First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 11 March 2002
[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]
Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.
It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson. I understand that this may be your first opportunity to chair a Committee since you were reappointed to the Chairman's Panel—a wise decision by the House authorities. We shall try not to be too difficult today; in fact, we shall not be difficult at all.
The order will be familiar to some members of the Committee. The proposal for the order was published last June and laid before the House in draft form. At the same time, it was referred to the Northern Ireland Assembly for its comments in relation to section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Last December, the Northern Ireland Grand Committee considered the order in some detail. The opportunities for such consideration were assisted by the inclusion in the documents that were made available of the proposed Northern Ireland criminal injuries compensation scheme.
The Committee is confined today to debating only the draft order because that contains the enabling power for the Secretary of State to make the scheme. It is not possible for the House to approve a draft of the proposed scheme until the order that provides the Secretary of State with those necessary powers has been made. That means that today's debate will focus on the proposed powers under the draft order.
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): The Minister said that it was not possible for the House to consider the scheme before it has agreed the order. If we agree the order this afternoon, does that mean that we shall have another opportunity to debate the matter and, if we agree, to approve the scheme?
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. He anticipated my next sentence, which is that the draft scheme will be subject to affirmative resolution by both Houses, so there will be a further opportunity for more detailed debate to take place on the scheme, after the order has been made. In short, the Secretary of State must first have the power to make the scheme. Copies of the draft scheme are available in the Room and it has been made available in draft form since the beginning of the consultation process.
Although many members of the Committee will be familiar with what is being proposed for the payment of criminal injuries compensation, I wish to take this
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opportunity to describe briefly the draft order, and in particular, how it determines that compensation should be calculated; the conditions that may be included under the scheme; the provision for a review of decisions of the Secretary of State; and the method of appeal. The draft order also sets out how the scheme should be approved initially and the arrangements for further alterations if they become necessary.
It may be useful to the Committee if I first explain the chosen format for the draft legislation. The structure follows that used for the criminal injuries compensation scheme in Great Britain. The order sets out the basic principles under which a scheme to pay compensation should operate. The detail of the scheme is contained in a separate statutory document, allowing it some flexibility not available under a full statutory instrument. For example, the language of the scheme needs to be suitable for applicants and their advisers to interpret with ease. That can be achieved more easily in a document that is separate from the parent legislation. It also allows future changes to the scheme to be made without the need to amend the statute.
That means, for example, that changes to allow more injuries to be added to the proposed tariff can be carried out quickly, without the need to involve the full parliamentary process. We want to ensure that the scheme can be updated as necessary to allow victims of crime speedy and easy access to their compensation. I repeat that the structure follows that used for Great Britain, and I do not believe that any anxiety has been expressed about it.
Lady Hermon (North Down): I, too, welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Atkinson. I appreciate the Minister's giving way so early on.
The Minister referred to flexibility for changing and adding tariffs. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeals Panel for Northern Ireland, which is known as ''the panel'', does not need to be altered and does not relate to the argument for flexibility. Why does it not appear in the order but is mentioned only in the scheme?
Mr. Browne: I may need to return to that. I do not have the answer to the hon. Lady's question at my fingertips. If she will allow me to continue, I shall cogitate and deliberate. I am sure that the answer will be simple, although whether it will be acceptable only time will tell.
Article 3 of the order provides the Secretary of State with the power to introduce a criminal injuries compensation scheme for Northern Ireland along similar lines to the scheme that has been operating in Great Britain for some six years. As I said, the power is not absolute but subject to several conditions in the order and is further restrained by the requirement for the scheme to be affirmed by both Houses.
Article 4 of the order outlines how that scheme is to operate and, more precisely, how compensation will be calculated. Judging from the consultation undertaken so far, the method of assessing quantum is at the heart of much debate on the matter.
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The Government's proposal to change the way in which compensation is calculated from the current common law assessment to the use of a tariff of injuries has caused the greatest controversy in Northern Ireland. The change in the method of assessing compensation brings the arrangements in Northern Ireland broadly in line with provisions for Great Britain. However, the origin of the proposed changes is rather different and may be worth recounting for the benefit of the Committee.
The catalyst for change has its roots in wider political changes in Northern Ireland, and specifically the report of the victims commissioner, Kenneth Bloomfield, whom the Government appointed in 1997 to examine ways in which to acknowledge and recognise the position of victims of the troubles. His report recommended a review of the fitness for purpose of the criminal injuries compensation scheme to see whether a better way could be found to compensate victims of violent crime. In the context of that report, he said:
''many of those victims to whom I spoke found the procedures complex, baffling, frustrating and on occasion humiliating.''
The objectives of the subsequent review of criminal injuries compensation that was established in 1998 were thus clear from the start. Its terms of reference were to advise the Government on the fitness for purpose of the existing scheme and to make recommendations for the future. It also had to take account of the need for fairness, equity, openness and affordability.
The theme expressed by the victims commissioner was taken up by the review of criminal injuries compensation, which was led by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield. It reported that much of the evidence received
''focused on the need for a scheme of compensation which contains as few elements as possible which could cause additional distress or pain to the applicants. Reference was made to the time taken to settle some claims, the lack of understanding by applicants of the scheme and the distressing aspects of multiple medical and psychiatric examinations . . . Much evidence was received of how the process itself caused a sense of re-victimisation for the applicants''.
The origin of the proposals is therefore clear. The Government are trying to reform compensation arrangements for the benefit of victims of violent crime.
The provision in article 4 for the introduction of a tariff scheme is not a move to cut the overall costs of compensation. Rather, by implementing the spirit of the Bloomfield report, it is an attempt to make the process of claiming simpler, quicker, easier and less traumatic for all those who, through no fault of their own, need to access compensation for their injuries.
Lady Hermon: I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the review team—Professor Des Greer, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and Mrs. Marion Gibson—recommended a different approach from the one that we are considering today. I understood that they had said that a total severance from the common law basis that had underpinned the system for many years would not be justified. They said that they wanted to retain that system only for substantial cases. However,
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for minor injuries, they recommended the simpler, speedier approach that we have today. Will the Minister explain why the order is not compatible with the recommendations?
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I do not accept that the order is not compatible or not consistent—that is a better word—with the recommendations of the Bloomfield review. There is not total separation from the common law position; common law settlements are the basis for the tariff. They will continue to be used as a basis for the level at which the tariff is fixed, as I shall outline.
To answer the hon. Lady's question directly, let me say that the Government have no obligation to accept every aspect of a review's recommendations—I am constantly reminded of that by Opposition Members, including the hon. Lady. I do not wish to undermine the arguments that were well rehearsed and made in the review by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield. His recommendation was that the tariff system should be applied to what the hon. Lady described by using such a phrase as ''smaller claims''. We have adopted that system for all claims with an important qualification about aspects of the claim other than injury, to which I shall refer in a moment.
Owing to the number of claims in Northern Ireland, and the relationship between claims that would require the preservation of the status quo and claims that would be in the group of which Sir Kenneth Bloomfield spoke, there was no justification for a separate expensive process for that comparatively small number of claims. The question is whether justice could be done for such claims by using a scheme such as that proposed in the order while preserving a view that is consistent with the general view and criticism that Sir Kenneth Bloomfield articulated. The Government believe that that can be done, and that opinion is based largely on the experience of a tariff-based compensation scheme during the past six years in Great Britain. That scheme does not include the qualification that Sir Kenneth Bloomfield suggests is appropriate for Northern Ireland.
There is recognition of differences of common law settlements in Northern Ireland and the difficulties and complexities of some cases under the order and the scheme itself. I shall address that in a moment.