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Damages for whiplash injuries

Part of Civil Liability Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 23rd October 2018.

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Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 4:45 pm, 23rd October 2018

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Alex Chalk and to speak in the debate, to oppose amendment 2, tabled by those on the Labour Front Bench. I will add to the remarks that I made on Second Reading and in the Public Bill Committee.

This is a very important piece of legislation for the insurance industry and, more importantly, for customers of the insurance industry—our constituents up and down the country—who will benefit from it. As I found in my Westminster Hall debate on road safety last week, which I was pleased to secure, there is great interest from Members right across the House in matters relating to traffic accidents and the causes and mitigation of crashes. It is not a surprise to me that this legislation regarding appropriate compensation for certain collisions has attracted a great deal of interest and scrutiny.

Our debate in Westminster Hall attracted a range of thoughtful and personal contributions about specific cases in Members’ constituencies. That is relevant to this amendment, because many Members raised the importance of addressing this not just through legislation but, importantly, through action on the entire road network. I was pleased to see the report by the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, in association with Ageas Insurance, which looks at a systemic approach to improving road safety, so that we can reduce the number of whiplash claims and, most importantly, the number of people seriously injured or killed on our road network.

I am grateful to the Minister for the clarity that he brought to aspects of the Bill in Committee. Although I thought the Committee was dealt with very efficiently and we got through it pretty quickly, we had a great number of interesting contributions from Members across the Committee. I am sure the Minister’s remarks will be similarly informative and comprehensive today.

I want to move on to safer vehicles, particularly in relation to whiplash. One notable feature of any debate on road safety and traffic collisions is the focus on how much safer our cars, vans and lorries are today than they were only a decade ago. They are safer by design, and the advances in building motor vehicles that cause much fewer more serious injuries on impact are hugely welcome. Indeed, the number of accidents has fallen by almost a third since 2005.

As the Minister noted in Committee, the percentage of cars with safety features specifically designed to reduce whiplash has increased from only 15% in 2005 to nearly 85% now—that is to say, the position is completely reversed. Whereas only 15% of cars used to have anti-whiplash safety features, now only 15% do not have them. That is still too high a percentage, but vast progress has been made. Despite the 30% reduction in road traffic accidents, the number of whiplash claims has increased remarkably, by 40%. Something does not add up, and the Bill seeks to address concerns that certain claims are either exaggerated or unfounded, forcing up insurance premiums at an alarming rate.

I have something of an interest to declare. As I said on Second Reading, as a young driver I will be particularly advantaged by this legislation. I have been hit by higher insurance rates, which are adding significant costs for people of my generation and for our constituents right across the country. I am reassured that there has been meaningful engagement with the insurance industry by the Government throughout the process of the Bill, with both Government and industry working to get the legislation right for consumers and focusing on how we can ensure that insurance premiums do come down.

As I have said before, Ageas Insurance, which is one of the largest insurance providers in the UK, employs more than 400 people in my constituency. It has very much given me the assurance that it absolutely persists in its support for the changes proposed, which will entirely benefit its policy holders and our constituents. Those policy holders have faced massive increases in bills, but they should now at last see some respite and reductions.

The insurance industry’s support for the legislation is shared by the vast majority of the public. This is not just about the insurance industry pushing an issue; it is about the majority of the public pushing for what they believe is the right thing to do. We are fair-minded people in this country and, particularly in Stoke-on-Trent, we are not comfortable with the idea of a compensation culture. While resolutely recognising that, where there is clear medical evidence, liability must of course mean consequences for those at fault, that should not apply to those who seek to abuse the system.

What will the Bill do? It will reduce insurance premiums for hard-pressed motorists by adjusting how the personal injury discount rate is set. It is not about stopping those who genuinely deserve compensation from getting the settlement they justly deserve. It is of course a matter of justice that we have a system of rules under which everyone plays by those rules, without allowing them to play the system.

