HC Deb 19 January 1999 vol 323 cc816-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

10.17 pm
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is important, not only for my constituents, but for all right hon. and hon. Members. Britain can be proud of its commitment to victims of crime. It is not universally understood that we pay out more to those who have had their lives damaged, and sometimes ruined, due to crimes committed against them or members of their family than any other European country—indeed, more than our European partners put together.

That reflects the compassion and the natural justice ingrained within our society. The principle underpinning criminal injuries compensation is that it is an expression of public sympathy and support for the innocent victim.

I was a social worker in Kent before being elected to the House, and I have experience of assisting abused children in making claims for compensation. The legal team working for Kent county council is held up as a beacon of excellence by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority for the way in which it processed claims on behalf of the children in its care.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Department will reply to the debate. He has a highly regarded reputation and his commitment to vulnerable people was evident to me in his previous work, particularly at the Department of Health.

In the light of the review that the Government are holding, I shall address some of the issues relating to criminal injuries compensation. I am pleased to be joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

When changes were introduced a few years ago, they were not universally welcomed. However, there was consensus that, although payments would be less under a tariff scheme than through the previous system, the new claims would be processed much more speedily. From my experience of dealing with constituents, I know that it has been frustrating that some people claimed under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, not under the authority. Many cases wait and wait, letters are not answered and files have been lost. Indeed, one constituent has been waiting eight years for a final settlement.

I have noted from written answers from the board's chairman, the noble Lord Carlisle, that additional members have been appointed to the board and that progress is being made with the backlog. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can assure me this evening that he is monitoring the board's progress and will take steps if it appears to him that the board is unlikely to meet the required level of progress to clear the backlog by March 2000, as agreed.

Even under the tariff scheme, victims can wait a year for a response. Thousands of cases go on to review and then appeal. We should look at how the system could be improved and speeded up. A high proportion of sexual violence cases are turned down at the initial and the review stages because the authority cannot make a decision based on papers alone. For example, where a successful defence of consent in a rape trial results in acquittal, there is a conflict of evidence between the applicant and the offender and the case can be settled only at a hearing. The only way for applicants then to make progress is to appeal. However, that is after they have been told in writing by the authority that it is not satisfied that the injuries are the result of a crime.

Hon. Members will understand that that is extremely distressing because, at that stage, the victim is unsure whether the decision that has been reached is a result of conflict, of lack of evidence or of the fact that the authority simply does not believe him or her. In such circumstances, an alternative might be for the panel to advise the victim that it cannot decide on the paper evidence and that it will make a request for an immediate initial hearing. That would speed up the process and give the victim the comfort that the case was at least being given fair consideration.

All hon. Members will know of hideous crimes committed on their constituents and the impact that they have had. It seems wrong that we give compensation and then assess people's means for benefits, which can then be taken it away. I am aware that people have the option of opening a trust, but the amount of money that can go into a trust that can be used freely is limited. There are also solicitors' fees for setting up trusts, not to mention the issue of the liberty to spend one's money as one sees fit.

There are examples of pensioners who have been mugged losing council tax benefit. I have worked with children who have suffered the worst forms of sexual abuse. They have had their income stopped because of an award. That cannot be right and it does not sit comfortably with the spirit of the scheme. Victims of crime should be treated as a special case. It is unjust that the less well-off lose their benefit entitlement because compensation has been awarded for a crime from which they have suffered. Has my hon. Friend considered speaking to the Secretary of State for Social Security on this matter?

My next concern is that a number of victims have had their claims rejected because they have failed to report a crime to the police or have not co-operated with the police. Between 1990 and 1998, there were some 38,000 cases in this category, representing 24 per cent. of all cases. The representative bodies advise me that they are seeing an increase in that instance. Unison, my union, cites an example in which a hospital worker was viciously attacked by a psychiatric patient. She did not notify the police for five weeks because she did not know that she could claim. She did not know about the criminal injuries compensation scheme until her union representative told her about it. She then filed a claim, but it was not accepted because she had not co-operated with the police.

Public sector service workers, particularly in the caring professions, are often reluctant to report assaults by clients to the police because they regard it—wrongly, in my view—as part of the job. Moreover, police involvement can also bring perceived difficulties to the client-worker relationship, particularly in the residential setting. Under the old scheme, the requirement to report incidents to the police was not so strict. Will my hon. Friend consider building in more flexibility in that regard?

Some employees believe that they are discouraged from notifying the police of such assaults to avoid bad publicity. It would also be helpful if the Minister could comment on that.

I hope that, under the review, the Minister will consider the 28-week rule for special earnings. Public service workers are often vulnerable because they face violence at work. They may be back at work before 28 weeks. As well as the loss of earnings, they may incur large bills as a consequence of their injury. Replacement teeth and glasses are common and costly expenses.

We should be proud of our compensation scheme. It was reluctantly accepted that the tariff system should operate, but the flip side was greater efficiency. There has been more efficiency and claims are processed more quickly. The rates were set in 1994, based on rates discussed in 1993, and they have not increased since. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us that the Government want to increase the tariffs—perhaps not at this stage but at some point in the future—in line with prices.

