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Miss Carol Dempster

Volume 173: debated on Tuesday 5 June 1990

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

10 pm

I rise to put a constituency case, that of Miss Carol Dempster, aged 25, who was involved in a traffic accident in October 1988. This accident was first with a black Sierra travelling in the opposite direction from her and then with a police car. Despite the circumstances of the accident and the seriousness with which I and people in the Home Office view this, the Metropolitan police refuse to pay her compensation.

Carol Dempster was travelling along Barnet lane near my constituency in the direction of the A I on a Friday evening at approximately 9.30 at night. A black Ford Sierra came round the bend travelling at high speed. She said that she knew that he would hit her so she pulled the car into the left hand side of the road, turning the bonnet into the kerb. The black Sierra hit her car on the side of the front wing and the door and then carried on up the road. By this time, as far as she knew, Miss Dempster was stationary or moving only slowly.

Just after that, a police Rover came round the bend travelling at high speed. There is some question whether it was doing 70 or 90 mph, but both are high speeds. The car then hit the rear wing and wheels of her car, doing extensive damage. Miss Dempster's car may have been slightly over the white line or just touching it, but it could not have been far over, as the boot of a Triumph Spitfire is quite small.

The response of the police after this accident comes into several categories. First, when Miss Dempster was wandering around dazed and injured—luckily, only slightly—she received no help from police who were around at the time. To be fair, the police have since apologised for that. When Miss Dempster sought compensation from the police, she met with a shocking response. In a letter from the claims officer of the Metropolitan police claims branch to her solicitor on 22 February 1989, Mr. J. M. Comer said:
"Your client took evasive action but, unfortunately, ran into the oncoming police vehicle causing injury to the occupants of both vehicles."
That statement cannot possibly be true and should never have been made by an official of the Metropolitan police.

After the representations that I made to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, to the receiver and to the Home Office, the Home Office wrote to the receiver suggesting that compensation be paid to Miss Dempster. The letter said:
"The Lord Ferris would be grateful, however, if you could review the decision in this case in the light of the points which were made by Mr. Hughes and if you would consider the possibility of making some payment to Miss Dempster in order to compensate her for the loss which she sustained through no fault of her own."
That has been met with a blanket "no" from the receiver of the Metropolitan police.

Why do I raise this case, as distinct from the three years of cases that I—like other hon. Members—have encountered in my constituency advice bureaux? It is not just because of the seriousness of the loss that Carol Dempster has suffered, but because I believe that it is an indicator of a wider problem. High-speed police chases are controversial, both nationally and locally in Harrow.

I attended a meeting of the police consultative committee in Harrow, where the topic was discussed over a long period. Many people took the view that the police should not be allowed to travel at high speed to chase criminals. I did not share that view; I took the view then—as I do now—that if the police, for operational reasons known only to themselves, believe that they should chase someone at high speed—although we know the practice to be dangerous—they should retain the right to do so. What is more, they should have the support of hon. Members in carrying out that difficult work.

The police need our support, but until the case was brought to my attention I believed—as, I think, would other hon. Members—that in the event of an accident in which property was damaged or an individual was unfortunately hurt, the police would take a generous attitude in compensating the person, recognising that they needed to carry out their work. My concern is not just for the unfortunate plight of my constituent, Carol Dempster, but for the wider issue of support for the Metropolitan police.

The attitude taken by the receiver of the Metropolitan police does no favours to the policeman on the beat, or to policemen who have been—or will be—engaged in high-speed pursuit. People will think twice before backing the police in such circumstances, or in other circumstances involving difficult or dangerous police work, if they suspect an ungenerous attitude will be taken by the Metropolitan police in the event of an accident.

There should be a review of the general Metropolitan police policy that
"Where (as here) a car is being pursued by police in the execution of their duty and an accident occurs the clear principle which applies is that unless there is evidence that police action could not be justified in the public interest or did not conform to a reasonable standard of care, then no legal liability falls upon the police to pay compensation."
That is not good enough, either for the policemen carrying out the work or for the public who would want to suppport them.

