I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill is about bringing back common sense to a part of our society that week in, week out frustrates many of us; about restoring balance to the health and safety culture that all too often goes beyond what is necessary to protect individuals; about tackling a culture of ambulance chasing that all too often is about generating opportunities to earn fees, rather than doing the right thing; about ensuring that people who do the right thing are confident that the law is on their side when they do so; about trying to protect those who act in the interests of our society; about protecting those who go out of their way to take the responsible approach; and about protecting those who take risks to try to help those who are in trouble. It does not rewrite the law in detail or take away discretion from the courts, but it sends a signal to our judges and a signal to those thinking about trying it on—by bringing a case in the hope that it will not be defended—that the law is no longer on their side.
We live in a society that is increasingly litigious. In a country where things are safer than ever, where our workplaces are less risky than ever and where safety standards on our roads are higher than ever, that should not be happening. Of course accidents happen; they always will. Of course people do dumb things; they always will. Of course unscrupulous people will cut corners and put others in danger; they always will. But there is no need for us to be suing more and more. In the last three years alone, figures for personal injury claims registered with the compensation recovery unit show that claims against employers have increased from around 81,000 in 2010-11 to more than 105,000 in 2013-14—an increase of 30%.
I very much support what the Minister is doing, because there are some people out there who genuinely need to sue when there is a problem, but there are many who have manufactured a situation, where they were probably at fault themselves, and then want to blame somebody else. There is a culture of blaming somebody else whatever happens. We need to take responsibility for our own actions as well as everyone else’s.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I want those who are tempted to try to attract people who have been the victim of an accident—those who say, “Hey, there’s an opportunity for you to sue”—to believe that it is perhaps not in their business interests to do so. Accidents do happen. Where people are genuinely on the bad end of a poor decision or malpractice, they should of course have a defence in the courts, but people who are blameless should not be sued none the less.
May I say how delighted I am to see that the Minister is still in his place and is a survivor? It is nice to have him here, but I am bit worried about the title of this Bill. He seems to be talking about a Bill with a different title from the one on the Order Paper. This Bill is about social action, responsibility and heroism. I thought it would be about citizenship, and I am concerned that that is not in the Bill and that he has gone straight on to health and safety issues and people being sued. What has gone wrong?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being pleased to see me still in my place. If he looks at the three elements in the Bill’s title—social action, responsibility and heroism—he will see that all are of great importance. However, when it comes to the responsibility piece in particular, which I am talking about now, those who try to do the right thing and take responsible decisions can still sometimes end up on the wrong end of the law. That is where I want to avoid being. I want those who do the right thing—in terms of responsibility, that means employers who go out of their way to have the right standards in their workplace—to feel protected against claims that can sometimes, frankly, be spurious.
Most of us on the Opposition Benches would agree: we do not want people to be intimidated by threats of legal action. They are totally preposterous—we have seen them, we hate them, and we can all agree on that. On the other hand, we want people to be protected from serious accidents at work and the things that trouble people who are vulnerable. Can the Minister assure me that he will get that balance right?
I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, because this Bill is not about taking discretion from the courts. It is about deterring spurious claims and sending a message to the courts that we want them to focus on ensuring that they are on the side of the person who has done the right thing. Of course, where the wrong thing has been done, the force of the law is there to provide an appropriate remedy. However, all too often cases are brought that I think frankly should not be brought. If the hon. Gentleman talks to small businesses in his constituency, I am sure he will find many examples of firms that say, “Actually, when I get a case against me, it’s just too much of a hassle to defend it.”
I do not want to misinterpret what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying, but it seems to me that there would not be many frivolous claims, given that it is difficult to take somebody to a tribunal and that legal aid has been cut. I do not quite see what he is getting at with that aspect of his Bill.
All I can suggest is that the hon. Gentleman find a moment or two in his day to watch daytime television and see the number of adverts for firms trying to attract people who will sue when something has gone wrong—“Have you had an accident? Come and launch a case.” He needs to recognise—I am sure he has constituents in this position as well—that there are very many responsible employers who fear cases being brought against them when they have done nothing wrong. There are people who volunteer in their communities and who are worried about the legal position in which that puts them. There are people who, whenever they are faced with a spur-of-the-moment decision on whether to intervene in a crisis, are pursued by the fear that makes them ask themselves “If I do this, will I be doing the right thing?”
As my right hon. Friend may know, yesterday parts of my constituency experienced severe flash flooding from surface water, which affected pretty much the whole of Canvey Island. On numerous occasions, many public-spirited individuals stepped in. I am thinking of people such as Neal Warren and Simon Hart who spent all afternoon unblocking sewers and road drains in Hadleigh, at their own risk, and the neighbours of Bill Monk, a 103-year-old whose carers could not reach him because of the floods. Would the Bill make people in such circumstances more confident that they are safe and will be protected?
That is very much my aim. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituents, and indeed to her. I know that she spent time helping her constituents at the weekend. I saw the television pictures of what happened in her constituency, and I am sure that we all send our good wishes to the residents of Canvey Island who have experienced such a sudden and unexpected turn of events. Considerable damage and great disruption were caused to the island, and I pay tribute to everyone who has been involved in trying to sort things out. Of course, such people should always feel confident that if they do the right thing by, for instance, trying to unblock a sewer, yet something goes wrong, it is not their fault but a result of their trying to do the right thing for the community. The balance of probability should be that the law is on their side, and that is what the Bill will achieve.
Everything that we have heard so far is entirely worthy, and no one would wish to gainsay or criticise the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), but I am a little puzzled, because I cannot find, in my head or my heart, a practical difference that the Bill will make to the current law. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could give me a few examples.
The key thing that the Bill does, in legal terms, is lay down a set of principles for the courts. As my hon. and learned Friend knows, there have been a number of examples over the years in which Parliament has set out principles and allowed the jurisprudence to evolve from them. However, this is not just about what happens in the courts; it is also about what happens outside the courts. It is about the decisions to sue that may or may not be made. It is about the small business that gives way to a spurious claim, believing that there is a risk in defending it. The Bill is designed to send a powerful message, inside but particularly outside the courts, that if someone is going to take legal action, there is clear visibility of the law, and the law will clearly not be on the side of a person who is trying it on. That is what we are trying to achieve.
Many of the claims that are represented by the 30% increase are doubtless valid, but at least part of that rise must be attributed to an increasingly litigious climate, spurred on, as I have said, by personal injury firms that are quick to cash in by advertising their services on television and radio, through unsolicited and often deeply irritating and upsetting telephone calls, through posters on buses, and through other marketing techniques. We have focused firmly on ensuring that in future it will be much more difficult for spurious, speculative and opportunistic claims to succeed.
That is clearly one of the measures that could be used, but this is an area in which it is very difficult to collect statistics. All too often, these are cases that are conceded a long time before they come to the courts. A small business may be involved. Perhaps there has been an accident at work and it is not the employer’s fault, but the employee, backed by a firm that is operating on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis, pursues the case anyway. All too often, the employer simply gives way. I think that every one of us, in our constituencies, could find a firm that had found itself facing a claim and had felt uncertain about the law: legal aid is expensive, the firm did not feel that the law was on its side, and it therefore did not defend the case.
The Secretary of State is being very generous in giving way. As I have said, I have great respect for him, but when I read about “social action, responsibility and heroism” in the Queen’s Speech, I thought that that meant qualities such as citizenship. I am involved in a campaign about citizenship, and about making educating young people—and older people—in good citizenship more of a reality. Listening to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, my constituents might fear that the Bill is not what they thought it would be.
