A few weeks ago on a train to Birmingham for the Conservative Party conference I found myself in a heated debate with two fellow travellers, only one of whom I know. I should point out this doesn’t happen very often, but party conferences do funny things to people, of which talking to complete strangers on the train is possibly the least weird.
Doubly strange was that the debate, which may have sucked in the whole carriage if it weren’t for our arrival at Birmingham New Street, was about proposed cuts to the criminal injuries compensation scheme (CICS). The government wants to slash the £200m paid to victims of crime under the scheme by a quarter.
As you would expect, this is not a proposal I support and I found it a bit disconcerting to find I was arguing with people who did. I had imagined most, if not all, of them were sitting in the Treasury and so barred from attending political jamborees. But no, here they were saying it was one cut they could support because ‘the government shouldn’t act as what is effectively an insurer’.
Taking that argument to its logical conclusion could prevent the government from providing, well, almost everything, including healthcare when we are ill and benefits when we are unemployed or unable to work. You can see why the government might think it’s a good idea, but it is not only victims, lawyers and unions who oppose the cut.
Several Tory MPs, including that ardent spendthrift John Redwood, have also strongly criticised the proposals saying: ‘I have never been shy about saying that I would like us as a government to spend less overall, but I never once thought it had to be done by cutting something so sensitive or giving a worse deal to the disabled, the poor or the most vulnerable’.
I don’t know about you, but I find that quite an extraordinary statement. Even John Redwood thinks it’s callous in the extreme to take money away from victims of crime. And it’s not like we’re talking huge sums of money. For example ‘minor brain damage, well-controlled epilepsy and permanent disabling fractures’ get £8,200; under the new plans they would only get £6,000. For brain damage.
Almost half of victims currently eligible for compensation would get nothing, including people attacked by dogs and injuries such as minor visible disfigurement, partial loss of vision or temporary mental anxiety. More serious injuries would see cuts of up to 60%, including, for example, a man hospitalised for two and half months and left with a brain injury after a random attack in which he was punched, kicked and stamped on.
Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union campaigning against the change, won £2,000 for a woman attacked by a shoplifter and left with blurred vision, stress and anxiety, forcing her to take weeks off work. Under the new plans, she would get nothing; neither would over 90% of the victims of the 7/7 bombings.
The proposals would also reduce compensation for potential loss of earnings and would mean the dependant spouses or children of murder and manslaughter victims would no longer be able to claim a significant portion of their salary. And victims who don’t go to the police as soon as ‘reasonably practicable’ will be blocked from claiming.
So nothing for many of Jimmy Savile’s victims or others who have suffered sexual abuse who are often unable to speak about it for years. Reporting crimes to other authorities, such as social services or a hospital, will no longer be enough. Doesn’t look much like justice to me.
The government maintains the current scheme is too bureaucratic and means many people end up waiting years for compensation. There have also been claims about undeserving claimants exploiting it. Well, if that’s what ministers are worried about they should reform how it works and increase fraud prevention, not slash the budget.
Having been forced to rethink by overwhelming opposition from MPs of all parties on the delegated legislation committee last month, the first time this had happened in 50 years, justice secretary Chris Grayling plans to come back to the committee shortly with largely unchanged proposals.
Is the government guilty of putting deficit reduction ahead of compassion for victims of crime? It certainly seems to have forgotten the founding principle of the CICS, which was not strictly to provide compensation for injuries but to be ‘an expression of public sympathy for innocent victims of violent crime’.
The proposed cuts seem to be at odds with the government's other proposals for victims, which include giving victims a new right to make a personal impact statement that can be taken into account in sentencing for the first time, and a right to request a meeting with their offender.
Since the scheme was set up in 1964, successive governments have held the view that victims deserve more than just words. It seems as if this one disagrees.