Before I call the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), I have been asked by Mr Speaker to remind him of his ruling yesterday, when he said:
“I strongly deprecate the abuse of parliamentary privilege to flout an order or score a particular point…It is important…that we recognise the need to temper our privilege with responsibility.”—[Official Report, 23 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 653-654.]
I trust the hon. Gentleman will not test the patience of the Chair today.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Hon. Members will be aware that I have a long-time concern about secrecy in court processes, which was highlighted in the story in The Guardian today. We have no true freedom of speech when people can be jailed for complaining about their problems. This country seems to have a penchant for covering up problems that would be discussed openly in others.
Florence Bellone, a Belgian journalist, recorded an interview with Carol Hughes and Lucille O’Regan in Ireland, which was broadcast on RTBF in Belgium. A copy was placed on YouTube, but access in the UK is now blocked as a result of what YouTube calls a “government request”. What can be so frightening about that interview that people in the UK are not allowed to see it, but it can be broadcast in Belgium?
The policy of international websites varies. The Twitter account containing the names of lots of people subject to super-injunctions is still there, and will remain there for some time, yet newspapers in the UK are not allowed to refer to it by name. It is clear that in the UK people are now recognising the oppressive nature of court secrecy in this country. For instance, I wrote and released a song about this in 2008, the lyrics of which would have been in contempt of court had they not already been spoken in the House. Since then, however, things have got even worse, with the force of money being used to prevent women from complaining about their ex-boyfriends. One woman who received a super-injunction said to me:
“The process is terrifying…For the first 2 months I shook! And I shake now when talking about it to someone”.
Questions have been raised about whether I should have discussed the row between Ryan Giggs and Twitter yesterday. I am not a party to the privacy case. I have not been served with the injunction. I have not actually seen the injunction and cannot guarantee that it actually exists. I have read his name in the Sunday Herald, and on Wikipedia and Twitter. I could obviously stand on a soapbox in Scotland and say what I said in the House of Commons. I believe I could probably say it on Hyde park corner, because it is in the public domain. For me to have abused parliamentary privilege, I would have had to use it in the first instance, but I do not think that the case has been made that it would have been contempt of court outside the House.
I remain concerned, however, that the process of issuing contempt of court proceedings has been kicked off against users of Twitter. Someone should not be able to hide behind anonymity to take action against others. I am completely unsure what the legal position is in respect of naming Giles Coren. I do not think it would be contempt of court to name him outside the House, yet The Times was worried enough yesterday not to identify him—and he is one of its journalists. I will not identify the footballer whom, it is rumoured, would like to see him prosecuted for tweeting.
I fully approve of the hon. Gentleman’s campaign to ensure that injunctions and super-injunctions do not interfere with our constituents’ ability to contact us and speak to us about issues. However, will he explain to the House why he thinks he is judge and jury on whether certain people under court order should be named in this place? Why does he feel he has the right above anybody else? It seems very strange to use privilege in such a way.
I explained that those details were already in the public domain and accessible in Forbes Magazine, the Sunday Herald and many other places, so I do not think it would have been contempt of court outside the House. However, I accept the Speaker’s ruling on this issue.
I refer hon. Members to a story in The Guardian today relating to another injunction. I shall read out the first paragraph:
“A wealthy British financier is seeking to have his sister-in-law secretly jailed in a libel case, in the latest escalation of the controversy over superinjunctions and the internet, the Guardian can disclose.”
What we have here is true secret justice: somebody is being prosecuted in secret; they cannot be identified; and the person prosecuting them cannot be identified. As a rule, the Attorney-General does not prosecute civil cases, which the privacy cases are; one of the parties usually prosecutes.
Actually, it has everything to do with what I did yesterday, because Giles Coren was subject to similar contempt proceedings. There is a great danger that a secret form of jurisprudence will develop that aims to jail people in secret and keep their identities out of the public domain for relatively trivial issues.
The law of confidentiality and privacy, as being developed by the courts, seems to be in opposition to the views of Parliament about whistleblowing. That is an important point. A number of the court orders in place act to prevent people from reporting issues, whether to the police, the General Medical Council, coastguards or whomever. The rule of law is undermined by the court orders preventing that information from being given. That is another important issue.
