HC Deb 18 March 1993 vol 221 cc501-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Patnick.]

10 pm

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

At the outset of the debate, I wish to declare an interest: I am president of the Uxbridge Victim Support Scheme, which, like the National Association of Victim Support Schemes, is greatly concerned with compensation for criminal injuries. I have taken this position recently, and I am proud to occupy it.

As the House knows, I am also parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales. However, I wish to make it clear that I am not speaking on its behalf in tonight's debate, if for no other reason than that police officers now account for less than 10 per cent. of all applicants to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and it therefore follows that 90 per cent. are civilian innocent victims of crime.

On 23 November last year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary announced, in reply to a parliamentary question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), that the Government had decided that introducing a simplified procedure based on a tariff structure offered the best prospects of providing quicker payments to claimants through a means that is fair, straightforward and understandable. He went on to say that further work was needed to develop the practical aspects of these new arrangements, and that that work should be completed by the first half of this year, when a White Paper would be published setting out the details of the proposed new arrangements. He expects them to come into operation this year.

Following that announcement, I decided to apply for an Adjournment debate because I believe, first, that compensation by the state for criminal injustice is a vital part of our British way of life; and secondly, that we should be very careful before we move away from the present satisfactory scheme to one which, although it might be quicker, might well provide the claimant with what I can only describe as rough justice.

It is worth recalling why the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board was brought into existence and why the scheme came about in 1964. It was realised that, in most cases, victims of crime could not bring civil proceedings for compensation against their assailants, because those assailants would be without funds.

The Government of the day recognised that the fact that there are increasing numbers of victims of crime was a sign that society itself had somehow failed the victim by allowing him or her to be assaulted. That being so, perhaps it is right that the Government should ensure that victims receive compensation.

Compensation is treated by victims as a very important part of their recovery, fulfilling as it does their desire for some sort of justice, and the payment of compensation, coupled with the successful prosecution of the offender, is usually a large factor in their recovery.

Victims of crime need proper compensation to reimburse them for their out-of-pocket expenses and to recover from any financial embarrassment that might have resulted from the assault. They also need it to deal with the interests of justice from a personal standpoint.

One important feature of the new tariff-based scheme upon which the Home Office is working could be the complete prohibition of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board making awards for past or future loss of earnings. That is an important point. I hope that I am wrong about that, but if not, it means that 90 per cent. of civilian applicants who suffer injuries so serious that they are unable to earn their livelihood could be obliged to rely on existing social security benefits, which usually would in no way make up for the shortfall in income. It would not be right for any new scheme to deprive innocent victims of crime of the right to recover income lost through violent crime.

The essence of a tariff scheme such as my right hon. and learned Friend is contemplating is to identify types of injury and to give a standard figure of damages for each injury, rather like the Northern Ireland model. If that is the case, I trust that the figures will be increased by the rate of inflation. However, my concern and the principal reason for raising the matter is that huge anomalies are bound to occur.

The recent guidance given to the judiciary and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board by the Judicial Justice Board identifies types of injury and, according to the seriousness of the injury, gives a bracket within which compensation would be appropriate. The brackets are often wide because it is recognised that each case is individual and turns on its own factors, and that it is impossible to fix a figure appropriate for any type of injury. One broken arm is often different from another broken arm.

The present scheme allows experienced lawyers to study all aspects of the case and to reach an appropriate valuation in accordance with the principles of common law. The system is fair, and puts the criminal victim in roughly the same position as a claimant in a civil case. It must be remembered that there can be no duplication of state benefits. All benefits paid by the state, all private pensions and much private insurance are taken as a credit against damages to reduce the state's outlay.

If a victim is injured by the use of a motor vehicle as a Weapon—in other words, if a victim is deliberately run down—that victim can apply to the Motor Insurers Bureau for compensation under common law. If a victim is injured by a very differently shaped piece of metal, such as a crowbar, something which we would all deplore, that victim would have to apply to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and would obtain much less by way of damages. Can that distinction be justified?

My other worry is that, in many types of injury, it will be impossible to provide any meaningful tariff for damages. Facial and bodily scarring, post-traumatic states, stress disorder and sexual abuse, including rape, are obvious examples. How can any standard figure be set for those injuries? Why should not the present system continue, under which damages are assessed by a lawyer, usually a Queen's counsel, who is experienced in the art?

