Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

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Mr. Browne: I thank hon. Members for their contributions and varying degrees of support for the order. It bears repeating that, although the subject may not always be at the forefront of political debate or have a high public profile, it is nevertheless of great importance to all victims of criminal violence. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that at any time it could be one of us. It is an important matter, and the Government have a duty to ensure that we have the right statutory framework for all future victims and that we are clear in our objective to deliver a system of compensation for criminal injuries that is fit for its purpose.

I am grateful for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, who explains how a scheme based on tariffs and fit for the purpose can deliver significantly without several of the attendant anxieties that the courts bring to such determinations for vulnerable people. I have some personal experience of the sorts of claims to which he refers, and of the distress and suffering of people who suffer from terrible illnesses, which their families have to watch. We need to look beyond the established way of dealing with things to find a method that is appropriate to the demands made on us not by lawyers or politicians but by victims themselves. That is what the order is designed to do.

I am somewhat torn about the extent to which I should go into detail in responding to the points made, most of which are relevant to the debate that we shall have about the scheme. I have a short list of about seven or eight such points, but I believe that about 12 or 14 points were made that relate to the scheme. I shall endeavour to touch on them and not to transgress the appropriate rules of your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I do not want to detain Members who may have to listen to me dealing with the points in greater detail when we debate the scheme. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I say that some matters are more appropriately raised in the context of the scheme. I shall ensure that I deal with all the points that are relevant to the scheme in my introductory remarks when we debate the scheme.

I shall deal with the points made in the order that I believe to be the most appropriate. It is not intended to be the order of importance. They are equally important, and for people who will read the debate, some are of great importance.

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First, on consultation, the Law Society of Northern Ireland has been, and is entitled to be, vociferous in its complaints about the consultation that it has or has not had. It has made a significant contribution to the discussion and has been in constant communication with my officials. It was consulted throughout the process. The fact that Ministers did not consult it directly during the process and that I was not always responsible is not a reflection of the downgrading of its view. It was not the only body that was entitled to be consulted, and it had direct access to me, as the Minister, to discuss the issues.

I appreciate the society's contribution to the debate but, as I said, that does not mean that I must agree with all of it. I said robust and strong things in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee about it, and what I perceived from the report to which the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford constantly refers. I thought that the society's contribution had distorted the debate and had a disproportionate effect on the views that were put forward. However, I value its contribution and I look forward to meeting with its members about future matters.

Mr. Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: I will try to deal with these points. If I do not deal with them, the hon. Gentleman may intervene. I thought that my initial contribution would be a 20-minute speech but, because of interventions, I was on my feet for about 45 minutes.

I am grateful to the Northern Ireland Assembly for the contributions that it made to the formulation of the policy. It exercised its right, under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to consider the proposals, and made it clear that it cannot support what the Government advocate.

Within the context of devolution, a hybrid situation exists in Northern Ireland in connection with reserved matters such as this. Those who are new converts to devolution may find that unusual. However, the fact that such people have espoused the situation with such great aplomb surprises me because of the view that they took on devolution when it was discussed in the House of Commons, in not only the context of Northern Ireland, but Scotland and Wales.

Some responsibilities for Northern Ireland are described as reserved because we hope that we may devolve them at some stage. They are not exempted from the devolution package, but reserved. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that.

There is a process of consultation on the hybrid situation. I am astonished by the way in which the hon. Gentleman caricatures the constitutional position. He must understand that although there is a hybrid situation, I, as a Minister, cannot be accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is impossible, and it would be wrong for me to pretend dishonestly that I was developing an inappropriate relationship. It is not appropriate for me to appear before its Committees, and I think that the hon. Gentleman understands that.

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I told the hon. Gentleman that I go to significant lengths to ensure that the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee is provided with appropriate amounts of information, but it is inappropriate for me to be accountable to both this Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr. Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: I want to finish this point first.