The hon. Gentleman will have to let me finish my speech and decide in the round, but I can assure him that small businesses share the concerns I have been setting out. They believe the law needs to be more clearly on their side, but I will come back to the heroism piece and the social responsibility piece because these are important parts of the Bill as well.
We have focused on trying to ensure that we clamp down on the no win, no fee environment. In 2010 Lord Young published the “Common Sense, Common Safety” report, drawing attention to the fact that businesses were operating their health and safety policies in a climate of fear, and that the no win, no fee system introduced by the Labour party had given rise to the perception that there was no risk in starting litigation and it encouraged speculative claims. A whole industry had grown up around that.
Since that report was published, we have introduced a wide range of measures to tackle these damaging effects. We have transformed no win, no fee deals, so lawyers can no longer double their fees if they win at the expense of defendants or their insurers. We have banned referral fees paid between lawyers, insurance claims firms and others for profitable claims. We have reduced by more than half the fees lawyers can charge insurers for processing low-level personal injury claims. We have banned claims management companies from offering cash incentives or gifts to people who bring them claims. We have changed the law to enable companies that breach claims management regulation unit rules to be fined. We have also helped remove the fear of being sued for breaches of strict liability health and safety duties by introducing changes last year through the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 to prevent claims for damages from being brought under health and safety regulations. In addition to these measures, we are currently taking action through amendments to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to extend the ban on offering inducements to include things such as iPads. I do not think they should be offered as a reward by those who drum up business in order to pursue personal injury claims. Together with other provisions in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill requiring the courts to dismiss fundamentally dishonest claims, this will root out the insidious and damaging bad practice and unacceptable behaviour on the part of some claimants and their lawyers that has tainted personal injury claims in recent years.
They do two things. They consolidate the law, which exists in fragmented places around past legislation, so it is very clear what the law says, and they provide additional protection, particularly for volunteers, but, above all, they send a signal from Parliament to the courts, in the way that past legislation also has, and set out a series of principles off the back of which the courts will evolve a jurisprudence. They also send a powerful message to those who never get near the courts and who may give in to claims and currently do not feel the law is on their side—I can assure the House that they do not feel the law is on their side—that actually they can stand up and defend a claim in the knowledge that Parliament has very clearly said that the balance in the courts should be in their favour. So this is as much about sending a message outside the courts as inside the courts.
Although this Bill focuses on three issues, as I have said I do think that clause 3—the responsibility piece—has a particular importance in ensuring we provide proper protection for small businesses. I have talked to countless business groups and employers who tell me how the compensation culture is tying their business in knots. Employers might do the right thing and put in place sensible procedures, but then someone does something daft and the employer still finds themselves facing a damages claim. Of course sometimes that claim will have a genuine basis, and of course sometimes it needs to be recompensed in the courts, but if we are to achieve our goal of supporting business and enterprise and ensuring we continue our success in creating new jobs, we have to make sure the law is properly balanced.
I recognise that worries about liability can arise in other circumstances, too, particularly in the voluntary sector, and let me now turn to the other clauses that address those concerns. In a survey carried out by the NatCen Social Research and the Institute for Volunteering Research, worries about risk and liability was an issue cited by 47% of those questioned who were not currently volunteering. That study was carried out over the course of 2006-07, but the more recent insightful reports by Lord Young and Lord Hodgson concluded that this remains a real issue for would-be volunteers. Indeed, in the Queen’s Speech debate we heard from a number of hon. Members who reinforced that message from volunteering groups in their constituencies. It has been confirmed by Justin Davis Smith, the executive director of volunteering and development at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who said when we announced our plans that there is
“a great concern about risk…anything that can be done to break down barriers to people getting involved in their communities is very welcome.”
I say to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) that it is precisely for those people that we are sending one of the signposts in this Bill.
Obviously, I support the Government’s objectives and making things easier for volunteers. Have the Government made any study of what effect the Bill would have on the costs on insurance to protect people against strange litigation?
It is difficult to give an exact answer on that. We have not been able to quantify it exactly, but I believe the Bill will contribute to the downward pressure on insurance premiums coming from a range of measures we are putting in place. In itself, it will not necessarily make a massive difference, but together with the other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle we are putting in place on different aspects of insurance costs, ranging from the independent medical panels we are putting in place for motor insurance claims to some of our changes to the regulation of no win, no fee lawyers, it will have—we are already seeing this in some areas—a downward effect on insurance claims.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one constraint on getting more volunteers into organisations is the risks they perceive? Does he agree that these concerns and risks are stopping the growth of great organisations such as the Scouts and St John Ambulance, because they cannot get the volunteers? They cannot get young people involved, off the streets and doing positive things.
That is absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) has highlighted the case of a constituent of his who ran an outward bound organisation but has been hamstrung—he has seen his business almost disappear—because of pressure as a result of a claim that has been brought. That caused problems to his business when he was seeking only to do the right thing.
I want people to feel confident about participating in activities that benefit others without worrying about what might happen if, despite their best efforts, something goes wrong and they find themselves defending a negligence claim. Clause 2, on social action, provides valuable reassurance that if that does happen, the court, when reaching a decision on liability, will take careful and thorough account of the context of the defendant’s actions and the fact that he or she was acting for the benefit of society.
The final limb of the Bill on heroism addresses another key area of concern. Unfortunately, it is often the case that people are unwilling to intervene to help in emergencies, and may stand by and do nothing when somebody collapses on the street, for example, because they are worried about the legal position if they do try to help and something goes wrong. Although many people act spontaneously in such situations without giving a second thought to their own interests, we know that many people think it would be safer not to get involved. The debate in this House—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), in his usual chattering way, asks how I know. Let me refer him back—he probably was not here—to the debate following Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech, which yielded a number of examples of how those worries can manifest themselves. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) told us about his experiences as a community first responder with the ambulance service in Yorkshire. He said that when he turned up at emergencies, he often found that people were unwilling to involve themselves because they were worried that the law would not protect them. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) confirmed that she has found similar attitudes in her constituency. These are not isolated cases, and other right hon. and hon. Members will be able to think of other examples in their constituencies.
May I put the record right, Mr Deputy Speaker? As a Yorkshire Member of Parliament, I know that we have so many volunteers and so much spontaneous public action to step in to the fray when things go wrong. I would hate for that example the Secretary of State gave of someone from Yorkshire to stand, as we are second to none. I have never heard, as a Member of Parliament, of anyone being frightened to wade in and save someone or help someone if it is needed in Yorkshire. I am sorry, but I do not believe there is that much reticence.
All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that if he were right, this move would not have been as widely welcomed as it has been by the voluntary sector, for precisely the reasons I gave. It has been widely welcomed by that sector, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole would be happy to share his experiences with another Yorkshire Member of Parliament.
Clause 4 therefore addresses these concerns by giving reassurance that heroic behaviour in emergencies will be taken into account by the courts in the event of a negligence claim being brought. The Bill will therefore apply in a wide range of situations in which employers or others have demonstrated a generally responsible approach towards the safety of others during an activity or in which people have been acting for the benefit of society or have selflessly intervened to help others in an emergency.