I cannot believe that my right hon. and learned Friend takes the view that changes in the present scheme are necessary to improve the access of victims of violence. That is obviously not the case. I have the terrible feeling that my right hon. and learned Friend's proposed changes to the present scheme are to save the Government money. In other words, the proposals are what is commonly called Treasury-driven.

If that is the case, I do not think that the Treasury is in any position to press my right hon. and learned Friend to save money. At a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, held on Monday of this week, the deputy secretary who is the accounting officer for an organisation called Forward, a wholly owned Treasury organisation providing catering to the civil service, had to admit to substantial maladministration, to the loss of up to £1 million, to the payment of cash sums to ghost workers who did not exist and also to other malpractices.

When I read the papers for the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee on Monday of this week, I was reminded of my late right hon. and noble Friend Lord Ridley of Liddescale, to whom I pay tribute, who in 1979 introduced the Ghost Workers (Abolition) Bill. I obtained from the Library a copy of my late right hon. and noble Friend's speech. I was able to deploy it to considerable effect in the Public Accounts Committee and to demonstrate that Her Majesty's Treasury was in the business of employing ghost workers. I thought that that was a particularly splendid tribute to the work in this House of my late right hon. and noble Friend.

If the Treasury cannot even run the modern equivalent of a whelk stall, in the form of the civil service catering department, it is hardly, I suggest, in a position to tell my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to start saving money by reducing compensation to the victims of violence.

According to the National Association of Victim Support Schemes, which is to issue a report entitled "Band Aid for Victims?" tomorrow morning: the current scheme has some serious deficiencies". One of these is the long delay before awards are made. However, the report also points out that this situation has been improved and that the proportion of cases resolved within a year has increased from 25 per cent. in 1990–91 to 49 per cent. last year. The chairman of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, himself reminded the victim support association at its annual conference: he who gives twice gives quickly. The improvement in the speed with which the board deals with claims has to a considerable extent resulted from pressure from activity, including the management reviews carried out by my right hon. and learned Friend and in particular by the Home Affairs Select Committee. As a result, working procedures and the turnover of claims has increased enormously. The position is in no sense the same as it was three or four years ago.

I warmly congratulate the board on making the improvements it has. If those improvements are allowed to continue, there can be little doubt, by any standards that my right hon. and learned Friend cares to adopt, that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board is likely to be meeting its targets. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, targets and milestones—the jargon of management consultants in 1993—are very important and very dear to the hearts of the Treasury, the Public Accounts Committee and this House. There cannot therefore be any justification for changing the scheme, and any suggestion that it can be improved by cutting benefits simply does not stand up to examination.

The present scheme, in fact, excludes classes of people from receiving benefit. It excludes those who have criminal convictions, those whose way of life makes it inappropriate that they should receive compensation, and those who consented to the risk of injury by indulging in, say, a good pub fight. Those restrictions are bound to continue to apply, so the innocent victims—those who are left—will merely suffer potentially vast diminution of benefits.

I wanted to wind up by putting to the Minister of State some questions that I know he will answer with his customary diligence.

How would a tariff scheme take sufficient account of the personal circumstances in a rape case? These cases are tremendously difficult and require careful consideration—not a cheque for £500. How would a tariff scheme take account of the average and future working life of a claimant? Would a man of 75 be paid the same for the loss of a limb as a man of 30 who had 35 years of working life left?

How would a tariff-based scheme take account of the effect of scarring on a young woman with her life ahead of her and with prospects of marriage and a family, compared to the effect on, say, a woman in her 50s or 60s or an older man, whose marriage prospects would not be lessened to the same degree?

How would payment for, say, a broken nose or a broken jaw be calculated? Under the present scheme, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board considers medical and police evidence most carefully. If it did not do so, the payment could be too great.

I do not believe that a tariff system would be quicker than the present system, bearing in mind the need to take into account police evidence and medical reports. If those were to be dispensed with, justice would fly out of the window. Anyone reading the 28th report of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board will be deeply impressed by the fact that, in the year ended 31 March 1992, the board received 61,400 applications, as against 50,820 in 1990–91.

