HL Deb 24 April 2002 vol 634 cc344-51

8.51 p.m.

Lord Grocott

rose to move, That the draft scheme laid before the House on 10th April be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committed].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2002 be approved. On 11th March this House approved the draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2002. The order has since been made and those parts that provide the Secretary of State with a power to make a criminal injuries compensation scheme have been brought into effect. The order determines that any scheme made under it must be approved by a resolution of each House. A draft scheme was laid before Parliament on 10th April and I now seek the approval of this House to its provisions.

This legislative change stems from an independent review of criminal injuries compensation in Northern Ireland carried out by a team led by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield. The order determines that the Secretary of State shall make arrangements to pay compensation to victims of criminal injury and describes what those arrangements should consist of. It provides for the establishment of a Northern Ireland criminal injuries scheme with compensation for pain and suffering assessed on the basis of a tariff of injuries.

It also provides that there should be additional compensation in more serious cases for loss of earnings and special expenses and for dependency and bereavement in fatal cases. Arrangements must also include a provision for the review of decisions and for a right of appeal against review decisions to an independent body of adjudicators.

The major change to the way compensation is assessed in Northern Ireland is the introduction of a set tariff of injury values to compensate for pain and suffering. That change follows the broad thrust of the Bloomfield report. The principle of adopting a tariff was agreed when the order was approved. The scheme provides the detail of that tariff. The threshold for compensation is set at £1,000, as it is in Great Britain. The maximum payable is £280,000, compared to £250,000 in the rest of the UK. The difference in values reflects the historical and jurisdictional differences governing the payment of compensation over the years.

As well as a tariff amount of compensation for the victim's pain, suffering and loss of amenity, in cases where a victim is incapacitated for more than 28 weeks, compensation is available for loss of earnings and other special expenses. In effect, that means that the principle of individual assessment for all heads of damage apart from pain and suffering applies under the proposed tariff scheme as it does under the current common law-based arrangements.

Concern has been expressed that in the proposed new scheme loss of earnings for the first 28 weeks is not compensatable. That is correct, in so far as a separate head of damage is not available, but all tariff awards include a token amount—as they do in Great Britain—towards pecuniary loss for that period.

I turn to describe the provisions of the new scheme that specifically broaden the eligibility base and so bring more victims of violent crime within the ambit of the arrangements. As a result of concerns expressed by victims in the initial round of consultation with the independent review, a new bereavement support payment replaces the old bereavement award and will increase the number of people eligible for such awards in fatal cases. The value of the award has also increased from a total of £7,500 for each case to £12,000 for each qualifying applicant.

Claims for mental injury were also the subject of debate during consultation. To respond to concerns raised, the Bloomfield report recommended that, for people who were not physically present at the incident where their loved ones were killed or injured, compensation should be made available to secondary victims on the basis of their relationship with the primary victim and the proper diagnosis of psychological damage stemming from the incident. The proposed scheme includes that change.

Eligibility for mental injury has also been extended to those who may in a non-professional capacity become involved in helping in the aftermath of an incident or those who, in the normal course of their professional rescue work, find themselves in exceptional danger, or fear that someone with whom they have a close relationship of love and affection has been killed or seriously injured.

Many victims also raised concerns that cases could not be reopened and that the time limit to make a claim was too inflexible. To respond to those concerns, further relaxation in the eligibility conditions will permit cases to be reopened in certain circumstances and time limits for making a claim will also be made more flexible. That flexibility is being introduced because the statutory time limit currently in place, which allows a maximum of three years to make a claim—from the age of 18 in cases of childhood injury—has led to unfairness and inequity in the distribution of compensation.

That is especially the case with adults who have been the victims of sexual offences in childhood and who, for very understandable reasons, have not pursued the crime committed against them until they were over the age of 21. They were unable by that stage to claim compensation. However, the new flexible time limits will not help them. As a result, and because of the overwhelming moral argument supporting their case, the Government have responded by taking what is an almost unprecedented step. We have attached to the new scheme a provision to allow those unfortunate victims who in the past found themselves on the wrong side of legislative time limits a second chance to access compensation for their injuries.

That provision will mean that an adult who was the victim of sexual abuse as a child and who has been unable to pursue a successful compensation claim because he or she was over 21 before being in a position to do so can apply. It will not permit applications that may have been refused for other reasons. I hope that your Lordships will agree that the retrospective lifting of the mandatory time limit is an important change, and one which will rectify for many people an inequity in the previous legislation.

Another significant change to the eligibility conditions in the proposed new scheme means that all convictions—for terrorist-related offences or other crime—will be treated in the same way, as already happens under the scheme in Great Britain. The criteria determining how a conviction will be treated will be based on two factors: the seriousness of the crime, as shown by the length of sentence; and the period which has elapsed since the sentence was passed.

