Thursday, 16 December 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
I want to speak specifically about public liability insurance. We know the difficulties businesses, community organisations and community centres encounter in this regard. I dealt with the Minister of State previously about a case where a premium of €11,000 was put on a local community centre in Blackrock in my constituency. None of that is sustainable. Could he outline timelines on the movement on duty of care, in particular, but also his engagement with the sector? We know that there are not enough players in the market at this point and we need to sort that out.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 97 and 100 together.
At the outset, I am sure the Deputies will appreciate that neither I nor the Central Bank can interfere in the provision or pricing of insurance products, nor do we have the power to direct insurance companies to provide cover to specific individuals at specific prices. Everybody knows it would be deemed gross interference in the market.
With regard to the impact that the withdrawal of the UK from the EU may have had on the general liability market in Ireland, I am informed by the Central Bank that when looking at all jurisdictions during the Brexit preparation period from 2018 to 2020, the number of firms writing general liability insurance in Ireland via a freedom of service or freedom of establishment basis had not decreased, and the overall premium levels written by them have remained static.
It is also my understanding from the Central Bank that while some UK and Gibraltar insurers decided to withdraw from the Irish market post Brexit, the vast majority – more than 95% - have implemented contingency measures. Some of that will come up in the course of the pre-legislative scrutiny process this afternoon, as there are some technical difficulties with some of the UK and Gibraltar companies as a result of their intention to continue to provide cover in the State.
While Brexit may have exacerbated insurance issues for certain sectors, I understand that a more prominent reason for the withdrawal of some international insurers from Ireland in recent years has been the instability in the personal injury claims environment. In this regard, I believe that the personal injuries guidelines are a key achievement of the action plan and should help to reduce this uncertainty. That will also have a knock-on effect on legal costs, as many of the claims will now be dealt with in the District Court rather than the Circuit Court, and claims previously dealt with in the High Court will now be dealt with in the Circuit Court because of the reduced level of awards. As a result, there will be a major knock-on effect on the cost of insurance. There is a commitment from all involved to provide a euro-for-euro reduction regarding the savings.
The general damages that were examined by the personal injuries guidelines deal specifically with the most common injuries - the slips, trips, sore backs and sore necks. They are the most common injuries that make up most of the claims. They did not cover serious or catastrophic injuries following a car accident or a very serious fall resulting in lifelong medical requirements. We only covered the most common injuries. The cost of care in the future for specific damages was not covered. We did not want to interfere with somebody who may end up in a wheelchair for the next ten or 20 years. Such cases were excluded from the personal injuries guidelines. Some of the claims that are being made will come under the new guidelines and others will not. We did not want any reduction in damages for more serious injuries and, in fact, some of them have increased marginally in recent times, which we all support.
The key issue we are going to have is to get people to use the PIAB process more closely. It was great when it started but people have tried to bypass it extensively in recent times. The only issue of concern that I have, and I want to put it on the record, is that while the awards through PIAB have come down, the chief executives of all of the insurance companies have, one by one, confirmed to me directly that they are using the guidelines to the letter of the law, and none of them are offering an extra grand over the figure to settle the case quickly. That is important.
The Government, the Alliance for Insurance Reform and the individual companies are determined that we will follow it through to the letter of the law. The only issue is that some people are rejecting the new awards because they are lower than they used to be, and some of them are going to work through the courts to test out the new guidelines. I hope the courts will stand over the guidelines that the Judiciary actually wrote and designed. When we get that certainty, it will be a major improvement.
I accept there are certain things the Government cannot do but we will deal with those powers that the Government has. I welcome the fact we are looking at the anomalies that have been caused by Brexit, the gift that never stops giving, but we have to move on in that regard. It was a vital piece of work in regard to the personal injury guidelines. We know that in an awful lot of cases, the insurance companies did not fight cases and they just paid out, no matter how good the case would have been from a legal point of view, and we are talking here about soft tissue injuries. I want to know about the Minister of State's engagement with industry because, for public liability insurance, we do not have the players in that sector. I hope the Minister of State will be supportive of that piece of work, on which I have engaged with him previously. As he said, there are certain high-risk sectors where we need to look at regulation and at facilitating the groups into block-buys and whatever else, and I am specifically referring to the leisure, entertainment and community sectors. That is necessary. I would like to get specifics on the Minister of State's engagement and get a view on whether we can get more players in. Is there a timeline with regard to when the Minister of State thinks the duty of care legislation will be in place?
On the duty of care, it is an immediate priority. It is one of the biggest single outstanding actions in the action plan that we announced 12 months ago. I would hope that by the end of January we will have a firm date. There is a meeting of the Cabinet subgroup dealing with this issue towards the end of January, by which time we will have a full review of 2021. I expect that at that date we will have a clear timeline. I do not have a date today because it is subject to legal discussion between Department officials and the Office of the Attorney General. My hope is that by the end of January, around the time we come back, we will have a date for that.
With regard to my engagement with the industry, it is well known and is public knowledge that I recently met individually each of the chief executives on the matter, having done that earlier in the year. I met Insurance Ireland to make sure it, as a representative body, is making sure there is good feedback in the area. I met the Alliance for Insurance Reform specifically in regard to the pinch points where people cannot get insurance. I have committed to meeting them again in January to progress that particular work.
I welcome the promises the Minister of State has made and we will follow up in that regard.
I wish the Minister of State a happy Christmas. I have an issue that was brought up with me by some of my younger constituents. Obviously, we have had supply chain issues that have also been caused by Brexit. There are worries in regard to a certain Santa Claus. We hope the Minister of State and his colleagues in government will be engaging from the point of view of ensuring there will be no difficulties as regards the problems we have with the Irish protocol and no visa difficulties. We assume that public liability insurance issues that may arise in regard to Santa Claus and his workers have been looked at and dealt with, and that the Government can assure my younger constituents that the difficulties we are facing in the wider world will not be impacting in regard to the supply chain and Santa Claus.
I thank Deputy Ó Murchú for raising that timely issue. Before I came in here, we made a phone call to Lapland. The Government in Lapland has told us there is no insurance required whatever for anybody in Lapland who ever has an accident, which has never happened because Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus make sure that all the helpers are fully protected, so there has never been an insurance claim. That policy will be carried out, no matter where they go in the world. I think the United Nations made that clear decades ago. I think all children will be quite satisfied that the domestic border between Ireland, or between Russia, Mongolia, China or any other country, does not exist with the sat navs that are used from Lapland. All the children can be fully assured they will get their presents when they wake up on Christmas morning. I thank the Deputy for raising that issue and I want to put that to bed once and for all.
I thank the Deputies for their co-operation. If I do not see any of them between now and the new year, I offer my best wishes for the festive season. It will be a little less expansive than we had hoped but let us hope we all have a good Christmas nevertheless.