HC Deb 18 December 2002 vol 396 cc301-8WH 1.27 pm
Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

In August 1964, the Wilson Labour Government established the state-funded criminal injuries compensation scheme. The scheme is now well established. It is an acknowledgement that society has a responsibility for, and sense of solidarity with, the blameless victims of criminal violence. We in this country can be justifiably proud of our system of compensating such people.

One indication of the generosity of the scheme is the amount of compensation paid. This week, the Institute of Actuaries published a report showing that compensation paid in 2002 under the UK scheme was some €341 million. That compared with criminal injuries compensation of €107 million in Germany, and €148 million in France. The amounts payable in those other comparable jurisdictions are smaller. In Spain, they are much smaller. The disparity in Europe means that it is not surprising that the European Commission Green Paper on the subject does not suggest a harmonised system. Although exact cross-border comparisons are sometimes difficult to make, the figures speak for themselves. We have a generous scheme.

Since 1964, the scheme has been changed on a number of occasions. The most important change made by the previous Conservative Government was the introduction of the tariff scheme. Early last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—then Home Secretary—introduced important revisions, primarily an increase in award levels, which are especially significant for those with serious multiple injuries. I congratulate the Government on that uprating.

I acknowledge the value of the scheme. I also pay tribute to the hard work of those associated with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and the criminal injuries compensation appeals panel. However, I should like to raise a number of concerns about the operation of the scheme. The concerns were sparked off when one of my constituents, Rod Adams, a former justice of the peace, told me about Mrs. Ramesh Kalia, who runs the Dudley Road post office in Tipton, which is just outside my constituency. The post office was robbed in June 2001, and Mrs. Kalia was seriously injured. She tried to make a claim under the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Early in 2002, she was told that her claim had been rejected because she did not give all the assistance necessary, in that she did not respond to requests for further information.

I was taken aback, to say the least. Mrs. Kalia had been seriously injured and had had no assistance in making her claim. To say that she did not "co-operate" in the ordinary use of the word is a travesty. Subsequently, Mrs. Kalia was told by Sandwell Victim Support that in its experience it would take some nine months for a review of the initial refusal and up to two years for an appeal to be heard. As Mrs. Kalia is not my constituent, I could not take up her case, but I tabled some questions to the Home Secretary, asking him to specify the delays faced by claimants such as Mrs. Kalia in seeking compensation for injuries caused by criminals.

My hon. Friend the Minister answered those questions in volume 389, columns 1505W to 1506W, of Hansard. In one answer, he set out the average number of days taken for claims assessment, claims review and claims appeal. Those time periods do not make comfortable reading, especially as they are getting worse. While Mrs. Kalia's claim was being considered, one of my close friends, Guy Dehn, the director of the whistleblowing charity, Public Concern at Work, was viciously attacked by thugs near Angel in north London late last year when cycling home. He lodged a claim in June giving details of the attack. He also set out the dental treatment that he underwent. He is still awaiting a decision.

In order to go beyond those two cases of which I have personal knowledge, I asked three leading law firms to give me details of their experiences of representing claimants under the scheme. Alexander Harris is a well-known law firm specialising in health matters, with branches in the west midlands, London and the north-west. Leigh, Day & Co. is London based, but has built up an enviable reputation for international as well as domestic personal injury work. Clifford Chance is the biggest law firm in the world. As part of its pro bono activity, it funds a unit that assists those making claims for criminal injuries compensation, especially at the appellant level. I am enormously grateful for the help of lawyers from those firms in providing me with information.

What is those firms' collective experience of the scheme? First, there are the delays. Sometimes, they have quite simple causes, such as not responding to correspondence within a reasonable period. One of my informants said that a reasonable period was eight weeks, but the guide to the scheme contains in paragraph 10 a promise to turn correspondence around within two weeks. Then there are delays in processing claims. A typical case from one of the lawyers relates to a claim that was registered in August 2001, and on which there has been no decision on entitlement. That is an extreme case. Another lawyer, however, e-mailed me this: I have two related criminal injury compensation claims (mother and son) that were running parallel to a clin neg"— criminal negligence— case from 1998 (when we were instructed), following the death of the husband/father … The clinical negligence claim settled in June 2001 for £200k … However, we are still waiting for a response from the CICA"— the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority— with the outcome of the two CICA claims. I write periodically (every 2–3 months or so) prodding them and giving them further information they request but little substantive is ever seemingly done. Initial applications were made about February 1999, nearly four years ago. The whole process has been painfully labour intensive and slow, such that the client has virtually given up on it! Balanced against that, it is fair to report that lawyers' experience with the appeals panel is better. I am told that its operation has been speeding up and is becoming more efficient. The lawyers who wrote to me about it were especially impressed with the recent operation of the presenting officers.

