SPEECH ON DOG BITES AND POSTAL WORKERS

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab):  Thank you for your chairmanship today, Mr Dobbin. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, this legislation began its life with cross-party support under the last Government, and has now been taken forward. It is of course absolutely right that we have a scheme that compensates victims of overseas terrorism. 


I was not a member of the Committee that considered the original order, but the Minister did the right thing by appreciating the strength of opposition to it and withdrawing it. Nonetheless, it more than puzzles me that the order has been brought back unamended, and simply with a different composition on the Government Benches in order to try and ram it through. 

Robert Flello:  My hon. Friend talked about ramming the scheme through. Is he aware that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has been told to be ready to implement the scheme on Monday 5 November, namely next Monday? 


Mr McFadden:  I was not aware of that, but I thank my hon. Friend for giving us that information. 


I want to make a few points in relation to victims of attacks by dogs, especially those who incur such injuries as a result of doing their job. Perhaps most obviously, we think about postal workers in this context, but it could also be a health visitor, a plumber, or an electrician; it could be anyone who has to visit people’s homes as a result of their job. Under the current scheme, workers who are attacked have some recourse to compensation. It is usually not large, but it is something. The Government say they are withdrawing this provision because it is about criminal intent. However, that leaves workers with no recourse, no matter how serious their injuries might be. Surely the Minister knows how difficult—and in many cases impossible—it is to prove criminal intent in such cases. That does not change one iota the severity of the injury incurred by the victim, or the damage to them and their lives. 


As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, the proposed change might be more justifiable were the Minister proposing some serious action as an alternative, but she is not. There is no compulsory insurance scheme for dog owners. I ask the Minister to tell us in her summing up what proportion of dog owners have insurance that would cover victims in this kind of situation. I would be interested to know what lies on the other side of the equation in terms of the recourse that people have. I suspect that few dog owners have insurance that would cover such injuries. I also suspect that those who are in possession of the most vicious and aggressive dogs are the least likely to take out such insurance. 


The Minister mentioned the courts, but the courts are a slow and unwieldy mechanism. If they make an order at all, they will take into account the circumstances of the dog owner and not always the severity of the injury. The courts are not an adequate alternative route either. That leaves workers who are bitten by dogs during the course of their employment with nowhere to go for compensation. Such injuries are not trivial and can often be very serious. 


We are told that there are 12 attacks on postal workers every day, which is some 5,000 a year, and it would be more if we add other workers. Such injuries include lost fingers, puncture wounds, nerve and ligament damage and other serious and lasting injuries. Some attacks result in prolonged absence from work, lasting physical pain and lasting psychological damage. From our constituency work, we all know that the number of vicious and aggressive dogs is on the increase. We see them in the street, wielded by their owners like weapons. We all know that the current laws are failing to control the problem. The proposed changes take away an important avenue—for many people, it is the only one—for redress for those injured by dogs in the course of their jobs. 


Imagine the fear of a postman or postwoman trying to do their job and facing an attack from a pit bull, Rottweiler or other similar breed. Perhaps more than one dog is involved, as in the appalling case cited in today’s newspaper. In the case of a postal worker or another employee, it is all because they are trying to do their job by delivering a service to the dog’s owner. To paraphrase from another context, the worker has to be lucky every time; the dog only has to be lucky once. 


Imagine the pain and anguish if, after an attack, a worker is left injured and afraid, but the Minister’s Government has withdrawn the only means of redress in terms of compensation. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East said, it is not as though the costs of the scheme have been running out of control. They have been pretty constant for the past five years, yet these mean-spirited changes will leave key groups of workers with no redress. During my time in Government, I did not always see eye to eye with the Communication Workers Union, which represents postal workers, especially on reform of Royal Mail, but I do not see why any worker should be subject to dog attacks as a result of their job and then have their compensation rights withdrawn by the Government. 


The Minister was right to withdraw the order the first time around, but she is wrong to bring it back unaltered. The Opposition hoped that that would mean some changes. There have been none. I hope that she will withdraw the order and reconsider. Is this really how the Government propose to save money? She talked about the level of savings. In any decision to make savings, there is a balance between the money saved and the effect of the saving. I think that that balance is profoundly wrong in this situation. 


The Tory party prided itself on being the party of law and order, but here it is leaving victims of criminal acts without compensation, or with severely reduced compensation. I ask the Minister to think whether the savings are worth that in human or political terms. The Liberal Democrats, too, will have to explain their position on the order. If it is rammed through, the effects will be remembered for a long time to come. 

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