The Justice Committee this morning published the ‘Small claims limit for personal injury’ Report which makes very clear criticism of the Government’s Civil Liability Bill currently making its way through the House of Lords.
The Report makes strident criticism of the Bill and concludes that:
• The Government should not proceed with it’s plans to increase small claims limit to £5000 for road traffic accidents and £2000 for employer’s liability and public liability claims.
• Small claims limits should only rise in line with inflation since 1999 to £1500. The Government have not set out a compelling case for a further increase and the Committee is extremely concerned this could impede access to justice.
• Proposed online claim systems should not be extended to employer’s liability and public liability cases due to their complex nature.
The Civil Liability Bill which, on the face of it seeks to tackle the issue of an increase in the number of whiplash claims in the UK, will actually take away the right to free legal advice from hundreds of thousands of people injured at work or on the roads every year whose claims have nothing to do with whiplash.
Currently, anyone in England and Wales who are injured in a workplace accident or on the road and whose injuries are worth more than £1,000 can claim back the cost of getting legal help to advise them on a possible claim. The rationale for injured people having their legal help funded by the guilty party is that the relationship between the injured and the defendant is ‘asymmetrical’; it isn’t one of equals. On the one hand, you have an injured person who has (hopefully for them) never made a claim before and on the other a well-funded insurer who knows the ropes.
The hidden agenda behind the Bill is for the Government to use powers that aren’t on the face of the Bill to increase the small claims limit by 400% from £1,000 to £5,000 for all road traffic accident cases and by 100% from £1,000 to £2,000 for all other cases, including accidents at work. Those powers lie completely outside of Parliament’s usual procedures for scrutinising changes to statutory rules and regulations.
£2,000 is a lot of money for most workers, let alone £5,000, yet the Government think it’s OK to leave people injured through no fault of their own to fight well-funded insurers by themselves. The Justice Committees Report begs to differ.
It is revealing that in Scotland the decision was made in 2014 to exclude personal injury claims from their equivalent of the small claims track altogether precisely because of concerns about inequality of arms between the parties. Noticeably Lord Keen of Elie QC Advocate General for Scotland who is steering the Bill through the Lords for the Government failed to answer direct questions on the Scottish exception that came from, amongst others, Baroness Berridge on his own backbench.
It is estimated that up to a million people every year would be left on their own and trade union legal services, which provide an important route to redressing wrongs for injured members, will be undermined if the Bill goes ahead. From the person injured at work who could have lost several months’ pay to cyclists, pedestrians and even children, the injured will be left to fight a legal battle they don’t understand, and financially cannot afford, against those who do and can.
The government is claiming the Bill will reduce ‘fraudulent’ claims. However, there is no independent evidence of a problem of fraud from people injured on the roads – in fact, the only statistics on fraud come from the insurers themselves. If there really was a problem with fraud why do insurers concede that they paid out in 99% of all road traffic claims last year? I simply don’t buy the weak line proffered by insurers (and parroted by the Government in the Bill’s Impact Assessment) that they must pay out because it would be un-economic to fight fraudulent claims.
The way society deals with those who break the law (in this case alleged fraud) is to prosecute and punish. This Bill doesn’t stop fraud, it allows potential fraudsters to continue whilst taking away free legal advice and introducing lower compensation for those who are law abiding.
Additionally, what have people injured at work who will be hugely affected by this got to do with fraud? The answer is nothing, as neither the Government nor the insurance industry suggests there is any problem with fraud by people injured at work.
The Government isn’t making a lot of noise about the admission in the Bill’s impact assessment that the changes will take £6m every year from the NHS and £140m every year from the taxpayer, while generously providing an extra £1.3 billion profit every year to the insurers.
The ‘sweetener’ the government is keen to talk about is premium savings for motorists. The ‘savings’ have fluctuated, first they were £50, then they were ‘about £40’ and in the latest Queen’s Speech they were ‘about £35’.
Interestingly we have been here before – insurers made promises to reduce premiums in 2012 when the Government delivered on changes the insurers lobbied for - and since then (on the Association British Insurers’ own figures) claims costs have fallen by 42%, the insurers have saved over £11 billion yet motor insurance premiums are higher now than ever (along with record profits and CEO salaries).
Insurers cannot be trusted to pass on savings to motorists. They have broken previous similar promises and the Government has gone on record in connection with this Bill to say that they won’t force insurers to do so.
The Justice Committee Report expresses deep misgivings about where the Government is going with this Bill. To me this appears to be a stitch-up between the insurers and Government, ramping up fears of a “compensation culture” in whiplash injuries to distract people from the Government’s true intentions: to attack access to justice for all injured people, including workers and to pass billions onto the insurance industry.
At the beginning of the month swathes of the country including London went to the ballot box for the local Council elections. In South London, Bromley was one of the Nation’s five Boroughs piloting the Government’s voter ID scheme. This scheme requires voters to present identification before casting their ballot and is part of the Government’s programme to prevent 'impersonation' at polling stations.
