With this it will be convenient to consider the Government motion to disagree with Lords amendments 2B and 196B, the Government motion to insist on its disagreement with Lords amendment 31, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
As you have reminded the House, Lords amendment 1B, dealing with the statutory duty for legal aid, impinges on the financial privileges in this House. I should also say that my interests remain as I declared at the last stage of ping-pong on
Let me first address Lords amendment 31, which concerns the sensitive and important issue of mesothelioma, in the light of the amendment we have tabled. I should emphasise at the start that the Government take very seriously the plight of mesothelioma victims and do not believe that mesothelioma cases are being brought inappropriately. We should appreciate that the issue in mesothelioma cases is not so much causation as process. In effect, the challenge for the Government, employers and insurers is how we ensure that we have procedures in place that enable sufferers to receive compensation more quickly and without the stress of having to pursue protracted litigation.
Much has been done by recent Governments to improve the position of mesothelioma sufferers when the employer’s insurer can be traced. There is now also a consensus that more needs to be done in respect of sufferers who cannot trace their employer’s insurer. Let me be clear that the Government are committed to action on that point. We are working closely with insurers and other stakeholders on this pressing issue with a view to making an announcement before the House rises in July.
I have considered very carefully the points that have been made both in debates in the House last week and the other place last night. We have also held ministerial meetings with campaigners on behalf of mesothelioma victims, including with Lord Alton, Paul Goggins and my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch.
The Jackson reforms in part 2 of the Bill are due to come into effect in April next year. We have reviewed that timetable in the context of mesothelioma. On careful reflection about the special position of mesothelioma sufferers, I can now give the House the assurance that we will not commence the relevant provisions in clause 43, on success fees, and clause 45, on after-the-event insurance, in respect of mesothelioma claims in April next year. Rather, we will implement the clauses in respect of those claims at a later date, once we are satisfied on the way forward for those who are unable to trace their employer’s insurer. The amendment commits the Lord Chancellor to carrying out a review of the likely effect of the clauses in relation to mesothelioma proceedings and to publish a report before those clauses are implemented.
The concession that the Government are making goes some way to dealing with the concerns that many on both sides of the House have expressed in relation to mesothelioma, but it does not deal with the point raised in the other place by Lord Thomas yesterday, which was that success fees should not be claimed in such cases because liability is not in issue. What will the Government do about that?
As I have said, this is not an issue of causation. I heard Lord Thomas speak in the other place yesterday, and I very much agree with what he had to say, which was essentially that in cases in which causation is not an issue, there is—in many respects—no reason why solicitors should have a success fee for that type of work. But the Opposition have made their case, as have others, and the Government have to deal with things as they stand. That is why we are offering to make this concession, but it is a time-limited concession only. The overall Jackson reforms stand as our preferred way to move forward.
I am grateful to the Minister for having listened closely to the debate last week and to the debate in the House of Lords. But is it not the case that this legislation facilitates a solicitor recovering a success fee from the client’s damages, and that if this legislation did not proceed, that could not happen?
No. The hon. Gentleman rather distorts the implications of the legislation. We are capping success fees, which are currently 100%, at 25%.
On the point about the delay until the review has been undertaken, is that merely a delay or is it a genuine review? If it is a review, what will it consider and will he give an indication of its timetable?
Given the timing of this development, we have not thought through the exact procedures of the review, but it will certainly be undertaken before we move to ending the provisions that remain.
We now come to the amendment in lieu passed by the other place in respect of clause 1, and what has been described as a purpose clause. It was suggested variously in the other place yesterday that this amendment would have no effect; that it would have some effect, although that effect was not entirely clear; and that it would have a future effect in guiding successive Lord Chancellors when consideration was being given to what services might be added to the scope of legal aid under clause 8(2).
The difficulty the other place has so far had in establishing the precise effect of the amendment is instructive as this House decides whether it should stand. A duty with an uncertain effect is desirable neither in legislative terms nor for the person attempting to discharge that duty. However, it is the Government’s view that the effects of this duty can be described and are highly undesirable. The amendment would remove the uncontroversial, unambiguous duty the Bill places on the Lord Chancellor to ensure that legal aid is made available according to part 1 of the Bill. This made a clear link between the duty and legal aid. In terms of a clear duty, it does not get much clearer than this. However, the amendment would not only remove that but would replace it with a duty that would bring ambiguity and uncertainty. It refers to “legal services” rather than “legal aid”.
