House of Lords
Thursday 10 May 2018
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.
The following Acts and Measures were given Royal Assent:
Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Act
Financial Guidance and Claims Act
Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Act
Statute Law (Repeals) Measure
Pensions (Pre-consolidation) Measure
Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure
Mission and Pastoral etc. (Amendment) Measure
Legislative Reform Measure
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action are they taking to stop children being recruited into gangs.
My Lords, the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy was launched on 9 April. The strategy sets out our response to serious violence, including gangs, and focuses in particular on the importance of early intervention to provide young people with the skills and resilience to lead productive lives, away from crime and violence.
My Lords, the Serious Violence Taskforce has had its first meeting, and I am pleased to see that it focused on county lines activity. However, many people are concerned that the strategy section on county lines is quite limited, with few new commitments and very little on safeguarding. As we know, thousands of children, some as young as 12, are trafficked and enslaved by county lines gangs. They need safeguarding; moreover, their evidence is critical in securing convictions. Why does the Serious Violence Taskforce have no representation from the anti-trafficking sector, and why is the Children’s Commissioner on the task force but not the Anti-Slavery Commissioner? Can this oversight in membership be corrected, and can the Minister give the House assurances that the new national county lines centre will focus as much on safeguarding as it plans to do on law enforcement?
The noble Baroness asks several questions, but perhaps I can encompass them all into one answer and say that she gets to the nub of the problem: county lines are, as she rightly points out, all about exploiting vulnerability. We are undertaking a national awareness-raising communications exercise on the threat of county lines targeted at young and vulnerable people, and on how to avoid becoming involved in, and exploited by, gangs. We are also working closely with organisations such as Redthread and St Giles Trust, which work with children at the teachable moment—for example, if they arrive at A&E with violence-related injuries—to provide an alternative route out of a lifestyle of violence. Additionally, we are working across government departments, such as the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care, to ensure that key partners in those professions are trained to spot and refer young people involved in county lines. The noble Baroness will appreciate that this is a multi-agency cross-government issue.
My Lords, are the Government looking at the status of youth work, and at a strategic plan to raise that status and ensure that in future there will be consistent funding for youth work, so that it is seen as a good career? Historically, youth work has suffered from booms and busts in funding, which, I would suggest, is very unhelpful.
The noble Earl is right to point out that youth work is a crucial part of tackling this area. The Government continue to back the growth of the National Citizen Service, which is delivered through a network of 300 local partners, more than 80% of which are in the public or voluntary community and social enterprise sectors. The Government recently published guidance for local authorities on how they can maximise the benefits of the NCS within local strategies. In addition, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Big Lottery Fund will make available £90 million of dormant accounts money to support disadvantaged and disengaged young people with their transition to work.
Central government is clearly not in control of the gang issue in this country. Ten years ago, the Centre for Social Justice produced an outstanding piece of work analysing in great detail the gang issue in this country, Dying to Belong, which I strongly recommend to any noble Lord interested in this field. It pointed up successful strategies such as call-ins, which are used in places such as Strathclyde. Why are we not rolling out these strategies across the country? The Centre for Social Justice is updating that work. It is probably the most comprehensive work ever done on gangs in this country. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the CSJ to discuss this matter?
I pay tribute to my noble friend’s work over the years involving young people. I am certainly happy to meet him to learn from his expertise in this area. I think it is true to say that the true scale of exploitation, including the number of victims, remains an intelligence gap. The National Crime Agency pointed this out. I would be happy to meet my noble friend to discuss it.
My Lords, many young people are unaware of the realities of gang membership: discipline enforced by stabbings, the rape of women and girls and street dealers whose lives are put at risk while those who supply them with illegal drugs take most of the profit. Is the Minister aware of the work of Growing Against Violence—GAV, a charity of which I am patron—which works in schools to destroy the myths around gang membership in order to dissuade young people from getting involved with gangs, knives and drug dealing? Is this not exactly the sort of work that the Government should be supporting?
The noble Lord is absolutely right that any work such as the GAV’s is to be commended. We are not only developing some of the existing good practice but expanding our knowledge of the extent to which county lines are affecting our most vulnerable children. The noble Lord is right to point out that drugs market violence may be facilitated and spread by things such as social media—another area on which we need to clamp down.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the work done in Glasgow, where violence was dealt with as a disease? It was one of most violent cities in the world. The first thing to do was to stabilise the patient. Glasgow increased stop and search, and when knives and weapons were found the person carrying them was not simply released on bail but taken straight to the police station, detained and put before the court fairly quickly. The reduction in carrying weapons was quite dramatic. Can we learn something from the work done in Glasgow?
My Lords, I am sure we can work on some of the initiatives in Glasgow. The noble Lord described it as a disease. These issues are multifactorial and include sociological and psychological factors depending on people’s experiences, particularly their early life experience. Tackling this preventively from a very young age is part of the answer.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the Government on the work they are doing on county lines. Is the Minister aware that there is very patchy communication between the agencies and that all too many of the very young children—the 12 and 13 year-olds—are ending up in the local youth court instead of being treated as victims?
The noble and learned Baroness points to a very serious issue. County lines, as the phrase suggests, crosses different local authorities and different police forces, and therefore some sort of continuity of effort is needed here.
Children’s Services: Funding
To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they intend to ensure that there is sufficient funding for local government children’s services.
My Lords, funding for children’s services is made available through the local government finance settlement. Local authorities are being given access to £45.1 billion in 2018-19 and £45.6 billion in 2019-20—an overall increase since 2017-18 of £1.3 billion. Core spending power is largely not ring-fenced, allowing local authorities to decide how best to direct their funding. Local authorities used this flexibility to increase spending on services for young people and children to around £9.2 billion in 2016-17.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, which sounds remarkably like the Written Answer I received over a month ago. He says that local government has all this money to spend, but he will be aware that this is the total funding available for 800 different services that local government delivers, of which children’s services is just one. The National Audit Office says that local government funding has been cut by 50% in real terms since 2010, and the Minister’s figures show that local authority spending on safeguarding and looked-after children continues to increase year on year. What assessment has the Minister made of local government’s capacity to remain at this level of spend on vulnerable children, particularly in the light of the LGA’s analysis that councils are facing a funding gap of around £5 billion by 2020, of which £2 billion is in children’s services? Does the Minister deny that councils, such as my own in Brighton and Hove, have had to close Sure Start centres and youth services and end play provision and supervised parental contact? A crisis is emerging in children’s services.
I am glad that the figures are the same as the ones in the Written Answer given a few weeks ago. The noble Lord is right to say that, over the past eight or 10 years, local authorities have had to manage with fewer resources from the centre. I think that local authorities of all colours have done well to maintain good-quality services with access to reduced resources. They have done that by improving back-office services and front-line delivery. More recently, the Government have recognised that those constraints need to be relaxed: we have raised the cap on council tax increases to 3% before the referendum trigger is activated; we have put £2 billion into social care, taking some of the pressure off local authority services; and, as I said in my reply, we are putting more resources into the grant. On top on that, local authorities have access to £21 billion in reserves, up 47% since 2011. We believe that they now have the resources available to continue to provide good-quality services to children.
My Lords, the noble Lord has very helpfully agreed that local authorities have been squeezed and are being squeezed. Does he agree that in many authorities this is resulting in a reduction in preventive and family support work, and therefore local authorities are not intervening until such time as a crisis occurs? Could that be one of the reasons why more children are being admitted into public care?
The noble Lord has had a lifetime of distinguished career in social care. He may have been in the House yesterday, when my noble friend Lord Agnew referred to the troubled families programme, which indicated that the number of children defined as children in need declined by 14% after they had been involved in that programme. That, of course, reduced the demands that those children and families made on more expensive children’s care services. On top of that, last year the DfE invested nearly £5 million as part of an innovation programme to test the most effective ways to provide targeted support to reduce the need for most intensive forms of intervention—precisely the point the noble Lord has made—and thereby, it is hoped, reducing the pressure on children’s services departments.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the All-Party Group for Children is doing a report on children’s social services? It has become very clear to us that thresholds for intervention are rising, leading to the situation that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, just mentioned. The Children’s Commissioner published a report yesterday that indicated that the general public’s expectations of intervention for children in need are much higher than what they actually receive. Is the Minister aware of that, and is he going to do anything about it?
To some extent, children’s services are better placed within the local authority framework than other services because there are statutory protections for children that are not available for other services provided by local government. Spending on the most vulnerable children has increased by around £1 billion since 2010, and that includes safeguarding looked-after children and other children at risk. Since 2013, over 500,000 two year-olds have benefited from 15 hours of free early education a week. However, I am interested in the report that the noble Baroness has referred to, and I would like to write her with some more responses.
My Lords, did I hear the Minister correctly when he seemed to indicate that he wants to keep income tax down by pushing up council tax, pushing the problems that we are talking about away from the Government and on to local government?
I was not aware that I had made any such commitment at all. The question was about resources for local government; the words “income tax” never passed my lips.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the Government for the troubled families programme. In the course of evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, we have heard from many local authorities that are very grateful for that funding. Unfortunately, the resources that have come out of this area have been greater than the resources that have gone in. A couple of weeks ago I was speaking to a virtual school head, a former Ofsted inspector who works with looked-after children, who was decrying the fact that so many services that support families to prevent them from rising to the higher level of need have had to be cut. I sense that the Government are looking at this area and I am grateful for that, but please may I get the sense from them that this is something that they are looking at very carefully?
I hope I indicated in my earlier replies that this is a subject that the Government take very seriously. I indicated that resources have been made available in more recent years in order to reduce some of the pressures on local government. It is also worth making the point that outcomes for all children are improving, and the development gap is narrowing between high achievers and lower achievers. However, of course I take seriously the point that the noble Earl has made, and the Government will continue to see what more they can do to look after children who are at risk.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have as part of their review of the Childhood Obesity Plan for Action to work with the BBC to ensure that efforts to reduce obesity involve schoolchildren nationwide.
My Lords, broadcasters have an important role in shaping the national conversation about reducing obesity and promoting healthier lifestyles, as has been demonstrated by recent programming. Officials from my department are in discussions with those in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to explore how we can work together with broadcasters on this important issue.
I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful and hopeful reply. Like the noble Lord, Lord McColl, I believe that we need a major overarching campaign that must be focused on children, and principally the BBC would be the organisation to lead it. So I hope the discussions that are taking place will produce a positive programme so that we can see that the 8 million children, many of whom have a serious problem and face difficulties ahead, are given the assistance they need to get to better health in the future.
I applaud the noble Lord for the work that he is doing. I know he has written to my noble friend Lord Hall about this topic. I think other broadcasters have a role to play as well; we know that broadcasters in the past have had a critical role to play. I remember the Just Say No campaign when I was growing up, as well as campaigns that focused on the prevention of HIV/AIDS. So there is an important role to play here. Broadcasters are not always polite about government actions, but nevertheless we want to support them in their important role in this position.
My Lords, for noble Lords who may be confused, there are two different Questions in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, on the two different Order Papers—and I am delighted that the Minister has responded to the one in House of Lords Business. On a daily basis we seem to be getting reports that further prove that there is going to be a generation of children who die ahead of their parents because of the scourge of childhood obesity. The BBC is to be congratulated on commissioning Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest campaigning series, which culminated last night in a rather uncomfortable episode for the Government. When the childhood obesity strategy was published, we were told it was the first part of a conversation. Is the Minister able to tell us when we might hear the second part?
My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, I thank my noble friend for pointing out that we are talking about obesity rather than the NHS constitution—which is just as well because I had not prepared for that. She has been steadfast in campaigning on this issue. We know that the problem presents some uncomfortable truths. The Government have taken some significant actions in this area, such as the soft drinks levy, but we have always said that we will not rest if we do not think they are having the impact that we want them to. There is emerging evidence that we need to go further. I cannot give my noble friend a date on further action but I can tell her that this is the subject of most serious consideration at the centre of government.
I first congratulate the Government on last night’s announcement that there will now be golden hellos for postgraduate students into hard-to-recruit nursing posts in mental health, learning disability and district nursing—which, in the longer term, will help solve some of the problem of childhood obesity. The relationship between obesity and poor health is proven, yet our schools fail to fully embrace tackling this issue. Does the Minister agree that if pilot schools and their pupils were exposed to substantial public health interventions from community-based nursing teams, and their successes and challenges were part of a BBC series, it would be an experiment that might have significant benefits both in assisting a reduction in weight gain and promoting mental health and well-being in children and adolescents more widely?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her acknowledgement of that important step forward in recruiting nurses to hard-to-recruit areas. That is important because we want more mental health, learning disability and district nurses in the future. They have an important role to play in schools. If I may say so, the noble Baroness is slightly underplaying the work that schools are already doing in this area. We have talked about the Daily Mile programme, which is going very well, with 900 schools in England adopting it. Learning about food, healthy eating and nutrition is a compulsory part of the curriculum in key stages 1, 2 and 3. However, I agree that there is always a need to do more.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that when you cook your meals from scratch, you know what is in them and are more likely to stay healthy? Can he assure me that children learn to cook in schools, not just the theory of nutrition? Will he also join me in encouraging the BBC to produce a cookery programme aimed at children?
I am turning into the commissioner of children’s programming. I am trying to remember—I think that there is actually a CBBC programme that encourages children to cook. Its name has gone completely out of my mind but it was popular with my children. The noble Baroness raises an important point. Children learn to cook in primary schools, most of which have some sort of kit that allows them to do that. It is critical for them to understand that food does not just come from packets or shops but can be created by hand—and enjoyably, too.
My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it has been shown that having a good breakfast, such as an egg or two in the morning, reduces one’s appetite for the rest of the day, and one’s weight? One of the problems for children is that many do not get a good breakfast. Can the Government do anything to encourage breakfast as a proper meal?
It goes to show that public health campaigns can be effective. I remember the “Go to work on an egg” campaign—although I had a banana myself. The serious point is that too many children do not go to school after a proper breakfast, and one of the great advances with the sugar levy has been a commitment of around £26 million to support breakfast clubs in about 1,500 schools in areas that unfortunately have the worst outcomes for healthy children and obesity. That support will help those children go to school on a good breakfast and function properly.
Does the Minister agree that one of the tragedies of the demise of so many Sure Start programmes was that parents were engaged in not just nurturing but understanding what happened to their children, particularly in poor areas where junk food was bought as opposed to learning to cook? Will he put some emphasis on parents being taught how to cook nutritious food, and not just children?
I could not agree with the noble Lord more about the importance of good parenting and parents setting an example in this area. I would focus on a major Public Health England initiative, Change4Life, which is about equipping parents with the knowledge and understanding of how to prepare good-quality, healthy meals that are affordable.
Grandparents: Legal Rights
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure grandparents have a more effective legal right to see their grandchildren after the parents’ divorce.
My Lords, in the first instance, it is for parents to decide what is in the best interests of their children. The Government recognise the important role that grandparents may play in children’s lives and the stability they can provide in families when parents separate. We are keeping the matter under review.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. The requirement for grandparents to apply for child arrangement orders is cumbersome, expensive and needs reforming. However, when grandparents need to go to court to maintain contact with their grandchildren, they typically have a relationship problem with one or both parents, rather than a legal problem. In Australia, where there is disharmony following divorce and separation, extended family members can access family relationship centres. Do the Government have plans to ensure that there is similar community-based help—sited, perhaps, in the family hubs slowly emerging across the country?
My Lords, the requirement for non-parents first to seek leave of the court in order to apply for a child arrangement order is regarded as an important filter mechanism, and was the subject of review by an independent panel in 2011 which came to be same conclusion. With regard to means of alternative dispute resolution, we are of course anxious to see mediation employed in the situation to which the noble Lord refers. He may recollect that at a recent Westminster Hall debate, on 2 May, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice indicated that she was carefully considering the current position and provision. In doing so, we will of course be happy to look at international experience.
Will the Government consider extending legal aid to grandparents, assuming that the law is changed to allow them to apply, because that would clearly be very helpful in many cases?
The law does not require to be changed in order that grandparents can make an application in respect of an arrangement order for children. As regards legal aid, as the noble Lord is aware, that is currently the subject of a review within the Ministry of Justice.
My Lords, with some family experience, I am concerned that a Minister of Her Majesty’s Government was talking about presumptions for grandparents to have contact with their grandchildren. I would hope that that would not go any further, because presumptions are highly undesirable in the law, but it would be useful to review whether grandparents are finding it unusually difficult to get access to the court when they wish to be in touch with their grandchildren.
My Lords, with regard to access to the courts, the number of applications for child arrangement orders has generally been in the region of 2,000 over the period since 2011. They have varied slightly, and the number of applications has increased steadily from 2015 to the current year, where the figure is in excess of 2,000. I have certainly not referred to presumption, and various issues would of course arise if we were to consider such a move because, if you contemplate a presumption in favour of grandparents, you are in a sense intruding on the rights of the parent.
My Lords, is there really a justification for the two-stage process whereby grandparents have to apply for the right to make an application for a contact order and there is then a filtering system? Would it not be much easier for there to be a single application for a contact order with a filter system for non-parents built into that application, thus saving grandparents a great deal of time and trouble—all, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, points out, without the benefit of legal aid under the current arrangements, which require there to have been domestic violence or abuse?
My Lords, the matter of seeking permission, whether it be by grandparents or other non-parent applicants for an arrangement order in respect of children, was the subject of independent review by the Family Justice Review panel in 2011. In its final report, published in November 2011, it concluded that the matter of an application for permission should continue.
My Lords, respect for grandparents’ rights to see their grandchildren should be always in place. In the case of divorced parents, what strong, lawful action can be taken to restore this great and loving tradition?
My Lords, we respect the right of grandparents to make an application for an arrangement order for children. Indeed, in the context of public law cases, local authorities are directed to consider placing children with relatives where it is not possible for the parents to continue with their care. It is open for grandparents to be appointed as special guardians in such situations.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister agrees with me that grandparents often have a very special relationship in the life of any child, and I congratulate the Government on the recognition of grandparents’ rights, for example, in the crediting of national insurance contributions for grandparents who look after their grandchildren. May I also urge my noble and learned friend to encourage our honourable friend in the other place to reinforce the concerns expressed that denying rights of access for grandparents can often be like a living bereavement? If there is an opportunity to amend the Children Act to give grandparents more rights, I would very much welcome it.
My Lords, of course we understand the concern of grandparents with regard to child arrangements. But, as I indicated earlier, this is a difficult field. It is easy to talk of a presumption in favour of grandparents, but if you do that, you are, in effect, intruding on the rights of the parents with respect to the care of the children.
Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill [HL]
That the Bill be now read a third time.
A privilege amendment was made.
That the Bill do now pass
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, for his skill in steering this Bill through your Lordships’ House. We are all very grateful to him and for the campaigns and businesses that have supported him, including the Co-op and Co-operative Party, of which I have been a member for 40 years.
I wish this Bill every success in the Commons and hope that it will become law swiftly. It will improve the support that victims of this wicked crime will be able to receive and bring the law in England and Wales up to the same standard that already applies in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I thank my personal friend, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for all his support. He has been very effective in persuading people not to put down amendments. His technique was really quite effective—he simply threatened to lean on them until they stopped breathing. I also thank all noble Lords for all their support.
Bill passed and sent to the Commons.
Civil Liability Bill [HL]
Committee (1st Day)
Clause 1: “Whiplash injury” etc
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) In this Part, “whiplash injury” means an injury or set of injuries resulting in soft tissue damage, usually of the neck, back or shoulder, arising out of a motor accident, which presents symptoms which may include pain and aches (including pain of the jaw, neck, back, and shooting pains in the neck, shoulder or arms), headaches, stiffness, fatigue, dizziness, swelling, bruising, tenderness or muscle spasms.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 1, I declare my interests as set out in the register of the House, in particular those in the insurance industry. I am going to speak briefly to three propositions. First, a definition of “whiplash” should appear on the face of the Bill. Secondly, that definition should be wide. Thirdly, it should be amendable without having to resort to primary legislation, but with parliamentary oversight.
I turn to the first of those propositions. My work has been made much easier by the 22nd report of the excellent Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The committee is excellent as well as the report. It says at paragraph 9:
“We take the view that it would be an inappropriate delegation of power for ‘whiplash injury’, a concept central to a full understanding of the Bill, to be defined in regulations made by Ministers rather than being defined on the face of the Bill”.
I very much agree. It is particularly curious to me that there is no definition, because there are so many definitions of whiplash floating around, not least in the pre-action protocol for low-value personal injury claims for motor accidents and indeed in the draft regulations that appeared within the last 48 hours for this Bill. I therefore can see no reason why there should not be a definition on the face of the Bill. I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister whether he might see that one was, in fact, appropriate.
There are two problems with the width issue. The first is that, if the width is narrow—and a whiplash motor accident normally involves several minor injuries to the person involved—we are in the position where a tariff applies to a selection of injuries but maybe not all of them. That would be to the advantage of what I call the claims industry. Aviva, in its briefing to all peers before the Second Reading, estimates out of whiplash alone to make £500 million a year. It is unbelievably inventive and supple. This morning, I was looking at one of the principal websites, and I will read a bit from it out as it will show just how much the meaning of the word “whiplash” has been stretched:
“Symptoms can include dizziness, blurred vision, disorientation, tiredness, poor concentration, memory loss, nausea, pins and needles in the arms and hands, muscle spasms and pain in the lower back”.
Later on, there is a rather curious sentence:
“Even if you don’t experience any symptoms straightaway, don’t rule out the possibility that you’ve suffered this type of injury”.
That is the sort of entity that, in fact, is doing great damage to the general population. It has increased motor insurance premiums. They are highly intelligent and well funded. I really feel width is important.
There is a second point on width. For the honest claimant, having clarity—so there is one tariff for one sum of money, and so they can fill in the online portals for a claim—is greatly to their advantage. If they have to fill in one online portal to sort out part of their heads of claims, and then no doubt head off to the one of the companies I was referring to, there would be greater chaos and we will not have tried, through legislation, to improve society.
I turn quickly to the point about the importance of it all being amendable. I regret that we will always be playing catch-up with the claims industry. This is not the first attempt to cope with the burgeoning whiplash problem. I remind the House that, even today, 1% of the population every year has a successful whiplash claim, on average—that is 30 times what happens in France. It is a problem that is out of control; we heard many examples of that at Second Reading. There is an enormous prize in having flexibility and, accordingly, I beg to move.
My Lords, I should inform the Committee that if Amendment 1 is agreed to, I will be unable to call Amendments 3 to 5 by reason of pre-emption.
My Lords, Amendment 2 in this group, which is in my name, tackles the same issue. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has laid out the background and reasons why this House and the country should be concerned about whiplash—false whiplash—and what are rather inelegantly called “cash for crash” events. I do not propose to weary the House by running over those issues again, which we discussed quite a lot at Second Reading.
Amendment 2 addresses the point made by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee about the lack of a definition in the Bill and does so in a slightly wider way than Amendment 1, moved by the noble Earl. It proposes a definition in proposed new subsection (1) but, at the same time, proposed new subsection (2) recognises the need for flexibility, in the sense that medical technology and medical sciences are always changing and there will need to be some flexibility in keeping the law up to date with those developments. Amendment 2 therefore aims to create an overarching definition, clarifying what is included within a soft tissue injury, but then provides room for flexibility, so that new ways of describing these injuries do not result in them falling outside the definition. At the same time, it allows the definition to be changed to reflect improvements in diagnosis and prognosis of these subjective injuries.
I should say that I was somewhat concerned that, having got a definition of whiplash in the Bill, a definition gap might have been left by not defining soft tissue. But the insurance industry tells me that this term is well understood and does not need a detailed definition here; the noble Earl referred to that. What I understand is called the pre-action protocol for low-value personal injury claims—I am reading this carefully because I am not entirely familiar with it myself—uses the term to define the scope of powers and has been in force since 1 October 2014, apparently so far without challenge or the need for a judicial ruling on its meaning. I hope that this amendment will be a useful contribution to the debate on this important topic.
My Lords, Amendment 3 in this group is in my name and those of my noble friend Lord Marks and the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for whose support I am very grateful. Following the two preceding and eloquent speeches, I can be very brief. The point of the amendment is simply to put a definition of whiplash in the Bill. There are rival definitions in various other amendments, and there is now also a government definition contained in the draft SI published yesterday. At first glance, this government definition seems to provide a sound basis for discussion, but it is in the wrong place. It should be in the Bill.
As the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has already said, our Delegated Powers Committee said clearly in its 22nd report that,
“it would be an inappropriate delegation of power for ‘whiplash injury’, a concept central to a full understanding of the Bill, to be defined in regulations made by Ministers rather than being defined on the face of the Bill”.
At Second Reading, many noble Lords strongly agreed with this conclusion and it is disappointing, now that they have a draft definition, not to see the Government bringing forward an amendment to put this in the Bill.
In his Second Reading reply and in his subsequent letter to us of 30 April, the Minister did not respond substantively to criticisms of using secondary legislation to define whiplash. He merely noted that he did not entirely agree with the DPRRC recommendations and that noble Lords were anxious about the definition of whiplash.
In fact, the Government had already set out elsewhere in correspondence with the Delegated Powers Committee their case for using secondary legislation. The DPRRC helpfully summarised this by saying that, first, whiplash must be defined accurately; secondly, there must be extensive consultation; and thirdly, the definition must remain accurate. The Delegated Powers Committee agreed with these propositions but said,
“it does not follow from them that the definition of ‘whiplash injury’ should be contained in regulations rather than the Bill. Neither the Lord Chancellor nor the Ministry of Justice is best placed to make this determination”.
