King's Cross Railways Bill
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise an important and intricate point of order of which I have given you notice. It relates to the decision of the Standing Orders Committee in respect of the King's Cross Railways Bill. Its decision is reported in item 16 of the Votes and Proceedings as a resolution agreed by the House. That book entry was made without discussion in the House.
Private business Standing Order No. 163(2) on the provision of private Bills clearly states :
"Where, in respect of a petition for a private bill, the Examiner has reported that the standing orders have not been complied with, and the House, on consideration of a report from the Standing Orders Committee that the standing orders ought to be dispensed with, gives leave to the parties to proceed with the bill, the bill shall be presented to the House not later than the following day".
The Standing Order clearly shows that three stages of that process should occur : first, the examiner reports ; secondly, the Standing Orders Committee decides whether the Standing Orders should be dispensed with ; and, thirdly--this is the crucial point--the House gives the parties leave to proceed. Standing Orders clearly show that the House should have an opportunity to consider the matter, reach a decision and give an hon. Member such as myself who is intimately concerned with the Bill an opportunity to raise objections. Page 928 of "Erskine May" outlines current practice and says :
"Such motions are now purely formal."
Column 510There is a clash between the clear meaning of Standing Order and their interpretation in "Erskine May". My understanding is that Standing Orders must take precedence. "Erskine May" is an interpretative guide, not an absolute one. The clear meaning of Standing Orders is that the House should have an opportunity to consider the motion from the Standing Orders Committee before the Bill proceeds further.
Mr. Speaker : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order, which is genuine. It has given me an opportunity carefully to look into it. The hon. Gentleman is correct in pointing out that where the Standing Orders Committee has resolved that the parties ought to be permitted to proceed with their private Bill, it is the practice for the agreement of the House to be given formally. This is consistently the case, and it has happened 12 times in the past five years. In respect of the King's Cross Railways Bill, the formal agreement of the House is recorded in yesterday's Votes and Proceedings, and that is fully in accordance with our procedures.
If the hon. Gentleman feels that there should be an opportunity to debate favourable reports from the Standing Orders Committee, that would first require a decision of the House to change its practice. We have been informed that there is to be a debate on private Bill procedure after Easter, and the hon. Gentleman may wish to seek an opportunity to pursue the matter on that occasion.
Mr. Chris Smith : I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker. If the House were minded when we debate the private Bill procedure to include within our normal arrangements a provision for Members to object to the Standing Orders Committee report, could the decision be applied to the King's Cross Railways Bill? As you know, that is a highly controversial measure.
Citizens' Compensation Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I should like to place on record my appreciation and gratitude to all those who assisted in drafting the Bill, especially Mr. Henry Witcomb, who helped me in a first-class manner and who represents the noble cause promoted by Citcom. I should like to thank also the Bill's sponsors, many of whom are well known for fighting for civil justice. Special mention must be made of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), who has made a long and sincere contribution to this work.
When the Citcom initiative, which was promoted by Lord Scarman, came into being, the Prime Minister said that the campaign's contribution to reform would be highly valued. I hope that the Bill, which at this stage is non- controversial and which has the Prime Minister's benediction, will be debated fully. Its purpose is to deal with what some of us have felt for many years is a neglected aspect of personal injury and compensation awards.
The Bill deals with the enormous difficulties that injured people face, through no fault of their own, in seeking compensation. It is increasingly necessary that people who suffer injury because of our high-risk society should be able to achieve fair and prompt compensation at a reasonable cost. Far too often constituents have to come to our advice centres and surgeries because they believe that they have a genuine case for compensation but are deterred by legal costs and the time needed to institute litigation. This confuses ordinary people. Indeed, many are extremely distressed because the way is not clear to seek genuine awards for their personal injuries. Injured people have to overcome a bewildering range of problems. It has rightly been termed an obstacle course. They face difficulties in financing their cases and finding the right legal advice and, finally, in obtaining proper compensation.