The argument was also made in the other place that the amendment had no effect other than to underline the Government’s commitment to the principle of access to justice. We contend that the imposition of any duty on the Lord Chancellor in legislation must create in law a potential course of action through challenges to the discharge of that duty. If it is accepted that the imposition of such a duty must give rise to a potential course of action, the amendment’s effect must be to bring into question the range of services provided under the Bill. The matter would then turn on the question of which legal services meet people’s needs. That contrasts with the clear and unambiguous duty in clause 1(1) requiring the Lord Chancellor to
“secure that legal aid is made available in accordance with” part 1.
The Government believe that the question of which legal services meet people’s needs is not relevant to the Bill. Schedule 1 lists the services that Parliament, following consideration of first principles and extensive consultation, believes it appropriate to make available under legal aid. To reopen that question via an ongoing duty would frustrate our intention to bring certainty and clarity to the scope of services funded by legal aid. The amendment would result in only one thing: numerous expensive judicial reviews—more than likely at taxpayers’ expense as the boundaries of the new duty are tested and because the question of which services should be provided would be reopened.
It was said yesterday in the other place that such JR applications would almost certainly fail, and that consequently there would be no cost implications to the amendment. However, even rejected applications have an inherent cost: lawyers are paid legal aid fees for their work up to that point and the Government pay their own lawyers to defend such cases.
I would also like to address the argument put forward in the other place about the amendment’s effect in guiding future Lord Chancellors. It seems novel to include in the Bill an overriding duty that activates when the Lord Chancellor considers adding a service or services to the scope of legal aid. I am not convinced this is possible, and I am certain it is unhelpful. Adding services to the Bill requires the affirmative approval of both Houses. Such a process will be more than adequate to ensure that the Lord Chancellor takes account of the relevant factors when considering what, if any, services should be added to the scope of legal aid.
I emphasise, however, as Lord McNally did in the House of Lords yesterday, that the Bill’s present form arises from extensive debate and consideration across both Houses and reflects decisions about the future nature of legal aid. In short, the amendment is incompatible with the Bill. It would muddy both the duty to which the Lord Chancellor is subject and the scope of services that might be funded.
I am not arguing that the House should agree to the Lords amendment, but the Minister will know, as the Lord Chancellor does, that I have asked that the Government to consider bringing immigration matters—whether onward appeals by judicial review or when a judge gives permission for a case to go to a higher court—back within the scope of legal aid. Will he put on the record the response to that plea, which I have made to the Lord Chancellor and him several times?
My right hon. Friend finds the right moment to ask about something not subject to the amendment. It is an important point, however. My right hon. and learned Friend has written to him about onward appeals in immigration cases. The Department will conduct a review of the impacts of withdrawing legal aid in such cases once we have sufficient data and after implementation of the reforms. I envisage allowing about a year for the reforms to take effect before starting such a review.
Lords amendment 2 was passed in the other place yesterday by the extremely narrow margin of three votes. Unusually for this topic, no one spoke other than the mover and my right hon. Friend Lord McNally. That indicates how far we have moved. I remind the House of the main points. First, and crucially, legal aid to obtain the full range of injunctions and orders to protect against domestic violence will remain exactly as at present. There is no evidential gateway for legal aid for these remedies, and those who need legal aid to protect themselves can get it, regardless of their means.
Secondly, although we have removed most of private family law from the scope of legal aid in favour of funding mediation and less adversarial proceedings, we have made an extremely important exception for victims of domestic violence. That is so that they can take or defend proceedings about child contact or maintenance, or about the division of property, without being intimidated by their abuser during the proceedings.
We have made significant changes to the detail of this exception in response to concerns expressed in both Houses. We have accepted in full the Association of Chief Police Officers’ definition of domestic violence. We have also significantly widened the list of evidence that we will accept as demonstrating domestic violence for the purposes of the exception. That list will now include undertakings, police cautions, evidence of admission to a refuge, evidence from social services and evidence from GPs and other medical professionals. That is in addition to the range of evidence that had already been confirmed, including the fact of an injunction or order to protect against domestic violence having been made, a criminal conviction or ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic violence, a referral to a multi-agency risk assessment conference and a finding of fact by the courts that there has been domestic violence. We have also doubled the previously announced time limit for evidence for this exception from 12 months to two years.
