Clause 2

Compensation Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee on 22nd June 2006.

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Apologies, offers of treatment or other redress

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State 1:00 pm, 22nd June 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 1, line 13, after ‘offer', insert ‘, or provision,'.

This clause was added in the other place as a result of the efforts of my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Hunt. It is an important step forward in allowing an offer of access to rehabilitation to be made without its being an admission of negligence, and it is in keeping with the thinking of insurers and those who advise claimants, such as citizens advice bureaux. The purpose of the amendment is to add a little extra clarity by saying that if the offer were accepted the principle would still stand. I hope that the Minister will accept it.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I have some comments to make on clause 2, but as a relatively new Member I seek your guidance, Mr. Atkinson, as to whether I should make them now, on this relatively straightforward amendment, or in the stand part debate.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

I think that it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman were to continue now.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Thank you, Mr. Atkinson. The National Accident Helpline, which is based in my constituency, has a proud reputation in the field. It is concerned about clause 2. Throughout the legislation, it has been concerned about who will be covered by the measures and who will be exempt. It would like the playing field to be as level as possible.

On this clause, the National Accident Helpline wants me to ask the Minister for an assurance that it will not be possible for the acceptance of an apology, an offer of treatment or other redress to be made conditional on the abandonment of any legitimate claim. It would be good to know from her what protection the Government will put in place to ensure that the clause is not abused in that way. The National Accident Helpline is also concerned that the clause might be used by liability insurers to offer rehabilitation to legitimate claimants in order to deter them from making a claim. The result of that could be that the clause would inadvertently discourage access to justice, because a claimant might accept redress or  rehabilitation that is lower than the amount that should be due. The National Accident Helpline believes that an offer of redress or rehabilitation should not be taken in all circumstances as a sufficient or satisfactory alternative to pursuing a claim through the legal system. That is why it has asked me to seek ministerial assurance on the matter.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) gave my excuses this morning. I was at the funeral of a friend and former councillor colleague in Southwark. I have added my name to the amendment because clause 2 is a very good clause, and the amendment seeks to clarify one aspect of it that might be regarded as something that somebody might not want to do because it might suggest a liability. It adds something extra, and I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic. It is about ensuring that people are not deterred from being courteous and humane because they see that as a risk to liability.

In that context, we heard the terrible report the week before last of the little girl in Aylesbury who was injured by the side of a road while a large number of people went past her and did not stop. The proposal is about trying to minimise that sort of society and ensure that people feel that to assist others, whether or not they had been involved personally or had responsibility for the injury or harm of those people, should be regarded as separate from the later matter of liability. The Minister may have better ideas, but such an extension would not contradict the purpose of the clause, which points in the right direction and which we support.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

Following your ruling, Mr. Atkinson, and the two earlier interventions, I had intended to make a brief intervention in the clause stand part debate, but I might as well make it now.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

It is such a small clause that it would be sensible for the Committee to treat the discussion as a stand part debate.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

Exactly. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) was absolutely right to refer to issues raised with him by a legitimate employer in his constituency. I seek clarification. I imagine that the National Accident Helpline earns revenue from litigation and, as such, has a vested interest in its taking place. If I am wrong, my hon. Friend will obviously correct me.

I share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who tabled the amendment. It is a sensible extension. I also agreed with the good, short speech of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who supported the clause in general. Lord Hunt of Wirral and the others from different parties who proposed it did the country a great service.

I wish to make two additional points, the first of which is particularly relevant in several areas that are a long way away from those that we discussed when we  debated clause 1. I have been told that often people end up pursuing NHS cases because they were so angry that they did not receive an apology. If that were the case, many small cases could, in fact, be avoided.

The less common, but more harrowing, example is that of social services. I declare an interest as co-chairman of the all-party group on adoption and fostering. It is incredible that social services departments are not required to tell the truth when placing extremely vulnerable children for adoption and/or fostering. Furthermore, in some cases their insurance companies actually forbid them from telling the truth. I shall give a specific example. A child may become less easy to place if the parents are told that the child has been sexually abused. If that sexual abuse took place around bath time, as is often the case, the child may as a result be absolutely terrified of going into a bathroom. If the adoptive or foster parents have not been told, it makes it much harder for them to look after the child.

Under pressure from insurance companies, I am told that it is still quite frequent practice for social services departments not to disclose things that should be disclosed about children in their care. As a result of the clause at least allowing an apology when there has been a failure to make a proper disclosure, some of the insurance sting can be unwound. It is a can of worms that Parliament on another occasion needs to go much further into, but I genuinely believe that the clause will help a little in that emotional area, which involves a relatively small number of extreme cases.

I understand the worries of one or two lawyers that the provision will mean less business for them. However, if it means that some people who could have perhaps gone to court are happy to settle with a smile and an offer of treatment or whatever, it will make a better country not a less better one, even though it means less money for the lawyers.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I support clause 2. My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) have covered most of the key points, together with the mover of the amendment. I have two additional thoughts on the matter.

The amendment will most benefit those people who have expertise in a particular area. I know of one occasion when a male nurse refused to treat somebody in the street in Newcastle upon Tyne because he said that on account of his specific medical qualifications, he was more likely to be sued if the individual chose that course of action. We end up with the tragic irony that those most qualified to help people in extremis are most vulnerable to being prosecuted. The phrase “provision of” would be important in that sense.

