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Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland)

Volume 128: debated on Thursday 25 February 1988

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the draft Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 1st February, be approved. — [Mr. Stanley.]

10.24 pm

May I say, after what has gone on earlier today, that on this occasion I am giving two and a half cheers to the Government.

The Opposition welcome the fact that the Government, through the order, have taken the opportunity to update the provisions for the compensation of victims of criminal injury.

We share the commitment expressed by the Secretary of State to the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights about the provision of proper compensation to victims, and to support schemes that provide advice, assistance and emotional support to those who have suffered. The Secretary of State's reported promise to provide public funds in Northern Ireland to stimulate the development of victim support schemes is to be welcomed.

On the specific changes to the 1977 order, we are pleased to see several changes, including the fact that the Government intend to provide for a standard bereavement award of £3,500 under articles 3(3) and 9(5). We welcome the extension of the definition of "relative" in article 2 to include common law spouses. We welcome, too, the provision in article 5(2) to allow compensation in certain circumstances to the victims of domestic violence. Society has for far too long looked with indifference on domestic violence generally. Just as we are of the view that those who assault should be prosecuted, whether it happens outside or inside the home, so it follows that victims of assault should receive compensation, whether the assaults occur inside or outside the home.

We support the changes that will result in more equal treatment of the widows and widowers. The provision under article 9 of compensation of up to £5,000 for rape victims who, as a result, give birth to a child is welcome. However, there are some changes in the order with which we are far from happy and for which we seek further explanation.

In some ways this may be regarded as a mean-minded piece of legislation that seems to have been designed to minimise the cost to the Exchequer of the compensation of victims of crime. While the maxima for discretionary payments to a spouse or a child under article 10(3) remain at the levels set out in the 1977 order —£10,000 and £1,000 respectively — the limit on claims under article 5(12) has been raised from £250 to £400. In addition, the proportion of income regarded as having been devoted to personal expenditure by a deceased victim is arbitrarily increased in article 7(3) from 20 per cent, to 25 per cent, of total income. Are we to assume, therefore, that the Government believe that breadwinners have become more selfish than they used to be and now spend more of their earnings down at the pub, the racecourse or playing canasta and that, somehow or other, they have increased their personal expenditure by 5 per cent, in the past 11 years?

The net effect of the provisions will be a reduction, in real terms, of the level of compensation available to victims and, in many cases, to the dependants to an extent greater than the £3,500 provided in the bereavement grant. As well as reducing the level of payments in that way the Government propose to exclude from compensation a number of classes of victims in what may well be, in practice, an arbitrary and unfair fashion.

Under article 5(15) police officers injured while attempting to arrest suspects and members of the public injured while performing their duty to assist the police will be excluded from compensation unless the risk they have taken is judged by the Secretary of State to have been an exceptional one. That provision would seem stupid anywhere, but in the context of Northern Ireland it smacks of lunacy.

Why on earth are the Government seeking to discourage people from assisting in the apprehension of suspects? If the argument is that other forms of compensation may apply, at least in the case of police officers, why does the legislation not simply require that they be taken into account when assessing the level of compensation? The order, having punished people for doing their duty, then provides in article 6(1) for the potential recipient's "character and way of life" to be taken into account in assessing whether and what amount of compensation should be paid.

If a hit-and-run driver breaks the legs of a pedestrian, and that pedestrian is a Minister of State, will he receive more than his PPS in similar circumstances? Will that mean that a secretary will receive more compensation than a tramp in the street? Should differences in lifestyle affect the decision that is made? Are payments to be based on moral judgments rather than objective criteria, such as the nature of the injury and the pain and suffering caused?

Article 5(9) provides that no compensation shall be paid to any person who has, at any time, been a member of an unlawful association or engaged in acts of terrorism. Those who, in common with us, abhor all acts of violence in Northern Ireland may feel that there is justice in denying compensation to those who mete out death and destruction when they themselves become its victims. I do not expect anyone to disagree with that general proposition. However, what happens to a man or woman who was dragged into trouble some 15 years ago when feelings were first aroused? If someone was convicted in 1971 of membership of Saor Eire, but has nothing further to do with it—that organisation no longer exists—and, as a family man aged 34, is killed by a mugger on the streets of Belfast, will his wife and children be denied compensation? The same could be said of someone who was a young member of the Red Hand commandos.

What about the statute of limitations? In such cases, should relatives have to rely on the whim of the Secretary of State's discretion, exercised under article 10(2)? We have further reservations about article 6(7) that provides for deductions for time spent in hospital, and article 5(12) which deals with mental impairment. In addition, we note the detailed and careful comments of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights regarding the legislation. We endorse many of the points that it has made, including its objection to the unequal treatment, in relation to appeals, of appellants and the Secretary of State.

We note that on some issues, the Government have made changes in line with the commission's comments, but on many others they have not done so. We would welcome confirmation that the Secretary of State does intend that the statistical information on the operation of the order will be made available later this year.

I have already made it clear that we have some reservations about the detail of the order. As we welcome the updating of the legislation that it offers and part of the broadening of its scope that it contains, we shall not divide the House on it, and I understand that my colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party accept the main points that I have made and will not seek to detain the House by making further comments.

10.30 pm

The explanatory notes on page 27 of the order tell us that

"The principal amendments are … to restrict the cases in which compensation is awarded for nervous shock".
Article 5(2)(b) states:
"no person who is responsible for causing the injury will benefit from the compensation if it is paid."
Will the Minister clarify for us the matter of compensation that is paid to a family for nervous shock when it is found that the father of the home was a willing participant in an act of terrorism?