We all noted the Lord Chancellor’s commitment in the Chamber last week to extending the time limit to two years. Will the Minister clarify whether that will also apply in cases of child abuse, which seem to be encompassed by the definition of domestic violence that now applies in the Bill? Clarification would be welcome on that, as there are clearly instances in which proceedings might be brought in relation to child abuse after more than 12 months, including in care proceedings, in which it would be entirely appropriate to grant legal aid.
Yes, I am pleased to be able to confirm to the hon. Lady that that is the case.
We think that we have struck the right balance, although some will disagree. However, such disagreement misses the fact that there are two important safeguards to our system, which will provide genuine victims with a route into legal aid even if they do not have the headline forms of evidence. First, when a court has to consider whether domestic violence is a factor in a private family case, it may consider any relevant evidence, including police call-outs or evidence from domestic violence support services, or other types of evidence that have not even been suggested by the Opposition. This is also relevant in regard to the time limits. When a case involves older incidents of domestic violence and a court considers that the matter is still relevant and makes a finding of fact, legal aid funding could still be triggered. There is also the more generic safeguard of the exceptional funding regime.
We continue to believe that the evidential requirements should not be on the face of the Bill. The level of detail required means that those requirements will be much better left to regulations, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, rather than to primary legislation. Given how far we have moved on this topic, and the safeguards that I have outlined today, I invite the House to disagree with Lords amendments 2B and 196B.
I shall try to keep my comments short, as I know that a number of colleagues wish to speak in the debate. The Bill sustained 11 defeats on Report in the Lords, which is a record for this Parliament, and a further three yesterday. The Government need to show some humility when they have suffered 14 defeats, and I am pleased that we have seen some evidence of that today.
It is still unclear why the Government are so resistant to Lords amendment 1B. They have given different reasons on different days for their opposition to Lord Pannick’s amendment. A statement of legislative purpose is frequently included in legislation of this nature. Lord Pannick’s drafting of the amendment would result in a statement of purpose within the financial limits set out in the Bill. The key question is whether there should be a duty on the Lord Chancellor to take into account citizens’ needs before making arrangements for legal aid provision. The amendment has been drafted with reference to the financial resources available, and would therefore not incur further expense for the Government. The Government cannot have it both ways. They say that the amendment replicates provisions that are already in place, and that it is therefore unnecessary. They also say that it would add to Government expenditure. We will be voting against the Government on Lords amendment 1B.
Lords amendments 2B and 196B focus on domestic violence, so it is worth reminding this House what we are talking about, which is the availability of legal aid for victims of abuse to leave their abuser and protect their children. It is also worth reminding this House that on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report the Government believed that they had correct both the definition of domestic violence and the evidence that they would accept as proof of domestic violence. Only last week—thanks to the efforts of Baroness Scotland and others in the other place, but also thanks to victims’ groups, women’s groups and others who contacted us—did the Government finally accept our definition, or the Association of Chief Police Officers’ definition, of domestic violence. I accept that progress was made last week, too, in the acceptance of most of our evidential criteria for proof of domestic violence. We welcome that progress and the direction of travel.
The remaining issues of contention relate to two issues. The first is whether evidence from more than two years ago is acceptable, and the second is whether evidence from specialist domestic violence organisations will count as acceptable proof of abuse. The Government have said that they will accept evidence only of admission to a refuge, for example.
On the time limit issue, the Government have moved from one year to two years. The Minister will be aware that examples were given in the other place of real cases of real victims who would get legal aid currently, but would not get it in the future—even after the change to two years. To enable more victims to get access to legal aid and to ensure consistency, the Lords propose moving to the general limitation period for civil litigation, which is six years.
On the evidential criteria, even allowing accessing refuge services as evidence of eligibility for legal aid will exclude many women who are simply unable to access such services yet are experiencing violence. Baroness Scotland drew attention to research from women’s aid. On
Even with last week’s concessions, this Bill still leaves too many vulnerable women and their children exposed. The Lords amendments are supported by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, Mumsnet and many other community groups. We will vote against the Government in their attempt to overturn the Lords amendments.
