Wednesday, 13 March 2019
Business Insurance: Motion [Private Members]
Michael McGrath (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
The focus of this motion is employer liability and public liability insurance. It is not that everything is fine in the area of motor insurance, as it certainly is not, but the focus of the motion is in respect of employer and public liability. For businesses, voluntary organisations, community groups, sporting bodies, livestock marts, festivals and so on, there is a real crisis regarding this matter. I welcome to the Gallery many people directly involved in those sectors, including proprietors of play centres, pubs, nightclubs and hotels. They have taken time from their own businesses to be here because of the importance of this matter. We are at a crisis point.
Any business with a significant public footfall, whether it is a pub, a nightclub, a hotel, a children's play centre or a leisure centre, is experiencing very significant increases in the cost of insurance. The reality is that the cost of insurance has closed businesses and it has done so repeatedly. I know three centres have closed in the past month, with the cost of insurance being the main factor. I can give one example of a play centre that has not yet closed but that will do so unless something changes. Its renewal is in March every year. In 2016, the cost of insurance for this business was €3,500; in 2017 it was €5,500; in March 2018 it was just under €10,000; and it has just received a renewal notice in the post for €18,500 for insurance for the next 12 months. If nothing changes within days for that business, it will close with the loss of employment and a vital amenity within the community. We cannot allow that to happen.
This is not about preventing legitimate claims from being dealt with and of course legitimate claims must be processed on a fair and even-handed basis. We are really lacking certainty when it comes to awards, however, as there is a lack in consistency. In July, the Personal Injuries Commission published a final report and its central recommendation was that there should be a judicial council established that could issue guidelines for appropriate damages in respect of personal injuries. It demonstrated through empirical evidence that with respect to soft tissue claims, including whiplash, the award levels in Ireland are 4.4 times the levels in England in Wales. The average awards are over €17,000 here against approximately €3,800 in England and Wales. We have the hard evidence now.
Where is the process now of setting up that judicial council? The Bill to establish that judicial council was brought forward in 2017 but it seems to be stuck in the mud somewhere since November of that year. We need to deal with the fact that award levels in Ireland are significantly out of line with other jurisdictions. Is it the case that the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, is preventing the Bill from being brought forward in the Seanad because of the delay with the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill? We deserve straight answers as to whether that is the case. I cannot explain to the people contacting me why the Bill has not been progressed despite dealing with the central issue of award levels, which must be dealt with as a priority.
Where a claim is made against a business, it is hampered in its ability to defend the claim. Somebody can rock up as many as two years after an alleged event took place to submit a claim. On the other hand, the Data Protection Commissioner confirmed to us today that the business should only keep closed-circuit television, CCTV, records for 30 days. If somebody comes in on the eve of the second anniversary of an alleged incident saying he or she fell in the bathroom of the premises on a certain date, there would be no CCTV footage for the dance floor, the entrance to a facility, the playing area and so on. The business would be unable to defend itself, which is a key matter to be addressed.
Insurance companies are not providing information to policyholders in respect of claims being made against them. That issue must be dealt with and people should have the right to know when a claim is made against their policy. They should be given information about the settlement process and where awards have been made. It is not being done, and we have seen evidence of that for many cases.
There is also the matter of fraudulent and exaggerated claims. This is a serious problem and it must be addressed. We still do not have an insurance fraud database, which had been promised, and over two years ago a Garda insurance fraud unit was recommended but I am not sure what happened since. There was a debate for approximately two years as to whether the insurance industry should fund it but we now know it will not do so because the Garda Commissioner does not want it funded that way. Where is it and will it happen? We cannot even get information about the number of prosecutions brought in this State in respect of fraudulent insurance claims. Neither the Courts Service nor the Garda can tell us; there are no records and no information is being made available.
I suspect it is because very few cases, if any, are being brought. We have brought forward our own legislation, the Civil Liability and Courts (Amendment) Bill, which provides that when fraudulent claims are taken, the file is immediately referred to the DPP. I will bring forward another Bill when the House returns to provide that the costs of all such cases will rest with the plaintiff and not with the defendant.
We have no data regarding the cost of employer liability and public liability insurance. The CSO published data on motor insurance costs but there is no such data about employer and public liability insurance costs so we are really in the dark. This might allow the Minister of State to say that the problem is not as bad as I am saying it is and to claim that we are exaggerating the extent of the problem. We need that data. We need firm empirical data on this issue.
Fianna Fáil has offered the Minister of State and this Government its complete support in respect of any measure they wish to bring forward to tackle high insurance costs so there can be no excuse about this being a minority Government or about a lack of political support. No initiative that the Minister of State or the Government has brought forward has been blocked. We have offered our full support to all measures to deal with this issue. I will be straight with the Minister of State. I think he is doing his best and is genuinely interested in this issue. I hear no other Government Minister talking about the costs of insurance, which is simply not good enough. Of course, insurance companies have questions to answer. I cannot hold them to account here today but I can hold the Minister of State and the Government to account. I will deal with insurance companies, the legal profession and others when we get the appropriate opportunity.
There is a significant risk that many sectors are relying exclusively on one insurance provider to extend cover. If that insurance provider withdraws from the Irish market, the reality is that those businesses will go overnight. People are lying awake at night worrying about the costs of insurance and how much longer their business can stand up against the onslaught of rising insurance costs.