Indeed. The issues of freedom of speech are not just about what goes in the newspapers; they are also about who communicates with whom and how tightly controlled things are. Some of the court orders issued prevent people from complaining to friends about what has been done to them; some prevent them from complaining to Members of Parliament; and others prevent them from going to the police with information. A dangerous system is developing. It is wrong to think that there is a difference between the ZAM case reported in The Guardian today and that of Giles Coren, because he could have faced exactly the same process.
The point I was making about Giggs was that his name was in the public domain already, so it would not have been contempt of court to name him outside the House. That is quite straightforward, and it does not, therefore, involve the use of privilege.
However, there is an argument about privilege where the legal position is uncertain, as it can be at times. We do not want to be unable to debate things because working out whether we can talk about them is so complex. Privilege is important and it needs to be used responsibly—there is no question about that—but my argument is straightforward. To have abused privilege, I would have to have used the name in the first instance, yet no one has evidenced to me the basis on which it would have been contempt of court for me to say outside the House what I said yesterday in it, and if it was not contempt of court outside, it cannot be an abuse of privilege within—
Because it would not have been reported.
Anyway, the accountability of judicial processes depends not only on there being a public judgment, but on people having the ability externally to challenge the evidence that the courts are using. The problem with secrecy is that this all breaks down. Indeed, the report in The Guardian today about the secret committal of the sister-in-law is an example of exactly that situation, where there is no possibility of checking externally the evidence for whether the assumptions are correct. There are great questions about the reliability of much of the expert evidence provided in the family courts. If we cannot rely on the expert evidence, we will have difficulty relying on the conclusions.
There are many, many problems, and I will obviously be submitting a detailed report to the Joint Committee on the difficulties with the various injunctions. We also have a difficult day today, so I will not use up all my time. The issue of secret jailing is one that we cannot drop. Obviously we cannot do much more about it over the recess, but we cannot allow a process to continue whereby attempts are made to commit more and more people in secret proceedings. This all arises from the objective of protecting relatively trivial secrets, but it is not even close to open justice. The balancing act has completely failed when we are trying to balance somebody’s liberty on one side against something relatively trivial on the other.
I am exceptionally grateful to you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I have perhaps rather better news—it is at least different news—than we heard in the previous speech. I would like to talk briefly about the outstanding work of magistrates and the invaluable role that they play in the criminal justice system.
Magistrates were created some 650 years ago—we are talking about a very long-standing office—and they are to be congratulated, as I am sure we would all agree. There are now 29,000 magistrates in England and Wales. Their minimum requirement is to sit for 26 half-days a year. Some 98% of all legal proceedings are conducted in magistrates courts, which perhaps puts into perspective the outstanding contribution that they regularly make to the justice system. Magistrates bring to bear their considerable experience, knowledge and wisdom to both criminal and family matters. It is perhaps a testament to their ability to dispense justice fairly and properly that they are so rarely challenged in any higher place. In the last 650 years, magistrates have faced many changes and challenges. Their outstanding chairman, Mr John Thornhill, whom I spoke to today, has told me that, notwithstanding all the changes, magistrates always bounce back.
On the subject of magistrates bouncing back, is my hon. Friend aware that magistrates’ allowances and subsistence fees are under review for a possible reduction to bring them in line with the rest of the civil service? However, there is a crucial difference: our magistrates are volunteers, not salaried staff.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I am sure that everyone in this place would join me in congratulating him and his wife, who is sitting up in the Gallery, on celebrating their 25th—their silver—wedding anniversary.
Moving swiftly on to the important point that my hon. Friend makes, our magistrates are indeed volunteers. They receive a small subsistence allowance. I am sure that, like my hon. Friend, many hon. Members will have received letters and e-mails from magistrates in their constituencies who are concerned about plans to reduce their daily allowance and cut their mileage allowance.
It is important to emphasise that the lay magistracy already makes our judiciary in England and Wales one of the cheapest in any comparable Council of Europe country. We would be cutting back a system that is already very efficient.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Lay magistrates normally sit in threes, as opposed to the stipendiary district judges who sit alone. Despite that fact, lay magistrates are considerably cheaper than stipendiary judges. I am not suggesting that they do a lesser job, however. Both are integral to our criminal justice system.
