Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Mr. Browne: I shall try to obtain that information during our deliberations.

The Government believe that the proposed scheme takes account of equality issues and that it will not have an adverse impact on section 75 groups. An equality impact assessment is being prepared and will be published in due course. We have had no representations on equality matters in the proposed legislation from any organisations acting for the groups concerned.

I pay tribute to the Compensation Agency staff, who have been responsible for delivering the service defined by the legislative framework throughout the years of civil unrest and since. That standard of service was recently recognised when they were awarded a charter mark for the third time. The agency's objective has always been to ensure that everyone who was eligible received full and fair compensation for their injuries. The administration of the changes that I have outlined will fall squarely on its shoulders. I am sure that members of the Committee will join me in concluding that the agency will rise to the challenge that has been set.

I apologise if I have kept the Committee longer than anticipated, Mr. McWilliam, but I felt that a full explanation of the legislation was important. I commend the order to the Committee.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before I call the Opposition spokesman, may I make my intentions clear? As hon. Members know, there is a possibility of Divisions. If there is a Division, I shall suspend the sitting for 15 minutes. If a Division occurs at or after 4.45 pm, I shall adjourn the Committee, because it will not be possible to return in time. Some Members will recall that that happened last time.

3.25 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. McWilliam. I generally welcome the measure before the Committee. His speech will stand as an eloquent testimony to the effectiveness of the tariff scheme that was introduced in Great Britain in 1996. I thank the Minister for endorsing the measure introduced by the previous Conservative Government. I do not want to delay the Committee too long, so I shall confine my remarks to one or two essential points.

The basic principles of simplicity, straightforwardness and a much quicker system are obviously to be welcomed. I want to illustrate that with

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my first experience as a troop leader. In 1980 I inspected a troop under my command that was arriving in the Army. A soldier in the troop had been blown up by a bomb in Kinawley in 1978 and had suffered a substantial loss of hearing. I served in the Army until 1990, and it took most of my time there before he could secure compensation under the scheme as it then stood. That case illustrates all the agonies that a victim goes through, trying to understand the system and get some idea of when to expect payment and the level of payment, which is why I thoroughly welcome the general direction of the scheme.

I noted that the Minister said that he was suspicious of the level of knowledge of the Northern Ireland Assembly, because of its report and recommendations. It is worth reiterating the purpose of compensation. Howard Webber, the chief executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, talked about the case of Lisa Potts, which gave rise to considerable controversy on the mainland because of the relative lack of compensation that she received compared with the compensation that had been paid in other cases. For example, Marco Pierre White was awarded £100,000 after his food was described as containing black ink instead of squid ink. Other examples will readily spring to hon. Members' minds. Mr. Webber said:

    ''Lisa Potts's case highlights that no amount of money can make up for the suffering caused by such horrific events. It cannot reward her for the heroism she showed. But £50,000 can provide real help for people to rebuild their lives. The scheme lets society show its sympathy for victims and recognise their suffering. You cannot compare it with awards in the courts where a guilty party compensates the victim.''

The principles enunciated by the Minister on the role of the state in that process are absolutely valid. Access to justice is extremely important. The Minister spoke to us as a lawyer, hoping to reduce the amount of work given to his colleagues, who currently earn £5 million from the administration of the system. I do not suppose that his colleagues are too unhappy with the work that they have received from the Government in regard to Northern Ireland; the inquiry into Bloody Sunday is rolling along at a cost of about £20 million a year. Lawyers seem to have done rather well out of the overall arrangements. The reduction in the amount of money that they will receive under the scheme is welcome.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman's claim that there is a new age in Northern Ireland in terms of the effect of terrorist offences. Despite a ceasefire and the Belfast agreement, the level of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland remains appallingly high. As the Government have put on the record, the number of cases being cleared up by the police has dropped catastrophically over the past year, which is a reflection of the demoralisation of the police service in Northern Ireland that has occurred over the past few years under the Govt. As a consequence of that, fewer victims will be able to seek compensation directly from their assailant because no assailant has been identified and convicted by the police. They will be able to rely only on the scheme.

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I commend the work of the Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly in looking into the matter although, like the Minister, I do not agree with the general thrust of its conclusions, particularly its main recommendation that this system of compensation should not be introduced into Northern Ireland. Recommendation 8, which I support, states that

    ''the Secretary of State should not, in determining an award, have regard to any payments made in respect of private healthcare or those received out of private health insurance.''

As I understand it—I should be grateful if the Minister would address the matter—that recommendation contradicts paragraph 45 (c) of the draft scheme. Not only do the Government intend to take into account payments made under private insurance undertaken by people but, as the draft proposal goes on:

    ''In assessing the value of any such benefits and payments, account may be taken of any income tax liability likely to reduce their value.''