I realise that the point I am about to make slightly stretches the parameters of the Bill, but given that the Secretary of State has been praising people who heroically intervene is he not as surprised as I am that the people who heroically intervened to help Lee Rigby and confronted the people who had killed them have not seen their bravery recognised? Most of us expected them to get the George medal once the trial was over, so is it not a shame that their bravery has not been recognised?
I can certainly give that assurance to my hon. Friend. I do not think he is right, but we will debate the Bill in Committee and I am sure that he will have the opportunity in Committee and on Report to take a more detailed look at the wording. If there are ways to improve the Bill, we are certainly not closed-minded in that regard, although I believe that the wording is necessary to clarify when clause 4 applies.
What the Bill does not do is tell the court what conclusion it should reach. It does not prevent a person from being found negligent if all the circumstances of the case warrant it. It is important to be clear that it does not prevent medics who negligently injure their patients or others or who perform public services in a negligent way from being held to account. It does not do that. Nor does it have any bearing on deliberate acts of ill-treatment or harm that are inflicted on others and that might amount to criminal offences. In those instances, there could, as now, be repercussions in the criminal courts as well as the civil ones. What it does, as I said at the start of my speech, is drive out spurious claims, deter health and safety jobsworths and help to reassure good, honest and well-meaning citizens that if they act responsibly, do something for the public good or intervene heroically in an emergency, the law will be on their side. Businesses should not be deterred from providing jobs and contributing to our economy by a fear of opportunist litigation and individuals should not be deterred from helping their fellow citizens by a fear that they will somehow put themselves at legal risk.
I support the Bill, because I think it sends a valuable message of reassurance to volunteers and charities. Having knocked around the sector for six years now, I know that there definitely is an issue with people being afraid of being sued. May I urge him to consider this in the wider context of what the Government are doing to support volunteering, and will he join me in celebrating the fact that volunteering has risen on our watch following five years of gentle decline?
I will certainly make that very clear. We value enormously the work done by volunteers. May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his very good work with the voluntary sector, which rightly values the contribution he has made? He has undoubtedly been one of the principal architects of a more favourable environment for charities to operate within.
I believe that the Bill strikes a fair, proportionate and sensible balance that will provide a clear and valuable reassurance to counter the fears that are proving such a deterrent, putting people off volunteering, and that cause anxiety to small businesses, which worry that they might end up at the wrong end of litigation, while ensuring at the same time that those who are genuinely injured through negligence or who suffer wrongs are not prevented from obtaining redress where appropriate.
I believe that the Bill embeds common sense and will reassure all those people. I hope that the House will welcome the policy intentions that underpin it and I commend it to the House.
It is customary, after a reshuffle, to welcome to their places the new Ministers who have been promoted by the Prime Minister. I appreciate that there were a couple of days when the Ministry of Justice was without Ministers and I appreciate that the new ones are part time and unpaid, but I am surprised that they are not here to share the glory of this five-clause Bill. In their absence, I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on his new role, and welcome my good friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) to his new role. It is pleasing that there were finally some willing takers to take up the opportunities in the Ministry of Justice and I wish them luck in their jobs. They will need it over the next 10 months.
So here we are, on the final Monday before the summer recess, in the fifth year of this coalition Government, discussing a five-clause Bill which has been variously described as “complete gobbledygook”, “a turkey” and my favourite one, “the gallinaceous love child” of the Secretary of State and the Minister for Government Policy. Perhaps the most painful of all insults comes from the ConservativeHome blog. The editor of that site put the Bill on the list of those that should not be in the Queen’s Speech. That is how much the Conservative activists think of the Bill. It is hardly a glowing list of endorsements that herald its arrival.
In his own puff piece for the Bill on ConservativeHome, the Justice Secretary wrote:
“SARAH has taken a while to bring to the fore, and she is now getting ready for her debut in the world.”
Given the rather flat reviews that SARAH’s debut has so far received, I cannot help but wonder whether she should ever have seen the light of day.
The right hon. Gentleman should give me a chance to complete my speech. Then we can discuss what we are going to do. He has been here for many Parliaments and he will know that we take the opportunity where we can to improve Bills, even five-clause nonsense Bills, in Committee. I look forward to working with him to improve the Bill during the remaining stages of its passage through the Commons.
I have referred to the fact that the Bill has only five clauses, and I accept that we should not necessarily judge its quality by its length, but if we strip out the first clause, which sets the scene, and the fifth, which deals with extent and commencement, it is only a three-clause Bill. It is so small that the short title is almost longer than the Bill itself. Does the content really warrant a Bill of its own?
It goes without saying that we all support those who volunteer. We want to see even more people contributing their time to good causes and to the vibrancy of civil society and communities throughout the country. We do not want to live in a country where there are unnecessary barriers in the way of those who want to donate their time to helping in the local community, nor do we want to live in a society where people feel unable to help out in an emergency because of a fear of litigation. But the premise of the Bill is built on sand. The Justice Secretary has stated:
“All too often people who are doing the right thing in our society feel constrained by the fear that they are the ones who will end up facing a lawsuit”,
and he repeated that in his Second Reading opening speech. One might think that such a sweeping statement would be followed up with some concrete examples of where that has happened, or perhaps some statistics to back it up, but no. Instead we are given generally wishy-washy scenarios where people and organisations might—I stress the word “might”—be put off by fear of litigation.
I am pleased that the Justice Secretary asks that question because the Ministry of Justice has confirmed that the number of civil cases is going down, not up. It would be worth his spending some time looking at his own statistics. He spent a great deal of time during his speech talking about all the progress that he has made in reducing the number of personal injury cases. Either his reforms are not working or the statistics from his Department are wrong. He must decide which it is.
During his 30-minute speech he gave us no hard facts, no proof and no evidence. We know he has previous when it comes to lack of evidence. We have seen the meltdown in probation that has come about because of his Government’s reckless and half-baked probation privatisation—all done, again, without any evidence, let alone testing or piloting; nothing to show it would work or would not risk public safety. The Justice Secretary said at the Dispatch Box that he trusted his instinct ahead of hard statistical evidence—the same instinct that brought us the Work programme and that delivered a prison crisis has now brought us SARAH.
The Justice Secretary tried to give the impression that there was a problem, and he referred to the impact assessment. I can imagine the fear in his officials’ eyes when they were told to go and find some evidence—any evidence—to support the aims of his Bill. But the Justice Secretary should have been worried when all they could come back with was a survey—a survey—from 2006-07, when the ink was not even dry on the Compensation Act 2006. How can he use as evidence a survey done when the 2006 legislation, which many people think deals adequately with the problems that he says he wants to solve, had barely come into force? In fact, there is plenty of evidence out there, as the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) said, that contradicts the Government’s claim. A Cabinet Office report from 2013 shows not a fall but a rise in volunteering, confirmed also this week by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Volunteering is going up, not down.
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and both sides of the House should celebrate that. It is in part the result of significant Government interventions to remove barriers and reform Criminal Record Bureau checks, and to invest in the opportunities to volunteer, not least the National Citizen Service. This is another milestone on that journey of removing barriers. Yes, volunteering is rising, but still, 20% of volunteers do 80% of the giving. There is so much potential to do more, but far too many people are put off by the risk of being sued, and this Bill aims to create a greater sense of reassurance on that fundamental point.
