HC Deb 19 July 1977 vol 935 cc1517-45

10.0 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. J. D. Concannon)

I beg to move, That the draft Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, which was laid before this House on 13th July, be approved. This order will replace, and amend, the provisions of the Criminal Injuries to Property (Compensation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971. It will affect claims for damage to property caused on or after 1st April 1978. Claims for damage caused before that date will continue to be dealt with under the 1971 Act.

The 1971 Act, which itself replaced earlier legislation, has been in force since 1973. Under it and earlier legislation, from 1968–69 to the end of the last financial year, about 116,000 claims had been received, of which 100,000 had been settled. About £200 million has been paid out, including interim payments on claims still in hand.

In view of the number of claims which had been received and were continuing to come in, of the amount of compensation payable, and of representations which had been made and problems which had arisen, the Secretary of State in November 1975 appointed a Committee under the chairmanship of Sir James Waddell to review the principles and operation of the 1971 Act. The Committee included representatives of the legal, insurance, valuation and loss adjusting professions. Its report was published at the same time as this proposed draft order and its general and particular recommendations underlie the draft order. Hon. Members will have been impressed by the Committee's thoughtful approach. It is right that on the Secretary of State's behalf I should thank Sir James Waddell and the members of the Committee for the time and care that they gave to their work.

The 1971 Act provides compensation—except for certain agricultural property—only for property damaged by unlawful assemblies of three or more persons or by proscribed organisations; and—except in rather limited circumstances of looting—only for property actually damaged, not stolen.

The picture, therefore, is of an attempt to make good substantially, but not necessarily completely, damage caused to property by civil unrest and terrorism. It does not, however, involve damage or loss caused by ordinary crime or vandalism. There is no wholly equivalent legislation in Great. Britain and the criteria for special compensation in Northern Ireland relate specifically to those risks to property which experience has shown to be peculiar to Northern Ireland.

We have also kept in mind that damage to property should not and cannot be regarded as only a private injury. The loss of a building is a loss to the community. A shop is an asset not just to its owner but to its customers. Our experience of the kind and scale of terrorism suffered since 1969 suggests a need to ensure, more specifically than in the 1971 Act, that compensation does not go to the undeserving.

The proposal for the draft order was debated in the Northern Ireland Committee of this House. The Secretary of State has amended it significantly in the light of that discussion and of representations made by hon. Members—not least those made by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and by their colleagues and organisations in Northern Ireland. I shall draw attention particularly today to the major changes. Other minor changes have been made to improve the drafting at a number of points, often again at the suggestion of hon. Members.

Article I provides that the order generally will come into force on 1st April 1978. This will allow those affected by its wide-ranging changes to adjust to their impact. Article 13, however, which makes clear the power to deduct certain debts from compensation, will come into effect immediately. Nearly £1 million a year is recovered in this way against public debts, which now stand at a total of nearly £22 million in Northern Ireland.

Article 2 defines certain terms used in the order. The term "Chief Constable" now includes an Assistant as well as a Deputy Chief Constable in order to facilitate the issue of certificates. The term "unlawful association" has been redefined to include not only proscribed organisations but any organisation engaged in terrorism, which is itself defined in terms reflecting the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act as the use of violence for political ends including any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear". This is an important extension of the scope of compensation.

I am afraid that my voice is failing, and——

Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorp)

Have a drink.

Mr. Concannon

It must be the very bad weather that I have been suffering this afternoon in the glens of Antrim. We had wretched weather there today.

The Chief Constable will be able to issue a certificate that damage was caused within the terms of the wider definition of an unlawful association. We intend in this way to cope with any proliferation of terrorist organisations—sometimes quite short-lived—which cannot be associated with any proscribed body.

Article 3 provides that the 1971 Act will continue to apply to damage or loss caused by an Act committed before 1st April 1978.

Article 4 has been added since the proposal for the draft order was debated. It re-enacts fully the provisions of the 1971 Act giving compensation for damage caused maliciously or wantonly to agricultural property, even though three or more persons were not involved or any unlawful association. I explained fully to the Northern Ireland Committee why I consider that this provision is less necessary in present circumstances and less appropriate to present-day terrorism, than it once was. I think that if we were starting on a new compensation Bill tonight, we would not even think of putting it in.

It remains the Government's view and intention that this provision should eventually be repealed. However, we have accepted the very strong argument put up by hon. Members and organisations in Northern Ireland that it should not be repealed without due notice at the present stage of the terrorist campaign. I think it is only fair that one should give due notice of this when an industry, such as that in Northern Ireland, has been used to this special treatment in these terms. I ask those concerned to take heed of the remarks I have just made and to note that we are giving just this kind of notice this time around.

Article 5 follows the 1971 Act in providing compensation for damage caused by three or more persons unlawfully, riotously or tumultuously assembled or by an unlawful association—now, of course, more widely defined.

Article 6 follows the 1971 Act in providing compensation for looting. Such compensation is payable if three or more persons have been tumultuously and riotously assembled and have caused damage to a building or to property within its curtilage, and if during the riot property is unlawfully removed from the building. This is the only provision in the Act or in the order for compensation for loss of, as distinct from damage to, property. This is in keeping with the general purpose of the draft order, as of the Act, which is to provide compensation for damage, not loss.

Article 7 retains the requirement that a notice of intention to claim must be served within 10 days of damage. But it allows the Secretary of State—or the court, on appeal—to extend this time, if a request is made within six months; and it greatly simplifies the form of notice, so that the applicant will in future have to state only the time and place of the damage and will not have to indicate the extent of his loss at that stage. We require the earliest possible notice of claims if proper investigations are to be carried out and speculations or even fraud detected.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

On this point, I understand that the Minister of State would like instant notice of claims. Will he say how quickly the compensation is likely to be paid? I know that this worries the traders of Northern Ireland very much.

