Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Questions (25)

Michael McGrath


25. Deputy Michael McGrath asked the Minister for Finance the priority measures he is putting in place to tackle the growing insurance crisis facing businesses, charities, community groups, sporting clubs and others nationally; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25706/19]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Finance)

This question relates to the ongoing insurance crisis. I do not need to tell the Minister or the Minister of State about the impact that rising insurance costs are having on businesses throughout this country. It is not only businesses that are affected but sports clubs, community groups, festivals and a whole range of other organisations nationwide. With just three weeks left after this one before the end of the current Dáil session, what are the priority measures that the Government intends to get over the line with a view to bringing about improvements and changes to the environment for insurance in this country?

I thank the Deputy for his question. As he is aware, going back to the cost of insurance motor report in 2017 and the report on employer's liability and public liability insurance in 2018, the pathways are clear for what we must do. Last year, we did the Insurance (Amendment) Bill, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (Amendment) Bill and the national claims information database.

I assume the Deputy's question is addressed to the Judicial Council Bill. It will be before the Seanad tomorrow. I hope and expect it will conclude all Stages in the Seanad tomorrow and come back before the Dáil next week so this crucial piece of legislation can be concluded before the end of the session. I have asked for an early signature motion so that the Judicial Council can be formed. The crucial piece of this will be the establishment of a personal injury committee from the Judiciary to review the guidelines and the levels of awards.

I hope the Judiciary will do its work in a quick and efficient manner. The Personal Injuries Commission report suggested that the levels of award in Ireland are out of kilter with those in England and Wales. That report stated that awards here are 4.4 times the level they are in England and Wales. The Department of Finance has done work that shows the level of awards in Ireland is five times those in England and Wales. The Personal Injuries Assessment Board has done work which shows the level of awards here is four times that in England and Wales. Ireland's awards are between 4.4 and five times as large as those in England and Wales.

The Law Reform Commission has started doing important work on the hard question of whether or not this House has the authority to cap or limit awards. I do not have the answer yet but we will examine the matter after the report of the Law Reform Commission.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. It seems that the Government has pinned all its hopes on the Judicial Council as the best vehicle to revise downwards the award levels. I must ask what if it does not work. I welcome the fact that the Bill is likely to pass both Houses by the summer recess, that is important, but beyond that it will be passed to the Judiciary and there is no timeline at that end. The Minister of State said he hopes the process will be concluded later this year. It may not be. We have not heard that from the Judiciary.

What if the Bill does not work? What if the council does not revise award levels downwards to bring us into line with other international comparators in the manner the Minister of State has described? That is a concern. What if the Bill is drawn up in a manner that is too loose, meaning that judges must have regard to these new guidelines but are not bound by them? What are the alternative options? What are options B and C to deal with this? We have a real crisis. Businesses are closing. We have hitched our wagon to the Judicial Council Bill but, once it passes through this House, we will have no further control over it and that is a real concern.

I share the Deputy's concern. We have hitched our wagon to this pathway because it was agreed with the Personal Injuries Commission and former President of the High Court, Mr. Justice Nicholas Kearns. Everybody has been, and is, on board.

The Deputy's point is correct. The schedule I have highlighted and outlined in my timeline and I cannot ensure implementation within it. If we can do our work quickly and efficiently, I see no reason why the Judiciary cannot do likewise. The Law Reform Commission will then report and we can liaise with the Attorney General based on that information.

Option C is that we may require a referendum to give this House the authority to cap awards. That is not a pathway I am eager to travel. The best and correct pathway is the one that has been agreed with the Judiciary. It is my timeline that I am highlighting. It will be a matter for the Judiciary. I do not want a clash between the Oireachtas and Judiciary because I do not see the purpose of that. Too much time and energy has been spent in such a manner rather than following what we believe is the correct pathway. That pathway is through the Judicial Council Bill, the establishment of a committee and a review of the guidelines in line with the Personal Injuries Commission report which took into consideration Court of Appeal awards and those in the UK.

I welcome the candour and openness of the Minister of State on the issue. From a Fianna Fáil perspective, it is important that the option of a referendum is kept on the table. We are going down this road of the Judicial Council Bill and we all hope it will result in the change that we believe necessary but, if it does not, we must look at alternatives. We will wait to see what the Law Reform Commission comes back with but there is also the option of a referendum which is a live option that should be left on the table.

On a related issue, I ask the Minister of State for his view on the fact that Insurance Ireland, a representative body, continues essentially to own and control some key databases, particularly Insurance Link, which contains much important, market-sensitive data about claims history which is used by industry participants to cross-check information that has been provided to them by policy holders and claimants. I ask that notwithstanding and without prejudice to the European Commission investigation which is ongoing and will take an undefined period of time. Is it appropriate, in the view of the Minister of State, that the industry owns and controls data that are vital to having a healthy, competitive insurance industry in this country? It is beyond the time when the State should take control of such data. I would welcome the views of the Minister of State on the issue.

I want to highlight that I do not think a referendum is the correct direction of travel; it is the last option rather than something we are eager to do.

As the Deputy is aware, the national claims information database is the correct structure to put the spotlight on the data for the insurance sector. With the change to the Solvency II rules, we did not have the data. Insurance Link is owned by the insurance sector and the sector provides the information to Insurance Ireland, which is then provided with a cross-referencing of companies within the structure. I want to see us moving from the national claims information database for motor insurance and getting the information out as quickly as possible. We need to move immediately to employers' liability and public liability, which is the correct structure. The information is held by the Central Bank-----

That is at the aggregate level. Are the data the industry controls specific to individual claimants?

I note the Deputy's question. The challenge we have with the GDPR is over who owns the data and how they are shared. I am not sure that it is appropriate for anybody else to receive the data.

I have to move on. I do not like interrupting anybody but if I do not hold Members to the time, other people will not get an opportunity to put their questions.