New Clause 18 — Rules against referral fees
Education and Training (Young People with Autism)
Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith, Labour)
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I am sure that some companies have been driven out of business, but the everyday experience of hon. Members, and certainly of our constituents, is that the industry is not properly regulated, which is why corrective action must be taken. However, the proposals in the Government’s new clauses are, I fear, insufficient. They are riddled with inconsistencies and loopholes, which is another symptom of the haste with which they were prepared.
“to be treated as a referral fee unless”
it can be shown
“that the payment was made…as consideration for the provision of services, or…for another reason”.
The Minister’s impact assessment explains what that means. Claims management companies may adapt their business models so that they are not reliant on referral fees paid by lawyers, or they may move into alternative types of business such as marketing or advertising. That is staggering to those of us who recognise that it is precisely that marketing and advertising, whether on daytime TV adverts or via spam messages, that lead to perceptions of a compensation culture.
What is the point of the new clauses? The truth is that they are an afterthought to a package of changes in the Bill, some of which we will debate tomorrow, that have far more bite but a different purpose. The changes to conditional fee agreements mean that losing defendants—wrongdoers—and their insurers will benefit at the expense of winning claimants—victims—and that is the real objective of the Government’s legislation. Tomorrow, we will seek to overturn those provisions.
As Bob and Sally Dowler have told us; as the lawyers that brought Trafigura to justice have told us; as victims of asbestosis, who have been fighting insurers that simply do want to pay out to hard-working and long-suffering people; as those who have been unfairly dismissed or subject to harassment in the workplace have told us; and as Christopher Jeffries, who was persecuted by the media last Christmas, as he wrote in The Guardian this very day, has told us, the changes are unacceptable. The Government’s proposed changes, which they had thought about and on which they had taken instructions from the insurance industry, are in the Bill, but very little thought has gone into the new clauses before us today, and none would have gone into them had it not been for my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn.
In summary, we believe that there is merit in a ban on referral fees as part of a package to stop the abuses that I have talked about. That is why I tabled amendments not just to clamp down on those fees, but to make the payment and solicitation of referral fees in road traffic accident personal injury cases a criminal offence. My right hon. Friend has tabled amendments to new clause 18, and I hope that he will press them to a vote. If he does so, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join him in the Lobby if the Government still refuse to accept the criminalisation of referral fees.
We sought to make unsolicited text messages and phone calls regarding personal injuries a criminal offence. We would have strengthened the rules against the sale of personal data. We would have restricted whiplash claims by placing a lower limit on the speed at which a vehicle must be travelling before damages may be paid. We would have outlawed third-party capture, another dirty secret of the insurance industry. I freely acknowledge that we plagiarised some of that from my right hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill.
If the Government had had the courage of the conviction in the Minister’s speeches earlier in the year, we would have got to the heart of the perception of a compensation culture. In doing so, we would have done what the Government are now failing to do. The new clause alone will have little effect. We believe that it deserves further scrutiny, and we hope that amendments in another place will toughen it up, if that does not happen tonight. We also hope that amendments to make these practices criminal offences will be accepted. We therefore have no intention of voting against the new clauses; we simply regard them as not going far enough.
The Minister’s incompetence in getting to grips with claims farmers who engage in unscrupulous practices and his Department’s failure even to recognise the scale of their failure to regulate effectively have got us here. These are symptoms not of a litigation culture, as he would have us believe, and of the rhetoric that goes along with the cuts in legal aid to the poorest, as well the neutering of no win, no fee agreements which will affect almost everyone except the super-rich and will prevent access to justice, but of regulatory incompetence by the Minister’s Department. Indeed, he has now surrendered responsibility for that regulation.
I commend my right hon. Friend’s amendments to the House. We accept the new clauses as far as they go, but it is about time the Government stopped using their rhetoric as a mask for preventing victims from obtaining justice and used it to ensure that the abuses that we all put up with day to day from fraudulent and criminal practices are stamped out.