Mr. Concannon

We have a monitoring system in Northern Ireland, and in many cases we get notice by the hour. We can then get our assessors and other people out as quickly as we possibly can. In other cases it is a matter of waiting for the claims to come in. Many negotiations have to take place on damage to property, and a number of matters have to be dealt with in this connection. Assessors have to be brought in. Many of the problems are not in my office at any particular time. Many of the pay and compensation problems depend on other people. This has been debated in all the committees and elsewhere. It is one of the reasons why we have tried to streamline the actions which have to take place.

Article 8 requires the submission of a formal application within four months of the preliminary notice, though the Secretary of State or the court may extend this period to 12 months. It allows the Secretary of State to require further information from the applicant and makes clear that if an applicant fails to supply that information, the Secretary of State can determine his claim on the basis of the information he has received. Our records show that in many cases the applicant has simply not supplied all the details—in some cases any of the details—necessary if a full assessment of damage is to be made, and it is quite wrong that those claims should be allowed to drag on, even for years, and block funds which could usefully be applied elsewhere. The 1971 Act allows compensation to be reduced if the applicant has failed to take reasonable precautions to avoid loss.

Article 9 places the onus on the applicant to show that his precautions were in fact reasonable, subject of course to the interpretation of the courts. The article also provides that compensation may be withheld or reduced if the applicant did not comply, for example, with regulations for the storage of inflammable materials—a kind of negligence which greatly assists the fire bomber; or contributed to his loss by provocative or negligent behaviour; of if the property was being used for any unlawful purpose. We have included the particular and commonest examples of the unlicensed drinking house and the untaxed motor car, but I stress that the provision to reduce or refuse compensation for such cause is not absolute and is applicable only if the circumstances are relevant. The article has been redrafted at the request of hon. Members, to make this point clearer.

We have added to Article 10 a clear provision that compensation is not pay- able to anyone who is or has been a member of a terrorist organisation—an unlawful association—or who is or has been engaged in acts of terrorism: except, as is provided in Article 12, where the Secretary of State judges in his own discretion that a payment would be in the public interest.

I cannot accept that those responsible for creating a climate of terrorism and destruction in Northern Ireland should benefit, where they themselves are caught up in the terror they have created, from laws intended to protect the innocent.

Paragraphs (6) and (7) provide that no compensation is payable for a loss of £100 or less, and that any compensation payable will be reduced by £100. Hon. Members will notice that the amount has been reduced from the figure of £150 in the original proposal. This again is due to the representations of hon. Members in this House and by many organisations and various people in Northern Ireland.

The principle of a deductible "excess" was recommended by Sir James Waddell's Committee. It is a principle well known and widely accepted in the insurance world, where the policy holder may be required to accept the first so many pounds of any loss. Bearing in mind the change in the value of money since 1956, when the present minimum was introduced, the safeguards against hardship contained both in this article and in other schemes of assistance such as the Emergency Repair Scheme and the Supple. mentary Benefits Scheme, and the widening of compensation to cover all kinds of terrorist damage, I believe that this new figure is reasonable in all the circumstances.

Finally, paragraph (8) of this article follows the draft Criminal Injuries Order in allowing the Secretary of State, subject to appeal, to withhold payment of compensation until an applicant has given the police all reasonable help which could lead to the arrest of the person who caused the damage.

Article 11 is a most important addition to the provisions of the 1971 Act, and again follows a recommendation of Sir James Waddell's Committee. As I have said, that article is known in my Department as the "Roxboro'-hotel article" or as "Powell's article". As hon. Members from Northern Ireland will note, it takes care of one of the more infamous cases that we have had in Northern Ireland.

It provides that where compensation for damage to a building is based on the cost of reinstatement or some other criterion greater than the diminution in market value—mere financial loss—the applicant may be required to carry out the rebuilding, or the acquisition of alternative premises, on the basis upon which the compensation was assessed.

The Secretary of State may impose appropriate conditions on the payment of compensation and may withhold payment beyond the market value level until, for example, rebuilding has been carried out. An applicant, however, will be able to appeal to the courts against any or all of the three elements of such a determination, the total assessment of compensation, the market value element, and the conditions imposed.

The article also provides that where damage to a building is compensatable under this order, a landlord may not sue his tenant under the terms of a repairing lease for more than the diminution in the market value of the property. This will allow market value to be the basis of compensation if other considerations point in that direction. The absence of such a provision in the past, even if it has not exactly created an abuse, has certainly given a privilege to certain property owners.

Article 12 allows the Secretary of State to make interim payments of compensation, which could be of benefit to the applicant in long and difficult cases. This makes statutory what is in fact the practice at present. Article 13 makes clear the Secretary of State's power to deduct from compensation debts due to Government Departments and public authorities.

Article 14 follows Section 7 of the 1971 Act. Article 15 follows the 1971 Act in giving an applicant a right of appeal to the county court against the Secretary of State's determination of compensation. Those few claims which do in practice go to appeal provide standards and criteria by which the rest can be judged and assessed.

Articles 16 and 17 allow the Secretary of State to recover compensation from anyone convicted of causing damage in respect of which compensation has been paid, or from an applicant who has himself received reparation from such an offender at common law, or who has failed to make a full and true disclosure of all facts relevant to his own claim.

Article 18 provides simplified procedures for proving convictions and the conduct on which a conviction has been based.