Another great challenge that our magistrates face is the cutting of 93 magistrates courts. That has been debated at length in this place and in Westminster Hall, and it is a matter of great concern. I do not have much difficulty with the reduction in the number of magistrates courts, but I accept that many people are concerned about the ability to deliver local justice and about the extra strain that this will put on our lay magistrates, who are volunteers, through the extra mileage and work that they will have to do.
My hon. Friend is entirely right in what she says about magistrates. She has mentioned court closures, and we are losing our magistrates court in Goole. When that happens, it will be quicker for some of my constituents to get to King’s Cross than to the replacement magistrates services in Beverley.
I take my hon. Friend’s point, and I am grateful for it. I would counter it, however, by saying that those of us who are familiar with the Crown courts will know that defendants and witnesses who appear in them make the effort and appear there without too much difficulty. I struggle to see how there will be much difference when a defendant or witness has to travel to a magistrates court that is further away following the closure of a more local one.
There are many myths surrounding our lay magistrates. The days of the stereotype of the middle-aged lady—not that there is anything wrong with middle-aged ladies—are long gone. The days are gone when women of a certain age and from a certain social class dispensed justice, usually wearing a hat—not that there is anything wrong with hats, I must also swiftly add. We now see magistrates drawn from all walks of life, and rightly so. Their experience and knowledge is also often brought to bear in the Crown court, when they sit with a Crown court judge to decide appeals. They perform an invaluable role there.
I have only one complaint, and I am grateful to my constituent, Mr Roy Plumb, in this regard. He lives in Kimberley, and he served as a magistrate for many years. He performed the role admirably. However, at the age of 70, he was forced to retire. The irony of the situation is that he was born on the very same day in the very same ward of the very same hospital as our esteemed Lord Chancellor. It is somewhat ironic that, while our Lord Chancellor was being appointed to his role, in which I hope he serves for many years, Mr Plumb was being forced to retire, as are other magistrates who reach their 70th birthday.
I am against ageism—of course, I would say that as I get older. It is wrong to assume that, just because someone is of a certain age, they will perform in a certain way. Just because someone who is under 30 is appointed to serve as a lay magistrate, which Governments of all persuasions have sought to encourage, it does not mean that they will necessarily bring to the bench more youthful ideas or be able to identify more closely with young people. I subscribe to the notion that it does not matter what it says on someone’s birth certificate; the test is whether they are young at heart and fit in mind, and whether they have all the faculties to exercise sound judgment.
I know that the previous Government were questioned by people of all political persuasions—this is not an issue of party politics—on whether magistrates should have to retire at 70. Crown court judges can often sit until they are 73 and I believe High Court judges do not have to retire until they are 75, or at least they can sit in court until that age. I would suggest that this seems a little unfair to magistrates, especially, as I say, with our great Lord Chancellor being able to continue to serve for many years to come.
I am sure that all would agree with me in celebrating and thanking our lay magistrates. I urge the Government to view ageism as a thing of the past, so that our magistrates should not have to retire at 70. Mr Plumb might be able to return to the bench. We should certainly give great credit to his campaign and wish it well for the future.
I shall speak about the compensation scheme for the victims of overseas terrorism. Before I do so, I would like to pay tribute to a number of Members from different parties who have worked hard on this issue—not least the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont), who would have spoken in this debate were it not for the fact that he thought he would have to be in the Finance Bill Committee. I thank him and his staff for the support they have given. I would also like to thank my Lincolnshire colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who has secured meetings with Ministers, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I also thank the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) and the former Member for Makerfield, Lord McCartney, who have both worked hard on this issue over the years. Above all, I pay tribute to the families of the victims of terrorism who have also worked incredibly hard over a number of years and continue to campaign vigorously on it; some of them are present today. Let me outline some of the issues and problems connected with this matter, before looking at the history and putting some questions to the Minister.
Since the Bali bombings in 2002, there have been 58 deaths and 37 serious injuries arising from terror attacks against our citizens overseas. It is my view, and that of many Members, that the British Government continue to have a responsibility for their citizens even when they leave these shores. British victims of terrorism in the UK are eligible for compensation under the criminal injuries compensation scheme, but that does not extend to victims of terrorism overseas. Travel insurers do not normally pay out for death, injury or costs associated with terror attacks, as they do for death, injury and some costs associated with other violent crimes suffered abroad. Similarly, many foreign Governments do not compensate foreign nationals who are attacked on their territory. This is particularly true in countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey and India, where there are many Western tourists, including our own people, and multiple terror threats.