I turn now to the final change of significance: the review and appeal process. What we have adopted for the new scheme reflects the arrangements in Great Britain and addresses criticisms by victims of the current court-based appeal process. Applicants can ask for initial decisions of the Compensation Agency to be reviewed. If that does not lead to agreement, there is a right of appeal within the scheme to a body of adjudicators. The scheme establishes that body as the Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeals Panel for Northern Ireland.

Those arrangements will replace the current right of appeal to the courts. The Government appreciate and understand that there has been concern in some quarters in Northern Ireland about that change and the removal from the scheme of legal costs in successful cases. Nevertheless, the new arrangements will offer victims a dedicated appeals service and quicker resolution. In addition, in response to concerns about progressing a claim—particularly to appeal stage— without legal costs being met under the scheme, the order provides that a body should be designated to provide advice, assistance and support to persons seeking compensation. As recommended by Bloomfield, the Government have asked. Victim Support Northern Ireland to take on that role, and it has accepted. It is ideally placed to fulfil the role, as its counterparts do in Great Britain.

The proposed scheme makes significant improvements to the eligibility criteria for compensation and greatly simplifies and hastens the process by which it is awarded. However, it would be wrong to underwrite a scheme that has not yet been tested. The Government are therefore committing the new process to close monitoring and review of its effectiveness for the initial introductory period. Reports on the operation of the scheme will be sought at quarterly intervals. If problems are identified, it will be the Government's responsibility to ensure that they are rectified.

I hope that the House is persuaded that the proposed changes to the way in which compensation is paid in Northern Ireland are genuinely in the interests of the victims of criminal violence. If the House approves the draft scheme, it will be implemented on 1st May. The Government firmly believe that such a step will achieve a better, more equitable, speedier and simpler process for victims to access compensation. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft scheme laid before the House on 10th April be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].(Lord Grocott.)

9 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that clear presentation and interpretation of what, we believe, is an excellent scheme. It is based on some excellent work by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and his team. Sir Kenneth was a great friend of mine and of my family for many years—he still is, I hope.

On the basis of what Sir Kenneth has done, the Government have moved in a sensible and comprehensive direction. The Minister has just talked about the eligibility period and the lengthening of the time required, with particular reference to sexual offences against children in years gone by, such as are happening today. That will make a major difference. The overall management of criminal injuries claims will be considerably fairer and more efficient under the scheme. We hope that it will save a considerable amount of money—as was said in another place—that will, we hope, be used sensibly.

I have one or two possible criticisms, one of which the Minister mentioned. The scheme takes no account, in certain cases, of the first 28 weeks after an injury, during which there is no compensation. Most of that, I think, will be covered in one way or another by other forms of claim and care. I hope that the Minister can assure me that that is correct.

There is one other small point, which was also raised in another place, relating to those who are covered by their own personal insurance. It is right that the state should not pay someone who is already able to claim from insurance, but it might be reasonable that some part of that premium be included in any claim that is made.

It is, in principle, an excellent scheme. We welcome it. We also welcome the fact that it is not a closed scheme and that the Government will monitor it. It is a draft scheme, open to changes that can be made from experience. That is particularly useful in Northern Ireland, where everything moves quickly—sideways, upwards, downwards, backwards, forwards and, sometimes, all at the same time. It is wise to keep the scheme open and monitor it to see how it goes for a few years.

On these Benches, we support the scheme and thank those who have been involved—with Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and later in the process—for the work that they have done. I thank the Minister for bringing the scheme to the House.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the scheme. We welcome it strongly. It will make for a simpler, fairer and speedier process. It will also bring Northern Ireland provision roughly—more than roughly—in line with that for the rest of the UK, which means that we will have common standards throughout the jurisdiction. I particularly welcome the lifting of the mandatory time limits in cases involving the sexual abuse of children. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, that is, unfortunately, especially welcome at this time.

We look forward to the day when criminal injuries compensation matters can be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. That will be another landmark in Northern Ireland's journey towards becoming a normal liberal democracy.

Lord Laird

My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking the Minister for his explanation of the scheme. Broadly speaking, I can say that there is much to be commended in the scheme, but I want to talk about some issues of concern. I shall not take too long.

I am delighted by the concept of the review of the scheme. One of the aspects covered by that review must be the tariffs themselves. I urge the Government to try a neater solution to that issue and index-link the tariff scheme, so that there is an automatic move up the scale year by year, according to the rate of inflation.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, in paying tribute to the former distinguished head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield. His report was concerned about procedural shortcomings in the existing system of criminal injury compensation. The report recommended tariffs for minor injuries only and a continuation of court-based systems for the more major criminal injuries.

