The procedure for this motion will be as follows. Louise Ellman will speak for around 10 minutes. We will then move to full debate, which can last until 10 o’clock. Ministers will indicate when they wish to speak, which need not be at the beginning, and Louise Ellman will be afforded five minutes in which to wind-up at the end.
I beg to move,
That this House expresses concern over the large increase in the cost of motor insurance in recent years, including in relation to young drivers; welcomes the report by the Transport Committee on the cost of motor insurance (HC 591) and its continuing inquiry into the reasons for this increase; notes that factors explaining the cost of motor insurance include the number and cost of personal injury claims arising from road accidents, assessment of risk, fraud, and uninsured driving; notes that the Government has taken some steps to deal with these issues, including a ban on referral fees in personal injury cases, but that more could be done; further notes that Ministerial responsibility for these issues is split across several departments; and calls on the Government to establish a cross-departmental Ministerial committee on reducing the cost of motor insurance and to publish a plan for dealing with the different aspects of this problem during this Parliament.
Members of the Transport Committee are signatories to the motion, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me to move it.
Many Members will have received letters complaining about the rising cost of car insurance. People with clean records who have driven for years without incident have suddenly found themselves facing big increases in their premiums, and young drivers are now being asked to pay about £3,000 for insurance, effectively forcing them off the road.
The Committee started looking into this issue in November of last year, and we published a report in March. It generated massive interest. People are extremely concerned about their premiums, but serious questions about how the insurance industry works were also raised, and, unusually, we decided to reopen our inquiry.
It is, perhaps, fair to say that motor insurance was not the Minister’s highest priority before our inquiry began, but I hope it has become a higher priority now. Many Members have campaigned on the cost of motor insurance, and I single out for tribute my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who has campaigned strenuously for the abolition of referral fees.
The AA’s regular survey of the cost of motor insurance shows that quoted premiums have more than doubled since 2006, reaching an average of £921 last month. The premiums faced by young people, and especially young males, are significantly higher—in many cases, about £3,000.
Did the Committee also look at the impact of the recent Test-Achats judgment on gender discrimination? At present, there is a significant disparity between insurance rates for young women and young men, but that case argues that the rates should, in fact, be the same.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The Committee did not look specifically at that point, but I fear that if there is to be equity, it will be equity upwards, rather than lead to a lowering of premiums.
High premiums have a major impact on the lives of our constituents. Motor insurance is rightly compulsory, but for many people driving a car is a necessity, perhaps for getting to work, to college or to hospitals for appointments, as well as for visiting friends and family, doing the shopping or taking children to school.
I and other Members have received a great deal of correspondence from people wanting to give examples of the problems they have experienced. I received a letter saying the following:
“My partner has just tried to insure me again on our vehicle which is not a sporty flash car, to be told that it would cost him an extra £1,370.”
A lady from Birmingham wrote:
“My car was involved in an accident where a lorry collided with my car. The driver accepted it was his responsibility…My renewal was due and my premium had increased from £700 to over £2,000.”
These stories illustrate why the Government must act.
Surprisingly, the recent increase in premiums has coincided with significant improvements in road safety, which is part of a welcome trend of falling numbers of deaths and serious injuries on the roads. Why have premiums risen so much, therefore?
There is better access to justice, with no win, no fee arrangements. Those arrangements are being changed, but we must not return to a situation in which justice is available only to the rich.
There is also cold calling, where claims management companies canvass for claims, often using personal information obtained from unknown sources. Where is the regulation of data protection that is supposed to be in place? Claims management firms deserve special scrutiny. They encourage people to claim, and to make multiple claims when they might not otherwise have done so. Premiums in the north-west are 50% higher than the national average, apparently because of the activities of these companies.
Referral fees have been in the news. They are paid to a number of players in the industry as a reward for passing on business, thereby encouraging claims and sometimes inflating bills. They are not paid to insurers alone; a number of bodies are involved, including insurance companies, solicitors, car hire firms, claims management companies, medical experts and vehicle repairers. Although the Government have started to act on referral fees, what they are doing does not encompass all those sectors of the industry, and neither does it take into account how companies might try to get around the abolition of referral fees. There are now alternative business structures, where non-lawyers can buy legal practices. How will the Government ensure that companies do not get around the ban on referral fees through taking such steps?
Fraud is a major concern, including the staging of accidents by criminal gangs. That adds £80 to the average premium.
Yes, and the Committee has called for greater transparency, but the Government did not comment clearly on that point in their response to our report. As we did not get a clear answer then, I shall repeat the question now: what are the Government’s views on greater transparency?
Some criminal gangs commit fraud by staging accidents, but fraud can also include giving false information. We commissioned a survey with Young Marmalade, an insurance company specialising in young people, and a third of young drivers said they had considered giving inaccurate information to insurers in order to try to get a lower premium. There are plans to give insurers access to Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency data, but when will that be implemented? Whiplash claims are another source of increased costs and premiums. We need to find a way of identifying when such injuries are genuine.
One of the reasons for the high premiums faced by young people, and in particular young males, is the high accident rates among them. The accident rates for young males are 10 times higher than those for older people. Some years ago, the Committee looked into this issue and made a number of recommendations, including changing attitudes and enforcing a graduated licence scheme, but we are still waiting for the Government to respond. We support the “black box” idea developed by some insurers to monitor and assess the driving standards of young people so that that information can, perhaps, be used to calculate their premiums.
I am glad that the Office of Fair Trading is looking into the industry, and that the Government have started to act by starting the legal process to ban referral fees, but do we truly have any confidence that premiums will come down? I do not believe we have seen any evidence of that.
A great deal more needs to be done and that involves a number of Departments: the Department for Transport; the Home Office; the Ministry of Justice; the Department for Education, which springs to mind immediately when one thinks about road safety and attitudes; and perhaps some others. Diverse Departments are involved and responsible for this area, so a cross-departmental working party is required, and that is why I have brought this motion to the House. I hope that the Government will be able to agree to setting up such a working party, so that insurance premiums can become affordable and the growing outrage of people forced to pay extortionate rates can be addressed.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), who made many points with which I agree. I congratulate her and hon. Members across the House on securing this debate and putting forward this motion. May I declare an interest as both a justice of the peace and one of 32 million drivers who pays insurance for the family car? Like many, I am dismayed that the previous Labour Government did nothing to dissuade the estimated 1.5 million uninsured drivers still on our roads or to halt the rise in fraudulent claims and insurance scamming which plague drivers and our courts.
Like many colleagues, I am aware that it can often be the issues that never make the front pages, or those that receive little, if any, attention, that can irritate people the most and can undermine and shake their belief in the rule of law and a responsible society. Normally, this occurs when people have done the right thing yet their fellow citizens who have purposely done the wrong thing somehow get away with it and the law-abiding are left to pay the penalty. The menace of uninsured drivers is one such issue. If that and the so-called insurance scammers were effectively tackled, the costs of motor insurance would be significantly reduced for the law-abiding drivers of our country.
In September, I conducted an online survey regarding uninsured drivers, the fines and punishments currently handed down, and what respondents felt should be the punishment, given the rising costs of premiums that most law-abiding drivers have had to pay in recent years. There is a widely held view that there is a need for far harsher penalties for uninsured drivers and other people who, aided and abetted by the claims industry, lie about the extent of injuries caused to them and, in some cases, wilfully manufacture the circumstances in which accidents occur. There are also about 1,200 claims per day for whiplash, each case averaging a payout of £3,500, and hire car charges for replacement cars are also eye-wateringly high. That is not sustainable, or, I believe, a true representation of accidents on our roads.
My interest results not only from what my constituents or friends and family tell me, but from what I have seen with my own eyes and experienced personally. As a magistrate, I have found that our hands have for some time been tied by rules and by the ring-fencing of the level of fines and type of sentences we can impose on the same old faces that come before us, often three or four times in a few years. These people include those who drive without insurance, and often without tax and MOTs for their vehicles too. It is also a proven fact that many of those convicted of vehicle crime are involved in other law-breaking activities.
Moreover, my family and I have been the victim of three car insurance scams, and the police forces in both Kent and St Albans have shown no interest in following them up, despite judges and courts finding in favour of us and our insurance company. But they should, because how many fully insured drivers have the time and bullishness to see through such action, and challenge the system and the fraudsters? The system relies on this lack of willingness.
It is very extensive, and I shall discuss it later in my speech. It is something we have to deal with.
The system relies on a lack of willingness to contest such fraudulent claims. After the judge’s decision in our most recent case, it was revealed in court that these scammers had tried it on—successfully—six times in the past five years from the same registered address of the vehicle. Unpunished, they are probably trying it on again as I speak. Not only do uninsured drivers increase the insurance premiums of law-abiding insured drivers, but we taxpayers are being fleeced a second time, as our courts are seeing similar claims cases taking up large amounts of court time, whereas 10 to 12 years ago that was not so. Typically, the courts, those working in them and the legal system suspect that the true number of fraudulent claims is at least 10 times that which reaches our courts.
To gauge whether my views were in tune with others—I feel that there is an appalling lack of appropriate punishments for uninsured drivers and accident scammers—I conducted an online survey, as I said. It was predominantly of local people in Lincoln and asked their views about uninsured drivers, given that the average fine for driving uninsured in the county of Lincolnshire was £213 in 2010, a reduction from £233 in 2008. I was not surprised to find that the vast majority felt the fine level was too low. It is especially galling for insured drivers to note that while their average insurance premiums have risen by up to 40% in recent years, the fines for uninsured drivers have decreased in the same period. We can see why this situation has occurred. The average comprehensive premium for the Lincoln postcode was just over £603 at the end of September 2011, which shows that someone has to be caught 2.8 times or more in a year for it to be more expensive than to drive with insurance.
However, as we have heard, insurance is about risk and age, and those key factors also matter. For example, the estimated cost for comprehensive insurance for a male in Lincoln aged between 17 and 20 is £2,733. It is £1,338 for a 21 to 25-year-old and £765 for a 25 to 30-year-old. That means that anyone from those age groups caught driving uninsured has respectively to be fined 12.8, 6.5 and 3.6 times per year before the fine exceeds the insurance cost.
But this is not only about the financial penalty that may be imposed on uninsured drivers. If the uninsured driver is involved in an accident, the significant costs of personal injury have to be borne by all the people who are doing the right thing, and that then adds to the insurance costs to which my hon. Friend has referred.
My hon. Friend is correct, and that is something else that I will discuss later in my speech.
For many, the risk of driving without insurance is attractive. The “getting away with it” factor is too enticing. As hon. Members on both sides, and you, Mr Deputy Speaker, may know, I like being positive, and there have been many changes recently that I warmly welcome: the reported fall, by a claimed 25% in the past five years, in the number of people driving while uninsured; the recent clampdown on people owning uninsured cars; the seizure of uninsured vehicles; and the coming prevention of insurance companies and other agencies selling on personal data, which has fuelled insurance scamming. That move followed the welcome recent Motor Insurance Regulation Bill sponsored by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). I hope that my ministerial colleagues will ensure that this applies to all referrals of personal data following vehicle accidents, and that the insurance industry and associated agencies will not look for any loopholes.
