When insurers, lawyers and claims management companies are quizzed about who is to blame for the apparent epidemic in whiplash accident claims, it is obvious who will emerge as the culprit.
Doctors, of course.
Who, conveniently, were not represented this week when MPs on the Transport Select Committee took evidence on the relationship between whiplash injury and motor insurance premiums. A rare point of agreement between successive panels of insurers and lawyers called as witnesses was that the quality of medical reporting could usefully be improved.
Even a vociferous champion of claimants’ rights, Andrew Ritchie QC, was happy to concede that a few ‘old warhorses who have more or less given up in practice’ might be guilty of less than rigorous diagnoses.
Alas, that was the extent of the consensus. But any attendee hoping for real parliamentary fireworks would have been disappointed.
For a start, a hearing in Portcullis House can never match the awful majesty of the old Palace of Westminster, where the very flagstones seem to whisper to witnesses that they are a blink of history’s eye away from a beheading in Whitehall.
Neither was the hearing likely to generate the theatre of contrition we so much enjoy when a committee gets its teeth into a public policy cock-up. There was no civil servant mumbling that ‘with hindsight we accept that contracting out women’s services to Jack the Ripper Plc has delivered a less than optimum outcome’, but rather a line-up of successful white middle-aged executives well used to having their voices heard.
Indeed some witnesses seemed prone to forgetting who was in charge. Committee chair Louise Ellman (Labour) had sharply to remind the insurers that they weren’t speaking to the Ministry of Justice. Ellman was even sharper when Craig Budsworth of the Motor Accident Solicitors Society tried to open the session by correcting a point of fact rather than waiting humbly for a question.
Contrary to some expectations, the inquisitors seemed reasonably briefed, and not just by one side. Both Ellman and Karen Lumley (Conservative) even seemed to have a grip on the civil litigation reforms. Jim Dobbin (Labour) probed on the quality of medical diagnosis.
But, as far as the lawyers were concerned, the bad cop was Graham Stringer (Labour), who dismissed with old-school parliamentary sarcasm the argument that Britons are more likely to suffer whiplash than other Europeans because of the congested state of our roads.
Stringer was responsible for more laughter when his questions prompted Ritchie to reveal that the clinical evidence base for whiplash is based on experiments on US troops in the 1960s ‘who were put into cars and crashed in to walls to see the effect’. He did not say if any went on to sue Uncle Sam.
A fair hearing? In the current climate of opinion it was probably as good as the lawyers could have hoped for. One hopeful sign was a loaded question from Ellman about fair access to Number 10. Desmond Hudson, the Law Society’s chief executive, managed to get in the last word with a warning about legislation ‘based on lobbying by one side only’.
No doubt we shall soon see if anyone was listening.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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