I should like to highlight two cases that deal with the desperate need for competent and specialised advice. Only a few legal firms and representatives are available to deal specifically and exclusively with such personal injury matters as assessing pay, suffering and loss of quality of life.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to the examples to bolster his case, will he say whether he agrees that the present system builds in a considerable incentive to those who do not wish to pay compensation to drag out every aspect in which they are engaged in order to prolong the obstacle race that these poor people must run?
My first case is that of Keith Blackburn, who suffered brain damage as a result of a medical accident. His case
Column 512was finally resolved in August last year after a 12-year fight against the health authority responsible. His parents, who sued on his behalf, used three solicitors before finding a fourth firm capable of taking on the case. Another case was decided less than two weeks ago, when the judge described it as a "scandal" that a woman had had to wait nine years before receiving a reward for damages. He has asked the solicitors involved to return to the court to explain the delays.
There are cases that make obvious the acute need for specialisation in medical negligence and personal injury matters. I welcome the Lord Chancellor's recognition of the need to tackle the problem. Much more needs to be done to avoid delays.
Another problem that recently came to my attention is the huge delay caused by slow administration of the legal aid scheme. Last November a High Court judge criticised that "deplorable state of affairs". He said that the legal aid headquarters kept its doors locked to prevent any callers making inquiries because it was so badly underfunded. That is an outstanding disgrace and an indictment of our system and society. Delays can mean that an injured person must wait more than three months without knowing even whether he or she will have the means to start the tortuous process of suing. In addition, there are all the other delays that plague the system. It can take between three and six years for the average case to be completed.
I am pleased to be a supporter of the Citizen Action Compensation Campaign. As Lord Scarman said, it seeks to put the strength of popular demand behind learned and reasoned argument for law reform. We need to speed up the processes in a matter which has been neglected and in which expertise has been lamentably short. It is imperative that we concentrate on improving matters.
We remember Mr. Justice Hirst and the tragic cases involving the drug Opren. The figures are printed on my heart because some of my constituents, mainly elderly people, were involved. There were 1,354 proven claimants who received, on average, the paltry and insulting sum of £1,800 each and who had a hundred legal representatives involved in fighting the claims. Our American counterparts, who submitted 104 claims, received £25 million in total. There is no financial justice in that. It is ridiculous and a personal insult, especially in a country which talks of building from Parliament into our judicial system a form of compassion based on Christian ethics. Mr. Justice Hirst said :
"As I have said more than once during the course of the Opren case, both the assessors and the courts have been obliged to base their awards on levels of damages established by precedent, which is binding in law. There is nothing wrong with critics questioning or condemning these levels, so long as they recognise that only Parliament can change them."
That is the initiative that we are trying to take today. Mr. Justice Hirst continued :
"So long as the present levels remain in force, the Courts have no alternative but to apply them."
There is a challenge to the House contained in those words. It is a challenge that I urge the House to take up by allowing the Bill a Second Reading.
I want to comment on some of the rather horrifying and emotional cases. Hon. Members may have read recently of the case of a young woman in the Greater Manchester area, in which my constituency is located. She underwent a horrific ordeal in an operation to deliver her second child by caesarian section. She woke up 10 minutes into the
Column 513operation and, although she was unable to move a single muscle, she was fully conscious throughout the next 40 minutes of an excruciatingly painful operation.
For the past nine years she has suffered deep psychological problems, ranging from insomnia and agoraphobia to a deep-seated fear of ever becoming pregnant again. She has also had to relive the experience time and time again in interviews with doctors and psychiatrists in pursuing her claim against the health authority. She says that she does not go one day without remembering the experience. Last year she received an out-of-court settlement of £7,500 for her pain, suffering and loss of quality of life. Her solicitor, who is handling 60 similar cases, said that settlements have been based on the first case, for which a woman was awarded £12,000 by a judge. Few solicitors are likely to deal with more than one such case, so they have little information on which to base an assessment of compensation. That is unbefitting for a system that is intended to achieve justice for ordinary people.
