Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 17, at end insert ("or the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969").

18 Feb 1999 : Column 760

The noble Lord said: I shall speak slowly while the Chamber clears. This is an interesting Bill. We look forward greatly to discussing this Committee stage over the next few hours.

As I am sure the Minister will be aware, this is a probing amendment. I refer to the narrow definition of the Bill in terms of the Long Title. The Committee will see that I have had to be somewhat ingenious in introducing into my amendment the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 as a way of making a point. However, the Bill is solely framed around motor accidents and compensation in respect of torts surrounding motor accidents. In the light of the consultation paper put forward by the Law Commission at the end of 1996, it seems somewhat extraordinary that the Government have not yet taken a rather wider view of compensation for healthcare, nursing charges and other health-related charges being payable by tortfeasors in those circumstances. The Law Commission considered that something approaching £1 billion worth of hospital costs were attributable to accidents caused by tortfeasors. For the non-lawyers present, the definition of tortfeasor may be somewhat obscure, but it is simply someone who has been negligent in causing an accident and causing personal injury to another. I have no problems with the general principle that the insurers of such tortfeasors should be liable to pay those hospital charges. I do not believe that that is a breach of the principle that the NHS should be free at the point of delivery. I believe it is perfectly reasonable that tortfeasors in those circumstances should be liable to pay hospital costs.

If the National Health Service could raise £1 billion in respect of torts committed by tortfeasors, I wonder why the Government are not taking a wider view. I therefore ask myself whether this Bill is wholly pragmatic in seeking to "jack up" the amount of charges payable in respect of motor vehicle accidents under the Road Traffic Act from £16 million to £160 million, and nothing further will happen, or is this a sprat to catch a mackerel? Is it designed to see how the compensation recovery unit will operate in practice? Is it a swallow that portends a summer of tortfeasors being liable for the hospital charges incurred as a result of the accidents that they caused? I believe that the Government need to put clearly on the record--this is the purpose of my amendment--precisely what their approach is. I believe that when the Law Commission issues its report--which I believe will be this autumn--the Government should take further steps to recover some of that £1 billion in charges. It is a debate that we need to have. I believe it is a debate that could form part of this Committee stage and indeed a Report stage, if we so chose.

Technically it is perfectly possible under the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 for employers to be liable for motor vehicle accident health costs. There is no reason why this amendment could not be accepted. It is designed to make the point that this Bill could be considerably wider. For the

18 Feb 1999 : Column 761

benefit of the National Health Service the Government need to take a principled approach rather than a purely pragmatic one. I beg to move.

Earl Howe: I support this amendment in the sense that I support it as a probe to ascertain from the Government exactly where they stand on extending the principle of a health service funded from compulsory, or any other kind, of insurance cover. At Second Reading the Minister said there were no plans to widen the application of the principles underpinning the Bill so as to bring other kinds of insurance into this new system. Of course I noted what he said. But I confess I remain somewhat sceptical, given the enthusiasm with which the Government have embraced the ideas contained in the Bill. Given the Government's intention to increase by a factor of 10 the sums flowing into the health service from the motorist, we on this side of the Committee are tempted to call the charges "new charges", not to make out that they are newly invented--clearly, in the main, they are not--but to point out that the Government have taken this opportunity to bump up the tariff, by a very considerable percentage, to ensure a much higher take from vehicle insurance policies than has been achieved up to now.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is absolutely right: there is no difference in principle between the philosophy underpinning this Bill and the idea that the hospital treatment of a factory worker who has been injured in an industrial accident should be funded from his employer's insurance policy. In this context, it is interesting that one of the functions of the compensation recovery unit is to recover benefit in cases where employers have paid out compensation after industrial accidents. Why should not the costs of the NHS treatment be recouped by the CRU in that type of case as well?