I am asking for two things. First, I am firmly of the opinion that the police should make at least an ex gratia payment to Carol Dempster for her loss: to a 25-year-old, £1,000 is a great deal of money. Secondly, there should be a new look at policy. Why should the police take such an ungenerous attitude? I have been informed that the position would be different had the incident occurred outside London; the Metropolitan police are operating differently from other police forces. I should like them to examine the matter. I also ask my hon. Friend the Minister to see whether moves can be made by the Home Office to see whether that policy can be changed.

My constituent is £1,000 worse off. She had no comprehensive insurance; which of us had at that age? For her sake, and for the sake of others in London, there should be a review. I urge the Minister to examine the facts that I have laid before the House, and to see whether anything can be done to ensure that when such an unfortunate accident happens again—as, inevitably, it will —the public will know that they will be compensated by the Metropolitan police, to keep their good name and the support of the public.

10.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) on taking the trouble to secure this debate and he explained forcefully why he did. He drew attention to the widespread concern about the danger to innocent members of the public who are caught up in police pursuits and suggested that there may be a need to provide some public indemnity against loss through personal injury or damage to property if good public-police relations are to be maintained.

My hon. Friend's constituent, Miss Carol Dempster—with whom we all have great sympathy—was, as he has clearly shown, just such an innocent member of the public who had the misfortune to be caught up in a police car chase. As a result, her car was badly damaged. She looks, not unnaturally, to the police for compensation, but finds, alas—as my hon. Friend correctly recounted—that they disclaim legal liability. My hon. Friend has expressed his view that the police have a moral responsibility to recompense an innocent member of the public in such circumstances.

It might be helpful if I, too, set out the facts of the case and identify the areas of dispute before discussing the way in which the case has been handled. On the evening of Wednesday 26 October 1988, a police officer stationed at Borehamwood police station saw a Ford Sierra motor car in St. Albans being driven by a man whom he knew to be disqualified from holding a licence. The police officer obtained a warrant for the man's arrest. Two days later, on 28 October, the driver of the Sierra, who has a record of theft from motor vehicles, went drinking at a number of public houses in Borehamwood, and broke into and stole property from two motor cars.

At about 9.35 pm the car was spotted in a hotel car park by the same officer who had seen him on the Wednesday evening. The man failed to stop when required to do so and drove off at speed, followed by the police vehicle. The Sierra was driven at speeds in excess of 70 mph in a 30 mph zone, with apparent reckless disregard for the safety of others. It swerved from side to side and hit one vehicle in the course of the pursuit. In Deacons Hill road, Borehamwood, the driver lost control of his vehicle, crossing into the path of Miss Dempster's car before crashing into a telegraph pole. Miss Dempster took avoiding action, but her car was hit by the Sierra. That, I understand, spun her car round before it was hit by the police pursuit car.

The driver of the Sierra was arrested and subsequently convicted of driving while disqualified, theft, possession of an offensive weapon, driving while unfit through drink, failing to provide a specimen and using a motor vehicle while uninsured.

Miss Dempster claims that, after she took action to avoid the Sierra, her car remained on the correct side of the road where it was hit by the police car, which had crossed into her carriageway. The police officer on the other hand alleges that Miss Dempster swerved to his side of the road, where the collision took place. As my hon. Friend knows, it is not unusual following a car accident for the drivers to dispute the exact sequence of events. That matter is usually left to be settled between insurance companies. If agreement cannot be reached, the matter can be resolved in the courts. Once liability is determined, any claims can be settled.

Unfortunately, Miss Dempster, as she was perfectly entitled, had chosen not to take out a comprehensive policy of insurance and was insured only against third party risk. As my hon. Friend remarked, premiums for young people can be high and some prefer to make a saving and accept the risk of carrying the cost of any repairs or replacement of their vehicles if they are damaged. She was also, of course, unable to obtain the support of an insurance company in arguing her case that the Metropolitan police have legal liability.

