Draft Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2002

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Lady Hermon: How many claims does the Minister anticipate will be reviewed by the panel on appeal? Presumably, those who can pay will be able to get the legal advice while those who cannot will have to depend on Victim Support Northern Ireland.

Mr. Browne: That is a fair point. Our best guess is that about 1,000 claims will be reviewed, based on a comparison with the experience over five years in Great Britain, which suggests that the percentage of people who seek to review their offer is little different in either scheme. The percentage of reviews in Great Britain under the tariff is 25 per cent. That equates closely with the number of appeals in Northern Ireland. That indicated to us that, using the percentages and experience from Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we could extrapolate from that a figure of about 1,000. That is to be serviced by Victim Support Northern Ireland, but there is nothing to stop applicants going to a lawyer or a citizens advice bureau, although the scheme will not pay expenses for that. There is nothing to stop people going to lawyers if they want to be represented by them.

The hon. Lady will know, and other members of the Committee should know, that Victim Support Northern Ireland is not confined to Belfast or the Greater Belfast area. It has eight offices located throughout Northern Ireland, and we are satisfied that they are located appropriately, and the organisation will be able to deal with our best estimate of the number of cases. Obviously, the hon. Lady will appreciate that I have undertaken to keep all that under review, and that I will get reports from the agency every three months. I have no interest in having the scheme operating in a way that disadvantages people for administrative reasons.

When I was making my contribution, the hon. Lady intervened to raise a point that I did not fully understand because I could not locate the particular reference that she made—but now I understand it. She developed that point by referring to note No. 2 of the ''General Notes to Tariff of Injuries'', which is about a

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physical injury from which a minor mental injury results. With a physical injury, compensation will still be payable for any mental illness if its value equals or exceeds the value of the physical injury, which means that both injuries would be compensated.

Note No. 8 refers to sexual offences that lead to mental injury. In that type of case, the compensation for the sexual offence already includes compensation for mental injury. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady seems exasperated, but she has to understand that those tariffs are based on experience. The tariffs are an attempt to convert the status quo into a tariff, which is calculated against the formula, rather than just plucking figures out of the air, which is what happens at the moment. However, if a mental illness is such that the award for it would exceed that for a sexual offence, only a mental illness award may be made. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady, of course, wishes those awards to be aggregated, but our experience of the status quo and the information that we have on present awards leads us to believe that that is not what happens.

We have tried to convert the existing common law awards into tariff awards. As I have explained on more than one occasion, that is against the formula, but follows the formula that applies to the rest of Great Britain. There may well be an argument that judges or juries in Northern Ireland were not awarding sufficient money, but we cannot have that argument here.

The hon. Lady asked about my engagement with the Law Society of Northern Ireland. As I promised, I had one meeting with it, and I had three rounds of correspondence. As I said earlier, when I accepted that the points raised were points of principle, we have agreed to differ. I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware of the position of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, which substantially informs the Ad Hoc Committee report that she cites to suggest that the Government should have changed their policy as a result of the unanimity of the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Because of the areas of responsibility that I have as a Minister, this issue has exercised me on more than one occasion. What is the appropriate way for me to engage with the process of consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly? As a Minister, I am in a unique position in the world in the sense that any provisions that I seek to legislate are debated by an Assembly in which there is no Executive representative.

The hon. Lady says—I accept why she says it because of my experience of Northern Ireland—that it is difficulty to achieve unanimity among parties, and that Government should pay particular regard to areas in which there is unanimity. She knows that we do that, and that we try to encourage it. My difficulty is that only when the consultation report and its issues are debated in this House is there engagement from a Minister with any Executive responsibility. That is an important point. I venture to suggest that if the areas that are known as reserved are not devolved to Northern Ireland, a significant history will develop of parties, which otherwise find it difficult to be

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unanimous, finding opportunities to be so because of no Executive presence in debate.

