Leading Article: Crime victims lose out in policy shift

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SUPPORT for victims of crime was a strong theme at last October's Tory party conference. Several speakers punctuated calls for stiffer punishments with complaints that too little was being done for those who suffer violence. Yet a few months later the Government is poised to deprive thousands of people of the financial support they need when crime or accidents destroy their livelihoods.

Until now state compensation has distinguished between victims according to the impact of injuries on earning capacity. So a young surgeon with a rich and promising future could expect a much bigger award for loss of sight than someone in their eighties. Not any more. From April, anyone blinded will receive a predetermined sum.

The Government has imposed a crude list of tariffs tied to anatomical or mental damage that takes scant account of individual circumstance. So thousands of people whose injuries will blight their working lives for decades will effectively be consigned to poverty. An unjust policy has been adopted in haste without as much as a yea or nay from Parliament.

This is not the first ill-considered scheme the Government has announced to save money. In similar vein, the new rules introduced for legal aid have left many poorer people with no access to qualified legal advice. Likewise, 'second' families have seen their incomes savaged by the insensitive and sudden introduction of new maintenance rules by the Child Support Agency.

Ministers should think again about compensation awards. True, the new scheme will be simpler and, in the long run, probably save money. But both these laudable aims could be achieved by a more sophisticated and discriminating scheme. Guidance on awards could be issued while leaving some discretion to allow for the personal situation of each claimant.

The Government's policy shift appears to be part of insidious efforts by the Tory right to divorce the middle classes from the welfare state. The better-off will be most damaged under changes that dramatically reduce compensation for the shattered careers of higher earners. For them the move may bolster a belief that their taxes provide inadequate insurance in cases of ill-health or unexpected loss of income.

Such middle-class disaffection may suit Tory right-wingers who are keen that the welfare state should be reduced to little more than a safety net for the poorest. But that is not the intention of a system designed for everyone, offering health services, education and some measure of income security.