Lords amendment 31 deals with mesothelioma. I was told this morning that the Government were not willing to give any ground on this issue either. The key question here is whether victims of industrial diseases such as mesothelioma should have to hand over part of their damages to their lawyers and insurer or whether the wrongdoers should fund the cost of the successful litigation. I pay tribute to the noble Lord Alton as well as to Lords Bach and Beecham for their work. My right hon. Friend Paul Goggins, who I see is in his place, and Tracey Crouch also deserve a mention for their efforts. Much progress has been made as a result of their work over the last few hours and days.
Members of all parties made powerful speeches last week about the impact of mesothelioma on their constituents. Someone suffering from this horrible disease is not making up their cancer to make a quick buck; they cannot possibly be part of the compensation culture. Mesothelioma is virtually incurable. This disease is inflicted on the hard working—those who have spent their lives contributing to Britain’s economy in heavy industry and in manufacturing. The Government have agreed to an amendment whereby changes affecting proceedings cannot happen until the Lord Chancellor has carried out a review of the likely effects of the provisions on those proceedings, and published a report on the conclusion of the review.
My right hon. Friend has touched a raw nerve. Plymouth is a hot spot for mesothelioma, and it also has an extremely low-wage economy. These people are not millionaires, and losing a significant proportion of their damages simply is not fair on those who have this horrible disease and whose families have had to live with it. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he is doing in attempting to change the present position.
What my hon. Friend has said echoes some of the powerful speeches that were made last week.
It is worth bearing in mind that the progress that has been achieved is due to work done by Members in all parts of both Houses. We welcome the concessions that have been made today, we welcome the pause, and we approach the amendment in good faith. For reasons that we appreciate, the details could not be fleshed out today, but we assume that there will be an independent assessment of the evidence gathered during the due diligence phase.
We hope that the review will consider the impact on victims’ damages. According to some, they will increase by up to 10% as a result of the Government’s proposals, but others disagree, and we expect the review to look into that.
Of course the Minister is right, but if there is to be a review of the impact on those who suffer from this disease, we will expect the impact of the Jackson changes on the level of damages to serve as a benchmark, rather than the changes affecting victims per se. We hope that the pause will lead to a rethink by the Government.
We hope that the review will consider the impact on access to justice—some say that lawyers may be unwilling to take on such cases, and that as a result they may not be heard—and the interaction of the reforms with the new employers liability insurance bureau. We also believe that the data should take real-life experience into account.
The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my intervention on the Minister, when I sought to distinguish between a mere delay in the implementation of the policy and a genuine review. I hoped that the Minister would give me some indication that if the findings of a review required the Government’s policy to be amended in some way, there would be an opportunity for a rethink.
Given the calibre of the Ministers involved and that of the Members of both Houses who have engaged in discussions over the last few hours and days, I believe that this will be a genuine review. I am sure that not only sufferers from the disease but colleagues who have been involved would be devastated if it were not.
We welcome the review, but the report needs to be based on proper evidence, and the genuine concerns that exist must be addressed. We support the proposal for a pause, and we are willing to work with the Government to ensure that we get this right.
Order. Hon. Members can see how many of their number wish to take part in the debate. As it will end at 5.40 pm, I ask them to be mindful of others when making their contributions.
Let me first pay tribute to the work of Lord Alton, Lord Avebury, the late Lord Newton, and others in the House of Lords for tabling the original amendment. Without their dedication and commitment to ensuring a workable outcome for those with mesothelioma, we would not be where we are today.
I welcome the fact that the Government have listened carefully to the case presented in both Houses for exempting mesothelioma victims from the current proposals. It is not right to force victims of an extraordinary disease—when no fraud is possible and compensation is certain—to shop around for a lawyer during their last few months of life in an attempt to pay the lowest possible success fees as a proportion of a payment that they deserve. Discussion of this issue should never have been a fight about compassion for those with mesothelioma —it is a pretty heartless person who does not show compassion for those who suffer from the disease—but, rather, should have dealt with how best to protect the interests of the people who find themselves victims, and those of their families.
Without the amendment, the practical implications of the law as drafted for victims of mesothelioma would have been hugely damaging. Regardless of what colleagues on either side of the House may think of lawyers and insurance companies, it would ultimately be the victim, who would be going through intense suffering through no fault of their own, who lost out. The amendment rightly exempts mesothelioma from the overall package of reforms in the Bill, but it should be considered the beginning, not the end of the discussion. If ever there was an opportunity to kick-start progress on speeding up compensation payments to victims, it is now.