The upper limit should be lifted in extreme cases. I have noted the Home Secretary's comments that there is a desire to increase payments, especially in sexual attacks. I am sure that we all support that. In the most extreme cases, such as tetraplegia, a family could lose everything, so the award should be greater than the current limit of £500,000.

There is always fierce competition for extra resources. I have made a pitch this evening, but I make no apology for that. I want an improvement in the help given to those who, through no fault of their own, have had their lives destroyed by violent acts of crime.

10.27 pm
Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) on securing this debate on an important topic. I shall make a few brief remarks based on my experience, before I came into the House, as a solicitor specialising in personal injury, when I was aware of the injustices that the scheme perpetrates on many victims of crime.

We should be clear that we are talking about innocent victims. Those who have contributed to their injuries in some way have their damages reduced accordingly. Many people have done nothing to bring such injuries on themselves, but are caught up in a difficult and complex scheme that does not always meet their needs.

When the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority was introduced by the Conservative Government in April 1996, it was with the explicit aim of reducing costs. They accepted that a move from assessing damages on a common law basis to a tariff scheme would reduce many awards. The payback for that was to have been that claims would be dealt with much more speedily. My experience, and that of many of my friends working in a similar field, has been that that was not the case.

In a parliamentary answer given to me only yesterday, the Minister conceded that it was difficult to give the average times for claims being processed under the CICA, and I accept that, because cases vary widely. He said that, if the extremes of different cases were discounted, the average time for producing a first decision had dropped from nine months under the old Criminal Injuries Compensation Board to seven months under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

We have paid a high price for a very small reduction. For instance, it is difficult for people to claim compensation for loss of earnings unless they have been absent from work for 28 weeks.

In another parliamentary answer given to me yesterday by my hon. Friend the Minister, the figures show that the number of people claiming for loss of earnings has never risen higher than 0.69 per cent. of claims and has, on some occasions, been as low as 0.08 per cent. That figure does not reflect in any way the real loss of earnings that many people have suffered after a criminal injury.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford referred to the tariff scheme. As it exists, the scheme does not cope with the wide variation in the effects of sexual assaults, and needs revising in that area.

I am concerned that the quality of medical evidence obtained by the CICA is often very poor, particularly when one is dealing with cases of psychological damage. To challenge that, victims need to obtain their own medical evidence. If they are eligible for advice and assistance under the green form scheme, it is possible to persuade the Legal Aid Board to extend the green form to cover a medical report. In my experience, it is like pulling teeth to persuade the board to do so.

Most people are not eligible under that scheme, and the burden that is therefore imposed on people of very modest means—who must pay hundreds of pounds to obtain the necessary medical evidence and, in some cases, must obtain several medical reports from different specialists—is quite intolerable. They are suffering a second time after having been the victim of a crime.

The Government have done much to provide support for victims of crime, and to protect vulnerable people. I hope that, in looking at this matter, the Minister will take on board the deficiencies in the scheme and come up with something that enables people to claim adequate compensation, including compensation for loss of earnings and other expenses that they have incurred. At the moment, our victims of crime are treated much worse—and gain much less compensation—than those who engage in civil litigation for injuries that they have received. That cannot be a sensible or tolerable scheme.

10.32 pm
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) on securing the debate, and thank him for allowing me some time to contribute. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), I was a personal injury lawyer before coming to this place. I dealt with many hundreds of claims involving the criminal injuries scheme—not the least of which was taking on the previous Government in the House of Lords on judicial review when they tried to produce a scheme that was found to be illegal, and which, ultimately, was replaced by the current scheme. In opposition, I was fortunate enough to be able to advise the current Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), on that measure. At the time, we highlighted a number of faults with the scheme.

In the short time available to me, I shall go through some of my shopping list of faults. After the election, I submitted a paper to the Home Office with some suggestions for improvements to the scheme. One of the problems with the previous review was that it failed to address the issue of eligibility. The rules have hardly changed since 1964, when the original scheme was introduced, and it is high time that we had another look at them. We should do so with particular reference to domestic violence because the domestic circumstances that give rise to domestic violence claims often no longer fit the rather strict eligibility criteria. We also need to look at the position of those who have unrelated or spent convictions, who could still be penalised when making a claim to the board.

There are problems with the tariff scheme, some of which have been highlighted in the debate. There is a strong case for taking psychological injury and injuries sustained by victims of sex offences outside the parameters of the tariff scheme, because I do not think that many of those injuries are susceptible to reduction to a simple tariff system. Similarly with multiple injuries, the percentages do not do justice to the injuries of many victims.

There are problems generally with a fixed-tariff scheme, and there are alternatives in the form of a matrix or banding which would not cost more but would, potentially, produce a fairer result. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford referred to inflation, and the tariff is based on research that was originally carried out in 1992. The original intention was to uprate the scheme every three years. So far, we are still working with those somewhat out-of-date figures. This March or April, the Law Commission will publish a paper on levels of damages in personal injury claims. Perhaps when that is available, we can consider how the tariff scheme operates and whether the figures are a fair reflection of proper expectations.

