Focus: Policy and Politics - Lords vote for protecting volunteers

Nathalie Thomas,

Peers recognise charities' concerns about the Compensation Bill.

The Lords have voted to save legislation that will protect volunteers against negligence claims, despite calls from MPs to scrap it.

Peers have defeated an amendment to remove clause 1 of the Compensation Bill, which would allow courts to consider whether their ruling in a negligence case would discourage volunteers from running a "desirable activity" in future. Courts would also be able to reflect on whether the outcome means a desirable activity is no longer offered.

Lord Goodhart, Lib Dem spokesman for constitutional affairs, tabled the amendment during the Bill's report stages last week, shortly after a cross-party group of MPs recommended abandoning the clause. The constitutional affairs select committee had said that clause 1 could leave organisations at risk of litigation.

"It neither satisfies those people who wish for volunteers to be provided with a special defence against claims of negligence, nor does it clarify the law," the committee concluded in its report. "Instead, it is likely to lead to additional litigation as people turn to the courts to define the precise nature of that provision."

The committee's findings found little favour in the Lords, however, and peers voted 173 to 55 in favour of the clause. The outcome will please voluntary organisations that support the Bill, such as Girlguiding UK and the Scout Association.

A survey by the association revealed that fear of a compensation culture is having a damaging effect on the organisation's ability to recruit adult volunteers. Many existing volunteers are anxious about being sued for negligence despite the existence of risk assessment procedures, it says.

Jennie Lamb, head of development at Girlguiding UK, says recruitment problems mean the organisation cannot meet demand.

"We have a waiting list of 50,000 girls and need 8,000 more volunteers to meet demand," she says. "The perception that anyone working with other people's children risks being sued for even the most minor accident is hugely detrimental."

Justin Davis Smith, deputy chief executive of Volunteering England, has warned that even if it is passed, the Compensation Bill won't address all the voluntary sector's concerns about risk.

He agrees that clause 1 is likely to lead to better judgements in negligence cases, but warns that similar legislation in the US and Australia has proved to be of "negligible benefit".


- An attempt to remove clause 1 of the Compensation Bill has been defeated by peers

- The clause offers extra consideration to volunteers in negligence cases

- The Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee has called for the clause to be scrapped

- MPs argue that extra, costly litigation would be needed to define 'desirable activity'

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