have on record an estimate of what, if anything, the Government believe that they will save on the introduction of the scheme.

It is a debate for another day, but although I welcome much in the order, I believe that it will be incumbent on the Government to explain to the public

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of Northern Ireland, that, for example, the death of a spouse or partner will merit compensation of £12,000, as will the loss of a ''great toe''—rather than a big toe. Some widows and widowers may be distressed to find that their loved one seems to be the equivalent of a great toe. How do the awards compare with those for Great Britain? Before the scheme proceeds much further—I suspect that it will be approved—there should be a publicity campaign so that people are not suddenly hit by the awards and, therefore, distressed and upset by them. It would be helpful if some publicity could be given in advance of the scheme coming on stream. If the Minister answers all those points, I shall be delighted to support the order.

6.11 pm

 
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