Draft Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2002

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Mr. Browne: I do not want to comment on the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the reasons for that difference—indeed, he may have a point. However, the accepted wisdom is that the differential in tariffs between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is that common-law awards, which are believed to be the result of the survival of jury trial for such purposes in Northern Ireland for longer than in the rest of Great Britain, tended to be higher than awards made by judges in Great Britain.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful for that comment. To a degree, it is the same point: a common-law scheme produced a higher rate of inflation in its awards than the tariff scheme will, because the level of the awards will now be controlled by Parliament through subsidiary legislation.

The one issue that Her Majesty's Opposition will want to review is that of personal insurance. The Minister rightly pointed out that it was included in the scheme introduced in Great Britain by the Conservative Government. In equity, people who receive state compensation should not receive compensation twice, and I cannot imagine that anyone would have a problem with that. However, a problem arises if people have taken out their own personal insurance and the state scheme then reaps the benefit of both the premium and of the payout. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that, both for Northern Ireland and for Great Britain, as the principle obviously applies in both jurisdictions. At the very least, the scheme should take account of the premium that has been paid for that insurance, whether or not it takes account of the fact that provision may have been made for private healthcare or some form of personal compensation. I hope that the Government will consider discounting the

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premium from the reduction in the award that results from having personal insurance.

I congratulate the Minister on removing the time limit in respect of child victims of sexual offences. That has wider application within the United Kingdom. We need to understand why the two schemes diverge, and lessons need to be learned about the application of that provision in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland.

I have no problem with what the Minister said about the introduction of the tariff of reductions for convictions to be treated as in Great Britain. Although the guide has not been formally published, it seems that the reductions that will apply will be exactly the same as in Great Britain. That was the gist of his remarks and of the examples that he gave, which I referred across to the tariff of reductions for those with criminal offences, as published in a guide to the criminal injuries scheme by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

I shall not delay the Committee any further. The Minister and the Northern Ireland Office have done good work in bringing the scheme into play. The fact that lawyers object to it while victims generally support it is eloquent testimony to the wisdom of approving it, as we shall no doubt do later this afternoon.

5.30 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down): I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Reigate, if only because I can correct his last remark. It is important that we highlight the fact that the Bloomfield report showed that victims were concerned about the slowness and tardiness of some aspects of the procedure, not about the amounts of compensation.

My next point leads on from that. The Minister kindly said that in winding up he would try to deal with the issues that I raised earlier, and I am concerned about one in particular. We have a population of 1.6 million, and an average of 14,000 claims for criminal injuries compensation every year. I sincerely hope that the Belfast agreement will remain in place, so that we do not return to the multiple bombings and shootings—that would be dreadful—but given that so many claims are made every year, I am concerned about the work load of Victim Support Northern Ireland and its ability to cope. The organisation has eight offices, and I would not like it to be centralised in Belfast. That is probably prejudice on my part, because I come from west of the Bann and I want victims there to be supported.

I hope that I am not alone in confessing that I am unhappy with the scheme. There are several reasons for that, and I touched on the work load of Victim Support Northern Ireland. The Bloomfield report said that, although there were procedural difficulties, the overwhelming majority of victims had no complaint about the compensation itself. The report was sent to the Assembly's Ad Hoc Committee. The Assembly has 108 Members of varying shades of opinion and it is rare for them to be unanimous on anything, but they were unanimous in their opposition to the

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compensation scheme. Among other things, they asked the Government to

    ''engage with the Law Society and give due consideration to their proposal''.

Perhaps the Minister can elaborate on what engagement there has been and on the Government's correspondence with the Law Society.

The Assembly also recommended that

    ''in view of its fundamental concerns the draft Order should not be introduced into Parliament in its present form.''

We have now moved past the order and to the scheme. It is late in the day, but I should put on record my concerns about various aspects of the compensation scheme.

I am most unhappy about an issue raised in the general notes, which state:

    ''When compensation is paid for any physical injury described in the tariff, a separate award for mental injury will not be made, as the tariff award includes an element of compensation''.

A teenage victim of rape would be awarded £10,000 for an unwanted pregnancy, but I am not sure that I agree that any element of mental injury should be taken into account in the case of such a physical injury. I am not happy with the tariffs as they stand.