My second point relates to the humanity of the clause. Many of us, even when we have not done anything wrong, are inclined to want to apologise because that is what people are like; people are reasonable and they care about others, especially when there has been an accident. If we also take into account the shock and trauma of an incident and the immediate effects on both the victims and the ones who have perhaps caused an accident, it becomes obvious that the clause reflects the human condition in an  empathetic way. I am pleased that the Minister has included the clause, and I hope that she can accept this technical amendment, which will make it clear that individuals should not feel discouraged from helping their fellow humans in moments of great crisis.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Having heard what you said after I spoke about this probably being a clause stand part debate, Mr. Atkinson, may I ask the Minister one point that I would have made later? This request does not specifically address it, but will she make a statement that makes it clear that if somebody who clearly was not involved in the original incident comes across it, for example someone who might offer first aid, nothing they can do when they are volunteering to assist would put them in a position where they would be liable for consequential problems that are clearly attributable to the original incident? She knows exactly what I mean.

I remember being at a constituency function where a former Labour mayor of Southwark was taken ill. Happily, another councillor, who was a nursing sister, was able to hold the fort and do things until the ambulance arrived. As it was a Saturday night, it took a long time to do so—much longer than people were comfortable with. If the nursing sister had not been there, the rest of us, who had fewer qualifications—this is a slightly different point from the one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire—might have done what we could with our first-aid knowledge, as lay people; we would not have used the professional knowledge of doctors or nurses.

It would be helpful if a statement were made about what the liability risk of such people is, because we clearly want to encourage people who are not professionals to do what they can. That is not an invitation for people to act ridiculously, foolishly or stupidly, but if people are seeking in good faith to alleviate somebody’s illness or injury, the message ought to be that it is to be encouraged; good citizenship requires it.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

This has been a short but important debate. I welcome the addition of this clause in the other place. I am grateful to the noble Lords who tabled it. My noble Friend the Baroness Ashton of Upholland was willing and happy to accept it. I have sympathy with everything that has been said in this debate. The idea that we should be more comfortable with giving an apology straightforwardly and straight away would alleviate much of the angst that people have in relation to accidents and so on. I agree that it will help to develop that attitude of good citizenship that we all support.

Having said that, I am not entirely convinced that the amendment is necessary, mainly because in practical terms the provision of any treatment would almost inevitably be preceded by an offer of treatment. It is difficult to see how it could then be reasonably argued that the provision of treatment that was offered and accepted would amount to an admission, when the offer itself is not. I will give way to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire; I think he might be about to give his roadside example.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs 1:15 pm, 22nd June 2006

To save time, I shall make this point early. I accused the Minister of being pedantic in wanting to cover everything when resisting previous amendments. I now accuse her of being the opposite. I can give one example where an offer of help cannot be made: when the person is unconscious. It is necessary to make a judgment about providing medical help at that moment, regardless of the presumed wishes of the individual. I will not pursue that with the Minister: she understands my point. The Government are being a little intransigent. I suggest that that is a materially important reassurance, for all the reasons given by the various speakers.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

A little unusually, I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. If he will allow me, I shall think about that aspect of the reasoning behind the amendment, and perhaps get back to him on Report. Given what has been said, such a provision may need to be added to the Bill.

The hon. Member for Kettering raised a constituency point. Basically, it is important to know that if someone says, “I am offering you this treatment on the basis that you do not pursue your claim”, it is entirely a matter for the claimant to make a decision as to whether they accept the treatment or not. Clause 2 does not affect the basis on which an apology, offer of treatment or other redress may be made, or indeed how it may be accepted.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

Briefly, following the extremely welcome remark that the Minister made, I should like to reinforce the comments by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. We received some particularly telling testimony—I am not sure that I could find it, two years on—from the St. John Ambulance brigade making precisely the point that he made, during the failure of progress of my private Member’s Bill.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I was thinking of the St. John Ambulance as an organisation that might well find itself in such a situation on a fairly regular basis. Of course, it should be emphasised that anyone who provides treatment should only provide treatment for which they are appropriately qualified. They would be subject to all the other associated caveats. I leave it there, and I am happy to think again about this particular amendment and what it will add to the Bill.

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Labour, Midlothian

I realise that the Minister is finishing, but I would like her to consider this point. I passed my first aid test in the 1980s, on the St. Andrew’s first aid course. The very day after I passed the test, a motorcyclist went over the top of a car. If I had just passed my test now, I would have the same concerns that have been expressed today. I had none at that time and I held on to the person until the ambulance came along. I would ask the Minister to consider that issue.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Again, we have an example of a member of the Committee with direct experience in this area, and it is for the reasons stated that I will consider the matter.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The Minister is being very helpful and I am grateful for her offer. I hope that she will be able to make a statement that covers the potential risk in an authoritative way. It will be very helpful for the Red Cross, St. John Ambulance and all the other people we are concerned about.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I am happy to give the Committee that assurance. Whether the amendment is accepted or not at a later stage, I will make sure that everyone is given the absolute assurance that all Committee members want them to have.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

It was constructive of the Minister to make that offer. If it helps, the amendment was suggested by Norwich Union, which felt it might be a useful technical addition. It was put forward in that spirit and I am glad that the Minister is willing to consider it. I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.