However, I believe that more needs to done, and the survey that I conducted through my website shows that the vast majority of local people who responded think so too. Unfortunately, I suspect that much of the insurance industry’s claimed recent fall in uninsured driving has come in London, where of course there has been a proliferation of number plate recognition cameras, in the City and, more recently, with the congestion charge area. Across the country a frightening statistic is still in force, which is that when we drive on UK roads in some areas every 12th car we pass has an uninsured driver at the wheel.
Having taken my views and those of my constituents into account, I have come up with a 10-point plan to clamp down further on the scourge of uninsured driving and phoney claims. First, as part of the need for a far more zero-tolerance attitude to be taken against supposedly low-level crimes, driving without insurance needs to be treated as a higher priority by the police. Like drink-driving, uninsured driving needs to be no longer socially acceptable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that things are a load easier for enforcement agencies in other countries, because the certificate of insurance is displayed on windscreens there?
Remarkably, my hon. Friend picks up on the second point of my plan. Secondly, we should have an insurance sticker on every windscreen, just as we do for the current tax disc, that proves that a car is insured. Thirdly, we need far tougher sentences for those caught driving uninsured, with the minimum fine in each area being the double the average insurance cost in that area for the age and gender of the person caught. Fourthly, where someone is caught and prosecuted for driving uninsured, they should automatically lose their driving licence for a set period, perhaps at least one year. That should certainly be the case for a second offence and perhaps the period should be longer—say five years—for subsequent offences. Fifthly, when someone is caught and prosecuted for driving uninsured for at least the third time, they should perhaps go to prison—only for a short time—and be given a lifetime driving ban. Sixthly, if someone causes a serious accident while driving uninsured, they should go to prison and be given a lifetime driving ban. Seventhly, juries and magistrates should be made aware of whether false vehicle insurance claims had been made by those making a subsequent vehicle insurance claim that has reached the court.
Eighthly, those making false insurance vehicle claims that reach the courts should be prosecuted and actively pursued by the relevant police force. My penultimate point is that the names and addresses of those prosecuted for driving uninsured should be published widely. Finally, we must support both the clampdown on insurers being able to trade personal data of those involved in accidents and the regulation of the monopoly and sharp practices currently engaged in by insurers and the legal profession that see the motorist paying through insurance premiums and general taxation for their unwillingness to stamp out fraudulent and speculative claims, such as personal injury and hire car charges. These moves are just the start, and throughout my time in Parliament I am going to continue to campaign for justice for the insured drivers of our country.
I have heard that before and I am still surprised considering that I was brought up knowing that one had to be insured and given that one has to show one’s insurance documents to tax one’s vehicle. However, the point is well made.
I am going to continue to campaign for justice for the insured drivers of our country and for heavier punishments for those who are uninsured. The law-abiding majority—in this case drivers who, in many cases, struggle to pay large car insurance premiums but who rely on their car for work, for transporting children to school in rural areas or just to access local services and amenities—must always come first. I am also wary of the claims made by insurance companies and their insurance bodies and organisations, along with some parts of our legal system—the legal firms and operators in this field—that they are doing their best to reduce uninsured driving and scamming claims. They patently are not doing what they claim to be doing. They are complicit in passing on the cost of fraudulent claims and the £400 million to £500 million a year that the Motor Insurers Bureau fund pays out, which is taken from our premiums rather than their profits, to insure drivers who are involved in accidents with uninsured drivers. That is too much. They do not mind what our premiums are, as we have to pay the figures they quote. They have a monopoly.
I hope that my right hon. and hon. elected colleagues in government and honourable members of the judiciary and legal system will actively seek to reduce the financial burden of motor insurance on law-abiding drivers, particularly on new and young drivers, by ensuring that uninsured driver numbers are further reduced. That will ensure that young drivers in particular, at what should be an exciting time when they are able to have some independence, will be able to afford to drive legally on our roads. Further, older drivers who are struggling to afford motor insurance should find that premiums are reduced not just marginally but heavily if the insurance industry and legal system help to clamp down on the cost of uninsured drivers and on the cost generated by fraudulent and inflated claims. Those involved in the legal system that is currently in place are happy to see those claims passed through the system because they generate work, fees and profits at no cost to them, with drivers’ insurance premiums rising instead, as they have by more than 40% in the past year, to cover those costs.
The points I have made are based on the views of law-abiding respondents locally and on the view I have always held that the law-abiding majority should come first and the criminal should come last by a long way. The irritating system under which people may break the law knowing that the penalties for being caught are minor compared with the cost of complying with the law cannot continue. The situation has to be rectified to ensure that the law is on the side of those who uphold it, not of those who break it. Tackling uninsured drivers and insurance scammers will be a good step in the right direction.
Anything that will help to reduce the cost of insurance premiums for the law-abiding 32 million-plus drivers in our country has to be a good thing. Ensuring that there is a truly competitive insurance industry can only help drivers, especially if moves are made to ensure that it is no longer viewed as a rip-off for the motorist—or highway robbery, as some have termed the recent 40% rise in premiums. Perhaps regulating and removing the absolute monopoly enjoyed by the sector will also, along with appropriate levels of punishment, help to eradicate the despicable practice of uninsured driving on our roads. I support the motion.
May I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) for missing the first few moments of her introduction to the debate? I commend her and the Committee for the excellent work they have done in this timely report. As she mentioned, the motor car has moved a long way from being a luxury to being, although not quite a necessity, something that is critical to the economic and social well-being of many millions of people across the country. Issues relating to cars clearly have a wide impact in every constituency.
The issue of young drivers concerns everybody. The difficulty that many of them have in obtaining insurance is only one part of that. I remember when I bought my first car back in—
No, it was not a Model T—it was a Mini, back in 1968. It was six years old and it cost me just over £100. By the time I had got my insurance, which was £60, plus four-months’ road tax—as it was then and as the rest of the world calls it, or vehicle excise duty as we call it now—and an MOT certificate, I had spent as much on those three items as the car had cost me. I was quite young at the time and that was probably reflected in the premium, but none the less it was a shock to have to spend as much on ancillary costs as on the vehicle itself.
Today, we hear stories of young people having a vehicle costing a few hundred pounds and insurance premiums of more than £1,000. It is not the cost of the vehicle that is the issue; it is the risk of using it on the road. Effectively, motor insurance is a public liability insurance; one does not necessarily have to insure one’s property but one does have to insure against damage to other people’s property and, indeed, to other people. It is the scale of the problem that we need to look at. As has been said, there are more than 30 million cars on the road and it does not take a genius to work out that as the number of cars on the road rises, so the likelihood of accidents rises in similar proportion. However, I believe that this country has a very good, but still improvable, record on reducing road accidents and certainly road casualties.
One shock that I had in 1992 when I was first elected to the House—apart from having been elected to the House—was the fact that for the first time in more than 20 years I had to buy my own car. I had experienced the comparative luxury of having a company car in the intervening 20 years and precisely because I did not have a personal insurance record—a no-claims bonus, as everyone knows it—at that time, the first insurance quote I got was more than £1,200 for a very medium-range car, which my former company kindly sold to me. It was only when I got the company to provide me with a certificate saying that I had had blemish-free motoring for 10 years or more that the insurance company reduced the figure, but it still only came down to £800—and that was the better part of 20 years ago. The problems with increased costs in insurance and the increased likelihood of people driving uninsured, as well as the risks posed to those people and, more particularly, to everybody else, are intolerable.
Motor insurance is a curious entity in that it is one of the few examples, although not the only example, of a statutory obligation to purchase a product from a private supplier. There may be far more than one supplier, but one has to have motor insurance to drive on public roads. That places on the motor insurance industry particular responsibilities that it should meet but that would not otherwise arise. I think the situation implies that the industry should have the most stringent, open, transparent—I think a Government Member said that transparency was a key issue—and fair standards of behaviour towards customers because it has a captive market. I accept that people can move from one provider to another, but one thing they have to have to drive on public roads is motor insurance. If one’s household contents insurance premium becomes unsustainable or extortionate, one can either go to another supplier or take the risk on oneself. One can say, “The premiums are not worth what I’m paying: I’ll take the risk on myself. I don’t have to have it,” but the same is not true of motor insurance. If one wants to drive on a public road one has to be insured.
The industry is confronted by a number of problems, to which others have referred. For example, there is the rise in personal injury claims, almost all of which seem to include claims for whiplash injury, as well as the issue of referral fees, which the report has looked at and which others have mentioned. There is also the growth of the no win, no fee—or ambulance chasing, as it is known in some circles—industry, and the business of downright fraudulent claims. All these issues have to be grappled with by the industry, which is an extensive one, and I am sure that people will have different views about how well it is dealing with them.
The report covered a number of areas, including personal injury claims, referral fees, uninsured drivers and fraud, but it did not cover an area that I want to make particular reference to on behalf of one of my constituents. He is 73 years old, and he has been working as a minicab driver for a number of years. He has a state pension, although not a full one, and that is his only other income, so he is keen to carry on working. In August this year, his then insurer advised him not that it was putting up his premium but that it was cancelling his hire and reward cover. It gave no other reason than the fact that he was now 73, as though he had just gone across some magical threshold. It was not even prepared to take on the risk at a higher price.
My constituent quite understands that, as people grow older, so they might become a bigger risk and therefore have to pay a bigger premium, but the insurer would not increase the premium. It simply would not accept the risk, for no other reason than his age. His wife is somewhat younger than him, but she, too, is past retirement age. She is still working, however, so his recourse to benefits would be somewhat limited. He contacted other insurance companies and brokers, but to no avail. He got no offers at all to renew his hire and reward cover, which is essential for anyone wishing to work as a minicab driver.
My constituent’s social, domestic and pleasure policy was unaffected, except for a marginal increase in price. I could understand if the insurer felt that he was a danger to the public and should therefore not be on the road. I would not agree with such a proposition—I do not think that any sensible person would—but it would at least have the characteristic of consistency. As things stand, however, it is perfectly legal for him to drive on the roads as a private citizen in his very unglamorous minicab, but it is no longer possible for him to pursue his livelihood as a minicab driver.
The majority of the population have a driving licence, and I quite understand why they expire on the licence holder’s 70th birthday. The assumption is that we need to consider whether people are still fit to drive on public roads. The primary consideration must be safety, not least the safety of other road users, and it is perfectly reasonable to check people’s eyesight and reaction times more as they get older, to ensure that they can still drive safely. We are told that we have an increasingly ageing population, so this is going to become more and more of an issue. There is no question but that everyone who drives on public roads should be deemed fit to do so, but I cannot understand the distinction between my constituent driving as a private individual and driving for gain as a minicab driver.
After my constituent had been to see me, I wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to the director-general of the Association of British Insurers. I got a reply from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in which he states:
“Some age-based practices, such as the use of broad age bands combined with significant price increases between age bands, may appear arbitrary. Insurers, however, use age bands as a means by which to price the risk of insuring a variety of individuals, and the transaction costs involved. The effects of age bands will, however, be reflected in the premium charged to an individual should they enter a new band.”
As I have said, my constituent has been denied that opportunity, as he has not been put into a new band. His premium has not been increased; it has been refused.