I am concerned about the process of consultation on the scheme into which the Government entered in the past few years. There was consultation with the ad hoc committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly which unanimously rejected the proposals. Many in the current Government are enthusiastic about devolution, yet when the scheme was referred to the Assembly the proposals were totally rejected. So much for that type of devolution.

I suggest that the Government might have given a commitment to wait and to introduce the scheme until after the 2003 Assembly elections. I join the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, in hoping that some day soon this type of legislation will fall under the remit of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Law Society in Northern Ireland also rejected the tariff scheme. Despite the lengthy four-year period of consultation, the society was hardly consulted. The Minister in another place had only one meeting with the Law Society. I believe that the Government's consultation process could have been better organised.

One of the arguments for the tariff scheme is that it will cut the £5 million going to the legal profession in legal costs. Will the Minister define what is meant by "legal costs for the legal profession"? I understand that the average amount paid to solicitors for the type of case in question is between £500 and £600 per case, which is hardly lucrative. The proposals will mean that the 500 or so solicitors in the Province will be replaced in such work by a small number of assessors. This is one matter which must constantly be kept under review.

In conclusion, I accept much that is in the scheme, but I am concerned about the issues that I have mentioned.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I appreciate the fact that there has been a strong welcome for the scheme from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches and from the noble Lord, Lord Laird. I shall try to deaf with his concerns, but he said that he welcomed many aspects of the scheme.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said that it is a fairer and more efficient system. He raised the question of loss of earnings in the first 28 weeks. The period of 28 weeks follows precisely the arrangements in Great Britain and it coincides with the period which attracts statutory sick pay and for which many employers, particularly in the public sector, continue to pay a full salary to their employees. Furthermore, if we look at how systems operated in the past, we see that in practice only a small fraction of awards under the existing arrangements are for loss of earnings. However, I emphasise that the period is in line with the rest of the UK.

I turn to insurance claims, which is a more difficult issue. The Government believe that it is wrong to use taxpayers' money to provide an award of special expenses for health requirements where a private health insurance policy has already paid out to meet a specific health need. The new scheme removes that anomaly and brings Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain.

As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, will recognise, if there were to be any change in a scheme which allowed for the cost of premiums, that would involve a change in the rest of the UK and it would be a matter far wider than my responsibilities. However, in practice, the new scheme will provide for any difference between the level of the cost of care provided for under an insurance scheme and the actual costs incurred by a person in receipt of the care. Therefore, provided that the provision is reasonable, there is provision for that difference to be made good.

I greatly welcome the support given by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, and in particular the emphasis that he and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, put on the changes made in respect of victims of child abuse. That has been welcomed throughout the House. It is a simpler and fairer system. In the tradition of his Benches, he expressed his strong support for devolution and said that he looked forward to the day when further devolved powers would be possible. I can say to the noble Lord that the Government also look forward to that day. Echoing a point made in part by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, the Government look forward to the time when responsibility for reserved matters such as this important area of policy can be devolved. There is no disagreement on that point.

I shall deal as well as I can with the matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laird. He is absolutely right to say that we need to be able to review the system and I can confirm that I have already given an undertaking to that effect. In practice, the scheme in Britain was reviewed in 1999, some three years after it came into operation. Changes to the tariff levels were made in 2001. However, in a sense I have already given a stronger assurance than that by saying that Ministers will look at the scheme regularly to see how it is working.

The scheme as set out does not follow precisely in all respects the Bloomfield report, but it does follow its thrust. I am sure that a close examination of the details will substantiate my words.

The noble Lord mentioned consultation in respect of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He was quite right to point out that objections were expressed, but the Government strongly believe that this is a better scheme than the one currently in place and that it is in the interest of victims that the new scheme should be introduced as rapidly as possible. We very much hope that we shall be able to bring in the scheme on 1st May, should noble Lords agree to the provisions before the House. It is our intention to introduce it as quickly as possible, precisely because it was clear from all the consultations that took place that the victims themselves were looking for a speedier and more intelligible resolution of their claims.

The noble Lord mentioned consultation with the Law Society in Northern Ireland. Such consultation has taken place. My honourable friend in the other place, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, has both corresponded regularly with and met representatives of the society. Consultation has taken place throughout the review process.

Finally, I turn to the question of costs. Under the current scheme, applicants' legal costs have risen from an average of £574 in 1996–97 to £660 in 2000–01, an increase of 17 per cent. Overall, applicants' legal costs have been running at some £4.7 million. Instead of being spent as at present, we feel that that money would be far better used as part of a compensation scheme.

In conclusion, I want to re-emphasise the point I made about review and the mood of the Government in recommending this proposal to the House. We intend to look at the scheme as it proceeds. However, we believe that it represents a significant step forward and I hope that noble Lords will agree to it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.