I am grateful for that intervention because it means that I can refer to the evidence on the barriers to volunteering. The biggest obstacle is a lack of spare time—60% of respondents said that this applied to them a lot and 23% said it applied little. Where does the Bill give people who want to volunteer more spare time? The second biggest reason given by the survey was bureaucracy. Where does the Bill deal with bureaucracy? Other barriers to people coming forward to volunteer include work commitments; looking after children or the home; looking after someone elderly or ill. The hon. Gentleman will know, if he is really honest, that this is a Bill without a cause. Fear of litigation is a very small factor—I think only 1% in the most recent survey referred to that.
If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will come on to what the Justice Secretary should have done and pray in aid experts in that regard.
As I said, volunteering is going up, not down. If the health and safety culture is stifling volunteering, perhaps the Justice Secretary can explain the increase in volunteering. As I have said, there is no evidence to support the problem that he describes. There is no great health and safety beast suffocating the life out of those doing good deeds, petrified into inaction at the prospect of having to fork out compensation after being sued. Even if there was, the Bill provides no real substantive solutions anyway.
I think that many of us are of the view—I am a little surprised that this is not in the Bill—that certain volunteers, particularly in cave and mountain rescue organisations, and even the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, are put in situations that are probably far too difficult and dangerous. In certain situations, for example when people seem to make a specialism of going on to mountains when they know there will be bad weather, the Government should be doing more to protect those volunteers.
If the Bill was really about social action, responsibility and heroism, those sorts of measures would be in it, but clearly it is not.
Let me remind the House of the conclusions of the Government’s own inquiry, which the Justice Secretary referred to, but not fully. Lord Young of Graffham, in his 2010 report, concluded:
“The problem of the compensation culture prevalent in society today is, however, one of perception rather than reality.”
There we have it, from the Government’s mouth: it is a perception, not a reality. The report goes on to highlight:
“One of the great misconceptions, often perpetuated by the media, is that we can be liable for the consequences of any voluntary acts”.
The report then refers to advice given to people in the winter of 2009 about not clearing snow from the front of their houses in case someone slipped and sued them. The Lord Chief Justice said that he had never come across someone being sued in those circumstances, yet the Justice Secretary has wilfully reported that old chestnut in articles he has written before today. I am happy to give way if he would like to intervene and list the occasions since 2010 when such incidents have occurred. No? Well, there we have it. His silence is telling, as he knows there are no such cases.
If the Justice Secretary’s point was that the threat of litigation is putting people off clearing snow, the Bill will do nothing to address that. In fact, the MOJ’s own statistics show that the total number of money claims in civil courts has been following a downward trend in recent years, rather than going up. In any case, the Bill deals with cases that have already reached the courts, so nothing in it will reduce the prospect of being sued. It will not reduce, as he describes it, the “stress and strain” if someone is sued.
Instead of preparing this Bill—the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner asked this question—the Secretary of State’s energies, and those of his officials, would have been better spent rebutting some of the myths about negligence and health and safety. That would have been a better way of tackling the fear of litigation, given that the likelihood of a negligence claim is pretty small. In fact, that was the advice of Lord Dyson, the Master of the Rolls. In a speech entitled “Compensation culture: Fact or fantasy?”, he argued that the perception of a compensation culture
“is not however as grounded in reality as had been suggested.”
He also suggested:
“All of this may also require a substantive educative effort on the part of government, the courts and the legal profession to counter-act the media-created perception that we are in the grips of a compensation culture. It may also require greater public legal education.”
Perhaps that education should have begun with the Justice Secretary.
I have already welcomed the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims to his new post and congratulated him on his promotion. I am sorry that he is not here to share the joys of the Bill with his line manager, because in his previous job at the Department for Work and Pensions he understood exactly the importance of exploding myths about health and safety. In January, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on health and safety, he said that
‘it is very important that health and safety is taken seriously in the workplace and in public areas. Right across the Christmas period, I went public about the need to ensure that Christmas was not spoiled by stupid comments, and stupid local authorities saying, ‘We shouldn’t do this or that’—throw snowballs, or have Christmas trees in certain areas—‘because of health and safety.’ That is wrong, and it has nothing to do with health and safety; it is an insurance risk.’—[Official Report, 13 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 579.]
I hope that although the Minister is absent today he will be able to import some of his common sense into the current MOJ team. After all, as drafted, this Bill will not help. The Government are seeking to legislate to deal with how we perceive risk, real or otherwise. If he were serious, the Justice Secretary would tackle the misconceptions about the risk of being sued, but that is a trickier task that he has chosen to duck.
In introducing this Bill, the Justice Secretary said a lot about how it will protect the responsible employer. That prompts this question: where are the dozens of examples of courts having had a case before them where an employer has done the right thing and an employee has not, and yet they have found for the employee? There are no examples of such cases. He talked about members of the emergency services not going to someone’s rescue in case they breach health and safety rules. Will he tell the House what representations he has received from the fire, ambulance, police and coastguard services in support of that contention? Silence again.
I would like to pick up an important legal point. The Bill seems to conflate health and safety and negligence cases. The former are usually strict liability and the latter are not. That confuses civil liability with criminal liability.
I think I know how the right hon. Gentleman will respond to this point, but, for clarity, I am going to put it anyway. There have undoubtedly been cases, have there not, where policemen have said, for example, that they were not prepared to pull an apparently drowned victim out of a pool for fear of not being suitably qualified to do so? Is he saying that some measure other than this Bill will try to prevent that in future? Such cases clearly do exist, as they are widely reported to a horrified public.
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he was not in the Chamber when I referred to the Master of the Rolls. We need to make sure that employees who do not know the position are educated and told the position, and that those who are not properly trained are properly trained. Debating a three-clause Bill today, and even passing it in the next few months, will not make a jot of difference. We need to make sure that the public and those who work in the emergency services are better educated and know what obligations and duties are placed on them, without the risk and fear of litigation.
Let us be clear: this Bill is targeted at negligence and not at health and safety at all. When the Justice Secretary claims, as he does, that his Bill will
“finally slay much of the ‘elf and safety’…culture”,
he must be honest about the fact that he is being disingenuous, to say the least. If this Bill were really about health and safety, he would be telling the House about the conversations he has had with the Health and Safety Executive and its views on the necessity for such legislation. Again—I think for the seventh time—I will happily allow him to intervene on me to update the House on those conversations with the Health and Safety Executive. Silence again.
We will use the Committee stage of the Bill to scrutinise in more detail its ramifications, both intended and unintended, because it might end up having the opposite effect to that which the Justice Secretary wants. A single act or omission is all that is needed to be negligent. That act or omission might be so serious, causing injury, pain or even death, as to outweigh any amount of good behaviour. He likes talking about hypothetical situations, so what about this one? You are the parent of a child. Would you want them to go on a trip knowing that if they are injured owing to a fault on the part of the school, youth club or scouts, they will not get compensated? The Bill creates the impression that this is the Government’s intention. Or this one: the chairman of a local football team cuts corners when vetting volunteer coaches working with children in the belief that he is protected by the law because in providing coaching for children, he is, to quote clause 2,
“acting for the benefit of society”.
The ramifications of this Bill are that children risk being more exposed to risk. Is that the Government’s intention in introducing it?
If that is not the Government’s intention, this three-clause Bill will not make any difference to the current state of play, as the former Solicitor-General made clear in his intervention. When assessing negligence claims, courts already take into account whether somebody is doing something for the benefit of society, as is recognised by the impact assessment of the Ministry of Justice. That is why organisations have insurance. Although they may be defendants in a claim, they would not be financially liable and their insurer would pay out.