Take, for example, a family which claims that it had been held at gunpoint. The father claims that IRA bombers came to him—a security man—and told him that they were holding his family at gunpoint, so that he would have to admit them with their bomb to carry out their wilful destruction and murder. Under the order, will the Government pay compensation for nervous shock to that family, if it is discovered that the father was part of the original plan to commit murder and bring destruction to other families, the UDR, members of the security forces, or innocent civilians?

I have been informed of a serious case in which a person claimed to have been forced to admit IRA bombers to Castlecourt in Belfast. He alleged that his family was held at gunpoint at Turf Lodge. A short time ago he was tried, and acquitted on a technicality, for the La Mon murders. It would be a disgrace if a security man for the city of Belfast was suspected of having—indeed known to have —connections with IRA terrorism, and his family could get compensation from Her Majesty's Government and run laughing all the way to the bank.

I hope that the Minister will look into the murder of two UDR men last night. The person in question was from Turf Lodge and was the man who was tried and acquitted on a technicality for the brutal murders of La Mon. He is called Brophy. Will the Minister look into this information, and confirm or deny its truth?

10.34 pm

I want to answer some of the points made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). I shall write to him about those that I did not pick up quickly enough.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the importance of victim support schemes. I entirely endorse that sentiment. We are conscious of the needs of victims—particularly of elderly victims, whose needs are not wholly met by financial compensation and who need other forms of support. They need practical support in the home, and moral support at what is often a traumatic time.

I have been much impressed by the victim support work that is being done in the Province, but I also know that it lags somewhat behind the development of such schemes in England and Wales. We are in the process of rectifying that. I have already announced an additional allocation of £47,000 for grants to local schemes in Northern Ireland in the coming financial year. That brings the total for such provision to £70,000. That is a substantial percentage uplift and I am confident that the significant increase in funding will produce a material boost to victim support scheme activity in the Province. It is somewhat overdue, and I am sure the House will be glad to know that it is in hand.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North referred to the decisions that we have made in relation to discretionary payments. In article 10 of the order we have made some small but important changes in the provisions for making discretionary payments to a widow and her children. We have removed an anomaly that prevented a discretionary payment being made to a widower. We have increased the discretionary payment limit for a child from £1,000 to £1,300 to keep it broadly in line with inflation. Although no change has been made in the adult limit, we have ensured—this is the important point for the hon. Gentleman — by the introduction of a bereavement award of £3,500, that the total sum paid to a widow or widower as an expression of public sympathy has been restored, in real terms, to the value of the adult discretionary limit when it was last raised in 1982.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the level of personal upkeep deduction. I am glad to tell him that the original proposal—the one that he mentioned in his speech—is one that, subsequently, we have decided not to pursue. Article 7(3) provides that where the victim has died, one fifth of his income shall be assumed to have been spent on his personal upkeep and will be deducted when calculating compensation. It had been proposed to increase that deduction to one quarter, but following representations, particularly from the Police Federation, we decided to retain the current deduction figure at one fifth.

As to accidental injuries, the hon. Gentleman was right to refer to article 5(15), which eliminates from the scheme accidental injury sustained in the course of law enforcement unless the applicant can show that when the injury occurred he was taking a risk that was, for him, exceptional.

Accidental injuries do not normally form part of a criminal injuries compensation scheme, but the 1977 order provides for compensation to be paid for injuries accidentally sustained when trying to uphold the law. Over recent years, however, case law has extended the interpretation of this provision so that now even a tenuous link between the injury and the act of arresting a criminal is enough to establish an entitlement to compensation. This new exceptional risk requirement had been a feature of the Great Britain scheme since 1979, when for the same reason it had become necessary to restore the original intention of the scheme. Although it is true that the restriction will mostly affect police officers, the number of such cases will undoubtedly be comparatively few, and those officers will be no worse off financially than any other policeman injured during the normal course of duty. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman has said, there are other benefits to which a police officer may be entitled, such as paid sick leave and industrial injuries benefit, and he can take civil action if necessary if another party has been negligent. In an extreme case, when an officer has had to retire early, there are the enhanced pension entitlements and gratuity entitlements which can be paid by the police authority.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North asked whether the introduction of the exceptional risk provision might deter ordinary citizens from helping the police to deal with a crime that they see being committed. We do not consider that that will be the case. The relevant provision of article 5(15) refers to a risk that was exceptional for a person to take at the time of his injury. Helping the police to arrest a criminal or to prevent a crime would not be a normal activity for a member of the public. In those circumstances, the risk taken would be regarded as exceptional in probably all cases, and compensation would be paid.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the question of better statistical information in relation to the operation of this order. That is a matter on which I have focused. I think that there is a requirement for improved statistical information. That will be much aided when we have additional computer facilities, which will be made available to the Department. I share the hon. Gentleman's wish for improved statistical reporting on the operation of the criminal compensation scheme. We shall try to make progress with that as soon as the necessary computerisation of the records permits.

In answer to the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), paragraph 12 of article 5 makes two amendments to the provisions governing compensation for mental impairment. The first requires the injury to be a serious and disabling mental disorder. The medical reports will indicate whether an injury falls into that category and the courts will, in due course, define in case law the forms of mental impairment that will qualify for compensation. I stress that the 1977 order sought to achieve the same effect by imposing a minimum threshold of £1,000 for mental impairment. In practice, that measure alone did not stop compensation being awarded for relatively minor or transient psychiatric conditions. In this order, we seek to restore the original intention of the previous legislation. I assure the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster that I shall examine the case to which he referred and I shall write to him on how the provisions in this order will affect that case.

At Question Time, the Prime Minister told me that there would be an investigation into the great tragedy in the centre of Belfast. Will the Minister ensure that the people making the inquiries inquire into the case described by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) because there is serious concern in Belfast that the security gates involved in the incident were manned by a person of Mr. Brophy's character and pedigree?

I have noted what the hon. Gentleman said and I shall take account of his comments.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 1st February, be approved.