Thus, my first point is to press the Minister on the delay on the part of the authority.

Secondly, I would like to raise the issue of the obstacles that face victims when making a claim. The authority's latest annual report shows that 6,000 claims were disallowed in 2000 and 2001 because the applicant failed to co-operate with the police in bringing an assailant to justice. Mrs. Kalia was one of those people and it can hardly be said that she did not co-operate, in the ordinary, everyday sense of that word. One of my informants raised his concern at the way in which that prerequisite was being used to filter out claims. I quote his rather graphic language: If you are knocked unconscious from behind and never saw the attacker, the police will visit you in the hospital and ask you if you want to prosecute. You then say, 'I didn't see anyone.' They close their note book and that is the end of your claim … what you are meant to do is to insist that they investigate … in this context they also expect you to go to the police before the hospital, as doing it the other way round is considered a delay and therefore a failure to cooperate. I am not exactly sure about the last sentence, but I think that that makes the point.

In terms of the obstacles to making a claim, there is also the vexed issue of legal assistance in formulating and advancing a claim. On the scheme's operation, one commentator has told me that it is intolerable that free legal advice and assistance are offered to the violent criminal—the perpetrator of the injury—while the victim must pay for any legal representation from their compensation award, use other private means, or rely on their trade union.

The law firm Alexander Harris told me that solicitors are in a difficult position, because … cases have to be funded on a contingency fee basis … or … on an hourly rate, whichever is the less". That firm has found that that is a real problem on small and moderate value claims", since it would be entirely inappropriate to take part of a claimant's payment in such cases. Alexander Harris adds that the authority seems inconsistent on whether it will pay disbursements. He says: Their approach seems to be that they would entertain the idea if it used the reports in their assessment", but otherwise it will not. The firm says that that makes it difficult to give clients appropriate advice.

Thirdly, I raise the issue of awards. Personally, I would not advocate an increase in the level of awards at present, although I understand the criticism that despite the 2001 uprating, awards are falling behind in terms of general damages and personal injuries. Nor would I want to argue, at this stage, for an extension of the scheme beyond the victims of violent crime, or those who are injured trying to apprehend criminals or preventing a crime. At present, I would prefer any additional money to be directed to reducing delays and refining the "co-operation" requirement for claims.

One aspect of awards deserves early attention. As one of my lawyers stated, victims are unable to claim loss of earnings and other special damages for the first 28 weeks after their accident. The lawyer added that that is very difficult for the Claimants to accept—this is yet another kick in the teeth for someone who has already been a victim. Over the past five years, the Government have done much to improve the criminal justice system. Crime is falling, which is a good thing from the point of view of victims. As my friend Guy Dehn wrote in a letter to me: I—and I suspect all victims—would far rather forgo the compensation and not be beaten up in the first place. This should not be forgotten. Personally I will gladly give my compensation award to the police if I thought it might increase the chance the guys were caught. In particular, the Government have done much to move the victims towards the centre of the stage in the criminal justice process. That has been long overdue, and I congratulate the Government on doing it. However, I have identified significant concerns about the criminal injuries compensation scheme. They are not to do with the authority or its staff. My informants said that its staff are generally sympathetic and often very helpful.

I suspect that these concerns are symptoms of a more fundamental cause—that not enough money is being allocated within the Home Office to the scheme. That results in victims being dissuaded from applying through the formal filters; that is also because of a lack of assistance in their claiming. Claims are refused that are then readily overturned on review or appeal, which again suggests a further filtering at the claims assessment level. On a cost-benefit analysis, it would probably be much better to pay up genuine claims in the first place. I have addressed other delays.

We must do better for these people, most of whom, in the words of the authority's latest annual report, have suffered a traumatic and violent episode in their lives, some a devastating personal tragedy from which they may never fully recover.

1.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn)

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) on securing this Adjournment debate. It raises the crucial issue of the criminal injuries compensation scheme, in which he has taken a particular interest. It is a very important scheme for the tens of thousands of victims of violent crime who apply each year for compensation.