We agree with the conclusions of the Delegated Powers Committee and invite the Minister to explain why the Government have rejected them and are still pursuing the statutory instrument route.
As to the Government’s definition itself, as I have said, it seems to provide a sound basis for discussion but we have not had enough time to make a proper assessment and to canvass the opinion of other stakeholders. We will want to return to this issue on Report.
My Lords, as chairman of the Delegated Powers Committee, which published a report on this Bill, I would like to make a few comments. First, I have a purely personal comment. Colleagues may be interested to know that I have made a full recovery from the serious accident I had in the last few days—not that I recall having had a serious accident, but my mobile phone tells me that I did and that I should pursue a claim. I say to my noble friend the Minister that this racket is still happening again and again. I had thought, as a passionate supporter of the Government, that we had nailed this down and stopped the grabby racketeering lawyers pursuing these claims. I hope in future we will be able to put a stop to it.
Going back to the Bill and the amendments, the Delegated Powers Committee looked at this and said we were becoming rather familiar with skeletal Bills. By any standards, this Bill is skeletal. Then we went on to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, so very kindly pointed out—the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, also paid tribute to our work—that:
“In this Part ‘whiplash injury’ means an injury, or set of injuries, of soft tissue in the neck, back or shoulder”,
and then the description stops to say that the rest of the definition will be,
“specified in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor”.
I am not revealing committee secrets but half of us on the committee thought that the parliamentary draftsman had been distracted—he was half way through writing the definition and stopped and forgot to complete it—because it seemed an elementary thing to complete.
I have not seen last night’s regulations—I shall look at them carefully—but I did a quick Google search last night on the definition of a whiplash injury. Even the NHS website states that:
“Whiplash injury is a type of neck injury caused by sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways”.
Wikipedia has a much more detailed definition, which I assume from some of the spelling is an American one. There is a fascinating point in it:
“Cadaver studies have shown that as an automobile occupant is hit from behind, the forces from the seat back compress the kyphosis of the thoracic spine, which provides an axial load on the lumbar spine and cervical spine. This forces the cervical spine to deform into an S-shape where the lower cervical spine is forced into a kyphosis while the upper cervical spine maintains its lordosis. As the injury progresses, the whole cervical spine is finally hyper-extended”.
That is not skeletal. It may be a bit too much fat on flesh on the bones but I quote it because I think it important that we have a technical medical definition, by physicians, relating to the distortion and flexing of the spine and not just a list of symptoms. If we merely make a list saying that people feel dizziness, nausea, headaches and so on, we could include everything. After a good night’s dinner one could feel those symptoms and not necessarily have been involved in an accident. If it is simply possible to get some definitions from Google and to look at the excellent definition from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and from my noble friend—who is not a lawyer—these definitions seem to me to be a very good starting point. If the Government’s definition in the regulations is even better, let us go with that. My committee was at an absolute loss to understand why it was not in the Bill. There is no justification for it not being there. Of course, there can be an order-making power for the Minister to tweak or amend it in due course as medical science changes.
We said that there should be extensive consultation. If I go outside the Chamber right now and phone the Royal College of Physicians, within 10 minutes it will give me a pretty good definition. The doctors who deal with this issue are the experts, not the Lord Chancellor or the lawyers in the Ministry of Justice. We must let the doctors come up with the definition and put it in the Bill so that we have complete certainty in the future.
My Lords, I agree entirely with that last point. I too searched on Google and Wikipedia and saw the rather extensive definition of the diagnosis. That makes the point that none of these claims should be accepted unless a medical opinion has been sought and a report given. It is for the physicians to make the diagnosis. This Bill is very clear about confining the list to motor vehicle accidents rather than all the other ways in which whiplash injuries can occur. In the context of a motor vehicle accident, the very injuries that have been described and the mechanisms and consequences relating to those injuries can be defined only through a proper medical assessment. As explained in the Minister’s letter to us all after Second Reading, it is essential that a medical report is provided before taking this matter further.
My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Marks. I agree with the comments of the chairman of the Delegated Powers Committee, although obviously I cannot comment on the legal qualifications of the person who telephoned him. As I outlined at Second Reading, I have practised in this area and have dealt with these claims, and I know that it has become something of a fashion to be quite derogatory about the role of advocates and lawyers. When I joined the Bar, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. People becoming lawyers and acting as advocates so that someone is not a litigant in person is an incredibly valuable part of our system, and as we discuss further amendments we should all bear that in mind. Having an advocate when you are an ordinary person—potentially with three part-time jobs on the London living wage—so that you do not have to deal with such calls is valuable, and I implore us to look at our lawyers in a better light than is often the case in our culture.
Perhaps I may add a few words. Of course the definition of whiplash has to be made by doctors—that is how the world works—but we are engaged in legislation. This word must have a legal meaning and it must be enshrined either in a statute or in regulations. The Bill approaches the problem by putting the legislative cart before the legislative horse. If we are being asked to enact legislation in which we do not know precisely what the word means, we are being asked to do something that we should not be asked to do.
My Lords, perhaps I may add to what the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has just said. I agree with her and stress that this is not just a case of racketeering lawyers. One problem that we need to grapple with at this stage of the Bill is that the cold-calling racket and the encouragement of claims comes from claims management companies as well, often from abroad. They can also come from those who offer free hire cars to those who will pursue claims, and they can add a personal injury claim. The same applies to people who repair cars. There is all that potential for racketeering to jack up these claims, and we accept that there is a very serious problem.
I come back to the point about the definition. I agree with all those speakers who have said that the definition has to be in the Bill. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, very concisely just explained why it has to go in the Bill and why it is insufficient for it simply to be in draft regulations at this stage.
Perhaps I may say a word or two more about the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. I served on it for three years when my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester chaired it. The general practice then was for the Government to accept the recommendations of that committee. We took the responsibility of considering the delegated powers in every Bill that came through this House extremely seriously and in an almost entirely non-partisan manner. We were guided and assisted by clerks who were astute to ensure that their advice was based on precedent and on principles, and the principles were published.
I appreciate that, in connection with the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the Government have largely resisted accepting the committee’s recommendations and relied on the large volumes of legislation needed for Brexit and the need for a very large number of statutory instruments in that connection. While I do not go along with their argument in anything like the whole of the way, I can nevertheless see that that legislation is a special case. It is very important, however, that that special case should not become regarded as a precedent, justifying the Government in ignoring the recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and not following its recommendations in future. This Bill is in an entirely different category: it is in the traditional category, where those recommendations ought to be followed. There is no reason here why we should not follow the general principles as to when a delegation is appropriate and when it is not.
The terms in which this Bill was described have been canvassed in other speeches, but the committee was pretty caustic in paragraph 2, where one of the questions was described as:
“What is meant by ‘whiplash injury?’”
The answer, as described by the committee, was:
“‘Whiplash injury’ means whatever the Lord Chancellor says it will mean, in regulations to be made by him or her at some future date. Clause 1(1) has a partial definition but a full definition awaits the making of regulations by the Lord Chancellor, which will only happen once the Bill has been enacted. Given the complex physical and psychological components of whiplash injury, it is not satisfactory that these matters should be left to regulations rather than subject to a rigorous debate in Parliament”.
I agree; and if that is not a caustic recommendation from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, I do not know what is. The Government simply ought to accept it and put the definition on the face of the Bill in line with proper practice.
There is no reason advanced as to why a definition of sufficient clarity cannot be on the face of the Bill. The Government have produced draft regulations with a definition that might suffice as a working definition, subject to debate, but those regulations would, of course, be non-amendable in any event. Why should that definition not go in the Bill? We have heard definitions advanced in amendments from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and from my noble friend Lord Sharkey and me. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, also defines whiplash for the time being.
I accept that there might be a regulation-making power to make amendment to the definition in the future from time to time. That is an acceptable compromise. Our Amendment 95, which insists on regulations before changes come into force, is a backstop. I do not regard that as an acceptable backstop; it is a counsel of despair in some ways. Our principal point, however, is one that the Government ought to accept: that a definition is required and it needs to have the evidence behind it.
My Lords, this is a good Bill but it is incomplete. As the Minister will have noticed, every single speaker has said that, to be completed, it requires a legal definition. Individuals who say that they have a whiplash will have to have a medical diagnosis, but in a Bill of this sort, which is intended to deal with fraud, there absolutely has to be a legal definition, for the reasons given by my noble and learned friend Lord Judge, which I entirely support.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a racketeering lawyer, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra would have it, although it has been some time since I was involved in whiplash claims.
I accept that there are genuine whiplash claims and that some whiplash problems last for a considerable time and can cause difficulties that continue well beyond six months, 12 months or even two years. The majority do not. However, the legislation we are concerned with here ought to be clear—I agree with all noble Lords who have said this—which would mean a definition in the Bill. This has been a problem for this Government and previous Governments and we have to accept that we are dealing with a slippery and powerful opposition in trying to pin down this racket.
Whiplash injuries have an attraction for fraudsters because, as no doubt my noble friend Lord Ribeiro will confirm, they are difficult to prove or disprove on medical analysis—they do not show up on scans of any sort—and doctors have to rely on the veracity of the patient to satisfy themselves that they may or may not have whiplash symptoms.
We do not want to pin down a definition of whiplash injuries and the nation’s necks appear to improve, only for its lower backs to deteriorate, and suddenly we are invited to consider claims in which, as a result of some movement of the thorax, lumbar or cervical regions in an accident, all the symptoms are referable to the lower back, which is outside the definition and would be equally difficult to prove or disprove. I therefore counsel the House to use caution in saying that we must pin down the definition. As legislators that is of course desirable but we want to help the Government to deal with this problem.
A similar issue arose during consideration of the Psychoactive Substances Bill, when everyone in the House said that we must be clear as to what the substances are and put them in the Bill. However, the conclusion was that we should not do this because of the infinite adaptability of those who produce such substances. While I sympathise as a matter of principle with those who have spoken—I will listen with interest to what my noble and learned friend says—we should be careful not to do anything which may assist those who have perpetuated this racket.
My Lords, I support everything that has been said by every lawyer who has spoken this morning. Clearly, the Bill needs a definition. However, I also agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has said about the difficulty that has arisen in constructing the definition.
The House will not be able to tell whether the Bill will work as a matter of practical justice until we see the definition. It will need to be a broad definition for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. It is easy to foresee that when the Bill passes into law, as it probably will, there will then develop heavy tactical warfare between those acting on the claimant’s side and those acting on the defendant’s side, which will be focused on the precise wording of the definition. If there is undue looseness in the definition, that warfare will clog up the courts and be generally undesirable.
In short—I do not disagree with anything I have heard this morning—it is clearly necessary for the Bill to contain a definition and for this House to consider the proposed definition in minute detail and with great care to ensure that the Bill works when it passes into law.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, and my noble friend Lord Faulks. In doing so, I declare my interests as set out in the register.
I too have sympathy for my noble and learned friend the Minister. This is a good opportunity to remind ourselves why we need this legislation. Late last night, at a most inconvenient time, I received a call urging me to bring a claim. I do not know how many noble Lords have had the same but there is an industry out there. That is why working out a definition will be quite a challenge.
This problem needs urgent attention. Noble Lords may know that I have been pursuing this line of argument for 15 years. I have watched this claims industry grow and make life intolerable for so many people. In the last 10 years, the number of reported road accidents has gone down by 30%, but in the same period the number of injury claims has gone up by at least 40%. We have a problem.
I received copious briefings from vested interests who are completely opposed to any whiplash reform on the basis that it threatens access to justice for injured people, but a lot of these briefings come from companies with a commercial interest in the presentation of these claims. I think that the threat is more to their income and profits than they are prepared to admit. I want to quote Sir Rupert Jackson, albeit from seven years ago:
“There is currently far too much money swilling around in the personal injuries system and the beneficiaries are not the claimants, but usually the referrers and (when no referral fee is paid) the lawyers”.
He made that point in a different context but it is a good reminder that we are dealing with a pretty serious problem. Governments have tried before to reduce the cost of whiplash claims but the measures used, including the banning of referral fees, have not succeeded in bringing the number of claims in check.
Some noble Lords will try to argue to the contrary although they have not participated so far in the debate, but any reported decrease in the number of whiplash claims is probably because they are being described as something else. A neck injury becomes an injury to the spine or the shoulder or the back. As my noble friend Lord Faulks pointed out, this is a moving target. I have a great deal of sympathy for my noble and learned friend the Minister.
I suppose that this set of reforms is different from what has gone before. It is targeted specifically at reducing the number of claims. In view of the reduction in accident numbers, this must surely be the right target. That is why we have provisions such as a tariff set by the Lord Chancellor. This is a socio-political problem, not a medical or even a truly legal one. It needs a political policy steer, not just to be handed back to judges to exercise controls. Indeed, the Judicial College has acknowledged that this is not its role:
“We stress again that we do not attempt to prescribe what levels of damages ought to be awarded”.
In truth, judges assess very few of these low-value claims; when they do, it is usually because there is an unusual factor involved.
The industry—it is a commercial industry—that brings these claims is highly adaptive. I welcome the opportunity given to us by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and my noble and learned friend to look at the definition. The reforms in 2013 led to an early move by road accident solicitors into industrial deafness claims and clinical negligence claims, and the call that I received last night urged me to bring a claim because of some alleged sickness I had suffered on a holiday I never took. Let us not avoid the fact that we need to confront these waves of claims. There is time for more drastic action. Of course, I agree with the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Noble Lords are well-versed in arguments about Henry VIII powers but in this case, with due respect to the committee, the concerns may be misplaced.
The action that the Government need to take must be radical but also fleet of foot. That is the key to understanding why the majority of the measures are subject to regulations. It is also essential that this Bill does not stray into narrow, overly medical or overly legalistic terms that are easily circumvented. Having said all that, I can hardly wait to hear what my noble and learned friend the Minister has to say.
I must apologise to the noble Lord for delaying his expectations slightly, and declare my interest as an unpaid consultant in my old firm of solicitors.
It is clear that we must have a proper definition. It is equally clear that the definition ought to be provided by a medical source. The groupings of this rather long day are such that the recommendation that I shall be making in the next group is relevant to this first group, in that the responsibility for defining a whiplash injury should be on the Chief Medical Officer and the definition incorporated into primary or secondary legislation. That takes the decision away from politicians. I disagree with the noble Lord—I do not think that the definition should be a political decision: it should emanate from the medical profession and be embodied in legislation. An amendment to that effect on Report would perhaps be helpful.
It is clear that there are problems; nobody denies that. There is an argument about the extent to which the current system is being abused, but any abuse is unacceptable and reflects on innocent people who have suffered genuine injury. Their cases need to be dealt with properly. So there has to be change. However, with due respect to those who tabled these amendments, who may well have drawn on medical advice, we should at some point incorporate a requirement for that medical advice to emanate from a medical source—I have suggested the Chief Medical Officer but it could be another source—rather than be determined by politicians.
The term “whiplash” is pretty loose. What is the noble Lord inviting medical experts to do to interpret a term that is not really medical?
There surely has to be a medical definition—and where better to get it from? The medical profession deals with injuries that are labelled “whiplash injuries”. There may be some argument about the definition, but surely it can be decided only on the basis of medical skills.
My Lords, I thoroughly agree with the proposition that is highly desirable for the definition used as the basis for later provisions in this part of the Bill to be on the face of the Bill. The difficulty I have had so far is in identifying what we want to do. It is the area of exaggerated claims, or something of that sort, that underlies the Government’s proposals. I agree that it must be, ultimately, a medical definition, because a medical report saying that you have this injury is an essential requirement for you to come under this part of the Bill.
The difficulty, however, is that the doctors have to know where these exaggerations take place. I have been instructed by people who suggest that if you go for the back, and the rest, you are extending the thing beyond the real position. I have, therefore, some sympathy with the amendment restricting that, which I think is to be moved or spoken to later. I do not, however, profess to know exactly what the problem is, in the sense of the area of medical expertise that is being used by the claimant industry to exaggerate claims. That is their idea: to exaggerate these claims and ask for more than they are worth. As I said at Second Reading, I have some experience long past of the difficulty of actually quantifying the correct amount for these injuries, particularly if they are serious—and they can be quite serious, I think. This is my problem and I would be glad of help when the Minister comes to speak.
My Lords, I am obliged for all the contributions that have been made so far this morning. I observe that it appears to be generally recognised that the Bill is addressing a very real issue about which policy decisions have to be made and implemented. I quite understand the question raised about where the definition of whiplash injury should appear. The definition in the Bill seeks to limit injuries to those soft tissue injuries that affect the neck, back or shoulder and arise from road traffic accidents. The vires in the Bill are tightly drawn to enable regulations to be made by the Lord Chancellor that would apply only to a discrete number and type of injury.
It is interesting to see the diversity of amendments that have come forward this morning. That may underline the particular challenge we face in arriving at a suitable definition, be it in the Bill or in regulation. We have sought to address an issue that involves reconciling a legal understanding of this matter with a medical definition—one which covers both injury and the symptoms of injury. That involves us engaging with not only medical expertise but a degree of legal expertise. In addition, while I am not going to go through the detail of every amendment, because I understand what lies behind them, I will note this much. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, set out three points for consideration, and in doing so underlined the very real problem that we need to address here. It was emphasised by the suggestion that if you go to a particular claims management site you are encouraged to believe that even if you have no symptoms you may still have a claim.
I was reminded of an incident some years ago where I was acting for an American pharmaceutical company. The US attorneys showed me a photograph of a genuine roadside sign that had been erected in the state of Mississippi. It said, “If you’ve taken drug X and suffered a fatal heart attack, telephone this number”. The lengths to which we lawyers will go know no bounds, and our belief in the Almighty is always there. There is a very real industry out there. I do not use the term “racket”, but others have—and with some justification.
Looking to the current position, the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, correctly observed that the regulations that we have produced in draft to elaborate the definition of whiplash injury have only just appeared. I quite understand the need for noble Lords to consider those regulations in more detail. In turn, I will consider in more detail whether we should incorporate a more precise definition in the Bill. But I stress that, even if we were to take that step, it would be necessary for us to bear in mind the ability of government to proceed by way of regulations to support any definition in the Bill. We are well aware that flexibility will be required with regard to any final definition so that we can meet the way in which claims development occurs—the way in which this sort of market develops—in order to put limitations on claims.
At the end of the day, the detailed definition of whiplash injury will need to reconcile the current legal understanding with an accurate medical definition covering both injury and symptoms. Our aim is to achieve that objective, but to what extent we achieve it by incorporating the definition in the Bill is not a matter on which I would take a final position. I quite understand the suggestion that we should consider further the extent to which the definition can appear on the face of the Bill, and also allow noble Lords the opportunity to consider the scope of the draft regulation that has only recently been made available. In the light of that, and understanding that these are essentially probing amendments, I invite noble Lords not to press them at this time.
My Lords, I am grateful for those last few sentences from the Minister, which were very helpful and reflect the strong mood of the House. I must say that if we had had a brief fee clock going, with the number of very expensive lawyers here, it would have been going round quite rapidly. I will make one point, following what the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said. I too am a non-practising barrister, but I would never do anything to suggest that advocacy was not valuable. Advocates are immensely valuable in our justice system.
I do, of course, have experience of sitting on the other side of the table from the “claims industry”, as I term it—and the last thing those people want is an advocate in the mix. Most of their companies do not employ that many lawyers: some companies have no lawyers at all, or just one on their writing paper. They want a paper-based or telephone-based operation, in order to process things as cheaply as possible. This would actually help advocacy, because it would try to push things back into the proper legal market and away from companies that have been commoditising the rather grubby process of grabbing money. But, on the basis of what the Minister has said, and knowing that we will be having discussions with a view to bringing forward some sort of amendment on the definition—no doubt several noble Lords who have spoken today will be involved—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendments 2 and 3 not moved.
4: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out “, back or shoulder”
My Lords, I shall speak to the amendments in my name. I have already effectively, I hope, spoken to Amendment 5. Amendment 4 is a probing amendment that seeks to alter the definition of a whiplash injury to confine it to neck injuries. I accept the point that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, made about the precise definition, and also the fact that I am effectively in the position that I was questioning before, of not having the medical authority to give a prescription. That underlines the need for independent medical advice as to what constitutes the kind of injury that needs to be covered.
Amendment 5, to which I referred before, would require the definition to be provided by the Chief Medical Officer. There may be other professional sources that would be as effective, but the independence and status of the Chief Medical Officer strikes me as highly relevant.
The other amendments in this group to which I will refer are, particularly, Amendments 8 and 10, which suggest a new tariff for 12 months rather than the two years in the Bill. I understand that the vast majority of cases are within that one-year period, so to extend it to two years seems somewhat invidious, given that there has to be proof of the effect of the accident. Two years is a long time to be subjected to, for what would be a pretty minimal level of compensation provided for in the tariff. I hope that that would improve the Bill somewhat.
In relation to Amendment 9, sub-paragraph (ii) seems superfluous because it requires the claimant to have mitigated the damage suffered, but in common law the plaintiff has to demonstrate that he has done precisely that. Sub-paragraph (ii) does not seem to add anything to the current legal position and, for that reason, it should be removed.
Amendments 15 to 20 are in this group. They would remove references to psychological injury from Clauses 2 and 3. That is a matter which we feel should be dealt with in the ordinary way. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 15 to 20 and to explain why leaving out the word “psychological” benefits the Bill. As currently drafted, the Bill captures soft tissue injury and minor psychological injury only. If a claimant sustained a whiplash injury and, say, a bruise on their knee at the same time in an accident, the bruised knee would not be captured by the definition, which is limited to neck, back and shoulder in the current Clause 1. Damages for the bruised knee would therefore fall outside the tariff damages but would remain compensatable under common law. As I said earlier, there is a great prize for simplicity here, for being able, as an honest and genuine litigant, to go to a web portal to fill a claim and have predictability about what you are going to get. We will no doubt discuss the tariff a lot later on today. By removing the word “psychological” we bring minor injuries into the tariff so that if you have an accident and get a set of minor injuries, which we loosely call whiplash injuries, but which include bruised knees, you know what you are going to get and there would be a simple web way of doing it. We have tried to do that, and that is the sole reason for removing “psychological”. It would mean that injuries without the word “psychological” include psychological injuries. In fact, the definition I referred to earlier on the pre-action protocol for small bodily injury claims specifically includes psychological injuries. I think I have made the point.
My Lords, I rise to speak briefly to Amendment 21, which is tabled in my name. I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register.
I shall follow the theme in the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, with regard to physiotherapy and psychological treatments in claims under this clause. The debate at the moment is with regard to probing amendments, and I hope very much that the Minister, in his reply, will be able to give us a little more explanation on how he sees this particular section of the Bill operating.
I should also say as a caveat that, while I accept the very strong point continually made in the Chamber, and rightly so, about the creativity of some claims management companies—the ones making the telephone calls—to find ways into this area and to cause considerable difficulties, I hope that we will not lose sight of the genuine claims of individuals and the hardships they suffer when they seek to make a claim but cannot represent themselves and whose access to finance for such a claim does not exist. In our rush to deal, quite rightly, with unwanted claims, I hope that we will not undermine and damage the very valuable claims that are necessary for individuals—not just adults but children as well.
With regard to my proposed amendment, Clause 2(6) states:
“Regulations… may provide”,
that a person has taken,
“reasonable steps to mitigate the effect of … whiplash injury or minor psychological injury”.
As I have said, I want to talk about physiotherapy as well.
The reason I ask the Minister to give us more information is in the background of the very public debate about, for example, the provision of mental health services and, in particular, where such services are provided and how the claimant would get access to them and therefore have taken reasonable steps not to undermine a subsequent claim. The King’s Fund, in its analysis of NHS trusts, clearly identifies, through their financial accounts, that approximately 40% of mental health trusts have received a reduction in their funding and therefore in their services.
The type of claims made that require psychological support may involve children who, having been with their parents in a car accident, have problems with nightmares, so they need access to proper support and therapy. Such a claim may involve, and has involved, parents travelling in a car where the mother is pregnant and therefore suffers stress as well as physical injuries. Again, where is the access to psychological injury and, reasonable steps having been taken to mitigate that, given the connection between pain and one’s mental health well-being?
I am not a lawyer, and if my comments are considered ill-informed I will not be embarrassed by being corrected by the very many experienced noble and learned Lords in this Chamber. At the heart of this, and the objective that the Government seek to achieve, is how to stop those who are using the system in a way that, frankly, undermines the rights of good, honest people who are not making fraudulent claims. How to correct that system without preventing worthy, correct and needy claims is a huge challenge. At the moment, while I understand why the ABI talks in its briefing about the need for it to have flexibility to adjust and evolve as the industry does, I see nothing in the Bill that puts that same flexibility into protecting the rights of legitimate claimants in this area of physical damage.
I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this whole area, because I fear that otherwise we may need to return to this. There is not enough protection at the moment for the individual legitimate claimant.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 8, 10 and 49A in this group. I join with the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo, in relation to genuine claimants. As I understand it, even the insurance companies accept that the majority of claimants in this area are genuine. It is a high burden on your Lordships’ House to ensure that the Bill hits the target of fraudulent claims as accurately as it can without the shrapnel hitting genuine claimants. Fundamentally, someone with a bruised knee, as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, mentioned, may find themselves with more compensation when assessed under Judicial College guidelines than someone who has genuinely incurred a potentially six-month whiplash injury.