Article 19 provides penalties for obtaining compensation fraudulently. The remaining articles are straightforward.

In commending the order to the House, I should like to thank those right hon. and hon. Members serving on the Northern Ireland Committee who have assisted me over the last year with this compensation order.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I do not know what the Under-Secretary of State has been getting up to in the glens of Antrim, but he must have contracted something rather nasty, and we sympathise with him because he has been addressing the House under some disadvantage. We hope that he will be better soon.

The hon. Gentleman referred more than once to the representations that have been made on the subject matter of this order by hon. Members and by organisations and individuals outside. Whatever one may say about the recently-established Northern Ireland Committee, it has taken a very useful part in improving the Government's first proposals for legislation to replace the Criminal Injuries to Property (Compensation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971. The Committee generally welcomed the draft order in its discussion on 27th June. My hon. Friend the Member for Petersfield (Mr. Mates) spoke for the official Opposition, and he among others gave particular approval to Article 10—now Article 11 in the draft before us—designed to prevent compensation from feeding terrorism.

There was that disturbing article in The Sunday Telegraph alleging that about £5 million of compensation money had found its way into the pockets of paramilitary organisations, and this was possible because there was no requirement under the 1971 Act—the Stormont Act—to apply compensation money for damaged property to the rebuilding or repair of that property. But Article 11 now enables the Secretary of State to withhold all parts of the compensation until rebuilding has been carried out, and that is most welcome and desirable.

Apart from the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), there was general support in the Committee for Article 12—Article 13 of the present order—giving the Secretary of State power to withhold payments from those who are in debt to public authorities. This seems reasonable.

However, the debate in the Northern Ireland Committee on 22nd June was not without some contentious points. I shall refer to three of them. The first point concerned agricultural property. Under all previous legislation compensation was payable for malicious damage done to agricultural property even if three or more persons or an unlawful association were not involved. The order proposed to remove this exception. Rural and urban property were placed on exactly the same footing as regards compensation. All the Northern Ireland Members who spoke in the debate, whether Unionist or SDLP, objected to the change. There was a particularly eloquent contribution by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross). The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) pointed out—this was also said at Stormont in the House of Commons of Northern Ireland in 1971—that damage could be committed to agricultural property very easily in the absence of witnesses to prove whether it had been committed by one person or more.

We are glad that the Government have given way on this point and returned in the new draft to the status quo ante. So owners of agricultural property will continue to be compensated for malicious damage, however caused. That is provided for in Article 4.

The order proposes to raise the minimum claim for which compensation can be paid from £20 to £150 and to deduct £150 from all future payments. That is in Article 5. The Minister said that this was a substantial change. He defended it in the debate which was held in the Northern Ireland Committee. He said: the mere change in the value of money since 1956 … when the £20 minimum was introduced, would require a substantial increase now. He has referred again to this point in his remarks to the House tonight.

Everyone who spoke in the debate in the Northern Ireland Committee attacked the new minimum figure as being much too high and called for the implementation of the relevant section of the Waddell Report proposing a minimum figure of £50. I echo the tribute which the Minister paid to Sir James Waddell and his colleagues for their work.

The right hon. Member for Down, South used some strong words. He said: we regard the trebling of that figure as exhorbitant and unjustified".—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee, 22nd June 1977; c. 6 and 15.] Other Members present said that the new arrangements would cause hardship to the elderly, to those who lived in small houses and to some shopkeepers. Under the 1971 Act about one-third of all claims were for sums of less than £150. In Article 6 of the order we have a sort of compromise. The minimum amount comes down from £150 to £100, which is some improvement.

I turn next to the conditions on which compensation can be reduced or withheld. The Minister referred to the question of shabeens—premises used for unlicensed drinking—and to untaxed vehicles. In the Northern Ireland Committee my hon. Friend the Member for Petersfield asked why the net could not be cast wider so as to exclude from compensation damage to property where other illegal activities—he mentioned gambling—were carried on. The new relevant articles 9(1)(c) and 10(1)(a) and (b) do not meet the point which my hon. Friend made.

However, I should like to welcome one improvement. It is that in Article 10(3) laying down that no compensation shall be paid to anyone who is or has been a member of an unlawful association or has been responsible for acts of terrorism. I think that the murmured "Hear, hears" in the House when the Minister of State referred to that aspect make the point for me. The change is indeed to be commended.

I come now to the question of contract bombing. During the debate in the Northern Ireland Committee, the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson) spoke of cases of business men who have paid terrorist organisations to bomb new, unprofitable enterprises so that they can claim compensation."—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee, 22nd June 1977; c. 27.] The Belfast Telegraph of 23rd June lent some substance to these allegations with an article based on information which, according to the writer, had been supplied by the Ulster Defence Association. The UDA denied that it had been involved in contract bombing but asserted that other loyalist paramilitary groups may have acted in consort with some firms for financial gain". The President of the Belfast Chamber of Trade associated himself with that view, but added that fraud was not widespread. I wonder whether the Fraud Squad of the RUC has made any investigation into these allegations and, if so, with what result.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North also raised in the Northern Ireland Committee the matter of travelling shops, as did the right hon. Member for Down, South. They desired to widen Article 5 to provide for compensation to be paid for loss of the stock in trade of travelling shops. However, the Minister of State was unable to meet this request. He referred to the debate in the Stormont Parliament on the Northern Ireland Act 1971. He indicated that the point had been well answered there.