I am sorry to hear of the experiences of Mrs. Kalia, to whom my hon. and learned Friend referred, although she is not one of his constituents, and Guy Dehn, whom I know. I was not aware that that had happened to him, and I would be grateful if my hon. and learned Friend passed on my very best wishes to him.

I echo what my hon. and learned Friend said about the nature of the compensation scheme. It is right to describe it as the most generous state compensation scheme of its kind in the world. It receives more applications and pays out more money than all the other countries of the European Union added together. That is a striking statistic.

I think that I am right in saying that it was established in August 1964, which means that credit for the Act that introduced it goes to a Conservative Government; the general election that led to the forming of the Wilson Administration did not take place until October. However, that Administration implemented the new arrangements. Since 1964, the scheme has handled nearly 1.5 million applications; it has made getting on for 900,000 compensation awards that total nearly £3 billion. In the past three years alone it has paid out over £200 million each year, and over 120,000 victims of violent crime have received compensation. However, as my hon. and learned Friend stated, that is no reason for complacency, because people who are injured today are less interested in what happened to victims in the past than in how well they and future victims will be treated.

My hon. and learned Friend referred to the history of the scheme. When it was established in 1964, it was non-statutory, and compensation was assessed by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board on the basis of common law damages. Following a legal challenge in the mid-1990s, major changes to the scheme were made in 1996, when it was put on a statutory footing. The most significant change was that the new scheme broke the link with common law damages and moved away from payment based on individual assessment by lawyers to provide for payment made on the basis of a tariff or scale of awards that groups together injuries of comparable severity and allocates a financial value to them.In the most serious cases, extra compensation can be paid for loss of earnings and the cost of care, subject to a maximum pay-out of £500,000 in an individual case.

The Government of the day gave two main reasons for changing the system, the first of which was that they wanted to do something about the rising costs of the scheme and the issue of sustainability. Secondly, they wanted to provide a better service to claimants, a point to which my hon. and learned Friend paid particular attention. The new scheme was easier to administer and simpler for victims to understand. Following a public consultation exercise during 1999 and 2000, the current Government made several significant improvements to the scheme, to which my hon. and learned Friend referred.

It may be helpful if I briefly draw attention to the important differences between the old and the new scheme, because they are relevant to the particular delay raised by my hon. and learned Friend. Under the old scheme, claims were assessed individually by members of the board who were all senior lawyers, and applicants who were dissatisfied with the initial decision of the board could appeal. Their appeal would be considered at an oral hearing before other board members who had not been involved in the original decision. That sometimes led to the accusation that the board was both judge and jury.

When the tariff scheme was introduced in 1996, it was decided that it should be administered by a new non-departmental public body, the new authority, and claims are now determined by claims officers who are civil servants on secondment from the Home Office and the Scottish Executive; it is a joint scheme. The tariff scheme, approved by Parliament, sets out several criteria that must be satisfied before the award of public money can be justified. That means, in practice, that the authority must make inquiries of the police, asking, for example, whether the victim was the blameless victim of a reported crime of violence, and of the appropriate medical authorities to establish the extent of any injury and whether it was caused during the incident for which compensation was being claimed.

In more complex cases, inquiries may need to be made of employers to verify loss of earnings, for example, of social services to see what benefits may have been claimed and local authorities to see what care facilities they may be providing. All such agencies and authorities have other work to do and, despite reminders from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, the process of dialogue, gathering of information and chasing it up means that the information is not always supplied as quickly as the authority would wish when assessing claims on behalf of people who have approached it.

Under the tariff scheme, there is a two-stage appeals process. It may be helpful if I say, in relation to the case of Mrs. Kalia, that if a claim is not entertained, the individual has the right of review and then appeal. There is a mechanism for determining whether the initial decision of the authority not to entertain a claim for compensation was right. If an applicant were dissatisfied with the initial decision—the first decision—he or she can request a formal review. That is undertaken by a more senior claims officer, and if claimants are dissatisfied with the formal review, they can appeal to a new independent appellant body, the criminal injuries compensation appeals panel.

Ross Cranston

I was not directly involved in the case, but I gained the impression that, because of the adverse effects of the injury, Mrs. Kalia was dissuaded from pursuing the case further. Having been knocked back and still suffering as a result of the injury, she did not want to pursue it.

Hilary Benn

If that is the case, I am very sorry. I simply wanted to say on the record for the purposes of the debate that that is not the end of the matter and that individuals are free to use the review and then the appeals mechanism.

