I thought I must have been mishearing for a second.
On Monday night Channel 4’s Dispatches programme proclaimed that it would expose the reality behind high insurance premiums. Then I almost fell off my chair – it turns out ambulance-chasing lawyers are not solely to blame.
What followed was a ghastly half-hour for the insurance industry as a series of false promises and profit-driven practices were outlined. I imagine even the Churchill dog stopped nodding for a good while.
Many of the programme’s revelations were trailed by the Office of Fair Trading last year. Some insurers, quite simply, operate a racket over the way vehicles are dealt with following accidents. They encourage and coerce consumers to use their own repair centres and make life difficult for those that choose to go elsewhere.
Repairers appeared to be encouraged to cut corners on the grounds of costs – and even car manufacturers such as Fiat and Volvo are warning customers that insurers’ practices would affect both their vehicle’s value and its safety. The Association of British Insurers countered by arguing that it had to find the best value for money for its customers. The association has long claimed that motor insurers rarely make a profit from under-writing as it is.
The consumer may well have an insatiable thirst for a cheaper premiums but I would guess that most drivers place a higher value on their own life than a few hundred pounds. They’d certainly be pretty staggered to learn that important safety components are sacrificed to bring costs down.
The question is now whether anyone will listen. Just hours before the programme, messrs Cameron and Clegg rekindled their 2010 romance to remind us of the sterling work of the coalition so far.
Amongst the achievements was this little nugget: ‘We have helped to reduce car insurance premiums by reforming "no-win, no-fee" agreements and introducing new measures to bring down the number and cost of whiplash claims.’
Great news, if only it were true. Because if premiums have come down, that’s certainly not as a result of reforms not due to come into force until April. And if they’re already coming down, why the need for reform at all? And why did no one tell the insurers themselves?
In November the ABI’s James Dalton said: ‘I’m not expecting the public to be overly concerned that a few ambulance-chasers might make a bit less money, especially as they are the ones helping to fuel the rise in the cost of motor insurance premiums.’ No sign of Cameron’s heralded reductions there.
The legal profession is not blameless in this debate. There are too many fraudulent claims and it’s important they’re dealt with, although the insurance industry could certainly help by giving claimant lawyers access to its fraud register. Referral fees will be banned from April and they won’t be missed.
But it’s disingenuous for the insurance industry to be so angry at dysfunctional systems harming the consumer while rinsing everything it can, including referral fees, from the unfortunate motorist at the same time. If they won’t change, and with the Competition Commission not set to report on the issue until 2014, we must rely on the politicians.
An overhaul of the insurance industry as comprehensive as that of the legal profession? Now that really would be an achievement for this coalition government.
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