HL Deb 31 March 1982 vol 428 cc1386-8

2.52 p.m.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure that victims of criminal injury and assault receive adequate compensation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme for Great Britain, and the similar statutory scheme for Northern Ireland, payments of compensation from public funds can already be made to persons who sustain personal injury, and to the dependants of persons who die, as a result of crimes of violence. Throughout the United Kingdom the criminal courts have wide powers to order convicted offenders to pay compensation for any personal injury, loss or damage resulting from their crimes; and in the Criminal Justice Bill we are seeking to strengthen and clarify these powers in England and Wales.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, which is extremely informative. Could he please tell your Lordships' House how much co-operation we get from countries other than the United States and Germany, whom I believe are both very helpful? Are other countries in Europe being of any help to us?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board has been trying hard to establish arrangements for mutual co-operation with boards in other countries. I would add to what my noble friend Lady Sharples has just said that, to my knowledge, we also have good co-operation with Canada and Australia. We hope that mutual co-operation of the kind that we wish for will be a feature of a European convention on compensation for victims of crime which is currently under discussion in the Council of Europe.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, in the consideration of the Council of Europe of a convention on the payment of compensation, will the noble Lord have regard to the fact that under the present legislation the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board withholds payment from individuals who are alleged to have committed offences themselves even where those offences have nothing to do with the injuries they sustained, and even where the offences have not been proved in a court of law? Does not the noble Lord think that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board should not possess that discretionary power, and will he take steps to see that it is not embodied in any European legislation?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am terribly sorry, but I have not followed the noble Lord. Could the noble Lord put it just a little more shortly and then I shall give an answer?

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I was asking whether the noble Lord was aware that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board has the power to withhold payment to victims of assault where it is alleged that the victims themselves have committed an offence even when the offence has nothing to do with the causing of the injury to the victim? Does not the noble Lord think that this discretionary power should be removed in any European legislation?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord necessarily on that, but I should like to look at it further and, if there is anything I ought to add, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, when a culprit is called upon to pay compensation to someone who is the victim of a criminal assault and declines, or is unable, to pay, what happens?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, in the Criminal Justice Bill which is at the moment before the House of Commons, the Government are introducing a provision which will require the courts to give preference to compensation over a fine on sentencing where the offender's means are limited. But, of course, cases which are taken by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme are precisely designed to overcome the problem which the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, has put to me.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the courts make sufficient use of their powers to require offenders to make reparation for their crimes? Could perhaps magistrates be encouraged to use their powers to make compensation or restitution orders without needing a request from the victim that this should be done? One has a feeling that often these things go by sheer default.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I would entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord. When the Criminal Justice Bill comes to your Lordships' House I think it will be found that greater weight is being placed upon this matter. But the figures show that in 1980 there were 128 orders made by the criminal courts, and my advice is that the number of orders being made is increasing year by year.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, in further backing up the noble and learned Lord, could not further pressure be put on offenders to assist their victims, possibly by asking the judiciary whether they might let it get around that an offender who showed some sympathy and some willingness to assist his victim might receive a lesser sentence?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that, I think, is a matter for the courts.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many people who would be entitled to compensation do not apply because they mistakenly believe that it is first necessary for somebody to be apprehended and convicted of a criminal offence, whereas, as the noble Lord will confirm, all that is necessary is that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board should be satisfied that the injuries have resulted from a criminal act? Can the Government do something to publicise that important fact?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I confirm that what the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said is correct. I think that the board has in mind the need to make the existence of the scheme known to citizens generally, but I should like to take away what the noble Lord has said and see whether there is anything which either the board, or the Government indeed, ought to do in response to the noble Lord's suggestion.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, could the Minister say whether the number of requests for compensation for criminal injuries has gone up considerably in the last year, or stayed the same, or indeed decreased? That is, the actual requests for compensation for criminal injury.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am afraid that I have not got that information. If I may, I will write to the noble Baroness on that point.