Amendments 8 and 10 relate to reducing the length of the period of these symptoms from two years to one. It is important to remember that while, yes, there is a portal, which the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, referred to, and the small claims track, even today 35% of claims are outside the portal. These are the nuts and bolts of people’s access to justice through the small claims track, but that is without legal representation.
The important reason to reduce the scope of the Bill to a year is that the overwhelming majority of whiplash cases, even including those that the insurance companies maintain today are fraud or suspected fraud, are resolved within a year. However, a bulk of cases—15%—last longer than that, and of those there are about 5% where someone has a long-standing chronic condition as a result of the whiplash injury. They might have an early onset of osteoarthritis, a chronic pain condition or fibromyalgia—these are cases that I have seen—which are seriously long-term disabling conditions. It is very important for those people that there is representation, perhaps more in-depth medical reports looking at what has happened to their symptoms, and legal advice so that they are not pressurised into settling a claim too early and getting a sum of money within the first year when actually the prognosis is not definite. If we reduce the scope of the Bill—the Government’s stated intention relates to minor injuries and fraud—down to one year, it would give protection to those people who, hopefully, if they were advised properly, would wait to settle their claim to ensure that their symptoms had resolved.
I hope this is not going to be a complicated amendment. It would do a lot to protect genuine claimants. We do not seem to have evidence of people who are exaggerating and claiming to have fibromyalgia, chronic pain or early-onset osteoarthritis as the result of a fraudulent claim. At the moment the Bill does not do sufficient to protect claimants in those categories, and reducing the limit from two years to one would deal with the fraud problem but also give them some protection.
Amendment 49A is one that I was given advice on by USDAW. The policy reason that Her Majesty’s Government have given for creating this section of claims is that we are aiming at fraud where they will not be covered by the Judicial College guidelines. That will lead to ordinary people not necessarily understanding why claim X merited much more than their own claim. This is serious in people’s fundamental understanding of compensation and justice.
If fraud is the reason for changing the principle of the Judicial College guidelines, I have tabled Amendment 49A because the Bill currently will catch ambulance drivers, police officers or anyone who is driving within the course of their employment and is affected by a whiplash injury. I hope that the Minister will provide some evidence as to whether insurance companies or others—the Faculty of Actuaries or someone else—have identified fraud in that type of case, when someone is driving in the course of their employment. That is fraud in a different category. It is not saying, for example, “I’ve been called at 11 o’clock at night”, but is also saying to one’s employer, “This happened to me while I was work”. That is in a different category and, as far as I have been able to detect, there is no evidence that any of the problems that insurance companies are talking about happen in that scenario.
Driving “within the course of employment” is a well-recognised legal term. It has been the subject of case law. For instance, if you have left home to go to work in your work car, are you driving in the course of employment? It is a well-defined, well-established category that could provide a limitation in the Bill and ensure that genuine claimants who are driving in the course of their employment would not be caught by the provisions. I hope that the Minister will provide evidence of fraud when people have claimed whiplash injuries while driving in the course of employment. Without that, the policy reason stated by the Government for introducing the Bill does not exist. We will have missed the target and hit a whole bunch of genuine claimants.
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation to enter into a debate that is so well populated by lawyers and people who know a lot better about these things than I. Perhaps I should declare a sort of interest or make an admission that while I am not a lawyer, I live with one—and her advice to me the other day was not to get into this debate. I have set that on one side for what I hope is a good reason.
I shall speak to Amendment 27A on the supplementary list. It pursues the same point that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, explored. I too am worried about what the Bill—a welcome, reforming Bill in many respects—will also capture and that it will put off, deny and deprive access to proper compensation to those who, in the course of their employment, drive for a living. I am thinking of public service workers, ambulance drivers, firefighters, police officers and those in the distribution sector. I am worried that the Government have it wrong and that the legislation will capture people they do not want to. I cannot see, and we have not yet seen, evidence that there is widespread fraud. I am also concerned that in cases involving people who drive as a product of seeking their living and who are injured in the course of their work, perhaps by someone else’s negligence or when they have been working for a supplier contractor, they end up being undercompensated.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, I should like to probe the Minister’s intent. Can he assure us that such claims will not be affected in the way in which they potentially are? We are both seeking assurances, some evidence and a hope that damages suffered by those in the course of their work will continue to be assessed in the usual way. That is only fair, right and proper. I am sure that the Government would not want to unwittingly—perhaps inadvertently—damage such people’s interests. While a claim culture exists, stimulated by an industry that is very driven, we do not want to harm those who are rightly seeking compensation for an injury that they have suffered.
My Lords, I follow for a moment the line that previous speakers have addressed. I understand that the Scottish position is different from that proposed in the Bill and that people injured in the course of their employment are treated differently from others. It would be interesting if the Minister, with his extensive knowledge of the Scottish position, could outline what the different reasoning might be. I am not asking him to speak for the Scottish Government, but I am sure he understands how Scottish practice has developed in a different way.
A number of us are concerned that this is a Bill for the insurance industry, tackling problems that it should have addressed itself. If insurance companies were paying out claims without properly investigating, if they were making money available just because it was too much trouble for them to assess the honesty of those making the claim, they have spawned the industry that we are now grappling with and trying to make sense of. The insurance industry should put its own house in order, not come crying to the Government too often to say, “You should do this for us with legal changes”.
I am conscious that we could have a problem with drivers who get injured and are covered by the road traffic laws being treated differently from a driver of a forklift truck, say, who has an accident in the factory or depot, and is not covered by road traffic law. There are inconsistencies here which, I understand, the Scots have addressed differently from the position under the Bill. The Minister shakes his head, and I stand to be corrected, but I should be interested in his observations on that point.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Monks, makes a good point: the insurance industry has its share of responsibility for what has occurred in its eagerness to settle claims which may not have been genuine to save the cost of going to court to argue the matter, but to describe this as an insurers’ Bill may be to overstate the case. In the Bill, we are all concerned to stamp out what has been a widespread fraud—not at the expense of genuine claimants, of course, but I do not think anyone looking at the statistics could deny that there has been a serious and long-standing problem that needs a solution.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, mentions the Chief Medical Officer in one of his amendments. Of course, the definition of whiplash and the approach to it should be informed by medical opinion, but I respectfully suggest that, ultimately, we as a legislative body have to grasp that definition and approach, bearing in mind medical evidence but nevertheless seeking to identify what is going on in the real world, rather than simply tying ourselves to a medical definition which may of itself be imprecise.
As to where the cut-off should come—whether it should be 12 months or two years—it will always be somewhat arbitrary. However, there seems to me a risk that if we reduce it to 12 months rather than two years, we can anticipate a number of medical reports suggesting that matters should resolve themselves in, say, 18 months—not the more reputable medical experts, but, I am sad to say, not all of them have in the past been in that category.
The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo, about the availability of therapy in various contexts is good but, as I understand it—my noble and learned friend will correct me if I am wrong—we are concerned here with damages for pain, suffering and loss of amenity. That does not preclude damages for loss of earnings or for the cost of medical expenses, whether for therapy or otherwise, which can be recovered in addition to the tariff claim. I hope that that is some answer to the question of whether those matters can be attended to following an accident.
As to the argument about whether employment should be an accepted category, while that might have some initial attraction, I would counsel against that approach. I can imagine a revision to the standard message following any such amendment. It would be, “We understand you have recently been involved in an accident while you were driving in the course of your employment”. That would inevitably follow if we narrow or exclude incidents arising from employment. Whether you are driving in the course of your employment, recreation, or whatever the reason, you are equally likely to—
I hate to interrupt my noble friend, but in principle, what is wrong with a call saying that? If someone is driving in the course of his employment, it is in a different category because the employer will have to give evidence that he was indeed driving in the course of his employment. There is a danger that we are saying all these calls are a bad thing, or that all claims management companies are a bad thing and all insurance is a good thing. What in principle is wrong with a call of that nature that can be substantiated by evidence, and would need to be from the person’s employer?
I am grateful for that intervention. My point is that if someone has been genuinely injured, whether in the course of employment or not in the course of employment, they are entitled to make a claim, and nothing should preclude that, regardless of whether they receive a message in the current form or in an amended form. It seems to me that it would be inappropriate to make a distinction between the circumstances in which you may or may not suffer a whiplash injury. My point was simply that if there is an amendment to the law, those seeking to encourage not the genuine claimants—of which there are certainly some—but those who are not genuine may revise their message to take into account the revision that we make in the law. Of course I am not against genuine claims. On the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and my noble friend Lord Hodgson, although I understand the disaggregation that lies at the heart of their amendment, I am not for the moment persuaded that this is not a matter that is catered for under Clause 2(3) and (4). I shall listen with interest to what my noble and learned friend says.
Perhaps I may invite the noble Lord to refer to the provisions that refer to MedCo. He talked about doctors’ reports as if they could be made by rather unscrupulous doctors at the behest of a client. Would not use of the MedCo system pretty well ensure that the reports would be valid and authentic?
The MedCo system has contributed very considerably to the improvement in the standards of medical reporting. For those of your Lordships who are not familiar with it, it was a system to prevent what was undoubtedly an abuse of the system by some doctors, to allow the random allocation of medical experts to deal with whiplash injuries. It is certainly an improvement. My point is that there is still a risk in certain cases of there not being reliable medical evidence.
Before the Minister responds perhaps I may, in the probing spirit of the amendments, mention one point that has occurred to me in light of the noble Earl’s proposed deletion of the word “psychological” from various provisions in Clause 2. I completely understand what the Government are hoping to achieve by using the term “minor psychological injury” in those provisions. I imagine they have in mind the fact that in cases of the type we are considering, it did become routine, and probably still is routine, for claimants to be advised to get a supportive report from a psychiatrist that uses the term “post-traumatic stress neurosis” or something similar as a way of enhancing the eventual award. I can see that that is a problem that the use of the term “psychological injury” is directed at.
The noble Earl makes a significant point when he refers to the bruised or gashed knee of the claimant in this type of case. I am not sure how that type of case, where there is a whiplash injury but also some other injury that is outside the definition of whiplash injuries, will be satisfactorily addressed. I imagine that the tariff award for whiplash injury will be fairly low. I do not have the answer to this problem, but I am contemplating the position that will arise when a claimant has suffered a whiplash injury and is entitled to the tariff award, which may be only a few hundred pounds, but has also suffered a probably rather less serious injury to, say, his or her knee. A gashed or bruised knee might stop them from playing football, skiing or whatever it may be, and would be worth, I guess, a few hundred pounds—it might edge into £1,000. You might get an anomalous outcome that would involve claimants recovering more for very trivial injuries to the lower part of the body than they are entitled to recover, pursuant to the Bill, for the relevant whiplash injury. I do not know what the answer is, but it is a potential problem.
Clause 2(8) begins to address that problem. I want to mention, again in a probing spirit, and without having any answers, what may be a difficulty in the drafting of Clause 2(8). It contemplates that the court may award an additional amount of damages for an injury that falls outside the scope of the definition of whiplash injuries. At the moment, I am puzzled—I do not know if the Minister can help me on this—by the effect of the words in brackets at the end of the subsection, namely,
“(subject to the limits imposed by regulations under this section)”.
I am not sure what “limits” refers to there, because the subsection appears to create tariffs rather than limits. I am not sure what it is intended the court should do when confronted by a claimant who has suffered a whiplash injury which attracts the tariff award but who also places before the court a number of other minor injuries that fall outside the definition. There are serious problems here and I have sympathy with the drafters.
My Lords, I return to the issue of employee exemption, which several noble Lords have mentioned in this debate. I have a lot of sympathy with it. In my Amendment 23, I shall be seeking some kind of exemption for vulnerable road users. My worry in these amendments is the definition of who is driving in the course of their employment. My understanding is that under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, you are covered if you are driving to work in your car and you are employed. The car does not have to be owned by your employer; it can be hired or your own. You are at work and, therefore, covered by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. I assume it is the same for Uber drivers, truck drivers and anyone in between.
It is difficult to accept an exemption that would cover all those things, whether you are self-employed or employed by a company or by somebody else. It would be fine if one could find a definition, but there are so many loopholes nowadays in driving and road safety law. I have had many discussions with Ministers over the years about whether road safety and driving legislation should be led by the rules of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. In other words, you are at work all the time. That applies to drivers’ hours, driving safety and everything else. I worry about the definition of driving when in the course of employment, and I have a lot of sympathy with anyone trying to find a definition.
My Lords, I intervene briefly, having put my name to the noble Earl’s amendments. I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, quite followed the idea behind this, which is that psychological injuries are specifically identified at various places in this clause but minor injuries are not. The purpose of the amendments is therefore to remove psychological injuries as a specific category and reinsert them further down, through Amendment 22, with minor injuries, so that we sweep up everything concerned with a whiplash unless it is a serious injury, such as a fracture of a leg, which is clearly a different issue. However, the issue is picked up by the reinsertion by Amendment 22 of the words “minor injuries”, such as a bruised knee.
I am obliged to noble Lords for their contributions to the Bill in Committee. I begin with Amendment 4, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, which would limit the definition of whiplash to soft tissue injuries of the neck. There is then a further amendment that would require the definition of whiplash to be set by the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health. The amendment to remove the back and shoulder from this definition would significantly reduce the number of claims subject to measures in the Bill, namely the tariff and the ban on settling claims without medical evidence. It would also encourage claims displacement into other areas to avoid them being subject to the tariff. That would be a serious issue.
The definition in the Bill has been adapted from that in the Prisons and Courts Bill following feedback from stakeholders that the definition in the latter Bill was not broad enough to capture the intended claims. The current definition, with the draft regulations that have now been produced, is intended to achieve that objective.
The amendment requiring the definition of whiplash to be set by the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health would provide an independent person who has responsibility for advising the Government on medical issues, but the definition of whiplash injury needs to reconcile the current legal understanding with an accurate medical definition that covers both injuries and their symptoms. This is why the Government have developed the definition of a whiplash injury with input not only from medical experts, but from other expert stakeholders, including claimant and defendant solicitors.
Amendments 8, 9 and 10 restrict the scope of the tariff provisions by reducing the injury duration of affected claims to 12 months from two years. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, observed this would reduce the number of claims captured by these reforms, but have the negative effect of encouraging claims displacement or claims inflation. Having an injury duration of up to two years will ensure that genuinely injured claimants seek timely treatment for their injuries, as well as enabling the Government to reduce and control the level of compensation in whiplash claims and consequently—as is one of the objectives—reduce insurance premiums for consumers.
The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, spoke to Amendments 15 to 20 and 22, which would widen the types of injuries affected by both the tariff of damages and the ban on settling claims without medical evidence. It would remove the term “psychological” from the clause, so that the measures in the Bill would apply to all minor injuries related to road traffic accidents, regardless of whether they are psychological or physical in nature. Consequently, this would apply the single-figure tariff to all those injuries, irrespective of number and type, by reference to the duration of the whiplash injury alone. This would result in the reduction of damages for a substantial number of personal injury claims outside the scope of our proposed reforms. The proposed reforms are intended to reduce the number and cost of particular claims—“an industry”, some people have referred to; “a racket”, others have mentioned. We are committed to addressing the issues that arise with whiplash injury.
I understand the point made about the bruised knee. I respond to the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, on the potential for discrepancies between awards made under the tariff for the whiplash injury itself and awards made for other minor injuries.
Clause 2(8) makes provision for the fact that the court will take into account other minor injuries and will make an award that is not related to the tariff itself. That is my understanding of the words in parentheses: that, in the context of the whiplash injury, regard will be had to the limits imposed by the tariff and the regulations but that, with respect to the other injuries, there will be no such limitation. That is why we do not consider it appropriate to delete the term “psychological” and extend these provisions to all minor injuries. Including minor psychological claims within the original tariff, as the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, indicated, was done in order to meet the way in which claims develop in this area. Indeed, it is in line with the Judicial College guidelines for personal injury compensation, which indicate that minor psychological injuries such as travel anxiety are not in themselves separate injuries attracting compensation; they have to be linked to physical injury itself.
Turning to Amendment 21, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo, if one considers Clause 2(6), persons who are unable to locate treatment for either their physical or psychological injuries are in fact only required to take appropriate steps to seek such treatment. There is no requirement for them to undertake it if it is not available for any number of practical reasons. I would therefore suggest that this amendment is unnecessary in the circumstances.
Can the Minister explain, then, what the point is of putting a subsection into a Bill that will have no effect, given that we know that psychological and physiotherapy services are under enormous strain and vary around the country? On the point he makes about people just adjusting how they make their claim, surely the answer would be, “We tried and it wasn’t available”. If it is to be a test, should it not be a test that is capable of being judged?
With great respect, the relevant text can be judged, because the requirement is that a person should take reasonable steps to secure those services where they are required. If they are not available then that is an answer to the point.
May I move on to Amendments 27A and 49A, on the course of employment? I have to confess that, on this matter, I am inclined to side with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. It appears to me, with due respect, that there is perhaps a misunderstanding here. If we look at Clause 1(3), we see that it is concerned with a situation in which a person suffers whiplash injury “because of driver negligence”. Whether a person is in the course of their employment or not, if they suffer a whiplash injury because of driver negligence, the third-party driver’s negligence will be responsible for the injury and, therefore, the insurer of the third-party driver will respond. If, on the other hand, the injury is the consequence of the driver himself, then he will have no claim, because you cannot claim in respect of your own negligence. In neither event would there be a legitimate basis for claim against the employer. It is for that reason that we do not consider it necessary to exclude a group to that extent.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but is that the point? The point of these amendments, as I understood them, was to exempt those who drive in the course of their employment from the rigour of the new provisions of this Bill when they are claimants, so that the claimant in the course of his employment has a legitimate claim. We may assume it is a legitimate claim because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said, it would have to be backed up by the employer’s evidence saying, “This claimant, driving my lorry on a perfectly legitimate delivery, was injured”. It is the claimant who counts, not the defendant.
With great respect, if the claimant is driving, his claim will be against the third-party driver whose negligence caused the claim. There is no reason why, in those circumstances, you should distinguish between a claimant who is in the course of his employment and a claimant who is not. They are both liable to suffer the same injury in the same circumstances as a result of the negligence of the same party. The distinction is one without a difference, with great respect. There is no justification for making such a distinction. I recollect discussing this with the noble Baroness, and she talked about the distinction between motor insurance and employers’ liability insurance, but there is no question of the claim being directed against the employer’s liability insurance in such circumstances.
That is not the point that is being made here. I would be grateful if my noble and learned friend could address the question. We are all, I believe, in your Lordships’ House working on the assumption that the target of the Bill is fraud, not genuine claimants. So the specific question is, where is the evidence that people who are claimants when they drive in the course of their employment and are injured by a third party’s negligence—the claim is not against their employer but against the other driver—are fuelling any of the calls or the fraud that is the underlying principle of the Bill? Because that is an injustice.
With the greatest respect to my noble friend, there is no basis for distinguishing between the cohort which is driving in the course of employment and the cohort which is not driving in the course of employment when an injury is suffered due to the negligence of a third-party driver. I am not aware of any examination, study or evidence that would seek to distinguish, or of any conceivable basis for distinguishing, between those two cohorts. So, with the greatest respect, I would suggest that it is a distinction without a difference.
May I just try to assist—I hope—the noble and learned Lord? The fact that the employer can authenticate that the accident was caused while the driver, the claimant, was acting in the course of employment does not authenticate the fact that he suffered a whiplash injury, and that is the vice that this legislation is designed to attack. Why, in any event, exempt from these provisions that particular class of driver? Why not the man taking his wife to hospital to have a baby, or a whole host of perfectly legitimate drivers? I hope to have helped.
I am grateful for the noble and learned Lord’s assistance. In the past his interventions have not always been of assistance, but they certainly are on this occasion. I would go further and suggest that it would make no more sense to exempt people who were driving red cars at the time of the accident. It is a distinction without a difference; it is as simple as that. That is why we do not consider this to be a helpful line of inquiry, and it is not one that we intend to pursue further.
With regard to the other amendments that were spoken to in this group, I have endeavoured to address the points made. I acknowledge the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, about the potential for anomalies where someone suffers a whiplash injury and other forms of injury as a result of the same accident. That is there, and there is no obvious answer to that. Nevertheless, the Bill is structured with the intention of addressing the vice we are really concerned with here and which is generally acknowledged to exist. In these circumstances, I invite noble Lords not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Amendment 5 not moved.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 2.20 pm.
Belhaj and Boudchar: Litigation Update
My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Attorney-General:
“Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement. In 2012, Mr Abdul Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Mrs Fatima Boudchar, brought a claim against the United Kingdom Government and two individuals, the former Foreign Secretary, the right honourable Jack Straw, and Sir Mark Allen, the former director at the Foreign Office. The claimants alleged that the United Kingdom Government were complicit in their abduction, detention and rendition to Libya in 2004 and for the treatment that they suffered at the hands of others. Mrs Boudchar was pregnant at the time.
The claimants’ case, in outline, is that in early 2004 they were detained and forcibly conveyed through a number of jurisdictions by others, ultimately to be handed over to the Libyan regime of which Mr Belhaj was an opponent. During this period, they were subjected to a harrowing ordeal which caused them significant distress. Mrs Boudchar was released from detention in Libya in June 2004, and gave birth shortly afterwards. Mr Belhaj was not released until March 2010.
On 3 May, the claims against Jack Straw and Sir Mark Allen were withdrawn. Today I can announce to this House that, following mediation, the United Kingdom Government have reached a full and final settlement of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar’s claims. I would like to pay tribute to the constructive way in which Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar have approached the mediation. This has been a long-running and hugely complex piece of litigation which has been difficult for all the individuals involved as parties.
As we have seen in recent years, there remains a considerable international threat to the United Kingdom and our allies and it is important that the Government and the security and intelligence services are able to respond properly to that to keep our country safe, but it is also important that we should act in line with our values and in accordance with the rule of law. That means that, when we get things wrong, it is right and just that we should acknowledge it, compensate those affected and learn lessons. I believe this is such a case.
The settlement of this claim has been agreed out of court. The main elements of the agreement I can report to the House are as follows: first, no admissions of liability have been made by any of the defendants in settling these claims. Secondly, the claimants have now withdrawn their claims against all the defendants. Thirdly, the Government have agreed to pay Mrs Boudchar £500,000; Mr Belhaj did not seek, and has not been given, any compensation. Finally, I have met Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar. Indeed, Mrs Boudchar was present in the Gallery to hear the Statement and the Prime Minister has now written to them both to apologise. I thought it right that I should set out to the House the terms of that apology in full. It reads as follows:
‘The Attorney-General and senior United Kingdom Government officials have heard directly from you both about your detention, rendition and the harrowing experiences you suffered. Your accounts were moving and what happened to you is deeply troubling. It is clear that you were both subjected to appalling treatment and that you suffered greatly, not least the affront to the dignity of Mrs Boudchar, who was pregnant at the time. The United Kingdom Government believe your accounts. Neither of you should have been treated in this way.
The United Kingdom Government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering. The United Kingdom Government shared information about you with its international partners. We should have done more to reduce the risk that you would be mistreated. We accept this was a failing on our part.
Later, during your detention in Libya, we sought information about and from you. We wrongly missed opportunities to alleviate your plight: this should not have happened.
On behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, I apologise unreservedly. We are profoundly sorry for the ordeal that you both suffered and our role in it.
The United Kingdom Government has learned many lessons from this period. We should have understood much sooner the unacceptable practices of some of our international partners. And we sincerely regret our failures’.
I hope that the Government’s acknowledgment of these events in these unequivocal terms, and the apology they have each been given, will be of some comfort to Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar. As the Prime Minister observed in her letter to Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar, the Government have learned lessons from this period.
These events took place in the period after the 11 September 2001 attacks, which was one in which we and our international partners were suddenly adapting to a completely new scale and type of threat. It is clear with the benefit of hindsight that the Government, the agencies and their staff were, in some respects, not prepared for the extreme demands suddenly placed on them. The unacceptable practices of some of our international partners should have been understood much sooner.
The Government have enacted reforms to ensure that the problems of the past will not be repeated. We have made it clear that Ministers must be consulted whenever UK personnel involved in a planned operation believe a detainee is at serious risk of mistreatment by a foreign state. We have also improved Parliament’s ability to oversee the actions of the agencies through the Justice and Security Act 2013. The Intelligence and Security Committee is a committee of Parliament, fully independent of the Government. It has a statutory right to review past intelligence operations, and the committee and its staff have direct access to agency papers. These reforms mean that the framework within which the UK now operates is very different from that in the early 2000s.
I end by reiterating that vital work is done to keep us safe and we aspire to the highest ethical standards. When those standards are not met, it is right that we apologise, that we compensate those who have suffered as a result and that we make whatever changes we can to avoid the same thing happening again. This is the approach we have now taken in this case and, as such, I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement and am especially grateful to Jeremy Wright, the Attorney-General, for advance sight of it yesterday and, in particular, for his humane handling of this matter.
Mrs Boudchar has been in the Public Gallery of the other place today, and I am sure that the whole of both Houses of Parliament will sympathise with her and Mr Belhaj for having suffered such appalling treatment at the hands of others. What happened to them both is deeply disturbing, not least as Mrs Boudchar was pregnant at the time. I only hope that the settlement of the legal case allows some closure to a terrible set of events in their lives.
The Prime Minister has written to Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar, who is in the Palace today, to apologise for this terrible treatment. She is entirely right to have done so, and to accept—unequivocally and unreservedly—the failings on the part of the UK Government at that time.