I have been searching the Stormont scriptures and I have not found any answer in those debates. Perhaps the Minister of State will say a word about that, because travelling shops render a service of importance in scattered communities. If at a time of trouble and terrorism mobile shopkeepers are to be deprived of compensation when they lose their whole means of livelihood, they will certainly be discouraged. I hope that the Minister of State will be able to say something about that.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

With the passage of this order tonight the House completes the reform of the code of compensation for criminal damage and criminal injury which for a long time all sides have considered to be necessary. There have been two main grounds in respect of both sides of the code which have caused that feeling. The first was the knowledge that there was undoubtedly scandalous misuse of the funds paid out in compensation, both as regards the circumstances in which the sums were paid and, in some cases, the persons to whom those sums were paid. On the other hand, there has been a feeling that there is unnecessary delay in the satisfaction of claims for compensation, while, as the Minister of State pointed out, much of the delay, unbeknown often to the applicants, lies with their professional advisers and not in the Department.

It can be claimed that, like its twin, this order substantially meets these two criteria. I pay tribute to the readiness of the Minister of State and his advisers to take account of the points, small as well as larger, which have been brought to his attention both informally and formally in the Northern Ireland Committee. I think that, again, our procedure for providing a kind of simulacrum of proper parliamentary legislation has borne evident fruit in the order before us.

It would be churlish not to record some of the minor matters which have been dealt with in the order, compared with its earlier form, before going on to deal with two or three major issues which—in some cases more, in others less satisfactorily—have been dealt with in the interim.

I shall briefly mention minor respects in which, in the view of myself and my hon. Friends, improvement has been brought about. First, in Article 5 there has undoubtedly been an improvement in the drafting and in the clarification of the meaning. That is much more so in Article 9, which the Minister mentioned, where the previous Article 9 (3) was highly unsatisfactory and gave rise to anxieties that it could be used in an unreasonable and punitive fashion. The references to "unlawful purpose", "unlawful use" and failure to tax a motor vehicle are now in the proper place in that article and are firmly brought first, under the discretion of the Secretary of State and, secondly, thereby under the ultimate jurisdiction of the courts on appeal.

There has been an improvement in the drafting of Article 11(4) and a major improvement in Article 17 where paragraph (4) in effect vests in the court a discretion which previously was an arbitrary discretion of the Secretary of State. I am sure that it is quite right that where compensation is to be clawed back, it should be done in the first place—I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) will agree—through the court procedure and not through the ipse dixit of the Secretary of State.

There are two minor points which perhaps the Minister will be able to clarify when he replies. The first relates to Article 15 where the contents of Article 14(4) of the proposals for the draft appear to have been omitted altogether. There may be very good reasons for this. Perhaps the Minister in his concluding speech will be able to say whether I am right in thinking that the contents of old Article 14(4) have disappeared and why it was felt that they could be dispensed with.

Finally, with regard to these minor points, I refer to Article 17(6). There is a point here to delight the heart of any paleographer and textual critic because there are two manuscripts before the House. There is the printed version which we might call Manuscript A, where a later scribe has deleted the word "excuse" and interlineated the word "cause". If, on the other hand, we turn to what I might call Manuscript B we find that a gap was left and the word "cause" has been written in.

I therefore call upon the Minister of State, since we are engaged in the solemn matter of making law—he may recall an earlier occasion when great inconvenience was caused to Parliament as a whole by uncertainty as the wording of Acts which were passed by this House—to indicate what will be the authoritative text and whether it is to be "reasonable excuse" or "reasonable cause".

Some of these matters may seem to you, Mr. Speaker, to fall irreverently into the category of nits. Nevertheless, I think it right that orders such as this, which in any other part of the United Kingdom would be the fruit of legislation with consideration clause by clause and subsection by subsection in Committee and on Report in two Houses, should be scrutinised by hon. Members as best we can, and therefore I make no apology.

I come, then, to the major matters, the first of which, of course, is to welcome Article 11, which my constituents and I are proud should be associated with a particularly scandalous operation under the existing compensation code that we may have had some part in putting right. I trust that the wording of Article 11 will in fact supersede those difficulties of existing law and case law which have led to these results.

That leaves me with the two major matters which we raised in Committee. Of course, we are glad that Article 4 has been brought back from the existing legislation into this new order. But we warn the Minister that it is a mere Treasury formula to talk about putting the House or Northern Ireland upon notice that this is only a temporary concession. Let those who talk, in the context of Northern Ireland, about temporary concessions beware what they do. After all, this article is concerned with agrarian terrorism and with the special characteristics of agrarian terrorism. We all hope devoutly that agrarian terrorism and all other forms of terrorism will be eliminated speedily from what should be a happy Province of the United Kingdom.

But he would be a bold man who found any comfort in the history either of the last few years or of the last few centuries for the assumption that we shall speedily see the end of agrarian terrorism, and, as long as there is agrarian terrorism, Article 4 will be justified as a matter of common sense and fairness. So the Minister can have his pleasure with putting the House upon warning, and the rest of it. The fact is that Article 4 is thoroughly justified, and there will have to be some radical change in human nature before Article 4 ceases to be justified.

I come finally to the matter of the £150 as it used to be and the £100 as it now is, which is not a minmum, as someone accidentally said, but an exclusion figure. My right hon. Friends and I remain of the opinion that this is the wrong approach, and we draw comfort from the fact that in another context—that of the other half of the compensation code—we succeeded in persuading the Government to change their exclusion to de minimis. Of course, we accept the necessity for a de minimis. Indeed, in so far as it contributes to the speedy dispatch of due compensation, we would regard a de minimis—a figure below which claims cannot be——

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

I did not know that I agreed to that.

