HC Deb 19 December 1972 vol 848 cc1119-25
The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the question of civil liability and compensation for personal injury.

The Government have been considering proposals made from time to time in the past, which are now particularly relevant in the light of the Report of the Robens Committee on Safety and Health at Work and in connection with the recent concern over the thalidomide cases, that there should be an inquiry into the basis of civil liability in the United Kingdom for causing death or personal injury. It is the Government's view that a wide-ranging inquiry is required into the basis on which compensation should be recoverable.

Her Majesty The Queen has been pleased to approve a recommendation that a Royal Commission should be established with the following terms of reference:

To consider to what extent, in what circumstances and by what means compensation should be payable in respect of death or personal injury (including ante-natal injury) suffered by any person—

  1. (a) in the course of employment;
  2. (b) through the use of a motor-vehicle or other means of transport;
  3. (c) through the manufacture, supply or use of goods or services;
  4. (d) on premises belonging to or occupied by another; or
  5. (e) otherwise through the act or omission of another where compensation under the present law is recoverable only on proof of fault or under the rules of strict liability,
all this having regard to the cost and other implications of the arrangements for the recovery of compensation, whether by way of compulsory insurance or otherwise.

Her Majesty has also been pleased to approve a recommendation that the Chairman of the Royal Commission should be the noble and learned Lord, Lord Pearson. I hope to announce the names of the other members before long.

The House will have noticed that the terms of reference require the Royal Commission to consider in what circumstances and by what means compensation should be payable in respect of death or personal injury caused in a number of different ways. Injury suffered in the course of employment is included—as the Robens Committee recommended—and so is injury suffered through the use of a motor vehicle or other means of transport.

The Royal Commission will also have to consider the question of liability for injury suffered through the manufacture, supply or use of goods or services. Hon. Members will observe that this will enable the commission to consider the principles governing the award of compensation for injury caused by the administration of a drug such as thalidomide, though I must make it plain that no recommendation the commission may make could have any retrospective effect.

One of the difficulties which arose in the thalidomide cases was whether there is a right to recover compensation in respect of ante-natal injuries. My noble and learned Friend, the Lord Chancellor, has asked the Law Commission to consider the matter, and I understand that the commission expects to be able to report in the course of next year. A similar request has been made to the Scottish Law Commission by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate. The Royal Commission should thus be able to take into account the report of the Law Commissions on this aspect of the matter and any action which Parliament may have taken on it in the meanwhile.

Mr. Harold Wilson

There are some good points in these proposals and in the terms of reference of the Royal Commission, for example, the references to employment, road accidents and the damage done on somebody's elses premises, but will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that this should not be envisaged as a means of burying the thalidomide issue? Indeed the fact that he said there could be no retrospective recommendation encourages me to hope that that is what he has in mind.

Will the Prime Minister also make it clear that the right of the Government to initiate legislation, and the right of Parliament to legislate on any of these issues, will not be prejudiced by the setting up of a Royal Commission, which may take years to report? Does he recall that when the Royal Commission on the constitution was set up more than three years ago, I said from the Government Dispatch Box that the Government reserved the right to take action in a constitutional sense on matters within the terms of reference of the commission, and indeed the present Conservative Government have had to do so over Northern Ireland and may chose to do so in other respects? Will he, therefore, make it clear that his announcement in no way can be used or quoted for the evasion either of moral liabilities in the thalidomide case or of the right of this House—or, as we believe, the duty of this House—to legislate without waiting for litigation to be completed? Will he make it quite clear that he is not seeking in any way to prejudice the strong views taken by the House on the thalidomide issue?

The Prime Minister

I certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman on that matter. I thought that I had made it absolutely plain by my statement that the Royal Commission cannot make recommendations which are retrospective, and the House on the whole does not like retrospective legislation. Nothing we are doing in setting up the Royal Commission will in any way prejudice any action which others may take in a particular case, such as the thalidomide case.

Mr. Holland

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the setting up of the Royal Commission will in no way be a reason for delaying the Government's implementation of the preventive measures on safety at work contained in the Robens Report?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I can give that assurance. We accepted the recommendation in principle in July and said that consultations would immediately take place. Those consultations have been undertaken and the results are now being considered. I hope that we shall be able to make a statement fairly soon after we resume in the New Year.

Mr. Hooson

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that his announcement will be greeted from all sides of the House with approval, as it has been felt for many years that the basis of compensation for civil injuries has been unsatisfactory? It has been developed by a series of expedients in the courts by distinguished judges, but nevertheless working to do what they can to find redress where no legal provision existed previously. Will the right hon. Gentleman, in appointing the Royal Commission, make sure that it is broadly based, singe it would be a mistake—I say this against my own profession—to have serving on it too many lawyers who are conditioned by their training and traditional approach to these problems? Therefore, does he not agree that it is important that the commission should take a completely fresh view of the whole problem?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for the welcome he gave to my statement. He as a lawyer will know that the then Lord Chief Justice as far back as 1965 raised some aspects of these matters, and in a speech to lawyers in 1967 I said that the time had come for the whole matter to be examined. At the same time, the House will realise that immensely complicated legal issues arise in this and that it has therefore been felt wise to refer the specific matter of ante-natal injuries to the two Law Commissions in order to get their specialised advice before carrying that aspect of the matter any further.