I also received a response from Mr Otto Thoresen, the director-general of the Association of British Insurers. I will read out a point that supports exactly what the Committee says in its report. He says:
“In 2010, motor insurers paid out £1.21 in claims and expenses for every £1 received in premiums. A combination of high legal costs, rapidly increasing personal injury claims, fraud, and a stubbornly high level of uninsured driving have driven the industry to a point where, after price stability and, in many cases, falling premiums in the middle of the last decade, they have now had to rise.”
The Committee makes that point as well. Mr Thoresen went on to say that there were issues relating to the taxi insurance business, and that
“evidence across the market has shown that the probability of being involved in an accident worsens as drivers reach their mid-70s”,
as my constituent is now doing.
One of the objections to the way in which insurance companies conduct their business is that, when it suits them to do so, they treat people as individuals, and if an individual has a particularly poor record, they will suffer the consequences. However, when it suits them, they also treat people as part of a group that has an alleged poor record, and increase the premiums accordingly. This never seems to work in the opposite direction.
Mr Thoresen suggested that my constituent continue to try to secure insurance through a specialist broker, and he very kindly gave me the details of four specialist companies for him to approach. My constituent contacted me again in the middle of October, having contacted all four companies. Of the four, three would not offer him insurance at all, and the one company that did so wanted about £750 a month. That amounts to well over £9,000 a year. I have absolute confidence that my constituent is an excellent minicab driver, and I am sure that his customers must be among the happiest in south London, but I am also fairly certain that he does not make enough money to pay £9,000 a year in insurance costs.
In the Financial Secretary’s response, he also said:
“Research has indicated that no age groups are specifically excluded from the insurance market”.
I suggest to him that it is unnecessary specifically to exclude anyone if they are being offered a price that is completely and utterly unaffordable. Theoretically, everyone in this country can go and stay at the Savoy—there is not a sign outside saying “No riff-raff”—but most people would not consider doing so because they cannot afford it. Similarly, in this case, that insurer made the cover so unaffordable that it might just as well have banned my constituent from having it. He and I have no objection to the need for an increase, but we object to the scale and disproportionate nature of that increase. All he wants to do is continue to pursue his livelihood and not have to depend on benefits.
The hon. Gentleman is making some important points. Does he agree that there might be scope for some new products in the motor insurance industry that could be tailored to older or younger drivers and perhaps designed around themes such as pay as you go? Such products could be made more affordable if they were tailored to specific age segments that have different risk profiles from those of the average driver.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion. I said earlier that the insurance market should be more personalised, rather than more generalised. Companies should certainly look into that. I fear that, because the motor insurance sector is a captive market, we do not get the level of service that we would get from, say, the home insurance sector, because it knows that everyone has to have insurance if they want to drive on public roads. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, that products should be tailored more specifically to the individual.
As I said, my constituent wants to continue to work. He does not want to become dependent on benefits. Some years ago, the then Secretary of State for Employment was famously misquoted as saying that people should get on their bikes to find work. The present Secretary of State for Work and Pensions advised people in south Wales to get on the bus and go to Cardiff to look for a job. My constituent wants to get in his minicab and work, but the insurance industry will not let him.
I welcome this opportunity to speak in the debate. I want to say a few words about young drivers, the insurance industry and Government policy. I have some sympathy with the excellent points about why the industry is being pushed into charging ever higher premiums, but the premiums young people are charged are very high indeed. Many would argue that that is for good reason. Premiums have been quoted this evening of £2,700 for a newly qualified male driver. I shall quote a few statistics that might substantiate that.
One in five young drivers will have an accident in their first six months on the road, and 17 to 24-year-olds make up 12% of insured drivers but 25% of claims. An 18-year-old is three times more likely to be involved in a car accident than a 48-year-old, and young drivers tend to be involved in more serious accidents than older people, with the average claim for a younger driver being three times more than that for older drivers. Men between the ages of 17 and 20 are seven times more likely to be killed or seriously injured on the road than all male drivers. I thank the road safety charity Brake for supplying me with that information. There is a clear cost to insuring young drivers.
More tragically, every year 3,300 young drivers and passengers are killed or suffer life-changing injury as a result of road crashes. In rural areas there is a lack of public transport so young people need to drive, and I am absolutely not discouraging them from doing so. Many wish to have the opportunity of independence from their parents and, not having public transport, take to driving, but we must ensure that young people are as safe as possible, not just for their sake but for passengers and other road users and pedestrians.
In my constituency in 2006 we had the tragic loss of life of four young girls on Llangynidr mountain, and this summer a young girl from Hay-on-Wye was killed in a neighbouring village in Herefordshire. Many of these tragedies can be avoided. I have worked with Brake and with Sarah Jones of Cardiff university on graduated driving licences, whereby restrictions are placed on newly qualified drivers. The proposals supported by Brake are, first, a restriction on the number of young passengers in the car. Often the excitement of first going out and having friends in the car leads to reckless and ill-considered driving. There should be no driving for young newly qualified drivers between 11 pm and 6 am, unless for work purposes. There should be zero tolerance of alcohol, and no driving on motorways. This is not a radical plan. Countries with a form of graduated driving licence include New Zealand, Australia, much of Canada and 48 of the American states.
Rather than go down the route of legislation, might it not be a helpful preliminary step if the insurance industry reduced the premium provided that people accepted the proposals he has made on driving behaviour? That would not require legislation and might ultimately encourage better driving habits.
That was precisely the comment that the Minister made to me. I commend the work of Co-operative Insurance and other insurance companies, which have come up with their own graduated driving licence scheme. A smart box in the insured car monitors many aspects of the driver’s habits, including speed, cornering and the time the car is driven. The driver is given a quarterly cashback payment according to their driving score. The data collected from a sample of 1,300 young drivers show that almost four in five consistently drive within the speed limits, and 40% of males and 41% of females achieved the top score in all categories.
So either through Government policy or by persuading insurance companies to take up similar measures, we can reduce the number of accidents on the road. That will not only bring down the costs of everyone’s insurance premium but, far more important, prevent many fatalities on our roads.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on introducing the debate. Car insurance and premiums is a big issue in Northern Ireland. Just two weeks ago the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) secured an Adjournment debate on insurance in Northern Ireland, for which Northern Irish Members were present. It is good to be involved in the bigger issue for the whole of the United Kingdom, because we are part of the UK and as such we are concerned about the issue.
The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland has produced figures demonstrating that the cost of car insurance is comparatively higher in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. It is accepted that there is a disparity, and the insurance companies and many other people understand that to be the case. There is, however, a lack of understanding and analysis of the factors that have resulted in the higher costs.
There has to date been a lack of informed discussion about the cost of car insurance in Northern Ireland. The premiums for us are clear, and those of us who pay their insurance are aware of that.
On average, premiums in Northern Ireland are 84% higher than in other regions of the United Kingdom—a startling figure given the high cost of insurance premiums across the UK as a whole. My hon. Friend is right to point out the particular problems in Northern Ireland.
Clearly, the fact that premiums are 84% higher shows what we in Northern Ireland have to bear. Part of the role of the cross-departmental ministerial Committee is to address that issue.
Premiums are high in Northern Ireland, but the number of compensation claims is falling, whereas in England and Wales it is increasing. The number of claims notified to the compensation recovery unit has reduced by 23% in Northern Ireland over a nine- year period, and over the same period it increased in England and Wales by 17%. It is a clear disparity—84% dearer insurance to start with, despite the fact that our claims are reducing. We have to ask why premiums are so high in Northern Ireland.
In 2009 the CRU was notified of 29,467 claims for compensation. In 2010 the county court of Northern Ireland made awards in only 768 civil bills for personal injury claims. The vast majority of claims are dealt with without the need for determination by the court. Again, claims are down but we are paying extremely high premiums.
In England and Wales a claim for damages arising from personal injury will routinely involve detailed claims for future caring costs. In Northern Ireland, these costs are reduced as injured persons will often be cared for by family members. That is perhaps the nature of us in Northern Ireland, but it is a factual example. In 2010, 87% of awards for personal injury in the county court were for less than £5,000. When there are claims, the average claim is small. That is important to note.
I am not aware of all the details. I am aware only that compensation claims are down. The value is down, as well as the numbers. That indicates that we deserve consideration when it comes to premiums. That is the point I am making.
A number of the factors that are thought to have contributed to the rise in the cost of insurance premiums in England and Wales are absent from Northern Ireland—again, it is important to draw the comparison. The absence of no win, no fee agreements means that those in Northern Ireland who are seeking compensation must invest their own funds—perhaps that explains the previous point—before a legal claim can be brought. Alternatively, a solicitor’s practice may be willing to fund the outlays. This dissuades unmeritorious litigants. Furthermore, in England and Wales a successful plaintiff’s solicitor can claim a success fee, which can increase legal costs by up to 100%. There is no provision for success fees in Northern Ireland.
The insurance market in Northern Ireland shares a number of characteristics with England and Wales. The same advertisements are shown on TV. Admiral Group advertises on TV, as does Churchill, but underneath, the wee small print says, “Not available in Northern Ireland.” So although Churchill says, “Oh, yes” to every question he is asked, that does not apply to Northern Ireland, so there is clearly an issue to be addressed. The insurance market in Northern Ireland shares a number of characteristics, but not the price. That is the point we want to make.
Some time ago I had the opportunity to go with some of my constituents to meet the Department of the Environment in relation to a suggestion we were making. Perhaps the Minister in his response, as well as the Committee, will take this on board to see how we could reduce premiums and fees in Northern Ireland. One of the suggestions that was made concerned a new scheme that exists in parts of America and Europe, whereby a gadget, for want of a better word, is put in cars that monitors the speed and the mannerisms of the driver. That feeds back to a central place. That reduces fees because if drivers transgress, on the principle of “Three strikes and you’re out,” they lose their premium reduction. That might be a way of addressing some of the issues.
It is not for me to advertise those firms either, but I understand that they do good work and there are good possibilities for young drivers.
We want to make it clear, first, that the number of insurance providers operating in the market is lower than in England and Wales, restricting choice for consumers and reducing competition within the market. Secondly, there is a small number of accident management companies operating in Northern Ireland. There is some suggestion that costs are higher when accident management companies are involved. Despite the point that was made earlier, that may be a contributing factor and requires consideration. Lastly, the fact that Northern Ireland is a rural community with a dense road network and high levels of social need requires specific consideration.
Northern Ireland Members of Parliament have a duty tonight to highlight the imbalance in insurance premiums between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. We believe that, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside said in her submission, a review is needed. Northern Ireland needs to be part of that cross-departmental ministerial committee. We look forward to its conclusion and to a reduction in fees for car drivers and for those who have to pay such high insurance premiums in Northern Ireland. I support the proposal.
As a member of the Transport Committee, I am pleased to have an opportunity to take part in the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) for introducing the Committee’s report so ably and comprehensively. I do not intend to speak for long, but having spent a considerable time examining the issues, there are a few points that I would like to place on the record.
Two weeks ago two events happened to me that crystallised in my mind the facts that we are debating tonight. First, I received in the post my motor insurance renewal notice from my insurance company. I can assure the House that it was not a happy moment in the Stewart household, because my premium had shot up by the order of 25%. I shopped around a little and got a slightly better quote, but it was still a substantial increase on last year, despite my having had no accidents.
