HC Deb 25 July 1973 vol 860 cc1669-77

2.32 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I am glad of this opportunity to raise the case of Mrs. Joan Rosina Smith, who, since her divorce, likes to be known as Mrs. Carroll, because her case vividly highlights two aspects of the problem of battered wives. That Mrs. Smith qualifies as a battered wife there can be no doubt, as her story will show.

Mrs. Smith was separated from her husband and lived with her brother-in-law, Mr. Robert McNab Smith, for seven years and had a son by him. In July 1971 she left him because of his terrifying behaviour. But, not for the first time, as in the case of a wife, or a common law wife, driven from home by her husband's behaviour, finding she had absolutely nowhere to go she was forced to return to the house with her small boy. However, she did so on a strictly businesslike relationship with Mr. McNab Smith.

What follows flows directly from the fact that we have failed to provide the "sanctuaries" for battered wives for which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) made such an eloquent appeal in an Adjournment debate only a few days ago.

The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Smith was no longer of a marital kind. They had separate rooms. He paid her as a lodger for his accommodation. All she did was to cook his meals, and nothing else. But in January 1972 she decided to end even this arrangement. Eventually, Mr. McNab Smith agreed to go, and he packed his bags and left.

What happened next is best described in the words of Mrs. Smith's solicitor: On Monday 31st January her brother-in-law told her that he had found lodgings and was going out. He went out. She went to bed, and, having been asleep for some time, was aware of something cold on her and her brother-in-law saying, 'We are going to have a gorgeous fire.' She did not know anything else until some six weeks later when she woke up in hospital in the Intensive Care Unit for burns. She suffered extensive burns on the body and limbs, her jaw was fractured and her bones were cracked in the right ankle. She also suffered injuries to the back of her head which required stitches. In other words, her brother-in-law, having set her alight, had thrown her out of the window and she was picked up from the pavement below like a human torch. Battered! She was nearly murdered.

In June last year Mr. McNab Smith appeared at Lancaster Assizes where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to imprisonment for six years. Therefore, there can be no doubt that Mrs. Smith suffered criminal injuries.

In September last year Mrs. Smith wrote to me. Whilst she was in hospital she had been told about the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, and she consulted a solicitor. It was then that she discovered that her claim had been ruled out by paragraph 7 of the scheme, which provides: Where the victim who suffered injuries and the offender who inflicted them were living together at the time as members of the same family no compensation will be payable. For the purposes of this paragraph where a man and woman were living together as man and wife they will be treated as if they were married to one another. I do not think it is disputed that in this case Mr. and Mrs. Smith were no longer living together as man and wife. However, that has made no difference to the application of paragraph 7 of the scheme, because the phrase living together at the time as members of the same family is pretty wide.

Indeed, when I wrote to the Home Secretary on Mrs. Smith's behalf, he replied confirming that her application had been dismissed as a result of paragraph 7 of the scheme. Incidentally, he also confirmed that no legal aid is available for legal representation before the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board on the ground that this is just a tribunal like any other. I believe that point needs looking into extremely urgently.

The Home Secretary rejected Mrs. Smith's complaint to me that she had no redress under the law. On the contrary, he said, Mrs. Smith could sue her brother-in-law under the civil law for trespass. That is a remedy which a moments' thought will show is no remedy at all.

I have met and spoken to Mrs. Smith. I have seen the scars on her body. She is still a bundle of nerves and under constant medical attention. Can one be surprised? Her response was: "Sue him? I never want any contact with him again."

Not only that, clearly she is terrified of him.

So we face the situation that battered wives, those for whom we now say we have such concern, form the one group which is not covered by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. What is more, the greater the criminal injury, the less likelihood there is of redress. What is the good of telling the woman to sue a man who will be in prison for another five years? Even if she did and hope was held out that he might come back and earn a decent wage and be able to pay her something, surely the more violent the man's treatment of her in the first place the less likely she will be to want to incur his further wrath. So Mrs. Smith has no redress under the law, de facto, and she is extremely bitter about it.