Lady Hermon: Does the Minister hope that criminal injuries will be devolved to the Assembly in the near future?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady kindly gives me an opportunity to say something that Committee members may not have heard before. She knows my position.

Lady Hermon: Yes.

Mr. Browne: I am a devolutionist to the core. I look forward to the day when the reserved matters that are intended to be devolved to Northern Ireland, and to the responsibility of local politicians, are so devolved.

The hon. Lady asked me about my intention and whether I am confident. Inasmuch as anyone can be confident about anything relating to a process in Northern Ireland, I am. The process is inching forward, but it is constantly under pressure. I shall strain every sinew in my body to ensure that we achieve the objective, but it will be achieved only when there is stability in Northern Ireland and a track history of devolved politics. That will allow politicians to take the process forward with confidence and will give confidence to the people. I think that she knows my position, but I am happy to put it on record again, as I do consistently.

I am grateful to hon. Members for their patience, but I am sure that they appreciate the importance of the provisions for the people of Northern Ireland. It is important that the information is put on record.

The tariff will be reviewed in line with arrangements in Great Britain. The hon. Lady asked me to define a phrase that I used on one occasion—perhaps I could have used a more felicitous form of words. I cannot give her that definition, but I can say that the Great Britain scheme was reviewed in 1999 after three years of operation and resulting changes to the tariffs were implemented in 2001. Review after a reasonable period of implementation—perhaps five years—would not be a cycle but would be consistent with the scheme's overall objectives and would give parity with the Great Britain scheme. I can give her the undertaking that the tariff will be reviewed in line with arrangements in Great Britain.

The hon. Lady repeats the allegation, which has been consistently made against me and the Government, that a desire to cut costs underlies the scheme. I have repeated the reasoning behind the scheme, and I have tried to be helpful to hon. Members in this and other Committees on the effects of the proposals, so there seems no point in repeating what I have said. I know that she accepts that that is my position.

I do not think that there are any outstanding issues in relation to hon. Members' points, but if there are, they can draw them to my attention and I will write to them.

I shall finish by reminding the Committee of the way in which the totality of the scheme will impact on victims of violent crime, which will be, after all, the most important outcome. We want to deliver an

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effective and efficient service to people in unfortunate situations that will help, not hinder, their recovery from injury, provide fair and appropriate compensation for their pain, suffering and subsequent loss, and treat all applicants with understanding and consideration. I have no doubt that the proposed scheme will do that. Little more will be required than the completion of an application form for the bulk of claims made for compensation for less serious injuries. The effort required is limited to two or three forms even for more serious and complex cases.

The Compensation Agency will drive the whole process. It will obtain all necessary documentation about the individual's medical condition and liability, and even details of his or her pecuniary loss. In such cases, it will perform all necessary calculations to determine actual and future losses, and will decide the appropriate compensation to be paid. It is up to the applicant whether he or she wishes to contest the sum that is offered, and if so, whether to engage expert advice at his or her own expense. However, the principle remains clear in all cases that minimal

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input from the applicant is required for the agency to reach a first decision.

We recognise that there will be occasions when an applicant needs support and assistance to make an application. In the first instance, we have made provision for agency premises in anticipation of more applicants calling into the agency to discuss their claims. We have also appointed victim support workers to give an independent helping hand. As I said, it is not legal advice: the process will not require it. Instead, advice workers and volunteers are trained not only to provide general emotional and practical support to victims of crime but to ensure that people who want it can access the compensation to which they are entitled.

I have been involved in the development of the policy since I joined the Government at the last election, and I am pleased to see it at this stage.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2002.

Committee rose at four minutes to Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Hurst, Mr. Alan (Chairman)
Blunt, Mr.
Browne, Mr.
Cunningham, Tony
Dobbin, Jim
Hermon, Lady
Humble, Mrs.
Keen, Alan
Merron, Gillian
Öpik, Lembit
Stringer, Mr.
Stuart, Ms
Swire, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew

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Prepared 22 April 2002