Secondly, no sooner had I signed up to the new policy than I got a text message suggesting that as I had had an accident in the past three years, perhaps I required assistance to claim compensation. As I said, I had had no such accident. It strikes me that those two experiences, which I am sure have been shared by thousands, if not millions, of people up and down the country, are not unlinked.
Although I accept that, as the Select Committee’s report sets out, there is a range of reasons why insurance premiums have gone up considerably in recent years, from the evidence that I saw as part of our inquiry, together with private discussions that I have had with some insurance companies, I am convinced that it is referral fees for personal injury claims and the activities of some claims management companies that have been a significant contributor to the growth of those premiums.
I do not doubt that there may be perfectly respectable claims management companies, but I am of the view that the current arrangements whereby lawyers and others can pay and receive fees for referring personal injury claims has created an industry that pursues claimants for profit. Although I do not want to see anyone who has a genuine claim denied proper compensation, far too often those proper boundaries are breached and there is a financial incentive throughout the system to exacerbate claims or make fraudulent ones.
It has been difficult to obtain exact figures, but there is certainly an average sum of several hundred pounds in each claim which sloshes around the system in ways that are very opaque. The cost, of course, is picked up by the policyholder. This creates a double problem. For the honest motorist, that pushes up premiums at a time when many households are struggling to meet the cost of living.
Further to the unfortunate shock that happened in the Stewart household, may I tell the House about the unfortunate shock in my household when I received a notice saying that I did not need to take any further action to continue my insurance with Tesco, but the small print indicated that the premium had gone up from £900 to £5,700 as I am the parent of a 17-year-old boy? It is a further sharp practice that the small print is not there, and it would have been very easy to miss the fact that I could have spent nearly two months’ salary on insuring my 17-year-old boy. I think everybody in the House would agree that it would be entirely unreasonable and very difficult for anyone living in a very rural area, as I do, for my son not to be able to drive.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The shock in my household cannot even begin to compare with that in Totnes. She raises an extremely important point. Many of us will pay our motor insurance premiums by a monthly direct debit, and among all the paperwork that we receive it is very easy to say, “Yes, we’ll continue with that policy,” and then suddenly the premiums that we are paying shoot up. I echo her call for much more transparency and explanation on the renewal documents about what the new cost will be.
The first problem I identified is that the premiums go up, placing a strain on households that have tight incomes, but another problem is that premiums are pushed up to such a level that other, less honest motorists seek in some way to evade paying their insurance, and other Members have alluded to that. They will either not have insurance at all, or they will in some way make fraudulent claims on their insurance policies to try to minimise payments. That creates a vicious cycle; the more people evade payment or misclaim on their policies, the higher the costs that honest motorists have to bear.
The destination of those fees and the routes by which they travel are far from clear, but I have been surprised to learn of some of the organisations that potentially gain a sizeable income from referral fees. For example, it has been suggested to me that trade unions receive significant income, either directly or through benefits in kind, from referral fees. I have been unable to quantify that, but Lord Justice Jackson states in his review of the cost of civil litigation:
“Trade unions refer the personal injury claims of their members to solicitors on union panels…For example, one union informs me that it receives a referral fee of £200 for every case which proves to be “worthy of investigation”. Other trade unions do not charge referral fees as such, but instead receive certain free legal services from solicitors for their members.”
I am in no way suggesting that that is wrong, but it illustrates the opaqueness of the system and the fact that money can be distributed in ways that people might not first realise. For that reason, I am glad that the Government have taken action to ban referral fees through the amendments made last week to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify one point on that—I appreciate that it was not his Bill and that he might wish to speak with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) about it. The new clause added to the Bill last week defined payment for referral fees as “any form of consideration”. I presume that that will include the offset models to which I have referred, where legal services are traded rather than cash, but I would be grateful for clarification.
I strongly believe that the ban on referral fees will help to strip out some of the unnecessary costs in motor insurance. There is a balance to be struck between providing fair access to justice and having a system that is wide open to abuse in a “something for nothing” culture. I believe that the pendulum has swung too far in the latter direction and I am glad that the Government have taken action on referral fees. However, as the Transport Committee’s report recommends, there are many other causes behind the rising cost of premiums and they often cut across Government Departments.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to take on board the motion’s final recommendation, which is also set out in the Committee’s report. A cross-departmental ministerial committee should be set up to consider further ways of reducing the cost of motor insurance.
As a member of the Transport Committee, I, too, pay tribute to our Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), for leading the debate. The ever-rising cost of motor insurance simply cannot continue, and it is the only insurance that is compulsory. It is up to an individual, and perhaps their mortgage company, to insure their house, their holiday or anything else, but the law states that we must insure our cars and motorbikes; we are a captive audience. That is why it is absolutely right to debate the issue this evening.
Insurance premiums are bad enough for mature motorists, but for young drivers they are frankly ridiculous. They lead to young people finding solutions that are against the law. Research from the AA shows that more than a fifth of drivers under the age of 25 are prepared to break the law to avoid high insurance premiums. It shows that 21% would consider driving without insurance, 42% have changed the information they provide to an insurance firm to qualify for a cheaper policy, 22% have added another driver to their policy, 15% have changed whether they were the main driver, 3% have changed their employment information and 2% have changed information about their address.
All over the UK, otherwise law-abiding citizens are breaking the law to get affordable car insurance. For example, cars belonging to young people are being insured by their parents, with the parents registered as the main driver even though they never drive the car. Tragically, if one of those young people has an accident, their claim might not be met by the insurance company. It is bad enough to lose their car and possibly be prosecuted, but what about the person they might hurt?
Some young people are finding unique ways of overcoming the problem. For example, 18-year-old Chris Berry from Bolton was quoted £17,800 to insure his P-reg VW Polo. He is now using a 1953 Fordson Major tractor to get around, with an insurance premium of £57 a year. He said:
“If I had the choice, I’d have my car—I can go further in it and it would be much better in the rain. If you are image conscious, I don’t think you would drive the tractor…but it can go 40 mph on a good day”
He also told The Bolton News that the insurance company rang him up after he received the quote for nearly £18,000 to ask him whether he wanted to take it out. He said:
“I told them they were having a laugh—it’s a Polo, not a Ferrari”
Of course, no insurance company would offer him any sort of quote if it was a Ferrari.
I do not think so, although perhaps that is worth investigation.
We have heard much over the past few months about referral fees, which the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) mentioned. I am sure that other hon. Members will talk about that in detail, so I will confine my remarks to just a few points. I believe that referral fees must be stopped, but they should be stopped for the whole of a motor claim, not just the personal injury part. I also believe that the money paid to solicitors in the motor insurance portal should be reduced to an amount that simply covers the true cost of dealing with a case. While there is spare money in the system, there will always be a tendency to find another way of bypassing the ban. For instance, there is money to be made in referring claims for vehicle repairs. The Committee also heard about how credit hire cars are supplied to accident victims, rather than normal hire cars, which are much cheaper. We heard how insurance companies will pass claims to claims management companies, thereby building more costs into the system.
Although I agree that referral fees should be banned, the insurance industry should do more to tackle the situation. I challenged a number of insurance companies and their professional bodies to look to themselves for solutions. Whenever I have been involved in a claims situation, my first port of call has always been to my insurance company. Perhaps naively, I have expected it to sort the situation out. In times gone by there was the “knock for knock” policy; one’s insurance company funded the repairs to the vehicle, even if the fault was with another driver. I am told that the increased number of insurers in the industry and its internet basis stopped that policy.
The last time I had to use my insurance, I was clearly sold to a claims management company. Instead of the normal car hire company, I had a credit hire car, although I did not know anything about that at the time. I was contacted many times to claim for the “injuries” I had received, even though I had been sitting in my living room when someone drove into my car. Why did my insurance company not provide the necessary services itself and charge the other person’s insurer, or pass my case on to the other insurer to deal with?
I also believe that insurance companies could do far more to reward good drivers. The Pass Plus scheme was introduced to give additional post-test instructions to novice drivers, such as motorway driving, driving at night, town centre driving and so on. Initially that reduced premiums, but it seems that people with Pass Plus are no longer being rewarded. We have been told of schemes that can introduce technology into cars to show if a person is driving safely, for example when they are driving within speed limits and whether they accelerate and brake gently. I believe that the insurance companies should do more to promote such schemes.
We have been told about the very high propensity for young drivers to have serious accidents, but in truth it is not young drivers but young, male drivers, and I regret the European ruling that insurance premiums should be equalised for men and women. Insurance has always been based on risk, and it seems perverse that the ruling will end up costing women a great deal more because of the risky behaviour of men and, particularly, young men.
More regulation should therefore be introduced for novice drivers, and I should welcome a mandatory “newly qualified” plate, which exists in other European countries, because it would have two advantages. First, it would warn experienced drivers that the person in front just might do something a little out of the ordinary. Indeed, I remember the first time that I drove alone, along a country road, and a lorry decided to overtake me. I was absolutely terrified, but I am sure that the driver would have thought twice if he had realised that I had passed my test only the day before.
Secondly, the plate could be used to identify drivers on the road in order to enforce other restrictions that should be in place. We hear tragic stories of young people losing their lives or having life-changing injuries after car accidents, and normally the driver is found to be alcohol and drug-free, but I suspect that they are fired up on testosterone. Young drivers should not be allowed to carry backseat passengers, and we should investigate other restrictions to make our roads safer.
I hope the Government make rapid progress on making the driving test more rigorous and on ensuring that all drivers are prepared for many more of the situations that they find on the roads.
I was alarmed to find out recently that about 10,000 people are driving on our roads with more than 12 points on their licences, so I urge the Government to investigate that urgently and to take action. Previously, there was an effective carrot and stick: if someone built up their no claims bonus, they got cheaper car insurance; if they got endorsements or points, their insurance premium went up; and if they got three endorsements or 12 points, they lost their licence. We need to do more to ensure that good drivers can afford to drive, and I hope that the Government will take urgent and comprehensive action.
Just after I was elected, I was asked to go to a local mosque to meet a group of young men who wanted to talk to me about various issues in the BD3 area of Bradford. It soon became apparent, however, that the main issue that they wanted to discuss was unaffordable motor insurance. Tales were told of people having to give up the ownership of vehicles used for family purposes and, more worryingly, of people having to give up the ownership of vehicles such as taxis, which were used for businesses and as part of their livelihoods. Even more worrying, I guess, were tales of friends who used Leeds postcodes when applying for insurance, despite living in Bradford, as the only way—fraudulently, of course—to obtain affordable motor insurance.
I undertook to determine the extent of the problem locally, and to see what proceedings had already taken place in Parliament to address the issue. It quickly became clear that Parliament did indeed take the issue seriously, especially through the work of the Transport Committee. It was useful to see the work that took place during the previous Parliament, and I am delighted that it has continued into this Parliament on such an important issue. Indeed, I welcome the Committee’s dogged and persistent pursuit of it.
We distributed about 15,000 local survey forms, and incredibly almost 2,000 were returned. In fact, they are still coming back. The respondents to the survey have seen their premiums rise by more than 60% in the past two years, at an average of just under £900, and their responses show that many Bradford residents are well aware of the role that personal injury claims play in pushing up total claims and, therefore, premiums. Many people have reported being pressurised to make bogus claims, and often by reputable firms of solicitors.