There are problems in different parts of the country and in Scottish law. A woman from Stirlingshire, who had an operation to sever the nerves close to her kidneys, underwent a similar experience. The health authority offered her £2,400. Her solicitor told her that he had no experience of such injury cases and that she would have to make up her own mind about whether she accepted the offer. Fortunately, she fought on and finally settled for just over £5,000. I and many others are concerned that such levels are not realistic.
As an aside, I must tell the House that I read with alarm clause 18 of the Social Security Bill, which is currently in Committee. In effect, clause 18 will claw back some of the awards given in cases of pain, suffering and loss of quality of life. Under the clause, any form of benefit payments will be offset against awards and will be clawed back and put in the Government's coffers. Such a provision would apply to sickness benefit, invalidity and any other benefits paid as a result of injuries from an accident or incident. There are few specialised legal firms with expertise in such compensation, but there are some that are quite expert. The firm of Robert Thomson in Glasgow has just handled the case of a man who lost 50 per cent. of the use of his right hand through an accident at work. He was offered £13,000 which he was recommended to accept. Meanwhile, he had received Department of Social Security benefits totalling £18,000. Under the proposed system, he would receive nothing because any compensation would be swallowed up by payments back to the Department of Social Security.
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) : I have a case on my desk upstairs in which a constituent was given £2,600 for an injury she had received while working for the National Health Service. The Department of Social Security is currently claiming back £1,500 to cover a period back to June 1985 because she was on supplementary benefit and income support during that time. I am fighting that matter with the Department.
Mr. Cunliffe : It is detestable for the system to operate in that way. The logic of contributing national insurance payments is that they are an investment for times when things go wrong or for specific benefits such as pensions. We cannot allow such a provision. To say that in
Column 514supporting my Bill one would be allowing the payment of double compensation is nonsense. If one has contributed into a fund, one has the right, when the time arrives, to receive payments from the fund. Such benefits and compensation awards are wholly separate.
Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East) : It is a question of natural justice. A person receives benefit from the state while pursuing the case, and if the courts decide that compensation should be given to the person, that has nothing to do with state benefit.
Mr. Cunliffe : My right hon. Friend is right. We are dealing with a non-political issue. All hon. Members today want to give their maximum attention to the debate and did not envisage that such an anomaly might be created by the Government in the Social Security Bill. The Bill will have a direct and adverse effect on the matters that we are discussing today and on the benefit system.
Judgments seem to be made on the basis of size and importance in many respects. Let us consider the disasters recently experienced on land, at sea and in the air. The details are too numerous to describe and I regret that I have to quote these cases, but we should consider the spectacular cases, which are highlighted in terms of the numbers involved and their significance to the people of this country. Such incidents receive greater attention and the victims receive far better financial treatment from the courts. Following the Piper Alpha and, to some extent, the King's Cross and Clapham disasters, large settlements were reached under the full glare of publicity. The fact remains, however, that in everyday cases compensation is still based on Kemp and Kemp, and Kemp and Kemp is about precedent and the sums awarded have been all too low.
Mr. Justice Hirst claimed that the problem was one of precedent awards dictating the level of compensation for the cases that followed. I hope that the Lord Chancellor and the Solicitor-General will take note : the only answer is to break the vicious circle, and my Bill would do much to achieve that.