The real issue is that this is not just about British citizens being caught up by accident in attacks while overseas, as many of them have been targeted precisely because they hold Her Majesty’s passport. In Mumbai, gunmen in the Taj Mahal hotel said, “We want US and British,” before inspecting passports, and they then targeted individuals. That is why it is not appropriate for Ministers back here in the UK to bracket terror attacks with other crimes in their correspondence with victims. Terrorism is of a totally different order to other violent crimes suffered abroad. Surely our Government should bear some responsibility for our citizens when they are attacked overseas for nothing more than being British.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue, and also the hon. Gentleman—the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont)—whose constituency I should not even venture to try to pronounce. I would like briefly to thank the Minister for agreeing to meet me, some victims and their parents. Does my hon. Friend agree that as people are targeted, as he suggests, simply because they are British citizens, our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right to make a clear commitment to put in place compensation retrospectively for past victims, and a future scheme for any—God forbid—future victims of terrorism abroad? Does he agree that this clear commitment is based on a moral obligation that we all have to stand by our fellow citizens when they are caught up through no fault of their own in such attacks?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this issue. Does he agree that, in a sense, if United Kingdom citizens are fearful of travelling abroad, the terrorists win? Government compensation will not remove that fear entirely, but a sense among British citizens that their Government will stand behind them when they leave these shores is an important part of the wider effort to combat terrorism wherever it occurs.
Absolutely. Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done in this regard. We certainly expect the British Government to stand behind our people wherever they are in the world, particularly if they are attacked, and it is true that if British citizens are put off the idea of travelling, the terrorists win. Many people travel to countries to which the Foreign Office has advised them not to travel. There is at least some implication that their travel is safe and that the British Government will support them if the need arises, as we do through our consulates, embassies and high commissions around the world.
Victims of the bombings in Sharm el Sheikh in 2005 were told by Ministers at the time that they should seek redress from the perpetrators of the attack. Given the time constraints, I cannot give all the details, but let me talk about one family in particular: the Bennett family from Durham, who were bombed on a minibus in Turkey in July 2005, suffering considerable injuries, and one of whose members, Helyn Bennett, was killed. The family pursued the Turkish authorities through the court system for six years following that advice, and it is only thanks to the generosity of the insurers and of Turkish courts that they have been protected from crippling legal costs. However, despite the award of £1 million reflecting the gravity of the injuries, the Turkish authorities have refused to pay out, and an appeal is in progress.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the coalition has a responsibility to deliver on the last Government’s commitment to pay compensation? British citizens who were victims of attacks from Bali to Sharm el Sheikh have yet to receive a penny, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), will soon put that dreadful injustice right.
Again, I entirely agree. Those three interventions illustrate the cross-party support for the campaign.
Although the award to the Bennett family was made 18 months ago in the Turkish courts, no funds have been made available to them. They are exceptional in pursuing international litigation, which, as we know, is incredibly complicated and beyond the means of most people. That is why victims were delighted when, in October 2005, the former Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House:
“officials are considering the possibility of introducing a scheme to provide compensation for…UK victims of terrorism”
“ wherever that may happen.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2005; Vol. 437, c. 839.]
It took a long time for that pledge to be fulfilled, and victims and their families continued to campaign. They worked successfully with some of the Members whom I named earlier to establish the humanitarian assistance scheme, and in 2010 the then Home Secretary and Justice Secretary provided for a statutory compensation scheme as part of the Crime and Security Act 2010. That would have enabled victims to be compensated with tariffs identical to those offered by the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Subsequently, 37 survivors of terrorist attacks abroad were written to and informed that they would be eligible to claim. Sadly, however, the change of Government has delayed the process somewhat, and the picture is a little unclear. Families are not sure where we are heading.
May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what progress has been made with the review that was announced some time ago, whom is he consulting, and when he will make a statement to the House on the issue? Will the issue of the retrospective ex gratia payments promised to existing terror victims and their families be settled at the same time as the review of any future statutory compensation scheme? Will he confirm that the Government accept the principle that terrorism is distinct from other forms of crime, and that Her Majesty’s Government have a responsibility to our citizens who are attacked overseas on the basis of their nationality? Finally, may I urge the Minister to address this matter quickly, so that victims and their families receive the justice that they deserve?