That seems extremely unfair. One could be in the extraordinary position of being worse off if one has taken care of oneself and taken out additional insurance from taxed income. Such people would then find that their benefit is taxed, with the Government not even agreeing to reduce the amount of compensation that they will pay by the full amount but deciding only whether they will reimburse people fully.

There is a gross unfairness in the system. If one is to have a tariff scheme that applies across the piece, it must genuinely do so. Decisions that people then take about insurance are matters for them. The scheme does not attempt to compensate people fully for the injuries that they have received. If it did, we would be back into the old scheme of people going to common law, with the state accepting liability. As the Minister made it clear earlier, the state does not accept liability for compensation. Therefore, it is not right to penalise people who provide for their own insurance—who, indeed, may be paying two or three times over by having such insurance—to ensure that some of the compensation that they receive is outwith the state. Such people should not be seen as putting a burden on the national health service; they have effectively put extra resources into health care generally, out of their own taxed income. The Minister said that any benefits that they receive should be discounted from the scheme. That is not fair and I support the conclusions of the Assembly ad hoc Committee that examined the issue.

Finally, I shall discuss eligibility. The Minister said that we were moving into a new era and that the automatic disqualification that applied to a certain class of offences should, therefore, go. I listened with care to my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) and I accept that there must be a degree of flexibility. If people have changed their ways and renewed their commitment to civil society as we understand it, then that should be taken into account. I would support rules on eligibility that give the Minister discretion to make those judgments himself,

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but I caution him that our experience of Government judgments on such matters means that we will be watching with great care.

I say that in the light of the Government motion, for which the Minister will vote on Tuesday, to stuff another £400,000 a year down the throats of provisional Sinn Fein for office costs allowances. If there is any suggestion that the Minister is not exercising the discretion that this Committee and the House would expect in decisions about people who have been exposed to terrorism, so have brought misfortune upon themselves, and who would be automatically disqualified under the current scheme, obviously we would want to revisit the question of automatic disqualification in another debate. I am sure that the Minister will be able to give the Committee the assurances that it wants.

3.36 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I congratulate the Minister and the Government on introducing the proposals and on the manner in which they have dealt with such a difficult and sensitive subject. Time is short, considering the number of participants who wish to speak, so I shall be brief.

In the Minister's opening statement, he spoke about his suspicion at the level of knowledge in the Northern Ireland Assembly on the subject. I confirm that suspicion—I have little knowledge of the intricacies of the legal processes. However, that does not deny the fact that the Assembly Committee that examined the proposed legislation was not only cross party, but crossed professional experiences. Members had not just legal, but practical experiences, and in my opinion a practical approach is often far superior to a legal one.

I welcome several factors of the proposed draft. The obvious ones are the extension and enhancement of the bereavement support payment and the new concept of cohabitual applicants with a two-year period for establishing reasonable conditions. I welcome the removal of restrictions on the compensatory process for psychological injuries, in particular the opening up of retrospective time limits for sex abuse claims. They are an acceptable and welcome initiative.

It is the duty of every political party, including mine, to make points of criticism not for its own sake, but to help improve the proposals and make a better system. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) commented on the overemphasis of Victim Support Northern Ireland volunteers. They need some additional latitude in terms of legal assistance. The other matter that requires some definition is the extent to which legal aid will be provided for claimants under the proposed legislation.

I have great sympathy for the view expressed by the hon. Member for East Antrim on historical criminal records and the extent to which they would be used to prevent compensation from being paid. The Minister did not adequately address that issue in response to the intervention. Allied to that is the transfer from the remit of the judiciary to the remit of the

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administration, certain decision-making processes, giving the Secretary of State powers to make such decisions. That also appears in another area.

I now want to comment on the tariff system. It is in great dispute, especially the element of the first 28 weeks, a period during which a person will not be compensated. I heard the Minister talk about a percentage loading. I am not certain whether he spoke of 1.8 per cent. or 18 per cent., but whatever the loading, it does not address the differential loss for that 28-week period because a person's earning capability varies considerably and the consequential loss varies considerably. That cannot be addressed by a fixed, across-the-board percentage.

Particular to the tariff system is the way it addresses a sliding scale of values for injuries and for suffering. That is a retrograde step because each person suffers individually and differently. Some are more resilient than others and some are less physically fit than others. To have a blanket, scaled amount of compensation for the lesser claims outwardly appears to be unjust. There seems to be a body of opinion, not particularly this afternoon, that says consequentially there will be a reduction in the amounts of compensation paid in this area.

3.42 pm

Committee suspended for a Division in the House.

3.57 pm

On resuming—

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Prepared 13 December 2001