HC Deb 07 July 1989 vol 156 cc637-47 1.24 pm
Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 1, line 23, after 'parents,' insert 'provided that the deceased was a minor who never married.' It is right to set the background to the Bill before charging straight in to a consideration of the amendment. Clause 2 extends the categories of people who would be entitled to bereavement damages. Bereavement damages are damages payable purely for the grief suffered because of a person's death. They must be distinguished from damages that are payable to those who are dependent on the person who has died. I stress that the damages referred to in the Bill are damages to compensate for grief.

One can take the view that it is degrading to human nature to turn the grief that one feels at bereavement into money. Indeed, I take that view. However, bereavement damages have been well established for a long time. Because, as the law of our country stands at the moment, it is accepted that there should be bereavement damages, we should decide to whom those damages should be payable.

As I have said, I take the view that bereavement damages are not justifiable because payment for grief is something that I cannot understand. I made that point on Second Reading and that view is generally accepted, but not by everybody. I find it difficult to express what the death of a person is worth because of the grief suffered. If someone close to one dies, no money can compensate for the loss of that person.

However, if we accept bereavement damages, it follows not only that the class of person who is entitled to those damages should be severely restricted, but that the amount of money available to those people should be severely restricted also. Any amount of bereavement damages that is more than a token or a nominal small amount would make one feel that one had profited by the death of the person who had died. That would be a bad thing.

If one is restricting the class of people who would be entitled to bereavement damages, one must consider the existing law and the people who are entitled. It is a pretty odd list. The statute sets out that bereavement damages should be for the benefit

  1. "(a) of the wife or husband of the deceased; and
  2. (b) where the deceased was a minor who was never married—
  1. (i) of his parents, if he was legitimate; and
  2. (ii) of his mother, if he was illegitimate.
Today that sounds pretty odd because it makes an invidious and unpleasant distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children when in our other legislation we are tending to reduce those distinctions as much as possible and are trying to remove any stigma that there might once have been because of the acts of one's parents over which one had no control.

It sounds an odd list and there could well be some justification for changing it. However, one must do so according to the list of people who might most arguably suffer by the loss of their parents. Obviously, one cannot say that a father of a legitimate child will suffer any more than the father of an illegitimate child. There are difficulties under the present list of proving that the father of an illegitimate child is actually the father. However, with people living together outside marriage more and more, that is becoming a decreasing difficulty.

1.30 pm

We must categorise the list of people entitled to bereavement damages in one way or another. Any categorisation of such people will be fraught with difficulties. One difficulty will be that some people whom most of us think should be included will be left out, and those whom people think should be left out will be included. Our approach should be to recognise that there are major difficulties about that area of the law and that, whatever we do, we are unlikely to get it finally perfectly right.

Any extension of the list of those who would be entitled to bereavement damages should be done slowly and gradually. It should, perhaps, lag a little behind public opinion rather than leaping ahead of it. Our proper approach should be to look at the list of those who are entitled now to bereavement damages, and then to consider which person is most obviously left out. That was dealt with in another place in 1982 by Lord Mishcon, when he moved an amendment to the Administration of Justice Bill. He said words with which I have to agree. He said: there are several categories of people who are entitled in regard to the bereavement claim but, as I tried to submit on a previous occasion, the one obvious claimant has been omitted. It is the unmarried minor child, who one thinks is possibly the person who will the most miss the parent from the point of view of actual loss, only in the sense … sometimes a surviving spouse can find some kind of relief, contentment and indeed happiness, in a remarriage, whereas a child can never regain a parent who has been lost."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 May 1982; Vol. 429, c. 1109.] Some people ask why I have put forward the amendment to limit the increase to a minor who has never married. My reason for doing so is that the minor who has never married is probably the person who is most likely to suffer the loss of a parent. Those who are older tend to suffer less, perhaps because of other relationships that they are able to form—more open and less exclusive relationships than one naturally has with one's parent when one is a child. I suggest that this is the right way in which to limit the clause.

Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh)

The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) is at least consistent in his criticisms of personal injury compensation and the category of persons who receive it. On Second Reading he made similar points and I and other hon. Members tried to reconcile them. We have never denied that the amount of money payable in such circumstances is incalculable. We have said consistently that there must be recognition of that fact, because recognition has been given in other elements of our law, when dealing, for example, with a person's injured reputation. One cannot compare the £300,000 and £1 million awards that are given by the courts for injured reputation with those given for injured bodies—or the psychological impact, which brings about nervousness and in many other ways affects people who are bereaved because of accidents.

Some people argue that because the loss that a bereaved person suffers is beyond compensation, there should be no award. As I have asked many times before, how can we adequately compensate people for the loss of a member of their family? Today I have been given some illustrations of the sort of claimants who should be included—the categories that the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford talked about. If a bereaved person believes that financial compensation will help him recover from the tragedy, he should be allowed to seek compensation. It should be his choice to decide whether or not to claim and how to use it.

I wish to fill in the background to the Bill as that is necessary to understand the amendments. When I introduced my Bill I received massive all-party support, which was exciting. Some 260 hon. Members committed themselves to supporting the Bill through organisations, mainly the Citizen Action Compensation Campaign. Many hon. Members of high regard and great reputation supported the Bill.

It is with some regret that I risk placing on record my anger and dismay at the Government's conduct throughout the Bill's passage. I was forced by a lack of time for private Member's Bills severely to curtail the Bill. I did so openly, accepting in good faith what Ministers said to me in Committee, in order to give the Bill the best possible chance of reaching the statute book. I have given the Government every opportunity to agree to what is now a simple measure. I took four clauses out of the Bill to accommodate them and to avoid dividing the all-party support. Through negotiation and mutual respect for each other's view we could have retained a sensible and just portion of the Bill, which would have received the unanimous approval of the House.

The Bill would have a substantial effect on the quality of life of the injured and bereaved. I accept that the Minister has tried to accommodate actuarial problems, but unfortunately he seems to have set his face against extending the categories of people entitled to bereavement damages. That is mirrored by the amendments of the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford.

Recent disasters have illustrated the urgent need for a review of existing law. One of my constituents died at Hillsborough. He was 18 and his parents will not receive a single penny because of the artificial distinctions in the law. I have since learnt that another family is in the same position. Their son was two months over 18.

The problem does not affect only those who have, unfortunately, been caught up in the recent spate of disasters. A pensioner was devastated by the loss of her 40-year-old daughter who suffered from Down's syndrome. She died after a locum doctor had wrongly administered heroin to her as a painkiller. That pensioner's claim is worth £80 for funeral expenses. It is highly likely that legal aid will be withdrawn because of the potential costs of her action. Her barrister has said that she feels that the core has been taken out of her life". The mother feels that the doctor: took her life and ruined mine That women is being denied access to justice. That is why this issue is so crucial and I cannot understand the lack of compassion displayed about such examples.

People caught in the trap are systematically denied access to justice. In many cases such action is the only way in which people can hold the person responsible to account, but the Minister will not move on this. Why should a child be prevented from claiming for the death of its parents? Surely a child feels such a loss much more than anyone else, as parents mean the world to their children. Some people argue that because a child is financially dependent on its parents it will be able to make a claim. What if the parents are unemployed or chose to stay at home to bring up the family? In those circumstances a child may not be able to claim. Further consideration should be given to the cases that I have described.

My Bill was designed to solve such problems and, by doing so, it would have implemented the recommendations of the Pearson royal commission which was established specifically to examine compensation for personal injury. It recommended that an unmarried minor child should be able to recover damages.

My Bill would also tackle the inconsistency between English and Scottish law. It is absurd that a child who is most likely to feel the pain and suffering that I have described should be prevented from making a claim. The Administration of Justice Act 1982 provides a much wider scope for claiming damages. It states that the spouse, parents, children, a person accepted by the deceased as a child and any person who, immediately before the deceased's death, lived with the deceased as husband or wife may claim.