I of course agree with the Minister and with the Attorney-General that our security and intelligence services carry out vital work in helping to keep us all safe. But the rule of law must always be respected and must always be the guide of the actions of government. Our security and intelligence services must be properly overseen. When things do go wrong, it is right to acknowledge that in very clear terms, to do what can be done to make recompense, and to learn lessons for the future.
The Attorney-General rightly raised in his Statement problems regarding information sharing, more actions being required to reduce the risk of mistreatment and missed opportunities to alleviate human suffering. We must do all we can to stop this ever happening again.
The relationship between our intelligence and security services and government is now subject to a different framework. That is a welcome step in the right direction. The statutory right of the Intelligence and Security Committee, independent of government, to review past intelligence operations and its direct access to agency papers are important. That Ministers must be consulted whenever UK personnel are involved in a planned operation in which they believe a detainee is at serious risk of mistreatment by another state is absolutely crucial. I appreciate that the Minister is, understandably, limited in what he can say openly today, but I would ask for an assurance that such ministerial consultation will be detailed, considered and informed by as much information as can reasonably be made available to Ministers at the time.
In addition, might the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that we will always be vigilant in ensuring that the framework within which our intelligence and security services operate is robust and is always shaped by our core values: the rule of law, liberty and human rights? After all, it is only behaving to those standards ourselves that allows us to stand up for those values around the world.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Attorney-General’s Statement.
On 21 February 2008, this House was concerned with the use of UK facilities and UK airspace by the United States for the purposes of extraordinary rendition. In answer to a Written Question from my right honourable friend Menzies Campbell, now my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, assurances had been given by Mr Jack Straw in 2005, and later assurances were given by Mr Blair, the Prime Minister, in 2007, that these events had never occurred—that there had been no extraordinary rendition. A Statement in February 2008 was made by the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, in this House to the effect that this was incorrect and that extraordinary rendition had taken place through the British territory of Diego Garcia. Perhaps I may crave the House’s indulgence for quoting myself. I said on that occasion:
“We look for a public inquiry, as we have called for several times, which will investigate what extraordinary renditions have taken place not just to European countries but to places where we know that torture takes place—places such as Syria, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, where it is thought that there are secret holes where United States detainees are held. We cannot be satisfied by assurances given by the Government today on this matter”.—[Official Report, 21/02/08; col. 351.]
Nothing was said in 2008 about the events of 2004—the abduction, detention and rendition to Libya of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar, who were opponents of the Gaddafi regime and could expect torture and imprisonment.
Today, the Prime Minister’s apology, as we have heard, contains the following:
“The UK Government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering”.
We are entitled to know in what specific way. Mr Belhaj’s claim was that MI6 provided information to the CIA which led to his capture in Kuala Lumpur in 2004 and rendition via Bangkok to a Libyan jail. He further claimed that he was interrogated by British intelligence officers during his six years’ imprisonment and during the period of torture that he endured. All this was denied at the time. The Prime Minister says in her letter:
“The UK Government believes your accounts”.
Therefore, I take it that what Mr Belhaj said in his statement of claim is admitted, despite the fact that liability in the case is not admitted.
Another phrase used by the Prime Minister was that she was,
“profoundly sorry for the ordeal”,
of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar. If that is so, why did this Government try to quash these proceedings and argue a defence of state immunity and “foreign act of state” immunity all the way up to the Supreme Court as recently as January of last year? Do the Government now recognise that these defences must be subject to exceptions where there are violations of fundamental norms of international law and basic human rights, such as the prohibition of torture, which has been recognised in this country since Felton’s case in 1628?
A further point is that the costs of such a series of applications and appeals, which were unsuccessful, have no doubt fallen upon the public purse. What were those costs?
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, for her observations and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. As the Statement made clear, more could have been done to prevent the suffering of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar when the Government shared information with their international partners. Although the Government believed assurances that they sought in good faith about the treatment, with the benefit of hindsight they feel that they could have done more. Furthermore, after the detention of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar in Libya, it is now clear that the United Kingdom Government missed opportunities to alleviate their plight.
As regards future ministerial scrutiny, of course that will be all that is required to ensure that these events do not repeat themselves. Our vigilance will be clear and robust, and will reflect our core values, as outlined by the noble Baroness.
With regard to the queries from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, I will not make any comment on operational matters, but it is not the case that the Government tried to quash any decision. The case which was raised and which has now been settled without admission of liability raised complex issues of law, and we of course respect the decision of the United Kingdom Supreme Court handed down in January 2017. The costs were incurred by the Government Legal Department and were approximately £3 million.
My Lords, I should like to draw the House’s attention to the fact that I am an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition. I am extremely grateful to my noble and learned friend for repeating the Statement and to the Government for having taken the opportunity to draw a line under this very unhappy and unsatisfactory episode. They are to be congratulated on having grasped this particular nettle.
Perhaps I could ask my noble and learned friend to follow up on a couple of loose ends that are still lying around. The first relates to the press release put out by the Crown Prosecution Service on 9 June 2016 when it decided not to proceed with the case against Sir Mark Allen. The press release said that,
“there is sufficient evidence to support the contention that the suspect”—
that is, Sir Mark Allen—
“had … sought political authority for some of his actions albeit not within a formal written process nor in detail which covered all his communications and conduct”.
Will any further probing take place on what that political authority was and who gave it?
Secondly, there has been discussion in the Statement and elsewhere about the question of consolidated guidance and the review of consolidated guidance dealing with interviewing prisoners abroad when they are at risk of torture and ill treatment. There has been discussion about this being reviewed for some months, and tomorrow never seems to come for this. Will the Minister explain where we are with the review of consolidated guidance and when we might expect to see it published?
I am obliged to the noble Lord. It is not for me to comment upon a press release from the Crown Prosecution Service, which is, of course, an independent body concerned with the consideration of criminal complaints and cases. Therefore, I cannot add to the comments that were made in that press release.
On the matter of guidance, the current consolidated guidance is from 2010. That sets out the principles consistent with both domestic and international law governing the interviewing of detainees overseas and the passing and receiving of intelligence-related matters and information. At the moment, I am not able to give any indication as to when a review of that guidance will be completed, but it might be informed—apart from anything else—by the work of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, which is due to publish its detainee report in the near future. In light of that, we will give attention to the 2010 guidance.
My Lords, I had forgotten that it was a Question asked by me in the other place that initially produced the Answer that no such rendition had taken place. At the time, there was great speculation that airfields other than the principal airfields in the United Kingdom were being used for that purpose. It might help the House if I were to point out that I was subsequently given a public apology by the successor as Foreign Secretary, Mr David Miliband. Even by the standards of the time, what happened in this case was quite extraordinary and unacceptable. The strength of these new arrangements—some of which arose out of recommendations made by the Intelligence and Security Committee, of which I subsequently became a member—will be to ensure that nothing of this kind ever happens again in any circumstances.
On a technical note, I understood the Advocate-General to say—I may have misheard him—that there was no admission of liability when this settlement was made. Having listened very carefully to the terms of the letter written by the Prime Minister, it seems to me that on any view, that might not be a judicial admission of liability but it is most certainly, in the minds of any who hear it, an admission by the Prime Minister that a great wrongdoing was created in this case.
As I indicated, the conclusion of the mediation was, among other things, that there was no admission of liability. However, the noble Lord will recognise the concern that the Prime Minister and the Government felt over the events that led to the detention of Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar. I hope that the Prime Minister’s clear apology will speak for itself.
My Lords, about a decade ago, I had the privilege of chairing the Intelligence and Security Committee, which produced a report on rendition. I assume, therefore, that all of the information that the Minister has given us today in this Chamber, and which the security services and the Government have given to the ISC, comes under a different regime. The committee now has more powers of greater strengths. Will the Minister tell us when the ISC is likely to report on this matter?
Clearly, I am not in a position to determine the timing of the ISC report, but my understanding is—and the expectation is—that it will be published later this year.
My Lords, I welcome this Statement: it is very clear in drawing a line under matters. Things have changed since these events happened. I was the Security Minister at the time and when I asked the question about rendition, I was told, as a Minister in the Government, that it was not going on. Does the Minister feel that this could not possibly happen again now because of the changes that have been put in place by a number of noble Lords, when they were in the other place, and by the committees that are in place or does he think that such a thing could happen again, where a tiny cabal of people is able to do something and there is no way of breaking this out?
My Lords, I am confident that we have put in place such measures as will ensure that there will be no repetition of this.
My Lords, the Statement mentions the unacceptable practices of other countries on several occasions. Can the Minister assure this House that we will not be bent in our moral judgment by the need to kowtow or suck up to other countries, which appears to be one of the reasons that has driven this behaviour in the past? Can he also undertake to make sure that these other countries have been told that we find these practices unacceptable?
My Lords, our international partners are well aware of our standards, our belief in the rule of law and our desire to uphold the rights of the individual. They are therefore well aware of our concerns in that area.
Prompt Payment Code
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the effectiveness of the Prompt Payment Code.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, which is arguably the biggest threat to small and larger businesses’ ability to thrive in the UK today: late payment. I thank the SEC Group, the FSB and the AAT for their extremely useful briefings.
Much has been said about the demise of Carillion, but many noble Lords may not be aware that Carillion was signed up to the prompt payment code. The code is a voluntary code of practice run by the Chartered Institute of Credit Management with the backing of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Members promise to pay their suppliers on time, give clear guidance to suppliers and encourage good practice in their supply chains. These members undertake to pay their suppliers within 60 days and work towards adopting 30 days as the norm. Nevertheless, Carillion, like many other companies, was using money belonging to its suppliers to shore up its own cash flow.
There are plenty of ways in which the big suppliers exploit their supply chain today. Long payment periods are, of course, the obvious one; there are others that I do not have time to include here. During 2017, Carillion’s average payment delay was 43 days, and 5% of its contracts took 120 days to be paid. Its collapse left 30,000 small firms unpaid, with creditors only expected to cover less than 7p of every pound that they spent. Most suppliers to Carillion were not insured against it collapsing, and insurers are expected to pay out only about 3% of the total losses.
Why has the prompt payment code not solved some of these issues? Because it is a voluntary code of practice, it has largely failed to protect supply chains from late payment; it needs to be given more teeth. The AAT comments that the code has been undermined by the fact that the signatories to the code basically fall into two categories: those who already took this issue seriously and those who believe that, as it is voluntary, it does not have to be taken seriously. Carillion falls into the second of those categories.
The situation with public sector contracts, through which suppliers are contractually obliged under the Public Contract Regulations 2015, is quite dire. Under these regulations public bodies have a statutory duty to ensure that all subcontracts and sub-subcontracts contain 30-day payment clauses. Needless to say, Carillion did not have these clauses in its contracts and, as far as I know, no one picked it up on it. Unfortunately there is no effective enforcement mechanism under which to complain, except for the anonymous mystery shopper scheme. Even anonymously, in construction most will not complain because of the climate of fear existing in the industry.
However, there is a ray of hope in the form of payment practice reporting. From this April, large businesses must provide details every six months of their standard payment terms, how they resolve payment disputes and the percentage of payments they make within 30 and 60 days. It is naming and shaming and shines the harsh light of reality on what has been going on below the surface for many years. Of those businesses that reported in December 2017, before the statutory requirement to report came into force, only 52% of invoices were paid within 30 days; and nine of the 10 largest companies that reported their practices paid fewer than 10% of their invoices on time. Reporting is beginning to reveal the scale of the problem but we wait to see whether businesses will change their practices as a result of being shamed.
Tangential to the code, but nevertheless crucial, is the issue of retentions. These can be withheld from construction companies for many years and can often get caught up in insolvencies further up the supply chain. It is estimated that Carillion owed about £800 million in retentions alone. The Government have held a consultation on retentions and we look forward to receiving their conclusions—soon, I hope. Perhaps the Minister could indicate how soon.
A practical and realistic option has been presented in Peter Aldous’s Private Member’s Bill, which receives its Second Reading on 15 June. It seeks that when a cash retention is used it should be ring-fenced within a deposit scheme. This will protect it from insolvencies and incorporate a standard payment process, ensuring no unnecessary delays or time-consuming chasing. The Construction (Retention Deposit Schemes) Bill is supported by 120 cross-party MPs and over 350,000 companies. Could the Minister indicate whether the Government are minded to support it?
I recommend to the Minister a number of options that can deter large companies from paying their subcontractors late and protect small businesses when large contractors fail. First, the Government must be prepared to enforce the Public Contract Regulations so that recipients of major government contracts pay their suppliers within 30 days. I welcome the news last month that the Government will exclude suppliers from major government contracts if they cannot demonstrate fair and effective payment practices with their suppliers. However, we have yet to see the detail and I would appreciate the Minister providing more detail on how this will work, either in his response or in writing.
Subcontractors need to have the confidence to speak out, so I welcome the Government’s announcement that they will have greater access to buying authorities to report poor payment performance.
My second recommendation is that the Government should either accept Peter Aldous’s Private Member’s Bill or introduce something similar on retentions.
Thirdly—and, for the construction industry, arguably most importantly—project bank accounts should be introduced for all public sector construction projects over, say, £2 million, which is already the case for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. PBAs could be used to ensure that payments are made within 30 days by holding the funds in a central, ring-fenced bank account. Highways England use them, and third-tier subcontractors are paid within 18 days of the evaluation of the work under the main contract. No more Carillions would then be able to exploit their supply chain, using their money and pushing them over the financial edge into liquidation.
Finally, the Government should consider how to give the prompt payment code more teeth. Perhaps all listed companies, or those with turnover over a certain amount, could be required to sign up to the prompt payment code. It could levy fines for poor compliance, which could be used to fund its administration and support subcontractors in distress.
Getting paid fairly and on time will always be an issue for some companies, but these four measures combined would make a significant impact on poor payment practices, which would provide a legacy of which this Government could be proud.
My Lords, I apologise to the House that I am due to speak in a debate which starts at 2 pm in Grand Committee and I will therefore be unable to stay for the winding-up of this debate. Therefore, in accordance with the customs of the House, I shall withdraw from the debate after confirming my strong support for the actions the Government have taken in this matter and for their latest consultation document about public sector contracts.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for her excellent speech and for securing this debate.
There are two questions at the heart of this issue: do the signatories to the Prompt Payment Code perform better on payment practices than non-signatories; and has the overall picture of late payments been shifted in a positive direction since the establishment of the code?
On the first question, it is hard to make an assessment. The code’s website provides no aggregate data and I can find no detailed reported data. On the website, companies are asked to supply data on how to get paid, and most do; their procurement policy, and some do; and their reported payment information, and I found none that did. Some have put in details under “payment terms comments” which are quite unbelievable. From the random—and undoubtedly totally unrepresentative—sample I looked at, 20% of the companies had written in payment terms of 90 days, which is against the code.
I welcome the new duty to report on payment practices but will the Minister give some indication of how both datasets will relate to each other? There is no evidence available to test the direct impact of the code on the companies that are signatories but public confidence is not evident. The last IoD survey from February this year showed that, as a means of addressing late payments, businesses felt that the Prompt Payment Code did not feature and that kitemarks for best practice as sector-specific codes carried the confidence of only 3% each. No doubt this relates to the performance of some individual signatories, and the example of Carillion is perhaps instructive.
Let me make a sobering point in an attempt to draw a conclusion on performance. In a survey on late payment by MarketInvoice, five of the worst offenders were shown to pay an average of 83% of their invoices late. Three of those—John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Kingfisher—were and remain signatories of the code.
On the question of whether the bigger picture has improved, the evidence, unfortunately, suggests the opposite. The cost of late payments to SMEs is £40 billion to £50 billion and getting higher. However, I draw your Lordships’ attention to an excellent new index developed by Lloyds Bank called the working capital index. This was created to draw attention to the area of financial operational efficiency in the UK and is soon to publish its third report. It is an account of a variety of missed opportunities but reveals some important points about the problems of payment practices and late payments. It reveals that there is a £680 billion opportunity in the UK to release working capital and that, as a result of payment problems, working capital makes up 25% of net company debt.
The latest data shows that around a third of all invoices are reported as being paid later than agreed terms, and four times as many small firms reported longer payment times from customers compared to larger firms as part of the survey. Why has the code not had the intended impact? Put simply, there is no consequence for non-compliance. Transparency is low, enforcement is piecemeal, accountability is absent and trust in the system has eroded. Checks, investigations, improvements and the role and functioning of the code’s compliance board need to be addressed. Naming and shaming has not worked when you look at any company that has faced such a problem; the example of Debenhams and its terrible performance is instructive.
Companies need to take this seriously. When I first addressed the House on this matter in 2015, when the legislation establishing the Small Business Commissioner was passed, we contacted a number of companies to try to find out how they used the Prompt Payment Code. Not once were we directed to the finance department. Not once when we contacted the finance department did they know that they were members of the code. In every example of the companies we used—also probably unrepresentative—we were directed to either the PR department, the corporate affairs department or the social responsibility department. It was not tied to finance. As a voluntary code, it needs to be tied to the part of the business that pays the bills.
I want to make a few suggestions on how to improve this. First, the code needs to be enhanced operationally. Naming and shaming and expulsion from the code—as the Federation of Small Businesses suggested—should be an absolute minimum for the worst offenders, while we should always find ways to commend the good performers. Secondly, by far the most useful thing would be to link the Government’s initiatives more strategically. The Government should place the code in the office of the excellent Small Business Commissioner, Paul Uppal. He and his brilliant team are doing very well in establishing the right approach and are well placed to make best use of and help with not just the PPC but the payment reporting requirements. I recommend strongly that the Government look into this.
Finally, some strength could be given to the areas where there seems to be a consensus and the Government’s determination to pursue good practice is backed up by a determination to bear down on bad practice. I plan to introduce a Bill on these measures soon and I hope that the Minister can indicate the Government’s willingness to support: in relation to payment practices, outlawing retrospective drops and requiring companies to publicly provide details of charges made to suppliers for storage, marketing or any other deduction or contract term that helps them to change or vary the price of supplied goods; outlawing payment dates of 120 days; dealing with the increasing problem of companies avoiding being taken to account for late payments by reclassifying them as payment disputes, by ensuring that a 30-day limit for resolving payment disputes becomes a part of all relevant sector codes and public sector contracts; and, finally, outlawing the idea that suppliers should be forced to accept giving a company a discount on the agreed price for paying on time.
The current measures employed by the Government are insufficient because there is too strong an economic incentive for cultural change to work. All evidence and economic analysis indicates this. Practices have to change the culture, not the culture change the practices. At the heart of this problem are the asymmetries of power, information, scale and capacity, which work too strongly in favour of late payment, particularly against small businesses. Without a degree of enforcement or compulsion, we can never overcome the legitimate fear for a small business that challenging a larger company will have adverse consequences. If reporting remains a problem, it is unlikely that the Prompt Payment Code will ever be effective.
My Lords, small businesses play a vital part in our national prosperity and well-being in terms of growth, employment, innovation, entrepreneurship, productivity, exports, apprenticeships and so many of the subjects that concern us in this House, not forgetting Brexit. However, they will not fulfil their potential if they have to spend a large part of their time and energy chasing payments they are owed. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, about a third of payments to SMEs are late and the UK has,
“the worst late payment culture in Europe”.
Having run small businesses myself, I know about the perennial challenge of managing cash flow and the difficulty of coping with late payments and ensuring that salaries get paid; sometimes it requires negotiation of emergency loans or overdrafts, or owners forgoing their salaries or having to make loans. In the worst cases, the business may have to close down, as some 50,000 SMEs do each year.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, on obtaining this debate and introducing it so powerfully. I also thank the Specialist Engineering Contractors’ Group for the helpful briefing it provided. At the same time, adding some criticism to my congratulations, I apologise to the House for the fact that many of my points have already been made, if not by the noble Baroness then by the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn. I will briefly comment on three issues, trying to skate over points that have already been made.
First, the Prompt Payment Code is a laudable attempt to improve SMEs’ chances of being paid within a reasonable timescale, but it does not seem to be working, as we have heard. In 2017, the Government announced that 32 of their biggest suppliers had voluntarily committed to pay 95% of invoices within 60 days and work towards adopting 30 days as the norm. That fact that one of those companies was Carillion, which issued its first profit warning four days later and had payment periods always well over 60 days, rather undermines that commitment. Carillion is by no means the only example of a larger company using funds that in effect belong to its smaller suppliers to meet its own cash needs. Last year, the Government set up the Small Business Commissioner to tackle the problem of late payments. He has made a promising start, but has so far received only 42 complaints, relating to 14 companies, and has commenced full consideration of only two. The message is that a voluntary code will not work, as we have heard. Given the understandable reluctance of SMEs to complain about the larger clients on which they depend, will the Minister consider ways to enable the commissioner to be more proactive in seeking out poor practice and giving him more teeth to enforce his findings—for example, through fines, which I believe the Minister has indicated he would welcome?
Secondly, public sector bodies are covered by the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, under which they have a statutory duty to ensure that all sub-contracts contain 30-day payment clauses. Again, there is no effective enforcement mechanism and most suppliers will not use the mystery shopper scheme. Therefore, these regulations also need beefing up, by requiring monitoring of compliance, mandating the use of project bank accounts—as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt—or instituting rewards and penalties based on performance in payment practice.
My final issue relates specifically to small firms in the construction sector, which suffer the additional burden of retentions: cash held back from the sums due to them on completing a contract, ostensibly so that the client can ensure that the work has been done properly. There are no codes or regulations that stipulate time limits for the release of these retention moneys; the average time they are held is thought to be about two years but it can be much longer. If the client becomes insolvent, the SME supplier loses the money owed to it completely. Some £700 million of funds has been lost like this over the past three years and the collapse of Carillion alone may have resulted in a similar scale of losses. Because of the uncertainty about when or whether the funds will be paid, the business to which they rightfully belong cannot borrow against them or use them to fund new investment, training or extra employment, thereby contributing to the economy.
This is not just unfair but plain wrong. The Government seem to recognise this but their response so far has been shockingly slow, going back many years. The latest study of the issue, commissioned in 2015, eventually reported last year. A consultation process ended in January and last month’s deadline for a government response has now passed. I echo the noble Baroness’s request for the Minister to indicate when that response will come. Apparently, the Government are seeking an approach with broad support and wish to avoid any potential negative economic consequences, but there is never likely to be much consensus between businesses whose funds are being withheld and those that are withholding them. The actual negative consequences for businesses deprived of funds that they have earned are plain to see.
The long-term solution may be a complete ban on retentions, but that will involve a major change of long-standing culture and behaviour in the construction sector and will take time. Something much more immediate is needed to ensure that funds owed to small businesses are properly protected, and soon. There is no shortage of possible approaches. We have heard about the tenancy deposit scheme in the rental housing sector. Others include the insurance-backed scheme in the lift industry—which has worked well for 17 years—or a guarantee-based scheme. Potential providers have indicated their willingness to offer or run such schemes. I also echo the support for the Private Member’s Bill introduced in the other place, the Construction (Retention Deposit Schemes) Bill, which has its Second Reading next month. That would require all cash retentions to be ring-fenced. The Minister made mildly encouraging noises about possible government support for this when he answered an Oral Question from me about retentions in February.
I end, therefore, by asking the Minister some further questions. What plans does he have to protect from loss retention money owed to small firms? How soon does he aim to have this protection in place, given the urgency of the need? Finally, will the Minister consider using the Aldous Bill as a vehicle to bring about the changes needed in the timescale needed?
Denying small firms funds that they have earned is not just unfair: it is a disgrace that is damaging to the positive impact they can make for the UK. The Government seem to recognise the problem. Other countries have already tackled it. It is high time that we did the same.
My Lords, forgive me for my hoarse voice. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for introducing this debate and—I do not have to thank too many people—the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Aberdare, for their incredibly detailed contributions. As the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, rightly said, it is very difficult not to repeat, to some degree, what has already been said.
My noble friend Lady Burt quite rightly pointed to Carillion. The effectiveness of the Prompt Payment Code is clearly seen in its collapse. Carillion was an early signatory to the code but prior to collapse had been exposed as making creditors wait 120 days to be paid. It is often small businesses that suffer most. The Government should mandate that all FTSE 350 companies sign up to a stronger code with a new “three strikes and you’re out” rule—something that many bodies have mentioned. This would target repeat offenders. At least the penalty would strip them of the right to be awarded government contracts, and it could be even harsher than that. Will the Minister detail how the Government feel that the “three strikes and you’re out” rule could be implemented, and what the penalties and the enforcement procedure would be?
During my preparations for this debate, many helpful points have been made from within the industry. I am sure that these points have also been made to other speakers. Late means late—that is, paying after a previously agreed date between two or more parties. It does not mean extended—extended payment is also late. Bills ought to be settled promptly, in full, to agreed terms and free of unnecessary charges. Small firms cannot be expected to lend interest-free to big companies.
Many firms view the Prompt Payment Code as toothless. It cannot be right that firms whose default position is 60-plus days can sign the code. It is the Prompt Payment Code, not the extended payment code. There is no obligation on signatories to pass on favourable terms they receive to sub-contractors or merchants.
Moreover, too many invoices are disputed or overlooked: “Oh, we never received your invoice. I’m sorry but you’ll have to wait for the next round for it to be seen”. An invoice can be disputed because it has a typing error: “I’m afraid it has to go back to the end of the pile. And by the way, we only settle our bills on the 7th of the month. You’ll have to wait for the next 7th of the month”. This is normal practice, and completely wrong according to the code. The date of the invoice ought to start the clock, not the date received. What, furthermore, is a “disputed” invoice? Something has to be put into legislation to describe what would be a disputed invoice that could delay payment.
