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Session 2000-01
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Alterations to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2001

Ninth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 15 March 2001

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Draft Alterations to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2001

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Alterations to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2001.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hancock. I am genuinely excited at the prospect of a Chairman who speaks for the whole House but was elected as a Liberal Democrat chairing a Committee of which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who is also a Liberal Democrat, is a member. I have served on many Standing Committees, but I have never served under a Chairman who was elected as a Liberal Democrat. We hope that the discipline to which we are accustomed from Liberal Democrats will be evident on this occasion.

The Chairman: We are all excited by that prospect.

Mr. Clarke: Indeed.

I am also pleased that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) is present to speak for the Conservatives. We have had many jousts on many issues and he is a distinguished hunter of panthers and other big cats in his constituency, which has been part of his life's work as a Member of Parliament.

The draft alterations were laid before the House on 5 March. The scheme was first introduced in 1964 and provides payment at taxpayers' expense to blameless victims of violent crime. For the first 32 years, the scheme was non-statutory and compensation was assessed individually in each case and based on common-law damages. The statutory scheme was introduced in 1996 under the previous Administration and compensation is now assessed on the basis of a tariff or scale of awards for injuries of comparable severity. All successful claimants receive an award from the tariff ranging through 25 bands from £1,000 to £250,000. More seriously injured victims may receive an additional payment for loss of earnings or special care, and in fatal cases payment may be made for loss of dependency or parental support. The maximum amount payable for any one claim is £500,000.

The tariff of injuries was amended in March 1999 to add certain injuries and to amend others in the light of the experience of running the scheme for three years. At the same time, the Government published a consultation paper, ``Compensation For Victims of Violent Crime: Possible Changes to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme'', which sought views on how the scheme might be further improved for the benefit of victims. We made it clear at the outset that any changes must be within current legislation and planned financial provision.

The consultation paper was sent to individuals and organisations with a particular interest in the scheme, and to the media and members of the public on request. Respondents included victims' organisations, academics, trade unions, the legal profession, police, charities and individual victims. There were differing and sometimes conflicting views on what should be done, but it became clear that four main areas for change had widespread support: increasing awards for rape and child abuse, reflating the tariff levels, increasing awards for serious multiple injuries, and extending eligibility for fatal awards to partners of the same sex.

In addition to those main areas of change, we took the opportunity to consult the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and the appeal panel on how the layout of the tariff of injuries might be improved. The result of that work is a comprehensive package of improvements to increase compensation paid to victims of violent crime by about £20 million in a full year. We hope and believe that that will make the scheme easier to use.

I shall comment briefly on each of the main changes. First, on increased awards for sexual assault and child abuse, many respondents thought that compensation under the current scheme was too low, although none tackled the thorny problem of by how much. We have examined carefully that complex and important area and we propose a significant increase in awards for rape and sexual assault and for serious sexual and/or physical abuse of children. The minimum award for rape will increase by almost 50 per cent. from £7,500 to £11,000, and the maximum payable for serious physical child abuse will more than double. We propose additional payments of compensation for victims infected with HIV-AIDS. I hope and believe that many hon. Members will welcome the increased awards.

The second change uprates the tariff levels. Some respondents argued that the value of the tariff award has been eroded by inflation since its inception in 1996. However, across the board reflation of all tariff bands is unnecessary and would not represent the best use of available resources. Awards at the top and bottom ends of the tariff are still broadly consistent with damages typically awarded by the courts, which was the basis on which the scheme was established, but there is greater divergence in the middle bands. We therefore propose to uplift tariff bands 7 to 23—members of the Committee will recall that there are 25 bands in all—by 10 per cent., which will significantly increase compensation payable to seriously injured victims.

The third big area is increasing awards for serious multiple injuries, which are calculated by a formula. It is currently 100 per cent. of the tariff award for the highest-value injury, 10 per cent. of the second and 5 per cent. of the third. If one had been damaged in the head, arm and eye that formula would be applicable. Although it was based on practice in the civil courts, many respondents thought that the formula was too low. The experience of running the scheme supports that view, so we propose to increase the formula to 100, 30, 15 rather than 100, 10, 5, which will significantly increase compensation for serious multiple injuries.

The fourth area is extending eligibility for fatal awards to gay and lesbian partners, which is an important social reform. The parents, children, spouses or long-term heterosexual partners of homicide victims currently qualify for a fatal award. There are no grounds for continuing to exclude long-term same-sex partners. The appalling bombing in 1999 of the Admiral Duncan public house in Soho highlighted the issue in a sharp and distressing way.

There were other detailed changes that I shall not discuss in detail. The authority and the appeals panel thoroughly reviewed the scheme and we proposed refining many of the injury descriptions, changing the layout of the tariff, making textual changes to the scheme to remove possible ambiguities and providing greater clarity.

If parliamentary approval is given, the revised scheme will come in effect on 1 April 2001. Provision was made for the estimated cost of the improvements in the spending review 2000. Britain already has the most generous system of compensation for criminal injuries in Europe. It is an important and positive scheme, but it must be improved in the ways that we have suggested. The changes that I have set out show the commitment to victims of crime that is the hallmark of the Government's approach to reforming the criminal justice system. I commend the draft alterations to the Committee and hope that it will approve them.

4.37 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I, too, welcome you as Chairman of the Committee, Mr. Hancock, which is an apt position given the strong naval tradition in your constituency. You and I have participated in defence debates, and in the Royal Navy someone like you would be related to the master-at-arms—otherwise known as the crusher. However, I am sure that you will not have to rely on that.

