Wednesday, 4 April 2007
Leaders' Questions (Resumed)
I think the Ceann Comhairle left out the word "entertaining" for our guests. Last week, I and other Deputies tabled parliamentary questions to the Tánaiste, as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, because concerns had been raised with us about the role of gardaí and former gardaí in the car insurance business. On Sunday, the Tánaiste will know that a newspaper claimed to have strong evidence of the extent to which former gardaí, or even serving gardaí, are apparently accessing information about insurance claimants from Garda files and perhaps indeed from Government Departments. I certainly hope this proves to be absolutely without foundation, as one insurance player has strenuously stated.
If this does prove to be the case, however, does the Tánaiste agree it would be in breach of the Data Protection Act and the Official Secrets Act? If it is indeed the case, does the Tánaiste also accept that the real victims are legitimate claimants whose entitlement to proper and full compensation will have been undermined by such actions? We have a responsibility to recognise who the real victims are in this situation. I pose these questions to try to help establish the full facts. As I said, I hope it proves not to be the case but if it does then it will certainly be necessary to take important actions.
In my parliamentary question I asked the Tánaiste what procedures were in place to ensure that retired gardaí do not misuse privileged information accessible to them while serving in the force, or access information covered by the data protection legislation. In his reply, the Tánaiste cited section 62 of the Garda Síochána Act. If he has the information to hand, I would like to know if any serving or former garda has ever been prosecuted under this legislation.
I also had another question which did not elicit a response. I asked whether concerns had been raised with the Tánaiste about compliance by insurance companies or their agents with their legal obligations under the data protection legislation. I also asked about specific contracts between the Garda Síochána and individuals serving in the force, or former members of the force, with any particular insurance operation. I understand that there is a special relationship concerning the recovery of vehicles involved in road traffic accidents in a pilot project that has been in place in part of the country for a number of years.
Does the Tánaiste not think that this represents a special relationship with one player in the sector? The pilot project is of several years standing and the declared intent of the Garda Commissioner is to roll it out across the State, if it proves useful and effective. The project has not been lived up to or honoured, however. Will the Tánaiste tell the House what he knows to be the factual situation concerning all the matters I have raised?
I am grateful to the Deputy for asking me a question which was envisaged by the procedure under the rules of this House, unlike the last two questions.
Like the Deputy, I read the Sunday Tribune story's suggestion that serving and former members of the Garda Síochána had abused their positions to favour one insurance company by giving it access to information held within the force's official records. When I read that story I was gravely concerned and in a moment I will tell the House the actions I took on foot of it. First, however, I want to say that of course it would be a breach of the Official Secrets Act and the Data Protection Act for any garda to engage in that behaviour. It would also be a breach of Garda discipline and simple, straightforward ethics for any garda to behave in that way.
When I read that story, therefore, I regarded it as a matter of the utmost gravity. When I saw the particular document on which the story was based, my concern rose because if that document were genuine one could only conclude that a very serious scandal had been in position for some time and was being exulted in by people who were party to it. I contacted the Garda Commissioner and my Department has also had a number of contacts with the Commissioner. The Garda Commissioner shares my view that the allegations in that article were of the utmost gravity concerning an abuse of position. They will be treated as such and inquired into fully.
In fairness to the insurance company in question — I am referring to the article in the Sunday Tribune, with which I am most concerned — I should say that as far as I understand, it is claiming that the document is a forgery, was concocted to embarrass it and has no substance whatsoever. Either it is a forgery or it is not.
If it is not a forgery, then it is a matter of the utmost gravity. If it is a forgery, then that is another matter of the utmost gravity, but different inquiries will follow on foot of it. I share the Deputy's view that it would be entirely wrong for any member of the Garda Síochána to make any private company engaged in the insurance sector a party to information held by the Garda Síochána, other than through officially sanctioned and conventional channels. I share the Deputy's concern that it would be entirely wrong for any insurance company to enter into a financial arrangement with any serving member of the Garda Síochána for such information to be imparted to it. I also share the Deputy's view that it would completely undermine fair competition in the insurance business, as well as undermining public confidence in the Garda Síochána, if that situation were either true or tolerated.