We carried out interviews with the police, insurance brokers and companies, driving instructors, GPs and, of course, numerous affordable-insurance-seeking drivers in order to get their views, and we produced a report and held a summit meeting to report back on the work that we carried out. What became apparent was that almost everybody we talked to had their own pet reason why insurance premiums were high. Whoever we talked to, they would say, “This is why they are so high.”
Many members of the public blamed uninsured drivers, and unfortunately we have the dishonour of topping the hit parade for uninsured drivers. I think that we have held it for several years in the BD3 community, and during our survey we often heard the question, “Why don’t the police do more about it?”
The police pointed out that the cost of uninsured drivers—the Transport Committee covered the point, but not a lot of people know this—is about £30 per premium, and it plays a part in high premiums but not a tremendously large part in excessively high premiums.
I went out with the police on a dawn patrol—all very exciting—in a vehicle impressively equipped with the latest, unbelievable technology for automatic number plate recognition. We have a ring of steel in Bradford—fixed cameras—but the technology in our vehicle enabled us to see all the number plates coming towards us and going away from us. They pinged up as information came through about vehicles that the police had an interest in, not necessarily just those that were uninsured.
Within 60 minutes of leaving the police station, we had identified an uninsured driver, the car had been seized and it was on the back of a trailer on its way to the compound. The car probably ended up being crushed. It would have been held for a period, but probably the owner just went to the next car auction and replaced the vehicle—and off he went again.
The police do impressive work—they seized 2,000 vehicles during the previous 12 months—but the level of fines has to be investigated. There is a difficulty for magistrates, because they have to take into account the ability to pay of the person being charged. It seems a simple solution just to increase the fine, but if the person cannot pay the penalty it does not really matter whether it is £300 or £3 million because it is not going to be a deterrent.
The hon. Gentleman may have heard my speech, in which I made precisely that point. Fines have to be such that uninsured drivers definitely insure themselves. Unless they are increased in the magistrates courts and elsewhere, such drivers will not be forced to do so. What does the hon. Gentleman think?
Absolutely. When the fines are so much lower than the premiums, there are bound to be people who take the risk of getting caught, and it completely undermines the public’s confidence in the system and, indeed, the police. If fines are to be a proper deterrent, surely they should at least reflect the amount that the driver would have had to pay had they not avoided paying insurance.
Given that the fine system is clearly not working, does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way we could deal with the issue would be to ensure that when someone purchases a car, whether from an auction, a dealer or wherever, they need to have proof of insurance before they can leave the premises? In that way we would have someone checking before the car ever got on to the road.
Absolutely. I mentioned all the survey returns that we received, and we asked for people’s suggestions on how they would improve things. Several respondents suggested a gibbet in the centre of Bradford, but the hon. Gentleman’s point is useful, because there is no shortage of suggested solutions. I am not aware of the processes and protocols of the House, but, rather than relying all the time on the Transport Committee to resurrect and pursue the issue, we could establish a small all-party working group to consider many of the ideas that are coming forward and constantly keep up the pressure. For a number of years, there has been a spiral of ever-increasing insurance premiums, and we need to reverse that. We need to keep constant pressure on the system until we bring premiums down.
We considered the issue of road accidents. Our initial, intuitive position was that there are a lot more accidents and that that explains the situation; but of course the opposite is true. Road safety experts revealed that the number of car accidents had fallen dramatically. Driving instructors called for more stringent testing—I suppose they would—and, indeed, for post-test tests to take place perhaps a year or six months after the original test to deal with some of the issues involving young drivers. However, that did not seem to offer a solution to the murky world of personal injury claims that became apparent. There is an increasing number of claims and the cost per claim emerged through discussions with brokers, who candidly told us that £3,000 was the going rate for a personal injury claim. It is widely known in the community that insurance companies are willing to pay out because it is a quicker and less costly course of action than challenging claims, even when they suspect claims of being opportunistic and fraudulent.
One driving instructor was full of genuine, deep sympathy for young drivers. He said that many good drivers simply cannot afford vehicles. There is a problem when a young driver passes their test and cannot afford to drive for probably a year or 18 months but they then jump into a car. Putting that to one side, the driving instructor was sympathetic to young drivers who had passed their test, but who were unable to afford insurance. However, he then said, “I did it, you know.” I said, “Well, what exactly do you mean?” He said that he was giving a driving lesson to a young woman and that they were involved in an accident that was not their fault. There was minor vehicle damage and no personal damage at all—or so he thought.
The next day, the woman returned after a discussion with family members who were clearly more streetwise than her. She told the instructor that, over night, she had developed a neck pain. They both ended up claiming and received more than £2,000 each plus £3,000 for the car repairs—simple as that. I went to see the police and said, “Well, surely you can do something about the matter.” The police said that it is very difficult to prove fraud in such cases. In fact, they had managed to catch only one person who was guilty of fraud. That case involved an accident after which somebody had immediately jumped out of the car, lain on the floor and called for an ambulance. The person then realised that they were not insured, so they rang their brother and got him to lie on the floor. That fraud was, in fact, detected, but that example shows the difficulties.
People talk about the compensation culture, but what is interesting—I am fascinated by this—is the immoral stance taken by many people who are otherwise good and honest. They would never drop a sweet wrapper or let their dog foul the pavement, and yet they get involved in this world of fraud. Many people believe that they should not have been asked to pay so much for their insurance in the first place and that it is not wrong to try to get some of that money back through a fraudulent claim. It is almost as if people feel they are getting back something they are entitled to. Good people are, sadly, doing bad things.
The hon. Gentleman is right: there is that culture, which is encouraged by people’s experiences, their friends’ experiences and sometimes the advice they are given by their legal advisers, solicitors and so on. However, does not the fact that insurance companies almost appear to roll over if a personal injury claim is set below a certain level encourage people to make such a claim? The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that fraud is sometimes hard to prove, but one thing insurance companies perhaps ought to be doing is to fight more of these cases, so that if people want to get this money, they have to put up some evidence in court. That might deter some of these applications.
That is absolutely right; we need someone to take on and challenge the system. Over the years it has clearly become easier just to recoup the money by doing the same to someone else. That is what has happened in the system. Insurance companies have been guilty of such an approach and they have had to respond to what other companies have done. Those other companies have then also had to do it, and so the cycle goes on.
We considered the various component parts of the matter: whiplash injuries, referral fees, personal injury lawyers’ costs and many of the things that have been covered in great detail by other speakers and the Transport Committee. The overall conclusion was that there was not a simple solution to the problem of unaffordable car insurance and that, in fact, it is a complex and deeply flawed system. None of the component parts can be removed: they all fit together to create the system and they all need to be dealt with individually. We need a batch of measures, each one designed to deal with the component parts of what has become a crazy, crazy system.
Our work over the summer generated a number of case studies, some of which would be funny if they were not so serious. I was contacted in January by a teenager who had been quoted £26,000 for third party insurance on a 1.1 litre Citroen Saxo. When I raised that with the local paper, I was contacted by other young people who had received even more ridiculous quotes. One young woman was quoted a figure of £53,000, which was the record. I think we can take it that the insurance company did not want to insure that person. Clearly such premiums are unaffordable for anyone, even those with an extremely high disposable income.
The young seem to be particularly affected, but they are not the only ones experiencing problems. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) mentioned an incident concerning an elderly gentleman, which shows that the issue affects everyone. During the summer, I was visited by various reporters and journalists as part of my investigation. The comical thing was that invariably, after the interview or the filming, the journalist or the cameraman or woman gave me their story or that of their nephew, niece, son or daughter. They all had a tale to tell and were of the opinion that something had to be done.
A recent case study is worth considering because it is about an ordinary person. A gentleman and his wife owned a 2007 Vauxhall Corsa that was in decent condition. He had held his licence for 17 years and had had no accidents, and his wife had held her licence for five years and had had no accidents or claims. He had a nine-year no-claims bonus. In 2009-10, he paid £600, the next year he paid £800 and the next year £6,200—no accidents, no claims, no difference. Another sad thing about that case is that the gentleman has recently become unemployed, and because of that his insurance premium has gone up. How does that make sense?
That case study reveals the impact of the postcode lottery, which is an issue that has not been raised because it is difficult to do so. I mentioned that my very first meeting was in a mosque. There is a huge community cohesion issue because people say, “The reason we are paying a lot is because of those people over there.” That is why I was so keen to get involved in this campaign at the beginning. The young men I met were living in an area with ridiculously high insurance premiums.
People such as taxi drivers have been particularly hit. As other Members have said, taxi drivers’ premiums have risen exponentially and they are suffering greatly—far more in fact than the constituents who write to me because they are suffering. In my constituency, there is a second issue with taxi drivers, and I wonder whether it is the case elsewhere. Very few companies now want to insure taxi companies, and that is probably why the fees are more exorbitant. In my constituency, only one or two insurers will insure taxis in my postcode area. Is that something that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with and would like to comment on?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the branding of people. Whether it is taxi drivers or all those who live in the BD3 area, the assumption is that because they are from that area they are all contributing to the high insurance premiums that we are paying. That is very unfair and also very dangerous as regards the cohesion of the wider community.
The report that we prepared concluded with a whole range of measures, and many Members have come up with additional measures. I conclude by again paying tribute to the work of the Select Committee, which needs to keep driving this. The title of our report was “It can’t go on like this”, and we all know that it cannot go on like this. If we all work together across the House we can slay this monster.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on tabling this motion for debate. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, some two weeks ago I had an Adjournment debate on the cost of motor insurance in Northern Ireland. A Minister from the Treasury responded on that occasion, and I found that useful, but many issues are involved in the rising cost of insurance premiums in Northern Ireland.
Drivers in Northern Ireland are subject to excessively high insurance costs that are rapidly rising year on year. I appreciate that the problems are not unique to Northern Ireland, but they are particularly striking in our case. We have found in our research that consumers in Northern Ireland have less choice of insurance providers, with three times fewer companies offering car insurance. In August, as the hon. Member for Strangford stated, the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland launched a campaign to highlight the cost of car insurance, and I fully support that. The Minister is no doubt aware that the Office of Fair Trading subsequently agreed to undertake an investigation into the car insurance market with a specific focus on Northern Ireland. We must robustly establish why premiums have increased by a reported 40% in the 12 months to March 2011 and why insurance costs are significantly higher in Northern Ireland than in comparable regions of Britain. Indeed, we must not only assess that but redress it. The findings from the OFT must be robustly addressed and the resulting measures must have teeth.
Some of the evidence produced has suggested that car insurance premiums in Northern Ireland have increased by almost 73% in the past two years. The situation is even worse for younger drivers, whose premiums, according to research, have increased by 112%. Young people face severe difficulties in entering the job market, and the prohibitively high cost of motor insurance is yet another barrier to their finding work. Only yesterday, I received a letter from a constituent who highlighted a problem he had encountered with his son. He said that approximately three weeks ago he received a quote to renew his insurance with his 18-year-old son on the policy, and to say that he was shocked at the price would be a gross understatement. The price quoted was £2,488.92, which he simply could not afford. He rang a number of insurance companies and was quoted between £2,800 and £4,000 to cover his son. The first company told him that it would drop the price to £2,200, but it was still beyond his means to pay such an amount.
