Friday 2 December 2016

PSNI injuries pay scheme 'buckling' from numbers hurt during Troubles

By Michael McHugh

Published 14/05/2015 | 13:16

An RUC officer looks at the damage caused by the bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh
An RUC officer looks at the damage caused by the bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh

The police injuries pay awards system in Northern Ireland is buckling because of the number hurt during the Troubles who are using it, a review said.

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The independent organisation which oversees the police force has been "flooded" with more than 1,000 applications a year for disability pay outs, a report by David Scoffield QC said.

Some permanently harmed in the line of duty - often during firearms training while the conflict was at its height - were compensated twice for problems like hearing loss, the lawyer said.

Civil claims totalling millions in court were followed by bids for special payments from the Policing Board.

Most forces in England and Wales have less than 10 applications for the awards per year.

Mr Scoffield's report called for a time limit restricting the ability of former officers to make applications many years after the events and long after the disablement was said to have arisen.

"The arrangements are buckling under their own weight in Northern Ireland," it said.

"This is largely because of the massive number of applications in Northern Ireland, which in turn arises from the peculiar nature of policing in this jurisdiction over many years, but which has resulted in the Board being unable to cope with the burden of administering the system."

As the only routinely armed force in the UK, Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers had to undergo regular firearms training.

It has been established that since the late 1960s, police sources were aware of medical evidence they had to provide sufficient ear protection for anyone involved in this kind of activity.

But the RUC did not provide sufficient safeguards for another 30 years.

The civil claims included officers who allegedly suffered hearing loss due to helicopter transport around dangerous regions close to the Irish border during the conflict, radio use and while driving motorcycles. Most were for harm sustained during firearms training.

One firm of solicitors successfully obtained hearing loss compensation for approximately 3,000 police officers, retired and serving, and acts for a further 1,500 officers.

In one day, Edwards & Co settled a record 45 cases in the High Court on behalf of police officers who had served in the RUC and its successor, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Damages awarded ranged from £3,000 to £25,000.

Mr Scoffield said those officers can make a claim for a separate injury on duty award from the Board for exactly the same injury.

Some of the claims include post-traumatic stress disorder, which can manifest itself years after the event.

Because successful applications must be kept under review and those unsuccessful tend to be the subject of appeals, Mr Scoffield said, it was difficult for the Board to ever really 'clear' a case permanently.

"Consequently, the workload simply continues to build."

Most forces in England and Wales received fewer than 10 injury on duty applications per year. By far the highest figure was for the Metropolitan Police which, with well over 30,000 officers, has had an average of 22 per year, the report said.

The PSNI, with less than 7,000 officers, has had between 780 to 1,040 injury on duty applications per year in recent years.

The report said: "The difference in these numbers is staggering."

It noted some officers voluntarily retired with a generous severance package under the Patten scheme, which overhauled the RUC, and had been compensated though the hearing loss civil action.

"There is an important debate to be had as to whether it is an appropriate use of public funds to further compensate them for the same injury on the basis that it permanently disabled them from continuing in police employment."

The report said it was possible for those administering the scheme to be flooded with applications from former officers in relation to events which occurred many years ago and which can be extremely difficult to assess.

"It is a quite remarkable feature of the scheme that applications can be made retrospectively with no limitation at all."

A spokesman for the Police Federation, which represents serving officers, said injuries were sustained when the threat was at its highest.

"We see in this an attempt to save money now for something that should have been addressed years ago. It is not for us to resolve or fix, it is for the authorities.

"There was a duty of care that was not there, they had to provide a safe working environment and that was never the case, as officers had to work in exceptional circumstances.

"If they were injured because of the job that they did trying to keep the community safe then the community and all these agencies cannot walk away from these responsibilities now."

A Board spokesperson said the report and recommendations have been accepted by its members.

"A programme of work is being taken forward to implement the recommendations made. This includes discussion with the Department of Justice in respect of changes now necessary to the legislation currently governing this area of work."

Press Association

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