Mr. Powell

I am happy to hear that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) thinks of himself as included in my expression "my right hon. and hon. Friends". He is welcome to come in. But if he occasionally finds the umbrella all too embracing, he must not complain.

Nevertheless, it is understood that, in all these matters, minimal claims can choke the mechanism without any corresponding justificaion, and my hon. Friends and I would make no objection to an appropriate figure. I fear that inflation will presently make £100 the equivalent of £50 in the existing code. At the moment, it is about £80. But it will not be too long before it is £100, social contract or no social contract. However, I do not wish to trespass on tomorrow's debate.

Although we would accept some such figure, we cannot accept that it should be an exclusion and not a minimum. We do not see that it is right for an admitted claim of £120 to be knocked down to £20 or of £200 to be knocked down to £100. That is not speeding the process. It will take just as long to deal with a claim for £200 knocked down to £100 as if the £200 were paid.

The Minister of State argued the parallel of the insurance policy that has a minimum figure of £15 or whatever it may be. But there is an important difference here. We are dealing with the victims of actions committed against them in which, especially under the terms of the order, they have no possible part or fault. I am not suggesting that that cannot be true in many cases of those who suffer motor damage, for example. But there is certain prudence and logic in enjoining upon those who take out policies a degree of care and restraint in putting forward claims too often for damage inflicted upon their property. But, I repeat, that is not the case here. We are dealing with citizens whose property has been damaged to the extent of £150, £200, £250 or £300 where no possible fault of theirs, no possible pre-vision on their part, can be imagined.

It is a totally false analogy to quote insurance policies for saying that these claims should be knocked down by £100. So, tit for tat I give notice—that was the Minister's phrase—that we cannot declare ourselves to be satisfied, although there is a minor improvement in the reduction of the £150 to £100, with the logic of the Waddell Report on the matter or with the logic of an exclusion which goes all the way up the scale and thereby bears more hardly upon little people who have suffered what for them may be substantial damage. On that matter, on behalf of my hon. Friends, I must register enduring dissatisfaction or partially removed dissatisfaction.

Mr. Fitt

So the right hon. Gentleman will be voting against the Government tomorrow?

Mr. Powell

The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) must recognise that there is proportion in all things. In order to secure major claims of justice for those whom we represent, it is proper for us to proceed, if necessary, to extremities in this House. It is proper for us to do as our predecessors in this place have done and to take the opportunity of any subject that comes up to enforce our will in matters that vitally concern our constituents.

But, reason and moderation in all things, we have here an order which is 95 per cent. in accordance with our wishes. The order was 80 per cent. only in accordance with our wishes when we last saw it, but substantial improvements have been made. Therefore, it would indeed be churlish to part with this last element in the reform of the compensation code without acknowledging the sincere efforts that the Minister of State personally and his advisers have put into it and congratulating them, albeit with one qualification, upon the outcome of their labours.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. William Craig (Belfast, East)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) has more than adequately covered the order and I do not want to be unduly repetitive. Suffice it to say that whether my right hon. Friend spoke for the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), he spoke for me in this instance. I should like to underline two points that he emphasised.

I agree wholeheartedly that any question of a claw-back must, in the first instance, be settled in a court of law. I also agree with my right hon. Friend's point about the unsuitability of the insurance concept of an excess amount in such a situation as confronts us here. I find it strange that a Government who claim to represent the workers of this nation and the less-well-off should be responsible for a piece of legislation that will penalise those people out of all proportion. The Minister has overlooked the fact that such damage is often not insurable and that old people, the retired and others find that in these days £150 is an extremely large sum to have to pay out for something for which they were not responsible and which has inevitably caused them more than pecuniary loss. Of course, we all understand the need for a de minimis approach and the need to phrase the law in such a way as to limit abuses. The principle adopted here is most unfair, however.

There is a general matter that I want to put to the Minister. I wholeheartedly agree that the Department should have the right to attach conditions to the use of compensation funds for the reinstatement of premises. I hope also that the Minister, when he weighs up the problems, will not forget that often—particularly with commercial properties—the loss is not just to the owner but to the whole community, and that it is in the interests of the community as well as those of the individual that the property should be replaced as quickly as possible. I know that gossip and rumour-mongering is not the best basis for any argument, but on a number of occasions I have come across suggestions that the Department has indicated that, in its opinion, it would be better not to replace certain properties. Whether that is true, I am not in a position to say, but if it is true, that is something that I should deplore. The Department does not have any right to give such guidance. That must be left to the owner of the property. He should assess the risk in which he places himself. It is often a matter for his commercial judgment.

I should like the Minister to give an assurance—if he can—that he will not lay down conditions forbiding the reinstatement of any property, unless a matter of exceptional security interest is involved. We would make that one exception.

I have no wish for reinstatement to be made retrospective, but the Minister and the House have enough influence over public bodies to ensure that they set an example.

The British Broadcasting Corporation in Northern Ireland is sadly remiss in this respect. The people of Fermanagh and parts of Tyrone have been largely deprived of colour television and have poor radio facilities because of the terrorist action that blew up the television mast on the Brougher Mountain. That was two or three years ago, if not longer. No effort has been made to restore that facility, and a large rural area has been deprived of what, in these days, is regarded as almost an essential service. If the Minister is not prepared to make representations I hope that the BBC will take note of the fact that the law expects, from now on, that properties will be reinstated out of funds from the public purse.

I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South in remarking upon the limited legislative opportunities that we have and saying how pleased we are that the Government have paid some attention to the points of view put forward. I look forward to the day when we shall have even greater opportunities for making representations because I would have liked, even in this improved order, to table one or two amendments.