Why have one law for Scotland and one for England? That is inconsistent and it deprives people of a common form of justice. My Bill would have brought equity to the four countries of the United Kingdom. If the bereaved believe that compensation will help them to recover from the accidental death of a relative that feeling should be recognised.

In Committee we discussed the amount of compensation to be awarded. I am sure that the Minister, with the best intentions in the world, will make a statement and, I hope, a commitment, on the Government's recognition that bereavement damages should be increased. I await to see whether he is prepared, in any shape or form to dot the i's and cross the t's after the commitment has been made regarding the amount concerned. We have received hundreds of letters, especially from the—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. Is not the hon. Gentleman anticipating later amendments? It is hard to relate his remarks to the amendment under discussion.

1.45 pm
Mr. Cunliffe

If you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, remember, I mentioned that I had to go through some of the Bill's background to try to illustrate what the amendment meant in the broadest sense of the word, and I shall try to do that.

The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford has referred to the category which we are describing. The Bill's sponsors and I feel deeply about that. There is another category of person which should be included. I know of a case in which a family lost their 16-year-old daughter when a coach jumped a red light and hit a van in which she was travelling. The driver was prosecuted, convicted, fined £500 and had his licence suspended for a year. The mother cannot believe that the claim was worth only £3,500.

I wait with anticipation for the Minister to make some remarks about the stage we have reached and the confusion which has now arisen due to attempts by him and his Department to introduce legislation on the actuarial line. Unfortunately, that cannot be discussed too much in the House simply because of Mr. Speaker's ruling.

Throughout this period there has been a degree of confusion—I would not say trickery or deceit—which has misled some of us. We thought that there were some aspects of the Bill towards which the Government were sympathetic and would seek to support through some other procedure. My Bill has, in the main, been hijacked all along the line. I am sorry to have to say that I do not believe that, so far, my Bill has been treated under the Queensbury rules. It has been totally decimated. I deeply regret that the Government have sought not to recognise some of the valid arguments put forward by my associates and me in support of the Bill.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in expressing deep sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) on his bereavement this week and our understanding of his difficulties in preparing for today's debates on his Bill.

The amendment is the first of a series tabled by the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) which, taken together, would kill this important Bill stone dead. They are almost all deeply objectionable amendments and are widely seen as both hurtful and offensive to many victims of extreme adversity who look to this House for hope and for practical help. They include the families of those who died in the Bradford fire, at Hillsborough and in other recent disasters. That the compensation they can expect under the law as it now stands is unacceptable to the British people is borne out by the voluntary offers in the Zeebrugge, King's Cross and Clapham disasters of almost three times the legal maximum. Any figure will be arbitrary, but the House must now listen to what more and more bereaved families are saying to us about the derisory levels of compensation available to them under the law, which this Bill seeks importantly to amend. My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh has been highly co-operative in his approach to the Solicitor-General's suggestions about changing the original drafting of the Bill. They were mostly extremely painful suggestions to my hon. Friend in that they involved the deletion of important sections of his Bill. He hoped, and was fully entitled to hope, that his reward would be an agreed measure of more limited but still valuable help to people who suffer bereavement or disability with inadequate compensation.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)

I know that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish to mislead the House. However, any impression that any deletions from the Bill and the dropping of the first four clauses owes anything to a suggestion from me is mistaken and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that.

Mr. Morris

My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh thought that he was seeking to accommodate the difficulties put to him by the Solicitor-General and some of his hon. Friends. It was not my hon. Friend's intention to remove from his Bill any of its very important provisions and principles which were sacrificed. He felt that he was co-operating with the Solicitor-General. He has made it clear this afternoon that he is angered and dismayed about the loss of very important parts of the Bill as originally drafted. Instead of any reward for my hon. Friend, it is now proposed from the Conservative Benches that this Bill—already seriously weakened by amendments which he felt forced to concede—should either be effectively destroyed or talked out today. The Bill has been boned and boiled down almost to the point of invisibility and is now to be buried.