My constituent said that the sad part of the situation is that his son has now been forced off the road due to the exorbitant price of car insurance in Northern Ireland. He will not be able to stay on in his part-time job, as his father’s working schedule does not allow him the time to leave and collect him when he requires transport. My constituent feels strongly that something needs to be done to help young drivers to stay on the road and travel to their jobs, even if they are part-time, or even if they are students pursuing their studies, and thereby do their bit to help get the economy in that part of the world up and running again. He says that it was tough to have to sit his son down and tell him that as from 15 November he will not be able to allow him to drive. That young boy not only showed remarkable courage but is a very sensible young adult, and he is being penalised by insurance companies for the actions of others. It has been suggested that those companies are quick to label some young drivers as boy racers, and that needs to be addressed.
All these problems are compounded by the restricted range of companies offering premiums in Northern Ireland, which limits competition and drives up prices. I urge the Minister to address and where possible, working with others, to remove any barriers to companies that wish to enter the market, particularly those in Northern Ireland. Obviously, that means working with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive.
Two fundamental arguments are put forward to justify the high costs of motor insurance in Northern Ireland: first, that Northern Ireland is a case apart because its demographics and road layouts bring an increased risk of incidents on our roads; and secondly, that Northern Ireland’s legal system places a higher burden on insurers. The evidence that Northern Ireland has a very young population is greatly exaggerated; indeed, we have a proportion of young people similar to that found in many regions in Britain. Likewise, a lack of motorway coverage has been cited as a reason for increased premiums, because statistically motorways are the safest road type. However, maps show that Northern Ireland has a relatively consistent motorway density compared with regions in Britain and in Europe. Moreover, some of the fundamental actuarial evidence regarding the number of accidents, claims and casualties on our highways weighs against any of the debatable factors regarding demographics or road layout. Those facts must be kept at the forefront of our minds when considering the claimed justification for the increased cost of premiums, which are rising at a time when we in Northern Ireland are experiencing a decline in the number of road traffic accidents. The numbers available for the latest year, 2010, show the lowest number of road deaths since records began in 1931. Naturally, every death on our roads is a tragedy, but we must commend the work done to improve safety.
There are some basic facts that are hard to reconcile with rising insurance costs. The number of road traffic accidents reported to the police service has dropped over the past decade from nearly 40,000 per year in 2000 to about 30,000 per year in 2009. The number of compensation claims is decreasing, whereas in England and Wales the numbers are rising. More specifically, according to a National Audit Office report published at the beginning of the year, the number of claims reported to the compensation recovery unit fell by 23% in the decade up to 2009.
In short, the trend is clear: although accidents and claims are decreasing, the cost of insurance is increasing. I ask the Minister again to give detailed consideration to this fundamental point. All these facts weigh heavily against the argument that the demographic or topographical factors in Northern Ireland justify the increasing cost of insurance. Those factors are difficult to relate to the draconian rise in the cost of insurance premiums.
The hon. Lady has done some impressive research into the fall in accidents. It is clear from the statistics on road accidents and deaths that there has been a dramatic improvement even since four or five years ago. For that reason, we should agree that this issue is not about the number of accidents, the demography or the level of claims, but about the lack of competition in the market. It therefore needs to be addressed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Office of Fair Trading. They must find out whether collusion between the insurance companies has increased the price of insurance in Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I agree that the research shows clearly that the lack of competition in Northern Ireland has driven up the cost of insurance premiums. That is an area that the Office of Fair Trading should focus on in its investigation. It should drill down on the nature and cost of insurance premiums in Northern Ireland. We, as Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland, will look at that. The hon. Gentleman, wearing his other hat as a member of the Northern Ireland Executive, is no doubt working with Ministers in Whitehall to address those issues. The hon. Member for Strangford has highlighted the legal issue, so I do not need to elaborate on that.
Many people living on low incomes or in rural areas can simply no longer afford to keep a car on the road. As I have said, many young people and their parents in my constituency have told me of their struggle to secure affordable insurance. They are understandably concerned about the discrepancy in insurance prices between Northern Ireland and other regions in Britain. Households feel that by having to pay excessive insurance fees, they are being unduly discriminated against. That unfair practice has been in place for too long. It adversely affects the young and the old who depend on their cars for work, particularly in areas where public transport provision is limited. Essentially, that means rural communities. There are, shall we say, certain locational issues.
The broader context is that the economy is suffering, with record numbers of young people out of work. That is exacerbated by people’s use of motor vehicles being restricted. At this time of economic recession, we need a dynamic, mobile work force. Car insurance being so expensive puts up a barrier to economic success, especially for the young. The unemployment rate among young people is estimated to be 18%—almost one in five cannot find a job. That compares with an overall unemployment rate in Northern Ireland of 7.6%. Excessive insurance premiums adversely affect young people and prevent them from offering the skill of driving to potential employers. In these extremely challenging times, I ask the Minister to consider any measures that would make insurance more affordable for young people, particularly when driving relates to their employment.
In conclusion, insurance costs have a real impact on people, both young and old, who need to be mobile for social and economic reasons. I hope that my short contribution has made clear the scale of the problem faced by motorists. I hope that I have given examples that illustrate that parents are suffering from the undue burden of being quoted high insurance costs for their sons and daughters. They are not able to pay those costs because of the limited financial means that they now have. I believe that the insurance industry must stabilise its premiums so that hard-pressed motorists get a fair deal when they purchase their motor vehicle insurance. I seek assurances from the Minister that he recognises the problem and will act on a cross-departmental basis, as the motion suggests. Supplementary to that, in the case of Northern Ireland, I ask him to work directly with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive to address its particular problems in light of any recommendations that come from the Office of Fair Trading report later this year.
I will be as brief as I can be, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is clearly keen to speak early and at length on the subject of his Adjournment debate, and because everything has been said. Anybody reading this debate in Hansard will be impressed by the amount of work and time that individual Members have spent performing research in their constituencies. This subject is close to many of our hearts.
I wanted to speak because when constituents approach us, particularly young constituents, we have a duty to ensure that their voice is heard in this Chamber. I was approached by a young man called Joshua Deacon, who lives in the London borough of Hillingdon. He has experienced high insurance costs. He did a mini survey and a petition on the internet because he thought that the same must be happening to his friends. He found costs ranging from £2,000 up to about £20,000, which is ludicrous. His survey showed that a number of young people, particularly in my area, which is quite a geographical expanse, used their cars for work or to seek work, but that such costs were preventing them from travelling and driving them off the road.
The other concern that emerged, which has been expressed by other Members, is that the higher the cost, the more people there are who just do not insure themselves. Like the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward), I went out with my local police, and the first arrest was of an uninsured young person. He was not driving particularly dangerously, but it was obvious from his driving that he was young. When he was pulled over, he was found to have no insurance. The worry, given what is happening in my constituency, is that as unemployment increases and incomes decrease, more and more people will be unable to pay their insurance costs. As a result, there will be an increase in criminality.
As a result of my young constituent’s efforts, a number of months ago I put down an early-day motion on this subject. The responses that I received from the insurance companies were exactly as have been reported here. With regard to Northern Ireland, I think that there is a cartel in operation. One particular area of the country is being exploited as a result of the insurance companies working together to produce higher rates. In fact, I believe that is happening more broadly as well.
I have received the same responses from insurance companies as are mentioned in the report. They say that the figures are based on actuarial valuations and on the high level of accidents involving young people. We all understand that completely, but we cannot understand why the situation has not changed despite the fact that we have been knocking the subject around for so long in the House. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), who has persisted with it through the Transport Committee. Time and again, we have come up with a list of suggestions, many of which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) listed. We have suggested graduated licences, restrictions in use, curfew arrangements, limits on the number of passengers and where they are located, and alcohol restrictions. In addition, we raised some time ago the idea of black boxes and speed limiters being inserted into cars.
I can fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the cost of insurance premiums for young people, but does he not feel that imposing restrictions on freedom such as curfews on top of high insurance premiums would be unfair, even if it were enforceable? For many young people, getting their driving licence is their ticket to freedom. To tell them that they cannot go out at night or have their friends in the car is not fair, especially when most young people drive responsibly and do not race around the roads causing accidents.
I fully agree, and that was why, when the proposal for black boxes came up, I thought it was the ideal solution. It would enable someone to demonstrate that they were driving carefully and not at speed. I thought that could have been the technical solution, or at least could have moved us a bit further on. I cannot for the life of me understand why it has not been taken up by the insurance industry as well as it should have been. So far, Co-operative Insurance and others have offered some voluntary schemes, but they do not seem to have had the take-up that they should have done.
The question, then, is how we move forward. We know that a range of solutions could be put in place, and that a technical solution could be introduced on a voluntary basis to give people incentives and reduce their costs. I believe that the next stage is to bring the matter back to the Government. We have tried exhortation in the past, but we need to try it again, as was said earlier. We need another meeting at which we bring all the insurance companies together and exhort them to consider financial incentives for young people. We have such arrangements in acceptable behaviour contracts in other areas. People could sign up to certain behaviour patterns if they so wished, which would enable us to monitor them using technical solutions so that we could reduce their overall insurance costs.
I wonder whether, when that is being considered, it might be possible to consider the circumstances that two or three of my constituents have found themselves in. Young people have applied for insurance online and the insurance company has agreed a premium and formed a contract with those young people to provide insurance, but has then come back six or eight weeks later with a much increased premium, ostensibly because something was originally incorrect. That has certainly happened to young women in my constituency with the Diamond insurance company.
It is almost like the policy of excess that has been developed for other insurance costs. I believe that the onus is now on the Government to bring the insurance companies in for a thorough discussion about how we can take forward voluntary arrangements. However, there will come a time, which I believe we are nearing, when if we cannot get in place voluntary arrangements and incentives that work, we will have to introduce regulation.
Like many other Members, I cannot cope any more with driving along the road and seeing shrines to people who have died. The number in my area seemed to be peaking at one point, although I have not looked at the recent statistics. A large number of young people were being killed on the roads, and we would drive down the road and see the bouquets of flowers and the pictures of those young people. It relates to the point that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made about youthful exuberance—young people get their first car and are out on the roads, and sometimes it goes to their heads. They might have their friends with them, and unfortunately it often results in tragedy.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful case. I know that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made a point about a restriction of freedom, but surely that is the whole point of a driving licence. People have to pass a test, and maybe there ought to be another test for them to pass before they can have unlimited access to a car.
It is true that we need to consider a whole range of measures. I believe that we need to make another attempt to find voluntary arrangements with the insurance companies, setting out a range of activities that people can sign up to and that we can technically monitor. In that way, we could reduce insurance premiums. However, if that is not brought to fruition, we may well have to move on to regulation. That could mean more testing, and in fact that extra testing need not just be for young people. It could be much wider than that, because it is not just young people who are affected, even though the statistics that the insurance companies produce demonstrate the high number of accidents among young drivers in their first couple of years after passing their test.
In addition, if regulation is to be introduced, and if it involves imposing technical solutions, the insurance companies should bear some of the cost. If it is not willing to work with us in promoting voluntary solutions effectively, it should bear the cost.