I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman about the need for a broadly based Royal Commission. We have in mind a commission of 14 or 15 members, giving an opportunity not only to those experienced in the law but to those with experience in insurance, to actuaries, to doctors, to economists and to representatives of employers and trade unions. Some of them of course would be women.

Mr. Ronald King Murray

While I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement, may I ask him whether he is aware that many crippling accidents take place in the home? It is not clear from his statement whether the commission's terms of reference will be wide enough to include accidents in the home. If not, will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider that aspect of the terms of reference?

The Prime Minister

The Royal Commission will have no difficulty in dealing with that aspect of the matter in its discussions. As the hon. and learned Gentleman will understand, that raises many other issues.

Sir J. Foster

Bearing in mind the fact that the tragedy of the road accident victims can be dealt with and isolated even before the Royal Commission reports by adopting the principle of "no fault "insurance, has my right hon. Friend read the very powerful article recommending this published last Saturday week by the hon. and learned Member for Northwich (Sir J. Foster)?

The Prime Minister

I am aware of the argument put forward by my hon. and learned Friend. He also will recognise that the implications of such a scheme are considerable. It is true that it has been adopted in some States in the United States, but the financial implications for the rest of those who insure their motor cars are very great. That is why no effective action has been taken in this country to deal with this aspect of the matter. But it is right that it should be dealt with by the Royal Commission.

Mr. Charles Morris

While I welcome the Prime Minister's statement, may I ask him whether he will consider extending the commission's terms of reference to include injuries and disabilities arising from medical operations where no doctor, surgeon or member of a medical staff can be proved to have been negligent?

The Prime Minister

I shall consider this question and see whether it is excluded. It is not one that I have considered specifically. I shall examine it.

Mr. Peter Archer

I, too, welcome the Prime Minister's announcement. However, does he appreciate that there may be matters in the report of the Law Commission of a short or medium-term nature arising out of Working Paper No. 41? Will he undertake that while we are awaiting the report of the Royal Comission these other proposals will not come to a full stop?

The Prime Minister

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman referring to the Robens proposals?

Mr. Archer

No, the Law Commission Report.

The Prime Minister

I undertake to see whether they should be implemented before the Royal Commission reports. Of course I cannot deal with each of them specifically now.

Mr. Eadie

The Prime Minister conceded that there was a distinction between Scottish and English law. It is very important in relation to any compensation which may be suggested by the commission. Can the Prime Minister clarify this point? Is it the intention that there should be uniform provisions in Scottish and English law, bearing in mind that there is a great deal of distinction at present?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is right. This is a matter on which we can be advised by the Royal Commission. The point that I had in mind when I spoke of a reference to the Law Commissions concerned ante-natal injuries. Whereas I understand that there is no effective case law on this matter in the English courts, it is argued that there is a certain legal position in Scottish law. Therefore we thought it right that the two Law Commissions should examine this proposal and make their recommendations.

Mr. J. T. Price

Leaving aside the controversial question of civil damages far injuries sustained by the administration of toxic drugs, which is very topical at the moment, is the Prime Minister aware that his announcement will be welcomed by many trade union officers who have to operate the law in connection with civil claims for damages arising from road accidents, factory accidents and many other accidents which are based on common law proof of negligence? Does the Prime Minister appreciate, for example, that the conditions which obtain on British roads were not the same generations ago when men such as Salmon and other great authorities on the common law laid down the basic principles upon which a claim for tort could be sustained? All these questions have been confounded by the quite understandable practice of lawyers introducing the doctrine of contributory negligence, thus making it almost impossible in many cases for even skilful people with wide experience in insurance matters, to establish negligence. Therefore will the Prime Minister accept it from me, speaking as a typical trade union officer with that sort of background, that we should welcome a wide-ranging inquiry into these practices?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. What he said substantiates the need for this Royal Commission. As he was speaking, I was noting the aspects to which he referred. They are all covered by the commission's terms of reference.

Mr. Stanbrook

While I welcome the idea of inquiry, may I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind the fact that it is undesirable in principle for the State to try to absolve every individual from the consequences of his own foolishness?

The Prime Minister

That is undoubtedly one of the aspects which the Royal Commission will consider, not least because of the financial implications of the principles that it implies for dealing with these matters.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Will the Prime Minister confirm that it will be within the province of the Royal Commission to consider the quantum of damages, especially having regard to the situation today in which it is often possible to be compensated much more generously for injury to reputation than, for example, for the loss of a limb? There is also the question of solatium for the loss of a close relative.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm that it will be within the province of the commission to look again at the recommendations of the Winn Commit. tee, some of which have been given effect to, but in relation especially to the method of payment of damages—whether as a lump sum or by periodical payments?

The Prime Minister

I can reassure the hon. and learned Gentleman on both those points. The commission's terms of reference begin by saying: To consider to what extent —which is the quantum— …and by what means compensation should be payable … The commission will be able to consider again the Winn Committee's recommendations.

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