HC Deb 05 March 1997 vol 291 cc914-6

4.5 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to contain civil actions for compensation. It used to be said that Englishmen, and indeed women, had stiff upper lips and a calm approach to life's vicissitudes. Misfortune was met with a stoic resolve, and with comments such as "chin up". That has changed, perhaps for the better in some ways. Sadly, British society has become a great deal more litigious in respect of any misfortune, and we seem, in the words of the Lord Chancellor, to be living with a "compensation culture". No longer does the concept of an act of God, an accident or bad luck feature in most people's calculations. Someone else must be to blame for misfortune, and that someone should pay compensation. We seem to be following the United States of America. I think that the House will agree that that is not a healthy development in our society.

I recall the case of a man who slipped on the cobb in Lyme Regis in 1988. One would suppose that anyone walking beside the sea would have a duty of care, and would realise that sea water makes the stones slippery. Nevertheless, the incident was thought worthy of a court case, and he was initially awarded £95,000 compensation, because the council had not put up a sign saying that wet stones are slippery.

Similar cases are becoming depressingly common. Each day's newspapers show someone at an industrial tribunal or in court demanding compensation. A female teacher at a Roman Catholic school, which tries to uphold the tenets of that faith, claimed that she had been constructively dismissed. Her only fault was to have had three children by different fathers, one of whom was a former pupil half her age. Some may say that that does not set a good example to other children, but she definitely wants compensation.

One would hope that most educated people know that west Africa used to be called the white man's grave, because of the disease and fever prevalent there. The trainee solicitor who went to Ghana and contracted dysentery did not, and she of course wants compensation. She wants two thirds of a million pounds, because her company must have been at fault as it did not warn her that she should be careful about what she ate.

Schoolchildren intend to sue their schools because they did not get good enough grades at examinations. Three former students are suing their university because they did not get good enough degrees. There is the extraordinary case of a prisoner who was awarded £100 because he thought that the haircut he was given in prison was too short. What complete nonsense. Some inmates in Strangeways were each given a settlement of £5,000 because they were present during a riot. The convicted killer, Christopher Clunis, was awarded legal aid—taxpayers' money—and will spend at least£100,000 of it suing Camden and Islington health authority. He and his lawyers will benefit, but no one else will, and justice certainly will not.

Women joined the armed forces on the understanding that they would have to leave if they became pregnant. After they had left, they quickly discovered that that could be a nice little earner, and as a result taxpayers paid out £57 million. Similarly, members of the emergency services such as the police and the fire service must expect to see ghastly sights—I certainly did when I was a soldier. If those sights affect them, of course they should be given medical help, but I do not believe that they should be given public money as compensation for going about their duty.

Finally, some Leicester City fans near my constituency are suing the Football Association for distress over the disputed penalty against Chelsea. I assume that that is a joke, but they have served a writ.

I do not suggest that those who suffer real injury or financial loss should not be compensated if somebody has been negligent. However, I believe that we are going down the road of America, where it is said that doctors will not stop to attend injured people in the street for fear that they may be sued if they make a mistake and that their insurance may not cover them. That cannot be good for society.

The generations of my parents and grandparents suffered huge deprivation and the great traumatic stress of two world wars. They did not spend their time whingeing, but got on with their lives and were determined to improve the world. One might contrast that with a soldier who took part in the campaign in the Falklands for about a month. Eight years later, after a heavy drinking session he took out a pistol in his accommodation, fired it at a television set and threatened his comrades. That soldier received £100,000 because, of course, he had post-traumatic stress disorder. That certainly should have been spotted before he was promoted twice in the preceding eight years. Apparently, we are now told by the European Court of Human Rights that he should have been sent to bed and never prosecuted by a court martial. Not many soldiers would agree.

The money does not grow on trees and, in many cases, it does not even come from the private sector. It comes from the public purse—the pockets of taxpayers. Every hon. Member can think of better things on which it should be spent. If it comes from private sources, it will probably come from insurance companies and, therefore, is reflected in the higher premiums paid by all, including those least able to pay, such as many pensioners.

My Bill proposes that we should turn the tide of this ludicrous litigation. I propose that there should be a test of common sense and that an arbitrator or ombudsman should be appointed to deal with personal injuries and personal litigation of this kind. That arbitrator would give an opinion based on sensible and pragmatic guidelines. It would then be up to any plaintiff to refuse to accept that opinion, but if a plaintiff did go to court, there would be no legal aid and there would be a presumption that should the plaintiff lose, he or she would be liable for all costs.

The Bill would lay down pragmatic guidelines for the judiciary based on common sense, and on proven injury or financial loss to the plaintiff. There would not be binding regulations, but guidelines which might change the culture of litigation.

Unlike many hon. Members I am not a lawyer, but I can see that personal litigation has become a lawyer's bonanza. I am distressed that the Law Society sees fit to set up an accident line to encourage those who may have cut a finger to call to see if there is anything in it for them. There is obviously something in it for the lawyers. There is an association of personal injury lawyers which wrote to me recently—and, I suspect, to all other Members of Parliament—which seems to exist to encourage people to complain for whatever reason in the hope of getting compensation.

The no win, no fee system is particularly dangerous since the pursuit of real justice must be a long way down the list of priorities of any lawyer involved. I would rather see taxpayers' money go to those who deserve compensation for some real injury, not to lawyers touting for business.

Two years ago this month I introduced another ten-minute Bill, the Eradication of Mink Bill. I said then that it could be called a Bill for the conservation of water voles. I was gratified on Monday and yesterday to see the coverage given to David Bellamy and others who are publicising the plight of the water vole. I am delighted at the high profile that their campaign is now receiving.

This Bill may not become law in this Parliament. Nevertheless, in another two years, or at some time in the next Parliament, I hope that measures will be enacted so that only genuine personal injury or financial loss will lead to the pursuit of compensation and that our litigious compensation culture may thereby be limited.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Robathan.