To return to an earlier point, this is about reducing costs, but it is also about reducing deaths and accidents. That does not just involve young people, because collateral damage is also done to pedestrians and others. The House has addressed that significant issue effectively in the debate tonight, and now it is over to us to work with the Government to get the insurance companies to agree a strategy that we can monitor over the coming year or so. We can see whether that works, and take legislative action if it does not, to demonstrate our seriousness.
May I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on securing this important and well informed debate, and to the Committee on producing its excellent and timely report?
The eye-watering rises in the cost of motor insurance in the past few years have been one more burden on families already hit by high prices at the pump, food inflation and soaring energy costs. Earlier in the year, annual increases in insurance premiums were running as high as 40%. Although the AA reports that by September the figure had dropped to around 16%, premium increases still far outstrip inflation. The average premium of £921, which my hon. Friend highlighted, means that more than half an average monthly take-home salary is used simply to insure a car.
We know that those likely to be earning least are paying most for their insurance. As we have heard, average premiums for young drivers are more than £2,000. Understandably, motorists resent those huge increases. The overwhelming majority of careful, responsible drivers feel that they are subsidising the careless, the reckless and the uninsured. Increasingly, they are aware that their premiums are increasing as a result of fraudulent or frivolous personal injury claims for non-existent or pre-existing conditions.
Although the Government should not get into the business of setting insurance premiums, Ministers have a responsibility to ensure that the market works fairly and in the interests of consumers. The insurance industry has made a strong case that the 75% increase in the number of compensation claims in the past five years is a key factor in driving up premiums. Increased access to legal redress for genuine injury is a good thing, but responsible motorists paying for insurance fraud is clearly not.
For many, the car is and will remain the essential way of getting around. For some—and, as we have heard, particularly young people—the fast-rising cost of insurance could make the difference between taking up a job that requires a car and being a burden on taxpayers by living on benefits. With job vacancies so scarce, transport to access opportunity needs to be affordable—that relates to motor insurance just as it relates to bus and rail fares.
The sky-high cost of motor insurance for young people has been an important part of the Opposition’s policy review. We urge the Government to implement the Committee’s recommendations to improve the education and safety awareness of young drivers and to consider further changes to the driving test.
It is important to stress that all drivers will benefit from having safer younger drivers on the road—that point was well made in the debate. Equally importantly, much has been heard about the potential of the black box and the relative lack of take-up so far. I am sure that the Minister will join me in praising insurance providers that use black boxes, but will he make clear what he is doing to encourage greater take-up of the technology among providers?
There is no excuse for breaking the rules, but as premiums rise we know that related criminal behaviour is at risk of increasing, potentially undermining the progress that the previous Administration made in tackling fraud and driving without insurance. The Association of British Insurers recorded a 9% increase in fraud.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the continuous insurance policy was a measure that was set out by the Labour party and which he has taken forward, which we welcome. According to the Motor Insurers Bureau, however, there has been a 25% fall in insurance fraud and uninsured driving over the past five years, which we welcome and want to see continue.
On tackling uninsured drivers, the Minister mentioned the continuous insurance enforcement scheme, but to work effectively that needs the necessary tools to do the enforcing, so will he tell the House, either now or during his speech, what level of resource the DVLA has put aside to pursue and enable the prosecution of transgressors, and how many drivers who ignore official reminders that their insurance has expired have so far been given a fixed penalty notice under the new scheme?
Last week, the House had the opportunity to debate referral fees paid by claims management companies and personal injury lawyers to insurance firms in return for the details of potential claimants. For the past five or six years, these fees have greased the wheels of a perceived compensation culture, encouraging claims that have little realistic chance of success or which are simply fraudulent. The cost of those claims feed directly back into the premiums that all motorists pay, so I, too, pay tribute to the work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) on this issue. His investigation into the scale of the problem and his private Member’s Bill put pressure on Ministers to add clauses on referral fees, at the last moment, to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill last week. However, as we made clear then, the Government have so far missed the opportunity to crack down adequately.
I shall list what measures the Government have so far rejected: making the soliciting for and payment of fees in road traffic accident cases a criminal offence; outlawing the blight of unsolicited phone calls and text messages; strengthening the rules on data protection and third-party capture; and tightening the rules for whiplash claims. It is unfortunate that as industry practice has been shown to be driving up costs for law-abiding motorist, the Government are ducking their responsibilities on this issue. If the Minister is serious about keeping premiums as low as possible, I hope that, even at this late stage, he will prevail upon Justice Ministers to change the Government’s position.
The Select Committee made the sensible suggestion that the Government examine international experience on restraining claims numbers. It is disappointing that Ministers have refused its idea of a proper study. I hope that they will reconsider. The Committee also rightly pointed to the importance of road safety as another key factor influencing insurance premiums. Despite last week’s horrific tragedy—the Minister visited the scene, at the M5 in Somerset, at the weekend—Britain continues to have the safest roads in Europe and among the safest in the world. However, the first two quarters of this year have seen increases in deaths compared with the same point the previous year. A continuation of that trend would mean 2011 would be the first year since 2003 to see a rising death toll on Britain’s roads.
It is worrying that these upward ticks in road deaths have come at a time when spending on road safety campaigns has been cut. If the trend of safer roads were to reverse, the country’s principal concern—everyone’s principal concern—would, of course, be the tragic human cost seen so vividly this week. We know that a knock-on effect of less safe roads would be further upward pressure on insurance premiums. That raises this question: has the Minister estimated what the impact would be on road safety and on premiums of his proposal to scrap the annual MOT—a move that could lead to 800,000 cars that are dangerous to drive being left on the roads for up to a year longer?
Motorists are feeling the squeeze. Many face being priced out of their cars and, by extension, out of their jobs. As the Transport Committee has so effectively set out, those motorists want to know that their Government are doing what they can to enable lower insurance costs. If Ministers wish to prove that they are not out of touch with those concerns, they need to set out how they will go further.
For colleagues who have been here throughout the debate, may I say—I know it is not my brief to do so—that my thoughts and prayers go to the family of the Red Arrows pilot who was killed this afternoon? Our servicemen do a lot for us. I say this as colleagues might not know that, sadly, this pilot died—the second fatality in the Red Arrows this year.
This afternoon’s debate has been excellent—led brilliantly by the Chair of the Transport Select Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). In general, the debate has been sensible, measured and useful to our constituents. I cannot say that about parts of the speech by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), particularly when it became party political. That is not what this evening’s debate was about, especially considering that the previous Administration were in government for 13 years and many of the measures he now asks us to bring forward could have been introduced then. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), a former Front-Bench Transport spokesman was much better in his tone; he never used to read out a speech that was written before and that did not contribute anything to the debate.
To answer what was probably the only sensible point that the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness raised—about continuous insurance enforcement—60% of all those written to, having been shown to be uninsured, have responded positively and were either given a statutory off-road notice or said that they would insure. About £122,000 has been picked up in fines, and 250,000 penalty notices have been issued—in excess of what we expected at this stage of the new piece of legislation.
Let us move on to the general debate, led so excellently by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside. Everyone will be pleased to know that we shall not divide the House on the motion. There is an issue about the committee that is being formed, but I will come back to that in a few moments. Many of the issues I see in my constituency correspondence have been alluded to brilliantly in this evening’s debate.
To add to the anecdotal evidence, a member of my own staff was in a road traffic accident the other evening. She was hit from behind; the person got out of the car and was very amenable. My staff member said, “How are you? Are you okay? Do you want to go through the insurance process?” The other lady said, “I’d like to pay you privately because otherwise my premiums will go through the roof.” Everything was sorted out fine; no contact was made with the insurers or the police. However, she received a text message asking “Would you like to claim for the injury that you had?” A member of the public had obviously informed those whom I described to the Committee as ambulance chasers. Apparently it is not just the insurers who are passing information around; others also think that they can secure substantial earnings from such events.
Several Members paid tribute to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). I thank him, in his absence, for contacting me to say that he could not be present this evening. We have worked closely for many years on many subjects when our respective parties have been in opposition and in government, and I believe that the motion has opened the Government’s eyes to the possibility of using his Bill for this purpose. There will of course be attempts to find loopholes, but it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that any legislation is fit for purpose.
I believe that 11, if not 12, Members spoke in the debate—that does not include those who have intervened—and it will be impossible for me to respond to all the points that they raised, but I will of course write to all those whose questions I have not had time to answer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) made an important point about uninsured drivers. Uninsured driving is a criminal offence, and I am sure that no Member would condone it, but given that it contributes only £30 to the average premium, there must be many other factors in the market. I see that the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) is present, and I shall comment on the position in Northern Ireland shortly, but the fact remains that that £30 is not the reason that premiums have been shooting through the roof—although we have seen some reduction in recent months.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding our concern about the size of premiums, we must in no circumstances condone uninsured driving, which plagues not only our constituents who pay their premiums but the police. Like the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward), I have been out with the local police force many times, and I am sure that anyone else who has done so will confirm that when the police pull drivers over for being uninsured, they will almost certainly pick them up for another offence which, in many cases, will have nothing to do with driving offences. People who wish to break the law in that way often wish to break it in other ways. We must help the police in every possible way to ensure that such fraud is dealt with, because driving without insurance is indeed fraudulent.
We must also help the insurers, who will doubtless be monitoring this debate and will realise that they are the pariahs: the nasty, horrible people to whom we must pay our premiums. I suppose that I should declare an interest at this stage. I have two daughters between the ages of 17 and 25, and the premium is high. I am proud to say that they have managed to work hard throughout their time at university, and that the work that they have done has helped to pay the insurance. I have not had to bear the whole burden.
The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) mentioned the crass decision by the European Court of Justice that gender could not be taken into account by insurers deciding premiums, although, as we all know, premiums are based on risk. I find that astonishing, because the figures clearly show that, sadly, boys aged between 17 and 25 are 10 times more likely to be involved in accidents than girls of a similar age. One of the most frightening pieces of evidence that has been given to me while I have had the honour of being the Minister responsible for these matters is that the most dangerous activity in which a young lady can engage in this country is sitting next to a boy aged between 17 and 25 who is driving a car.
Is not the problem with the European approach the assumption that every member of a certain group will behave in a certain way? It is a generalised rather than a personalised approach. The assessment is being made not on the basis of what a particular individual who wants to buy a particular product is likely to do, but on the basis of what people in a particular category are likely to do. Even if there is no evidence against an individual, that individual will be subject to the same penalty.
I completely agree—just as I often agreed with the hon. Gentleman during the many years when we served on the Health Committee together. The actuaries have to be able to look at risk in general; otherwise we will all be put into the same pot, which is unfair to those who are in lower-risk categories. I have concerns that addressing this issue will lead to premiums being increased, not reduced.
Many colleagues, including the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), have said we need to do more about the insurers, and I agree. I certainly do bring the insurers around the table, and I give them a very hard time. After all, they want things from me. They wanted the continuous insurance; they have been calling for that for years, and they have got it. They also want access to DVLA data in order to try to alleviate fraud, both intentional and unintentional.
