HL Deb 21 July 1977 vol 386 cc567-71

8.35 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 be approved. This order will replace and amend the provisions of the Criminal Injuries to Property (Compensation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971, and will affect claims for damage to property caused on or after 1 April 1978.

Under the 1971 Act and earlier legislation some 116,000 claims had been received up to the end of the last financial year, of which 100,000 had been settled: £200 million has been paid out, including interim payments on claims still in hand. The draft order follows on a review of the 1971 Act by a committee under the chairmanship of Sir James Waddell. The 1971 Act provides compensation for wanton or malicious damage to agricultural property; and for malicious damage to other property caused by unlawful assemblies of three or more persons or by proscribed organisations. In these respects the order closely follows the 1971 Act. In drafting this Order we have had in mind that damage to property should not and cannot be regarded only as a private injury but also as a loss to the community. Moreover, our experience of the kind and scale of terrorism suffered since 1969 suggests a need to ensure, more specifically than in the 1971 Act, that compensation does not go to the undeserving.

In Article 2 the term "unlawful association" has been redefined to include not only proscribed organisations but any organisation engaged in terrorism. This is an important extension of the scope of compensation. We intend in this way to cope with any proliferation of terrorist organisations—sometimes quite short-lived—which cannot be associated with any proscribed body. Article 9 places the onus on applicants to show that they took reasonable precautions to avoid loss. It would still be for the courts to decide, on appeal, what is reasonable. The Article also provides that compensation may be withheld or reduced, subject again to any decision of the court on appeal, if the applicant did not comply, for example, with regulations for the storage of inflammable materials—a kind of negligence which greatly assists the fire bomber—or contributed to the loss by provocative or negligent behaviour; or if the property was being used for any unlawful purpose; for example, if it was used for unlicensed drinking or if it was an untaxed car.

Article 10, paragraph 3, provides that no compensation is payable to anyone who is or has been a member of a terrorist organisation, or who is or has been engaged in acts of terrorism, except at the Secretary of State's own discretion (under Article 12(5)), if he thinks it would be in the public interest to make some payment. Paragraphs (6) and (7) provide that no compensation is payable for a loss of £100 or less, and that any compensation payable will be reduced by £100. Paragraph (8) of Article 10 allows the Secretary of State, subject to appeal, to withhold payment of compensation until an applicant has given the police all reasonable help which could lead to the arrest of the person who caused the damage. Article 11 provides that where compensation for damage to a building is based on something greater than the diminution in market value—for example, on the cost of reinstatement—the applicant may be required to carry out that rebuilding as a condition of getting compensation beyond "market value".

Article 13 makes clear the Secretary of State's power to deduct from compensation debts due to Government Departments and public authorities. Articles 16 and 17 allow the Secretary of State to recover compensation from anyone convicted of causing damage in respect of which compensation has been paid; or from an applicant who has received reparation from such an offender at common law, or from an applicant who has failed to make a full and true disclosure of all facts relevant to his or her own claim. My Lords, I have attempted to draw attention to only the most important Articles, and in particular to the major changes from the 1971 Act. This is an important order, which in many respects mirrors the changes in compensation for criminal injuries that we considered last week. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 laid before the House on 13th July, be approved.—(Lord Melchett.)

8.40 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to welcome the order and thank the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for explaining it. It puts right an anomaly in the 1971 Criminal Injuries to Property Act whereby compensation could be paid only for damage to property caused by three or more persons or by proscribed organisations, Article 2 now defining an unlawful association as proscribed organisations and any organisation engaged in terrorism. That is an important extension of the scope of the Criminal Injuries to Property Act. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, said that this is an important order. It certainly is. Two million pounds paid out in the last six or seven years is a huge sum of money.

I should particularly like to welcome the effect of Article 10, which prohibits the payment of compensation to terrorists. As the noble Lord said, this really completes the work begun by the Criminal Injuries to Persons Order with which we dealt last week. Now large sums of money will no longer be paid to those who are responsible for terrorism, which has happened on some occasions. I would bracket with that word of welcome Article 11, which enables compensation not to be paid until rebuilding has been completed, and Article 13, which prevents compensation payments to anyone who is in debt to the Government or to a public authority, and, as I am afraid we all know, there are too many of them in Northern Ireland at the moment.

I should like to express my thanks to Sir James Waddell and his Committee for reviewing the operation of the 1971 Act from which the drafting of this order springs. I have two questions I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, of which I have been unable to give him notice. Perhaps if he is unable to answer them this evening he will write to me. I read in the proceedings in another place that the Government intend at some future date to repeal the provision of compensation for damage to agricultural property. That provision is in the order but the Government have expressed their intention that it should be repealed in the future. Why do the Government believe that this provision should be of no effect at some future date?

Secondly, I notice that Article 6 fixes the minimum amount of any claim at £100, although the Waddell Report recommended £50. I should be interested to know the sort of proportion of claims that have been made below the £100 figure and whether the Government really are satisfied that the increase from what was a £20 minimum to a £100 minimum will not be unduly hard upon small traders and householders. With those two questions, I support the passage of this order.

8.42 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for his support for the order. I should like to echo his thanks for the work that Sir James Waddell and his Committee did in reviewing the 1971 Act. The noble Lord asked me two questions. As regards the £100 limit below which compensation for damage to property will no longer be paid, I do not have the exact figures for the number of claims which over the past few years have been met by payments of less than £100. I shall certainly write to the noble Lord giving him those figures.

The Government are certainly satisfied that £100 is a reasonable limit in view of the rate of inflation since this matter was examined and in particular since the 1971 Act has been in force. I think the noble Lord will agree — and as I said when introducing the order—the importance, when one views damage to property as being not only a loss to the individual but also a loss to the community, must be in reinstating and replacing a building which is blown up and a shop which is totally destroyed. It is also important to compensate individuals for loss that is caused to them in that way. But it seems quite reasonable to have a limit of something like £100 which, as the noble Lord will know, is in common use in most insurance policies giving cover against damage of this sort.

The noble Lord also asked me about the Government's intention as regards compensation to agricultural property. The noble Lord knows that at the moment agricultural property is in a special position as compared to other types of property. It is the Government's expressed intention at some stage in the future to remove the special privileges that agricultural property has. However, as the noble Lord pointed out, the provisions in the order do not change agriculture's special position as compared to the 1971 Act—that has been left in for the time being. We shall obviously want to see how the level of violence and the extent of destruction of property goes in Northern Ireland over the next period of time before making a final decision on the timing of removing this special and extra compensation that is paid towards damage for agricultural property.

On Question, Motion agreed to.