Like others, I seek assurances that there will be proper parliamentary debate on the commencement order and the report from the Lord Chancellor, and that future legislation will be synchronised with other initiatives that the Department for Work and Pensions is working on. However, more than anything, I urge the Government to conduct the review not with lawyers or insurers in mind, but with the sufferers at the centre, and to come forward with alternative proposals to ensure that they are protected, financially and otherwise, as soon as possible.
I started by thanking the noble Lords for tabling amendment 31 in the first place. It is only right that I finish by saying that I am sure that the late Lord Newton of Braintree, a co-sponsor of Lords amendment 31 who passed away recently from a respiratory disease, would have been pleased, as a former Leader of this House, that the Government have listened, that cross-party consensus has been achieved and that common sense has prevailed.
It is a pleasure to follow Tracey Crouch, who has played a brave and important role in discussions over recent days. I pay tribute to her for that. In relation to Lords amendment 31 and amendment (a) in lieu, the whole House is rightly paying tribute to Lord Alton and his supporters in another place for raising the issue in the first instance and for then persisting in their opposition to what the Government have until now been proposing in the Bill.
I also want to thank Lord McNally and Lord Freud for the constructive approach that they took in a meeting that I attended with Lord Alton last week, and in the days since. I welcome the concession that the Minister is offering this afternoon, and I appreciate that he cannot go into great detail about any proposals, which he said he hoped the Government would be able to bring forward before the summer recess. However, I can tell the House that his ministerial colleagues made it clear in the meeting I attended that they are striving to negotiate and implement a system of compensation and support for mesothelioma victims that is swifter and more sympathetic than the one currently in place. I am sure that the whole House would want to encourage them in their endeavours.
Whether amendment (a) in lieu is sufficient will depend entirely on the answers to a number of questions. In particular—this has already been raised—what will the extent and conduct of the review be? Crucially, how will the commencement of the relevant provisions of the Bill be aligned with the proposals that the Department for Work and Pensions hopes to publish before the summer recess? I would be happy to take an intervention from the Minister if he wishes to make a clear commitment this afternoon that he will not seek to implement the relevant provisions in the Bill unless and until an improved system of compensation is in place.
I do not want to give any binding commitments about the process today, because things have not been finalised. However, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that if the process is to be improved by the Department for Work and Pensions, which we hope it will be—he will have some insight into our proposals from the discussions he has had—that could well require DWP legislation, in which case we would look to roll the ending of the provisions into the commencement of the DWP provisions. That is how I foresee the process now, but again, I am not making that a commitment.
I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful intervention, because if there is to be legislation to introduce the new system, there will have to be full parliamentary scrutiny of those proposals in both Houses.
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to support Lord Alton in his efforts to protect mesothelioma victims. He has asked me to say that he is grateful for the cross-party support he has received from this House, and that, along with other Members of both Houses, he awaits with interest the outcome of the review and the details of the new compensation scheme. Above all, he is pleased that Parliament has acted to protect mesothelioma victims.
For my part, I am pleased that the Minister’s comments of last week—in particular that the families of dying mesothelioma victims should, and would, be watching the lawyers’ clock as fees mounted—have now been overtaken by an acceptance that mesothelioma victims are not part of a compensation culture and that they should not be expected to pay their lawyers a success fee out of their damages, and, finally, that through the amendment in lieu and other measures that will follow Parliament should continue to do all in its power to give mesothelioma sufferers the best possible help and support.
I welcome the Government’s concession and amendment on mesothelioma. This issue vexed many of us last week. The original amendment was somewhat wider, in that it related to respiratory diseases in general, and that caused a lot of us pause for thought. The new amendment is appropriate, however, as it deals specifically with this deadly condition. It reflects the will of both this House and the House of Lords. It promises a proper review and a report at the end of that. It has also been introduced in recognition of the fact that there is a genuine sense of urgency as many mesothelioma sufferers —including constituents of mine in Swindon, which, like many other industrial towns, has a proud heritage but also, sadly, a deadly legacy in the form of this awful disease—do not have time on their side. That is why this is an exceptional case. That is why in this instance, in which a House of Lords decision has put causation beyond any doubt, we are dealing with a particularly unusual set of circumstances.