That leads me on to another point. It is interesting that the impact assessment states:
“Insurers and other defendants may gain from slightly reduced aggregate compensation paid and this may feed through to lower insurance premiums.”
However, there is no attempt whatsoever to quantify that, and nor is there any undertaking from insurance companies that it will be passed on to customers—all of which leaves us questioning whether any of that will actually happen in practice, or will insurance companies just end up with higher profits? We all know, by the way, that those companies have donated millions of pounds to the Conservative party’s coffers over recent years.
The House must also steel itself for the inevitable last-minute tabling of a slew of Government new clauses and amendments. The Justice Secretary has a very bad habit of doing that. Such proposals get a cursory amount of scrutiny at best, but they are designed to get the good media hit he so craves and to raise a cheer from his beleaguered Back Benchers. We are very alert to the possibility of new things being added to the Bill at later stages.
Short though today’s Second Reading debate will be, given the paucity of Government speakers, it would be helpful if the Justice Secretary could provide a number of reassurances. Will he reassure us that the Government have no intention of watering down the duty on businesses, particularly small firms, to take out employers’ liability insurance, and that there are no plans to make individual employees take out their own insurance as an alternative to employers’ liability insurance?
I appreciate that the Justice Secretary is demoralised because he has not been moved from the Justice Department. When the Prime Minister asked Cabinet members to volunteer Bills and the Justice Secretary put up his hand and said, “Please, sir, I’ll put forward a Bill,” he thought he would have moved on by the time it came to Second Reading, so I am sorry that he has to deal with this pathetic and embarrassing Bill. Given that it is the Justice Secretary’s Bill, we expected dozens and dozens of his MPs to be present saying what a wonderful Bill it is, but they are not piling up behind him to say so.
The Justice Secretary has claimed that years of work—that is what he said—have gone into this pathetic and embarrassing Bill. It confuses important legal concepts and it is not properly thought through, so it could have negative knock-on effects as a result. It lacks an evidence base and seeks to legislate on the back of myths. It will not do what the Justice Secretary claims it will. It is UKIP-friendly, but it is more like something out of “The Thick of It”. It does not seem to do anything that the current law—section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006 —does not already do.
Members should not just take my word for it. Today’s briefing by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which was mentioned by the former Minister for Civil Society, who has now left the Chamber, says:
“NCVO does not expect this bill to significantly alter the current law, with similar provisions already made in the Compensation Act 2006.”
Therefore, the only people whom the Justice Secretary could pray in aid say that the Bill will not make a jot of difference. All three main aims of the Bill are covered by that existing legislation. In fact, the MOJ’s own impact assessment also notes that
“the courts are already very experienced in dealing with these cases”.
It is a sad indictment of this Government that this is the best they have to offer in the final year of this Parliament, when prisons are in crisis, probation is in meltdown and access to justice is under attack on a daily basis. If the Justice Secretary was told by the Prime Minister that he had to introduce a Bill in this Queen’s Speech, we would have thought that he might have chosen a better one. What about a victims’ law? He could have used this window to put the rights of victims and witnesses into primary legislation. Instead, we have the SARAH Bill—a turkey of a Bill, a vacuous Bill—which, without doubt, is the most embarrassing and pathetic Bill that the Minister of Justice has published since the Department was first formed.
I confess that I am no enthusiast for this Bill, but if I was ever to be persuaded to change my mind, the speech of the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) would go a long way to doing so. It was a rather snide and unnecessarily cheap speech, if I may say so, but it pains me to say that I largely agree with its thrust.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Particularly bearing in mind where I think the former Solicitor-General is going in his speech, is it not the practice for someone who has made a speech to stay for at least the next two speeches to hear other people’s contributions?
Actually, it is in order normally to hear one. I do not know the circumstances, but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has made his point. The Secretary of State waited fully until the end of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. I am not sure whether he wanted to hear Sir Edward Garnier’s speech—that is not for me to decide—but the point has been made.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it also not normally the case that members of a political party should come into the Chamber to listen to their Front-Bench spokesman address the House, and is it not the case that there is not one other MP here?
That was very interesting. I have absolutely no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wanted to hear every word I am about to say, but he has other pressing public duties to attend to. No doubt, he will read the whole of this afternoon’s debate in the Official Report in due course.
One good reason for speaking in this debate is to give me an opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) for his work as a Cabinet Office Minister, particularly on the voluntary sector. He worked extremely hard, with precious little thanks, and was content to do so, despite the fact that all he did achieved, sadly, very little public profile. At least on this occasion, we can thank him very much for all he did. I trust that it will not be long before he is back in government again.
As I said at the outset, I am not hugely enthusiastic about this particular piece of legislation. I am concerned that what the Secretary of State said does not reflect the long title, which states that it is a Bill:
“To make provision as to matters to which a court must have regard in determining a claim in negligence or breach of statutory duty.”
Most of what he said had to do with sending out messages. We all need to send out messages from time to time—sometimes to ask for help, and sometimes to ask people to pay attention to what we are trying to do. In so far as it went, his speech was no doubt well intended, but it did not, if I may say so, condescend to deal with the Bill as a potential piece of law. If we are to pass or make laws, they must be coherent. Although I entirely agree with all the sentiments that he uttered this afternoon about reducing the so-called health and safety culture, reducing the easy acceptance of the only answer to a problem being to sue and dissuading ambulance-chasing solicitors from doing this, that or the other, I regret to say that I do not agree that this particular Bill will achieve that.
I do not know how many people who are intent on bringing an action, if they are not lawyers themselves, think about pieces of legislation. Let us hope that I am wrong and my right hon. Friend is right, and that when the Bill is enacted, copies of it will be plastered all over doctors’ waiting rooms and other public places, so that no citizen will be tempted to bring a spurious claim.
I would be interested to hear how many High Court or county court actions would have been decided differently had the Bill been in force. It is perfectly true to say that the Compensation Act 2006 covers many of the areas of conjecture that are covered by the Bill. I am not persuaded that the Bill covers any new territory.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is being very generous. I hope that my comments will be helpful. The impact assessment that accompanies the Bill states in paragraph 17:
“Both the possible reduction in case volumes and the size of any compensation payments are unknown, but are likely to be small.”
That is, no doubt, what the impact assessment says. Whether that justifies the bringing into law of the Bill, I rather doubt.
I spoke about the Bill before having read it on the Thursday of the Queen’s Speech debate. I teased the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government rather rudely by inviting him to provide a definition of “heroic negligence”. He heroically tried to provide me with such a definition, but he did not do so. That is not surprising, because I am not entirely sure that there is such a thing.
I was interested in what my noble Friend Lord Faulks, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, said on 9 June in the debate on the Queen’s Speech in the other place. He said that the Bill will not change the existing overarching legal framework or leave victims without protection, but that it will provide reassurance and send a strong signal to the courts. To quote directly, he said:
“They will still need to look at whether a defendant met the appropriate standard of care in all the circumstances of the case.”—
I say, in parenthesis, that that is what they do already—
“Nor will it introduce blanket exemptions to civil liability. There is an important balance to be struck between encouraging participation in civil society and being mindful of the impact that careless or risky actions could have on the very people that the defendant was trying to help. The Bill is not about removing protection and leaving victims without proper recourse in those circumstances. However, it will give valuable and needed reassurance to a wide range of people and send a powerful signal that the courts will take full account of the context of a person’s actions when determining a negligence claim.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 June 2014; Vol. 754, c. 132.]