I shall address each of the issues raised in turn. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) again raised an important issue that has featured prominently in the press in recent days and weeks. Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, and it is of the greatest importance that people should be able to discuss and debate issues as freely and openly as possible—and as frequently as possible, I might add as I am returning to the Chamber to discuss this matter again following yesterday’s performance.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General said in response to yesterday’s urgent question, there is a balance to be struck when the issues concerned relate to a person’s private life. That has always been the case, and now, in the current context, the European convention on human rights specifically establishes the article 8 right to respect for private and family life, alongside the right under article 10 to freedom of expression.
I want to make sure that I approach this matter carefully.
In each individual case, the courts have to consider the balance between the two competing rights I have just mentioned. In addition, when considering whether to grant a civil remedy or order, such as an injunction, which affects the convention right to freedom of expression, the courts have to take into account section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which requires particular regard to be given to the importance of that right.
I should also explain that injunctions preventing reporting or disclosure of information may be granted for a number of reasons, and not just for the protection of privacy. They might, for instance, be granted for the following reasons: to protect documents subject to legal professional privilege or commercial secrets; to prevent the release of other information obtained by a party in confidence; to protect children or vulnerable people; or to prevent the release of information about an order freezing the assets of a person suspected of fraud where that might alert other participants in the fraud and lead to them disposing of assets or leaving the country.
The report of the Master of the Rolls’ committee on the procedural aspects of super-injunctions and anonymity injunctions published last Friday makes an important contribution to the debate on these issues, particularly in the context of the debate on privacy. The report reaffirms that open justice is a fundamental constitutional principle, and that exceptions to it are permissible only to the extent that they are strictly necessary in the interests of justice. Such decisions will necessarily be made in each particular case, dependent on the facts of that case. The report suggests that when that is necessary, the facts of the case and the reason for secrecy should be explained, as far as possible, in an openly available judgment. It also emphasises that super-injunctions—which is where the fact that there is an injunction has to be kept secret as well as the substantive issues—are now being granted only for very short periods where secrecy is necessary to ensure that the entire point of the order is not destroyed. That should help to allay concerns both that super-injunctions were being granted far too readily and about their potential open-endedness.
The Government welcome the report by the Master of the Rolls, which contains important recommendations that will ensure that injunctions are granted only where strictly necessary. We recognise the importance of striking the correct balance between individual rights to privacy on the one hand and rights to freedom of expression and transparency of official information on the other.
As the Attorney-General also said yesterday, the Prime Minister has written to the Chairmen of the Justice Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee recommending that a Joint Committee of both Houses be established to consider how current arrangements might be improved. The Justice Secretary and the Culture Secretary will liaise with those Chairmen regarding the terms of reference of the Joint Committee. Such a Committee will be able to use representation from both Houses and the considerable expertise that Select Committees have, to examine the way in which the current arrangements are working and to consider whether we might make any changes to make things work better. That is where matters stand now.
I shall now discuss the welcome speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on the importance of the magistracy. I wholly agreed with the general drive of it. This year sees the 650th anniversary of the enshrining in statute of the role of justice of the peace by King Edward III in Westminster Hall. The role has changed a great deal over time. Indeed, it was not until the first half of the 19th century that non-conformists and Roman Catholics could become magistrates, and not until the early 20th century that the property qualification for magistrates was removed. From its long and rich historical roots, the magistracy has developed into a fundamental civic institution at the heart of our criminal justice system, and there are 27,000 magistrates in England and Wales today.
Our magistrates are ordinary people from all walks of life who do extraordinary work on behalf of us all. As my hon. Friend said, they deal with the vast majority—95%—of criminal cases in England and substantial amounts of civil work. They are people who care passionately about their communities and the value of the rule of law. What makes magistrates all the more remarkable is that such a vital part of our justice system is composed of unpaid part-time volunteers. They are a very important part of the big society in action.
I wish briefly to discuss how the Government want to consider developing the role of magistrates further, not least in respect of restorative justice. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice has said,
“restorative justice is a reflection of what we are talking about when describing the Big Society....This is about taking justice out of the narrow confines of the courts and putting it into the community”.
There can be no better expression of justice grounded in the community than magistrates, who are the epitome of justice for the community by the community. As our recent Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle” set out, we are committed to increasing the range and availability of restorative justice approaches to support reparation in the adult and youth justice systems.
Neighbourhood justice panels bring together community volunteers, offenders and victims, harnessing restorative techniques to broker justice outcomes. I would very much welcome the greater involvement of the magistracy in institutions such as neighbourhood justice panels, but we can also successfully extend a role for the magistracy in the entire panoply of elements that deliver justice in the community.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe mentioned the retirement age. The Government recognise that at 70 the majority of judicial office holders will be mentally and physically equal to the demands of the work. However, following careful consideration, including discussion with the senior judiciary, it was decided that the current mandatory retirement age should remain. So I am afraid that I cannot offer any comfort for Mr Plumb, despite the date and the ward on which he was born.
The Government are reviewing the travel and subsistence allowances paid to magistrates, with the aim of ensuring that they are not disadvantaged financially because of their important public service while also getting the best and appropriate value for money for the taxpayer. The Courts and Tribunals Service will meet representatives of the Magistrates Association and the National Bench Chairmen’s Forum, and the senior presiding judge, on 15 June to discuss how to develop a new approach to magistrates allowances, and no decisions have yet been taken.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) on making his contribution about the victims of overseas terrorism. This is a difficult and emotive issue. I know that there is continuing interest in this area, to put it mildly, and several hon. Members have raised the matter recently. As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) said, I recently met his constituent Trevor Lakin and Nigel and Will Pike with him. Mr Lakin lost his son Jeremy in the Sharm el Sheikh bombing in 2005 and Will Pike was paralysed as a result of injuries sustained following the attack on the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai in 2008. Through my hon. Friend, I heard first hand about the devastating impact that terrorism has had on them and continues to have on their lives and on the lives of their families. They shared with me their experiences of terrorism abroad and their frustration and disappointment at the lack of support available to victims after they return home.
Terrorist crime is usually indiscriminate and devastating and usually comes without warning. Its impact can be horrific, not just for the victim but for the victim’s family and loved ones. My deepest sympathies, and those of the whole Administration, go out to all those who have suffered in that way or who have lost loved ones through such tragedies.
Since the spending review settlement, the Ministry of Justice has been reviewing the services available to victims, witnesses and their families. We are also considering afresh proposals for the introduction of schemes to compensate eligible victims of terrorism overseas. We expect to be able to make an announcement before the summer recess.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole mentioned support for victims overseas, as did the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont), who made an intervention on that point. Her Majesty’s Government stand behind our people overseas; for those who have not had dealings with the system, coming across it in the wake of an appalling experience is difficult and distressing. To alleviate some of this distress, we have revisited the support available to British victims caught up in terrorist attacks abroad. The exceptional assistance measures scheme run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides immediate assistance with air fares, accommodation and repatriation for victims and their families. From 16 December last year that help has been available to all British victims regardless of their travel insurance arrangements.
Let me point out that according to the Association of British Insurers, 66% of existing policies cover such attacks, but are mostly limited to overseas medical expenses, repatriation costs and a lump sum for personal accident cover. Furthermore, the Red Cross relief fund for victims of terrorism abroad continues to provide emergency funds of up to £15,000 for those who suffer injury or are bereaved through terrorism and normally live in the UK. The fund was begun with £1 million of funding provided under the previous Administration.
Families bereaved as a result of overseas terrorism may also be assigned a specialist family liaison officer by the police. The officer is specially trained and acts as a single point of contact for bereaved families. The officer will answer questions, seek to obtain updates on case progress overseas and provide dedicated one-to-one support for the family.
I appreciate that dealing with the consequences of any crime is anything but easy. There are services on offer to help guide people through the justice process and to provide emotional support, but there is still more to do. There are challenges in the current system in ensuring that the support given is the right support, and that it is offered quickly and to the right people. That is why I and my colleagues in other Departments are working to improve the services that we can provide. We are working to ensure that central Government, local authorities, voluntary organisations and local communities link together to provide joined-up support to victims and families. I look forward to being able to give the House more details about the Government’s proposals soon, and I anticipate that that will be before the summer recess.