It has already been observed that lawyers charging success fees need to take care to ask themselves questions in cases where causation is not part of the equation, and where, frankly, the argument is first about making sure all the facts are marshalled so the evidence can be put in train to prove liability and, secondly, about questions of quantum. As those matters do not involve complex issues of law, lawyers should ask what sums it is appropriate for them to charge their clients.
As I have said, there is also, necessarily, a sense of urgency in these cases. We must create a system that will allow for a more speedy resolution of mesothelioma cases. In particular, we must address the issue of the traceability of insurers of former employers as that is often a challenge for mesothelioma sufferers and those representing them. Mention has been made of the Motor Insurers Bureau. Many accidents are caused by uninsured drivers who then go on their way. It can be difficult to trace them, but victims can claim from that bureau, which is funded by the insurers, in a civil court. I know all Members would like to see a similar scheme adopted in the months ahead, and the Government have made a welcome early concession that they will report back on that before the summer recess.
We have had debates in Committee, the House and another place about domestic violence, and the Government are to be commended on the progress made on that. I reiterate that it would be better to put the criteria for the assessment of evidence in regulations rather than in the Bill, as it is patently clear that regulations can be amended more swiftly. If there are genuine injustices as a result of the operation of the new rules, regulations can be amended by negative or affirmative procedure. They provide a far more flexible way of dealing with the challenges ahead than primary legislation. For those reasons, I am happy to support the Government on the vexed issue of the domestic violence criteria.
It has been a long journey; this Bill has taken a considerable amount of my time and that of everybody else who has taken a keen interest in legal aid. Some extraordinarily important debates have taken place, and I pay tribute to all Members in this House and in the House of Lords for engaging in a very constructive, important and challenging set of debates as the Bill has proceeded. It is now coming to the last stage, and I am glad that the Government have, in many respects, listened, adapted their position and made appropriate concessions.
I wish to say a few words about the Government amendment. I hope that it means that the Government will come up with a satisfactory system by which mesothelioma sufferers can be fully compensated, without them or their families being robbed of the compensation they receive and so richly deserve.
Hon. Members may well be aware that, in years gone by, Rochdale was home to the world’s largest asbestos factory, so this is a massive issue for my constituents. It is fair to say that they suffer from the connections that they have had with asbestos over many years. Just last Saturday, I was knocking on doors in my constituency, as I do every weekend, and I called upon a lady in Littleborough, Mrs Beryl Greenwood, who told me about her experience with this disease. She had been married to her husband, Kenneth, for many years, and he had contracted the disease from having worked as a welder on the railways. He had worn asbestos gloves at that time and, no surprise, he passed away a couple of years ago. I suppose the good news is that she was served well by solicitors; she and her family received a fair amount of compensation and were treated reasonably. She told me that the issue was that none of that compensation will ever bring back her husband, whom she loved dearly. The point I am getting to is that the Government now need to amend this Bill—we are asking them to be genuine in this—so that the people and the families who suffer from this terrible disease are treated fairly, responsibly and respectfully.
I do not intend to detain the House for long, because I am aware that plenty of other hon. Members wish to speak. I just wish to add my voice to those thanking the Government and the Ministers for their concession on this matter. My constituency is very rural but, like the constituency of Simon Danczuk, it contains a large asbestos-related industry. That industry was born and based in High Peak, so my constituency has a higher level of mesothelioma than the national average. The Government’s movement on this issue is to be commended. Last week, I, along with one or two of my hon. Friends, voted in the Opposition Lobby on this matter. I subsequently received an e-mail from a constituent telling me that he was actually proud of his MP—he said that this does not happen very often.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch, because she has driven this through, along with Paul Goggins and those in the other place. I welcome the amendment in lieu and am particularly pleased to see that a report will be published on the conclusions of the review. That gives me great confidence that the review will be meaningful and searching, and will come forward with something that all of us across the House can support when the day comes. I look forward to that report.
When the Lord Chancellor introduced the statement to the House which preceded this Bill, I asked him about the provisions in relation to domestic violence. He thought that I would be pleased with the answer, because the Government had recognised that domestic violence was, to some degree, a special case. I was not pleased with the answer, because at that point the definition of “domestic violence” was unique to this Bill, it did not cover all cases and it was, in my view, fundamentally flawed. So the first thing I wish to say is how glad I am that the Government have now decided to use the Association of Chief Police Officers definition of “domestic violence”.