I shall touch on the factors that have created some of the delays to which my hon. and learned Friend referred. First, when the tariff scheme was introduced in 1996, 110,000 cases were outstanding under the old scheme. Those all had to be cleared under the old rules, so the authority has been running two systems in parallel: the old scheme, to try to clear the backlog, and the new scheme.

By March 2000, the rump of old scheme cases had been reduced to fewer than 10,000, at which point the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board was formally wound up. By definition, as the number of old cases decreases, one is left with the most difficult and complex cases at the bottom of the pile. By definition, those cases have not been able to be resolved previously because of their complexity, and they absorb considerable staff effort and resources that would otherwise be applied to operating the tariff scheme. None the less, over the past couple of years, the authority has been working very hard on that group of 10,000, and today only about 800 are still outstanding. The authority is doing its best to try to resolve those cases.

Other factors have added to problems with swifter administration. One was the judicial review in the Leatherland case, which required the authority to bring forward the arrangements that it had already decided to put in hand in due course to give fuller reasons for its decisions at both the first decision and review stages. The authority decided to do that when the IT systems were upgraded to make it easier. However, because of the judgment, it had to implement the decision earlier. That meant that individually tailored letters had to be produced, which took more time.

It is also fair to say that, as a result of the new data protection requirements of the past couple of years, difficulties have arisen in gathering all the required information from the police, the health service and others. Some people have not been entirely sure that they are permitted to release the information under the new data protection arrangements, so the authority has had to persuade them that that is perfectly in order. The authority is working closely with the information commissioner and the police, through the Association of Chief Police Officers, to minimise delays.

I can also tell my hon. and learned Friend about many positive things. In 2001–02, the authority finalised almost 77,000 cases, which was 5 per cent. more than in the preceding year. The backlog at review stage has been reduced, from a peak of 36 weeks—that being the time taken to assign a new review application to a case-worker—to 11 weeks at the end of March this year, and to the current waiting time of just four weeks. That represents real progress.

The number of outstanding tariff scheme appeals has been reduced from a peak of almost 8,000 in 2000 to just over 5,000 currently. That is despite new appeals arriving at an unusually high rate this year due to the successful efforts to clear the review backlog.

I understand that, as a result of the improvements that the authority has made in explaining its decisions, the proportion of applicants who accept decisions under the tariff scheme has risen markedly. Two years ago, some 25 per cent. of applicants asked formally for the assessment of their claim to be reviewed; now, the figure is 21 per cent. That suggests that the authority is doing a pretty good job of getting it right. Giving better and fuller explanations, which the authority was keen to do, has helped in that process.

In a customer survey conducted by the authority last year, 72 per cent. of respondents were satisfied or more than satisfied with how their decisions were explained— as a result of the new arrangements—compared with 60 per cent. in a similar survey conducted two years earlier.

That shows that providing fuller explanations for decisions adds slightly to the time taken to complete a case, but that there are clear benefits in those circumstances. The authority has also introduced a free telephone helpline to advise potential claimants on the rules of the scheme, and simple leaflets. Next month, it will provide a new improved guide to the scheme's provisions and procedures. All those publications have been entered for, and received, a Plain English Campaign crystal mark award for clarity. The authority is also looking to upgrade its website.

Another point relates to the latest data from the authority on the average time taken to settle cases, in which it compares the first eight months of this year with the first eight months of last year. The average time taken for the claims assessment, which is the first decision, was 306 days last year, and 305 days this year—a very marginal improvement. The review stage took 277 days last year, compared with 269 days this year—also a slight improvement. At the appeal stage, there has been movement in the other direction from 407 days last year up to 446 days this year. However, that reflects the fact that more cases are being put into the review system, which is the product of work done earlier. We very much hope that that will be a temporary glitch, and that once that bundle of pent-up appeals is dealt with, the delays will be reduced. It is worth pointing out that, overall, outstanding cases are down from 109,000 in 1995–96 to 95,000 this year.

I wanted to make a final point about the compensation awards. It might be helpful to point out that the average award was £3,177 in current prices in 1981–82, and in the current year, the average award has been £5,459. The award is therefore increasing in real terms. I cannot comment on how that compares with other compensation claims elsewhere.

I repeat that I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for having raised this important matter. The authority and its staff are working hard, and I am sure that they will appreciate the thanks that he asked to be conveyed to them for their efforts. We need to do more to deal with the problems of delay that he raised, and we will continue to do all we can to provide as good a service to claimants as possible now and in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Two o 'clock.