Photo of Paul Maskey

Paul Maskey

1. asked the Minister of the Environment what action his Department is taking to ensure fair rates of motor insurance for drivers.      (AQO 1240/11-15)

Photo of Alex Attwood

I thank the Member for his question, which is very relevant, given that we need to bear down on living expenses in a time of need. Government really needs to jump over some fences to bring that about. I take a twin-track approach to the matter. On the one hand, as Members will be aware, the Executive have already agreed to a road safety Bill. By improving road safety, you may improve the situation with insurance premiums. Beyond what the Executive have already endorsed, a series of further proposals will be brought forward over the next number of weeks.

The twin track is that, three weeks ago, I met the Association of British Insurers in London, and I challenged its chief executive about the higher premiums in the North, especially in rural areas. The association agreed to work with me over the next five months. I hope that the Law Society of Northern Ireland and the Consumer Council will also work with me over the next five months to identify all possible measures that can bear down on insurance premiums in the North so that a more equitable outcome can be created, especially for our rural dwellers.

Photo of Paul Maskey

Paul Maskey

Go raibh maith agaibh, a LeasCheann Comhairle agus a Aire. I thank the Minister for his response. It is a massive issue, especially for young drivers who have recently passed their test. Even in our constituencies, some people may pay £1,000 or £1,500 more for premiums than those in a neighbouring area with a different postcode. So, it is a massive issue, and I appreciate the work that is being done. Has there been any talk about younger drivers, especially young female drivers, who seem to be particularly disenfranchised by the costs that some insurance companies charge?

Photo of Alex Attwood

I acknowledge the point about young drivers. I express my appreciation to the families and young people who participated in the recent series of ‘Crashed Lives’ advertisements on the TV. Those are very powerful. I was at the launch, and it was a privilege to hear their stories, traumatic though they were, given the serious injuries and deaths suffered by young people and the impacts that families suffered as a consequence. Those messages will be a material factor in furthering the strategy to reduce road deaths and serious injuries, which has been successful, especially in the past two or three years.

In my work with the various partners, including the Association of British Insurers, we will interrogate the 17-to-25 age category in particular. On the one hand, that is where the highest premiums are, but, on the other, it is where the highest risk is. It is a proven fact that 20% of newly qualified drivers will have an accident within two years of qualification. We need to identify what can be done on road training, road safety and driver licensing to impact on that and to create an argument with the insurers that they should drive down cost. However, the insurers have a responsibility too. There should be more competition and more insurance companies in the North. The insurance companies should have to justify much more robustly why the premiums are as they are. That is the purpose of the intense work that is being done with them and others over the next five months. Arising from that, I hope to come back to the House with hard outcomes that will drive down the high cost of the premiums.

Photo of Anna Lo

Anna Lo (Alliance)

The PSNI estimates that there are 35,000 uninsured drivers here. We are all paying for them, yet we still do not have an integrated computer system in Northern Ireland that links driving licences and insurance. The other parts of the UK all have that computer system. Would the Minister consider making such an improvement?

Photo of Alex Attwood

Nobody will deny the value of continuous insurance enforcement, as they have in Britain at the moment. We have the legislative cover to do that. We have it as an aspiration in our road safety strategy. However, there is a consequence of going in that direction: it is most likely to happen as a requirement of the integration with Swansea of services provided to car owners in the North. There are issues around that. I met Mike Penning, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in London three weeks ago, and I outlined to him very firmly my concerns about an ongoing review of the potential for the integration of services in the North. It may, on one hand, deliver better services and continuous insurance enforcement; on the other hand, however, it could have consequences for jobs in the North of Ireland, including Coleraine. I made my concerns very clear to him and outlined my proposals for how we could provide services in the North beyond what we already do. Let us have continuous insurance enforcement, but there are job risks around it.

Photo of Gregory Campbell

Gregory Campbell (Shadow Minister (International Development); DUP)

Further to the Minister’s previous answer, will he assure those who work in County Hall in Coleraine, who have the capacity and skills to deal with motor licensing issues, many of which arise as a result of accidents and injuries, that they will be at the forefront of his mind?

Photo of Alex Attwood

I very much give that reassurance. That is why, as soon as I came into this job, I met Mike Penning in London. I have been in correspondence with him since, and, as I said, I met him again three weeks ago. He has made a decision that will see the potential loss of 1,000 jobs in parts of Britain because of the integration of services in Swansea. I wanted him to understand that I was opposed to those job losses and that there were services that our workforce in Coleraine and elsewhere could provide. Part of that work responsibility could include the difficult job that we will have in 2014 of managing foreign road haulage lorries and other vehicles coming into the North across the border. I made the case that the jobs were needed now and in the future and that I would not tolerate the short-termism of the British Government, which sees integration as a mechanism to reduce costs irrespective of the jobs outcome.

Photo of Danny Kinahan

Danny Kinahan (UUP)

Are the data on the scale of insurance payouts and a breakdown of what is in those payouts widely available, or are we putting something in place to make sure that they become widely available?

Photo of Alex Attwood

That is a matter more particularly for the Minister of Justice, and I will raise it with him. The debate in the Chamber yesterday produced a wiser outcome than might initially have been the intention behind the motion. There are issues around the number and value of claims in the North. Insurers say that those and other factors lead to increased premiums. We need to reduce the number of accidents that give rise to claims, and that is what we are doing. We also need appropriate measures rather than reckless ones that jeopardise the welfare of people who claim compensation arising from accidents. We need proper, proportionate measures to manage the claims system in the North. That is something that the Assembly and the Minister of Justice will look at. I have written to the Minister in that regard.