Mr. Arbuthnot

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Morris

I will give way later. It is an utterly disgraceful story of contempt for our efforts to help needful people in which the Solicitor-General can surely take no pride.

The Solicitor-General

I shall confine myself to simply saying that the right hon. Gentleman is making unjustified allegations. The central part of the Bill—it is no longer part of the Bill—was dropped by the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe), for whom I have the greatest sympathy, because of the time constraints which inevitably affect a private Member's Bill which tries to deal with a wide subject on which there is no agreement. It was never suggested that there was agreement on the compensation board. The right hon. Gentleman will have done me the courtesy of reading my long speech on Second Reading in which I made that perfectly clear. I have taken great trouble to meet the Bill's sponsors and discuss this matter. They know and recognise that. It is not right for the right hon. Gentleman to say what he does but I shall expand on that when I speak more fully.

Mr. Morris

I heard the Solicitor-General's speech on Second Reading. It followed my speech on that day and I listened with very great care to all that he said. My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh did not want to drop the compensation board. He was reluctant to sacrifice any part of his Bill. My hon. Friend's position was that his Bill was already inadequate to meet all the problems it addressed. He was in fact hoping that the Solicitor-General might come forward with helpful additions to what was being proposed in the Bill. I can tell the Solicitor-General that my hon. Friend in sacrificing very important provisions of the Bill, did so in the expectation that there would be an agreed measure. He hoped to see his Bill, or some version of this very important measure, on the statute book. I am saying now that there is scant likelihood that, at the end of the day, anything will emerge to help the people he is concerned to assist.

It was a humanitarian initiative, which has been frustrated by the debates that we have had here and upstairs. Even as originally drafted, the Bill was but a first step in the right direction, yet it is a step too far for the Solicitor-General and the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford.

It must be strongly emphasised in this debate that the Bill, as originally drafted, attracted widespread support from over 50 national legal, medical and voluntary organisations. They include the Haemophilia Society, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, MIND, the National League of the Blind and Disabled and the Spinal Injuries Association. They are all now being told that they were asking too much, and to put up with existing law, with which even judges themselves are manifestly unhappy. Listen again, for example, to Mr. Justice Hirst's challenge to this House. He said, in reference to the Opren case, that both the assessors and the courts had been obliged to base their awards on the levels of damages established by legal precedent, which is binding in law. He went on: There is nothing wrong with critics questioning or condemning these levels, so long as they recognise that only parliament can change them … So long as the present levels remain in force, the Courts have no alternative but to apply them. That was widely read as a direct challenge to parliament to untie the hands of judges. My hon. Friend's Bill—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman's speech is wide of the terms of the amendment before the House, which deals with the exclusion of unmarried minors from the provisions of the Bill.

Mr. Morris

I am of course going to speak about exclusions. I wanted to remind the House of the very important statement made by Mr. Justice Hirst. He was delivering a pointed challenge to the House. It is a statement that deserves a reply from the Solicitor-General as well as from me.

In regard to amending the extensions of the categories of claimants I believe, with my hon. Friend, that it is totally unacceptable for the Minister to have refused to budge on this issue. His stance has clearly encouraged the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford to table what can only be described as amendments which aim to destroy the essential principles of my hon. Friend's Bill. As my hon. Friend said, recent disasters have illustrated the urgent need for a review of the existing law.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I hope that, on reflection and on re-reading my speech on Second Reading the right hon. Gentleman will realise that I needed no encouragement, and that I did not think that the Bill met the concerns that he, quite rightly, now expresses.

Mr. Morris

I speak with some experience of sitting on both sides of the House. I am certain that the Solicitor-General's stance must have given encouragement to his hon. Friends. After all, they support the Government. I regret very much that we are in the position now of losing a measure that is extremely important on humanitarian grounds.

The Solicitor-General

The right hon. Gentleman must take stock. Nothing to which he can point suggests that I encouraged the dropping of the first four clauses of the Bill or that I encouraged any extension of the categories of people who are entitled to claim bereavement damages. My position is that which the House agreed after a full debate in 1982, at which time the right hon. Gentleman was a Member. I have always upheld that position and I have never given any sign that the Government would broaden the categories. I have always said that we thought that the categories chosen in 1982 were right. I have had no suggestion that the clauses were dropped on the understanding that we would broaden the categories, and I know that the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) would not make any such suggestion.

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Mr. Morris

I said that my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh did not want to lose any part of the provisions in the Bill as originally drafted. I shall give way to him, so that he can explain his attitude on this important matter.

Mr. Cunliffe

The signal was quite clear. At one stage we were told, in essence, that the Government would steamroller the Bill if the compensation advisory board was kept intact. It was suggested that we could discuss other elements of the Bill that would give some recognition to the principles that I have been trying to establish. For example, on the question of bereavement damages, the Solicitor-General constantly said that the Government would consider uprating them. That is why I asked in my speech whether he would dot the i's and cross the is on the financial awards that the Government would be prepared to accept.

The question of time arose in Committee because this is the last Friday when private Members' Bills can be debated. If I had chosen to debate all the clauses, the Government would have adopted the tactic of talking me out. I thought that the Government were showing some sympathetic signs, and with respect to both the Solicitor-General and my right hon. Friend, I certainly did not think that there was any confusion. Although no assurances were given, there were certainly suggestions that the Government would be helpful. Indeed, the word "helpful" was used constantly during our discussions.

Mr. Morris

The Solicitor-General has heard what my hon. Friend has said. He clearly had the impression that in trying to co-operate with the Solicitor-General he would arrive at an agreed measure. My hon. Friend has not dissimulated in any way. He is a passionately concerned about those who could have been helped by the Bill as originally drafted.

The Solicitor-General

May I join the strands together? I said that I hope to be extremely helpful to the hon. Gentleman in three ways, and I am sure that he would acknowledge that. First, I said in Committee that we would consult with a view to uprating the level of bereavement damages, which has not been updated since 1982. When I come to reply to the debate on these amendments, I intend to confirm the Government's position on that.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman and I together considered ways to make a small but significant advance in the use of actuarial tables approved by the Government Actuary for compensation claims. It is only the understandable rules of the House that prevent us from dealing with that matter today. In fact, through the kindness of Mr. Speaker, we raised that matter earlier on a point of order. When I reply to the debate, I shall, within the rules of order, briefly clarify the position.

Thirdly, we hope to make some progress on a feasibility study for a no-fault compensation scheme for minor road accidents. I hope that there will be a little time available to debate that.

I have always sought to use this valuable private Members' legislative time to be as constructive as possible, but when I have not been able to do that, I have always made the position absolutely clear. I hope that hon. Members will accept that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I very much hope that we can now get back to considering amendment No. 12.

Mr. Morris

I shall reply only briefly to that intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, since I fully agree with you about relevance. My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh approached me—as a Member of Parliament who had taken three private Members' Bills to the statute book—about timing. He would have liked to take an earlier day, but delayed in an attempt to secure agreement with the Government.

Mr. Cunliffe

I did so simply because 5 May had been chosen as the date for the Committee stage to begin. To benefit from the flexible approach to the principles of the Bill that the Government were showing at the time and that the Solicitor-General has now evinced, I delayed until the final day for private Members' Bills.

Mr. Morris

By delaying, of course, my hon. Friend reduced his chances of legislating on this important matter.

Let me return to the extension of claimant categories. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that people need to be able to hold to account those responsible for their bereavements. Surely the Solicitor-General will accept the force of that argument when he replies. Accountability is the central issue: if people feel that someone must be held accountable for the death of a close relation, they should not be separated from justice by artificial barriers and distinctions and also, indeed, by the law's delay, which has been strongly criticised by the Lord Chancellor himself.

I hope that the House will reject the amendment without too much more delay today.

The Solicitor-General

The purpose of the amendment is to provide that, in respect of a parent's claim for the loss of a child, the deceased must have been a minor who never married. The amendment—which we are formally discussing, as you have reminded us, Mr. Deputy Speaker—would retain the current provisions of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976, as amended, and the Administration of Justice Act 1982.

In supporting the amendment, I am maintaining what has been the Government's position throughout. I shall return to my reasons—briefly, because I think that the House wants to proceed to the debate on no-fault compensation schemes—but I should like to make a couple of points first.

Your indulgence has been sought, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to allow discussion of bereavement compensation levels. I should make it clear, as I did in Committee, that seven years have elapsed since the level of bereavement damages was fixed at £3,500, whether one claimant or 10 sought damages. The Government accept that there is a good case now for considering whether a higher level would be appropriate, and I am pleased to tell the House, as I told the Committee, that the Lord Chancellor is to hold consultations on whether to raise the level.

Mr. Cunliffe

Will the consultations be with the organisations which have given me such invaluable help with my Bill? Will public and voluntary organisations, victim support groups and bodies such as CRUSE be consulted?

The Solicitor-General

There is no limit to the categories of interested parties that may be consulted, and I see no reasons why organisations such as those that the hon. Gentleman mentions should not be included among them. I hope that interested persons will read of our debate and that those holding views on how the uprating should take place will make them known. As a result of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, they have an opportunity to participate in the consultations. I hope also that appropriate bodies will be approached for that purpose. They may include insurance interests. I refer not only to insurance companies but to those who are insured as motorists or against household accidents, and in all our multifarious roles as citizens.

Once those consultations have been completed, a further announcement will be made about any appropriate increase. We are thinking of a time scale that is not overlong, and hope to make substantial progress toward an announcement during the course of this year. I hope that is of comfort to the hon. Member for Leigh.

The debate really concerns categories of claimants. I hope that the House accepts that I have never given any encouragement for believing that the Government will accept any widening of the categories of claimants as opposed to an increase in the level of bereavement damages. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Leigh nodding, because I would not wish there to be any misunderstanding. I have sought to make progress in the other areas that I mentioned in my earlier intervention.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's co-operation and for the constructive discussions that I have held with representatives of the Citizens Action Compensation Campaign. They have been placed in the difficulty that confronts anyone seeking to operate through a private Member's Bill—shortage of time. They took the decision that they considered to be right, but it should not be thought, and it would not be correct to say, that I led them on to do anything other than that which I have clearly described today. I sought to make progress to the utmost of my ability and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, in considerable detail.

I turn to my reasons why the amendment should be accepted. The existing clause 2(2) goes beyond anything recommended by the Law Commission or the Pearson Commission. Those two great commissions did not agree. They held different views, just as Scotland did. Nevertheless, neither of those two great commissions, which we asked to apply their minds to the categories of citizens who should be entitled to claim bereavement damages went as wide as clause 2.

The amendment will revert to the existing provision in respect of the age of eligible children. The reasons for accepting the amendment are compelling. To proceed without it will give parents the right to bereavement damages whatever the age of their children. Of course difficult judgments have to be made when legislating. If a son or daughter is a few weeks below the age of 18 rather than an adult just a few weeks older, a sad case can be made. Unamended, however, the clause would give parents the right to bereavement damages whether their offspring was 30, 40, 50, 60, or whatever age lit the time of death.

The amendment would re-instate the present law, which introduces a proviso that is in two parts. The children in respect of whom a claim is made must be minors, and they must be minors who never married. A minor who married will have developed less close links with his parents because the centre of his affection will have been his new family. That point was brought out by my noble and learned Friend the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, when that aspect was debated in Committee on the Administration of Justice Act 1982, col. 1298 of the House of Lords Hansard for 30 March 1982.

2.15 pm

It is also important to emphasise that children may have a loss of dependency claim. I do not wish to prolong the debate on this amendment because I know that hon. Members want to deal with the next one. For those reasons, I ask the House to accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

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