Draft Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2002

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Lady Hermon: I am grateful for the Minister's patience in giving way to me again, as this is the last opportunity to consider the scheme. In the light of his remarks, will he clarify whether all criminal convictions will be treated in the same way, in the interests of ''openness and transparency''? As he knows, there is an alternative in paragraph 14, if

    ''the applicant's character as shown by his criminal convictions . . . or by evidence available to the Secretary of State makes it inappropriate that a full award or any award at all be made.''

Does that mean that the openness and transparency will also extend to the evidence available to the Secretary of State, or will it be kept under wraps?

Mr. Browne: I believe that I can reassure the hon. Lady. I am grateful to her for her interventions, and to other members of the Committee for their indulgence. As the hon. Lady pointed out, these are important issues that would be debated at some length on the Floor of the House. If there is evidence to invoke that provision, it will be subject to disclosure to the applicant and the appeals panel in an appeal. The principle of openness and fairness will therefore be contingent. It is appropriate that such information should be brought to the attention of the applicant. It is also appropriate that such information, if it exists, should affect the calculation.

For others, the new criteria will continue to bite for serious crimes that were committed more recently. A victim would be denied compensation if he or she had had a conviction for a violent offence in 1993 resulting in a sentence of 10 years. An award would be reduced by 75 per cent. of its full value for a victim who had had a conviction in 1980 resulting in a sentence of 18 years. That seems to be a fair and sensible way to deal with claims from victims who may have caused others to be victims in the past.

The final significant change concerns the review and appeal process. What we have adopted for the new scheme reflects arrangements in Great Britain. Applicants can ask for initial decisions of the Compensation Agency to be reviewed, and if that does not lead to agreement, there is a right of appeal under the scheme, as specified in the order, to a body of adjudicators. The scheme establishes that body as the Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeals Panel for Northern Ireland. It will be a tribunal, a non-departmental public body. The chairman will be a senior legal practitioner and the members will be drawn from different professional backgrounds, including the law and medicine.

Those arrangements will replace the current right of appeal to the courts. In that sense, we are asking victims in Northern Ireland to take a bigger step than was asked of their counterparts in Great Britain. There was never a right of appeal to the courts here, so the change was from one quasi-judicial body to another. I appreciate and understand the nervousness

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surrounding the change in Northern Ireland, particularly when it is accompanied by the removal from the scheme of the payment of legal costs in successful cases, but I firmly believe that the new arrangements will not only offer victims a dedicated appeals service and quicker resolutions, but will do so in such a manner as significantly to reduce the trauma experienced by many in undergoing the current court-based appeal. Sir Kenneth Bloomfield's team identified that as a major concern among victims. The panel's objective will be to determine appeals as quickly as possible and in an informal manner that is not available in a court-directed process.

To respond to concerns about progressing a claim, particularly to appeal, without legal costs being met under the scheme, the order provides that a body should be designated to assist, advise and support persons seeking compensation. I have asked Victim Support Northern Ireland to take on that role, and it has accepted. That organisation is ideally placed to fulfil the role, as its counterparts do in Great Britain.

Victim Support Northern Ireland has embarked on an intensive training programme for volunteers in order to ensure that those involved with applicants for compensation are fully aware of the service to be provided. Specialist advice workers have also been appointed and provided with intensive training to deal with victims of crime who have suffered personal injury.

The Government will, of course, provide financial resources for that role to be carried out, and proper accounting and monitoring measures will be put in place, including a service delivery agreement. I am aware that additional assistance may be required in a small number of very complex cases to progress a claim. In those cases, it is open to the applicant to use alternative sources of advice, legal or otherwise, but as in Great Britain, such costs will not be funded by the proposed scheme.