Through ad hoc Committees, the Northern Ireland Assembly has the prerogative to take a position such as that adopted in relation to the order. However, evidence that the Committee produced to support its critique did not persuade me that the fundamental principle underlying the changes to the way in which compensation will be assessed constituted grounds for a radical reappraisal. That is the difference between my view and that of the ad hoc Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) suggested that if the matter were the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Executive Ministers, we would not be dealing with the order. That may or may not be the case. However, if I have my way, we will find that out when those Ministers become responsible, after further devolution. A test of that will occur. If the Northern Ireland Assembly gets the responsibility of a full role, rather than a consultative role within a situation of hybrid devolution, and Executive Ministers are fully responsible, decide the priorities for the society that they want, and choose to scrap the standard system and return to a common law system, that will test the hon. Gentleman's point. It cannot be tested any other way.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman should not resent time spent in Committee on exchanges such as this; they help us to elucidate points. He and I have the same perception of the situation. My remarks were designed to draw attention to an anomaly—one that we accept because we are in the middle of the incomplete process of devolution. For the moment, the hon. Gentleman has responsibilities, which he discharges conscientiously, and the Northern Ireland Assembly obviously has a concern about these matters. That is understandable; its electors are the victims and potential beneficiaries under the scheme. In that anomalous situation, I interpret my role as being to ask the sort of question that the directly elected representatives in the Assembly would want to have asked of the Minister in this Committee. One thing struck me about the report—my instinct is not to agree with all of it; I have pointed out several aspects in which I do not—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman must keep his interventions brief.

Mr. Browne: At least we are singing from the same hymn sheet; we shall not do so in relation to all of the matters raised by the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, I enjoy these exchanges and think that they serve a useful purpose. They have done that in the context of this order, and they will do so in future.

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I turn to an important point raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). I apologise that I did not entirely understand it at first. However, now that I have had a chance to think about it, I do. Article 7 provides for the setting up of a body to determine appeal. That follows the framework of the order that currently applies to Great Britain—the rest of the United Kingdom; the structure has been borrowed. The order sets out the outline structure and those of all the elements of the scheme, as well as the outline structure of the appeals panel. The scheme goes into more detail, as it does in relation to all aspects of the new criminal injuries compensation provisions. The purpose is to try in the scheme—which we shall debate on another occasion—to put across, in plainer English than can be used in legislative form, explanations that ordinary members of the public will be able to use.

The hon. Lady asks where the emphasis should lie in relation to a body with this type of power—should there be more in the order and less in the scheme? The balance has applied in Great Britain for about six years without any offence to the legal status of the scheme, to the constitutional position, to any other aspect of the scheme or, most importantly, to the detriment of victims. It has not undermined their rights. That aspect of the scheme has been repeated in the order because it works. We, as lawyers, might have debates about it. However, if it works and is not to the detriment of victims, it is appropriate to repeat it.

I turn to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. My immediate response was to find words to fill a silence. I could not, in my extensive notes, find the answer to his point. He asked how often the tariff would be reviewed, and whether reviews would be at fixed intervals. It will not be reviewed at fixed intervals—the frequency will depend on a number of factors, many of which are unpredictable. For example, it would be a waste of administrative time constantly to review tariffs if the order or the decisions from courts, on which the tariffs are loosely based, were not changing. We would generate a significant cost in terms of time and expectation—which would be unreasonable—and would unnecessarily debate settled issues.

The Secretary of State will be granted the power to review as and when necessary, which is exactly the same position as in Great Britain. A close weather eye is kept on what is happening about compensation, inflation and the value of money and related matters in the wider world. Decisions on compensation will allow tariffs to keep pace with reality as far as possible, but they will be made within government spending constraints, as with all decisions on spending.

Other, related decisions will have to be made, but I do not shy away from them. There is a difference in provisions to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland over those of Great Britain. Whether that differential will be retained if our expectations of Northern Ireland are fulfilled and its society becomes more normal is a matter that we shall have to debate. Opportunities for review in Northern Ireland may not occur at the same intervals as in the rest of the United Kingdom—or the outcomes may not, if the view is

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taken that the differential is no longer justified. Many factors must be taken into account.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire raised several issues, most of which he also raised in the Grand Committee and relate to the scheme. We may deal with them in greater detail later.

Understandably, he asked about the two-year cohabitation rule for non-marrieds. That is a matter for the scheme, but a judgment has to be made about when compensation should be paid in such cases. Clearly, we are not going to pay it after cohabitation of one night, or two weeks—I am being ludicrous simply to make a point. To some degree, it is an arbitrary judgment, just as every judgment that is applied across the board will be arbitrary in individual circumstances. We have simply taken a view that two years is the right point. We can debate that if the hon. Gentleman believes, owing to some experience of his own, that the judgment is unduly harsh. We might have that debate in more private circumstances, perhaps.

 
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Prepared 11 March 2002