I urge my hon. Friend not to replace the excellent scheme that we have at the moment with a cheaper, tariff-based scheme—a scheme based on rough justice. If the Home Office decides to do that, I for one will have the greatest possible difficulty in supporting it.

10.17 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) on obtaining this debate and on the very courteous and careful way in which he has put his case before the House. I shall certainly do my very best to answer his questions, although, as will be apparent, there are some areas in respect of which I shall be unable, for very good reasons, to give at this stage the detailed information that he has requested.

My hon. Friend mentioned his role in victim support. I congratulate him on his appointment and take this opportunity to pay tribute to the organisation. I too was much taken with the words in its latest press release, issued ahead of the report that is to come out tomorrow. The press release says that payment should be prompt. On that point, there is no gap between us.

This is a very important subject. Clearly it is an emotive issue for many people, and I am grateful for the probing questions that my hon. Friend has put. I hope that I shall be able to allay some of his anxieties and use this opportunity to explain a little more fully why and how we intend to change the criminal injuries compensation scheme.

The Government are anxious to maintain the response to those who are victims of crime that was enunciated in the 1964 White Paper, which first described the criminal injuries compensation scheme. This said that it was right that the public's sense of responsibility for and sympathy with the innocent victim of a crime of violence should find practical expression in the provision of compensation on behalf of the community. We believe that that philosophy is no less valid today. I am glad that my hon. Friend took us back to that starting point, where we share common cause.

The scheme was of course set up to deal with the volume of crime and levels of claims expected to arise in the mid-1960s. I do not think that anyone could have envisaged how, sadly, both have risen or how much more difficult the administration of the scheme would become as the range and complexity of cases increased. Despite the best efforts of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board over the years, there has been an inexorable rise in the backlog of cases awaiting resolution.

The backlog exceeded 81,000 at the end of the financial year 1991–92, and most claimants were having to wait more than a year for their case to be settled. The House will agree that that serves to show just how far we have moved away from the intention of the scheme's founders, which was to provide a quick and simple method of recompensing victims.

As my hon. Friend said, compensation is currently assessed on the basis of common law damages—in other words, what a civil court would award in damages in a comparable case. That process necessitates finely balanced judgments or assessments by board members of the claimants' degree of suffering and financial loss. It tends to make speedy and consistent decision-taking all the more difficult.

Last year, we concluded that the scheme in its present form was intrinsically incapable of delivering the type of service that victims now expect, a service that produces awards reasonably quickly, straightforwardly and in an understandable way. In saying that, I must emphasise that I imply no criticism of the board itself, and join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Lord Carlisle for his work and that of his colleagues. They have made determined efforts to provide a better service, and with some success. It is rather a reflection of the nature of the scheme itself that we felt that we should consider a better way of delivering payments to victims.

We believed that a scheme based on a tariff of awards, which broke the link with common law damages and with the inevitable delays built into the system, was the best way forward. In order for my hon. Friend's voice to continue to be heard, I must point out that we intend to set out our proposals more fully in a White Paper to be published in the summer. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that that is why at this juncture we are listening carefully to people's views, and this is the first parliamentary occasion on which we have had the opportunity to do so. Clearly they will be taken into account when we publish the White Paper

It is important to reflect for a moment on the rules of eligibility which we intend to follow. They are essentially that claimants must have been the blameless victims of a crime of violence, and must subsequently have co-operated fully with the criminal justice services. We do not intend to exclude the police or any other occupational group from the scope of the scheme. There will continue to be provision for cases to be reopened if the claimant's medical condition deteriorates after an award has been made. I hope that my hon. Friend finds that reassuring.

Mr. Shersby

Will my hon. Friend be kind enough to tell the House whether claims under the new scheme will take account of the loss of wages?

Mr. Jack

I shall deal with that aspect in a few moments.

It is important to take some time at this stage to explain the conceptual change in the nature of the new scheme. Many people will accept that no amount of money can fully or properly compensate people for criminal injury, and that it is perhaps unrealistic to believe otherwise. There is no such thing as an "absolute" or "right" figure for the hurt suffered. Awards under common law damages are necessarily subjective, not objective. Even the courts are sometimes accused of inconsistency in the awards they make.

