HC Deb 03 March 1999 vol 326 cc1081-2 3.36 pm
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to ensure compensation for persons injured as a result of road traffic accidents. My Bill seeks to deal with problems that remain outstanding. First, it takes a long time to secure any compensation payments for people who have been injured in road accidents. Under the Bill, rather than waiting for years, road accident victims would receive interim compensation within three months. Secondly, all of us who drive cars and take out comprehensive insurance probably think that we are covered. We know that our passengers are covered—they can normally sue for up to half a million pounds—but, as the small print shows, cover is limited to £5,000 for all but those who are exceedingly lucky and have gold-plated policies. To those who, through no fault of their own, but as a result of an accident that cannot be pinned on anyone else, become vegetables for the rest of their lives, £5,000 is nothing in comparison with the cost of maintaining themselves and, perhaps, their families for the rest of what would have been their working lives. The cover, such as it is, is grossly inadequate. Thirdly, there is the possibility of total evasion of any responsibility for the consequences of an accident.

Let me give a simple example. Let us suppose that someone driving down the high street is unfortunate enough to suffer a heart attack, become unconscious and accidentally drive the car into a bus queue, killing half the people in it. As the law stands, that person's insurance company can deny all liability, because the person was not in control at the time of the accident, and therefore cannot be blamed. The whole culture of blame leads to a great deal of hardship—not, fortunately, for a massive number of people, but the results can be stressful and harrowing for individuals, groups of individuals and families who are caught out.

It has long been recognised that a serious problem exists. A few years ago, the Lord Chancellor's Department took that problem seriously enough to issue a report that considered ways of tackling it. One suggestion was the establishment of a no-fault compensation fund. That suggestion did not find much favour. It was the first solution that occurred to me, but, as soon as I discussed it with others, I realised that it would get nowhere. I have approached the matter by way of the conventional structure of insurance.

Two constituency examples illustrate the problems that I have in mind. In one case, a young woman, her husband, her sister and her sister's husband were driving home from the weekly supermarket shopping when they were in collision with a police van, which veered on to the wrong side of the road and hit them head on. All the family were seriously injured and laid off from work for months on end. The young woman driving the car lost her baby—which was due in a month's time—and had to be hysterectomised to save her life because of her critical condition.

For two months, the driver of the vehicle—who was to be prosecuted for dangerous driving—tried the automatism defence. He tried to pretend that instead of having simply fallen asleep at the wheel, he had suffered a blackout because of a previously undiagnosed brain problem. Had he succeeded, the insurance company would not have accepted any liability or paid any compensation.

Fortunately, the family were able to keep their home. They had no way of making their mortgage payments and ran into heavy mortgage arrears. They were able to keep their home only with the support of friends and family. In addition to suffering horrendous physical injuries, enormous physical stress and emotional trauma, they had enormous financial stress. It is those stress factors and inadequacies that I wish to remove.

The second example is of a man who, while driving along the motorway, fell asleep at the wheel. He ended upside down, and is now a paraplegic. He does not contest the fact that it was his fault, but he now requires a total 24-hour care package from the local authority, and he must be housed at the expense of the state. The costs to the state over his life will be probably about £1 million. If an insurance system equivalent to the one that I am proposing had been in operation, the costs would have been borne by insurance, instead of being picked up by the state.

I propose, first, that there should be interim compensation payments within three months of an accident and, secondly, that automatism should be eliminated as an excuse for evading liability in road accidents. To finance the system, there should be compulsory appropriate first-party cover in motor insurance. I have talked to the Association of British Insurers, which could live with such a system and would be happy to operate it.

Everyone has reservations about increases in insurance premiums, but they would not be outrageous—they would be of the order of 5 per cent., and up to an absolute maximum of 10 per cent. For that, people would have the peace of mind of knowing that they and their family were totally covered. We would not have a situation where everyone could walk away from an accident, leave a mess and deny liability.

I fear that the proposal does not have Government support. We are not at loggerheads—it is much more polite than that. However, there is difficulty, because the proposal is thought to be no-fault compensation. It is not. It is no different in principle from the way in which we regard the insurance of the car.

We are quite happy to deal with the bent metal through the insurance mechanism, but not the bent people. The Bill advocates dealing properly with the bent people. It will save enormous problems for the few—we hope—who suffer very badly. It is workable and cost-sustainable and I think that it will save considerable public expenditure.

The problem will not go away, and, even if I cannot persuade my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor to lift his objections this Session, I hope that the Government will consider the matter seriously in the near future, so that we can resolve it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Desmond Turner, Mr. Michael Jabez Foster, Mr. David Lepper, Mr. Ivor Caplin, Mr. Paul Flynn, Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews and Dr. Michael Clark.