Civil Liability Bill [Lords]: Damages for whiplash injuries

Mike Wood: Although I originally studied law and was called to the Bar, I never practised, so I hope I may speak in the debate without being tied to any particular interest. This debate is increasingly showing a division between those on the side of personal injury practitioners, and those on the side of the overwhelming majority of our constituents who face the costs arising from an ever-escalating number of claims, of escalating value, for relatively minor injuries. My right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne was right to draw the House’s attention to the remarks of the former Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw. If my memory serves correctly, he told The Law Society Gazette that he was in favour of banning compensation for soft tissue injury altogether. Clearly the Bill does not go anywhere near as far as that.

 

Kwasi Kwarteng Conservative, Spelthorne

So a former Labour Lord Chancellor suggested that he would ban this compensation entirely. What on earth possessed him to suggest that as a policy?

 

Mike Wood: Reading through The Law Society Gazette, I see that Jack Straw’s actual comment was:

“Whiplash is an innovation of fertile legal minds which has no real foundation in medical knowledge. Everybody knows the vast majority of whiplash claims are completely unjustified. I support any measures to eliminate soft-tissue injuries.”

I understand that he was referring to compensation for soft tissue injuries, rather than eliminating the injuries altogether.

Hon. Members have spoken about the apparent paradox when we have the long-term reduction in the number of road traffic accidents, the increasing safety of more of the cars on the road and the long-term reduction in the number of deaths and serious injuries as a result of road traffic accidents, and yet the number of personal injury claims for whiplash and other minor injuries having increased significantly—it has gone up by 30% in 12 years. That enormous statistical increase cannot be dismissed as coincidental.

It has been suggested that the idea of a compensation culture is more about perception than reality, but how many of us have not had regular phone calls inviting us to claim for an accident that we have not had, encouraging us with the idea that a fortune was surely around the corner if only we referred the case to the firm that was ringing us up. I have no problem with solicitors—some of my best friends are solicitors, as they say. Indeed, many years ago my wife worked with one of the country’s leading personal injury solicitors’ firms, mostly doing administration on road traffic accident claims. But we need to look at the state we are now in. All the empirical evidence suggests that the initial intentions behind addressing no-win, no-fee claims for personal injuries have generated a spiralling increase in claims that are not the result of pecuniary loss—they are about not loss of earnings or quantifiable losses, but a figure being placed on pain, suffering and loss of amenity.

Previous studies have suggested that, contrary to what others have been saying, the amounts awarded by courts in England and Wales are significantly higher than those awarded in most other European jurisdictions for personal injury claims. When there is a serious injury, especially if the effects are permanent or long-lasting, or even if it results in disability, clearly no one disputes that it is right that there is compensation, especially for the loss of opportunity and amenity caused by that injury. However, shorter-term soft-tissue injuries do not really fall within that category. That is why it is proportionate for the Bill to introduce a tariff that sets out the amounts payable for certain categories of minor, non-permanent injuries.

 

Bambos Charalambous Labour, Enfield, Southgate

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, under the criminal injuries compensation scheme—one of the Government’s own schemes—a person can get £1,000 for a criminal injury of whiplash? Under these tariffs, however, someone would get £470 for the same injury, except it would not have been the result of a criminal event.

 

Mike Wood: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there is clearly a distinction between being the victim of crime and being involved in an accident, even a road traffic accident.

 

Rory Stewart The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

rose—

 

Mike Wood: Of course I give way to the Minister.

 

Rory Stewart The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Does my hon. Friend agree that these discrepancies already exist, because the criminal injuries compensation scheme is, in fact, already an example of a tariff-based system? As those discrepancies have existed since 1962, nothing in the Bill changes their basic nature.

 

Mike Wood: The Minister, as ever, speaks straight to the point that bringing this system in line with the criminal injuries compensation scheme is actually making parallel systems more consistent, and it is entirely logical that they should operate on similar tariff-based systems. One of the flaws in the current system is that, as the Judicial College is setting its guidelines, the awards it uses for deciding the amounts in the guidelines are not the overall amounts that are payable in the event of a road traffic accident leading to personal injury, but are based on the awards made by the court in the relatively small proportion of claims that proceed to trial and are then adjudicated by a judge. The system does not consider the very large number of claims that are settled at an earlier date when the figure would tend to be lower.

Clearly, cases that proceed to full trial are more likely to be the more complex ones. This has the effect of institutionalising an inflationary element within the guidelines as they are reviewed, because the review is only ever based on those types of claim that actually end up being the higher awards anyway. It can only ever lead to an increasing amount. The impact of that falls clearly on our constituents. We rightly insist on mandatory motor insurance. As hon. Members have said, motor insurance premiums increase rapidly. One reason why they increase rapidly is that there has recently been a large increase in the average amounts paid out for personal injury claims. If we fail to take this sensible action, those amounts can only increase, and we can expect premiums to continue to increase at around 10% annually, quickly putting them out of reach.

 

Kwasi Kwarteng Conservative, Spelthorne

I am delighted that my hon. Friend is making this point. What is his view on whether the Lord Chancellor should be setting the tariff? Does that not bolster what my hon. Friend suggests—that there is a role for the Government in trying to keep insurance premium costs low?

 

Mike Wood: Absolutely. Although I tend to argue for a slightly slimmer role for the Government, I do think that there is a place for them in this regard. When we insist on mandatory motor insurance, there is a clear role for the Government in ensuring that pressures on the price of that mandatory insurance are kept under control as much as possible. Having the Lord Chancellor’s oversight of the tariffs is one way in which we can ensure that the people who are already struggling with the escalating costs of motor insurance do not see them taken even further out of reach.

There is a clear risk of a serious moral hazard when it comes to escalating motor insurance. The more that premiums increase, the greater the risk—the greater the temptation, we might say—for some people to take the chance to illegally fail to take out motor insurance and to drive on our roads uninsured, with everything that that implies for safety and for coverage of third parties. Given the current high levels of motor insurance premiums, research suggests that around a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds have been tempted to try to make savings by not taking out or not renewing their motor insurance policy—driving without insurance. Surely that number can only increase if the cost of motor insurance becomes ever more expensive and increases by far more than inflation or incomes.

As the real cost of motor insurance spirals, more people will be tempted to take the risk of driving without insurance, and young people are more vulnerable to this by far because their premiums are already so much higher. Such behaviour puts other people’s safety at risk and leaves them in an even more difficult situation in the event that they need to make a claim. The number of claims against uninsured drivers increased significantly last year.

The measures in the Bill are designed to keep insurance premiums under control, which is essential if we are to have a functioning motor insurance system. That is why I am not able to support the amendment, why I shall be supporting the Bill, and why I believe that the tariff system for minor injuries is absolutely necessary and must be retained in this legislation.