There seems to be some confusion surrounding the establishment of the Compensation Advisory Board. The board will recommend levels of compensation to be awarded to injured persons for pain, suffering and loss of quality of life. It will be an advisory body. The judiciary is crying out for a lead in this matter, because it realises that sums paid in bereavement damages and in compensation for pain and suffering are derisory. But the judges' hands are tied because they work within the guidelines laid down by the House. The Compensation Advisory Board will draw up more highly sensitive and up-to-date guidelines, which will offer judges flexibility and the option of making awards of the kind that they would like to make now. The board will consist of no fewer than eight and no more than 11 members appointed by the Lord Chancellor after consultation with relevant organisations. For obvious reasons, it will include one medically qualified person specialising in the rehabilitation of injured persons. It will include one clinical psychologist specialising in the counselling of injured persons. It will include two persons with experience of personal injury litigation--a practising solicitor and a practising barrister or advocate. Finally, it will include four persons appointed after consultation with
Column 515voluntary organisations that provide advice or services to injured or disabled persons. There will be three spare places on the board. Let me stress the importance of voluntary organisations being represented on the board. Our whole legal system benefits from public input in the form of the jury system. The Bill seeks to strike a balance on the board between experts and the public. Perhaps there is no such thing as a perfect balance, but we have tried to attain the happy medium in determining the composition of the board to advise the Lord Chancellor. We shall be quite happy to consider any improvements in that composition which may be suggested in Committee, but the principles must first be established that the board must consist of individuals who are aware of the effects of disability and that it must include strong lay and public representation. We could perhaps have speeded the process, but as the Bill stands, the board will be expected to recommend compensation levels appropriate to injuries in a number of classes listed in schedule 2 within a year. Its recommendations will be published by the Lord Chancellor. Those recommendations will come into force and be used by the courts one year after publication. We have allowed for a one-year gap for a reason. Some have criticised the Bill on behalf of the insurance companies, but the one-year gap has been included to allow the insurance business time to adjust its premiums accordingly.
Mr. Orme : Does my hon. Friend agree that the brief that the insurance companies have distributed to hon. Members is outrageous? After all the money that people have paid into insurance companies, those companies are not prepared even to consider my hon. Friend's suggestion, even though he is going out of his way to allow them to adjust over the first 12 months. I am sure that all hon. Members will find the insurance companies' brief unacceptable.
Mr. Cunliffe My right hon. Friend has made a valid point. I was astonished by some of the things that the insurance companies said in their brief. I do not know why they are so afraid of the Bill. Anyone would think that the directors of the insurance companies would be paying the money out of their own pockets. I am sure that there will be no deduction from their salaries if they accept the reasonable compromise that is proposed. I do not seek deliberately to hack up insurance companies or to threaten their viability. As I have said from the beginning, the Bill is non-political in character. We want financial justice for injured persons, and we want them to have easy access to financial justice. The insurance companies' fears that pay- outs will go through the roof are unfounded.
Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking) : I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend's train of thought, but I am not clear whether the Bill would apply to people who have worked in firms using asbestos, some of whom die from asbestosis. I see that hon. Members are nodding ; I am very relieved to hear that the Bill will apply in such cases. An asbestos firm in my constituency has left a trail of death behind it. There has been some limited compensation in the form of benefits from the Department of Social Security, but I am interested to know whether the Bill will also help those affected.
Mr. Cunliffe : My Bill would certainly help them, although we must see what happens to clause 18 of the Social Security Bill. The asbestos industry has been suspect for many years and the trade unions have fought hard to gain recognition of the problem by the industry and to obtain for their members benefits and awards for industrial disablement. Some awards have been made, and I intend to ensure that the Bill protects and shelters those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson).
We intend that the review of recommendations should be made as quickly as possible. The Lord Chancellor will be placed under a duty to increase levels of compensation in line with increases in the retail prices index. That is important. Damages are awarded on the basis of the assessment of a working life span, and the courts have always expected the recipients of fairly substantial awards prudently to invest the money to guard against the effects of inflation. I do not want to comment on inflation today ; that would be too political. The Bill will, however, contain a built-in protection against it which is reasonable and fair. I am sure that the House will be happy to accept such protection.
I do not pretend that the Bill will solve all the problems of those who seek compensation, but it is a reasonable step in the right direction. The board will represent a balance of interests. Its members will have a deep knowledge of what disability means and it will be able to provide an input from the public in the process of deciding what compensation people should receive. People find it disconcerting and confusing that juries should award compensation in defamation cases but not in the far more important matter of personal injury. Recently, we have all had classic illustrations of that. We have seen awards of between £300,000 and £1 million basically for injured reputations. Compared with those awards there have been mean, niggardly and miserly amounts awarded for injuries and bereavements. That is illogical. We need compassion in our system of awarding money for personal injuries.
Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Justice Otton, a well respected High Court judge, spoke to an international conference of lawyers. He said that he would like to import from the American system the power occasionally to order a civil case to be heard by a jury in order to see what damages it would award. I would not go too far about imports from America, but that one seems useful. Judge Otton said that this "would probably mean an uplift of all our damages which many people feel are far too low."
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : Is the hon. Gentleman aware--it is not commonly known in England--that in Scotland a person seeking damages for personal injuries is entitled to a civil jury trial?
Mr. Cunliffe : I am aware of that, and later in my speech I shall deal briefly with the Scottish law because its damages awards are far better than ours. I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for drawing that to the attention of the House.
My belief that juries would award higher levels of compensation is borne out by awards made by juries in Northern Ireland. Before their abolition in August 1987, in the Welsh v. Union Installation case, an asbestosis case, the defendant's and the claimant's lawyers fixed a
Column 517settlement of approximately £50,000 based on their calculation of previous judge-based decisions. The case went before a jury and the claimant was awarded £76,000.
The trend of high jury awards is not only to be found in Northern Ireland because recently a Scottish jury awarded an injured woman £15,000 even though the appeal court ruled that a judge would have awarded only £10,000. There is some merit in the public input being part of a jury system. Both of the cases that I have quoted showed an increase of 50 per cent. on what a judge would have awarded. It should be remembered that a jury knows that if it awards too much its decision can be overturned by an appeal court. The more public input into the process the better, and my proposed board will provide that without running the risk of greater uncertainty in the system that would occur if civil juries were reintroduced.
Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford) : My hon. Friend has spoken about insurance. The insurance companies say : "The higher level of welfare provision in the United Kingdom also needs to be borne in mind"
and supplementary benefits should be taken into account. Does that mean that supplementary benefits equate to pain and suffering?
Mr. Cunliffe : That is the yardstick that they seem to be using and obviously they have no scruples because some of the letters that I have received from insurance companies are precisely in line with what my hon. Friend has just said.
As I have said, in both the cases that I quoted there was a 50 per cent. increase in the awards. I have no desire to see in Britain the high awards that are often made in the United States. The responsibility for compensation guidelines would be in the hands of the well balanced and independent board that the Bill seeks to set up. The board would decide on compensation.
Unlike the United States, we do not have a system of contingency fees or punitive damages, both of which can result in a jury making huge awards to victims. Any fears that the introduction of the board would lead to grossly inflated awards will prove to be unfounded. I say to our friends in the insurance industry that that appears to be the case. The board's recommendations would provide courts and solicitors with a sensitive, up-to -date and comprehensive guide to compensation levels.
I emphasise that the board's recommendations would be advisory and that the final award would still be left for the judges to decide in the light of the facts of each case. The board would lead to a better match of injury to compensation, greater consistency in awards and speedier settlements, which is what we all need. At present, people have to endure four, seven or 11 years of going through the system, and that is atrocious. We need speedier settlements and lower costs. Some hon. Members, and possibly the Government, are worried about costs, and we can have a look at that issue.
The Bill will also tackle another problem that has troubled many people for years. It is the calculation of an injured person's compensation for loss of earnings and the cost of any medical care that may be required. In order to make such a calculation, the courts need to know about such matters as the average life expectation of a person having the same characteristics as the claimant and how long he might have been likely to remain in work had he
Column 518not been injured. They also need to assess the prospects of a claimant remaining in good health. Many people think that the present system is about the best that we can get.
The first and most important matter to be decided is average life expectancy, and that judgment is made by the experts in the actuaries' profession. Once that has been calculated, the basis for the compensation to an injured person is established. Other factors, such as the possibility of ill health, can be dealt with as secondary issues, but the basis must be right. The courts have insisted on applying an alternative method of assessment which involves a judge making an informed guess about the likely working life of a claimant and then deducting an amount for the possibility of ill health or unemployment. A judge has the right to reduce the award on the basis of high unemployment in a claimant's area. A 20 per cent. level of unemployment can lead to the risk of a deduction in the award and the judge can consider that.