One-sided changes in payment terms and conditions, or the length of time taken to settle invoices, are often a sign of cash flow or other financial problems. Delays by big companies can cause SMEs cash flow problems and take too much time and effort on the part of the creditor to chase debtors.
Previous attempts to eradicate bad practice by voluntary approaches have floundered. The scourge of late or non-payment is a long-standing issue that cannot be tolerated. The trend by some businesses to move to 120 days as a default position has to be confronted. Until settlement of bills becomes elevated to a board-level responsibility, late payment will persist. Those noble Lords who have been in business, or, as I was, practising as a chartered accountant, know what happens in reality. The very large client, which you treasure, has built up a debt to you of many thousands of pounds—I talk from bitter experience. At a certain date in the month that valued client will make a payment on account—a round sum. “Here’s £1,000, £2,000, £10,000” or whatever it is, they will say, at the same time as initiating new work—and the debt to you goes up. This is the bullying practice of the large client towards the companies that service it.
The Small Business Commissioner should focus on poor payment practice issues, including the more subtle forms of bullying such as the one I have just described. The Commissioner’s “name and shame” powers—they have briefly been referred to—should be used more obviously. If they are to be named and shamed, let us broadcast the fact and say that you should not be dealing with Carillion, or whichever firm it is, because they do not treat you properly. The powers should focus on serious instances of supply chain bullying. If you supply goods or services to a large organisation you do not want to risk losing the work, so the practice continues.
The word used in the heading of this debate is “code”—the Prompt Payment Code. I am afraid that codes are obeyed by ladies, gentlemen and boy scouts. They are not obeyed by anybody else. We must put some teeth into this legislation.
My Lords, I was never in the Boy Scouts so I lost that last metaphor, but I understand where it comes from. We owe a great debt of thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for raising this issue again—it has been discussed before—and doing so in contemporary terms by bringing us up to date with some of the issues of recent years. We have had some very good speeches. We have lost the noble Lord, Lord Cope: in that respect we have lost the little group of aficionados that was here for the Enterprise Bill in 2016 and covered this and related topics a number of times. It was very good to hear some of those tropes repeated today.
The general theme of those noble Lords who have spoken today is that while there have been welcome improvements in what the Government have been doing to help the problem of late payments, the current approach is not going to work. The central thrust is to change the culture and to believe that that will lead to a significant and speedy change in what has become current business practice. Using a code is not really the way forward—it is not even statutory and is not operated by the Government but through a franchise by a non-statutory body.
We supported the measures in the Enterprise Act 2016 that required large unlisted companies to publish information about payment performance and practices—strengthening the Prompt Payment Code in that respect—but we do not think that the situation today is satisfactory and we want big changes. The model that we had in mind for the Small Business Commissioner was the system used in Australia, where that post can operate in a way that causes things to happen, including fines. We do not understand why the Government do not want to take that forward.
Is funding a major problem? We have heard from many speakers that there are significant problems. I am not sure of the figures but we reckon that between £50 billion and £60 billion is tied up by the way companies have to deal with late payments.
On top of that there are two problems. The code itself is pretty good in terms of what it says, but the behaviour by companies, whether or not they are signed up to the code, has been egregious. We have had examples in recent debates about Diageo, the owner of Guinness and Johnnie Walker, which simply informed its suppliers that it was extending its payment terms from 60 to 90 days. AB InBev, owner of Budweiser, Stella and Boddingtons, has extended its terms of payment to 120 days. Heinz has doubled its payment terms from 45 to 97 days. The list goes on: it includes Monsoon, GlaxoSmithKline and Debenhams, to name just a few. It is a common theme. It is of course a perfectly logical response to difficulties within the marketplace. These companies put a squeeze on their suppliers to accumulate as much cash as they can. They also do it because they can and, in some sense, that is bullying.
All this comes out in the wash when we look at Carillion. The Carillion crisis has exposed how absolutely toothless the Prompt Payment Code really is. Despite being a signatory to the PPC since 2013 Carillion, as we have heard, was notorious for being a late payer. According to the FSB, it regularly required its suppliers to wait 120 days to be paid. I do not think there is any doubt that there is a problem.
The question is: is the code robust enough in itself? First, it is not very extensively used. We may get warm words about the numbers of signatories—I think it is nearly 2,000, which sounds a lot—but we are talking about a totality of companies and organisations vastly in excess of that: 32,000 mid-sized companies and 200,000 smaller companies. If we add micro-businesses, which are also eligible to come under the code, we are probably talking about 5 million or 6 million companies. Out of that number—perhaps 6 million or 7 million companies—we have 1,700 signatures. The code is not a successful or effective way of trying to change the culture. Secondly, the objective of the code is to ensure that there is a gold standard about how people should behave but if it is just a gold standard to aspire to, it obviously means that others will not meet that standard and therefore be excluded, so the culture will not be transformed in the way we are talking about.
We do not have what is required in the marketplace, so what are the proposals? I would like to add a couple to those we have heard of today. First, the Prompt Payment Code should be put on a statutory basis and it should not be franchised out but operated by the department concerned. Secondly, we need to look again at the link between the Prompt Payment Code and the Public Contracts Regulations, which have been mentioned by other speakers, and make sure that it actually works. Since the regulations are quite appropriate in requiring payment within 30 days and enforcing that throughout the value chain of the contracts concerned, there are real penalties which follow from non-conformance with it. It should not be possible for people to be reappointed to government contracts if they are clearly not fulfilling the requirements under the Public Contracts Regulations.
Thirdly, the retention scheme has been mentioned. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, suggested a model for setting up escrow accounts or public bank accounts to prevent the problem that happened with Carillion; money which should have been passed over ages ago to small contractors and others involved gets lost in a bankruptcy. This is already happening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—it is England that is behind. Surely the Government must now take action on this matter. We have heard about the consultation and the reporting cycle has now finished. Where is the action that will follow from that?
Fourthly, the sort of powers we are thinking about for the Prompt Payment Code are already to be found in other areas of government activity. For instance, the groceries code gives powers to the Groceries Code Adjudicator to fine companies which are in breach of that code 1% of their turnover. Why is that power not given to the Small Business Commissioner, who I am sure would jump at the chance .to level what he finds on the ground from the information flowing to him with the action that he needs to take. If we are not getting progress there, why are we not outlawing discounts by companies which attempt to take a cut when they make a payment within the normal rules? If there is a continuing problem, why does an automatic interest rate penalty not kick in at the Bank of England rate plus, say, 10%? I am sure that for any financier who is involved in trying to work out how to pay their bills, the prospect of having that bill increased by 10% if it is not paid within a certain time would focus their attention.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for securing this debate and for all the expertise and advice that has come from all other noble Lords who have spoken in it. I think particularly of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, and his account of some of the bullying practices used by some of the larger clients. I heard his desire that we should be not just naming and shaming but actively broadcasting the behaviour of some payers. These matters can certainly all be taken into account in the various consultations and decisions that we have to make in the future. As I said, I am grateful to all noble Lords for speaking, but I am sorry that we have lost my noble friend Lord Cope, who felt that he must be dragged away for another debate. I well understand that it was right that he should not speak if he was speaking in another debate.
As I hope to set out, we are actively taking steps to make the United Kingdom’s payment culture fairer while simultaneously providing a base of support for all our small and medium-sized businesses, which are the backbone of our economy. It is right that I should start with remarks about the Prompt Payment Code, the voluntary attempt by which the Government started the process of trying to ensure that companies should lead by example in paying their suppliers promptly and fairly. I am a great believer, as the Government are, in always trying a voluntary approach as a first step. We should not make a point of rushing into legislation but there are occasions, and enough examples have been given to me by all noble Lords in this debate, where the behaviour of certain companies—that of Carillion has been highlighted—leads us to a view that further action possibly needs to be taken. That will be considered and I hope I can set out just how we are going to consider all that.
However, I certainly take on board, for example, everything that the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, said about these matters and what we ought to do in this field. I will certainly look at his Bill when he introduces it in due course; I cannot comment on it in advance of that, just as I would not want to comment in advance on what our attitude is to my honourable friend Mr Peter Aldous’s Bill. But any measure that is introduced to address the unjustified late payment or non-payment of retentions needs to be simple, consistent and transparent. It is premature to commit on those things but we will consider them in due course, as we will consider all the points that noble Lords have made.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for highlighting the fact that there was Carillion. I rather expected that she would raise it and that if she did not, the next speaker would—and if not the next, then another. In fact, I think that nearly every speaker raised it.
I am conscious of the fact that I talked quite a lot about Carillion. I restrained myself from naming and shaming any companies that are currently working still but there are plenty more that could have come under the aegis of this debate.
The noble Baroness knows that she has considerable freedoms in what she can say in this House because of the various protections that she has. Perhaps she ought to take advice from her noble friend Lord Palmer of Childs Hill about not necessarily naming and shaming but broadcasting these points. I merely make that offer to her. My point was that I was pretty sure that Carillion would be mentioned because when one has a code of this sort, it is rather embarrassing that a large company which the Government have made use of, even if it no longer exists, quite obviously signed up to that code without—I will be polite—thinking about the consequences of what it had signed up to.
The fact is that we have a code and it performs a function. We should think about that function and not necessarily completely dismiss it as it is. We know that signatories to that code must pay 95% of invoices within 60 days, in all but exceptional circumstances, and work towards 30-day payment terms as the norm.
In recent years we have strengthened that code and all the Government’s strategic suppliers have signed up to it, as well as some of the UK’s largest businesses. That represents the 2,000 signatories that the noble Lord mentioned; as I understand it, that includes most of those that the Government deal with. This is an important step in moving towards a gold standard across the largest businesses in the United Kingdom, and I hope it will assist us in getting into the position that the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, talked about, in being in a better state than other countries. If a business believes a signatory is not complying with the code it can challenge its status, and the compliance board will take that into account. I think that I have dealt with the point that the noble Baroness made about Carillion.
The Chartered Institute of Credit Management, which administers the code on behalf of the department, works with all the signatories and challengers to recover payment debt and educate businesses of all sizes on the importance of good credit management and a positive payment culture. The principles of the code are effective only if taken seriously both by signatories and by the suppliers of signatories, which is why we are now exploring how the code can be strengthened and enforced. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and others were looking for more teeth. That is why we will be inviting views on this, as well as on wider payment matters, within the forthcoming call for evidence on unfair payment practices. The code is an important tool for setting best practice, but it is just one of the measures that the Government are using to promote fair payment.
In April last year we introduced a statutory duty for the UK’s largest businesses to report on their payment practices, policies and performance so as to increase transparency and provide small business suppliers with better information about those they intend to trade with. So far some 1,500 reports have been submitted on GOV.UK, and can be accessed easily by the public. Small business suppliers, journalists, academics and others can use that data to compare and contrast, and to hold large businesses to account for their payment practices.
As the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, will be aware, we launched the Small Business Commissioner in December last year, following the appointment of Paul Uppal in October. I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, had a debate on this subject in January, and I think I am right in saying that he has visited Paul Uppal and discussed these matters. Mr Uppal has an important role in supporting small businesses to resolve payment disputes with larger businesses, providing advice, and helping to bring about a culture change in payment practices and how businesses deal with each other.
The commissioner considers complaints by small businesses against their larger clients, but we also encourage businesses to report poor payment practice and cases of late payment in public sector contracts, including late payment through the supply chain, to the Cabinet Office’s mystery shopper service to investigate. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, who referred to that. That service provides a further route for suppliers to raise concerns about public sector procurement issues, including payments. It works closely with all public sector contracting authorities to broker a resolution to cases, and makes recommendations to improve procurement. I can assure the noble Lord that the mystery shopper service has handled some 1,300 cases since it was established in 2011, and is widely used by small businesses.
The Government are alert to the specific difficulties, particularly in certain sectors: construction has been named. In October last year my department published two consultations on payment practices within the construction sector. We are actively considering the responses and options for future policy. We are also consulting on how we should exclude suppliers from major government procurements if they cannot demonstrate fair and effective payment practices with their subcontractors. The consultation, to which I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, referred, will close early next month, on 5 June. The noble Baroness asked in her usual optimistic manner when we would respond to it, and I will give the usual response: we will respond shortly. I want to make it clear that we will consider the responses very carefully, and will respond in due course.
We believe that the voluntary approach is a good one, but sometimes it does not work as it should. The recent collapse of Carillion has shown there is still more that needs to be done to protect small businesses. It is with this in mind that a call for evidence is being launched by my department on how we can eliminate the continuing problem of unfair payment. The call for evidence will build on the Government’s existing late payment policies to drive an end to all the unfair payment practices that the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, highlighted when he talked about invoices and cheques being “in the post”, or getting lost in the post, or whatever.
All the steps I am announcing amount to a package of measures that will ultimately strengthen, as we need to, support for small and medium-sized enterprises. It is important, as we all agree, to do what we can to enable them to grow and create jobs by providing an environment in which they can flourish. I am grateful, as are the Government, for all the suggestions from those who have taken part in this short debate. Those suggestions too will be fed into the process. I hope that I have answered all the questions—or at least, I cannot answer them all, because these are matters that need to be considered. What I can say is that we accept that the voluntary approach is the right one to pursue, but it does not always get quite as far as it might, and there may be occasions when we have to look into taking things further in the future. I hope that that deals with all the points that have been made, so I will end my speech.
Civil Liability Bill [HL]
Committee (1st Day) (Continued)
6: Clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations may be informed by a review from time to time of relevant changes in motor vehicle technology and driving techniques.”
My Lords, this is a step back from the legal intricacies of the Bill to reflect on a wider issue. The problem that the Government identify is the high number and cost of RTA whiplash claims. Their policy objective and intended effect are to disincentivise minor exaggerated and fraudulent claims—that is, to bear down on costs by reducing compensation levels for all, and requiring medical evidence before claims are settled. The impact assessment records that the volume of RTA-related PI claims has remained fairly static over the last three years, with rising volumes of traffic, meaning that there are proportionately fewer fatal or serious accidents. It attributes this in part to improvement in vehicle design—for example, integrated seats and headrests. Yet the Department for Transport recorded, for the year ended September 2017, 27,000 killed or seriously injured, with 174,000 casualties of all severities.
Although there was a decrease in settled claims, attributable in part to LASPO reforms, financially settled soft tissue claims for that year totalled some 520,000, whether they were from whiplash or as a result of other road traffic accidents. What seems to be missing in this debate is any form of focus on a wider prevention agenda. It should be about not only reducing costs but avoiding the pain and suffering and sometimes life-changing injuries in the first place. Why are we not raging against the scale of all this, as well as chipping away at monetary compensation levels?
I should point out at this juncture my interest, set out in the register, as president of RoSPA, the safety charity, and am grateful to it for the information it provided. I shall instance just two developments which have the potential to make a difference. In-vehicle monitoring—telematics—is increasingly available in the UK. As noble Lords may be aware, these systems essentially monitor how, when and where a vehicle is driven. The system can provide in-vehicle alerts if pre-set parameters are exceeded. There are obvious benefits for crash reduction circumstances. At present, it is understood that take-up of a variety of different systems is ad hoc and the catalyst, particularly for younger drivers, is reduced insurance premiums. Would not a comprehensive national take-up campaign have a beneficial effect on the real reduction of whiplash, reducing not only costs but the actual medical effects and suffering?
It is understood that next week the European Commission will propose new regulations that will focus on the mandatory fitting of autonomous emergency breaking systems. It has been estimated by the EU new car assessment programme that AEB can prevent up to 38% of rear-end crashes and avoid 1,100 fatalities and 120,000 casualties over the next 10 years. Currently, about 21% of new cars fit AEB as standard. I hesitate to move into issues of the European Commission, but will the Government support those regulations, both before and after Brexit, if that is where we end up?
I am aware that this amendment may be seen as a bit away from the mainstream before us today, but I hold to my point that concerns over levels of compensation for whiplash should be about prevention as much as about having a fair and robust system of compensation. I beg to move.
I thank the noble Lord for his contribution to the debate and I acknowledge the importance of looking more widely at issues such as road safety in the context of addressing the very issue that this Bill is intended to deal with.
On the question of the European Union regulations, in so far as they have direct effect before exit day, they will form part of retained EU law, and in so far as they do not have direct effect by that date, they will not form part of retained EU law. Going forward, it will be for our domestic legislatures to consider the appropriate steps to take with regard to such measures, and of course they will be conscious of developments in other jurisdictions when addressing that point. I am sorry to revert to an earlier Bill and its progress through this House, but I thought that I ought to address that point directly.
We recognise that the definition of whiplash injury is complex and that there is a need to reconcile the current legal understanding with an accurate medical definition that covers both injuries and symptoms. That is why we developed the definition of a whiplash injury, and the wider reform proposals, with extensive input from expert stakeholders, including medical experts, in order that we could come to a view about the appropriate definition for these purposes. In developing the whiplash reforms, we have considered the impact of improvements in vehicle safety. Indeed, developments in vehicle safety have been one of the features of the analysis and impact assessment that have been carried out. As the Government have mentioned on several occasions, it is surprising that the number of whiplash claims continues to be so high despite the significant improvements in vehicle safety over recent years, including the development of safe seats and head restraints which have had such a material bearing on safety in road traffic cases.
The amendment would enable the Government to take account of advances in vehicle safety and driving techniques when revising the definition in regulations. The noble Lord did not go so far as to incorporate the possibility of increasing numbers of driverless vehicles—but, looking further ahead, that is an additional development that we may have to take into consideration. It is crucial that we retain the ability to continue to amend the definition of whiplash in order to reflect all these developments, some of which may come along far more rapidly than we presently anticipate. That is why in the first instance we propose that the definition should be set out in regulations that can be amended and, in any event, allowing for the suggestion that there should be a more extensive definition in the Bill, it would be essential that there should be the means to amend that definition rapidly in response to changing conditions, and to do so by way of regulations.
When addressing changes in the definition, the Government would wish to take account of all relevant information, including that pertaining to matters of road safety, vehicle development and safety development—but we are not persuaded that this needs to be in the Bill as it is something that the Government would routinely do when addressing changes to the definition. I am persuaded that being able to amend the definition through regulations is an appropriate and sensible way forward, and I hope that that will give the noble Lord at least some comfort that the issues he raises will not be ignored going forward—and, indeed, could be accommodated by the present provisions of the Bill. I hope the noble Lord will consider it appropriate to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for a very comprehensive reply. I should say that looking to deal with the definition in the amendment was pretty much a peg on which to raise the issue that I did. The Minister prompted me on driverless vehicles. As it happens, I had half an ear to the television set in my office yesterday when I was drafting some of this, so I caught up on that debate. It certainly should feature in the future.
There is a broader issue here—I accept it is not for this Bill—about whether we could make a dramatic improvement to some of the casualty numbers by a comprehensive effort, particularly around some of the black box technologies. The insurance companies bear some of the costs of that at the moment. It may be that they should be asked to do more. What I am looking for here is a thorough, comprehensive focus. If we had the same intensity of focus on dealing with road traffic accidents that we have—dare I say?—on Europe, we might have made a real difference already. Having said that, I am grateful to the Minister for his response and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Amendment 7 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Damages for whiplash injuries
Amendments 8 to 10 not moved.
11: Clause 2, page 2, line 35, leave out from “amount” to end of line 13 on page 3 and insert “determined in accordance with the 14th edition of the Judicial College Guidelines for the Assessment of General Damages in Personal Injury Cases or any subsequent revision to these guidelines.”
My Lords, the long string of amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Marks has a very simple purpose: to enable us to debate the proposed tariff and, in particular, two different types of tariff. The first, essentially contained in Amendment 11, is a tariff based on the Judicial College Guidelines. The second is a fixed, specified and structured tariff. This is essentially contained in Amendment 96, where the amounts are place-holders based on the average of awards actually made. Before I discuss either of these variations, I should again mention the Delegated Powers Committee recommendation that,
“it would be an inappropriate delegation of power for damages for whiplash injury to be set in a tariff made by Ministerial regulations rather than on the face of the Bill”,
and that the tariff,
“should be set out on the face of the Bill, albeit amendable by affirmative statutory instrument”.
At Second Reading, the Minister noted this recommendation and responded by saying:
“We consider that being able to regulate the tariff by the affirmative procedure is a more flexible way of being able to respond to changes”.—[Official Report, 24/4/18; col. 1531.]
That is precisely what the DPRRC proposed should happen after first setting out the tariff in the Bill. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will give a fuller answer as to why he believes that the tariff should not be in the Bill but should be fixed by an unamendable statutory instrument.
I turn to the question of the tariff itself. Should damages remain determined by application of the Judicial College Guidelines, or should they be fixed amounts? If fixed amounts, what should those be? These questions go to the heart of the matter. If we stay with the Judicial College Guidelines, the system would be relatively unchanged, although we could reduce awards for injuries of less than three months’ duration if, for example, we thought that that was where fraudulent claims were concentrated. If we move away from the Judicial College Guidelines to the example tariff contained in the impact assessment or to the tariff published yesterday by the Government, there will be very profound changes. The tariff published yesterday is even lower—by about 4.7%—than the example tariff on page 26 of the impact assessment. It would be interesting to know how these tariff levels were arrived at and what objectives were used in deriving them. For example, was there a target reduction in the cost of total damages awarded? If so, on what basis was this target chosen? Can the Minister explain the basis of the construction of the tariff amounts and tell us whether there was indeed a target for overall damage reduction?
Whatever method was used to devise the Government’s proposed tariff levels, in either the example tariff or yesterday’s tariff, both would have a very large effect. These new tariffs would transfer £1 billion away from claimants, via insurers, wholly or partially to motorists in the form of reduced premiums. That is a very large transfer. It is made up of £240 million in claims that would no longer proceed under the new tariff—assumed to be around 133,000—£550 million because of the reduced awards for every successful claimant, and £190 million from insurers no longer picking up legal fees and VAT. On the way, and as a consequence of this transfer, the general taxpayer would be hit for £140 million by reduced revenue from IPT and some loss of revenue to the NHS. If the Government’s tariff levels are applied, there will be, they calculate, a lot fewer claimants and, it is to be hoped, fewer fraudulent claimants, deterred as they might be by the banning of no-med settlements and very low tariff awards. This means that those successful claimants remaining will carry the burden of this transfer. Claimants will be £1 billion worse off; motorists will be £1 billion better off. What is the Government’s justification for such a massive transfer of funds? There are two questions to answer. First, what is the evidence base that justifies any transfer? Secondly, why this amount? Why such a very large reduction in amounts awarded to claimants? Why not a smaller reduction—or, for that matter, a larger one? What is the justification for this level of transfer?
In the impact assessment and in the Minister’s speeches at Second Reading, it was clear that some care had been taken to avoid using fraudulent claims as the main reason for the proposed changes. However, I note that today the Minister seems clear that this is in fact the main driver. As we noted at Second Reading, claims about the incidence of fraud are highly contested. Is there in fact a reasonable and properly evidenced consensus about the extent or cost of fraudulent or exaggerated claims? I worry that there is not.
There are certainly competing claims from all the many vested interests involved, including the insurance industry, but no independent assessment to help us reach an evidenced view. The Government more or less recognised this when they set out in the impact assessment the principal justifications for the proposed changes. They were all economic and based on a need they saw to correct three alleged market failures. The first failure—if you can really call it that—was asymmetric information. Only a victim could really know the extent and duration of the pain and suffering caused by whiplash, and the Government see this as an incentive to fraudulent or exaggerated claims. So it may be, but we do not seem to know how many or to what extent. But punishing all genuine whiplash claimants by hugely reducing their awards is surely not a reasonable remedy. Why punish these people and reward motorists for an unquantifiable, or at least unquantified, number of fraudulent or exaggerated claims?
The second market failure is alleged to be that of perverse incentives. This refers to legal fees. The Government claim that if legal fees were not recoverable or were less recoverable, this would bring down the number of claims. So it might, but would this be reasonable? In any case, this alleged saving is by no means the major element in the transfer of funds away from claimants.
The third alleged market failure is that of insurance companies settling claims without proof of injury. Here, there is obviously a genuine market failure, and I am very glad to see the Bill banning this practice. However, nowhere in the impact assessment’s justifications for action is there any reference to the huge transfer—over £500 million—that is brought about simply by the introduction of much lower awards for all claimants. Again, what is the evidence base for such a reduction?
The Government’s proposed tariff is significantly lower than the current actual awards in every duration band. For injuries lasting up to three months, current awards average £1,800; the Government propose £225. For injuries lasting between three and six months, current awards average £2,250; the Government propose £450. That carries on all the way up the duration scale. This all looks like an arbitrary and huge transfer of money from claimants to motorists via insurance companies. The Government have given no justification for the scale of this transfer and no explanation why claimants should be so punished and motorists so rewarded. I imagine that we will hear such claims as, “It is generally accepted that claim levels are too high”. This is not a sound basis for policy decisions, certainly not involving huge transfers of funding on this scale, which also create very serious anomalies.
As we pointed out at Second Reading, an injury of 24 months’ duration identical in its effects, if suffered at work, would attract up to £6,500. For whiplash, the Government would restrict you to £3,725. If the Government want a fixed tariff, as they clearly do, then they should put this tariff in the Bill, so that we have the opportunity to amend it. As importantly, they must justify this £1 billion transfer from claimants to motorists. They must explain why all claimants for whiplash should suffer and all motorists benefit.
My Lords, if this amendment is agreed to, Amendments 12 to 22 inclusive cannot be called by reason of pre-emption.