I have provided Committee members with a comprehensive account of the provisions of the new compensation scheme, and I hope that it has done justice to the statutory scheme that we are considering. However, a compensation scheme is not only about assessment of quantum: it is part of the whole healing process and as such must have a wider objective. The scheme must pay due regard to matters such as who is eligible to receive compensation and the process that determines the eventual award. Both factors weigh heavily in contributing to the speed of the victim's recovery. The new scheme makes significant improvements to the eligibility criteria and greatly simplifies and hastens the process whereby compensation is awarded.

However, it would be naive to underwrite a scheme that has not yet been tested, so I am committing the new process to close monitoring and a review of its effectiveness for the introductory period. I shall seek a report on the scheme's operation quarterly. If problems are identified, I will be responsible for ensuring that they are rectified.

I hope that the Committee is persuaded that the changes are genuinely in the interests of victims in

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Northern Ireland, as I have tried to show. If that is the case in both Houses, the way will be clear to begin advance publicity later this week, before the scheme is implemented on 1 May.

5.18 pm

Mr. Blunt: I welcome you again to the Chair of our proceedings, Mr. Hurst, and I congratulate the Minister on going the distance on the measure. This is the third time in a few months that it has been debated. We did so once in Grand Committee and once under the previous order, and now we are debating the details of the scheme. I have managed only a 66 per cent. contribution rate to those proceedings. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) dealt with the issue the last time it was debated, because I was visiting Northern Ireland.

The scheme arises from the legislation that was introduced in the House of Commons in May 1995 by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was Home Secretary. The Minister was not in the House at the time, so I suppose he is absolved from the obloquy that attaches to the position taken by the then Opposition, who tabled a reasoned amendment and argued against the introduction of the provisions. He has been able to maintain a straight face, without blushing, while urging his case for the introduction of the scheme in Northern Ireland, which of course has the broad support of Her Majesty's Opposition, given that we introduced such a scheme in Great Britain.

I commend the Minister and the Northern Ireland Office for the detailed work that they have undertaken on the scheme. He has not only been guiding the legislation through the House but has done a considerable amount of background work to prepare for the introduction of the scheme. It is glaringly apparent from the consultation process undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office that victims and groups that represent them are more or less happy about moving to the new scheme, as envisaged. Strangely enough, it is the lawyers who have most concern about the scheme, which is hardly surprising because a lucrative source of income will be cut off, especially to personal injury lawyers. That is one of the benefits of moving to a tariff-based scheme: its simplicity means that an organisation such as Victim Support Northern Ireland will be able to give proper advice to victims seeking compensation.

I want to reflect on the contribution made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), other than the derogatory and unnecessary remarks that he made about my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford. He made a pertinent point about the 100,000 miners who applied for compensation for pneumoconiosis, and he emphasised how their situation was improved by the fact that their cases were dealt with under a tariff scheme, rather than their having to pursue a common-law solution. Indeed, in my experience, to which I referred in the Grand Committee, as a young officer with a soldier under my command who had been blown up by a bomb in

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Kinawley in Northern Ireland and suffered serious damage to his hearing, which had a serious impact on his future employability in the Army, it took a very long time to pursue a claim under the common-law scheme, and one firm of lawyers benefited considerably from representing soldiers in such cases. A tariff scheme will certainly be an improvement, so the Government have the general support of the Opposition in introducing the scheme.

The real areas of controversy centre on how this scheme departs from the scheme in Great Britain. I would imagine that one of the reasons why the tariffs laid down in this scheme are, by and large, higher than the tariffs in Great Britain is that it has taken seven years to introduce the scheme in Northern Ireland. The fact that common-law awards were tending to inflate faster than awards governed by a tariff scheme, where the uplift would be in line with the retail prices index, has had its effect. In some cases, the differences were alarming.

One has only to look at the figures for major paralysis to illustrate the point. In Northern Ireland, paralysis of one side of the body is set at level 24 and the standard amount is 100,000, yet in Great Britain it is 55,000. For quadriplegia, the amounts are almost the same: in Northern Ireland it is 255,000 and in the rest of the United Kingdom it is 250,000. Those anomalies are reflected throughout the list of injuries.

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Prepared 22 April 2002