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

It is a pleasure to be able to say, for once, that we welcome that which is before us. I give a broad welcome to the reinclusion of Article 4 which deals with compensation for damage to agricultural property. There are one or two small points about which I would like to ask the Minister. I hope that he will be in a position to deal with them. Article 4 (b) (iv) speaks of any corn, hay, straw, flax, wool, potatoes or other agricultural produce, feeding stuffs, fertilizisers or insecticides". There is no mention of what is an important feature of farming today, namely weed killers. It would appear that this part of the order has been lifted from the original Act and no effect has been made to up-date it in the light of changes which have taken place in farming. Can anything be done about this in any future order?

I give a guarded welcome to Article 6, which has been so well covered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). I am happy to see that the figure has been reduced to £100, All of the iniquities to which my right hon. Friend referred mean that the provisions are no more welcome than they were originally. I hope that an opportunity will be taken before next April to amend this order. There is no reason which I can see why that should not be done.

I would like the Minister to try to be a little more forthcoming about what is meant by the term reasonable precautions." I am not happy about it and I do not believe that my right hon. and hon. Friends are either. We are still not clear precisely what is meant by this and what is expected of persons who suffer, be they shopkeepers, owners of property or whatever.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

I return briefly to the grey area involving damage and theft. It appears that this problem of defining what is damage and what is theft is still with us. I would like to draw the Minister's attention to this matter by referring to a specific incident which occurred within my constituency. I accept that there are some products which can rarely be damaged, even if they are taken off the premises. One thinks of such goods as tinned products and cartons of cigarettes. But there are other items which suffer damage in the act of being removed. I refer to an incident involving the removal of £5,000 worth of clothing from a store in Bradbury Place, Belfast. The very act of taking the garments from the static hangers and dumping them into lorries and the boots of cars meant that when they were recovered at a much later date they could not be sold as new items. They were decidedly damaged.

The owner of the shop took every precaution. He informed the police station that was a few yards away that he was due to open the very next day. He told the police that he had no burglar alarm, but they promised to give him all sorts of security. He returned on the day of opening and found that half his stock was missing.

This bizarre incident becomes the more interesting when we discover that the Chief Constable provided a certificate that proved that the garments were taken and the Royal Ulster Constabulary established that one of the reservists was in league with those who were responsible for the theft. All the criteria in the order and the previous order were satisfied. The theft was committed by an unlawful or- ganisation, or an organisation deemed to come under the terms of the Act. The sum involved was £5,000. However, the owner did not receive compensation because the articles were adjudged to have been stolen rather than damaged.

I hope that I shall have the opportunity to give the Minister a short brief behind the chair. I am sure that he will find it interesting. I hope that he will return to the grey area of damage and theft. In the case of my constituent there is undoubtedly a case for revision of the claim. I shall be grateful for the Minister's comments after receiving the brief.

10.57 p.m.

Mr. McCusker (Armagh)

I was unable to attend the sitting of the Northern Ireland Committee when it first debated the proposals in the draft order, but on reading the report I was encouraged by the Minister's comments, as I am sure was the business community in Northern Ireland. He repeated those comments tonight—that the loss of a building is a loss to the community, a shop being an asset to the customers as well as to the owner.

If anyone doubts that, he needs not to go to Belfast or Londonderry; all he needs to do is walk up Market Street, Lurgan, along Market Street, Armagh, or go to the blitzed village of Newton Hamilton. If he does so, he will realise the effect on a community when attacks are made on selective important targets such as shops. He will realise the effect of their removal from the community. If the order does anything to enable business people to get back into business quickly and speedily, it is to be welcomed.

I draw the Minister's attention to a pet subject of mine that is contained in Article 9. This is an issue that was taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux). It is the paragraph dealing with the assessment of compensation. It states: In determining whether any compensation should be paid in respect of any loss … the Secretary of State shall have regard to". It lists a number of items, the first being any failure on the part of the applicant to take all reasonable precautions to reduce or avoid the loss". Another three requirements are listed. I completely agree with the other three, but the one that I have quoted can be interpreted in ways that could make life extremely difficult for business men trying to get adequate compensation.

The incident referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South, (Mr. Bradford) highlights that difficulty. A business man in Lurgan operating in the Church Place area suffered bomb damage. His shop was 50 yards from the police station, which was destroyed by a bomb three years ago. The shop door was about 10 paces away from the spot where a chief constable and a chief inspector were shot dead in the past 12 months, and 50 yards from the place where a UDR man was shot dead within the past year.

When the global sum of his compensation was agreed he was informed that because he had not taken reasonable precautions, a reduction would be made in the amount of his compensation. That was a very small shop. He employed only four people. One of these employees had a duty to watch out and to detect whether a terrorist attack was likely to be made. There is no way in which that person could have apprehended the terrorist, and the area is such that the police cannot keep a presence there any longer. No person employed in a full-time security capacity could have prevented the bombing, yet the Secretary of State has adjudged that this man did not take all resonable precautions.

All the Minister said in the debate in Committee, and here again to night, was that it will be for the courts to decided, on appeal, what is reasonable. That constituent of mine wants to settle. He does not want to go to court. The global sum agreed between the parties is a reasonable settlement. The dispute is over whether he took reasonable precautions. Most people would agree that there was very little he could do. He had a searching device to ensure that any incendiary devices would be found, and, as I have explained, there was no way in which he could have prevented what eventually took place.