I need to push one point further, however. The failure of the Government to understand the reality of the lives of victims of domestic violence is reflected in how they have constructed this Bill. I will never forget the moment when I talked to two local police officers in my constituency who dealt regularly with victims of domestic violence and who told me about a case that they had just dealt with of a woman who had been beaten up by her husband by 12 years earlier but did not report it until he started biting pieces out of her body. That case, although it made me tremble with horror, is shockingly not that exceptional. We should not forget that, in this country, two women are murdered every week following a history of domestic violence. We should not forget how few women ever report it. Why do they not report it? Overwhelmingly, the victims of domestic violence think, “It was my fault.” That is how they feel, so they do not go to the police or to social workers. They conceal it, as they think it is caused by something that they did.
Such women often report because of someone else. When women are pregnant, they will report their victimisation by their partner because they want to protect the child in their womb. The problem with the distance travelled by the Government is that they have not yet gone far enough. I hope to be able to persuade the Minister to take that last step and to accept wider forms of evidence. We know that women do not necessarily go to a refuge; they go to a place of refuge. They might go to their sister, to their school friend or to their mum, and they are the people who women will tell first about their experience of victimisation.
Some very perturbing evidence from Welsh Women’s Aid suggests that the average time—the average, not the extreme—that a victim might take before reporting a domestic violence incident and getting to the stage of resolving the private family law issues is five and a half years. That average time would be excluded by the route that the Minister is pursuing. I beg him to recognise that the House of Lords got this one right and to say that he will take the last step and ensure that the other victims are properly protected. That is important because by allowing these women to use private family law to protect themselves and their families, we will prevent future domestic violence homicides. The Minister could do that by changing his position on the amendments.
It is always a pleasure to follow Fiona Mactaggart and I pay tribute to the work done by her and other Opposition Members when they were in Government. They undoubtedly made huge advances in the prosecution of people who had committed offences of domestic violence and put protection in place to enable victims of domestic violence to come forward in both the criminal jurisdiction and the family and civil jurisdiction. That protected not only those women but their children. We part company, however, on this matter as I believe that the Government have gone as far as they should in their acceptance of the definition of domestic violence and what should support any allegation of domestic violence.
I do not think that it is fair simply to criticise those on the Front Bench for not understanding domestic violence, especially if it were suggested that they did not do so by virtue of the sex of the ministerial team or the Secretary of State. I am not suggesting that the hon. Member for Slough said that herself, but others have. It was interesting that in her speech she told us that the peculiarity and horror of domestic violence, which is demonstrated in the fact that women will often suffer for year after year without making any formal complaint or any complaint at all and that they suffer in silence, came as a surprise and a shock to her when she first learned of it in a conversation with two police officers.
Many Members on both sides of the House have experience by virtue of their work in the health service, the criminal justice system or—I am thinking in particular of my hon. Friend Mrs Grant—as a solicitor in the family division. Unless one has had that first-hand experience, some of the appalling stories one hears beggar belief. It is difficult to accept the fact that appalling abuse can go on, year after year, unreported.
It has been generally accepted across the House that we still have a long way to go. Members of this House conducted an admirable investigation into the inadequacy of our stalking laws, notwithstanding the efforts made by the previous Administration. We know that more legislation is needed to protect from stalking which is, in my opinion, not only an offence of abuse but, in effect, an offence of violence because of the psychological damage it causes. Recent events in Nottingham, which my Broxtowe constituency touches on, show that we still have police officers who, when it comes to domestic violence, simply do not get it. A woman was murdered who had repeatedly complained to the police.
The real subject of this debate is whether the Government have finally got it right. I welcome the changes they have made and I am pleased and proud that they listened to what others have said. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Buckland about regulations. We do not need to put all the provisions on the face of the Bill. I am more than content for the matter to be dealt with in regulations, which give us flexibility, so that if a point arises that we have not yet thought about or even discovered, it can be added to the regulations.
On the question of evidence, I caution against saying that all that is needed is a simple complaint to someone, somewhere along the line. There has to be something more substantial than that. After all, that one has been abused in some way by a partner or ex-partner is a serious allegation to make. Although I do not for one moment suggest that the overwhelming majority of complaints are not properly made, it has to be said that still, in a very small number of cases, people make false allegations to advance some other dispute in which they are involved. That is why I err on the side of caution.