The estimation of a person's life expectancy is carried out by actuaries. The existing method of assessing damages simply does that which actuarial methods do but does it less scientifically and accurately.
Mr. Cunliffe : That is obviously an emotional issue, and people who have to endure that sort of searching out and assessment suffer psychologically. In some cases, a claimant's health has deteriorated simply because of that type of assessment. My hon. Friend makes a valid point.
We all agree that the actuarial method is not foolproof. However, it is more likely to be accurate than the method that has been evolved by the courts. Under the actuarial method, claimants would be less likely to be under-compensated and therefore find themselves running out of money with several years left to live. Such things happen. If the life expectancy has been wrongly assessed, the victim can be left to struggle for perhaps the last 10 years of his life. I emphasise that the present system has been criticised by the Law Commission and the Pearson Royal Commission, which reported that in the majority of cases no method of lump sum calculation could achieve mathematical perfection. Of course, we accept that, but use should be made of the practical assistance that mathematics can provide. The Law Commission recommended that the courts should have regard to actuarial evidence and drafted a clause for inclusion in a Bill. The provisions of my Bill are based on that clause. There is no division on this point.
Even more importantly, a set of actuarial tables was produced in 1984 by a working party of lawyers and actuaries, chaired by Sir Michael Ogden QC. The working party was composed of representatives of the Law Society, the Law Society of Scotland, the Bar Council, the Faculty of Advocates, the Institute of Actuaries and the Faculty of Actuaries in Scotland. It unanimously recommended that the tables should be used in personal injury cases. However, almost immediately a judge held that the tables could not be used.
I accept that actuarial evidence will not ensure complete financial security for an injured person, but it is more likely to do so than the present system. Furthermore, it would not greatly increase the cost of litigation. In more complex
Column 519cases it may be necessary to call an actuary in person, but in the majority of cases the actuarial tables will be all that is necessary. If a more sophisticated and accurate method is available for judges to use in such cases, I believe that it should be used. My supporters and I claim that my Bill could be the basis for achieving that. The Bill would also reform the present law on bereavement damages which cries out for a more realistic assessment. In my view, the present system of awarding damages is wholly unrealistic. Bereavement damages in England and Wales are governed by the Fatal Accidents Act 1976. The maximum limit on the amount of damages recoverable is £3, 500 per death. Can anyone say in all fairness that such a niggardly figure should apply today to compensate for the pain, suffering and the quality of life of a bereaved person?
Some people argue that, because the loss that a bereaved person suffers is beyond all assessment, there should be no award or compensation for bereavement. I cannot see the logic of that. No one wants to gain from bereavement. It is not calculated by people. The bereaved are not motivated to try to gain the maximum amount of money. However, society must recognise that the victims must not be denied recognition in our judicial system. We must say, "Society has inflicted this on you and you have the right to claim compensation." It is true that damages can never adequately compensate for the loss of a member of one's family, but just because it is difficult to compensate does not mean that we should not try. That is the point that my Bill recognises. If the bereaved believe that financial compensation will help them to recover from a tragedy, they should be allowed that compensation as a right. They should not have to choose whether to claim that compensation ; their choice should be simply how to apply the compensation that they receive.
Although I can understand the argument that, because it is difficult to compensate for such a loss, the award should be nominal, many ordinary people find it incomprehensible that at present the sums awarded for fatal injuries are substantially less than awards for less serious injuries.
I have recently learned of the case of a father who lost his 11-year-old daughter as a result of the negligence of their local general practitioner. After a five-year fight, the father received £3,500 in compensation, plus £252 in interest and £616 for funeral expenses in an out-of- court settlement. He said that he fully appreciated that it would be difficult to put a price on his daughter's life, but that he felt that the statutory amount was insulting and derisory. I am sure that the House recognises that there is a valid case for increasing bereavement damages. What can we say to the woman who lost several members of her family in the Bradford fire tragedy? She is bitter and angry that the law is so ludicrously inadequate. What can we say to the man who stands to receive only £1,500 for the loss of his wife who was one of the 153 people who received overdoses of radiation in the radiotherapy dept of the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital in 1987?