The Minister should advise business people in that situation the likely interpretation of "all reasonable precautions". Is it when a business man complies with the advice given by the RUC? Will the police go to business people and tell them what they can do? Does he advise firms which employ security men to tackle the gunmen or people carrying bombs? It is adequate for security men just to be there to tell the customers and staff to get out to avoid personal injury? What advice can the Minister give, other that saying that a business man in this situation can go to court? It is unfortunate that the wording should be in such general terms, because many people will be put in a difficult situation.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

I do not intend to detain the House too long. Reference was made by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) to the fact that this legislation, allied with its twin on criminal injuries, is of major importance to many people in Northern Ireland.

I am beginning to have a slight suspicion about the Government's actions in their presentation of these draft orders. In the presentation of the draft order on criminal injuries there was a good deal of unanimity—in fact no divergence of opinion at all—in Committee, and the same thing happened in the presentation of the draft order on criminal damages. Objections taken to certain provisions of those orders were so justified and the injustices in the original drafts were so blatant that it was obvious, looking at the matter in retrospect, that the Government would have to change and amend the original orders.

Is there not some little game being played here? Are the Government deliberately including such unjust provisions in this order so that Northern Ireland Members will get the credit for having made representations in Committee? The Government then take note of the representations so that Northern Ireland Members, particularly on Opposition Benches, can say to their constituents, "What a great job we are doing in Committee. We are persuading the Government almost every day to change their minds. We are great representatives. When the election comes, will you vote for us?"

Mr. Powell

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if he were to make a careful study of Great Britain legislation, he would be relieved of his suspicions about Northern Ireland legislation.

Mr. Fitt

I have been looking at Great Britain legislation and I am certain that representations by scores of my hon. Friends on many issues have not been given the rapt attention which appears to have been given in Committee to the representations of hon. Members opposite. The game may be, "We shall give you credit for changing some legislation."

The original provisions were so blatantly unjust that no Government could have hoped to carry them. Everyone is pleased now, except about the provision concerning £100 or £150. I completely agree on that. It is less than honest if that is the tactic, but it is not admitted, "We will help you, but will you please help us? When there is a vote of confidence, you must abstain or just leave for Belfast."

I want this Government to remain in office as long as the Prime Minister thinks necessary—but at least I am honest. But if those who follow a philosophy bitterly opposed to that of the Government are playing games with the object of keeping the Government in office, that is less than honest.

What are the "reasonable precautions" which have to be taken? The Minister cannot give a satisfactory answer. The courts will have to decide. The Minister has seemed to take satisfaction from the fact that 95 per cent. of cases are settled in the office, and that it is only a few thick and nasty people who are not prepared to see reason who take their cases to the courts in the first place. But he added that it is the cases which go to the courts which set the criteria for the 95 per cent. which do not.

What would have happened if that 5 per cent. had not been so thick, if they had decided to settle with the officials and not go to court? What would have been the criteria when none was being laid down in court decisions, The Minister should be grateful to those who had recourse to the law. They helped to lay down the criteria, and they deserve some credit.

No provision has been made in the case of armed robbery which I have brought to the Minister's attention. Property can be furniture or clothes or anything else which is being sold commercially. But money can also be regarded as property. A man who is accompanied by a revolver—whether or not he is accompanied by two colleagues—can go into a shop and say, "Hands up." What precautions should a bootmaker or a proprietor of a public house take? Should he put cash in the till? Should he put it in the chute or should he hide it somewhere else? He cannot put it into a safe. Pandemonium would break out if he put his money into a safe on a Saturday afternoon. He would still have to open the safe if someone pointed a gun at his head or at the head of one of his staff.

I know many people who have suffered great losses because they were robbed at gun point. But that is hard to prove. Unless criteria are set, many people will try to take advantage of the situation. It is hard to prove whether there has been an armed robbery or how much money has been taken. Such claims should not be ignored. The loss to those who have been robbed is as great as that to those who lose by other means. Their cases should not be thrown to the wind. I hope that the Minister will say that he will give such cases more sympathy than he has in the past.

11.12 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

I can understand the confusion in the mind of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) because when we debated these matters in the Northern Ireland Committee he advised hon. Members not to take themselves too seriously and not to bother to make suggestions for improvements because the Government would pay no attention to them.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West ended his pontification tonight by asking the Minister to be sympathetic. But in Committee he said: I do not think that we shall see any sympathy extended by the Minister."—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee, 22nd June 1977; c. 29.] The hon. Member is muddled. He cannot have it both ways. He believes that certain things are going on in the House. I can tell him categorically that they are. They are going on five days a week. If he wants to get in on the act he has only to attend the House five days a week as we do and he can join us haggling and bargaining with Ministers on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.

The order is another example of the improvements that have been worked out between ourselves and the Government, no matter how much it may grieve the hon. Member for Belfast, West. There was a time not long ago when measures would be slapped on the Table with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, depending on the Department and the Minister involved. Then the elected representatives of Northern Ireland had not the slightest influence on the thinking behind the provisions. Nor did they have the opportunity of altering a dot or comma of the document concerned.

I pay tribute to the present Government. In the last year they have moved a long way from that situation. In Committee we paid tribute to the Minister and expressed our appreciation of his efforts to meet our wishes about disputed issues, and to meet the wishes of the people we represent, wishes which have been transmitted in many cases through us and in other cases, somewhat reluctantly and belatedly, to the Minister by the organisations concerned.

Perhaps I may get in a commercial on this point. It would be a great help to us if organisations and interests affected by legislation in Northern Ireland would stop belly-aching and get down to the dreary work of preparing submissions to send to the Minister or their elected representatives, and not make post-dated complaints when it is all over. We are becoming tired of that operation.