My Lords, I understand that the clear purpose of Part 1 of the Bill is to discourage false claims for whiplash injuries in road traffic accidents. The proposed method, besides wisely insisting henceforth on medical reports, is essentially by substantially reducing the damages recoverable in such claims to, as the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, has just explained in some detail, figures well below those that are suggested in the 14th edition of the Judicial College guidelines, based as they are on typical court awards for such injuries.
The real question raised here is whether it is right to create especially low awards and, if so, how much lower than the norm for this particular injury suffered in this particular way specifically because disproportionate numbers of this sort of claims are likely to be false, not least because it is highly subjective and very difficult to establish objectively the reliability of the complaints. These are essentially political questions. It may be addressing the next group of amendments to say that it would make no sense whatever to involve the judiciary in answering these political policy questions. We know what the courts regard as the appropriate levels; we have those from the Judicial College guidelines.
As to what the political answer is to the precise level of damages proposed and whether or not it should be on the face of the Bill, I am essentially agnostic—although if anything I would favour that it should be. What rather surprises me is that, as I understand it, none of the amendments to the Bill is designed to challenge the whole Part 1 approach, which inevitably involves discrimination against those genuinely claiming for whiplash injuries in this context. Is the problem, one may ask, despite a number of improvements in the overall legal landscape over recent years—and indeed, no doubt consequentially, some reduction in the level of these claims—really bad enough to justify that whole approach? That does not seem to be squarely addressed in any of the amendments.
That said, I would add that I am in broad agreement with the whole idea of tariffs for injuries, certainly for lesser injuries, and indeed even of reducing awards in respect of a number of these lesser injuries. When I used to practise in this area decades ago, I used to think even then that lesser injuries were altogether too generously compensated, certainly in comparison to the graver injuries, which were not. Tariffs promote certainty and predictability, although of course always at the cost of some flexibility. That very predictability and certainty cuts down the enormous expense, the worry, the concern, the delay and the hassle of litigating expensively—as it invariably is—in this field. Indeed, that is also the effect of raising the small claims tribunal limits. I therefore also tend to support that to some degree in respect of these lesser injuries.
Overall, one must recognise that this is par excellence a policy issue, and it is for the Crown to justify Part 1 in the way that I have indicated. Part 2 raises very different questions, and to that I give my total support.
The amendment tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Marks, seems at least to question the underlying premise behind these reforms. I respectfully suggest that the Government have established the premise. The Minister set out the Government’s case, as it were, at Second Reading, and the statistics seem to lead ineluctably to the conclusion that there is widespread abuse of the whole whiplash claims system. The solution, though it is inevitably somewhat rough and ready, is that there should in effect be a reduction in what claimants might have been able to claim under the system that currently obtains, although that is in relation only to damages for pain, suffering and loss of amenity and excludes loss of earnings or any other consequential losses. It is a reduction but a fairly modest one and we are speaking of injuries at the lower end of the scale, although I do not downplay the discomfort that can follow from whiplash injuries. However, the purpose behind the reforms is surely, first, to provide certainty and, secondly, to make the awards reasonably modest so as to provide less of an incentive for those who would seek to make fraudulent claims. That, combined with the ban on medical officers, should fulfil what is, as the noble and learned Lord rightly says, essentially a policy decision.
In effect, the losers about whom we should be concerned are those genuine claimants, as opposed to the many who are not genuine, who I accept will get a lesser sum than they would otherwise have obtained. In the round, though, I suggest that this is a sensible policy decision. The House may have in mind that when these reforms were initially trailed by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne—and it came from the Treasury rather than the Ministry of Justice—the suggestion was that there would be no damages at all for whiplash injuries. This is a modification of that change, and of course there is the right of the judges to have an uplift in circumstances that we may be exploring later. Still, I suggest that it would be a mistake to pass these matters back to the judges. The Judicial College guidelines are in fact an extrapolation from individual cases decided by judges. They then, as it were, create a form of certainty, although they are variable according to individual cases.
I think the Government have made a case. They have to grasp the nettle, and they have done so in this case.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Marks, for framing a good debate in this important area, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for his very clear opening remarks. There seem to be three issues here: first, who should set the tariff; secondly, where it should be set out; and, thirdly, how it should be amended.
I regard the tariff as being very much a political matter. The problem that we are trying to cope with is a widespread low-level fraud that is afflicting our country. It is easy money offered by the claims industry for people following what are probably genuine motor accidents. I read out earlier a quite shocking quote from one of the leading people in the claims industry:
“Even if you don’t experience any symptoms straightaway, don’t rule out the possibility that you’ve suffered this type of injury”.
I feel that as it is a political and social problem it must have a political solution, and it cannot really have a judicial solution.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, who has lent me his copy of the Judicial College guidelines. The introduction states:
“Assessing the appropriate level of any award remains the prerogative of the courts, which are not constrained by any range identified in this book, since the figures within any such range are persuasive, not obligatory, and merely represent what other judges have been awarding for similar injuries”.
Therefore, the whole basis on which the Judicial College has been gathering figures and making judgments is not the sort of basis on which in any event one would want to build a tariff construction. It is the wrong starting material, although it is an interesting book. Accordingly, I feel that the Lord Chancellor must be the person who takes a decision about what will be contained in the tariff.
In respect of my other two questions, I return to the 22nd Report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which considered this issue at paragraph 13 and stated:
“In our view it would be an inappropriate delegation of power for damages for whiplash injury to be set in a tariff made by Ministerial regulations rather than on the face of the Bill. The tariff should be set out on the face of the Bill, albeit amendable by affirmative statutory instrument”.
I feel that answers both my questions. I urge the Minister to consider having a tariff on the face of the Bill and to ensure that it is amendable with suitable parliamentary oversight.
My Lords, the amendments are, as has been said, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Sharkey. I shall first add to the point made about the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee by quoting what it said about placing the tariff in the Bill. It said that the second central question—the first being the question that I quoted earlier about what is meant by whiplash injury—is:
“By how much are awards of damages to be reduced?”
The committee said that the Government’s answer was that:
“The reduction in damages will be whatever the Lord Chancellor says it will be, in regulations to be made by him or her at some future date”.
The committee came to the conclusion, as the noble Earl pointed out, that that is an inappropriate delegation of power. I again make the point that it is appropriate for the Government to accept that recommendation. That has always been the way that that committee’s recommendations have been dealt with. Of course, amendment in the future can be made by statutory instrument.
I turn to the important point that was made in different ways by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, which is that the cost paid by society for these reforms in this particular case—that is, the reduction in damages—is a reduction in awards for genuine claimants. It is genuine claimants who are made to suffer. I cannot see the justification for that in any of the evidence that the Government have produced. We accept entirely that there is a problem with fraud. We are fully behind attempts to tackle fraud by eliminating, or at least reducing, fraudulent claims. But to remove the right to fair damages for claimants in these particular types of cases does not seem to be an appropriate response to this problem in a civilised society.
We address this central problem by saying that the Judicial College Guidelines are an appropriate way of coming to a conclusion on appropriate damages. They are a fair and workable way in which to achieve comparability. They avoid the problem that fraud may be positively encouraged by a cliff-edge system that encourages exaggeration. Damages under this proposal double if the claimant can persuade the medic who is preparing his report that an injury will have a duration of three months-plus, rather than just short of three months—doubled from £225 to £450. In that context, I make two points. The first is that it is a little odd that the response—
Does the noble Lord accept the argument that the quantum of damages is essentially a political decision that should be taken and justified in Parliament, not taken by judges in courts? How do aggrieved people achieve change there? We know how they achieve change in a political situation: they can lobby their Member of Parliament and get change. Is the noble Lord saying that this must be left to the judges and that we have no way of obtaining redress for decisions that an individual might feel are unfair or inaccurate?
Absolutely not. The Judicial College can respond, and be required to respond, to political guidance if Parliament chooses to legislate on the level of damages. I do not say that that is what is wrong. My concern is about the fairness and comparability of picking out whiplash injuries in an attack on fraud and reducing the compensation to genuine claimants accordingly. My point about the £225 and £450 figures—
Does the noble Lord accept that if you reduce the amount of damages, it provides something of a disincentive to those who are fraudulent?
Of course I accept that. It is a question of whether the cost in unfairness is worth paying. It is a dilemma that the noble Lord himself correctly outlined in his speech. We are simply saying that we ought to try every other avenue before trying this drastic avenue of introducing an unfair system for genuine claimants. I will see if I can get beyond the next couple of sentences.
My point about the £225 and £450 figures is that they represent a cliff edge. They compare to £1,800, which is the expected award set out in the Government’s impact statement for such injuries of less than three months’ duration to date. The Government’s response to the outcry that these damages are so low has not been to meet the outcry at all but to reduce them from £235 to £225 and from £470 to £450.
One of our problems with the present proposals is that there is no evidence base for a recent increase in the number of fraudulent claims. We entirely accept the case that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, made both on Second Reading and today that there is a wide prevalence of fraudulent claims that we have to tackle. However, there is not a wide base of evidence for an increase in such claims, nor is there sufficient evidence of how many claims are fraudulent or genuine. There is certainly no evidence that only the fraudulent claims would be deterred and that the genuine claims would continue. That worries me seriously, because the noble and learned Lord suggested earlier today that a genuine claimant might continue whereas a fraudulent one might be deterred. We simply do not accept that. It is just as likely—and I say this also without an evidence base—that genuine claimants would be deterred because the amount at stake had become so low, even though they had a fair claim.
We entirely agree with the Government that the proposal for compulsory medical reports discriminates between genuine and fraudulent claimants. I repeat my declaration at Second Reading that I have just concluded some litigation about compulsory medical reports and the operation of the pre-action protocol. However, there is no corresponding evidence of discrimination in the case of these drastic cuts in damages, which we say are unjust, unfair and fail to give fair compensation to genuine claimants. They discriminate unfairly between injuries sustained in road traffic accidents by drivers and passengers in motor vehicles and those sustained in such accidents by cyclists and pedestrians. Who would receive the traditional level of damages? Passengers and motorists would not, even in genuine cases. They discriminate unfairly between accidents which are covered by the Bill and accidents at work or accidents caused by, for instance, a council’s negligence. Those can also be a source of fraudulent claims.
If the Government are determined to have a tariff, we are worried about the cliff edge. I see no fundamental reason in principle against a tariff; it is a question of weighing the advantages of certainty outlined by the noble and learned Lord against the fact that you have a cliff edge where those cases that are very close to the three-month level produce very large discrepancies in damages. If we are to have a tariff, let it at least be one that does not penalise genuine claimants by allowing them an award that is far too low. That is the basis for our alternative Amendments 13 and 96. We do not put them forward as a preferred option, but they are more acceptable than the Government’s proposals.
My Lords, I concur with the views expressed and proposals made by the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Marks. They are absolutely on the right track, although I do not agree with the provision for the Judicial College Guidelines to be taken into account. It will be seen that in the next group, we have an alternative proposal suggesting that the Civil Justice Council should be involved in making the decisions.
In this group, however, there is an amendment in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McKenzie which would restore a degree of discretion for the court to uplift the amount of damages payable where it deems it just to do so in all the circumstances of the case. That would revive the role of the judiciary in assessing damages, at least to some extent, where it felt that the scale proffered under the legislation was inadequate—as noble Lords have already made clear, that seems likely in many cases.
I broadly support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey and Lord Marks, and will revert to one aspect to which I referred in the next group.
My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions that have been made. It respectfully appears to me that the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Marks, materially bolstered the approach that the Government take in the Bill. Why do I say that? Because it is quite clear that we are addressing a matter of policy and have to do so as such. What ultimately has to be taken here is a political decision, not a judicial determination.
In fairness, I think it was a slip from the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, but when he talked about the question of whether claims are genuine or not reasonable, he said that it was unquantifiable—and then corrected himself to unquantified. The former is more accurate than the latter.
Let us be clear. More than 80% of road traffic injuries are allegedly whiplash-induced injuries. The vast majority of all personal injury claims are whiplash claims. Over 10 years, the number of whiplash claims has rocketed—yes, it has stabilised a little in the past year or two, but it has still rocketed. At the same time, the number of road traffic accidents reported has dropped by 40%. At the same time, the number of vehicles classified by Thatcham as safe from the perspective of seating and headrests has increased from 18% to 80%.
As some people have said, an industry is going on. As others have suggested, there is a racket. We have a claims culture that has built up—I attribute no blame to any one party; all sides involved have contributed in one way or another to the ballooning of the claims culture. The time has come—indeed, the time may be almost past—when we need to address it as a political issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, suggested that somehow we were making a transfer from claimants to motorists. With great respect, a very large proportion of claimants are motorists, so it is not as simple and straightforward as that. Secondly, he talked about the transfer requiring to be justified. The transfer is a consequence of the policy decision we are making to deal with the industry, the claims culture; it is not the purpose of it. It is, as I say, the consequence.
In fact, I was asking the noble and learned Lord, with respect, to justify the quantum, but perhaps he is going to deal with that.
With respect, as I say, the quantum is a consequence of the steps we are taking to address the claims culture. The way in which we are doing it is such that we are confident that the benefits will be passed to consumers in the form of motor insurance premiums.
In that case, perhaps the noble and learned Lord could explain exactly how the tariff was constructed—on what basis?
Yes, I shall come to that. We have had regard to the present level of damages awarded in these cases, we have had regard to expert input about how we can deal with the claims culture that has built up, and we have taken the view on the level of tariff required to implement the policy decision that we have made to deal with this emerging problem.
Does the Minister accept that that is not really an explanation? It is simply a statement that the Government have done something. I was asking for the basis on which they arrived at these numbers. In fact, oddly, the numbers changed between the impact assessment and the SI published yesterday. There must be a reason for that; there must have been some discussion. There must be some basis on which these amounts were constructed, but it is not clear from his answer what they are.
With respect, first, I understand that there was not intended to be a change between the impact assessment and the SI publication. That is why the rather odd difference of 4 point something per cent emerges. I acknowledge that that was not intended.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps he will confirm to the House that even the Judicial College guidelines or awards of damages by judges for pain, suffering and loss of amenity are not mathematically calculated; they are figures arrived at doing the best that a judge can to represent the nature of the injury by such an award.
I think this is a misunderstanding. I was not trying to imply that there was an element of certainty involved here. I simply wanted to know how the figures had been arrived at. Why not some other figure? Instead of 235, why not 200? Why not 400? How were these figures arrived at?
With respect, a judgment had been made having regard to all the information available as to what level should be set for the tariff to address the very problem that we are attempting to deal with. It is not based on some mathematical formula or percentage.
I refer my noble and learned friend to his previous comment which, fairly, recognises that all parties are to blame, which is something that I think he conceded at Second Reading—that the insurance industry shares part of the blame. May I clarify? When he says that all parties are to blame for this, may I clarify that he was not including the genuine claimants, who have become a focus in this House: that they are not to blame for an industry, a racket or whatever created by others?
Everybody readily acknowledges that point but, with respect, you cannot take 650,000 claims and identify 300,000 that happen to be fraudulent, or 200,000 that happen to be exaggerated. A policy decision has to be made, acknowledging that there are within that very large body of claims perfectly genuine claims, perfectly fraudulent claims, exaggerated claims and minor claims that would never have been brought but for the encouragement of a claims industry that sees the financial benefit of ensuring that people take these claims forward. That is part of the culture that has developed. I noticed that when the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, suffered an unfortunate accident on the Tube and mentioned it in this House, he was asked if he intended to make a claim and said no. One was encouraged by that. People tend to consider that these events can happen; they may be able to point the finger of blame at someone, but they feel that life goes on and it is unnecessary to be distracted by such issues. We have a claims management culture that goes out of its way—many noble Lords have noted it—to encourage people who would otherwise think nothing of a minor injury to come forward and join the bandwagon. Let us emphasise: this is a matter of policy that we are addressing in these circumstances.
On that point, the Minister will be aware that the business model for insurance companies is to assist those who they insure, and to make claims against others when it is appropriate. They are part of that industry, and some of them own claims management companies. Will the Minister explain to the House what he undertook in terms of research to make sure that the figures he is basing his assertions on are correct?
I acknowledge the noble Baroness’s expertise in these areas as a non-executive director of Thompsons Solicitors, and her knowledge of the claims culture that has built up. With respect, in carrying out our work, we looked at the behaviour of the insurance industry in this context. Of course, the insurance industry can operate as an intermediary because, where the claims arise, it passes on the costs to the consumer by way of increased premiums. There have been instances in the past where insurance companies have passed on details of their own insurees’ claims to third parties and that has been exploited. I was quite open earlier in saying that we acknowledge the contribution of a number of different parties to what has developed into an unacceptable claims culture. That is what we are seeking to address in this Bill.
Can I continue just a little further in that context? The first group of amendments from the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Marks, proposed that compensation for pain and suffering should be determined by reference to the Judicial College guidelines. Indeed, the second set of amendments proposed to place the tariff amounts into the Bill rather than in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor. All those figures would be significantly higher than those proposed by the Government—indeed, more in line with the amount currently paid out by claim.
I understand that noble Lords feel that the proposed tariff amounts are too low, but we continue to be concerned about the high number and the high cost of these claims in general, and the impact of that on the consumer. Therefore, we have to take a policy view as to how we can disincentivise not just fraudulent claims but what I would call unmeritorious claims—very minor and exaggerated claims. Our view is that it is right to set the tariff through regulations, which will help to control those costs and ensure greater certainty to both claimants and defendants when they come to deal with these claims, remembering that the vast majority of these claims never reach court anyway. They are dealt with before they ever arrive at the door of a court. In addition, we consider that a tariff will provide the flexibility required to change the tariff amounts, in reaction not just to inflation but to changes in the market, if I can gently call them that. We know that we are dealing with a marketplace; it is extremely inventive and can rise again phoenix-like from any statutory provision that we bring forward.
Therefore, we are going to have a tariff of predictable damages, albeit for those who suffer injury with a duration of up to 24 months. That is a relatively minor personal injury, but not one to be dismissed—and we do not seek to dismiss them. The relevant tariff will then be applied. It will be far simpler for someone to take their claim forward and, of course, we then have in place the requirement for an independent medical expert report, albeit in circumstances of dealing with subjective complaints of injury, as the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, acknowledged. They can be very difficult to determine. If someone comes forward with symptoms, on the basis of a subjective assessment, a report can be made, but it can be very difficult to determine whether those subjective complaints are well based. Indeed, as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, observed, there are claims management companies that would encourage someone to come forward even if he had not suffered any symptoms so far, in the belief that something might emerge in due course. That is why we have taken that approach, albeit we have allowed for the judiciary to have input so that it can, in appropriate or exceptional circumstances, increase the tariff award by up to 20%.
I just wanted to make this point, but because of the noble and learned Lord’s plea I have perhaps left it a little late, as he has left the question of the figures. He made it clear that a political judgment was made in reaching these figures. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, asked for clarification that the Judicial College guidelines, on which we rely, were merely an extrapolation from judges’ awards. However, as I expect the noble and learned Lord will accept, there is an element of circularity here because the judges reach their decision as to what is appropriate invariably after having the Judicial College guidelines cited to them, so they feed on themselves and are therefore a fairly carefully worked-out set of figures into which there could be political input.
With respect, as the noble Lord outlined, they are self-perpetuating figures. Therefore, although we have regard to those guidelines when coming to a view as to where the tariff should be set, that was only one element in deciding the appropriate levels for the tariff itself.
I shall turn for a moment to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, which would provide the court with complete discretion with regard to any percentage increase of exceptional circumstances. We do not consider that that is an appropriate way forward. It would simply lead to an increase in litigation and in the claims culture, so that is why we feel that there should be an appropriate limit on how any exceptional circumstances can be dealt with by the court.
In that context, I should point out that the tariff system is not entirely a novelty. Other European jurisdictions faced with the same claims culture and the same racket, as some people have called it, have introduced tariffs as well, or tables of predictive damages. That includes Italy, Spain and France. In due course both Houses will have the opportunity to debate the details of any regulations that are introduced to put forward the appropriate figures for the tariff, which at present we consider should be in the regulations, if only for the purposes of flexibility.
Again, I want to emphasise that this is essentially a matter of policy to deal with a very particular problem. It is a political decision; it is not one that we consider is for the judges; it is one that is ultimately for the Lord Chancellor to deal with in his capacity as a Minister. It is in these circumstances that I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for the long and comprehensive—and occasionally interrupted—answer. There is an issue here. I accept that it is a political decision, of course, and we are all operating on that basis, but I am still worried and puzzled about the way in which this table of tariffs has been devised. I have heard nothing from the Minister to suggest that it is not arbitrary. In particular, he did not answer my question so perhaps he can do it now. Were the figures devised on the basis of some target saving being set and then working backwards to say what the tariff would be to generate that saving? If that is the case, we ought to be told.
Can I be clear to the noble Lord? I am not aware of there having been any target saving. As I sought to indicate earlier, this was rather an approach from the other direction: what policy is required? Effective policy is required to deal with the problem facing us.
The Minister will forgive me if I say that that sounds a bit like the back of a political envelope. The question still remains. We are interested in what these figures are, and it would help our discussions if we had a clearer idea of how they were arrived at. I am sure that we will want to pursue that as the Bill makes progress. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
12: Clause 2, page 2, line 35, leave out “specified” and insert “recommended annually by the Civil Justice Council and set out”
My Lords, this amendment and Amendment 29 set an alternative method for recommending a tariff, not via the Judicial College but via the Civil Justice Council, and it is suggested that this should be done on an annual basis. The Civil Justice Council is a body established by the Civil Procedure Act 1997, and it acts as an advisory body to the Lord Chancellor, who must then set out the recommended tariff under this amendment, in regulations. That is the substance of Amendment 12.
Amendment 29 makes the necessary changes to the Civil Procedure Act, which then empower the Civil Justice Council to include recommendations on the whiplash injuries damages tariff. In my submission, that is a better way of dealing with matters than either the Lord Chancellor doing it on a political basis or leaving it to the Judicial College. I understand the reservations about them. This is a better way of dealing with the situation, and I commend it to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have Amendment 14 in this group. Much of this ground was covered in the earlier debate, and I anticipate the Minister’s response in that light. I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Beecham that we perhaps need to find another route on this issue, and in a sense that is what Amendment 14 does. It seeks to place a duty on the Lord Chancellor to consult the Lord Chief Justice and obtain the agreement of the Judicial College on the proposed amount for tariffs, before making regulations to set damages tariffs for whiplash.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships’ House recommended that it is the judiciary, with their experience of personal injury claims, that should determine the provisions for damages or, failing that, the responsibility should be undertaken by independent medical experts. Noble Lords have referred to medical experts in earlier debates and recognise their value. I know that many would prefer the Government to abandon their plan to discard the use of the Judicial College guidelines for general damages claims, but there is value in the current guidance. This is a probing amendment, along with others, to find a way of enabling consultation and constraining the absolute power currently set out for the Lord Chancellor.
One of the worries that feeds this is that genuine cases may be dealt with in a way that leads to undercompensation. We do not know what the scale of the problem is, because the Government have not produced statistics on what they believe to be the level of genuine or, for that matter, fraudulent claiming. While that remains the case, we must surely protect those who have genuinely suffered and need to make a claim for good reasons.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the Bar Council recommended that the Lord Chancellor should be required to have regard to decided cases. That seems a reasonable approach. If the Lord Chancellor is required to consult the Lord Chief Justice before making regulations on the uplift in exceptional circumstances, what justification can there be for him not to consult the Lord Chief Justice on the tariff amounts generally? It may be that, with its experience, the Judicial College guidelines would be an appropriate starting point and basis for consultation.
We recognise the power of the Government’s argument generally to change and make reforms, but it is also important to recognise the value of the judiciary’s knowledge in this field and the importance of consulting them in setting tariffs. After all, they have the experience.
I just wanted to say one thing. First, I am not sure whether I have declared during Committee that I was a Minister in the Ministry of Justice when the subject of whiplash reform was frequently discussed, although the precise shape of that reform did not manifest in the same way that it does in this Bill. I made that clear at Second Reading, but would like to make it clear now.
My Lords, I was rather hoping that my noble friend was going to explain the tariff, but that may be for another day.
If I respond shortly, it is not because I dismiss the importance of the amendments that have been moved but because I have already sought to set out the Government’s approach to the tariff, and I hope that will be appreciated. However, I understand the purpose of these probing amendments, in particular the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, which reflects some recommendations from the Bar Council. I will add two short points.
First, as I mentioned before, we allow for the 20% uplift for exceptional circumstances to be placed in the hands of the judiciary. Secondly, in setting the tariff, the Lord Chancellor is going to consult widely and take into account the views of a wide spectrum of interested parties in order to arrive at what is considered, for policy purposes, to be the appropriate levels, both now and in the future. However, we do not consider that it is appropriate to formalise any part of that consultation, for example by reference to consulting the Lord Chief Justice.
I have heard what has been said; it is essentially a development of the previous group of amendments. I appreciate why these additional amendments have been moved, but invite noble Lords to withdraw.
My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Amendments 13 to 22 not moved.
23: Clause 2, page 3, line 13, at end insert—
“(7A) Regulations under subsection (7) may not increase amounts in relation to claims by vulnerable road users unless the increase is to reflect increases in the retail prices index or the consumer prices index.(7B) In subsection (7A), “vulnerable road user” means any person other than a person—(a) using a motor vehicle other than a motor cycle on a road or other public place in England or Wales, or(b) being carried in or on a motor vehicle other than a motor cycle while another uses the vehicle on a road or other public place in England or Wales.”
