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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 18(1)(a) (Consideration of draft deregulation orders),


Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My point of order is simple: it will not have escaped your notice that over two thirds of hon. Members of this House have just voted against a complete proportional representation system for any election.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Hon. Members are entitled to vote as they please.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(4) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Mental Health Act 1983

Question agreed to.



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Criminal Injuries Compensation

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

10.17 pm

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is important, not only for my constituents, but for all right hon. and hon. Members. Britain can be proud of its commitment to victims of crime. It is not universally understood that we pay out more to those who have had their lives damaged, and sometimes ruined, due to crimes committed against them or members of their family than any other European country--indeed, more than our European partners put together.

That reflects the compassion and the natural justice ingrained within our society. The principle underpinning criminal injuries compensation is that it is an expression of public sympathy and support for the innocent victim.

I was a social worker in Kent before being elected to the House, and I have experience of assisting abused children in making claims for compensation. The legal team working for Kent county council is held up as a beacon of excellence by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority for the way in which it processed claims on behalf of the children in its care.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Department will reply to the debate. He has a highly regarded reputation and his commitment to vulnerable people was evident to me in his previous work, particularly at the Department of Health.

In the light of the review that the Government are holding, I shall address some of the issues relating to criminal injuries compensation. I am pleased to be joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

When changes were introduced a few years ago, they were not universally welcomed. However, there was consensus that, although payments would be less under a tariff scheme than through the previous system, the new claims would be processed much more speedily. From my experience of dealing with constituents, I know that it has been frustrating that some people claimed under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, not under the authority. Many cases wait and wait, letters are not answered and files have been lost. Indeed, one constituent has been waiting eight years for a final settlement.

I have noted from written answers from the board's chairman, the noble Lord Carlisle, that additional members have been appointed to the board and that progress is being made with the backlog. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can assure me this evening that he is monitoring the board's progress and will take steps if it appears to him that the board is unlikely to meet the required level of progress to clear the backlog by March 2000, as agreed.

Even under the tariff scheme, victims can wait a year for a response. Thousands of cases go on to review and then appeal. We should look at how the system could be improved and speeded up. A high proportion of sexual violence cases are turned down at the initial and the review stages because the authority cannot make a

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decision based on papers alone. For example, where a successful defence of consent in a rape trial results in acquittal, there is a conflict of evidence between the applicant and the offender and the case can be settled only at a hearing. The only way for applicants then to make progress is to appeal. However, that is after they have been told in writing by the authority that it is not satisfied that the injuries are the result of a crime.

Hon. Members will understand that that is extremely distressing because, at that stage, the victim is unsure whether the decision that has been reached is a result of conflict, of lack of evidence or of the fact that the authority simply does not believe him or her. In such circumstances, an alternative might be for the panel to advise the victim that it cannot decide on the paper evidence and that it will make a request for an immediate initial hearing. That would speed up the process and give the victim the comfort that the case was at least being given fair consideration.

All hon. Members will know of hideous crimes committed on their constituents and the impact that they have had. It seems wrong that we give compensation and then assess people's means for benefits, which can then be taken it away. I am aware that people have the option of opening a trust, but the amount of money that can go into a trust that can be used freely is limited. There are also solicitors' fees for setting up trusts, not to mention the issue of the liberty to spend one's money as one sees fit.

There are examples of pensioners who have been mugged losing council tax benefit. I have worked with children who have suffered the worst forms of sexual abuse. They have had their income stopped because of an award. That cannot be right and it does not sit comfortably with the spirit of the scheme. Victims of crime should be treated as a special case. It is unjust that the less well-off lose their benefit entitlement because compensation has been awarded for a crime from which they have suffered. Has my hon. Friend considered speaking to the Secretary of State for Social Security on this matter?

My next concern is that a number of victims have had their claims rejected because they have failed to report a crime to the police or have not co-operated with the police. Between 1990 and 1998, there were some 38,000 cases in this category, representing 24 per cent. of all cases. The representative bodies advise me that they are seeing an increase in that instance. Unison, my union, cites an example in which a hospital worker was viciously attacked by a psychiatric patient. She did not notify the police for five weeks because she did not know that she could claim. She did not know about the criminal injuries compensation scheme until her union representative told her about it. She then filed a claim, but it was not accepted because she had not co-operated with the police.

Public sector service workers, particularly in the caring professions, are often reluctant to report assaults by clients to the police because they regard it--wrongly, in my view--as part of the job. Moreover, police involvement can also bring perceived difficulties to the client-worker relationship, particularly in the residential setting. Under the old scheme, the requirement to report incidents to the police was not so strict. Will my hon. Friend consider building in more flexibility in that regard?

Some employees believe that they are discouraged from notifying the police of such assaults to avoid bad publicity. It would also be helpful if the Minister could comment on that.

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I hope that, under the review, the Minister will consider the 28-week rule for special earnings. Public service workers are often vulnerable because they face violence at work. They may be back at work before 28 weeks. As well as the loss of earnings, they may incur large bills as a consequence of their injury. Replacement teeth and glasses are common and costly expenses.

We should be proud of our compensation scheme. It was reluctantly accepted that the tariff system should operate, but the flip side was greater efficiency. There has been more efficiency and claims are processed more quickly. The rates were set in 1994, based on rates discussed in 1993, and they have not increased since. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us that the Government want to increase the tariffs--perhaps not at this stage but at some point in the future--in line with prices.

The upper limit should be lifted in extreme cases. I have noted the Home Secretary's comments that there is a desire to increase payments, especially in sexual attacks. I am sure that we all support that. In the most extreme cases, such as tetraplegia, a family could lose everything, so the award should be greater than the current limit of £500,000.

There is always fierce competition for extra resources. I have made a pitch this evening, but I make no apology for that. I want an improvement in the help given to those who, through no fault of their own, have had their lives destroyed by violent acts of crime.

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