Either the documents in question are forgeries designed to bring about a major mischief, or genuine, in which case it implies that a significant issue of gross misbehaviour and gross abuse of office is recounted in those documents. Whatever is the case, it will be dealt with as a matter of utmost gravity by the commissioner and me. The commissioner has assured me that it will be dealt with as a matter that merits serious investigation and that we will not walk away from the issue without resolving it one way or another.
I thank the Tánaiste for his full reply and the clarity of his response in terms of the commitment he and his office have made to establish the full facts and the truth of the situation, reflecting also on the intent of the commissioner's office. Serious concerns have been raised in the article in question, concerns that reflect a variety of opinions expressed to Deputies, about the practice of insurance companies offering incentives to the legal representatives of claimants to recommend to their clients that they would settle for a sum less than might ordinarily be expected or which could, arguably, be their full entitlement. Has this matter, which has serious ethical and legal implications for practitioners in the solicitors' field, been raised with the Minister? We have no evidence to support the claims made but, given the seriousness of the allegation, has the Minister had the opportunity this week to make inquiries as to whether evidence so exists and the steps he can and will take to address it?
Everybody wants to see affordable insurance cover and a successful insurance industry sector to sustain that. This is not about showing weakness in relation to those involved in fraudulent claims — far from it. My emphasis at the outset and again in conclusion is to ensure that those who are seeking to process their legitimate claims are dealt with fairly and properly and have a fair and equal opportunity to secure their full entitlement under their insurance cover. What protection has the citizen who has a legitimate claim from the alleged type of heavy-handed tactics that are apparently being employed by some insurance companies, including, it is clearly alleged, the use of former gardaí in direct approaches to said claimants and all that can entail in the mind of the individual and his or her family, placing them in what can only be described as an invidious position. That too must be addressed in the overall issue.
I share the Deputy's concern regarding the article that suggested that members of the legal profession were being inveigled into short-changing their clients, whether the item referred to in the article was genuine or a forgery. The Law Society is investigating this suggestion but I believe the vast majority of solicitors are upstanding professionals who would not short-change a client or enter into a compromised or corrupt arrangement with an insurance company at the expense of clients. If anything, the solicitors' profession has erred the other way sometimes by being overly active in pursuit of clients' interests.
I agree with the Deputy that we all want a competitive insurance market. Going back to a point made by Deputy Kenny earlier, if he wants to hear of an achievement of this Government and, in particular of Deputy Harney when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, he should look to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. If I may claim some credit for myself in terms of achievement, Deputy Kenny should look to the law relating to fraudulent claims.
There has been a dramatic transformation in this country's compensation culture and, as a result, insurance premiums have fallen by up to 60% in a few years. If Deputy Kenny wants to hear of an achievement, this is one that Deputy Ó Caoláin has had the decency to acknowledge. There has been a dramatic improvement in this context.
Regarding the compensation culture, it is important that claims be investigated quickly and settled early. It is also important that we avoid a system of dealing with personal injuries and road traffic compensation that involves protracted, paper-driven, court driven solutions when there are perfectly common sense, out-of-court arrangements to deal with such issues. I do not wish to appear critical of those who get on with the job and settle cases quickly, who, when fault is abundantly clear, do not hide behind legal procedures to avoid paying out and who find out the facts in the immediate aftermath of accidents to reach a settlement. There is nothing wrong with such behaviour in principle or in practice.
This is not Deputy Joe Higgins's question. He has interrupted on a number of occasions and has made allegations about people outside the House that he cannot substantiate. It is time he stopped abusing the privilege of the House.
I was about to say to Deputy Ó Caoláin, before Deputy Higgins interrupted, that I share his view that people should be clear when dealing with a person investigating an insurance company claim that they are dealing with a representative of an insurance company, not a person implying or insinuating that he or she is a person in authority dealing with the same issue. There is nothing wrong, in principle, with retired members of the Garda Síochána acting as claims investigators. However, there should be clear distinctions, protections and ethical guidelines to ensure that nobody pretends to be a person in authority and that people do not feel they are dealing with a person in authority investigating the claim from a different perspective in the context of an insurance claim investigation.