I do not think that anybody in either House knows more about the law of negligence than my noble Friend Lord Faulks, who has 40 years’ experience at the Bar dealing predominantly with cases involving negligence and public authorities, such as fire authorities. Reading between the lines of what he said—he will contradict me if I have got this wrong—he does not have a huge amount of enthusiasm for the Bill. However, I may have misread what he said.
The Bill is more like an early-day motion than a proper statute. I say that because, as the Secretary of State admitted, it is predominantly there to send out a message—a strong signal. As I have had many opportunities to say in my 22, 23 or 24 years in this House, we should legislate not to send out signals or messages, but to make good black-letter law, so that the courts know what the law is and can apply it, and so that the legal professions know what it is and can advise the public on it.
My concern is that the contents of the Bill have been within the common law and the ambit of the court’s appreciation for years and years. In 1954, in the case of Watt v. Hertfordshire County Council, Lord Justice Denning, as he then was, spoke about the balancing act performed by the court when people intervene to help in an emergency, which relates to clause 4. He said:
“It is well settled that in measuring due care one must balance the risk against the measures necessary to eliminate the risk. To that proposition there ought to be added this. One must balance the risk against the end to be achieved. If this accident had occurred in a commercial enterprise without any emergency there could be no doubt that the servant would succeed. But the commercial end to make profit is very different from the human end to save life or limb. The saving of life or limb justifies taking considerable risk, and I am glad to say there have never been wanting in this country men of courage ready to take those risks, notably in the Fire Service.”
What Lord Justice Denning said is as true now as it was in 1954, as I know from the emergency services in my own county of Leicestershire, be it the police, the ambulance service or the fire service. There are plenty of brave people who will risk their own life and limb to save others.
I rather agree what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) said about the last words of clause 4, which refer to an action taken
“without regard to the person’s own safety or other interests.”
I suggest, and I think he agrees, that it is much more heroic to do something having had regard to one’s own safety or other interests, and to go on and do the brave thing—rescuing someone from a frozen lake, pulling them out of a burning building or whatever it might be—despite having thought about those interests. For goodness’ sake, if the Bill is to become law, the least we can do is to remove those last few words of clause 4. Even if it were difficult to work out in law what heroic negligence actually was, we would at least have made that clause a little better.
Nobody will be thanked, least of all a Government Back Bencher, for making a rude speech about a Government Bill, but from time to time, even on a hot day when I would rather be somewhere else, I find it necessary for this House to introduce a degree of common sense into a Bill before the other place gives it a thorough grilling. Far too often, the laws that we pass are the laws of the unintended consequence, and I have a horrible suspicion that if the Bill becomes an Act as it is currently drafted, it will be the subject of derision and confusion, or that even if that does not happen, it will fall into disuse.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take my remarks in the spirit in which they are intended. I really do share with him and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the aims that the latter set out quite a few times— to prevent the abuse of the health and safety culture, to reduce spurious litigation and claims and so on. If I may say so, though, passing a Bill that has a hideous resemblance to an early-day motion rather than a proper Act of Parliament is not the way to do it.
I hope that the Bill will not be the subject of a Division this evening, because I cannot support it. If the Opposition seek a Division I will not join them in the lobby, because I found the manner in which the right hon. Member for Tooting made his speech unattractive, but that is a matter for him. We need to take the Bill away and give it a thorough scrubbing over the summer holidays.
It is a pleasure to say a few words about this Bill, and I congratulate the Secretary of State in his absence on bringing it before the House. I support the principle of the Bill. That may come as a bit of a blow to my colleagues in the Opposition and is probably unusual, but I feel that the principles behind the Bill are right, and its theme and thrust appropriate. I am aware that the Bill currently relates only to England and Wales, but I give it my full support and I am both hopeful and confident that in future it will extend to Northern Ireland so that protection is given and awarded to volunteers. I am reminded of the comedy programme back in the ’70s—you will be much too young to recall it, Madam Deputy Speaker—called “Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width”: do not judge the Bill by the fact that it contains only five clauses; it is important that we judge it on its content.
In 2007, a national survey of volunteering found that 47% of people who do not volunteer said that one of the main reasons for their not doing so was the fear of being sued. We are in a very litigious age in which people are sued for the smallest things, sometimes without justification. However, the number of people volunteering is increasing and it is estimated that about 15 million people volunteer every month. That is a fantastic number who contribute on a volunteer basis every month of the year to help very many people. As Members of Parliament, each one of us will be aware of the impact of those volunteers. That is great news, and it is even better that 28% of young people between 16 and 25 volunteer—something that I know in Northern Ireland is supported and encouraged by schools and universities. Volunteering gives those young people experience and discipline when it comes to making a contribution and giving time each day.
I was speaking to my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), about the age of litigation, and I reminded him of a story from back home. It was the Christmas before last and there was terrible snow and ice in the streets in front of the shops. The shopkeepers said, “Should we clear the ice? We are afraid that if we do so we will find ourselves in a position where if someone falls outside the shop, we will be held responsible.” It turned out that those shopkeepers cleared the ice anyway and took the chance, and everything worked out okay. However, their fear was that someone could fall and that they would be held responsible. I suspect that the Bill will address such cases.
There are provisions in the Compensation Act 2006 for those caught up in litigation, but I completely support and agree with the aims of this Bill, which are to ensure that the good Samaritans out there, and the thousands of volunteers and charitable groups across the UK, are not put off helping for fear of getting into difficulties. Those thousands of volunteers and charitable groups—the good Samaritans of this world whom we all know—are those we need to help. The Bill will ensure that people receive what I believe is a “fair trial”, and those who have been acting for the benefit of society will not be punished for their actions or interventions. The Bill will also seek to protect those acting in an emergency.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) intervened at the beginning of the debate to speak about floods in the south of England and the people who react to emergencies. Will they be held responsible? I hope that the Bill will reassure such people and recognise that they were simply trying to help. Again, there is a clear issue there.
My hon. Friend is outlining circumstances of deep winter and people clearing snow, or flooding in south- east England. Does he agree that when dealing with people who voluntarily try to help others, we need to see substantive evidence during the passage of the Bill that the situation will be dramatically different in future?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. In his introduction, the Minister—and, to be fair, the shadow Minister—made the point that the Bill is trying to achieve much in principle, but will probably need to be firmed up. My hon. Friend is right, but that will come out through the Committee stage, and everyone will have the chance to contribute.
Helping someone in need seems like the natural response, and so it should be on every occasion, but everything has become so bureaucratic these days that people will often cross to the other side of the street—unlike the good Samaritan in the Bible—because they fear that they might become part of a conflicting or illegal situation. It is important that people do not turn a blind eye, or develop a Nelson’s eye, to what is going on. They should continue to have a compassionate interest in people and in what they can do to help.
I fully support this Bill, and believe that it will bring positive changes to the current system. Hopefully, it will encourage the 47% of people who are concerned about volunteering to do so. A number of people had expressed their concerns about volunteering, fearing that it could have an impact on them in the event of litigation. Hopefully, the Bill will address that issue as well.
This Bill will also protect those who are acting in a “generally responsible way” when an accident occurs. For example, there are youth leaders who organise numerous events and trips throughout the year for young people. People in such roles do fantastic jobs, which is why I think this is a worthwhile Bill to support.