It is very welcome that the Government are introducing a new tariff specifically to target the exaggerated and fraudulent whiplash claims that have driven up insurance premiums. The creation of a new fixed compensation level for whiplash injuries is exactly the right thing to do to address the general and obvious anomaly that the number of accidents is going down but the number of claims for whiplash is going up. Equally, it is the right thing to do to ensure that there are provisions to increase compensation in exceptional circumstances. That stands in stark contrast with the current situation, where financial compensation figures are negotiated by the force of will and expertise in the opaque language or legalese of the interested parties.

I stress that these changes are not about denying genuine claims, but about discouraging speculative or exaggerated claims and claims with no just foundation. Such claims have the unjust consequence of forcing up insurance premiums to pay claims-chasing lawyers. I am glad that the Government have been so clear in attempting to get the balance right. As the Minister said in Committee, the Lord Chief Justice should be consulted on the levels of tariffs, as well as on the percentage uplift for judicial discretion. It is right that this should be done in an accountable, responsible, transparent and predictable fashion. I am sure the Lord Chancellor will be in no doubt about the feeling of this House that that should be done. He is accountable to this House, of course, and it should be reassuring to Members that his Ministry has modelled its approach to setting the tariff on that used in other countries, such as France and Italy.

It should be remembered that the bone of contention is not damages paid out for serious, long-lasting cases of whiplash but the anomalous prevalence of minor claims. The Bill addresses that by ensuring that when someone makes a claim for whiplash injuries, it is backed up by medical evidence and the damages are proportionate to the injury suffered. It will also ensure that those who have suffered life-changing injuries continue to receive 100% compensation—that is a key principle of the Bill.

Clearly the current balance is not right, with ordinary motorists being unfairly penalised through needlessly over-inflated premiums. That does not seem the best value for taxpayers’ money. Without reform, motor premiums could continue to rise by about 10% a year, which is shockingly high and unsustainable for working families and, especially, younger motorists. The Government argue that the whiplash reforms in the Bill will restore a sense of balance to the insurance and claims system, delivering about £1.1 billion of consumer savings every year. That could mean motorists’ insurance premiums falling by an average of £35 a year, with the high level of competition that is currently prevalent in the industry ensuring that it is the customers—our constituents—who benefit by far the most. This cannot and will not, of course, be a straight switch from a money grab by lawyers to a money grab by insurers.

I want to go through some of the key things that the Bill will achieve in this area. About 650,000 road traffic accident-related personal injury claims were made in 2017-18—nearly 200,000 more than in 2005-06. The Government estimate that about 85% of them were for whiplash-related injuries. Those figures remain high despite a reduction in the number of road traffic accidents reported to the police and improved vehicle safety. The continuing high number and cost of claims increases the cost of motor insurance premiums to ordinary customers and consumers, which was why, as has been said today, the 2017 manifesto included a commitment to reduce insurance costs for ordinary motorists by tackling fraudulent and exaggerated whiplash claims. That is a key commitment for the Conservative Government.

The introduction of a tariff will both simplify the process for genuinely injured whiplash claimants and ensure that they receive proportionate compensation. In addition to a tariff payment, all claimants will continue to receive special damages covering compensation for any actual financial losses suffered as a result of their accident. The new measures will reduce and control the cost of whiplash claims and disincentivise unmeritorious claims. A tariff system is consistent with other schemes, such as the criminal injuries compensation scheme, which other countries right across the world use.

Having introduced a tariff system, it is essential that we provide that the Lord Chancellor must regularly review the level of the tariff, as clause 4 provides for. However, the Government recognise that there may be exceptional circumstances in which higher levels of compensation are needed, and I very much welcome that. For that reason, clause 4 also allows a judge to determine a higher level of damages. It is right that that remains part of the Bill.

In short, the Bill is about the system being fair and about public confidence in the system being fair—it is not currently obvious that the system is fair, I am afraid. The Bill will mean reduced costs for insurance customers, who currently pay the costs of unfounded claims, and rebalance the system for the emergent compensation culture that has seen unreasonable and exaggerated claims grow significantly in recent years. Most people want an insurance system that has a fair and just balance between claims and premiums. Hard-pressed motorists and taxpayers in my constituency will gain from the Bill, much more so than any insurance company, and I am happy to support it tonight.