People ask me, “What do you mean by ‘unintentional fraud’?” Well, I am a dad, and I was asked whether I would put my daughter on the insurance as an additional driver. I had to look very carefully at whether she was an additional driver or the main driver, but most parents would not know the difference, so we need to educate them on that. They think they are helping their young people by naming them as an additional driver in those circumstances, but if their son or daughter is, in fact, not the additional driver, that insurance will be invalid, and the insurer will almost certainly find that out—and if the son or daughter is involved in a crash, they will almost certainly not be covered, and anybody else involved in the accident with them will also be penalised.
Some Members who were present for the debate have moved on to other things, so our proceedings now feel a little like an Adjournment debate, where people have not returned for the concluding speeches. That is a shame, because this is not an Adjournment debate; it is, rather, a proper debate of the House with a motion before it. Perhaps as Members get more used to debates such as this, more of them will return to hear the concluding remarks.
I certainly will work with the devolved Governments in respect of their responsibilities. Responding to the comments of the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), I have serious concerns about the market as it operates in Northern Ireland. I am not responsible for the market, however; that is a Treasury matter, which is why the Treasury took the recent debate. I also understand that the Northern Ireland regulators are conducting a review, and I can assure the hon. Lady that if there is any evidence of collusion in the market—if any cartels are operating there or here—we will come down on them like a ton of bricks, as would be only right and proper.
As the Transport Committee has concluded, there is not just one simple solution to this problem. I agree, for instance, that there is a postcode lottery. In some ways, that is similar to the gender issue we have just discussed. Some postcodes cover large areas; that is certainly the case in my part of the world. It is fundamentally wrong for people to be penalised because of the road or neighbourhood in which they happen to live. Insurance calculations used to be based on theft and damage rates, but modern cars are very difficult to steal. Joyriders still steal ordinary cars, but most vehicle thefts are of high-value cars that are stolen to order. That is a completely different kind of theft from the thefts that affect premiums.
Let us consider why premiums are so high. It is not just to do with uninsured drivers. It is also to do with ambulance chasers. Some 50% of all personal injury claims are made on car insurance. How can that be right when, as we have heard this evening, we have some of the safest roads in the world, and certainly the safest roads in Europe? Our killed and seriously-injured rates are extremely low, although we need to get them even lower. The truth of the matter is that most of these claims, many of which are fraudulent, are not reported to the police. Very often they are reported after the incident; Members have referred to constituents saying people followed up on incidents the following day. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) touched on this in his speech. The police would never have been called in such cases; it will never be on the records of the police that that sort of thing has taken place. Some countries in Europe, including Germany, have carefully considered the speed that someone would have had to be travelling to be in an accident before they can claim for whiplash. I was with the relevant German Minister at a conference recently, and we discussed this and other measures, particularly priority. The evidence is that this does not appear to be working in Germany simply because people are increasing the speed that they claim they were travelling at before the accident.
I have not rejected that; this was done by a colleague in the Ministry of Justice, as it is a legal matter. However, I completely agree with my colleague, as he is a legal person and I am not. There are legal differences between Germany and this country. Everything is possible, and this Parliament can do whatever it wants to do. [Interruption.] Perhaps that is not the case—I see some of my Eurosceptic friends in the House this evening. There are certain things that I would like to be doing in my Department that Europe prevents me from doing.
As we have heard across the House today, insurers have to take responsibility and say, “No, we’ll take you to court and we will challenge this.” They should not just settle out of court because it happens to be cheaper than the possible consequences of going to court. Immediately we start to do that, the no win, no fee ambulance chasers will look very carefully at their cases, and people who should genuinely get their compensation will get it and those who are swinging a leg, as my grandfather would say, will not. I shall refer back to my time on the Select Committee on Health, because it is not just in this area that we have this problem with insurance. Our hospitals, in particular, tend to settle out of court rather than challenging claims, and that is costing the taxpayer and the NHS an absolute fortune, so this is a culture that we have to turn around.
Hon. Members have touched on other aspects in the report and the evidence to the Select Committee. I have significantly changed the driving test, the practical and the theory, since my appointment, and I intend to change it even more. I have said it before and I will say it again that people are currently taught to pass a test; they are not taught to drive. They are not taught to drive safely for themselves and for others, and we have to make sure that we have qualified driving instructors and that everybody knows they are qualified when they get into that car. One change we are going to make—I hope that the Select Committee will agree with me on this—is that someone who is not a qualified driving instructor will not be able to take someone out on their own to teach them to drive. I am not going to stop parents, grandparents and sisters doing that, but someone who gets into a car marked “driving instructor” should not have to look for a little badge on the windscreen that says that the person is a trainee. These people should be qualified driving instructors. The industry supports me on this and we will do this. There also has to be an ongoing training programme for driving instructors. Some instructors took their qualifications many years ago, and we need to make sure that they are au fait with what we want from the driving test, although we also want them to earn an income.
As we have heard today, there are also things that happen to people suddenly when they pass their driving test. Clearly, some people—young people in particular, but not all of them—appear to have some kind of lobotomy when they get behind the wheel of a car. I am talking about highly intelligent young people who are perfect role models in every other aspect of their life, and then they get behind the wheel of a car. Sadly, as has been discussed, testosterone is one of the leading factors. Drink and drugs are involved, but testosterone is one of the big problems here.
In my constituency, the place where most people pass their test is St Albans. Between my constituency and St Albans is a rather large motorway called the M1, and to get back from the test centre, people have to cross it. That means that someone could be driving for the first time on their own and as they turn left or right to come off the A414 they will be on the M1. I think we need to give people, particularly young people, the opportunity to learn how to drive on the motorway before they pass their test. That is why we will pass regulations to allow qualified driving instructors to take learners on to motorways. Can I make that compulsory? No, I cannot because some counties have no motorways, so it would be discriminatory to do so, but we will give qualified instructors the opportunity to do that.
We need to make sure that the test is not the endgame, but not—in my opinion or that of the Government—to make it compulsory to take post-test qualifications. Pass Plus was a partial success, but was never really rolled out properly.
Before I came to the House, I used to drive extensively on the motorway network—in my company car, for those who were listening earlier—and the idea of the odd learner turning up on the motorway is strange. Traffic on our motorways travels at much higher speeds generally. Would it not be better to allow people to pass the traditional test and then take an additional period of tuition on the motorway, rather than allow someone who might have been behind the wheel of a car for only two or three hours suddenly to turn up on a motorway alongside juggernauts and fast-driving cars? The Minister will know better than anyone that the average speed on motorways is much higher than the 70 mph limit.
An integral part of driving and the cost of insurance is how people are qualified to drive. That is why qualifications, as well as the ordinary driving test, are specifically mentioned in the report we are discussing, which is why I was speaking to the issue. However, I shall take your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, and steer towards more detailed work on the black box.
Order. I am very sorry, but I was trying to ensure that the Minister stayed where he wanted to be, whereas the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) was tempting him away. I do not need a gentle rebuke from the Minister; I thought I was helping him.
I know you too well ever to rebuke you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I would never be led astray by the hon. Gentleman.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have a situation in which young people—or, indeed, anyone—passing their test today can go on the motorway. There are no restrictions on that, and we need to give them the necessary skills. I have a full car, full motorbike, HGV and tank licence to boot, and I have driven on the motorway in all types of vehicle, so I understand. I have an H licence. The hon. Gentleman was indicating from a sedentary position, “What is a tank licence?”—it is an H licence for tracked vehicles.
Let me touch on issues of technology. As we heard earlier, some insurers have been using technology, particularly the black box. The Co-operative insurance company, which was mentioned earlier, has a scheme that encourages people to take the box in their car, and it monitors very carefully what speed one is travelling at, what time of day one is driving—nearly everything. I have been pushing quite extensively with insurers to roll that out further. It is the obvious way forward. If people are given the responsibility of a driving licence, they can be given the opportunity of responsibility. However, insurance companies have to be transparent. We have to know why the premiums are what they are and how they can best be broken down so that the public, when they look at their premium, know exactly what they are getting for their money. If there is a discount, we need to know exactly what it is and that if the person who takes out that policy sticks rigidly to the agreement their premium will not shoot up the following year or month.
In conclusion, I think this has been a very sensible debate. I welcome the report from the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside and I think that we can agree on most things. We have many, many Committees sitting already; one more would be quite difficult. We meet regularly on a cross-party basis to discuss these matters, and myriad Departments can be involved, depending on the issue in question.
At the moment, we are doing a great deal of work on penalties, which I have not yet touched on, and on the question of whether fines are the answer. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has already announced that he is going to allow fines to be increased for those on benefits. At the moment, the figure is £5, but that will increase to £25. I personally think that, as well as looking at increasing fines, we need to look at the points. In most cases, people will be prepared to pay a fine, but they might find the prospect of getting additional points on their licence more of a deterrent. They might decide that getting an extra six points, rather than just three, might mean losing their licence. I hope that such a move might prevent more people from driving while uninsured.
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying about points. Is there not also a need to make it socially unacceptable to drive while uninsured? Would it perhaps be prudent to consider a prison sentence for people who seem determined to do it three, four of five times or who have been involved in a serious accident while uninsured?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. We will continue to look at the penalties involved. Those of us who came through the drink-driving campaigns of the ’70s and ’80s will remember how we turned drink-drivers into pariahs, but that involved educating the public first, then using a big stick. We did the same with seat belts, and we now need to do it with drug-driving as well as with uninsured driving. We will continue to look at this, but, at the end of the day, it is for the magistrates and the courts to decide how they interpret the law. They have a degree of autonomy, which is why so many drivers who have more than 12 points have kept their licence. It is a matter for the courts to interpret the special needs of the people involved, and perhaps the lawyers who represent them are also a factor. I was shocked when I saw the figures, and it was my own Department that released them.
I know that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside is going to respond to the debate. Her Committee has produced an excellent report, and we have had an excellent debate. I look forward to implementing many of the measures that have been mentioned, so that our roads can continue to be the safest in Europe and among the safest in the world.
We have heard many excellent contributions this evening. Members have reflected different experiences, but all have given us the same message: insurance premiums are too high, the insurance industry is dysfunctional and more must be done. I recognise the work that the Minister has been doing, particularly on uninsured driving, on referral fees, and on improving driving standards. I am pleased that the insurance sector has now adopted the Select Committee’s recommendation to fund a specialised unit in police service to detect and act on fraud.
I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said, and I recognise his good will and commitment. I do not wish to divide the House on the motion tonight, but I must warn him that the Committee will continue its scrutiny, and we look forward to the next occasion on which we can question him on what has been done in his Department and across government, because that is the only way we will make progress on this important issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House expresses concern over the large increase in the cost of motor insurance in recent years, including in relation to young drivers; welcomes the report by the Transport Committee on the cost of motor insurance (HC 591) and its continuing inquiry into the reasons for this increase; notes that factors explaining the cost of motor insurance include the number and cost of personal injury claims arising from road accidents, assessment of risk, fraud, and uninsured driving; notes that the Government has taken some steps to deal with these issues, including a ban on referral fees in personal injury cases, but that more could be done; further notes that Ministerial responsibility for these issues is split across several departments; and calls on the Government to establish a cross-departmental Ministerial committee on reducing the cost of motor insurance and to publish a plan for dealing with the different aspects of this problem during this Parliament.