Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:55 pm on 11th February 1997.
No one could fail to be moved by the tragic case that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) has brought to the attention of the House. We respect him for doing so, and for finding the time and the opportunity to present the case sensitively and forcefully.
Before responding to the points made by my hon. Friend on this sad and distressing case, I should like to extend my deepest sympathy to the Messenger family. To lose a child is terrible, but to do so in such circumstances and so far from home must be devastating. I must also declare straight away that I am unable to comment on some of the substance of the case because it remains unresolved and may be the subject of further legal action. I know that this will inevitably be frustrating for the Messenger family, and I am truly sorry for that, but I am bound by the constraints of law.
I have been in touch with the insurance ombudsman, and I have sought to establish the facts of the case. Since he first began to consider this case, he has received extensive evidence from both parties to the dispute, all of which has been taken into account. He has made a number of further inquiries in the light of evidence and the submissions that he received. On the basis of that evidence, he has made a number of decisions, some of which involve awards to Mr. and Mrs. Messenger. Those have been communicated to the couple.
No one is in any doubt that this has been a difficult and complicated case. The ombudsman has assured me that every effort has been made to bring the matter to a conclusion as quickly as possible. He has agreed with the Messengers that the repatriation of Sally-Anne to the United Kingdom was poorly handled. He has accepted that the child should have been accompanied by a qualified medical adviser, that the insurer's agents should have made Sally-Anne's medical notes available in English translation, and that the insurer made a number of administrative errors.
I cannot comment on the amount of compensation that the ombudsman has awarded, save to repeat what my hon. Friend said: no amount of money can make up for the loss of a child.
The ombudsman has also quite properly pointed out to Mr. and Mrs. Messenger that, because the case concerns the recollection of events most of which were very stressful, and because no contemporaneous record is available, it may be more appropriate to a court of law. In a court of law there is a process for discovery of documents, and witnesses must give evidence under oath and are subject to cross-examination. I do not want to add to the trauma and distress that Mr. and Mrs. Messenger have obviously experienced, but I believe that they should seek legal advice on that option, including the possibility of obtaining legal aid to pursue the matter further.
As my hon. Friend will be aware, Ministers cannot intervene in the grant of legal aid in individual cases, but I can bring the points raised to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Lord Chancellor, who can request a report on the case from the chief executive of the Legal Aid Board. My hon. Friend will also be aware that the Government are reforming the legal aid scheme to target resources at the most needy and deserving cases.
I should stress that Mr. and Mrs. Messenger are in no way bound by the ombudsman's decisions. Although his decision is binding on the insurance company, which must pay compensation if it is awarded, the policyholder still has the right to pursue any dispute through the courts if it is felt that the complaint has not been adequately addressed. I should also point out that the Secretary of State has no powers to intervene in individual disputes between a policyholder and an insurance company.
My hon. Friend has expressed concern about the time that it has taken to resolve the dispute. I appreciate his frustration, and that of the Messenger family, over the time that it has taken to reach decisions; nevertheless, it is clear that this has not been a typical case. Indeed, the ombudsman has stated that it is one of the most distressing and complicated with which he has had to deal. His office has received no fewer than 136 pages of submission and 39 telephone calls from the Messenger family.
The voluntary scheme has one major advantage over the courts or a statutory regime: it allows the ombudsman to take a rather broader view in arriving at a decision. He is not bound by the strict letter of the law; nor is he hampered by the prospect of judicial review. Because the scheme has the support of the vast majority of the industry, the ombudsman can take a common-sense approach, which, if anything, is biased in favour of the insured party.
Time does not permit me to respond to the points raised by my hon. Friend in all the detail that I would like, but perhaps I may be allowed to say this. No arbitration scheme can ever hope to resolve all disputes to the satisfaction of both sides. Nevertheless, I believe that the insurance ombudsman scheme is, in general, a very good scheme, which commands the support both of the public and of the insurance industry. However, nothing that the ombudsman or anyone else could do could make up for the distress that Mr. and Mrs. Messenger have so obviously suffered. My heart goes out to them in their sorrow, and I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the case to the attention of the House in such a sensitive and forceful way. I assure him that I have taken careful note of his comments.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eleven o'clock.