HC Deb 12 May 2004 vol 421 cc424-31

Queen's recommendation having been signified—

4.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart)

I beg to move, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Promotion of Volunteering Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any administrative expenses incurred by a Minister of the Crown by virtue of the Act.

Before speaking to the money resolution specifically, I should explain that my purpose in moving the resolution is to allow full discussion of the issues raised about the Bill in Committee. I gave such an undertaking on Second Reading, and I want to ensure that the concerns raised by the Bill are fully aired. The moving of the money resolution is essential to that process.

The Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), is likely to have some expenditure implications for the public purse. The Bill will require the Secretary of State to make provision, by regulation, for training courses about volunteering for members of the judiciary—including, in particular, sport and adventure training, as well as training in the workings of the Bill. It provides that those regulations may prescribe that that training be provided by courses established by Sport England, the Central Council for Physical Recreation, and such other bodies as the Secretary of State may see fit. It also provides for the Lord Chancellor to lay before Parliament an annual report setting out the training courses provided and the number of judges who have attended those courses or any other training on the provisions of the Bill. Training would have to be provided for all members of the judiciary who deal with personal injury cases, including all district judges and circuit judges in the county court, as well as all judges sitting in the High Court Queen's Bench division.

Training of members of the judiciary is the responsibility of the Judicial Studies Board, an independent body funded by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The provision of training courses raises a number of cost issues, including administrative costs such as the provision of appropriate accommodation and catering; the cost of lost sitting days caused by the removal of judges from their courts to attend the course, which may also involve the cost of providing a deputy to sit in place of the judge concerned; and miscellaneous travel and subsistence costs incurred by the judges in attending the course. Under the scheme proposed by the Bill, those costs would have to be met either by the Judicial Studies Board or by the prescribed body, and it is likely that any such body would require Government funding for that purpose. Clearly, the cost implications will depend on a number of factors relating to the structure and duration of the training, such as the location and facilities used, and whether or not the training was residential.

As a broad indication of the possible costs, there are approximately 2,380 members of judiciary who attend JSB civil seminars and could deal with personal injury cases. The provision of dedicated one-day non-residential seminars for all those judges and the provision of deputies to sit in their place would probably involve additional costs of about £1 million. Those costs could be reduced if deputies were not provided, but sitting days would be lost and cases delayed.

We do not anticipate that any significant additional cost will arise from the requirement on the Lord Chancellor to report annually to Parliament. The JSB is already required to publish an annual report to the Lord Chancellor on its activities and to place copies in the Libraries of both Houses. Those annual reports give the number of judges attending courses and the topics covered at each course. There could be a small additional cost if the training was provided by a prescribed body rather than the JSB. I commend the motion to the House.

4.52 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

I am grateful to the Minister for moving the motion, thus allowing further debate on my Bill. As she explained so lucidly, the money resolution arises only from a small part of the Bill that makes provision for judges' training. That training is sorely needed, and the cost will in fact be much smaller than she suggested.

At a time when obesity and antisocial behaviour are both increasing among young people and, indeed, disfiguring our country, the efforts of volunteers, voluntary bodies and teachers who work in their spare time to provide sport, recreation and adventure training is more important than ever. Much of that work, however, has been undermined by a number of regrettable court judgments in the past few years. Five consecutive surveys have shown that the blame culture and the threat of litigation are the primary barrier to volunteering in sport and adventure training.

I hope that it is in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to touch on one judgment and a related case to illustrate why more judicial training would produce results more in accordance with common sense. The Royal Yachting Association has provided me with details of the case of Richardsv. Wanstall, which was considered in 1995 by the Queen's Bench division of the High Court. A lightweight 25–ft racing yacht was manoeuvring to leave a marina berth in Plymouth when the skipper realised that it had been caught by a gust of wind and might hit an adjacent moored yacht. He therefore asked an experienced crew member to run forward with a fender, but the crew member stumbled. It took the High Court five days to consider something that I first did as a six-year-old—putting a fender out when a wind is blowing. At the end, it ruled in favour of the litigant

That case must have been considered by the insurance company dealing with a subsequent case that never reached court, because it decided to make a horrendously large settlement.