In the same spirit of fraternal jousting adopted by the Minister, it is a pleasure to be in the presence of two leadership candidates. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey played a distinguished role in the leadership contest for the Liberal Democrat party, and I understand from reading The Guardian that the Minister is a potential future leader of the Labour party. We are indeed in the presence of greatness past, present and future.

The official Opposition warmly welcome the draft of the criminal injuries compensation scheme. As the Minister said, we should be proud of the legislation and it should be welcomed.

The Chairman: I have been looking forward to this. I am unsure whether it will be a pleasure, because that remains to be seen. I call Mr. Simon Hughes.

4.39 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Thank you, and welcome to the Committee, Mr. Hancock. I, too, have not previously served under your chairmanship. Life is full of rich experiences. I am clocking up the number of Liberal Democrat Members who are Chairmen, as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) was in the Chair when I took part in a recent Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. I apologise to the Minister that we must engage in Home Office business again, but what does he expect when the Government legislate so much?

Mr. Clarke: I blame the Tories.

Mr. Hughes: Yes. Looking around the Committee, I observe that, with the exception of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who has just entered, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) and you, Mr. Hancock, there are few old lags around nowadays. The majority of hon. Members are novices in life in general.

The process of review is welcome. The thorough consultation exercise involved a deliberate attempt to examine responses and take them on board. That is a very proper procedure. I welcome the improvements without exception—both their generally uprating nature, and the specifics. The Minister has highlighted some especially important areas.

The change to 30 and 15 per cent. of tariffs that can be awarded, which will considerably increase awards for injuries that are entitled to less than 100 per cent., are especially necessary and welcome. I do not want to tempt the Minister go further than he would want to, but I am conscious that the most recent relevant case was that of Lisa Potts. If such a case were to come before the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority in the near future, would the person concerned benefit from the upgraded system and receive considerably more than Miss Potts did? I think that it was generally accepted, not least by the CICA itself, and by politicians of all parties, that the award was considerably lower than the poor woman deserved for the terrible injuries that she sustained in the course of her teaching and caring duties.

The draft consultation document gave figures about CICA cases in the pipeline. There used to be a huge backlog, although it had been considerably reduced by the time the document was published. How many cases and appeals are currently in the pipeline?

The consultation document addresses the interesting issue of the comparison between awards made in the civil courts and CICA awards. It might be a good idea to examine the possibility of making similar awards in some areas. The scheme is generous compared with those in other countries, and is better than many of them because it has recently become statutory. However, I know from my constituency experience, as might other hon. Members, that there can be much dissatisfaction when a person who would have received a much higher award in the civil courts receives a relatively small award under the CICA.

I will not vote against the draft alterations, because I think that they represent, by and large, a significant improvement. However, I think that more needs to be done in relation to fatal injuries. I understand the argument that if a person has died, the worst of the suffering is the bereavement, rather than a continuing process of suffering that might be alleviated through compensation. However, the maximum award is still extremely small. I believe that it was £7,500, and has now been increased to £5,000 for each relevant relative, so that in the case of a child being killed, two living parents would qualify for £10,000.

I cite an example that brought the matter to my attention recently. A 17-year-old constituent was attacked on his way to work by the boyfriend of his former girlfriend. The attacker was subsequently convicted and sent to prison. The parents, who are not at all mercenary, regarded the offer of £7,500 as almost derisory—and they would have felt the same if it had been £10,000. A healthy 17-year-old had been killed in an unprovoked attack on the way to work with his dad in the building trade. It is important to be sensitive about not making offers that appear to be embarrassing or derisory, although I appreciate that they cannot be of a ``sky's the limit'' nature. I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter in a positive light, because it has caused as much public dissatisfaction as the multiple injuries awards.

As I understand it, the scheme is grant-limited, in the sense that the Government allocate a certain amount to it, like the community care grant scheme or the legal aid scheme. I understand the reason for that, but the way in which public money is allocated—the process of approving budgets and spending reviews—should allow for the total amount for awards to be ratcheted up if demands on the system exceed expectations. As I understand it, if a lot of high awards were to be made in one year, so that the total sum ran out by the end of that year, there would be no extra funds in the kitty and the Government would have to ask for more to be allocated.

The staff of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority are assiduous and competent, do a good job and have a good back-up system. They should not have to say to people, ``We're going to have to start reducing the amount of awards—in cases where we have a discretion and it is not governed by the tariff—because we are top-limited.'' How will the system work in those circumstances?

The consultation document addressed the issue of whether people who contribute to their own misfortune should be penalised. An obvious example is that of an application for an award by a person who had got drunk in a pub and was then injured in a fight with another person who had had too much to drink—perhaps someone with whom he had been drinking. Will the authority be entitled to reduce the amount that it grants in such cases, and if so, according to what criteria ?

I welcomed the Minister's comments about the inequity of the current system with regard to same-sex relationships, which was evidenced by the bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in Old Compton street in Soho a couple of years ago. It is proper that that unfairness will be corrected from 1 April. In that context, is there any scope for ex gratia awards if there is money in the kitty and the authority thinks that it would be fair to make an award, but is not, under a strict application of the rules, entitled to do so?

The proposals will improve the present system. The one area that should be reconsidered because further improvements could be made concerns awards for fatalities. With that reservation, I welcome the alterations.

4.48 pm


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Prepared 15 March 2001