HL Deb 26 February 1990 vol 516 cc512-5

Lord Harris of Greenwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they propose to take to improve the efficiency of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, we approved last week the recruitment of the 60 extra staff which were requested by the Chairman of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for Great Britain, my noble friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow. Ten of those staff are already in post.

A major computer project has been approved and its first phase will start in March. The scheme administered by the board has also been revised with effect from 1st February in order to allow cases to be resolved more quickly.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. Does he not recall that the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons described the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board as sinking under a mountain of paper and facing a bureaucratic nightmare? While welcoming his right honourable friend's announcement that there will be 60 additional staff, can the noble Earl give an undertaking to the House that cases coming before the board will now be dealt with far more expeditiously? Is he aware that at present there is a backlog of 100,000 cases before the board? Can he give any assurance that there will be a dramatic improvement in the situation within a matter of months?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy for the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee when it objects to endless paperwork and considers the situation to be a bureaucratic nightmare. However, the committee only reported on 8th February and we have already responded to its major recommendation for increased numbers of staff. Although the noble Lord says that there is a backlog of 100,000 cases, I should point out that there are only 95,000. The noble Lord is always peculiarly accurate, but he has slipped a little today. Half the trouble is that the number of applications increased last year from 43,000 a year to 53,000. That is why we have increased the number of staff. It is a matter of great concern when cases take so long. The noble Lord will not expect me to give a guarantee as to what will happen in the future other than that we shall work on it.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the mere 95,000 cases outstanding to which he referred amount to a considerable infliction of hardship on people who have already suffered a great deal of hardship? Is he aware that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board has now replaced the Passport Office as the most incompetent, idle and irritating organ of government?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter will ensure that those mellifluous words are passed on to his noble friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow. However, I do not agree with him that it is the most inefficient organ of government.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, in that case, which is?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, each noble Lord has his own decision to take on that matter. I can assure the noble Lord that there will be a great deal of competition in noble Lords' minds, but none in the Government's.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is it not possible that the work of the compensation board might be helped if the courts were encouraged to make wider use of their powers of awarding compensation in criminal cases, which would give a speedy offer of relief where the money was available?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, courts are obliged to award compensation and certainly to take into account compensation with regard to any major matters. However, if a case of criminal injury is passed on to the board it must decide whether that candidate is eligible. That in itself can take a long time.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, having been close to the case relating to the Brighton bomb which came before the board, I can assure the House that no words yet used to describe the board are harsh enough. I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government's proposals can have any hope of dealing with the mountain created by this problem and whether it does not need a more rational approach. Is the Minister aware that the system would work more efficiently if management consultants were brought in to give advice on the problem of the tens of thousands of applications involving specific cases with which it is inevitably rather difficult to deal? Does he agree that if there were a basic table of compensation relating to standard cases which could be paid quickly it would alleviate those in great suffering, distress and need and leave those with specific problems to argue their case?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord asked whether it would be worth while to bring in management consultants. Obviously, when we deal with matters of this size, there comes a time when one must review the method of operation. As yet, we have not found that the most appropriate thing to do. Although there has been a delay in dealing with claims, one must remember that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which was set up in 1964, dealt in its first full year with 2,452 claims and had only 30 staff and that it now deals with 53,000 claims and has 330 staff. It is difficult to deal expeditiously with all claims.

With regard to the noble Lord's point about a table, I must tell him that there are a number of items which the board must look into; namely, pain and suffering, loss of earnings, the loss of earning capacity in the future, and medical and other expenses. If one takes all those together, a table does not fit in too easily.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am not able to compete in any way with the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, in his denigratory adjectives in regard to government departments and institutions. However, does the Minister agree that, on his own arithmetic, if there are 50,000 cases a year and a backlog of 95,000 cases, cases which are two years old have not yet been started? Is that not dreadful? Will he consider the Government's decision last year to reduce the threshold from £550 to £750 before anyone may make a claim? Does he agree that, for many people, £550 worth of loss is the equivalent to others of well over £5,500 worth of loss?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it does not necessarily follow that two-year-old cases have not been started. The backlog which requires to be dealt with amounts to that large sum. That is why we have increased the staff by the number that I mentioned. One of the reasons for changing the limit from £550 to £750 was to keep out the relatively less serious injuries. Although they are bad for the individual, their inclusion would have the reverse effect to that which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, desires and would merely clog up the system even more.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that there is an overwhelming feeling in the House that the victims of crime deserve more protection? Will he therefore discuss with the chairman of the board the situation of people waiting 18 months or two years to have their cases resolved? Is this not a matter of considerable urgency? I would urge the noble Earl to meet the chairman of the board to obtain some undertaking from him as to how long it will be before some of those long-delayed cases are proceeded with.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we keep in close touch with the chairman of the board. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that priority is given to fatal cases, those which involve serious injuries and those involving the elderly. However, if there are many cases there must inevitably be some form of priority and other cases are bound to slip lower down the queue. I assure the noble Lord and the House that the Government sympathise wholeheartedly with those who wish to see that victims are adequately and properly compensated where appropriate.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, will the noble Earl give greater consideration to the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, that court funds should be used to compensate victims and to reduce the length of time they have to wait, and that the sum should be retrieved from the offender?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we shall certainly take that point into account.