(1 year, 4 months ago)Read Full debate
Amendment 17 would require insurers to report on whether savings have been passed on to consumers. New clause 6 would require insurers to pass on all savings as a result of the changes to consumers. Unlike the Government’s over-wordy, over-complicated new clause 2, which I will discuss shortly, amendment 17 and new clause 6 are straightforward. They would require the Financial Conduct Authority to insist that insurers report on the savings they have made as a result of the Bill, and the extent to which such savings have been passed on to policy holders. There are no caveats, no get-outs—it is a straight-line requirement to do the right thing.
The Bill is the latest in a long line of Government handouts to the insurance industry. Back in 2012 in a closed-door meeting at No. 10, the insurers—in return for being able to set the fixed costs in the new fast track that the new Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 introduced—promised to reduce insurance premiums. Since then, insurers have saved more than £11 billion; those are Association of British Insurers figures, not my own. As the Minister must concede, motor insurance premiums are higher now than they were then. So much for those promises.
In the Bill, the Government have, again, swallowed hook, line and sinker the insurers’ promises that they will reduce premiums. History is repeating itself. Insurers are making record profits: Direct Line’s profits in 2017 jumped by 52% to £570 million and Aviva recorded a profit of £1.6 billion. No, that is not all motor related, but in the case of Direct Line it will largely be so.
Meanwhile, insurer CEOs are on multimillion pound packages—Paul Geddes from Direct Line and Mark Wilson from Aviva made more than £4.3 million each in 2017. We are now discussing measures that will save the insurers £1.3 billion a year. Of that, the insurers might—if the wind is blowing in the right direction and none of the ludicrously large get-out clauses in new clause 2 apply—hand across up to 80%. Notably, the cuts to insurance premiums of £35 a year, which insurers are promising now, are much lower than the previous estimates of £50 per year promised in the Prisons and Courts Bill. The Government represent a party that claims to oppose red tape: here is a chance for them to avoid it. Let us have a simple clause that does what it says on the tin.
That leads me to Government new clause 2, which is as full of red tape as it is holes. Perhaps my most fundamental question to the Minister is this: what is wrong with the word “will”? The new clause is peppered with the word “may”. If the Government are genuinely committed to ensuring that savings are passed to consumers, why do they not insist that that happens? Paragraph 3 includes provision for all kinds of ways in which, by regulation, insurers should provide information. Is there any reason why that information should not be made publicly available?
Paragraph 4 is a catalogue of reasons why insurers could wheedle out of being transparent and evade passing on the very substantial savings that the Government’s impact assessment makes clear they will be making. The truth is that all the Government have managed to extract from the insurers, who stand to gain massively from this Bill, is a vague promise that they will pass on savings.
Embarrassed by the lack of hard evidence for a commitment, the Government have tabled this new clause, which is riddled with get-outs and opportunities for insurers to worm their way out of the flimsy commitments they have made. We know—and if the Government are honest, so do they—that insurers will seek to avoid paying the savings that they make back to policy holders. That is what happened when they last made promises in 2012. Given the weakness of the new clause, that is what will happen again.
In truth, the Government have rolled over and the new clause is simply a fig leaf to cover their embarrassment. The answer, I suggest, is to include a simple clause that—and I use a phrase from Conservative Back Benchers on Second Reading—will
“hold the insurance industry’s feet to the fire.”—[Official Report, 4 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 111.]
Our new clause would mean that any savings made by any insurer as a result of anything in this Act, or associated regulation, will be passed to policy holders by way of reduced premiums. What could be simpler? The Minister may notice that our proposed new clause quite deliberately refers to
“savings made…as a result”
of changes by this regulation.
The Government have refused to include in the Bill the small claims changes that they propose; we will come back to that issue later in our other amendments. What is crucially different between the Government’s new clause 2 and our new clause 6 is that our new clause is not only simpler but mentions the savings that insurers will make from the small claims changes.
In calculating the £1.3 billion in savings that the insurers will make every year, the Government’s impact assessment includes the savings created by the increase in the small claims limit as a result of the so-called wider package of measures. For the Government not to include the savings made from the small claims limit changes in their new clause 2 renders it virtually worthless, and undermines their much-vaunted and fundamental promise that motor insurance premiums will drop by £35 a year.
Is it not the case that the best time for an assessment to be made would be in the first year following the changes—not years down the line?
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for bringing proposing the amendments and new clauses.