Can the Minister say why the Government have chosen to treat only motor policies in this way? Before he tells me that it is not the Government's idea and that the principle of the Bill has been with us since the 1930s, I ought to point out to him that the present Government--elected on a manifesto which promised an NHS available to all, funded from general taxation and free at the point of delivery--had a choice of four courses open to them in regard to the collection of NHS hospital charges: first, to accept the status quo, with all its faults; secondly, simply to improve the system of collecting the charges; thirdly, to improve the collection system and bump up the charges; and, fourthly, to abolish the whole idea altogether. The Government have chosen the route which looks likely to maximise the yield from vehicle insurance. As I observed at Second Reading, that decision speaks volumes for New Labour.

It is not hard to discern why the Government took that decision: they knew perfectly well that hardly anybody would notice what they were doing. Perhaps that is one reason why we can take at face value the Government's assurance that they have no intention of widening the principle underpinning the Bill. Interestingly, the press are beginning to cotton on to the fact that the Government have substantially increased the tax burden on ordinary, middle-income families in a whole host of

18 Feb 1999 : Column 762

ways. The expression I saw used was a "stealth tax". The AA has recently commented that motorists had been turned into "wallets on wheels". The Bill is yet another example of the stealth tax in action.

We on these Benches would welcome a mature debate on how best to meet the ever-rising demands placed on the NHS over and above the funding raised through general taxation. I do not necessarily think that the noble Lord's amendment points the way to the right sort of door for such additional funding, but we should debate exactly this sort of question. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: The noble Lord, Lord, Clement-Jones, has raised an interesting point. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, has certainly widened the debate, almost into a debate on the future funding of the National Health Service, a subject on which we would enjoy many hours of happy debate.

Perhaps I may deal with the specific point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. He rightly referred to the Law Commission report in 1996, which produced a thought-provoking discussion paper in which it was suggested that the NHS should recover its costs in all cases of actionable personal injury. This would mean the recovery of costs in any case where the accident victim received compensation from another party in respect of the injuries suffered. The obvious examples of this are employer's liability--which is the subject of this amendment--and public liability, but the commission's suggestion would extend this to all actionable personal injury cases.

I have been asked to state the Government's position on this matter. We have acknowledged the commission's suggestion and we are considering it. We shall be particularly interested to see the outcome of the commission's considered report on this matter, which we understand will be published later this year. The Bill before us is not concerned with these matters: it is simply putting in place an administrative system for the recovery of charges which are already on the statute book. The Bill is not a probing measure, or even a swallow that portends a summer. If the Government decide to implement the Law Commission's suggestions, that would have to be taken forward under its own steam. If a decision were taken to extend the charging principle--which has existed in its current form for more than 60 years--a further Bill would have to be brought before Parliament to allow your Lordships and those in another place a better opportunity to consider and debate the important issues involved.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, returned to a theme which he pursued at Second Reading in relation to what he describes as the pursuit of the motorist. There is another way to look at this. For one reason or another, over many years the NHS has not been able to collect the amounts of money rightfully owed to it. One has to take that into account when considering the whole basis of the Bill. I should also point out to the noble Earl that a cap is being placed on the maximum payable.

As to the issue of the funding of the NHS through general taxation, that is a very important principle. It is supported by the public, and I believe it will continue

18 Feb 1999 : Column 763

to be supported by the public. The Bill before us does not eat into that principle at all. The system has been in existence for many, many years: we are simply ensuring that the NHS gets what is rightly owed to it. On that basis, I would invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: I thank the Minister for his reply. I agree that the Bill does not breach the general principle that NHS costs should be borne out of general taxation. It seems to me perfectly viable and acceptable for hospital trusts to, in a sense, step into the shoes of the victim of an accident and recover hospital costs from the tortfeasor in those circumstances.

The Minister has partially answered my probing question on whether the principle could be taken wider. Why should not a wider class of tortfeasors--not only those responsible for motor accidents but also those responsible for other types of accidents--also not be liable to bear those hospital charges? The Minister said that the Government and his department will look carefully at the proposals in the Law Commission report which is due at the end of the year. Since it will be a way of adding further funds to the National Health Service without breaching the principles involved in its existing funding, I very much hope that the Government will look carefully at the report of the Law Commission and perhaps come back to the House with new proposals. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page