Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Thursday 13 December 2001

(Westminster)

[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

2.30 pm

The Chairman: The first business before the Committee is the debate on the proposal for a draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2001, which may continue until 4.30 pm. I have no power to impose a time limit on speeches, but brief contributions will enable me to call as many Members as possible. I must apologise, but I do not have much voice left.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the proposal for a draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2001.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. McWilliam, with or without your voice. The Committee is sitting today to consider the Government's proposals for draft legislation to allow the new criminal injuries compensation scheme to be introduced in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that hon. Members will recall the background to the Committee's involvement in considering draft Orders in Council. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs suggested earlier in the year that future draft Orders in Council on reserved matters should be referred to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. I wholeheartedly agree with this addition to the legislative process, and I hope that hon. Members will take the opportunity to express their views on the draft proposals.

It may be useful to mention the current status of the proposed legislation, which was published on 28 June. On 30 November, the statutory consultation period ended on the draft order and scheme under section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I have since received a report from the Northern Ireland Assembly on its consideration of the proposals and my Department has received a further 13 representations from interested individuals and organisations. My officials are considering all the responses, and there will be a comprehensive report on the concerns expressed before final decisions are made on the draft order, which will be laid before the House early next year. Any views expressed by the Committee will be factored into that report and given due consideration.

Before I talk about the substance of the proposals, I will spell out the basic principles that govern the payment of criminal injuries compensation. Some views that have been aired by members of the National

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Assembly and others make me suspicious about the level of knowledge and the recognition of those principles, and it will be helpful to the debate if they are restated.

The state is not liable for injuries caused to people by the acts of others. A state compensation scheme that is funded by the taxpayer cannot reasonably be expected to match the damages that are awarded in the civil courts where personal or corporate liability has been established. The state is not liable for the criminal acts of others, and a victim can sue an offender if there is a reasonable chance of securing damages. However, in recognition of the public sense of responsibility for, and sympathy with, the blameless victim, the state provides a monetary award on behalf of the community. Any compensation scheme that depends on public funds needs to strike a balance between the needs of the victim and the interests of the taxpayer. There will always be an argument about where that balance should lie. The need to establish equilibrium between those two interests seems to be missing from the National Assembly's consideration of the proposals, but it is fundamental to the understanding of a state compensation scheme.

Claims under the scheme are essentially risk-free. The attacker does not have to be caught, nor does his identity have to be established. The victim does not have to bring a court action and risk losing and the attacker does not have to have the means or the will to pay any damages awarded. A successful claim to the Compensation Agency will invariably be paid. There is no right amount of compensation. People often say that no amount of money can compensate them for the hurt or loss that they have suffered, but the simple fact is that last year the Northern Ireland scheme paid out over £40 million to more than 7,000 victims; the average award was £5,600. Our scheme is probably the most comprehensive and generous in the world, and will remain so under the proposed tariff arrangement. I emphasise that in Great Britain, the tariff scheme pays out more than all other schemes in Europe added together. Those who criticise our scheme should bear in mind that under many foreign schemes, victims receive far less compensation, or even no compensation at all, for the pain that they suffer.

The scheme will no longer aim to provide individually tailored compensation covering each and every head of damage that might be awarded in a successful civil suit. If victims want that, they are free to sue the attacker, if his identity is known and if it is worth while to do so. The Government believe that the tariff scheme is the right approach for Northern Ireland. It is straightforward, transparent and simple for victims to understand. It gives victims a good idea from the start of how much money they are likely to get and pays out more quickly than the present scheme.

Turning to the substance of the debate and of the draft proposals, I want to begin where I think we properly should: with the victims of violent crime in Northern Ireland. No member of the Committee needs to be reminded of the horrendous consequences for many people of the years of violence that were

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spawned by civil unrest and generated through terrorism. Although the violence emanating from that scar on our past may now be greatly diminished, the surviving victims are, in many cases, victims for life—as are many victims of ordinary violent crime. The Government recognised that unfortunate fact in 1997 when the then Secretary of State announced the establishment of a Victims Commission to look at ways of providing greater recognition for victims of the troubles.

The origins of the draft proposals that we are discussing are found in the report of the Victims Commissioner, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield. I therefore stress that we are debating proposals that have their roots firmly based in the desire to create a better deal for victims of violent crime. In his report, ''We Will Remember Them'', Sir Kenneth Bloomfield recommended a review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme. He was not asked to look at that particular area—he did so as a result of evidence he received during his work as Victims Commissioner that pointed to a significant level of dissatisfaction with the current arrangements. The Government accepted the recommendation and referred the review back to him. That review also started exactly where it should have—with the victims of violent crime, their needs and their requirements.

The independent review was established in 1998 and reported in June 1999. Its remit was to recommend a new statutory framework for the payment of compensation, taking into account the experiences of victims of the troubles. It was also under a duty to look at the way in which other jurisdictions compensated victims of violent crime, and the need for fairness, equity, openness and affordability.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): We welcome anything that will provide a better deal for victims. I am somewhat concerned that obstacles might be put in the way of genuine victims under paragraph 14(d) and (e) of the report. There are cases, in which young men get caught up in trouble early in their lives, when they were immature, and end up with a criminal record. Later in their lives they seek to distance themselves from that involvement, but nevertheless suffer because of it, perhaps at the hands of the organisation with which they were involved. That seems to show that in considering their past and associations—

The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be brief. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a speech, he can do so later. That intervention was too long.

Mr. Beggs: May I finish my question?

The Chairman: No, the hon. Gentleman may not. He was supposed to be making an intervention.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to the issue, even if it is out of sync with the introductory remarks that I wanted to make. There is an on-going debate about whether a victim's record should be taken into account in respect of criminal injuries compensation, and if so, to what extent. To a significant degree, the proposals are

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designed to elicit comments on that issue. In Northern Ireland, having one type of previous conviction has disqualified people entirely from receipt of compensation.

By and large, criminal injuries compensation schemes exist to compensate blameless victims of violent crime. As I understand it and as the hon. Gentleman points out, that applies to the previous scheme and, to a significant degree, to this one. The basic question is whether public money should be set aside for such a scheme to compensate someone who was blameless on a particular occasion, but otherwise led a violent life.

All schemes try to strike that balance appropriately, but it is difficult. I am sure that as the debate progresses, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we think that we have got the balance right with this scheme, but his point is well made. At some point, all societies must allow people to live down their past. I need not advise those who represent the people of Northern Ireland how important that judgment is and has been in that society, particularly over the last decade or so.

 
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Prepared 13 December 2001