Evidence shows that the public feel that the current levels of compensation are unacceptably low. That was borne out in the recent out-of-court settlements for the
Column 520Zeebrugge, King's Cross and Clapham disasters, when the defendants felt that it would be unconscionable to pay the statutory maximum and paid instead almost three times that amount to the bereaved. As I said earlier, the amounts awarded seem to depend on the size of the tragedy, the number of people involved and the sensational reports given in the press and media. The awards seem to be based on subjective views rather than logic.
The sums awarded should not be unreasonable and they should certainly not be derisory. The Bill therefore seeks to increase the minimum figure to £10,000 for each claimant with a ceiling of £50,000 for each death. I know that there is an argument that damages for bereavement should be unlimited, but that would make the size of an award dependent on the bereaved person having to prove the extent of his or her grief, or the closeness of the relationship with the deceased. As I said earlier, such investigations would increase people's grief and run counter to the aim of the award.
The Bill will also place a minimum award on "loss" damages, which are known as the "loss to society" damages in Scotland. In addition to increasing the amount of damages that could be awarded, the Bill will extend the categories of people who could claim such damages from the narrow categories of spouses and the parents of children who are unmarried and under 18 to spouses, parents and children and to any other person whose relationship with the deceased was substantially the same as that of a spouse, parent or child. Again, it is a matter of judgment, and not necessarily of logic. However, many people are distressed when they realise that children are prevented from claiming for the bereavement of a parent under existing law. Why should not a claim be made for a child's bereavement? Does a child not feel bereavement? A child can feel as much loss as anyone else and the parents are the whole world to the child.
Only this morning I received a letter from a mother who said : "Its 1.30 in the morning ; the price we pay for the loss of a child is loss of normal responses to life ; sleep being one of them. Since my 23-year-old son was killed in a road accident 2 years 7 months ago my life has changed completely."
She goes on to describe the emotional feelings and response to grief which bite into the family's way of life. It is a long letter in which she also says :
"The loss to me and my husband of this only son is not calculable in monetary terms but to get nothing, not one penny, not even funeral expenses, because he was over 18 is an intolerable insult." It is absurd that Scottish law provides a wider scope for claiming such damages. Under the Damages (Scotland) Act 1976, spouses, parents, children, a person accepted by the deceased as a child and any person who was immediately before the deceased's death living with the deceased as husband or wife can claim damages. It is unacceptable that if an English or Welsh family travels over the border to Scotland and has a fatal accident claims can be made by people who would be prevented from doing so in England and Wales. I commend the Scottish system. I would not want to devalue it in any way. It is a far better and more justifiable law than we have in England and Wales.
I accept that these proposals will require detailed examination in Committee. Today I wish to establish the principle that there must be uniformity between English and Scottish law. My Bill will provide the impetus in an
Column 521area where there has been a woeful lack of action. I do not pretend that it is anything but a start in improving the quality of justice for those seeking personal injury compensation. It addresses several of those problems. I feel sure that it will start much wider reforms in this area. I understand that a civil justice review is taking place under the auspices of the Lord Chancellor. I am sure that when he replies the Solicitor-General will enlighten the House on that and say that it will embrace some of the elements that I seek to introduce by the Bill.
My Bill and today's debate pursue a clear negotiable course towards bringing a far better system of justice in terms of compensation and access to justice. One must concede that individual access to our system of justice is prohibitively expensive. It is difficult to obtain justice, and the result hardly warrants the risk and worry because of the derisory sums involved. In that respect we have a rich man's law. We cannot allow that to continue. There are better ways which must be our ways. The House must find a better way of solving this burning, emotional and passionate problem.
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North) : It gives me great pleasure to support the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) in what he rightly describes as a wholly non-party political measure. I congratulate him on using his luck in the ballot to introduce a Bill is long overdue. It has the support of more than 200 hon. Members who have backed Citizen Action and come from all political parties. I should like to thank my noble and learned constituent, Lord Scarman, who is the president of Citizen Action, for his advice and for the benefit of his considerable wisdom in helping me to form my views on these reforms.
