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Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I wholeheartedly thank the Minister for his answer and assurances. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, too, for his support. I congratulate the Government on finding an opportunity to include this matter. In particular, I appreciate the determination of the Minister in pursuing the matter with the Treasury and the Inland Revenue. I know that that is not an easy task.

The proviso attached to the tax rate also demonstrates the Government's commitment to PPP. I am sorry to hear that the Minister is unable to accept the amendment. However, as he has accepted the spirit of it, I shall withdraw it for the moment. No doubt we will return to it at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 2 [Modification of Companies Act 1985, & c.]:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendments Nos. 4 and 5:

Page 15, line 14, leave out ("the Secretary of State shall not") and insert ("neither the Secretary of State nor the Treasury shall").
Page 15, line 16, leave out ("Corporation is wholly owned by the Crown") and insert ("Crown continues to hold any special share provided for under the Corporation's articles of association").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I spoke to these amendments with Amendment No. 1. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and to be printed.

Scottish Enterprise Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and to be printed.

2 Mar 1999 : Column 1559

Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Bill

3.28 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Payment for hospital treatment of traffic casualties]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 24, at end insert ("; or
(e) a payment made in respect of an accident caused by a vehicle which is not required to be insured by virtue of section 144(2) of the Road Traffic Act 1988.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may start our proceedings on Report by expressing my thanks to the Minister and to his noble friend Lady Hayman for the very full letter I received a few days ago which answered many of the points of detail that arose in Committee. It was an extremely helpful letter. As a result, I can tell the House that I shall not be moving some of my amendments.

In Committee I asked the Minister to explain why Crown vehicles were not caught by the Bill as drafted. I understand that there are over one million such vehicles, some conventionally insured on the market despite the exemption they enjoy from that legal requirement. In reply, the Minister stated that the premise of the Bill was simply to collect existing charges but to do it better and not to extend the scheme or to introduce new charges. I really have to challenge that answer because it clearly is not true. The Bill extends the recovery of charges to a very significant new category of driver; namely, those who are uninsured or untraceable. It does that, of course, through the Motor Insurers' Bureau.

My substantive point is this: there appears to be no reason in logic or equity why the victims of accidents caused by Crown vehicles should be treated any differently from the victims of accidents caused by other vehicles. If the Government believe that it is appropriate to recover the costs of treating victims of uninsured drivers from honest, premium-paying motorists, and to extend the scope of the Bill to do so, I do not see why they should not include Crown vehicles in the scheme as well. I beg to move.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his kind remarks about the explanation sent to him following the Committee stage.

I start by reiterating that the purpose of this Bill is to introduce a system to collect existing charges, but to do it more effectively than in the past. There is no intention to extend the scheme or introduce new charges. The existing charges are only due where compensation is paid by an authorised insurer in respect of a claim against a motor insurance policy.

The bodies listed in Section 144(2) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 are not required to carry compulsory insurance and therefore have no obligation under the current law to meet NHS charges. Amending the law to bring those bodies into the net of obligations associated

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with compulsory vehicle insurance goes much wider than this Bill, concerned as it is with collecting existing charges more effectively.

The noble Earl raised today, as he did in Committee, the issue of the Motor Insurers' Bureau. I should like to make two points in that regard. First, the MIB can and does meet the cost of private sector medical treatment in cases where the accident victim opted for care in the private sector. The private sector hospital can require the MIB to settle the patient's medical bills directly. The Bill intends that the NHS should be able to do likewise.

Secondly, it is worth pointing out that in the time of the previous administration, in 1992, it was proposed by the then government to recover state costs from the MIB. One must ask why it is wrong to seek to give the NHS parity with private sector hospitals. The MIB acts in exactly the same way as any other authorised insurer. It should meet the same risk as those insurers.

I listened carefully to the noble Earl and, while I do not want to offer him any expectations, I should like to reflect on what he said. On that basis I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I understand the point in relation to parity in so far as it affects the Motor Insurers' Bureau and its existing liability to pay for private treatment. But my point today can be summed up in one word: equity. Why should Crown vehicles escape the net? I realise that they are not in the net at the moment and that the Bill is largely designed to improve the current system for those who are liable for charges. That is a substantive point. I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he will consider the matter and I understand that that is without commitment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 [Information contained in certificates]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 3, line 31, after ("out") insert ("in").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, Amendment No. 2, which I tabled in Committee, addresses itself to a simple point of drafting. Clause 3(2) of the Bill does not make grammatical sense. If the phrase between the two commas is removed, it is clear that the word "in" has been omitted.

In Committee the Minister seemed to think that I was being a little over-pernickety and argued that what really mattered was that the sense was clear. My strong feeling is that that is not good enough. Of course we know what the wording means, but we should not knowingly pass a badly drafted section of a Bill into law. I am happy to say that that point was supported in Committee by at

2 Mar 1999 : Column 1561

least two other noble Lords. I therefore bring back the amendment in the hope that the Minister will reconsider his reply. I beg to move.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, well-spotted! The noble Earl pointed out that the wording of the Bill can be improved. I accept that and am prepared to accept his amendment.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister. This is a major triumph for the Opposition and I express my gratitude to him and his colleagues for all the deep thought that must have gone in to that reply.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 3, line 43, leave out ("2nd July 1997") and insert ("1st April 1998").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in the wake of that major concession my hopes are rising by the second. I join with the noble Earl in thanking the Minister for his considerable courtesy in writing a letter which, even to my jaded brain this morning, made sense and influenced the approach of these Benches to some of the amendments we tabled. It was a model of clarity.

However, Amendment No. 3 is still a bone of contention between us. I read carefully what the Minister said in Committee on 18th February and it still appears to be a Bill containing many elements of retrospection. We believe that the principle should be that the insurance company should only pay out the amount of charge that was known at the time the premium was paid.

What we see on the Marshalled List today represents a compromise from that position to some degree because one needs to set a date and perhaps it is unduly onerous to set a date that is the passing of this Bill. However it is abundantly unfair for insurers to have to accept the date of the Budget in July 1997 when it was not possible for them to ascertain what the charges should be. I know that the Minister said discussions had taken place with the insurance industry and it appeared to accept this point. But it appears to me to be somewhat "Sicilian" negotiation with the insurers--"This is really an offer you cannot refuse"! It would be far preferable to move to a different date.

It seems that the current date of July has either been taken as a Budget or, in a sense, it is two years back from where we are now because that is the assumption as to the amount of time it takes to settle an accident claim. Either way, it is extremely arbitrary. We should therefore like to see some movement from the Government. In particular, it would be useful to know the precise estimated difference in the cost between the date of April 1998 and July 1997. What is the impact on the NHS of taking the two different dates? I beg to move.

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