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Employers' Liability Insurance

Volume 406: debated on Monday 9 June 2003

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If he will make a statement on the future of employers' liability insurance. [117295]

The first stage report of the Department's review of employers' liability compulsory insurance was published on 3 June. The report sets out a series of actions including the scrutiny of industry service standards, especially renewal periods; a move towards fairer risk-related premiums to reward those with strong health and safety records; and the development of self-assessment packages to enable businesses to better manage risks. In the longer term, the Government will further evaluate the evidence for separating long-term occupational disease from accident risks, focus on legal costs and give rehabilitation a more central role in the UK compensation system.

It is worth making progress on all of those issues and Ministers will report on progress that has been made and any further steps we intend to take in the autumn.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that the best way to reduce premiums is to stop people getting unnecessarily injured at work in the first place. However, I am pleased that he has indicated a commitment to rehabilitation, because if people can return to work more quickly that is a good way of cutting the cost of employers' liability premiums. Will he discuss with the Secretary of State for Health what can be done to improve rehabilitation services and will he respond positively to the suggestion from both the TUC and the Association of British Insurers for a national rehabilitation leadership council to take that proposal forward?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend on both points. Discussions are under way with the Department of Health on what more can be done on rehabilitation. Following our Green Paper, rehabilitation pilots are under way and the location of all seven pilots has been announced to the House. The report itself has been welcomed by the CBI, the TUC and the ABI, and there is a real prospect of making constructive progress in that area.

The report will be profoundly disappointing to many small businesses as it does little more than acknowledge the existence of a crisis of which they were painfully aware six months ago. Specifically, what were the results of the Minister's discussions with the Lord Chancellor about cutting legal costs? They account for 40 per cent. of all compensation and that is what has been driving up many of the insurance premiums.

The hon. Gentleman is not being entirely fair. I urge him to look both at the analysis in our report and the complementary analysis in the report of the Office of Fair Trading, which was put into the public domain on the same day. There are no easy solutions. The hon. Gentleman is right to stand up for small businesses and to voice their concerns about rising premiums. Far and away the best means of getting premiums down is to relate premiums to risk—if the risk comes down, the premiums should come down—and to make the market work better. That is what the proposals in our report are designed to do.

My right hon. Friend knows, because I have discussed it with him, that a cluster of roofing contractors in Bishop Auckland employs about 1,000 people. They have complained bitterly to me about the increasing employers' liability premiums. I do not think that they will regard the Government's report as radical enough to deal with the situation. If we do not take the matter more seriously, I am afraid that many small businesses will go out of business.

My right hon. Friend is right to stand up for small businesses in his constituency. We want the premiums to be stabilised and for there not to be undue burdens on small businesses. The way to do that is to reduce the risk and thereby reduce the premiums. The Health and Safety Executive is working on a self-assessment tool, which is designed to help small and medium-sized businesses in that situation. Some longer term work needs to be taken forward and it is the Government's intention to bring the discussions with the industry to a conclusion in the autumn. I very much hope that we shall be able to produce something that is of practical assistance to my right hon. Friend's constituents.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that not only small, or even medium-sized businesses but local authorities, too, are in a dire situation? The Local Government Association tells us that only three underwriters are now prepared to underwrite this type of business. That situation has largely come about because of no win, no fee and the chasing after business by unscrupulous solicitors. There may be a need not just for adequate risk assessment, but also to cap liability, as has been done in some other sectors, so that those engaged in proper risk management will not incur an unlimited amount of liability. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. It is unfair to Members who are here for Question Time.

Partly for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman sets out, we are continuing our discussions with the industry on the vexed question of long-term risks and reasonably carrying the burdens that arise from them, but this is quite a complex issue and the analysis in both reports shows that there is no general failing in the marketplace and that the increase in premiums has not been universal across the board. The analyses also show that, by and large, insurance is available, although at a price, and the further work is intended to try to stabilise the price.