Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

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Lady Hermon: I intervene to enable the Minister to refer the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to the quality assessment, which covers this specific point and approves the two-year cohabitation rule.

Mr. Browne: Again, the hon. Lady's outstandingly comprehensive research comes to my aid, for which I am grateful.

The hon. Gentleman asked about review. The scheme will be monitored and reviewed and we shall monitor Victim Support closely to ensure that victims receive the service that they need.

Lembit Öpik: In relation to cohabitation, let me assure the Committee that I seek to bring no personal experience to the debate on the justice of the scheme on that point.

With regard to the review, would the Minister consider it right for a retrospective payment to be made if it turned out at the point of the review that an injustice had been done?

Mr. Browne: I was coming to that point. It will not have been lost on the hon. Gentleman that my hope and expectation is that we shall be able to devolve responsibility for such matters to the politicians of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the question of a time frame. We shall need some reasonable experience of the operation of the scheme before it can be reviewed. In Great Britain, six years of operating the scheme has not, as far as I know, produced the great injustices that some in Northern Ireland say will necessarily result from it. If hon. Members know of such injustices, they might let me know, but as far as I am aware only general criticism has been made against the scheme.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford asked about Omagh victims. Approximately 750 claims were made as a result of the terrible tragedy in Omagh, of which about 100 are outstanding for various reasons. Some of the claims relate to serious injuries, which often need time to settle before a proper prognosis can be made and compensation can be

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calculated. Sometimes, the early settlement of such claims can be to the long-term detriment of the victim. Interim payments are made in all such cases.

When I came into this job, several cases of Omagh victims were brought to my attention by an organisation, and I asked to see the files. Some of that information has informed my contribution to the debate about delay. I read every one of those files over a weekend and gave the people involved an undertaking that if any issues could be dealt with by the agency or by myself, they would be dealt with accordingly. I make that offer to any Omagh victims who are concerned about delay, and I would be prepared to look at the files myself. The agency knows of my particular interest in those cases. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have met the victims, and I know how important it is that their cases are dealt with in a way that is appropriate to the tragedy suffered by that community.

I give the hon. Gentleman an unequivocal undertaking that I will consider the case of any individual who is concerned about delay caused by the agency. If the hon. Gentleman lets me know of any such case, I will read the agency file from beginning to end to establish whether the case has been dealt with satisfactorily. When I looked at the files—I do not remember all the details, but I wrote extensive detailed notes—my overwhelming impression was that any delays were justifiable because of the complexity of the claims and the nature of the injuries, or because questions to other parties, which needed to be answered before the agency could settle claims, were unanswered.

Mr. Davies: I am grateful for that assurance. I will draw the attention of the people whom I met in Omagh last Thursday to the Hansard record of the Minister's remarks. I know that they will appreciate what he has said. He confirmed that there are about 100 outstanding claims. My impression was that the figure was considerably higher.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He should convey my remarks to those people. I have already conveyed them to those victims who have contacted me, and the agency knows the position. The figure of 100 claims is high, but it is better to get them right than to deal with them quickly. The agency has an outstanding track record in dealing with claims appropriately. I am pleased to be the Minister with responsibility for the agency because it is doing a good job.

On private health insurance—this is an issue relating to the scheme rather than to the order—we have taken into account where insurance provides for the same range of special care needs provided under the scheme, for example, nursing care However, there is a provision in the scheme whereby any shortfall will be made up. The hon. Gentleman asks why. That is how it is done in Great Britain as a result of legislation introduced by his party—

Mr. Davies: It is all our fault.

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Mr. Browne: No, no. It works. That is a good principle relating to all claims and one that should apply to ex gratia payments in such cases. There should not be double compensation. Priorities must be set for the compensation budget and compensation paid to those who need it. If those needs have been served, it would be inappropriate for the Government to serve them again.

May I refer the hon. Gentleman to paragraph 8 of the draft scheme, which includes a definition of a criminal injury? It would be inappropriate to include a definition in the order.

The hon. Gentleman raised the fact that loss of income or pecuniary loss for the first 28 weeks is ignored. I thought that I had explained that in response to his intervention. I am glad to see that hon. Members are nodding their heads to say that I had. I explained it in some detail in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. It no mystery, but I shall repeat it for the hon. Gentleman.