I am pleased that the Government have accepted the point about a report to a GP, which is more than someone just saying to a GP, “He hit me.” There will be some reason and some visible sign of why a woman has gone to her GP. I have no difficulty with that, nor with reporting abuse to a refuge. As I think I asked the Secretary of State, why on earth would a woman go to a refuge if she had not been a victim of domestic violence? She is hardly likely to go to a refuge for a pleasant break away from home. She goes because she is undoubtedly the victim and is taking concrete measures that support her complaint. I support the Government on those measures and congratulate them.
On mesothelioma, last week I made an off-the-cuff speech, even though, to be truthful, I knew little about the subject. I urged the Government to find an alternative way to sort the matter out. They have done so and I am delighted to support them on that.
I thank my constituent, Mrs Marie Hughes, whom I quoted extensively last week. I also thank the peers who listened to last week’s debate in the Commons and, as a result, sent this matter back to this House. Had they not done so, we would not have had the concession.
I pay tribute to those Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs—I think there were five Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats—who voted against their Whip last week. They listened to the debate, participated in it and contributed to the expression of the overwhelming view, both in this House and in the other place, that the measure could not proceed in the form in which it appeared last week. It was clearly wrong, and I am pleased that we have reached a different position.
I shall be brief. I pay tribute to the Government for the moves that they have made on the Bill and I welcome the progress on the definition of domestic violence. Although they have extended the range of evidence that will be required, there is still some way to go. I recall that last week Mrs Grant suggested that the time limits might be up to three years.
I am speaking on behalf of a constituent who came to see me a few weeks ago. She had been habitually abused—emotionally abused—over a number of years. The last straw for her was when her husband tried to set fire to her. She went to hospital. She has medical evidence but she did not want to press any charges. She is, understandably, so traumatised by the experience that she has been through that several months after the incident she can barely speak. She is years away from being able to take to a court or tribunal the levels of evidence that have been suggested. I support amendments 2B and 196B, particularly on her behalf.
Like my hon. Friend Simon Danczuk, I welcome the amendment on mesothelioma and the moves towards a review, if there is to be one. Oldham is not far from Rochdale and many of my constituents worked in the industry. Once people are diagnosed with the disease, they are, unfortunately, likely to be dead within 18 months. It would be outrageous if 25% of the damages were taken from them. I support amendment 31, but I acknowledge the moves that the Government have made.
I wish to place on record my gratitude to the Lords for their amendments and for their hard work. I also place on record my gratitude to the Opposition Front-Bench team for all the hard work that they have done on all aspects of the Bill, and to my hon. Friends and some on the Government Benches who have fought against certain provisions of the Bill.
I welcome the Minister’s concession on industrial diseases, including mesothelioma, and the fact that the Government will review the issue. I hope they will abandon the proposal to make victims contribute to the lawyers’ costs if they are successful. I ask the Government to consider other industrial diseases that should be placed in the same category, such as industrial deafness, industrial blindness, severe spinal degradation, leukaemia, cirrhosis of the liver and other organ damage.
It cannot be said that people suffering from those conditions are out to make a quick buck. Although we support the idea of a limit on insurance claims or the suggestion that the victim should pay a contribution towards the damages, it is disgraceful that the provisions should apply to people affected by serious illnesses. To say to people who suffering from such illnesses, “By the way, once you have gone through the process of proving your case, your lawyers will have to take their costs from your damages” cannot be right. It is plainly unfair and unjust. I can see that the Lord Chancellor disagrees with me. If I am wrong and he wishes to intervene, I am more than happy to give way.
I just want to say that the lawyers do not have to take 25% of the compensation. All the costs are recovered from the defendants in a case that has been won. It is only those costs that are irrecoverable from the defendants that can sometimes be recovered. In a straightforward case there is no reason for anything to be recovered over and above that, and lawyers should not automatically take 25% of the claim and say that it is for their costs.
But there is nothing to stop them doing so. The legislation should be simple and straightforward: a person’s compensation, whatever it might be, should be theirs and the legal costs should be a separate item that they can claim for. If I am awarded damages worth £100,000, I should get £100,000 and not have to pay £25,000 to someone else. Any legal costs should be paid separately by defendants’ insurance companies, which are incredibly rich and have loads of money that they can—
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Lords message, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order,