My Lords, with the leave of the House I will move this amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord Berkeley, who is unable to attend this afternoon due to personal circumstances. This amendment addresses a slightly different issue from those that I have heard today. If the Bill is enacted, the Government also propose to increase the small claims track limit for personal injury cases from £1,000 to £5,000 for all road traffic accident claims and to £2,000 for all other personal injury claims. The Ministry of Justice’s impact assessment makes it clear that the small claims limit increase is part of a broader reform package, although the small claims limit proposals do not appear in the Bill, as they can be implemented through secondary legislation via an amendment to the Civil Procedure Rules.
When the Ministry of Justice published its consultation on reforming the soft tissue whiplash claims process, Cycling UK—to which I must pay tribute for providing the briefing—realised that the stated proposal to increase the small claims limit to £5,000 extended far beyond whiplash claims by car occupants. In partnership with RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, and Living Streets, the national charity for everyday walking, Cycling UK launched its Road Victims are Real Victims campaign, the catalyst for which was the shared concern that the consultation ignored the interests of road crash victims, particularly pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists—generically vulnerable road users.
Within the consultation, no reference was made to vulnerable road users. The focus was on whiplash, fraudulent claims and motorists, without consideration of the complexity of vulnerable road user personal injury claims, the different nature of the injuries typically sustained and claimed for or their vulnerable status. More than 6,000 people responded to the Road Victims are Real Victims campaign, writing to the Ministry of Justice in support of Cycling UK’s submissions and outlining their opposition to the proposed small claims limit increase, which disproportionately affects vulnerable road users. The MoJ’s consultation response failed to address any of the arguments raised on behalf of vulnerable road users, including the complexity of their claims or the nature of their injuries, save for one sentence in paragraph 86 acknowledging that certain points had been made but not responding to them.
The Government’s proposal to increase the small claims limit to £5,000 for all road traffic accident-related claims will affect 70% of cyclist personal injury claims and a similar percentage of motorcyclist personal injury claims, where the general damages for pain, suffering and loss of amenity are under £5,000. Cycling UK met with officials at the MoJ following publication of the consultation response, and explained why vulnerable road user personal injury claims should be excluded from the small claims limit increase to £5,000 and how that could be achieved simply through adopting the same definition of a road traffic accident claim for the purposes of the small claims limit, as the Government propose to adopt in Clause 1 of the Bill, which defines whiplash injury and refers to whiplash injury suffered due to driver negligence when someone is,
“using a motor vehicle other than a motor cycle”.
The Bill excludes vulnerable road users from the definition of whiplash and the whiplash reforms in the Bill. The changes to the small claims limit catch all road traffic accident personal injury claims, including those by vulnerable road users.
The consultation document made it abundantly clear that the Government’s main aim was to tackle what they perceived to be the “compensation culture” and both fraudulent and exaggerated whiplash claims. Whatever the extent of these problems, the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that vulnerable road users should not be penalised as a consequence of measures the Government implement to address them. I do not think that we are trying to say that this is a perfect amendment. I hope the Minister will understand that this is a probing amendment; we are seeking an assurance from him that he would be open to a consultation process. Before I end my contribution I suppose that I should declare an interest as a regular cyclist and a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group. I beg to move.
Talking about vulnerable road users, I was reading Tuesday’s edition of Insurance Times, and the opening sentence was:
“Justice minister Lord Keen makes the first concession on Civil Liability Bill ahead of it entering the committee stage in the House of Lords”.
It went on to say:
“Lord Keen sent a letter to peers this morning, and in it, he made his first real concession regarding the Bill”—
and it then went on to quote the Minister at some length.
I looked on the Bills in progress website and could not find any letter. I searched through my emails and could not find any letter; I searched through my junk mail and still could not find any letter from the Minister. I wonder whether he will simply tell me that I should not believe everything I read in Insurance Times, or whether there is some letter that he would like to draw our attention to.
My Lords, I support this amendment. I, too, declare an interest as a regular cyclist and a member of the APPG on cycling. As has been made clear at all stages, the Government’s main aim in this Bill is to tackle what they perceive as the compensation culture, and in particular fraudulent and exaggerated whiplash claims. It should not be a by-product of that that vehicle road users, including cyclists, are penalised by measures designed for a completely different purpose.
Whiplash claims are brought by motor vehicle occupants, not by people riding bicycles or motorcycles or crossing the road. Nobody makes a fraudulent claim by throwing themselves off a bicycle or a motorbike or by jumping in front of a car. The point has been made to the MoJ that there is no evidence to suggest that fraudulent claims by vulnerable road users are an issue of concern—and, as far as I am aware, no evidence to the contrary has been provided by the Ministry of Justice.
Whiplash claims from cycle and motorcycle collisions are almost entirely unheard of. The mechanism of the typical injury sustained is, of course, different. People on bicycles tend to be injured by hitting hard surfaces—car bonnets or the road. They sustain fractures and injuries from those impacts. It is not at all likely that they would be making a fraudulent claim. Indeed, I think it is impossible to imagine that they would.
I support this amendment. I think that a Bill designed for whiplash claims should not accidentally spread its effect to vulnerable road users whose injuries are likely to be of a completely different nature.
My Lords, we have Amendment 26 in this group. I thank my noble friend Lord Young for stepping in to the breach in place of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and for the other contributions that have been made.
We have not finished the previous group.
I am sorry. I will speak to Amendment 23 only to congratulate my noble friend for stepping into the breach. I thank him and the noble Lord, Lord Butler, for speaking in support of cyclists. We are very happy to support their proposition.
I am obliged to the noble Lord for supporting their proposition rather than their amendment—which, I venture, is entirely appropriate in the circumstances. Clause 1 goes out of its way to ensure that vulnerable road users such as cyclists or motorcyclists are not encompassed within the ambit of the provisions in Part 1 of the Bill. That has to be made absolutely clear. I entirely endorse the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, as to the types of injury normally suffered by cyclists or motorcyclists. It does not tend to be of the whiplash variety, which is why we have ensured that they are not included in the terms of the Bill. In particular, as I say, Clause 1 expressly serves to exclude vulnerable road users of that type.
However, the point that the noble Lord made was more to do with a matter outwith the present Bill, which is the proposal to increase the small claims limit to £5,000 for road traffic cases. That is being mooted. Indeed, that increase was a factor in our approach to the whole issue of whiplash injury—but it was not limited to that. The proposed increase in the small claims limit will apply to all road users, including cyclists and motorcyclists. The Government’s reasons for seeking that increase are not simply limited to whiplash claims and the claims culture that has developed there but reflect the fact that, in our view, low-value road traffic accident claims—whether whiplash or otherwise—are appropriate for the small claims track and are capable of being dealt with in that track, whether they be for whiplash or other forms of road traffic injury.
In that context, I also note that we are developing, with expert input, the claims portal for these small claims so that claimants will find the system far more accessible. I simply seek to emphasise that the Bill does not embrace vulnerable road users such as cyclists. However, our reason for increasing the small claims limit for road traffic accidents in general is not limited simply to the view that that is a means of dealing with the whiplash claims culture; it reflects a wider view that low-value road traffic accident claims can appropriately be dealt with in the small claims track. Of course, where those claims are perceived to be complex, they can be moved from that track into the next track of judicial determination. In these circumstances, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment—albeit he acknowledges that it was tabled for probing purposes.
I welcome what the noble and learned Lord said—I have found it constructive and helpful. Nevertheless, I still think that there is some concern and, rather than having to return to this on Report, it would be useful if we could meet him for further consultation.
I am perfectly content to meet the noble Lord. As I return to my feet, I am reminded of the regular reading material of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, which includes the Insurance Times. I circulated a letter to Peers following Second Reading and it may be referring to that, but I do not recollect having made the sort of concession reported in that material. Unless the noble Lord feels that he can correct me, I am certainly not aware of it. Our position has always been that the original draft of the Bill specifically excluded vulnerable road users. I suspect that it is a case not of journalistic licence but of journalistic error.
My Lords, once again I thank the Minister for his contribution and will reflect on it when we pore over Hansard. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
Amendments 24 and 25 not moved.
26: Clause 2, page 3, line 18, at the end insert—
“( ) Nothing in this section, or in any amendments to the Civil Procedure Rules which increase the Small Claims Track Limit, prevents a court, in a case where a person suffers a whiplash injury, making an award of costs in respect of the provision of a medical report in support of that person’s claim.”
My Lords, this is a very straightforward amendment. We know that legal costs are unrecoverable in the small claims court, and the increase in the small claims limit creates real problems. The amendment would at least provide for the courts to allow an award of costs in respect of the provision of a medical report. That is important, because whiplash claims cannot be processed until a medical report is available, and the amendment would facilitate that in circumstances where it would otherwise be difficult for claimants to obtain one.
My Lords, I have three amendments in this group: Amendments 27, 47 and 52. Amendment 27 seeks a review of the small claims limit. We say that the provisions of the Bill cannot be satisfactorily considered unless at the same time the Government are prepared to discuss what will happen with the small claims limit.
The proposal is that the small claims limit will rise to £10,000 and to £5,000 in these cases, and that will effectively exclude all the whiplash claims on this tariff, with the claimants being unable to recover costs, apart from the very limited fixed costs. If that goes ahead, there will be no legal representation in respect of nearly all whiplash claims. Of course, that will not be limited to fraudulent claims; it will penalise genuine claimants as well.
The reason why there will be no legal representation is that, essentially, the vast majority of these claims are dealt with on conditional fee agreements whereby no fee is paid unless there is recovery. If there can be no costs recovery, even the fixed costs allowable under the protocol, there will be no legal representation. It looks very much, therefore, as if the purpose of the damages sections of this legislation is to wipe out these claims indiscriminately—fraudulent or genuine. There are two swipes. We dealt with the last swipe—cutting the damages to a level whereby, in many cases, it is simply not worth claiming—and changes in the small claims limit would effectively remove the chance of getting a lawyer to work on a conditional fee agreement. We believe that there should be a review of the small claims limit, and we said in our Amendment 27 that the provision may not be brought into force until the Civil Procedure Rule Committee has reviewed the limit of the small claims track for personal injury whiplash claims and published its decision.
Amendment 47 comes back to the question of recoverability of medical reports. It ought to be perfectly obvious that a successful claimant can recover the cost of securing a compulsory medical report or what is termed in the Bill,
“other appropriate evidence of an injury”,
even in the absence of a rule that the claimant can recover other fixed costs. When I raised this point at Second Reading, the Minister said that there would be such recovery. I quoted the impact statement showing that all successful claimants would have to pay the £216 for the medical report. The Minister said no, that was not right and the savings calculated that formed the basis of what I alleged were calculated on the basis of claims avoided, not of all claims. The Government were assuming that a successful claimant would recover the £216—which is £180 plus VAT—in respect of medical reports. At the moment, I can see no provision for that. The Civil Procedure Rules relating to small-claims track cases restrict awards of costs, but by exception they permit, at the discretion of the court, an award of limited costs for experts; but that does not make such costs payable as a matter of course, only as a matter of concession. We seek to have this matter made clear and Amendment 47 is a simple and secure way of ensuring that.
Amendment 52 is a further probing amendment: probing in the sense that, at Second Reading, the Minister expressed considerable sympathy with the idea of having a new protocol for small claims. The existing pre-action protocol for low-value personal injury claims in road traffic accidents came into force in 2010, and it has been kept up to date since. It introduced a simple low-cost way of pursuing claims, generally through lawyers acting on conditional fee agreements—often “CFA lite”, as they are called—whereby lawyers effectively guarantee that there will be no liability on their clients at all to pay fees, because under the existing protocol they will recover the fixed costs from the defendant’s insurers, which they are able to do. The protocol has its faults, not least—some would argue—that the protocol has of itself increased the number of whiplash claims, including the number of fraudulent claims. That is partly because it is very computer-based. It works on the basis of the portal: generally speaking, everyone has to use the portal; the claims are notified and the insurers respond through the portal. There is very little personal checking of what is in fact happening to such claims.
It is also suggested that, arguably, the number of claims settled by insurers without proper investigation has increased. That is for the simple commercial reason that insurers prefer to pay small claims and fixed costs rather than contest cases outside the protocol. That is a danger in relation to all of these proposals. The Government have not sufficiently considered that insurers will find it easier to settle smaller claims under the tariff than to settle larger claims under the Judicial College Guidelines, as they do now, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge.
However, for all its faults, the protocol has increased access to justice for genuine claimants. The concern that this amendment is designed to address is that because the protocol does not apply below the small claims limit and the small claims limit is going to rise, there has to be a parallel protocol for unrepresented claimants that is easy to navigate. Our amendment describes that as having,
“the objective of ensuring that the procedures for claimants pursuing such claims are simple and readily understandable for claimants who are not in receipt of legal advice and representation”.
That is the purpose to which the amendment is directed.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendments 27, 47 and 52, to which the noble Lord, Lord Marks, has referred, which relate to some of the most fundamental points in the reforms. They involve the procedure which will exist for genuine claimants through the small claims track and/or the portal.
I am saddened but grateful to my noble and learned friend the Minister to learn that it is not an unintended consequence of the Bill that genuine claimants will be caught. It is an intended consequence of the Bill, so there is a high onus to ensure that access to justice is ensured for genuine claimants.
The noble Lord, Lord Marks, referred to no legal representation but, having worked in what was then called small claims arbitration I know that defendants are usually legally represented. In Scotland personal injury claims, which are generally more complex, are outside its equivalent of the small claims procedure because of the asymmetry of the relationship in the small claims track between the claimant and the defendant. Having represented defendants in those circumstances more times than I care to remember, I know that although district judges go out of their way to try to ensure that there is fair procedure, they cannot step outside the boundary of their judicial role. Invariably, therefore, as the legal representative of the defendant, you know that you are at an advantage.
It is important to remember that, on the figures I have been given, 40% of people who buy fully comprehensive insurance do not also buy legal expenses insurance. Therefore, in order to recover their personal injury losses, their uninsured losses, and their often considerable excess losses—which can be about £500—genuine claimants pursuing personal injury losses, more often than not, will be litigants in person using the small claims track or the portal.
On the claims portal which has been mentioned, I know that a working group at the Ministry of Justice is looking at the new portal which will ensure that litigants in person have access to a streamlined procedure.
At the moment, however, you are within the claims portal only if liability is admitted. Some 75% of insurers have apparently signed up to pass on premiums so, like claims management companies and lawyers, we have good, exemplary and not-so-good companies. Unfortunately, with unrepresented claimants, there is now an incentive for certain insurers to deny liability because once they do so, the case comes out of the portal. It is then for a defendant insurance company to deal with a claimant—precisely the asymmetry of the Scottish situation. We have talked a lot about cold calling. Imagine being in that situation as a claimant trying to recover personal injury losses and an excess. You are busy, you are working and nobody is there to advocate between you and the defendant insurance company. That is a worry in relation to how the current portal operates.
As I understand the Ministry of Justice proposal, this will be a kind of gateway portal that can be accessed and which brings at least six other portals together. It is for litigants in person, dealing not only with the defendant but with the MI database, the current claims portal, the MIB database, MedCo and askCUE, the fraud database. As I understand it from claimants’ solicitors, the current claims portal is not even accessed directly by trainees or fee owners. Such solicitor firms—I am looking to the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo—have an IT set-up that they have either designed or purchased, and that IT software system engages with the claims portal. It is not the trainees; they are all trained on the IT system to access it. It is not like a conveyancer dealing directly with, say, Companies House or the Land Registry doing a search. Even the existing portal is not accessed by litigants in person or solicitors directly. They have spent resources to ensure that they have an easy point of access to the existing claims portal, which is one of the six portals that the new gateway for litigants in person will create to make it easy for unrepresented people to deal with defendant insurers and get back their personal injury tariff amount and excess—a considerable amount of money.
We are in a situation that we increasingly encounter: we cannot know whether the Bill will work, do justice and achieve something unless we know a considerable amount about a piece of tech that the MoJ suggests will make things easy for litigants in person to deal with. I know that your Lordships may think that when it comes to IT, I have an advantage because I am relatively young, but I glazed over when I was presented with the electronic way to upload my amendments. I ended up doing it the traditional way because I had not had the training and could not do it electronically. I cannot imagine what we expect of litigants in person with busy lives. Claims will start, then stop, and the insurance companies will start talking about suspected fraud. Apparently, if a claim starts but you get busy or your mum falls ill or you get a medical condition and stop the claim, the insurance companies now rely on suspected fraud.
We need to know an awful lot more from the Minister about the progress in creating this portal before we can be satisfied that the tariff and the other sections of the Bill will achieve what the Bill wants. I am concerned about the prospect of unscrupulous insurance companies denying liability to get it out of the portal so that they are then dealing directly with claimants, as well as the issue raised in the amendments of suspending matters until we have seen what the small claims situation will be for personal injury claims.
My Lords, I am much heartened by what the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said because my Amendment 30 tries to take us to the same range of issues. It states:
“When making regulations under section 2(2), the Lord Chancellor must take account of the PI small claims limit”.
The rest of the amendment addresses the whiplash issue.
Why is the amendment here? It is here because there is no other way in which we can address the personal injury limit. It seems to us to bring in an element of manifest unfairness. This piece of legislation will impact on small claims made by employees. By raising the threshold to £2,000 for those personal injury cases the Government are creating a particular difficulty. Claimants in the small claims court, because they cannot reclaim the cost of legal support, will have to represent themselves as litigants in person—and that brings a number of difficulties.
These cases can be very complicated, and they impact adversely on those who have suffered an accident at work, or the early onset of an industrial disease. USDAW has produced a very good briefing on this, citing a vast array of cases in which it represented members and which would be caught by this uplift. Vulnerable employees can be quite seriously injured. They are often unable to work for weeks or months and suffer considerable financial detriment and loss. With no legal assistance available to them, they will be opposing an employer—who will invariably be represented at court—without the expert advice that their injury and its implications merit.
I do not understand, therefore, why the Government are so keen on this £2,000 limit. It seems both unfair and lacking in rationale. The Government have not set out any reasons for including employee injuries in what was billed as a reform of whiplash claims—which, as we have said, we have no argument with. There is no suggestion anywhere that there have been fraudulent claims by injured employees. Claimants in this process will be vulnerable. There should be, as the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said, an equality of arms. That principle, which is fairly fundamental to the way our system of justice works, is undermined by this change, and the uplift to £2,000, when employers will be able to rely on full legal advice and support.
Cases are complex, injuries can be significant and victims can suffer considerable financial loss. Furthermore—an important point—the increase is far in excess of inflation. In 2009 Lord Justice Jackson suggested that there should be no increase to £1,500 until inflation justified it. Well, the figure of £2,000, to which the Government are wedded, cannot be justified on an inflationary basis: in terms of Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals, no increase is currently justified.
Small claims courts are not suitable for personal injury claims. We invite the Government to seriously reconsider the way they have set about this. We have already heard that cyclists will be swept up in the whiplash issue. Whether or not the Government seriously thought that they would be involving quite badly injured claimants by raising the limit to £2,000, that would be the effect of the proposed change. I have tried to find a way to bring an amendment to the Bill that would capture this issue, but have not so far succeeded. That worries me, because the Government seem to have found a way around a problem to the benefit of employers. I hope that that is not the case.
The Minister has a gap between Committee and Report, and I hope that he will meet me and others—particularly those who represent trade union members and are involved day in and day out with small claims personal injury issues—to benefit from our experience and knowledge of this field. I hope that he will then reconsider what is a very unfortunate policy, and one that will not be welcome in the workplace.
There are two other points here that are of value to consider. There will be an increase in the undersettlement of claims as a product of this; and I suspect that there will also be an increase in the number of claimants with highly unrealistic expectations of the value of their claim, thus removing the possibility of early settlement and placing increased pressure on the courts system. I hope that the Minister has some reassurance for us on this, because it is a very serious issue. It undermines some of the other, perhaps gentler, words that the Government have used in trying to understand the problems and complexities that people confront in the workplace, which was one of the Government’s earlier ambitions. That is the purpose behind our Amendment 30 and I hope that the Committee will see the strength of the case that has been put.
When the Minister considers in the round the comments made by other noble Lords, will he undertake to go away and look specifically at the way in which Scotland has approached this important question of asymmetry in the process? Will he look at whether there is a way of incorporating or dealing with claims in a similar way, without clearly undermining what he has identified as the Government’s policy principles in simply reducing tariffs?
My Lords, perhaps I may begin with Amendment 26, as put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and Amendment 47, put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Marks and Lord Sharkey, and my noble friend Lady Berridge. These amendments seek to secure assurances as to the recoverable cost of a medical report in respect of whiplash injury claims, notwithstanding the increase in the small claims track limit.
The cost of medical reports is currently recoverable in personal injury claims where the defendant insurer has admitted any part of liability. It is intended that these costs will continue to be recoverable following these reforms, including the proposed reform in the small claims track, which is not part of the Bill. I seek to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Marks, in particular that it is intended that that cost will be a recoverable element in each and every case where liability is accepted. My understanding is that the civil procedure rules currently permit the recovery of such a cost; if there is any issue with that, I would be perfectly happy to look at it again to ensure that the rules reflect that position, because that is certainly our intention.
The effect of Amendment 27 would be to require the Civil Procedure Rule Committee to undertake both a review and a consultation in respect of the proposed increase to the small claims track limit for whiplash claims before publishing its decision. I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is taking us beyond the realms of whiplash claims and I will comment upon his observations in a moment. The Government have already undertaken a consultation on this issue and our policy changed as a result of that consultation. Originally, we proposed raising the small claims track limit to £5,000 for all personal injury claims but, after consultation, we proposed that the track limit should be raised to £5,000 for road traffic accident-related personal injury claims but only to £2,000 for all other personal injury claims, including employer/employee claims. We do not believe that a further consultation on this issue is required, nor that such a requirement should be placed into the Bill.
I observe in passing that the small claims limit for non-personal injury claims is now, I believe, £10,000 and it operates adequately. In respect of the personal injury limit of £1,000, that was set about 10 years ago so even if we were to apply various inflation-linked multipliers, it would be in the region of £1,700 to £2,000, depending upon what index was taken in respect of inflation. As regards personal injury claims in general, it is not going much beyond that.
The proposal in the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is that the increase should be to a maximum of £1,500, as opposed to the increase to £5,000 for road traffic accidents and £2,000 for personal injury claims. In that context, the noble Lord observed that these cases—I believe he was referring to non-road traffic accident cases in particular—can be very complicated. I acknowledge that, but if such a claim is complex, that is a ground for removing it from the small claims process to the fast track. There is already provision for that very situation, so we do not consider that further steps need to be taken.
As for the reference to the pre-action protocol and the portal, we are developing a portal for the small claims limit, because the existing portal is designed for insurers and lawyers to access; we fully acknowledge that. Work is already under way on a portal accessible to litigants in person where the small claims limit applies. If there is such a portal, it will be appropriate to look at the development of a pre-action protocol for personal injury claims as well. Again, that will be covered as we go forward. We are looking into it, and consulting with various interested parties and groups so as to develop fully both the pre-action protocol and the portal.
Can the Minister assure me that there will be consultation with the trades unions? Given the case he is making, it is important that that should take place. Their experience here is highly relevant.
Trades unions’ experience is, essentially, filtered through claimant solicitors such as Thompsons, and those being consulted include representatives of both claimant and defendant groups—so that is being done. However, I would be perfectly happy to meet the noble Lord, and such representative groups as he may wish to bring to a meeting, to discuss the proposed increase in the limits on small claims. If he wishes to do that, I shall be perfectly content for him to contact my private office, and we can make suitable arrangements. At this time, however, I invite noble Lords not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 26 withdrawn.
Amendments 27 to 29 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Amendment 30 not moved.
Clause 3: Uplift in exceptional circumstances
Amendments 31 to 34 not moved.
35: Clause 3, page 4, line 5, after “percentage” insert “(not exceeding 20 per cent)”
My Lords, at this stage in proceedings on the Bill most of the ground has been pretty extensively ploughed, and I shall endeavour not to till it longer than I have to. We had a long discussion about the setting of the rate on the group taken with Amendment 11, and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, got even closer to the matters I have in mind with his Amendment 38. However, Amendment 35 is concerned with the provisions of Clause 3, which, as the title suggests, permits uplift in exceptional circumstances.
The question I wish to discuss is whether there should be any limit on the amount by which these exceptional awards can exceed the basic tariff, and if so, whether that limit should be in the Bill. I think there is a strong argument for limiting the exceptional awards, and for putting that into the Bill; the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, was kind enough to take my intervention in an earlier debate. I wish to see judicial discretion limited because I think this is a political matter, not a matter for judicial discussion and discretion. Therefore the limit should appear in the Bill—as a percentage, not as an absolute amount, because if the tariff goes up, obviously the amount of an exceptional award should also eventually increase.
My noble and learned friend referred to this matter in the letter he sent to those of us who participated in the Second Reading debate about the need for a degree of judicial discretion. He suggested that the uplift should be capped at 20% and he has already referred to that this afternoon. I do not disagree with any aspect of his remarks, except that I think it is important that the percentage should appear in the Bill. This is in the interests of stability and clarity—stability because if the exceptional amount could be increased by the court without limit the temptation for claimants to game the system would be greatly increased, and clarity because such a limit would facilitate the setting of the rates of motor insurance and reduce the volatility in the amount of such rates year by year. That is an important distinction to remove absolute discretion from the courts, to bring it into the political arena and to set that percentage in the Bill so it is clearly a political, parliamentary decision. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am a little concerned at the degree to which political considerations are supposed override our system of justice. This is not the first time it has been mentioned. However, the latest case is perhaps the least acceptable of the recommendations of this kind. Why on earth should Parliament decide on the so-called exceptional circumstances—undefined, of course, for the purposes this debate—on what are already constrained sums to be awarded in damages? It is trespassing too much on the rights of the citizen and the role of the judiciary. I hope that the Minister will concur with that, given his enormous experience of these matters, and, I apprehend, a real interest in justice being effective and available. With all due respect, the amendment moved by the noble Lord undermines both.