I was disheartened to hear that some of my colleagues on the Opposition Benches have concerns about the Bill. Hopefully, they are frivolous concerns, and when it comes to discussing the contents of the Bill, they will come together to support it. This Bill is certainly not a waste of time; I believe it is something that people want to see. Given the importance that is placed on voluntary work in this economic climate, particularly for young people—the Prime Minister has talked about volunteers many times—it is a vital piece of legislation to introduce, and the benefits will be there for young people as well. The Bill will ensure that further checks and balances will exist for anyone making unmeritorious claims, and as an outcome we expect they will be deterred from making such claims. I hope to see the Bill introduced in Northern Ireland in the not-too-distant future. Given the large number of volunteers in Strangford, who do a really tremendous, worthwhile job, and whom we could not be without, I certainly welcome its introduction.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He is right that I will not find the same value in the Bill that he does, but none the less I felt that his speech showed his usual good grace and spirit. He is the archetypal good Samaritan in this respect.
It is all change in the engine room at the Ministry of Justice, though the captain is still there steering manfully for the rocks as ever. [Hon. Members: “Where is he?”] He is rather more like Captain Oates today. I think it showed some disrespect for this House that he did not stay for any speeches, including that of the former Solicitor-General, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier).
May I, in true bipartisan spirit, congratulate the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), who is not in his place, on his promotion to the role of senior Law Officer? He will no doubt discharge it with the same calm and rational demeanour that was his hallmark at the Ministry of Justice. Let us hope that he also adopts the robust independence that the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) showed in that post.
I also welcome the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) to the justice team—it is a shame he is not in his place either. I understand that we are getting only a part of him as, along with being an unpaid Prisons Minister and an afterthought in the reshuffle, he will spend part of his time in the Whips Office. Of course it is an unalloyed pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), still in his place.
This Bill has been described as “a turkey”, “a complete waste of time,”
“a solution in search of a problem”
“an unnecessary and wholesale interference with the rights of injured people.”
It has been accused of
“shifting the blame to workers when they are injured.”
It is said to be, “an erosion of workers’ rights”, “nonsense” and “gobbledygook”. It is said to cause confusion about
“who is protected from the law and to what degree.”
Surely it has some supporters. Well, no, it does not—not really. The Government pray in aid the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, but the NCVO says it is
“not expected to significantly alter the current law.”
It says it is “classic nudge tactics”. At best, it sends a message and is
“unlikely to be able to do any harm.”
But then that is the Government’s view as well. The explanatory notes say that the Bill would not change the overarching legal framework. The Lord Chancellor himself says it is
“a signpost from Parliament to the Courts.”
Do we really need legislation for that? It is only two stops on the tube to the Royal Courts of Justice. Where are the other representatives of civil society, defendant lawyers and even political allies speaking up for this Bill?
We heard a thoughtful speech from the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, who quietly but effectively proved there is no justification for the Bill. As we have heard, ConservativeHome described it as a Bill that should not be in the Queen’s Speech. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), is now charged, on behalf of the Lord Chancellor, with weeding out unnecessary laws that clog up the statute book. He could start with this one.
There are only three short operative clauses in the Bill. They instruct a court considering negligence or statutory duty claims to have regard to whether a defendant was acting for the benefit of society, demonstrating a generally responsible approach or acting heroically. The Lord Chancellor claims the Bill will not fetter judicial discretion, but that is all it sets out to do. Fortunately, it is so poorly drafted that it will probably fail in that aim, but it will undoubtedly spark quantities of satellite litigation as the parties seek to define “benefit of society”, “a generally responsible approach” and “acting heroically”.
First, insofar as it is necessary at all, the purpose of the Bill has already been fulfilled by section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006, which states:
“A court considering a claim in negligence or breach of statutory duty may, in determining whether the defendant should have taken particular steps to meet a standard of care (whether by taking precautions against a risk or otherwise), have regard to whether a requirement to take those steps might—
(a) Prevent a desirable activity from being undertaken at all, to a particular extent or in a particular way, or
(b) Discourage persons from undertaking functions in connection with a desirable activity.”
This gives guidance to the court in less ambiguous and florid language than the instant Bill, while retaining discretion. If the Secretary of State disapproves of the Compensation Act, why is he leaving it on the statute book? If he thinks it ineffective, why is he repeating the mistake of legislating in much the same terms? If he thinks it is working, his own Bill must be otiose.
Secondly, the Lord Chancellor has, as usual, adduced no evidence that a new law is necessary. He relies on a survey of 300 people from almost 10 years ago to say that some people are deterred from volunteering by fear of being sued. But the National Council for Voluntary Organisations says only 1% of volunteers stopped because they feared opening themselves up to litigation. Last year, the former Minister for Civil Society, the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), issued a press release trumpeting that volunteering was at an all-time high.
Let us look at the problems the Lord Chancellor purports to address in the Bill. The first is:
“the person who holds back from sweeping snow off the pavement outside their house because they are afraid that someone will then slip on the ice and sue them”.
No one, up to and including the Lord Chief Justice, can point to a case of this kind being brought, let alone succeeding. Indeed, the Government’s own website, Direct.Gov.uk, used to host a section debunking the snow and ice myth. It said:
“Don’t be put off clearing paths because you’re afraid someone will get injured. Remember, people walking on snow and ice have a responsibility to be careful themselves. Follow the advice below to make sure you clear the pathway safely and effectively. And don’t believe the myths—it’s unlikely you’ll be sued or held legally responsible for any injuries if you have cleared the path carefully.”
Curiously, this page was recently removed from the site, but we still have the words of the new Attorney-General, who in 2010 said that
“the courts are very unlikely to find the public-spirited domestic snow shoveller negligently liable for any injuries, in the absence of spectacular incompetence.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2010; Vol. 505, c. 171.]
More seriously, the signal that the Government are sending to volunteers in clause 2 is misleading. It implies a lower standard of care is needed by those engaged in altruistic pursuits. Parents may face the fear that if their child is injured on a school trip due to fault with the organisers, they will struggle to get compensation. Parents may well take a dim view that because the negligent organiser failed to use the right safety equipment, they will not receive compensation to help them support their newly injured child. Alternatively, they may boycott the activities the school has arranged. How does that help the school, the parent or the child?
Secondly, the Lord Chancellor bemoans the
“member of the emergency services who feels they can’t come to the rescue of someone in difficulty because of the fear they will end up in trouble for breaching health and safety rules”.
If this is intended to give the green light to anyone, trained emergency service worker or public-spirited bystander, to act with less care and a feeling of impunity, it is dangerous. The emergency services have vast experience of how and when to intervene. As the TUC has said:
“There is not a shred of evidence that there is a problem. The police, fire and ambulance unions have worked closely with their employers and the HSE to develop guidance which ensures health and safety protection is compatible with emergency situations...There is not a case of anyone being prosecuted for trying to save someone in an emergency situation”.
The few, but widely reported, cases of systems breaking down require better training and communication, not legislation. The everyday hero is not put off from helping out in a crisis by fears for his or her own safety, so why would they be by fear of litigation? Yet the Bill will give no more legal protection—so much for clause 4.