The average awards and the tariff were inflated by 1.85 per cent. in order to provide an allowance for pecuniary loss in the first 28 weeks. Under the new scheme, pecuniary loss is not compensated on an individual basis for the first 28 weeks; neither is it compensated in the scheme that applies in Great Britain, so no point of principle is involved. The figure of 1.85 per cent. is calculated as follows: all criminal injury claims paid during the last two financial years were aggregated, and the percentage of the total sum paid out for pecuniary loss was found to be 1.85 per cent. That percentage was based on historical figures over the past two years, for the period that the agency had.

I think that I have covered all the points raised, Mr. Atkinson, but hon. Members can intervene if I have not. I want to finish by recapping what the draft order aims to achieve.

First, new tariff awards are being introduced at the average value paid under the current common law scheme. They are not being cut. The savings made as a result of removing legal costs will be redistributed to allow more victims to have access to the scheme, thus increasing the number of people who will be eligible to apply. At this point, I should deal with the possible savings, an issue raised by the hon. Member for North Down. I have said time and again that we did not propose the changes in order to cut costs. The primary reason was to benefit the victims of violent crime by changing the process. It is not possible in a demand-led service precisely to determine future expenditure.

The costs in the first five years of the proposed new scheme will be much inflated, as existing claims are cleared alongside cases under the new scheme. It is likely to be five years before a steady state is reached, at which point savings may be made compared to a continuance of current common law arrangements. However, there is no certainty, because we do not how many claims will be made. Much depends on the disparity of inflationary pressures on the tariff and common law awards. The order of savings cannot accurately be predicted at this stage, but savings, if any, are not expected for five or six years.

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Secondly, a review procedure within the administrative arrangements will take the place of the many cases that arrive at the steps of the court before agreement is reached. The establishment of an independent and dedicated appeals process will then allow those applicants who have not accepted the review decision to take their claims to an independent body to be settled quickly and easily.

Finally, the draft order requires that every victim of violent crime is made aware of the service to be provided, in this instance by Victim Support, to assist with their application for compensation. We do not want to see anyone disadvantaged because the scheme will no longer pay for legal costs.

We are debating the main objectives of the draft order today. The order will then permit the making of a statutory scheme. That scheme will also require the approval of both Houses. However, the order before us today is the first step in providing a package of measures that can only benefit future victims of violent crime.

Lady Hermon: Before the Minister finishes his speech, I wish to raise a small technical point. The Minister will understand my amazement at this adjustment to the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill. It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State has power under the order to remove an adjudicator if satisfied that

    ''he has been convicted of a criminal offence''.

Is that a generalisation? It is any criminal offence? Why should an adjudicator be disqualified for a criminal offence when, under the Judicial Appointments Commission set up under that Bill, lay magistrates will not be disqualified if convicted of criminal offences?

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Mr. Browne: The phrase ''a small technical point'' strikes terror in the hearts of Ministers. However, I think that I have the answer. In another context, the hon. Lady and I debated when people should and should not be disqualified from holding judicial or quasi-judicial office. Under the order, adjudicators are those who adjudicate on the value of claims. They decide on behalf of the Secretary of State. The system is similar to the system that used to operate for social security, when adjudicators made decisions on behalf of the Secretary of State by delegated power. The Secretary of State has the power of removal, but it is not mandatory. The Secretary of State will of course exercise a degree of proportionality in deciding whether to use that power in relation to a conviction for careless driving, to use the example that I constantly give to the hon. Lady. That offence does not even involve dishonesty or a deliberate mens rea. It happens carelessly, but it is a criminal offence.

I know that this issue exercises the hon. Lady and many people in Northern Ireland and I have described a way of dealing with it appropriately so that the Secretary of State can make a proportionate response to something that might happen to a person doing the relevant job. In other circumstances different forms of words might be needed, because we might need a narrower discretion for the person who was exercising the right to dismiss someone, or not appoint them, because of a conviction. However, in the present instance, the form of words is appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.

Committee rose at nineteen minutes to Seven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Atkinson Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Browne, Mr.
Cairns, David
Clapham, Mr.
Davies, Mr. Quentin
Francois, Mr.
Hayes, Mr.
Hermon, Lady
Kidney, Mr.
Merron, Gillian
Öpik, Lembit
Pope, Mr.
Shipley, Ms
Skinner, Mr.
Smith, Angela
Turner, Mr. Andrew

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No 118(2):
Calton, Mrs. Patsy (Cheadle)

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