Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Mr. McGrady: The various concerns that we are trying to express are broadly reflected by the concerns expressed by the all-party ad hoc Committee in the Northern Ireland Assembly. There was a general consensus of lay and legal advice from members of that Committee that the proposals suggested a reduction in the funds and compensation paid to individuals. Rightly or wrongly, that has been translated as a cost-cutting exercise. I am prepared to accept the Minister's assurances that it is not; nevertheless, if that is the effect of the legislation, that will be seen as its purpose.

I also ask the Minister to take on board the concern expressed by the Human Rights Commission that the process may be flawed under the Human Rights Act 1998. I know that he has received a report from the Human Rights Commission on those issues. Many hon. Members have referred to a deficit exercise of the Assembly. The report of the ad hoc Committee, which was representative of all the parties in Northern Ireland—as it has to be, by statute—was brought to the Floor of the Assembly and received unanimous support from all 10 parties. The bottom line of the report was straightforward; the proposed legislation should not be introduced in its current form, and the Minister should take cognisance of the proposal's many deficits, as listed by law societies, the Assembly and the Human Rights Commission, and in other representations.

To what extent is the Minister prepared to consult on those representations, and to what extent is he prepared to argue his case on each main item of controversy before he introduces the legislation next

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year? The people of Northern Ireland have unanimously articulated their concerns through their public representatives; therefore, the Government are duty bound to take on board the comments or provide alternative evidence that the criticisms are not justified.

4.2 pm

Lady Hermon: Thank you, Mr. McWilliam, for your tolerance and your patience with my lengthy interventions.

The Chairman: Before the hon. Lady continues, I remind the Committee that we must finish the debate at 4.30, under the rules of the House.

Lady Hermon: I intend to keep my contribution short, Mr. McWilliam. Your patience been tested, but the Minister has kindly responded in full to every intervention. I appreciate that level of exchange.

I should also like formally to record our thanks to the members of the review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme in Northern Ireland: Professor Des Greer, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and Mrs. Marion Gibson. Each of them brought to the Committee considerable expertise and great diligence. In a previous incarnation, I knew Professor Greer from the law faculty. I recall consulting him about a short paper; he sent back 60 pages of comments, which I carefully filed away. He is meticulous in his examination of records.

One of the firm conclusions of the review team stated

    ''that a total severance from the common law basis which has underpinned the system for so many years would not be justified. Instead, we have looked for a way of distinguishing between injuries likely to have a substantial and often lifelong effect upon the victim and other injuries which, although unpleasant, are less serious. For this less serious category of cases we would wish to see a simpler and speedier system which does not involve substantial legal costs.''

Given the calibre of the people on the review team, I would be slow to move away from their recommendations.

I appreciate the comments of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), who is a constituency neighbour. He drew attention to the report on the proposal by the ad hoc Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Eleven members in the Assembly reached a cross-party conclusion that they did not want the legislation to be introduced in its present form; we should be slow to move from that recommendation, as well.

The Minister addressed many of the issues this afternoon, and I have appreciated his explanations, which help to address many of the queries that were raised by the Assembly Committee. The one outstanding issue to which I should like to draw the Minister's attention is the deep concern felt by the Law Society of Northern Ireland. In the very recent issue of its journal, The Writ, the society's president, Mr. John Neill, commented critically:

    ''Unfortunately, the Government has shown no willingness to date to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the Society, and indeed has given every signal that non-negotiable decisions have

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    been made, and that the consultation exercise is a meaningless formality. The message to the Government from almost all consultees and now the Assembly is clear. We hope that the Government will listen to the voice of the Assembly''

    ''think again''.

I should like the Minister to reassure us that the Law Society of Northern Ireland is among those who have been consulted. I am not a member of that society, but a criticism is being circulated in the legal profession in Northern Ireland. If it has a genuine concern that it has not been consulted and a genuine sense of grievance, such criticism of a Government proposal does none of us any good. I hope that the Minister takes that on board.

4.6 pm

Lembit Öpik: The Minister's introductory clarifications were impressive, and I am grateful that he took the time to explain the order's contents. I was quite dubious about it before I came to the Committee, but some answers that he gave genuinely struck a chord, for which I thank him. That shows that it has been sensible for the Minister to bring the issue to a Committee for discussion.

As has been said, we are trying to equate human suffering with money, which is very hard to do. Indeed, it is virtually impossible in many ways. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made points about that, which I need not repeat. We all understand that by the time the order kicks in, something bad will already have happened. We are talking about trying to alleviate the consequences of harm, rather than trying to prevent it.

In that context, the order has clearly been designed with the right intent. Simplifying procedures is evidently a good idea, and to attempt some form of codification probably makes sense, too. Providing flexibility, which means that the measure extends to individuals who may not have been able to access such compensation previously, is also sensible.