Having been sent the Home Secretary's reply and having learned from her solicitors that she has exhausted all the stages of representation before the compensation board—she had gone from the single man assessment to the three-member consideration of the case, with the same result—she wrote to me a short while ago very bitterly: This is my first encounter with British Law, and up until now, I thought it was the best. But now I discover that Law defends the wrongdoer. The person who admitted guilt, and who was tried and found guilty, is the person who comes out best. He has changed my life for the worse, caused me terrible injuries (which was what he wanted). The British public have to keep him for 6 years, they also had to keep myself and 7-year-old son for 12 months, as I couldn't work because of my injuries. My son had awful upsets as a result of his father's actions. But as British Law stands, I can claim no compensation. It is all very wrong. British Law must be changed …". I want to put these points to the Home Secretary through the Minister. It is not a question of waiting for British law to be changed. The Home Secretary, in his reply to me, explained that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme was introduced on an experimental non-statutory basis in 1964, and that payments under it are ex gratia. I understand that the compensation board's findings are final and that there is no right of appeal.

The Home Secretary said also that the operation of the scheme was under review. I am sure that the Minister will agree that that review is bound to be a substantial undertaking. Since it is an experimental scheme, many questions have arisen from its operation. However, it can be claimed that, broadly, the scheme is a success. There are many factors which must be under review, such as whether the hearing should be in public, whether there should be a formal right of appeal, and so on.

I put it urgently to the Government that, with our new awareness of the problem of battered wives, it is absurd that they should be asked to wait for a change in the law. Apart from anything else, when the review is concluded, if one has to wait for an Act of Parliament to be passed to put the scheme on a statutory basis, that will take a great deal of parliamentary time.

The whole point of making the scheme non-statutory was to alter it as found necessary in the light of experience before being tied by the terms of an Act of Parliament. However, there is no reason why the Home Secretary should not make an immediate alteration by removing the provisions of paragraph 7 of the scheme. As I understand it, that is simply a matter of decision by the Government. I ask that that action should be taken urgently.

On the problem of battered wives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South said, we are failing totally to provide a sanctuary to which a woman who is frightened of her husband —or her common law husband—can go if she wants to leave home and to leave him. Again, there are possibilities here for the Government to act immediately. I know that this is not in the departmental responsibility of the Home Office, but we cannot allow the pigeon-holing of this issue simply because a number of different Government Departments are involved. There should be an urgent Government strategy covering all these points.

I conclude with one great example of where the Government could help. In my constituency there is a voluntary hospital, the Bethany Home, which is run by devoted voluntary workers who take in from the streets anybody who may be destitute or homeless. The hostel has taken in a number of frightened and battered wives. But it is finding that rising costs are swamping it. Unless some action is taken it may have to close. I have written to the Secretary of State for Social Services saying "Please, if you care about the problem of battered wives, make a grant to this voluntary hostel now, and to all voluntary hostels of approved standards and all homes and sanctuaries provided by municipalities."

I hope that we shall get from the Home Office a promise that in the light of this case, which establishes the needs irrefutably, the Government will amend the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme in this respect at once.

2.46 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

The right hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) raised the tragic case of Mrs. Joan Smith, whose application for compensation was recently refused by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

Before I turn to her specific points, I should like to emphasise how much I share the sympathy that the right hon. Lady expressed in view of the appalling injuries that Mrs. Smith suffered. It is, as the right hon. Lady said, in a way a classic and horrific example of the type of brutality which is from time to time inflicted by one person on another. Perhaps the seriousness of the attack that was made is well illustrated by the length of the prison sentence imposed upon her attacker.

At the end of the right hon. Lady's remarks she made various wider comments about the problem of battered wives which was raised by her hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) in a debate in the House recently to which I replied. I shall ensure that her comments about the hostel in her constituency are conveyed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I can only repeat my reply to the other debate—that the right hon. Lady's views about the need for availability of accommodation will be conveyed to the relevant Department. If I might venture a suggestion, it has been my personal view, as a practising barrister, that this is the greatest need of all for those who are attacked in this way.

I shall limit myself to commenting on what the right hon. Lady said about the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, which comes directly under the responsibility of the Home Office. I confirm that the scheme was established in 1964 on an experimental and non-statutory basis. It provides for ex gratia payment by the State of compensation for personal injury directly attributable to a crime of violence.

Until 1964 there was no such State scheme and any victim was thrown back on to his common law rights—rights which, I accept, as the right hon. Lady said, are there in law but which in practice are often illusory. The person often does not have the money to pay the damages that are awarded. In cases such as the one that we are discussing, I accept the unreality of obtaining a judgment unless a man has money somewhere tucked away when he is starting a sentence of six years of imprisonment. That was the situation until 1964.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady said that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme has proved a success in meeting the needs of those who are victims of violent crime. Some indication of its success is that applications to the scheme, I am told, are rising at the rate of well over 1,000 additional applications a year

From the time the scheme was started in 1964 until the end of the financial year 1972–73 the board has received some 53,549 applications and awarded compensation totalling more than £15 million. That is evidence of the need for the scheme. It is administered by a board of eight legally qualified members under a chairman who has wide legal experience. It is entirely the responsibility of the board to decide within the terms of the scheme whether compensation should be paid in any particular case and, if so, how much that compensation should amount to.