Our new scheme will no longer attempt that almost impossible task. It will continue to provide a tangible recognition of society's sympathy and concern for the blameless victims of crimes of violence. It will do so by making a payment related to the nature of the injury rather than to its effect on the victim. The new system will be based on the tariff or scale of awards under which injuries of comparable severity will be grouped into bands for which a single fixed payment will be made.

We are currently examining about 20,000 cases resolved by the board in 1991–92. That is one third of the cases that it resolved. The extensive case sampling exercise will help to decide how injuries should be grouped together, how many tariff bands there need to be, and what level of payment should be made for each grouping. Our intention is to set the tariff bands so that the average award under the new scheme is broadly the same as the average award under the current system.

I should point out that, in its first full year of operation, the board paid out £400,000 to 1,164 victims, whereas last year it paid nearly £144 million to more than 39,000 recipients. The vast majority of awards were for less than £5,000, with more than 66 per cent. falling within the range £750 to £3,000. The average payment was £3,660.

The design of the new tariff will build on the existing matrix of cases, so allowing us to take full advantage of the collective and distilled experience and wisdom of the present board. The average claimant will receive much the same award as he or she would have received under the present scheme. Our tariff scheme will remain the most generous state compensation scheme anywhere in the world.

In response to several of the points that my hon. Friend made, I refer him to paragraph 8.2 of the board's most recent report, which shows the narrow financial band within which the present scheme operates. If my hon. Friend considers that, and thinks about the element of discretion, that should give him some reassurance that what we propose will build on the collective distilled wisdom gained from what the board has done. Clearly, our mapping exercise will deal with some of the problems that he has put before the House.

I maintain that our new system should be no less fair than the current one. It will ensure that people suffering the same injury receive the same award, which is often not the case now. The payments will still be very generous when compared to those of any other state compensation scheme. In addition, victims may, depending on the circumstances, also be able to look for help from social and other support mechanisms, such as medical and social care, and from unemployment, invalidity and other social security benefits; so victims will still get all the help that the state can reasonably provide.

I should make it clear that there is much further work to be done in drawing up the detail of the new scheme. I mentioned that we envisaged the rules on eligibility remaining broadly as before, but we are also looking carefully at administrative procedures, including the handling of police and medical reports, and at such things as how the body that will run the new scheme might best be organised and managed. I note that my hon. Friend mentioned that most pertinent point.

We aim to introduce the new scheme on 1 April 1994, but claims lodged before then will be resolved by the present board under the current arrangements. Claims lodged after that will be dealt with under the tariff scheme.

We are also determined to ensure that there should be a fair and equitable appeals system. We envisage a two-stage appeals process. The first would be a higher-level review of the papers by the scheme administrators. This should help to sift out frivolous or vexatious appeals and enable any obvious mistakes to be corrected quickly. Stage 2 would be to an independent appeals panel, which might include members of the medical, business, legal and other professions and groups. I am afraid that I cannot answer questions on points of detail involving precisely how the arrangement will work, but such matters will be dealt with in the White Paper.

Of course, there will be an opportunity for the House to consider our proposals when the White Paper is published. It is fair to say that our proposals are not set in stone at this stage. We shall listen carefully to what people have to say. I should be delighted to receive any further input that my hon. Friend wishes to submit. I appreciate that he, like me, is restricted by time in his attempt to get all the detail into tonight's debate. We have already received papers from the chairman of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and from the NAVSS, and we are considering their views most carefully.

I emphasise that we are determined to introduce the new tariff scheme early in 1994, so we shall work hard to settle the details by autumn this year, so that matters concerning communication, the publishing of details, guidance, training of staff and everything else that goes into bringing a complex new arrangement into being can be done effectively and efficiently.

In embarking on an attempt to improve the service to victims of crime, we too are conscious of the issues that my hon. Friend correctly put before the House. The central necessity is to focus on the preparation involved by way of the extensive mapping exercise. That is the way to take the best of what we have now, both in human and in financial terms, and to provide it in a more effective and efficient way to the victims of crime. At the end of the day, it is their interests that must be uppermost in our minds.

We must not forget the relative generosity of our scheme compared with anything else in the world. I am glad that our new scheme will be more effective and efficient, and will remain the best that there is.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.