Clause 3, while equally vacuous, has a more malign intent. The Lord Chancellor told The Sunday Telegraph yesterday:
“This is a Bill that’s out to…slay the health and safety culture. It is about trying to restore common sense to the kind of situations which happen all too often and very seldom get to court - where somebody has an accident at work, it’s entirely their own fault, they have got a perfectly responsible employer who has the normal health and safety procedures in place but that person does something dumb, hurts themselves and sues the employer anyway.”
In that situation, the court would find against the claimant on liability or quantum. This is a further, though probably ineffectual, attack on the rights of employees, and an attempt to give the whip hand to employers, even in this sensitive area, and to please the Association of British Insurers, whose members are such generous donors to Tory party funds. They hope that claims will be suppressed and individuals driven to self-insure.
Once again, where is the evidence? The number of workplace claims has halved in the past 10 years; more than half of claims are for less than £5,000; and 75% are for less than £10,000. It is a myth that negligence cases are easy to bring, and now that the Government have all but abolished strict liability, who is the stronger party in workplace disputes—the employer, insured and in control of the accident site, or the injured employee, unable to earn their salary and plucking up the courage to sue their boss?
The case for the Bill is not made out. The Lord Chancellor said he did not need a Bill to dismantle criminal aid or embark upon his disastrous privatisation of the probation service, so why does he need one to tackle what has been overwhelmingly proven to be a matter of education, rather than enforcement? The Bill does nothing to tackle the growing crisis in British prisons or the hundreds of thousands of people going unrepresented in the family courts or lacking the most basic advice where social welfare legal aid has been taken out of scope. The Bill addresses none of the damage the Government have done to the criminal justice system.
Rather than stoking unjustified fears, the Government should be tackling the real crisis in our legal system: the steady erosion of our civil liberties and access to justice, which protects the strong and leaves the ordinary citizen without justice or redress.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate, whether with speeches or interventions.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice indicated in his opening speech, the core aim of the Bill is to ensure that people, especially employers, who generally take a responsible approach towards the safety of others during an activity, feel confident that the courts will take full account of this in the event that they are sued. Employers should not be prevented from growing their businesses by irresponsible employees who seek to harm them financially by bringing unfounded negligence claims. The fear of litigation can force businesses to go further than they need to when planning and managing for health and safety risks, which in turn can have a damaging effect on growth. The Bill should reassure employers who adopt a generally responsible approach towards the safety of others during the course of an activity that the courts will always take full account of the circumstances prior to making a decision on liability.
The social action clause is part of a wider package to fulfil a coalition agreement commitment. Figures published last year showed that the proportion of people volunteering at least once a year increased from 65% in 2010 to 73% in 2013. This is due partly to the initiatives that we have been backing to support people getting involved in their local communities. For example, the National Citizen Service programme for 16 and 17-year-olds saw 40,000 young people give more than 1 million hours in 2013 to socially useful activities. The Step Up to Serve initiative, launched last November by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, aims to double the number of young people aged between 10 and 20 participating in social action by 2020. Earlier this year, in April, the Prime Minister launched a new volunteering award called “Points of Light”, which recognises outstanding individual volunteers who are making changes in their community and inspiring others.
Those are only a few of the initiatives that are happening on a local basis all around the country. The commitment that people show to volunteering is something that they and we can be proud of, but we also know that volunteering rates could be increased further if barriers that deter people from getting involved are removed. That is where the Bill has another important role to play. We want people to feel confident about participating in activities that benefit others without worrying about what might happen if something goes wrong and they find themselves defending a negligence claim in the civil court.
The same goes for good Samaritans who might be deterred from intervening to help somebody in an emergency in case they are sued for making the position worse. The perception of legal risk can be a bar to positive action. As the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, the Bill should provide a valuable reassurance to people who are acting for the benefit of society or intervening in emergencies: that the court will take the context of the person’s actions into account when reaching a decision on liability.
As I have said, I am grateful to those who have contributed to this debate, although I must say that I am somewhat disappointed, but not surprised, by the tone adopted by the Front-Bench spokesmen for Her Majesty’s official Opposition. They ask for examples; I suggest that they need only refer to Hansard to see an example given by their colleague, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), who said in a debate:
“I once stepped off a bus and found a lady lying on the pavement in front of me. There was a group of people around her, but none of them had done anything. Some of them said, ‘I don’t want to be sued.’”—[Official Report, 10 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 489.]
That is an example from one of their own colleagues, and of course—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) chunters away from a sedentary position, as always. He says that that is the only example, but if he had taken the trouble to read Hansard, he would know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) also gave an example from his experience as a first responder.
There were two such hon. Members—who have now been mentioned three times—but there were a couple today who took the opposite view, including my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), the former Chairman of the Select Committee on Education. I believe there were 50 Members of the other place who spoke in the debate and not one of them mentioned that issue. This is a turkey of a Bill; the hon. Gentleman ought to admit it.
The hon. Gentleman says I have given two examples. That is two more than the number of times he has repeated the same question, over and over again. I am sorry that he does not like the answer, but he will have to live with it.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) was quite candid in his comments. I have to say that while I respect his distinguished career in the law and his legal brain power, on this issue I will respectfully disagree with him. What we are trying to do is consolidate the measures elsewhere in the statute book in one Bill. Also, as my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary made clear, we are seeking to send out a powerful message to public: that when they do the right thing, the law will take them into account.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke in support of the Bill. As he rightly put it, we should judge the Bill by its content, not by the number of clauses. He asked whether it would be extended to Northern Ireland. That is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, as it is a devolved matter, but I will certainly be following with interest to see what progress is made by the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is comforting that he has put on the record his support for the measure.
We need to be clear that there is nothing in the Bill to stop an employee bringing a negligence claim against an employer. [Interruption.] Clearly the paymasters of the Labour party, the trade unions, have been lobbying it hard, as was abundantly clear from the way Labour Members spoke about their friends in the trade unions. The Bill is not designed to reduce standards of health and safety in the workplace or to leave workers without a remedy where they have been injured by the negligent actions of an irresponsible employer. It will, however, provide valuable reassurance to employers who have taken a responsible approach to safety, but end up in court when, for example, an employee suffers an injury that simply could not have been foreseen by any reasonable person. The Bill will send the powerful message that the courts will always consider the employer’s general approach to safety in the course of the activity in question before reaching a decision on liability.
The courts will, of course, need to consider in every case whether someone was acting for the benefit of society or adopting a generally responsible approach to the safety of others in the course of a particular activity. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) chunters away from a sedentary position. All I will say to him is “Where are your Back Benchers?”
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am happy to continue, in a reasoned and measured way.
As I was saying, the courts will need to consider in every case whether someone was acting for the benefit of society or adopting a generally responsible approach to the safety of others in the course of a particular activity. However, as has already been pointed out, the Bill will not preclude them from considering any other relevant factors. It will not give medics, police officers, teachers or anyone else immunity from being found negligent if all the circumstances of the case warrant that. Nor will the Bill have any bearing on criminal liability. If a person’s conduct amounts to the commission of an offence such as gross negligence manslaughter, there may be criminal as well as civil repercussions.
I believe that the Bill will serve an important purpose in reassuring a wide range of people that the law will treat them fairly, and that they should not let worries over being sued deter them from making a valuable contribution to society. Again, I thank all Members who have contributed today. I simply say to Opposition Members that they should illustrate their observations by their actions. If they really mean what they said earlier, where are their Back Benchers, and why will they not be voting against the Bill?
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill: Programme
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 14 October.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration o of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed.—(John Penrose.)
Question agreed to.