Paddle sport relies heavily on volunteers at all levels. At a marathon last year, crews were competing over a 30-mile course in racing kayaks. Part of the race course passed through a narrow half-mile-long cutting. A volunteer marshal was positioned at each end to warn crews entering it that powered craft could present danger of a collision. A powered boat entered the cutting, followed a few minutes later by a kayak crew. The marshal allowed the kayak to enter on the strict understanding that the crew were not to try to overtake the powered craft. They ignored the instruction and there was a collision. A case was brought against the volunteer marshal. The insurance company decided, on legal advice, to settle out of court. That has had a devastating effect on future insurance for the event. The volunteer has resigned and will never volunteer again. The issue is not just money.

Lastly, I shall deal with costs. I was interested to hear the Minister's comments. I should stress that there are any number of voluntary organisations that would be willing to provide a one-day course, or perhaps even a longer course, free. The Girl Guides made that clear from the beginning, and they are the biggest youth movement in the country. This morning I had an e-mail from the Boy Scouts legal adviser, stating that they would be delighted to lay on something similar. There is no reason why we should lose sitting days. If their lordships were willing to give up a weekend for such a course, which it hardly seems unreasonable for them to do, no sitting days need be lost. As much of the activity takes place over a weekend, it would be a convenient time to organise such a course.

There could be some travel costs, but those would verge on the minimal, only just reaching the threshold where we would need a money resolution at all. I thank the Minister for tabling the motion and I urge the House to support it.

4.56 pm
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con)

I appreciate the opportunity to support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), and the motion. I accept my hon. Friend's argument that the Minister is generous in her estimate of the cost, and that, acting judiciously, the judiciary may be able to reduce the cost so that it would not be too great a burden on its training budget.

In the two Committee sittings on the Bill, there was an interesting exploration of the issues, so many of which are directly related to legal judgments and to the consequences of the compensation culture that continues to bedevil the volunteering movement. That includes not only the volunteers who work for charities, but teachers and people who are paid in some areas in order to ensure that kids as well as adults have access to the sort of adventurous lifestyle that I expect most of us in the Chamber were used to when we grew up. I think of some of the things I do now, and I know why my mother said, "Don't do it", but I would hate to think what would happen to us as a country and a culture if we could not provide adventure training and risk-taking ability so that our future generations can learn to assess risk effectively.

Unfortunately, the compensation culture drives organisations to be careful and volunteers to give up volunteering. With the changes in our lifestyles, there are greater and greater opportunities for people to volunteer, but if we cannot assure them that they will not appear in court, having taken all the professional and training opportunities necessary for them to be effective leaders and trainers, we will have a poorer life. We need to ensure that members of the judiciary have access to the best information so that when then come to make up their minds in compensation cases, they are well qualified—as is the entire legal profession—to assess risk in the context of volunteering.

I do not intend to cite cases, because other hon. Members are better at it than me—indeed, they are trained to do it. Listening to the debate in Committee, I was conscious that it is important when such cases come to court—the Bill's main purpose is to introduce a statement of inherent risk, so hopefully fewer and fewer cases will come to court—and imperative for the good of the UK and future generations that judges base their decisions on a true and clear view of risk, that they take that view properly into account in reaching a decision, and that that view coincides with common sense. I therefore take great pleasure in supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and the Minister.

5.1 pm

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier)—we bat together in Kent on so many things—for his persistence with the Bill, which is so important to the glue that makes up our communities. Without volunteering, communities would not exist, and the cost would ultimately return to the state, which we are trying to avoid.

I shall give one example. A boy broke his neck playing rugby. Whom did his parents sue? It was not the school, the union or the school's union, but the referee—and guess what? The referee lost. What an appalling situation. Referees in not only rugby, but any active sport are worried and nervous about whether they can afford not the time but the risk of a court case.

The crux of one part of our society depends on volunteering, probably because of the religious side of our nature which goes back hundreds of years. I hope that the House eventually supports the Bill, but for the moment, let us support this money resolution.

5.2 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

I praise the Minister for acting in good faith on the money resolution, which she promised to do at an earlier stage. The sum of £1 million may sound like a lot of money, but it is actually small considering what the country, and indeed the Government, will get from it.

Training is important to make sure that legal judgments are right. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) mentioned the importance of common sense. On several occasions, my father has said to me, "Sense is not common," and I think about what could go wrong if we do not invest in training the judiciary to apply the law correctly.