Another problem is limitation, which was reduced to two years in the new tariff, as opposed to the normal common-law system of three years. We need to consider that with particular reference to children, because the limitation period runs from the date of injury, not the date of the achievement of the age of majority, which is the normal system in common law. I understand that the Law Commission is also to publish a paper in August on the law of limitation.

I share the sense of injustice of the families of people who were killed by murder or manslaughter who were not dependent on the victims of those homicides. They have lost out in the hiatus caused by the chaos of the reintroduction of the 1990 scheme. The 200 families should have had compensation of £10,000 but they had their applications dismissed. They would have qualified again under the reintroduced scheme, and the Government should redress the injustice. It would not cost much and I think that it could be done within the scheme's existing cash limits.

There is a cap on payments for injuries of maximum severity. Unfortunately, the scheme requires claimants to jump through hoops and prove the value of their claim with expert reports. That can significantly eat into the value of the claim. Claims can be many hundreds of thousands of pounds over the cap, and I hope that we can devise a system that does not make tetraplegics, for instance, effectively waste money to prove the value of their claims.

10.37 pm
The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr. Paul Boateng)

This has been an interesting and well-informed debate. The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) for giving us the opportunity to reflect on the criminal injuries compensation scheme, which is of enormous importance to all our constituents, as our mailbags show.

This debate is timely in many ways, not least because the Government are considering whether any further changes to the scheme are necessary or desirable and, if so, whether wider consultation is needed. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement to the House soon about our intentions in that regard.

I am afraid, however, that I must disappoint my hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford, for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who have spoken with such passion, conviction and wisdom, because I will not be able to make any such announcement tonight; but I can share with them the Government's determination to put victims at the heart of the Home Office's criminal justice policy and our response to concerns arising from the criminal actions of others.

The state is not liable for injuries caused by the acts of others, but we are determined to continue to acknowledge in some way the public sense of responsibility for and sympathy with the blameless victim. Through the criminal injuries compensation scheme, the state provides a monetary award on behalf of the whole community.

Of course, the scheme no longer seeks to provide finely judged compensation covering every head of damage that might be awarded in a successful civil suit. My hon. Friends the Members for Hendon and for Warrington, North have practised as personal injury lawyers, and they know the distinction that must exist between a statutory scheme with limited purposes and the full weight of a civil justice system in which claims may be tested, and in which the victim is free, if the attacker is known, to bring an action. That right remains: the criminal injuries compensation scheme represents some extra public recognition of the harm suffered by a blameless victim.

There is no right sum of money to compensate a victim for the pain suffered as a result of a criminal injury. Any amount is, to some extent, arbitrary. As a result of experience of the scheme over a number of years, we have concluded that the tariff scheme represents the right approach. It is straightforward and transparent. It is simple for victims to understand, from the start they have a good idea of how much money they are likely to receive, and they receive that money more quickly than under the old scheme.

Hon. Members write to me in such numbers that I cannot but understand their concern to make sure that the scheme works as efficiently as possible. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority is doing a good job in clearing claims under the new tariff scheme. To date, it has issued a first decision within 12 months in 85 per cent. of cases. The new appeals system is also proving faster. We cannot be complacent about progress, but I am glad that it is being made.

Cases are being listed more quickly, and many applicants or their representatives are in the rather unusual position of having to request adjournments because they have not had time to prepare their cases. That is never a pleasant position for an advocate, as my hon. Friends will know, but it indicates the success of our measures.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford for underlining continuing concerns about the need to settle rapidly residual common law damages cases, some of which are proving particularly complex and demanding. In those cases, applicants are having to ask for adjournments in order to prepare their cases more fully, and it is difficult, once a hearings place is lost, to fill another at short notice. All that adds to the backlog, but we are determined to ensure that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority meets its target of clearing old cases by 31 March 2000.

As for the way forward, my hon. Friends have highlighted the concerns of their constituents about the scheme. I should make it clear that there is no prospect of a return to the common law damages scheme, or indeed to one based on individual assessment. That would increase unacceptably the cost of compensation and administration. In any compensation scheme that is dependent on public funds, there will always need to be that balance between the needs of the victim and the interests of the taxpayer. There will always be an argument as to where the balance lies.

As we consider the way forward for a possible review of the scheme, I undertake that, whatever the decision, I will continue to ensure that my office is open, and officials are available, to hon. Members on both sides of the House so that they can continue to make their input into ensuring that the scheme is one in which we as a nation are entitled to take some pride. After all, it is the most generous scheme in the world. It pays out more compensation than all the other countries in Europe added together—more than £200 million in 1997–98 alone and about £2 billion since the scheme started.

It is right that that should be the case. We must put the victim of crime first. We shall continue to do so—all the victims of crime, including public servants—and I assure the House that this debate has been a useful input into informing our decisions as to the best way forward. The victim of crime has come first and will continue to do so under this Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.