The Minister referred to victims of child abuse who may be encouraged to come forward as a result of the order, not so much for the money as for the support that they need finally to put to rest something that has blighted their lives, perhaps for many years.

I should like to raise two points from the submission of the Human Rights Commission, the first relating to paragraphs 38 and 39. The scheme introduces a bereavement support payment. It seems that same-sex couples and heterosexual cohabitees who apply for such payments must show that they had lived with the victim who died for two years before their death. Spouses of the victim, however, do not seem to have to overcome that hurdle.

Will the Minister clarify whether the commission's understanding is correct? Do the Government intend to distinguish between spouses, and same-sex couples and heterosexual cohabitees? It is important to be clear on that point, because it could have a profound impact on individuals who had chosen a slightly different lifestyle but suffered the same bereavement.

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The commission suggests that that provision might be subject to challenge under section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, but the Minister has assured us that that is not the case. I should welcome comments on that point, but I am primarily interested in the Government's thinking and whether they are willing seriously to consider including the groups that I described. Either now or at some point after the Committee, I should be grateful for a response.

The question of equal treatment has been raised. The scheme seems to treat those who have a criminal record less favourably than blameless victims. I was persuaded by the commission's argument that that might contravene sections 6 and 7 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Will the Minister comment on whether the Government intend that distinction to stand, and if so, do they feel that it is in line with natural justice?

The hon. Member for South Down made an important point, and it is clear where the Assembly stands on a cross-party basis. Although I do not agree with some of the Assembly's recommendations, a consequence of devolution is that one should recognise the view of devolved assemblies even when it does not coincide with the Government's. Does the Minister intend to debate formally or adopt the recommendations? What is the relationship between the Assembly and the Government in determining the influence of devolution on the legislation?

Where there are human beings, there will be crime, so an order of this nature is inevitable. Nevertheless, the greatest achievement would be prevention rather than compensation. We should recognise that no amount of money will compensate the relative of a victim who has been lost, or an individual harmed. Our greatest challenge is to continue to secure peace in Northern Ireland's politics and its communities. That is our highest priority.

4.12 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth: I welcome the Minister's earlier response. Will he outline the changes he will make to the legislation as a result of the Northern Ireland Assembly's report? If no changes were made, it would confirm that ''Government consultation'' was merely eyewash. They are ready to consult but they will not make changes, even if the Assembly proposes something useful. Successive Governments have talked of consultation but made no significant changes afterwards.

A particular class of victim has not been noted. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit O£pik) referred to peace continuing in Northern Ireland. We live in the real world. I am not talking about terrorism, but normal criminal activity; trespassing, burglary in homes and robbery. Recently, a lady wrote to me from a working-class area in my constituency. Time and again, her home has been broken into. She paid increasing insurance costs, but has received no compensation.

In another case, a person delivering freebies—local papers—put her hand in the door, and claimed that the letterbox snapped on it. She claimed for compensation

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and obtained legal aid. My constituents who asked about legal aid were told that they would have to pay £800 for a solicitor to represent them. The one who had legal aid to pursue her claim withdrew it, but my constituents were left having paid £800 for nothing. Who are the victims? Is it those who get themselves involved, use legal aid to present their case and then withdraw? Or those who use legal aid to win the case, and the real victim has to pay out again? That is an aspect that we must review again.

I was happy enough with the Minster's answer concerning the Law Society report because I believe it is important that those involved in victim support get training and assistance. I often discover, however, that lawyers act specifically within legal frameworks. It was rather interesting, this week, to discover two distinguished people from the legal profession being summoned, and having damages found against them, for having given the wrong guidance on a medical negligence case. In relation to a young person and a life-threatening problem, they advised that it was only possible to receive £50,000. Now, apparently, millions may be involved. However, those two have gone to the top of their particular profession. Sometimes those who work with victims at least come to the matter with an understanding of what victims are suffering, rather than dealing strictly with the legal aspect.

That is why I welcomed the Minister's assurance about those who applied under the previous scheme, were turned down, took it to the court and were turned down on the strict legal interpretation. I am thinking of a man who, years after completing his sentence, was out one evening with his mate, engaged in innocent activity. In a random shooting, this man and his friend were both injured. His friend was grazed and got compensation. The man, however, is now a paraplegic but received no compensation because—as my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim was alluding—in years past he had been involved in terrorist activity from which he had turned after serving his sentence.

I do not believe in double jeopardy. If he had been continuing or had again been involved in unlawful activity, I could have understood his criminal background being brought to the attention of the Compensation Agency and for them to have acted accordingly. It seems important to bear in mind that once a person has discharged their debt to society, the matter should not be brought up again unless they have been re-offending.

On 28 June 2001, the Minister said—according to the report from the Northern Ireland Assembly—that one of the two features of the new arrangement was a removal of specific terrorist exclusion provisions. I am not convinced that we are actually finished with terrorism in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister think that criminal activities cover terrorist activities?

 
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Prepared 13 December 2001