I have had a fair number of accidents, most of which were self-inflicted. In 1971, at the age of six, I fell out of a tree and on to a post, causing considerable damage to myself—I did not land on my head, before anyone suggests that. In today's litigious society, I might have attempted to sue my parents.

In 1998, I nearly died on a hillside in Wales in a paragliding accident. I could have sued the descendents of Owain Glyndwr or myself for reckless use of gravity. Under the regime that the money resolution makes possible, I hope that those who make legal decisions will receive sensible training and that such frivolous and vexatious claims will not be made.

> I am sure that the relatively small investment that the new regime requires will be repaid to not only the Government, but society as a whole. The Government will benefit because, as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) said, volunteering saves them a lot of money, and any disincentive to volunteering costs them a lot of money. Moreover, in terms of being a public-spirited country, there is an enormous, advantage in taking away the fear of being sued from individuals who act in good faith for no financial reward, but simply because they think that is a good thing to volunteer.

In that context, the money resolution is a sensible, proactive effort to ensure that the Bill can work. I hope that the positive spirit in which the Minister approached this small part of the Bill is a promising sign that she will consider positively he intent of the Bill as a whole, which can bring great credit not only to the hon. Member for Canterbury, but to the Government, for finally coming to terms with a situation that has concerned many volunteers for a considerable period.

5.5 pm

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op)

I welcome the money resolution and was pleased to see the Minister move it. One of the good aspects of the proceedings in Committee has been the degree of cross-party support for finding a solution to this problem, although not necessarily for all the details along the way. It has been useful to explore ways in which we can make progress.

In reality, £1 million is not a great deal of money, given that there are 1.5 million volunteers, 26 per cent. of whom are in the sports sector. That £1 million is intended to ensure that those volunteers continue to want to make some contribution, not only now, but in the future, to the 150,000 sports clubs at the grassroots level.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) is right about rugby. I still enjoy playing every Saturday afternoon, and I think that I have a couple more seasons left in me, although my wife probably wishes that I had packed up 10 years ago. The next stage for me is to start to think about coaching or refereeing. Nowadays, every Saturday afternoon before the match the referees have to run through the whole procedure with the front rows and make sure that the packs go down in the proper manner. We know the risks as rugby players, but have to go through that procedure.

It is a pity that £1 million has not already been spent on training judges, because then we might not be in this ridiculous situation, which was illustrated by the long list of cases that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) brought before us. If that money had been spent 20 years ago, it could have saved us a lot of effort in trying to prevent the compensation culture that has developed.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

There is no need for me to make a speech, because I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have said. Does he agree that although it is all very well to have a money resolution committing us to expenditure on a particular piece of legislation, the training of the judiciary, which is highly desirable, is a different matter, because it should be implicit in the passing of that law?

Mr. Reed

If only that were true. Hon. Members make assumptions about such matters. We sometimes have to wonder whether the judiciary are trained at all when constituents bring to our surgeries cases that make us sit there in utter amazement at the judgment that was made.

Overall, we need to give confidence back to the sector so that people are willing to volunteer to take part in many of the activities that we wish to see. In the context of the health agenda, volunteers make a significant contribution to fitness and tackling obesity. If we do not make progress through the Bill or through other mechanisms that I hope that the Minister will bring forward, we will do this nation a disservice, and we will all pay in the long run. I support the motion and hope that the rest of the House will do so

5.8 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

I do not welcome this money resolution at all, because the Government are presenting us with the undefined blank cheque to which we have become accustomed. We are being asked to authorise the payment of any administrative expenses incurred without any indication of how much we will be spending. None of us should support it, because if we did we would have shamefacedly to go back to our voters to admit that we had failed to discharge our duty in looking after their interests by voting money the amount of which we are completely unaware.

However, on this occasion, rather unusually, I shall offer the Under-Secretary faint praise. She—again, unusually but I hope that it will set a precedent—went through the elements of the Bill that would mean a charge to the public finances and, miracle of miracles, gave us her estimate of the amount. That is a genuine breakthrough and we should note the day, date and time that it occurred. Perhaps we should expect Ministers to do that in future so that, even if an amount does not appear in the motion, we could at least refer to their comments inHansard for some guidance. Perhaps you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues might wish to hold Ministers to that.

