Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Consumer Insurance Contracts Bill 2017: From the Seanad
My colleagues in the Seanad tabled the group of amendments to the legislation, which I sponsored on behalf of the Sinn Féin Party, and they were accepted by all the parties in that House. The amendments will increase the level of information that insurance companies have to give to consumers, both motorists and businesses, in respect of public liability. Insurance companies will have to outline the cost, over a five-year period, of the premiums they charge to consumers, and the number of claims made against the policy in that period.
The amendment before us will increase the period from three to five years.
Amendment No. 5 is a technical amendment that will change the word "policy" to "contract".
Amendment No. 7, too, is technical and will change the word "year(s)" to "year or years".
I hope that everybody in the House will support the amendments. They will result in greater protection, clarity, accountability and transparency for consumers.
I hope that with the signature of President Michael D. Higgins to enact the legislation, there will be a much-deserved early Christmas present for consumers, given that it will radically reform insurance contracts throughout the State. I thank the Alliance for Insurance Reform for its input in respect of the legislation, which was doubtless strengthened by its suggestions. It has described the legislation, which Sinn Féin and I introduced, as a game changer. It will bring transparency to the sector and is part of my agenda of taking on the insurance industry and of ensuring that the scales will be tipped in favour of consumers. Contracts will now need to be read in favour of the consumer.
The insurance companies, which are fighting parts of this legislation, will have to be transparent about how much they charged on policies over a five-year period and the claims they paid out during the same period. They will no longer be allowed to settle claims without the knowledge of the person the claim was made against. They will no longer be able to ignore the evidence that a claim may be fraudulent, bogus or deeply suspicious. There are many other provisions in this legislation.
I thank the staff in my office, including Declan O'Farrell, who is leaving our employment to go to Brussels. It is important that one of the last things we are doing before he leaves is to pass legislation that he helped me with. I also thank Paul McIlvenny. I would particularly like to thank the LRC for drafting an earlier version of this legislation. I thank the officials in the Department of Finance and the Minister himself, who has helped to make sure this legislation passes in a timely manner.
I must say that there was a step change in the Government's handling of this legislation when the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, came on board. This Bill was held up by the Government for quite a period of time. Given that I initially sponsored it in 2017, we should not have had to wait until the final sitting day of 2019 for it to be passed into law. The previous Minister of State at the Department of Finance - the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy - failed to allow it to make progress for well over a year. It was held up by a money message. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, for his help and support. I would particularly like to thank his officials. At least we have all come together in unison now to do something positive for consumers. As many people have said, it should result in reduced premiums for people across the board.
I want to take this opportunity to commend Deputy Pearse Doherty and his team on the passing of this legislation. It has had a long journey since it was introduced in 2017. It was delayed for a long period of time. This important legislation will modernise the law in the area of insurance contracts. Up to now, the law has been very much stacked against the consumer. I acknowledge the work of the LRC in publishing the initial draft Bill.
There are many examples of insurance consumers needing to be better looked after. Earlier this evening, I spoke on the telephone to a constituent who managed to get a cheaper quote elsewhere when he was renewing his motor insurance policy. The new quote is approximately €200 less than his existing premium. When this elderly gentleman telephoned his broker to ask for a hard copy of his no-claims bonus, he was told that all the documentation had been emailed to him. He does not do email. He cannot print an email. He does not have an email account. I advised him to contact the broker again to say that he needs to have a hard copy posted out to him. This kind of niggly, stupid little thing is a completely unnecessary and unwarranted part of the approach of some parts of the industry, which seems to involve mistreating customers. It should not be necessary for legislation to intervene where common sense and basic good practice should apply to the treatment of customers. Passing this Bill is a good day's work. It will make a positive difference. We are glad to support it.
I thank all the Deputies who have contributed to this legislation, particularly Deputy Pearse Doherty. He chased me and I chased everyone else. I think we got a good Bill at the end of that process. I thank the LRC. Deputy Doherty and his staff have worked hard on this matter. I thank the officials in the insurance section of the Department. I thank our in-house staff in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.
We all have a part to play in insurance reform. There are too many vested interests who put themselves first. It is not good enough that customers and consumers come last with regard to insurance. This important legislation will put the consumer first and at the top of the queue instead of at the back of the queue. The vested interests include the insurance companies. Sections of the law profession and the legal world are looking after themselves as well.
All the legislation that is being introduced in this area will put us in a better position. As I have done on many occasions, I thank Deputies and Senators for their support in getting insurance legislation, including the Insurance (Amendment) Act 2018, through both Houses. When the 2018 motor insurance transparency report was published earlier this week, we saw the benefit of the passing this time last year of the Central Bank (National Claims Information Database) Act 2018. We have amended sections 8 and 14 of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 to change how data can be held and how people can use that data. Inferences can now be made against someone who does not, within a month, inform the person against whom a case is being taken that such a case is being taken.
Following on from the enactment of the Judicial Council Act 2019, which is another crucial piece of this legislative framework, the seven judges started to consider this matter yesterday. I cannot emphasise enough that the sooner their work is done, the sooner the award levels made in respect of smaller and less damaging claims will come down and we will be in a position akin to that of other jurisdictions. The era of tens of thousands of euro being awarded in respect of incidents involving very little damage or very little impact on people has to end sooner rather than later. The next part of this framework to come before the House will be the Perjury and Related Offences Bill 2018. I hope we will be able to get that legislation through as quickly as possible as well. The end of the era in which people got a lot of money in respect of false, fraudulent and exaggerated claims even though there had been very little impact on them will have a cumulative effect that will benefit consumers. This Bill is all about consumers. I wish everybody a happy Christmas. I thank Deputies for all their work and for the support they have given my efforts to tackle the insurance sector.