My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend Lord Hodgson for his amendment. I understand the intent when we are seeking to address a very particular problem. However, I cannot concur with the proposal that we should set in the Bill some limit to the judicial discretion that will be exercised in exceptional circumstances. We have yet to see how exceptional circumstances will develop once the Bill comes into effect. We therefore consider it more appropriate that the percentage increase in tariff should be determined by regulation by the Lord Chancellor in order that he may, from time to time, have regard to developments once the Act is in force. We do not consider it appropriate to constrain that exercise by setting a ceiling in the Bill. For these reasons, I invite my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
I thank my noble and learned friend for that reply. It was not entirely unexpected. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that it is nothing to do with access to justice, it is merely limiting judicial discretion. Indeed, the noble Lord accepts that judicial discretion is going to be limited because he is quite happy to have this percentage in regulations which can subsequently be altered one way or another without much parliamentary scrutiny for all the reasons we know. I note the points my noble and learned friend has made, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 35 withdrawn.
Amendments 36 to 38 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Clause 4: Rules against settlement before medical report
39: Clause 4, page 4, line 27, after “injury” insert “provided by an accredited medical expert selected via the MedCo Portal”
My Lords, the amendments in this group pray in aid, as it were, for the work of MedCo, a body set up by the Government, I believe in 2015, to facilitate the sourcing of medical reports on injuries of the kind that we are debating under the terms of the Bill. The Ministry of Justice produced a pre-action protocol for what it calls low-value personal injury claims in road traffic accidents. Before that, there was no system at all to effectively source reports, and apparently a practice was developing of some claimant representatives—not necessarily solicitors—and insurers using what are described as “tame” doctors to produce medical reports for the purposes of securing compensation.
The Government set up the MedCo organisation to provide claimants with access to independent medical reporting facilities from reputable sources, which are themselves subject to regulation and control by the MedCo board. Apparently MedCo had a bit of an uneasy period in its early days and there have been a number of reviews, but the principle remains valid. I understand that it is now working better and that there is no channelling of medical reports to, as it were, sympathetic doctors who might be relied on to back up claims that are less than valid. To that extent, the Government’s original idea has proved right.
In relation to the Bill, it appears that there will be a necessity to reconstruct the portal so that litigants in person can access and use the portal themselves. Therefore, it is all the more necessary to ensure that the MedCo system is available and as user-friendly as possible. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that I am taking the unusual stance of having supported a decision made by the Government some time ago and seeking that it should continue to flourish. I look forward to his acknowledging that this is a good way of serving justice for both sides in such cases, by having thoroughly professional, independent people providing the necessary political evidence, not being paid for a particular kind of evidence—which one suspects can happen and perhaps has happened hitherto, producing some decisions that were, frankly, unjustified. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will build on the position created originally in 2015 by the Government and ensure that it remains applicable and useful under the new regime being developed.
There are other amendments in this group, are there not?
There are indeed, and that was why I wondered at the noble Lord’s reticence. If the noble Lord wishes to speak to them, I am not the person to stand between him and the remainder of the Committee.
I am extraordinarily grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his prompt rising, as it were, from a sedentary position. My Amendment 42A is in this group. On the Bill as a whole, in Clause 4 the Government seem to recognise the problem of what are called “pre-med offers”, yet fail to ensure that they are sufficiently discouraged. We are in the same territory here but perhaps not seeking to approach it in the same way. My understanding is that such offers are made to people sometimes at a point of vulnerability following injury and sometimes, it has to be said, in the most cynical of circumstances—when sick pay runs out and after putting in a denial, which, although clearly weak, sometimes worries people.
Lawyers for claimants have a professional duty to put an offer to their client. There are many circumstances in which desperate people ignore the advice to reject that comes with that offer and accept what is offered, however inappropriate the sum is to the injuries that they have suffered. Pre-med offers are not made to be fair or reasonable. The offers are often made by defending insurers to get rid of a case cheaply, and I quite accept that the Government are right to seek to prohibit them. The consequence of acceptance in the absence of a medical report is that if the injured person later develops conditions arising from the accident, they will of course fall back on the NHS to support them. They will have no compensation to get treatment and the cost will fall more widely on society and the taxpayer. Meanwhile, the insurer for the guilty party who caused the injury will have walked away having saved money.
Everything is left to regulation. My amendment suggests that what has been raised in this House today should have consequences in the Bill for those who exploit the vulnerable and continue to make pre-med offers. Quite simply, the amendment says that those who flout the intention of the clause should face the consequences. Any agreement to settle a personal injury claim without a medical report should be void, and any payment made should be treated as an interim payment towards what they should properly have received had they not been conned—I use that word as we have heard a lot about scamming today—into undersettling their claim. I have added the words,
“except that the court may not order the claimant to repay”,
to avoid interminable litigation, as it has been suggested that there is a problem with loose wording. If the court cannot order repayment, insurers and their lawyers will not bother litigating on the issue.
The Government want to take away free legal help from, we think, about 90% of people injured on the roads and at work. That is a terrible situation and we ought to act as best we can against the insurers. I hope that the Minister will take this issue seriously. It is clearly on the Government’s radar, but we do not think they are approaching it in quite the right way.
I am obliged to noble Lords. The amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, would place the requirements for medical reports to be provided by an accredited medical expert selected via the MedCo portal or other experts specified by the Lord Chancellor in regulations. Currently, the Civil Procedure Rules require any initial medical report in support of a whiplash claim to be sought through the MedCo IT portal, which is established and proves, as the noble Lord indicated, the independence and quality of these medical reports. The Civil Procedure Rules also require that all MedCo medical reports must be provided by an accredited medical expert. I am therefore uncertain what additional benefit the amendments would add to that process, because we already have in place the requirement that it should be a MedCo report that is obtained.
Indeed, the amendments could have a negative impact on the success of MedCo as, on one view, it would widen the pool of medical experts to any person with medical qualifications rather than someone who has been accredited specifically for these types of report by MedCo. I may have misunderstood Amendment 41, but that appears to be what its result would be, although that may be unintended. I emphasise that we consider that the creation of MedCo, as adjusted recently, has been a success and will continue to be so. We require that parties should have to go through the MedCo portal for an appropriate independent expert report before these claims are settled.
So I ask the noble Lord to reconsider the terms of the amendment because we do not feel that it adds anything to the Bill. I believe we have a common intention here and it may be that I have misunderstood what lies behind Amendment 41, but at present we believe the present structure of MedCo reports and the portal is appropriate as it stands, and at this stage we would not be prepared to contemplate the amendments that have been moved. If the noble Lord wishes to discuss this matter further with me, I will be content to do so because it may be that I have somehow misunderstood the intent of Amendment 41 in that regard.
I turn to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. We looked at the whole question of how it would be most appropriate to deal with claims that were settled without a MedCo report. That would place the insurer or relevant party settling the claim in breach of their own regulatory requirements, and appropriate steps would be taken. In due course, as we know under the financial regulation Bill that is currently going through, that would be the FCA in respect of claims management companies.
I draw attention to Clause 5(6), which states:
“A breach of section 4 does not make an agreement to settle the whiplash claim in question void or unenforceable”.
We adopted that approach to ensure that the claimant should not suffer at all in circumstances where the person making the settlement did so without the report. In other words, the claimant would be entitled to retain all sums paid in those circumstances. If we make the agreement void, the sector would potentially seek recovery of the sums passed in respect of a void transaction. I appreciate that the noble Lord seeks to qualify that, but it raises complex issues over contract liability. We believe that we have taken the correct approach by ensuring that the person making the settlement, who is a regulated party, will be in breach of their regulatory regime if they do so without a MedCo report, while equally ensuring that the claimant should not suffer because of that misfeasance, and should be able to retain the settlement sum.
We do not believe that there is a major issue in this context with regard to those who are persuaded to settle early but, if that is an issue, it is more widely encountered across personal injury claims as a whole, and we do not see any basis for taking an exceptional route in regard to whiplash injury claims. I hope that that reassures the noble Lord that there is a mechanism to protect the claimant and enforce the requirements of Clause 4 against those who are settling claims.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his attempt at reassurance. I will reflect on his words, but I may come back with something on Report because I want to ensure that we have that protection there.
I quite understand the noble Lord’s concern, and I would be willing to consider any further amendment that he puts forward on this in due course. At this stage, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I am obliged to the Minister for his invitation, which I will certainly take up. The intention of the amendments is to fill out, as it were, the provisions in Clause 4 relating to regulations to be made by the Lord Chancellor about the appropriate evidence of an injury for the purposes of this clause. It may be that both of us are replicating something that already exists, but we can have a look at it and I am sure it is a matter on which we can reach agreement one way or another. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 39 withdrawn.
Amendments 40 to 42 not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5: Effect of rules against settlement before medical report
Amendment 42A not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6: Regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority
43: Clause 6, page 5, line 31, at end insert—
“( ) The Treasury must make regulations requiring the Financial Conduct Authority, where it is the relevant regulator, to prohibit a regulated person, in the course of providing any claims management services (within the meaning of section 419A of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000), from doing, or arranging or advising the doing of, an act mentioned in section 4(2).”
My Lords, I shall also speak to our other amendments in this group. Amendment 43 requires that regulation made by the Treasury must require the FCA, when it is the regulator, to prohibit regulated persons from providing claims management services in advising, doing or arranging any of the acts prohibited by Clause 4 as regards settlement of a claim before a medical report is available. Many have spoken on this Bill and elsewhere about the conduct of claims management companies and how fleet of foot they can be in exploiting opportunities. These activities have been constrained by recent legislation. The FCA is to become a tougher regulator, transitional arrangements have been put in place and a charge cap has been enabled. However, we use this opportunity to get a comprehensive update on where regulation is or what is yet to be put in place for CMCs.
Amendment 44 refers to cold calling. We know that cold calling is often a prelude to some scam or nefarious activity, and there has been a range of activity to restrict such operations. The Financial Guidance and Claims Bill provides for a ban on cold calling for pensions, enables the introduction of a ban on other financial products and makes provision in respect of certain CMC activity but, for the avoidance of doubt, can the Minister tell us where these things stand across the board?
In our debates on the financial guidance body, exchanges took place about no cold calling in respect of personal injury claims by virtue of the involvement of solicitors in that activity. However, it was further suggested that people were finding a way around that. This is by way of a probe. Is all cold calling in respect of personal injury claims—be it by CMCs or otherwise—now prohibited?
Amendment 44 is one of several in this group which require a review of the activities of Part 1: in particular to ensure that savings arising to insurers are passed on to consumers—motorists. We know that this is particularly difficult. The accounts and activities of general insurers can be complicated and it is very difficult to identify a fixed starting point from which to do the analysis. A whole host of questions arise about how the distribution of any savings made should accrue across the range of consumers that face insurers.
There are questions about who might be the person in a particular organisation to have to certify annually that savings have been secured. Experience shows that if you simply have a process whereby someone has to sign off for the company that savings have been passed on and the policy complied with, it could well be delegated to someone who does not necessarily know exactly what has gone on. In all the variations trying to substantiate that savings are made and that what is promised under the legislation is being delivered, we may seriously think about regulation which requires the chief executive of each of the insurers to be the person held to account for the statement about the extent to which compliance with the requirement has been made.
I may return in a moment to speak to some of the other amendments in the group, but for the time being, I beg to move.
My Lords, my own solution to the problem of the promise that the insurance industry has given is contained in Amendment 46. I am very grateful for the support and advice that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has given me in considering this problem. The promise made by the insurers—percentages are a dangerous game, as there is a question of whether you are counting numbers, premium volume or whatever; but in premium volume terms—represent 90% of the market. The promise says that,
“the signatories to this letter today publicly commit to passing on to customers cost benefits arising from Government action to tackle the extent of exaggerated low value personal injury claims”.
In considering how one should attack that problem, I ask myself two simple questions. First, does the person who accepts the data understand it? Having spent a lifetime in the insurance industry, I can say that claims presentations are phenomenally complicated. I will not even start to use some of the jargon. It is extremely complicated to know whether you are talking about an accident year or the date year, as it were, and to understand certain things such as how the claims coding works, loss triangles, reinsurance effects and so on. But a regulator is someone who can do that.
The second question I ask myself is: will the person who has it have a mechanism for ensuring compliance? Are they good policemen? That is why I have centred on the FCA. I have criticised the FCA in the past but I have never criticised its competence. I have only ever said that it has been heavy handed. It will certainly have people who understand the approximately 250 returns that come in from the participant companies that have motor insurance licences in Britain. We can see who they are on the Bank of England website, and they certainly have the power, not least under the regime of treating customers fairly, but they also have plenty of other soft power. The chief executives of insurers have to be approved, as does the chief risk officer. I seem to recall that even the chairman of our audit committee ended up having to be approved. An insurer cannot afford not to have a good relationship with the regulator, because the insurance industry is much more scared of the regulator getting annoyed than of the court. The regulator can move overnight and do something to your business, whereas a court will take a period of time to do that.
Accordingly, I advance my structure for solving the problem, which I think is proportionate. It would be possible for the FCA to report on it in some way—I had not really considered that part. I am asking for the trigger to be fired twice because, by the end of 2020, this legislation will either have been a terrific success, and we will be absolved of this particular problem with the claims industry, or it will have not been a great success; they will have found a way around it, so we would not need to have the report rolling on for ever. On that basis, I ask for my amendment and that of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, to be considered.
I rise briefly to speak to the amendments I have in this group, which refer to a report by the FCA as well as a report being laid before Parliament.
It is important in this context to look back at Second Reading and the Government’s confession that the insurance industry had not done all it could to get on top of the issue of fraud. In some respects, on Second Reading one could have been forgiven for thinking that the problem of fraud was so great for the insurance companies that they were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy as it was such an urgent issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. A report from Direct Line Group, which is the largest insurance group that we have, shows profits for financial year 2017 of £610.9 million—a leap of 51.4% on 2016. Dividends were up 40.2%. In its interim report in 2017, one of the reasons it gave for that was fewer than expected bodily injury claims. We might argue for a long time about CRU figures, but Direct Line attributes its increase in profits to a decline in personal injury claims.
It is disappointing to those of us who are saddened and troubled by the effect on genuine claimants that there is no proper mechanism in the Bill to ensure that the £1 billion of savings from claimant payments will actually go to the motorists. The Government are saying that that is the Bill’s overall intention. In light of the scale of the fraud that the insurance industry would like us to believe, it is disappointing that it has not invested more of its resources into controlling this fraud because it is a societal issue that affects culture, as opposed to the profits that I have just outlined.
There is a particular legal problem, though, on which I hope the Minister can help us. Many insurance companies are no longer mutuals; they are listed on the stock exchange, with all its reporting requirements and requirements for directors to take into account their shareholders in the payment of dividends. How is that circle going to be squared? You have directors with an obligation to shareholders. They make cost-benefit savings, but they are under pressure either to pay down debt, as some have with some of their profits, or to pay out dividends rather than decrease the premiums they are charging to motorists.
There is a further issue with insurance companies, which is that they have enjoyed bumper savings from the implementation of the Jackson fixed-cost reductions and the LASPO changes that were introduced in April 2013. I am grateful to a fee earner from the Vale of Catmose—and to Thompsons Solicitors—who pointed out to me that insurers have saved at least £8 billion in claims costs between 2010 and 2016; the figure to date is around £11 billion. In spite of this, premiums have continued to increase relentlessly. She said the average premium has gone up from around £385 in the second quarter of 2013 to £493 in the last quarter of last year, according to the ABI’s own premium tracker—an increase of 28% since the LASPO changes.
There have been inordinate savings before that insurers have not passed on as reduced premiums. It may be as a result of being legal entities, as I have described, that they are under pressure from their shareholders to pay out bumper dividends instead of reducing premiums. There needs to be something more effective in the Bill to ensure that, after the Government introduce these changes, insurance companies will be held strictly to account and will pass on the savings they will undoubtedly make.
There is a laissez-faire attitude that, as half the market uses price-comparison websites, these savings will be passed on, but it does not always come to pass. It is ironic that, after the Second Reading of this Bill, we received the message that the Commons had passed the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill for meters. That clearly shows that, in some circumstances, the market does not provide the savings to consumers that we envisage. The Government need to ensure that savings are passed on and there is a strict mechanism in the Bill to that effect.
My Lords, I first speak to Amendment 53 in this group, which deals with passing savings to insurers on to the public. Our amendment seeks an annual review by the Lord Chancellor of the extent to which insurers are passing on those savings to their policyholders. It is common ground that the purpose of this part of the Bill is to reduce fraudulent claims and to reduce the cost of all claims. This has become particularly apparent here, for claims both fraudulent and genuine. Savings are to be passed on to insurers that will pass those savings to their policyholders. The Government rely on the letter written to the Lord Chancellor in March, in which the insurers said that they would,
“publicly commit to passing on to customers cost benefits arising from Government action to tackle the extent of exaggerated low value personal injury claims”.
At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Sharkey pointed out that it did not define precisely what “cost benefits” were, nor did it commit to passing on all savings or even all cost benefits made.
We want to see that all savings are in fact passed on. Our amendment is intended to ensure that the Government do better than simply relying on that letter. Far be it for me generally to accuse the Government of naivety but, generally speaking, a letter of intent in that form would not convince many in commerce that the intent was in fact going to be carried out. I believe that a review by the Lord Chancellor and an obligation to report to Parliament would increase greatly our chances of having that stated intent carried out. The reason that we press for the involvement of the Lord Chancellor is that this is a political decision and political action and it seems to me that a political response is required. The purpose of this group of amendments—and ours is consonant with that purpose—is to encourage the insurance industry to stick to its promise, and indeed to do better, to make sure that all savings are passed on; and, because of the report to Parliament, to enable the Government and Parliament to consider reviewing the legislation and/or penalising the insurance industry by imposing some kind of levy, tax or other measures if it fails to keep up to the mark on this.
I will also speak to Amendment 54 in this group, which is directed at cold calling. If the real mischief at which this part of the Bill is directed is fraudulent and exaggerated claims, then cold calling is undoubtedly the chief instrument by which that mischief is done. Sometimes, in discussing this, we have not looked at the fact that these fraudulent and exaggerated claims in fact come at three levels. At its worst, perhaps, it involves faked or staged accidents. These calls that say, “We understand that you have had an accident that was not your fault”, when no such accident has ever happened, are an invitation to the practice that is most invidious, and which we know happens, of accidents being deliberately staged, sometimes by people who develop a real accident involving innocent motorists crashing with them in order to mount claims. The second is fake injuries, where there is a real accident but the injury is faked altogether and a claim is made. The third is exaggerated injuries. The practice of cold calling makes all three types of dishonesty worse and we really have to get on top of it.
The first part of our amendment would mandate the Lord Chancellor to carry out an annual assessment of the effect of cold calling on the prevalence of fraudulent whiplash claims. The second part would compel the Lord Chancellor, if he were satisfied that it would significantly reduce such claims, to ban cold calling and to ban the commercial use of any data obtained by cold calling. That second part is directed at the fact that it is very difficult to legislate against cold calling from abroad but that, if you legislate against the commercial use of data, you do catch UK corporations or individuals who are using such data to pursue these fraudulent claims. The amendment is not specific to claims management companies. I mentioned earlier the interest that car hire companies and car repair companies have in pursuing these claims. They can offer to pursue personal injury whiplash claims as an add-on to sell their other services.
This is a probing amendment in a sense in that the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, covered claims managers and defined claims management services quite widely. However, we are not convinced that that would achieve our object of banning the use of cold calling for other purposes or by other outside companies or that it would cover the use of cold calling in its widest sense.
My Lords, my name is down to Amendment 46, moved by the noble Earl. I entirely support what was said by my noble friend Lady Berridge and the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. It is not good enough just to say, “We are going to make sure it is competitive”. There will have to be some demonstration of returns and the improvement from this.
Therefore, who invigilates and who enforces? The noble Lord, Lord Marks, suggested a review by the Lord Chancellor. The noble Earl pointed out quite graphically the complexity of unpicking insurance claims and returns. I urge the Government, if they are minded to move in this direction, to think about the FCA as the invigilator and the enforcer. It has exceptionally wide powers.
The noble Earl referred to treating customers fairly but there is a thing called Section 166, which is an investigation by skilled persons. This puts the fear of God into people because the FCA can choose to have anything investigated and the cost is charged to the company being investigated. That sort of power is extremely valuable in unpicking the very detailed information that the noble Earl referred to. I fear that the Lord Chancellor’s Department would not be as well equipped to do it as the FCA. I hope the FCA will be uppermost in the Government’s mind if they are minded to have somebody keep an eye on and verify and show beyond peradventure what savings are being made and how they are being distributed.
My Lords, clearly these amendments are directed primarily at two areas: first, the review or regulation of the effectiveness of these reforms and the supporting regulations and, secondly, the issue of cold calling. I will deal with each in turn. I am not going to go through the detail of each set because I understand that the force of the amendments is all in one direction on the first point. The amendments as drafted would require reports on these reforms to be published shortly after their implementation. Although I understand the reasoning behind them, I question how effective they would be in their current form. I appreciate, nevertheless, that these are essentially probing amendments and it is in that spirit that I address them.
As has been observed, the insurance sector has made it clear and very public that it has a commitment to pass on savings. Having made that commitment, insurers will be accountable for it in a highly competitive market. Insurers have pointed out how they have passed on to customers the benefits of previous government action to cut the cost of civil litigation without the need for regulation. The Government, of course, are intent on monitoring the reaction of the insurance sector to these reforms and will engage with it in that regard. If the industry as a whole sought to avoid passing on these savings, that would signal that the competitive nature of the market had changed. If that were to happen, I have no doubt that the Financial Conduct Authority and, indeed, the Competition and Markets Authority would wish to investigate.
Nevertheless, I hear the message from around the Committee about the need to put further discipline in place with regard to these savings, and that is a matter that we will consider. As I say, I appreciate what is intended here. The question is how we can effectively bring that about. We have to remember that the insurers are regulated by the FCA already. Oversight is in place with regard to their conduct. With all due respect, I take issue with my noble friend Lady Berridge about there being some conflict between shareholder interest and the interest of customers.
An insurance company requires to rely on its integrity in order to maintain its resilience as an insurer. Any board of directors that abandoned integrity in favour of a larger dividend would find itself not only in conflict with its regulator but, no doubt, in conflict with its own shareholders, who would not appreciate that sort of conduct either, given that it would simply undermine the capital value of their investment. Therefore, I do not believe that there is that conflict of interest at all.
The amendment put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord McKenzie of Luton, would introduce a formal requirement for Her Majesty’s Treasury to keep under review the ban on cold calling, and the amendment in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Marks and Lord Sharkey, would introduce a formal requirement for the Lord Chancellor to review the effect of cold calling and the ability to introduce regulations for a ban on cold calling. Of course, a ban on cold calling in relation to claims management was introduced in the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill and was agreed by this House quite recently. As noble Lords will be aware, the Bill inserts a provision into the privacy and electronic communications regulations, which govern unsolicited direct marketing calls, to ban such calls in relation to claims management services unless prior consent has been given. The Government consider these to be robust proposals which will add to the package of measures in place for tackling unsolicited marketing calls.
With regard to the use of the material that is obtained, there is of course provision for regulation of the legal profession. The SRA has regulations in place for the acquisition and use of such data, so that matter is already regulated. However, I acknowledge the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, about the difficulty of what I would term “regulating the unregulated”, where cold calling centres are based outside the United Kingdom. I am advised that it is possible to trace more than half the cold calls received in the United Kingdom to one place—essentially a factory—based in Pakistan. But it is fleet of foot: it changes its name and location on a regular basis. That is a formidable challenge and we are seeking to approach it by means of regulating, apart from anything else, the use of the material gleaned by those means.
The amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, would introduce a formal requirement for the Treasury to make regulations requiring the FCA also to prohibit certain pre-medical offers—I think that that is also in the amendment. Again, we are of the opinion that the Bill deals sufficiently with that issue as well.
As I indicated, I have heard what has been said around the Chamber about the consideration of further measures to ensure that savings are passed on to consumers, and I will give that further consideration before Report. On that basis, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that detailed reply. I am sure that these are matters to which we will need to return at a later stage. One of the things that we were seeking to be sure about—and this is, perhaps, an issue that we share with the Lib Dems—is how extensive and how robust across the board are the prohibitions around cold calling. The noble and learned Lord mentioned the SRA. As I recall, when we were debating the financial guidance Bill at Second Reading, the SRA and its activities were held out as being a reason to ban cold calling for personal injury claims. But then one noble Lord in the debate said, “No, there are people getting round that by a number of means”. It is those sorts of issues that we want to be sure about, so that we can look across the piece and see that cold calling—so far as it can possibly be legally achieved within the UK—is dealt with. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 43 withdrawn.
Amendments 44 to 46 not moved.
Clause 6 agreed.
Amendments 47 to 49A not moved.
Clause 7: Interpretation
Amendments 50 and 51 not moved.
Clause 7 agreed.
House adjourned at 5.25 pm.