There is, however, a catch, which made me suspicious. I have reason to believe that the Government support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) less than wholeheartedly. Do not ask me how I know—I simply have reason to believe it. Is it a coincidence that, when the Government support a private Member's Bill, they do not want to suggest how much it might cost? Nothing could wring an estimate of cost out of Ministers in those circumstances. They simply say, "We like the Bill. Trust us. Vote for the money resolution." When the Government are not keen on a measure, they come up with some figures and a cost estimate.

I do not know whether the Under-Secretary was trying to frighten hon. Members by brandishing the figure of £1 million. Given that, last night, the House voted £5 million to build some absurd new facility on our premises, £1 million almost appears a bagatelle. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury smiles. He should be able to rest safe in the belief that, having voted £5 million for ourselves, it would be niggardly not to support the resolution for a mere £1 million for the excellent purposes for which the Bill provides in the opinion of so many hon. Members.

The money resolution is therefore unusual. It is unnecessary to dwell on the matter further, except to say that I have made a note of the Under-Secretary's action. The Government deputy Chief Whip was sitting on the Front Bench a moment ago, and he, too, has made a note of it. The Under-Secretary has therefore either set a shining example to her colleagues or is in deep trouble. She will find out shortly.

I do not support the wording of the money resolution but I give the Under-Secretary faint praise for her action and I wish my hon. Friend well.

5.12 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab)

I apologise for my late arrival but I sat through the whole of Second Reading and every minute of our Committee proceedings.

I welcome the money resolution and especially some training for judges. Judges who resort to their intellectual musings have led us to our current position, which was caused by a combination of the effects of an Act that was passed in 1977 and judges' extension of the concept of liability to people who are trying decently to provide play and other opportunities for children, young people and adults.

It may be worth reminding judges that all the measure does is to take us back to pre-1977 days for some aspects of activity by restoring to statute the concept of the voluntary assumption of risk. It used to be part of common law but was removed in 1977. Since then, some judges have gone far too far and they need telling about that. It could form part of their training.

Perhaps the judiciary in general would benefit from a little training so that, when it considers the rights of the individual, every now and then, it might consider the rights of society as a whole and reflect that a decision in favour of one or two individuals could be deleterious to many others, especially children who could be denied access to sport and other activities.

I hope that that kind of thing will be included in the training for which this £1 million is to be made available. I also hope that one or two of the lessons learned from this could be offered more broadly across the judiciary in a combined effort by Parliament and the judiciary not to extend the law or to encourage people to resort to litigation every time they fall over and bruise their knee. We need to shift things back in the opposite direction. We all need to recognise that, as the judiciary has extended the concepts of liability and negligence in this sphere, we wish to restrict and restrain it in that regard. Such restriction and restraint will benefit most people, although a few who might otherwise successfully have sought compensation will not get any. The answer to them will be "Tough", because everybody else will benefit.

5.15 pm
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon) (LD)

I, too, rise to support the Bill and am delighted to be a sponsor. What sort of society would we have if we tried to make it risk-free? Young, spirited children must always have opportunities and I know from my own experience in the Royal Marines that we recruit entirely from young, spirited individuals who like sports, climbing, diving, parachuting and all the other things that I and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) indulged in. He is unusual for a member of the Parachute Regiment, because he is tall. At the parachute school, we could always tell who was a Royal Marine and who was a parachutist; we were all 6ft tall, and they were all about 5ft 6in. Nevertheless, when we come together, we become a formidable operation.

If society does not provide socially acceptable means of adventure and training, young individuals will soon find socially unacceptable ways of biding their time. The Bill provides for sound standards and proper training for volunteers. The Government recognise the growing number of grave obstacles to volunteering, including the ever-increasing incidence of litigation and threats of litigation and the huge insurance costs involved. Furthermore, insurance companies frequently refuse to cover certain activities. We must be seen to be behind the millions of volunteers who provide so much for their fellow citizens and for the youth of this country. I am therefore delighted to be a sponsor of the Bill and pleased to pay tribute again to the hon. Member for Canterbury for all that he has done. I wish the resolution well.

Question put and agreed to.