However, analysis by the Electoral Commission revealed that at the last General Election in 2017 there were just 28 allegations of impersonation at polling stations, with just one of these allegations resulting in a prosecution. As such voter fraud allegations amounted to 0.000063% of overall votes cast. Compare this to the estimated 4000 people who were turned away for not having the correct ID in the five trial boroughs in this month’s local election, which represent 1.67% of voters in the trial areas.
I find this extremely concerning as this is the first time citizens have been denied their right to vote since universal suffrage was introduced. Ensuring integrity of the electoral system is very important but these figures suggest the proposals amount to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and in the process have prevented some people from voting and further deterred others from doing so.
On polling day my local polling station told me they had already turned away two people before I voted at 08.30am and there were reports of people being turned away across the Borough throughout the day. There is the opportunity for these people to return later in the day with the correct ID (if they have it) but whether they did is subject to question.
Additionally, the added time that it takes to do ID checks puts a strain on the rate at which polling stations can process voters. There were reports of morning queues to vote in Bromley due to the extra processing time and voters leaving the queues without voting because understandably people do not necessarily have the extra time to wait whilst also juggling family and work responsibilities.
The problem with the voter ID scheme is that not everyone has or can produce the required ID. It may be easy to brush this point aside and claim it is the fault of the voter, but the fact remains that many people across the country don’t have utility bills in their names, still rely on key meters, may not have a bus pass and cannot afford a driving license or passport. It shouldn’t cost people to exercise their democratic right. We already have to register on the electoral roll in order to vote, why introduce yet another barrier to voting which would bring a cost to many?
Furthermore, the requirement for ID is all the more in question considering the current Windrush scandal where British citizens of the Windrush generation have been subject to horrific treatment exacerbated by documentation issues. If voter ID was rolled out across the country the Windrush generation may have faced the further indignity of not being able to cast their vote.
Despite these obvious failures, a Government spokesman has insisted the pilot had been a 'success'. Whilst I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, the point still remains that it is virtually impossible for voter impersonation to affect an election result on any large scale. It is only possible to ‘steal’ one vote through impersonation. Therefore to effectively influence an election would require a professional campaign coordinating thousands of fraudsters.
Whilst electoral fraud must be combatted, it still remains that the issue itself is almost non-existent. Introducing a voter ID scheme would disenfranchise considerably more people than the scheme would save from having their vote ‘stolen’. Furthermore, the financial cost to roll out the system would far outweigh the current cost of mitigating fraud.
To improve our democracy, we should constantly seek to widen participation and voter engagement. However, these proposals are far too draconian. Voting is a fundamental right in our society and we should be proud of this. But the notion that we can tighten access to this right, however small it may be, should worry us all. I can certainly say that if the Government goes ahead with this scheme they will be successfully solving a problem that never really existed and further helping disenfranchise voters from exercising their democratic right to vote.
2018 is a very significant year in the gender equality calendar. It marks 100 years since Parliament passed a law, which allowed the first women, and all men, to vote for the first time; 100 years since women aged over 21 had the right to stand for election as an MP; and 90 years since all women were given electoral equality with men.
We have come a long way in terms of gender equality in the last 100 years, and Lewisham too has played it’s part in history. In the 1970s, Lewisham was the first Council in the country to set up a committee for women’s rights. This group was called the ‘Lewisham Women's Rights Working Group’ and worked to look at the disparity in women’s pay and roles in the council and constructed policy to address these issues. It is credit to this group that to this day Lewisham Council has a negative gender pay gap and a senior management team that is majority female. In addition to this, I feel immensely privileged to be one of the three female MPs who represent our Borough.
For me, all of these advances were beautifully symbolized at the end of April by the unveiling of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square. I was lucky enough to be in the audience witnessing the first female to be represented on the square, joining the other 11 male statues. Millicent was the suffragist who dedicated 62 years of her life campaigning for women’s right to vote. She began in 1866 aged 19 collecting signatures for a petition. In 1867 she helped set up the first suffrage society and undertook her first speaking tour aged just 22, at a time when women rarely spoke in public.
By 1897 suffrage societies across the UK came together to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which she became President of in 1907. In 1917 she led a delegation to Parliament and negotiated the amendment to the Representation of the People Act, which led to some women getting the right to vote and she continued campaigning until full equal voting rights were finally won in 1928.
Millicent’s story is one of absolute courage. To do what she did in the face of a society where everything belonged to men, including women, is remarkable. It is therefore fitting that adorned on her statue is the phrase “Courage calls to courage everywhere”, a line from her speech attesting to the bravery of Emily Davison, who died in the fight to get women the vote.
We have achieved so much since women first won the right to vote but gender inequality still persists, particularly in the workplace. The gender pay gap scandal is evidence of this. It is absurd that to this day a woman doing the same job as a man can be paid less. There are measures that the Government could take to help change this, such as proper paid paternity leave, making flexible working the norm rather than the exception and better funded childcare. However, culture takes a long time to change, and without the courage to challenge it, culture will remain as it is.
Therefore, as we celebrate this centenary we should remember Millicent’s words “courage calls to courage everywhere” and let them remind us of Millicent’s bravery and use them to inspire the next generation to stand up and challenge embedded gender inequality so that one day we can achieve equal representation and equal power for women in all their diversity.