The procedure under which the board considers applications is set out in the scheme. The application is first looked at by the board's staff. It is then referred to a single member of the board who decides whether the application falls within the scope of the scheme and, if so, what award should be made. An applicant who is dissatisfied with the decision of the single member is entitled to ask for a hearing before three members. I must emphasise that the board's decisions are in no way subject to any form of ministerial review. The decisions of the board are binding although, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) knows from a recent case, the board is subject to the normal supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court in the interpretation of its terms. But subject to that the board's decisions are binding and are not reviewable by Ministers.

Paragraph 7 states that compensation will not be payable where a victim who suffered injuries and the offender who inflicted them were living together at the time as members of the same family. In applying that, the board has been guided by the Divisional Court in the case of R v. the Board ex parte Staten, 1972, where it was stated that living together … as members of the same family was to be given its ordinary, straightforward meaning.

I do not propose to go into the details of the individual case. I have expressed my horror at it and I confirm the facts mentioned by the right hon. Lady. The application for compensation was initially rejected by the single member of the board on the ground that Mrs. Smith was ineligible for compensation under paragraph 7. She subsequently asked for a hearing before the three members of the board and, although legal aid at the moment is not available for applications to the board, she was legally represented before the board. After a lengthy hearing the board again decided that Mrs. Smith's application was excluded by paragraph 7. Having come to that decision it was excluded from making any form of ex gratia payment. Although, it is not normally subject in any way to ministerial review, from what one has read of that application there certainly appeared to be evidence on which the board could come to the conclusion that it was excluded from treating this case.

Mrs. Smith was legally represented. I know the firm of solicitors who represented her and I have no doubt that she was adequately and well represented at that hearing. The right hon. Lady said that the trouble lies with paragraph 7. When the scheme was originally brought in, the White Paper set out the reasons why those living together were excluded. It said: Offences committed against a member of the offender's household living with him at the time will be excluded altogether, in view of the difficulty in establishing the facts and ensuring that compensation does not benefit the offender. That was the basis on which in 1964 it was decided that applications in this area should be excluded.

Whilst these arguments—the difficulty of establishing the facts and the danger that the assailant would benefit from his crime—clearly have considerable force, I appreciate from what the right hon. Lady said and from what was said in correspondence that there are arguments the other way. Clearly it was envisaged that the 1964 scheme should be reviewed with a view to placing it on a statutory footing when adequate experience of the working of the scheme had been gained.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in answer to a Question on 17th April the establishment of a working party to carry out such a review. He stressed in announcing that review that the working party would take steps to canvass opinion widely among interested bodies and would take account of the views of members of the public. That working party is now set up. I cannot tell the right hon. Lady how soon it will report, but certainly the question of paragraph 7 is within the terms of the review and, in addition to that, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board in its eighth report specifically asked that the exclusion of this clause should be reconsidered when the scheme is reviewed.

I can assure the right hon. Lady that this is being done and that what she said and the case that she mentioned will be taken into account in the course of that review, as will the question of the right of legal aid before an inquiry.

Mrs. Castle

Assuming that the working party works quickly and comes to some conclusions by the autumn, it would not then be necessary to wait for legislation. Could not the Government act administratively to alter the scheme?

Mr. Carlisle

I had intended to deal with that point at the conclusion of my speech, namely whether this matter could not be considered in isolation. I shall convey the right hon. Lady's views to my right hon. Friend. I believe that what she said must be correct. The board is a non-statutory body and therefore it could presumably be changed without legislation because it had no legislative background and it works on ex gratia payments because there is no statutory basis for it. We are anxious to carry out the review and to put the scheme on a statutory basis.

We have always said that we should like to look at the whole of the scheme and all the various points raised in the context of the review. I cannot promise that my right hon. Friend will he able to examine the point in isolation. But the board has specifically suggested that the exclusion should be reviewed because it believes that the arguments are counter-balanced by others. I can assure the right hon. Lady that I shall make sure that her suggestion is brought to my right hon. Friend's attention.

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