I am very concerned about the Minister's remarks on the review of the tariffs, made when we last discussed the matter in Committee, on 11 March 2002. He said:

    ''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 . . . Decisions on compensation will allow tariffs to keep pace with reality as far as possible''.—[Official Report, First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 11 March 2002; c. 29.]

Will he be so kind as to explain what keeping

    ''pace with reality as far as possible''

means in the general review of the tariffs?

I appreciate, and am happy, that the Minister addressed the issue of savings in his introductory remarks. He had given an undertaking earlier to answer a specific question put to him by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), who I am sorry is not here today. We are still left with the view that the primary reason for introducing the fixed tariffs is to save money, rather than to provide victims with a more efficient scheme.

On that point, I shall rest. I shall be happy if the Minister addresses my concerns, but my overwhelming impression is one of deep unhappiness with the tariffs and the scheme.

5.37 pm

Mr. Browne: As you have heard, Mr. Hurst, many of us have travelled a long road to reach this point. The impetus to reform the way in which we pay compensation in Northern Ireland began in 1998 and has involved many interests. We are now nearing the end of the parliamentary process that has brought to a successful conclusion the process of introducing our new compensation scheme for the benefit of those in

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Northern Ireland unfortunate enough to be the innocent victims of violent crimes.

I am grateful for the contributions that hon. Members have made to the debate. Such an important piece of legislation has been short neither of interest nor of opportunities for expressing that interest. There has been substantial consultation. From the public consultation undertaken by the initial review team to the debate today, there have been no less than nine separate opportunities for consultation or debate. When the draft scheme is debated in the other place later this week, the total will be 10. That must be something of a record.

I shall endeavour to deal with the points raised, all of which are worthy of comment, and shall try to take them in the order in which they were made. Knowing the hon. Members here, I am sure that they will not be shy in attempting to intervene on me if I do not refer to any point made.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reigate for his support. He raised three issues, two of which require a response. I do not propose to return to the third, on which we engaged in debate through the intervention that he was kind enough to allow. He mentioned health insurance. I shall not repeat the information that I gave the Committee when I introduced the debate, but lest other hon. Members misunderstand the position because of what he said, I point out that any lump sum payment from such a policy and any weekly or monthly payouts under personal insurance are not taken into account. The only thing taken into account is money paid out on the insurance policy in respect of the cost of care—for nursing home costs, for example. The tariff will still pay out for care costs if there is a shortfall between the policy payment and the charges for care.

The area is narrow and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, entirely consistent with the scheme that his party introduced for the rest of Great Britain. If there is an emerging debate of principle, we shall have to have it in a UK context, but thankfully I am not the Minister with responsibility for the rest of the UK. I am content to adopt into the scheme for Northern Ireland what has operated in Great Britain for several years without causing any great concern.

The hon. Gentleman encourages me to roll out the provision on child sexual abuse cases to the rest of the United Kingdom and extend it retrospectively. That is, again, the responsibility of other Ministers. I know what my response to the information was, and I had the opportunity to deal with it, but I cannot speak for other Ministers. He knows that he can raise the issue on the Floor of the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Down for her contribution and her consistent presence. She may be doing the hon. Member for Belfast, North a slight disservice, as he is not a member of the Committee. He was a member of the previous one, but the House did not appoint him to this Committee.

The hon. Lady raised the question of the capacity of Victim Support Northern Ireland to deal with the

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number of cases. The Committee should understand that we are not proposing to replace legal assistance with Victim Support Northern Ireland. With the tariff scheme, legal assistance to process an application will not be required. It is impossible to compare the service provided by the legal profession over all its many offices with that of Victim Support Northern Ireland. It is not like for like. We are seeking not to replace the advice that solicitors gave to victims with assistance from Victim Support Northern Ireland but to provide through that body the advice and assistance needed to help people administer, from their perspective, a far simpler system. The agency itself will have the obligation to ensure that the process is expedited and that the onus will not be on the applicant.

Some 40,000 claims are made a year, but for reasons to which I alluded, it is not expected that all those applicants will need to go to Victim Support Northern Ireland for assistance. Those who do may require no more than to check a simple point: they will not require the intensity of service that solicitors seem to have given applicants in relation to the previous scheme, although that was no doubt necessary.

 
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