As regards this order, we welcome the Minister's acceptance of the need for the reinstatement of the proposal in the 1971 Act which made special provision for agriculture. I support the Minister's present view, particularly as the Wadell Report did not advocate any change in the position on agriculture. It would not be prudent to go into the various possibilities that may have ensued had the order stood as it was originally drafted, but I am certain that the Minister and the Government have avoided falling into a very dangerous trap.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), I would strongly advise the Minister not to be tempted by thoughts such as, "We shall let them off this time. This will be a temporary concession, and some fine day we may be able to dispense with it." There is a special reason why this provision ought to be retained on a permanent basis, and it would do no service to the agricultural industry or the people of Northern Ireland generally if one were to spell it out openly and publicly in any great detail.

With regard to the other vexed issue of the exclusion clause, we welcome the Minister's second thoughts but we still think that the figure of £100 is too high. It is all very well for the Minister to say that that figure will eliminate very small claims and thereby speed up the processing of other claims, but I hope that the Government will recognise and accept what has been said to them in this debate and in the Northern Ireland Committee—that this exclusion will hit very badly many people who have limited resources. I hope that the Government will at least be prepared to review the position after a reasonable time has elapsed.

I conclude by expressing the hope, which I am sure is shared by all parties in the House, that the need for the major part of this legislation, excluding what I have said about agriculture, will be removed in the not-too-distant future.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Concannon

What we have proved tonight is the wisdom that there was in the change in the way in which we deal with Northern Ireland orders.

I am a little surprised by the attitude of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). If we were dealing with this order under the old method, I should have brought it to the House, not as a draft order, slapped it on the Box, defended every dot and comma, and then hoped that my hon. Friends would have been whipped in on a two-line Whip to vote it through. I had sought out the Northern Ireland Committee debates in order to point out the references made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but as that has already been done I had better leave well alone.

I know how our proceedings are well read in Northern Ireland. I am sure that I have never—I do not think that I would do so—called anyone who went to court over a claim "thick". I hope that my hon. Friend will not attribute that remark to me. I do not call anyone "thick" for proceeding with his rights to go to court if he feels in any way aggrieved.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) mentioned contract bombing. Any possible suspicion of contract bombing is reported to the RUC for investigation, and any evidence that is available should be given to the police.

I do not think it would be helpful to discuss current police investigations at this stage. Hon Members and others who write to tell me that I should be paying out more rapidly should understand that we sometimes have to look a little more deeply into some cases than others.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest mentioned the travelling shops and said that he could not find any reference to them in the 1971 debates. I was classing the travelling shops with the jewellery, the money and the other property in the context of looting. I think there was a manuscript amendment moved in 1971 by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) on this subject. It was fully debated within Stormont.

The problem that we should soon find very evident in Northern Ireland terms is that every car which was put into a street to set up a barrier would suddenly become a first-class vehicle with a first-class engine, whatever its condition when put into the barricade. There is always difficulty in proving these cases, and the whole system could easily become exposed to abuse, so that hon. Members would soon be writing to tell me about the abuses taking place. It is very difficult to prove or disprove the presence of articles said to have been left in cars at the time they were blown up. We have paid out £200 million of public money in compensation, and there is no deviation from the principle that we pay when it is proved that we should pay.

For the benefit of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), I point out that the word in Article 17(6) should be "cause", and I apologise to the House for the misprint. I was under the impression that the House wanted to get on with this as speedily as possible, and I had to take all possible measures to short-cut the printing system. We thought that the old Article 14(4) might be necessary in 1971, but now the Crown Proceedings Act will apply to proceedings under the order, and we did not think it was necessary now to have that article.

The special provisions for agricultural damage are not needed to cover terrorist damage in rural areas, which would be covered by Article 5 but covers private malice and wanton damage for which special compensation is hardly justified. But I have taken note of the points raised, and I hope that the outcome of tonight's order will prove satisfactory. I was wanting to know what the feeling was and why special arrangements should be made. I was told in no uncertain manner, and I have reacted to that information.

Mr. Powell

The Minister of State should please not think that Article 4 as it now stands is restricted to what he calls acts of private malice. Of course, it will inevitably include, and cannot be prevented from including, acts of private malice, but it will also—this is the purpose of it—include acts as defined elsewhere in the order, but in circumstances where the conditions cannot be proved, given agrarian circumstances. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that amendment.

Mr. Concannon

I will accept that. I think that in Committee I also advised that not only in the rural areas is there the problem of being able to prove claims. There are similar problems in the main cities of Belfast, Londonderry and elsewhere.

In considering the Question whether reasonable precautions were taken, we have to treat each case individually. What would be reasonable in one case would be unreasonable in another. The 1971 Act allows compensation to be reduced if the applicant has failed to take reasonable precautions against loss. But, of course, appeal to the courts is always available in this respect as well.

The right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) spoke of rumours about people being disposed not to rebuild, or not to rebuild quickly, and restore their property. The Department does not, of course, advise or compel people not to restore property, but compensation may not be payable at law for reinstatement if it is clearly uneconomic to do so. For example, we have told people in some cases that the compensation could not be expected to meet the full cost of rebuilding.

The important point still lying between us—I am sorry that we cannot meet it—concerns the principle of the deductible excess. We are sticking to the Waddell Committee's recommendation in this respect. I have referred to the safeguards against some of the hazards contained both in this order and in other schemes of assistance—for example the emergency repairs scheme and the supplementary benefits scheme. I note that members of the Northern Ireland Committee are still against the view taken by the Waddell Committee in this regard, but I still believe that it is reasonable in all the circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, which was laid before this House on 13th July, be approved.