However, legal liability could be established only if it could be shown that the police action in pursuing the car either could not be justified in the public interest or did not conform to a reasonable standard of care. The Metropolitan police carry their own risks and the force's accident claims branch acts, in effect, as an internal insurance compay for the receiver for the Metropolitan police district. If the branch concludes, on a consideration of all the facts of a case, that no legal liability rests upon the force, compensation is not paid. When an accident involves a car being pursued by the police in the execution of their duty, the branch must be additionally satisfied that the police action can be justified in the public interest and that it conformed to a reasonable standard of care.

A police officer faces a genuine dilemma, as I think that my hon. Friend was suggesting, in maintaining a balance between the apprehension of an offender and the safety of the public. If a driver fails to stop, the officer does not know whether he is dealing with a trivial matter or a serious offence. He has to make a very quick decision.

Responsibility for the manner in which a pursuit is undertaken rests solely, as it must, with the driver of the police car. While he is legally exempt from the observance of the speed limits and certain traffic lights and signs, he is not exempt from other requirements of traffic law. Crossroads, side roads and pedestrians must be carefully watched. The police driver is liable for the quality of his driving in the same way as any other driver.

The driver of the Sierra was wanted on a warrant for driving while disqualified. He refused to stop when required, and his actions throughout confirmed that he had no intention of stopping when required to do so by the police. Furthermore, the police driver was an experienced driver who had qualified as an advanced driver, which enabled him to drive at high speed with as much safety as possible in the circumstances.

The accident claims branch has considerable experience of motor accident claims and dealt, in the 1988–89 financial year, with more than 1,500 claims and payments totalling nearly £1 million. Therefore, there are many occasions when the police do pay out when they consider that they have a liability. The claims branch is satisfied that the evidence in this case is consistent with the Sierra driver forcing Miss Dempster's car into the path of the police vehicle while the latter was being driven on the correct side of the road, and that no liability rests with the Metropolitan police.

The accident claims branch, following the intervention of my hon. Friend, agreed to refer the papers to an independent solicitor specialising in civil liability cases for advice on the strength of the case. The solicitor was satisfied that the action of the police driver was fully justified and that on the facts it may be assumed that Miss Dempster's car verged into the path of the police car. He advises that her loss arose only as a result of the Sierra driver's action.

My hon. Friend suggests that the attitude of the Metropolitan police is rigid, whatever the legal liability, and that there is a moral duty to compensate his constituent. I sympathise with his view, but the receiver for the Metropolitan police has a duty to make payments from the Metropolitan police fund only when he has clear authority, and he must account for all payments.

In so far as Miss Dempster did not have comprehensive cover for her car, the receiver is in the same position as any insurance company, or for that matter any private individual, who finds that a vehicle for which he has responsibility is involved with a vehicle driven by a person who has only third party insurance and is aggrieved that his claim for compensation is refused. It may seem hard, but the fact is that a person who decides to have only limited insurance cover does take the risks that that carries.

What I have said, I know, offers no comfort to Miss Dempster, but it remains open to her to pursue a civil claim against the driver of the Sierra or against the receiver. That is of course a matter on which she will wish to take legal advice. But the wider issue raised by my hon. Friend about whether compensation should be payable to the innocent victims of police car pursuits. there have been developments since his constituent's accident.

For accidents that have occurred since 1 January 1989, the Motor Insurers Bureau operates a scheme that enables the victim of an uninsured driver to claim compensation. The bureau will meet any award made by a court if it remains unpaid. That scheme will not meet all cases uncovered by motor accident insurance, but it will close the gap. I regret that it offers no comfort to Miss Dempster, who must feel that, whichever way she turns, there is a barrier to settlement of her claim.

My hon. Friend will, I fear, continue to regard the attitude of the Metropolitan police as mean and rigid, but we must be careful not to establish a requirement on the police to pay compensation where adequate insurance arrangements already exist or to depart from the practice of linking payments to some sort of legal liability. However, I listened, as my hon. Friend asked, to the points that he made very cogently. I shall reflect carefully on his arguments both general and particular, but I am afraid that I would be misleading my hon. Friend and his constituent if I were to leave him with the impression that the current rules provide real scope for a change of approach in this case.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Ten o'clock.