The debate over personal injury reforms is filled with rhetoric and self-interest. Today’s committee session was a breath of fresh air.
Today's House of Commons justice committee session into personal injury reforms started with just four out of 11 members present – a reminder to those in the sector that their enthusiasm for discussing this subject is not shared by everyone.
If the nervous-looking heads of the Association of British Insurers and Association of Personal Injury Lawyers thought they might be in for an easier ride, they were mistaken.
Neil Sugarman, president of APIL, and the ABI’s James Dalton were in the line of fire, and neither escaped a forensic examination of a standard rarely seen in Westminster.
For a good few minutes the witnesses could barely get a word in, such was the speed with which committee members went about devouring their prey.
Chair Bob Neill, one of Chris Grayling’s head cheerleaders during the latter's time as justice secretary, now seems to relish his chance to hold the Ministry of Justice up to scrutiny. Liz Truss, an enthusiast for PI reforms, will hardly have enjoyed Neill’s opening gambit to Dalton that reforms were based on ‘no hard evidence’. He pressed on: ‘Do you think we should be changing the law on the basis of suspicions?’
Dalton was briefly winded, and had barely recovered before Neill was on to the issue of promised premium cuts.
‘Are you telling me this is going to feed through into lower car insurance premiums,’ he asked, with a dollop of scepticism in his voice.
Conservative MP and solicitor Alberto Costa picked up the baton for the quartet. Costa is known as a stickler for detail and an expert on legal services regulation. His questions were not intended to get any more than one-word answers.
James Dalton thought it would be better to state the facts without seeing the whites of his inquisitor’s eyes.
‘Do you believe in the duty of care that is owed in a society between one citizen and another?’ Dalton had little option but to nod.
‘Your organisation has used the word "epidemic" to talk about whiplash claims,’ said Costa. Dalton was barely allowed to finish before Costa plunged the knife: ‘Is it also the case that whiplash claims have come significantly down?’
Dalton agreed, grudgingly, but when pressed for figures was wise enough to fall back on the age-old trick of promising to write later. Much better to state the facts without seeing the whites of your inquisitor’s eyes.
The initial four – joined by Labour’s Kate Green and David Hanson – were in their stride now.
Costa asked why we shouldn’t enforce existing laws, while Hanson pressed Dalton on how many of his members had committed to reducing premiums. No response was forthcoming.
Curiously, committee member Keith Vaz MP joined the session 30 minutes late and departed without saying a word, but another late arrival, Alex Chalk, asked exactly how a worker on minimum wage might fight a £4,000 claim against his employer. The answer was not entirely clear.
Neill was revelling in the whole thing, accusing the MoJ of ‘firing in entirely the wrong direction’. It was not an accusation you could level at his committee.
John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor