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Compensation Act 2006 (Amendment)

– in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 2nd February 2010.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:38 pm, 2nd February 2010

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Compensation Act 2006 to ensure that courts considering a claim of negligence or breach of statutory duty apply a presumption that defendants undertaking a desirable activity have satisfied the relevant standard of care;
and for connected purposes.

Last month, a large part of Britain was brought almost to a standstill by significant snowfall and freezing conditions. Local authorities up and down the land ran short of salt and were unable to grit many roads-and in particular, many pavements. Those pavements became impassable, or even dangerous, resulting in slips and falls and keeping some of our most vulnerable citizens virtually prisoners in their homes.

To their great credit, some people decided to help their neighbours and the wider community by clearing not just their own driveways and garden paths but the pavement outside their houses or their children's schools. Others read their newspapers and decided not to. That was substantially because those newspapers quoted a variety of lawyers who said that if people were to clear the snow off their part of the pavement and then someone were to fall over on it, they might be sued for negligence. Inaction, the lawyers said, was the safer option-and so the pavements stayed uncleared, because the council could not do it and householders would not do it. That is the type of situation that the Bill seeks to address.

Of course, some say that there is not really a problem, because the courts are very unlikely to find the public-spirited domestic snow shoveller negligently liable for any injuries, in the absence of spectacular incompetence. They may be right, but I do not think that the public-spirited domestic snow shoveller feels reassured, and many such people, to be on the safe side, remain deterred from doing the right thing by a fear that the law would not be on their side. What matters in that deterrence is not just the likelihood of a negligence action succeeding, but the likelihood of a negligence action being brought in the first place, incurring all the worry and potential expense needed to defend it.

We now live in a Britain where such negligence actions look more likely than they have ever done. Large legal advertising budgets are spent on persuading us that "Where there's blame, there's a claim", and that there almost always is blame. We have been conditioned to believe that there is no such thing as an accident any more, only a negligent act for which somebody owes compensation, even if they were trying to be helpful at the time. So the safest thing is to leave the snow shovel in the shed. That is not a perception that this House should allow to persist.

Others say that there has been a problem, but that the passing of the Compensation Act 2006 has solved it. Section 1 of the Act states, broadly, that a court considering a claim for negligence or breach of statutory duty, in determining whether a defendant should have taken particular steps to meet a standard of care, may have regard to whether a requirement to take those steps might prevent or limit a desirable activity or discourage people from organising or taking part in it. In other words, the desirability of the activity the defendant was engaged in at the time of the alleged negligence, and the benefit to the community of what he or she was doing, constitute only one of the factors that the court may consider, and it is not obliged to consider that factor at all.

During the passage through the House of the Bill that became the Compensation Act, the Government made it clear that section 1 did not, in their view, represent a change in the law. It was instead a restatement of the existing law, intended to reassure those involved in what the Act described as "desirable activities" that in carrying out those activities, they should not fear negligence actions.

The Compensation Act has now been on the statute book for three years, and I am afraid that the national conversation on snow clearing that we have heard over the past few weeks demonstrates that the Act has not succeeded in that aim. I believe that the House must go further. In addressing the specific issue of a private citizen's involvement in clearing snow and ice from pavements, we could go much further and make that involvement compulsory, as is the case elsewhere in the world.

In the United States, for example, various municipal codes require homeowners and tenants to clear all snow from the sidewalk adjacent to their homes within a specified number of hours after it has fallen, or after sunrise, if the snow has fallen at night. In Germany, the rules are set out in the Satzung über die Verpflichtung zum Reinigen, Schneeräumen und Streuen auf Gehwegen, which, as you will immediately recognise, Mr. Speaker, is the "Statute concerning the obligation for the cleaning, removal of snow, and sanding on walkways". It sets out householders' responsibilities in considerable detail, including the substances to be used for gritting their part of the pavement, the maximum grain size thereof and the specified minimum width of the cleared area. The House will be relieved to know that I do not propose the same legislation here.

I propose that we amend section 1 of the 2006 Act so that when a court considers a claim of negligence against someone who has done something for the benefit of their community, it will not simply regard their public-spiritedness as one factor among many that it may or may not take into account. Instead, there should be a presumption that someone who has engaged in that sort of desirable activity has satisfied the relevant standard of care. The court would not be prevented from finding someone negligent if they had gone about that desirable activity in a wholly incompetent or irresponsible way, but it would start from the premise that those who act to help their community should get a very strong benefit of the doubt. I believe that that will succeed in sending to the public the message that section 1 of the 2006 Act seems to have failed to send.

In many ways, this is a modest Bill. It does not seek to affect what anyone does as part of their employment. It does not seek to compel anyone to act nobly, or to condemn those who do not. It seeks simply to remove an obstacle from the path of those people in our society who are willing to put themselves out for others. I do not doubt that the Bill's drafting could be improved if it were to make progress, but it is meant to send the message that if someone makes an effort to do the right thing, the law will stand behind them, not in their way. We need people to do their bit. January 2010 will not be the last time we have heavy snow, or the last time local councils run out of grit when there is heavy snow, and we want people to feel able to help their neighbours when the authorities cannot. More generally, in times of snow, flood or any other form of adversity, our communities are at their best when people come together and help each other with individual acts of kindness and consideration. That is what strengthens society, and it is our job as legislators to encourage that-or at the very least not to discourage it. I believe that the Bill would support the kind of society that we all want to see, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Jeremy Wright, Mr. Mark Harper, Mrs. Maria Miller, Mr. David Lidington, Mr. Philip Hollobone, Rob Marris, Mrs Siân James, Tim Farron, John Hemming, Angela Watkinson, James Duddridge and Mr. Stephen Crabb present the Bill.

Jeremy Wright accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 58).

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