Effectively, as the right hon. Member for Delyn has pointed out, new clause 2 was introduced with a lot of influence from the House of Lords—it was driven by Opposition Members of the House of Lords to meet exactly the concerns raised by right hon. and hon. Members. Therefore, I am tempted to argue in my brief argument that amendment 17 and new clause 6 are, in fact, unnecessary. The noble Lords did a good job in new clause 2 of addressing many of the concerns raised in the debate, which is why the Government are keen to ask for the Committee’s support.
At the heart of this, the Committee will discover, is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of markets, which will be difficult to resolve simply through legislation. There are profoundly different views on both sides of the House about what exactly is going on in a market. Again and again, all the arguments—from the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) right the way through to the eloquent speech by the right hon. Member for Delyn—rest on the fundamental assumption that every company, insurance or otherwise, in the country is simply involved in trying to charge their consumers as much as possible and provide as few services as possible, and that there is nothing to prevent their doing that.
Of course, what prevents companies from doing that ought to be competition. It does not matter whether that is the insurance industry or, to take a more straightforward question, why Tesco’s does not charge £50 for a loaf of bread and try to produce one slice. In the end, the decision on what premiums are charged will be driven by competition between different insurance companies. All the arguments, whether in relation to these or other amendments, are based on that fundamental misunderstanding. The Labour party is again effectively pushing for a prices and incomes policy. They are trying to get the Government to fix the prices of premiums and control the prices that insurance companies charge because they simply do not trust the Competition and Markets Authority, the FCA, the insurance industry or any other business to pass on savings to consumers.
Unfortunately, something is being missed in the way the right hon. Gentleman is framing his arguments. He is suggesting that there is a fixed, stable situation—the Chancellor of the Exchequer offered £50, nothing changed, and now it is £35. If that were true, it would indeed be a disgrace, but the reality is that, following the negotiations that took place in the consultation and in the House of Lords, the savings that the insurance companies will realise and will be in a position to pass on to the man or woman paying the premium have been considerably reduced.
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman might be interested in listening to the answer rather than talking to somebody else. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke, he of course suggested that all general damages would be entirely removed. His proposal was that there would be no general damages at all. It is therefore perfectly reasonable. If no general damages at all were paid, the insurance company’s savings would be considerably larger, and the savings passed on to the consumer might indeed have been £50.
Due to the very good work that the Opposition and the noble Lords put in, there have been a number of compromises to the Bill, which mean that the savings passed on to the insurers, and from the insurers in the form of premiums, will be considerably reduced. One of those compromises is that, whereas in the past there were going to be no general damages paid to anybody getting a whiplash injury of under two years, there is now a tariff for money to be paid out. As it gets closer to two years, the tariffs paid out will be much closer to the existing Judicial College guidelines, so the savings will be considerably less.
Break in Debate
I will return to the fundamental disagreement between right hon. and hon. Members. We can all agree that there were significant savings to the insurance industry. We can all agree that some of those savings were passed on to customers and that premiums ceased to rise at the rate at which they had been. There is some disagreement between the two sides of the House about whether enough of those savings were passed on—we argue that the industry passed on sufficient savings—and whether premiums went up more than they should. However, without Government new clause 2, the evidence or information will not be available to people in order to make such arguments.
It is not enough to produce a general figure, saying, “Here is £11 billion, and this is how much was passed on in premiums.” That is why the new clause has no less than 11 subsections that detail the kind of data that would need to be extracted from the insurance industry by the date recommended in order to prove that case. I was asked why reporting would not be done annually. The answer, of course, is that a claim can be brought any time within three years of an accident. The date takes into account that the law is due to come into effect in 2020. We add three years to that for the claim, and then time for the data and evidence gathering in order to report in 2024.
The reason why I respectfully request that the Government amendments are supported and the Opposition amendments are withdrawn is that pushing for one-year rather than three-year reviews and attempting to price fix the result would leave the opposition amendments open to judicial review and create an enormous, unnecessary burden on the market. Our contention is that the market already operates—we have the Competition and Markets Authority to argue that that is the case—and, by introducing our new clause, we will be able to demonstrate that over time. It is a very serious thing.
I remain confident that, if insurance companies are compelled to produce such a degree of detail and information to the Financial Conduct Authority and the Treasury, they will pass on those savings to consumers because, were they not to, they would be taking a considerable legal risk. The industry initially resisted this move, and understands that it is a serious obligation.