The Bill is only the beginning, certainly not the end, of a package of reforms. It will pave the way for the nationally underwritten, no-fault compensation scheme which many hon. Members wish to see. The establishment of a Compensation Advisory Board and a nationally recognised scale of compensation are prerequisites for a no-fault scheme. Only that will finally remove the sort of injustices to which the hon. Member referred in cases such as the tragedy of Keith Blackburn.
The hon. Member for Leigh referred to some major disasters and tragedies that we have witnessed recently and to the scale of compensation that is often paid in the glare of publicity. He highlighted individual and personal tragedies in other cases. As a journalist, I once wrote a headline describing an accident as the world's worst air disaster. An editor who was much more experienced and much wiser than I said, "You cannot say that because the world's worst air disaster is the one in which somebody you know dies. The world's worst car crash is the one in which your wife, child, brother, sister, mother or someone dear dies. All car crashes are dreadful and all such deaths are dreadful. In the scale of human suffering, it is the one which affects you as an individual that matters." It is the individual who needs compensation. The fact that one's grief happens to be shared by 100 or 200 other people and that a spotlight of publicity is put on that grief should be no cause for a different level of settlement.
I have a declared interest in the pharmaceutical industry. Many of my constituents are employed by Pfizers, the pharmaceutical company, at Sandwich. Their views have been borne in on me. Anyone connected with
Column 522the pharmaceutical industry is aware of the cost of introducing new drugs, the painstaking research, the care taken-- not just occasionally, but in every case--the examination of evidence and effect and the licensing processes that are gone through before any new drug hits the United Kingdom market. We also know that drugs may have a side effect that affects one, two or 10 people only. For those people, that is just as dreadful as if the drug affected 10,000.
I am certain that it is in the interests of the industry and of those who find it necessary to claim that when such cases occur--as they inevitably will if we are to make progress in research--that they are compensated swiftly and without recourse to long and agonising court cases. In that context, the thalidomide case is often mentioned. Prior to the thalidomide case, it was not the general practice of pharmaceutical companies to test drugs for their effects on pregnancy. It was largely because of that omission that the tragedy occurred. Since then the practice has been changed, but we know with dreadful reality that there will be others. Those cases must be settled quickly, fairly and, I would suggest, on a no-fault basis.
It was, in fact, a more prosaic case that finally drew my attention to the Bill and attracted my fervent support for this and further measures. It was the case of an elderly lady constituent who had gone out shopping, tripped on a broken paving stone, damaged herself physically and broken a fairly expensive pair of glasses. She reported the incident to her local authority, who quite correctly passed her claim to its insurers, Royal Insurance (UK) Limited. My constituent engaged a solicitor to write the letter which she felt unqualified to write herself. In due course the Royal Insurance considered her claim and decided that, because the local authority had apparently inspected that piece of pavement within recent months, it had not been negligent and, therefore, there was no liability. The concluding paragraph of its letter to my constituent said : "Unfortunately, therefore, whilst we have every sympathy with the injuries that you sustained"--
we can almost hear the crocodile tears hitting the ground "as a result of your fall, as the legal Liability Insurers of the Kent County Council, we are unable to assist you further." My constituent went back to her solicitor, who very properly advised her that she most certainly could pursue her claim if she chose--it was her decision--and he would represent her, but the costs of that would be considerable and the likely result would be extremely uncertain. It will not surprise any hon. Member to learn that she did what any one of us would have done--she decided to cut her losses and not pursue her claim.
There are probably tens of thousands of such simple cases every year that require natural justice to be applied. It has been said that a no-fault compensation scheme would be expensive ; certainly it would cost money. We may have to move towards a mandatory third party insurance for personal risk. Such insurance already exists. Every person who drives a car must take out third party cover and, perhaps, that will have to be extended. Such schemes work in other countries, and I believe that they can work here. I offer my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh my wholehearted support.