Liability of insurers etc where accident caused by automated vehicle

Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 16 March 2017.

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Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 2:00, 16 March 2017

I beg to move amendment 18, in clause 2, page 2, line 18, leave out “owner of the vehicle” and insert

“person in charge of the vehicle at the time of the accident”.

This amendment ensures that the person who was in charge of the vehicle at the time of the accident is liable, rather than the owner of the vehicle who may not necessarily have been in the vehicle at the time. However “person in charge of the vehicle at the time of the accident” can also include the owner of the vehicle if they were in charge of it at the time.

It is a pleasure, Ms Ryan, to serve under your chairmanship. We had a thorough debate this morning and perhaps took a little bit longer than we anticipated. I promise to be exceptionally quick on this amendment, which seeks to clarify who would be liable in the event that an automated vehicle is not insured, and relates not to the owner of the vehicle but the person in charge.

I tabled the amendment because it appeared to me that we run the risk that a thief of a vehicle would get away scot-free if that vehicle was not insured; the owner would be liable, which would be a perverse outcome. We had some helpful information from Mr Howarth at our evidence session when I put that scenario to him. He correctly pointed out that the clause relates to Crown Estate vehicles, local authority vehicles, police and ambulance vehicles and so on and that the current insurance arrangements will apply to automated vehicles. That is clear but I wonder whether the Minister considers that matters would be even clearer if the word “and” were to be inserted in clause 2(2)(b). That is not included in my amendment, which I intend to withdraw, but does the Minister think that that addition would bring further clarity to the Bill, because at first blush, I think there could be some perverse outcomes.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The shadow Secretary of State has made it clear that he intends to withdraw the amendment, so I will be very brief and straightforward about clause 2. It mirrors the Road Traffic Act 1988, which, as the hon. Gentleman has said, allows some public bodies and the Crown itself to insure the use of conventional vehicles. In effect, they take the role of the insurer in terms of paying compensation to an innocent victim in the event of a collision.

Just as clause 2(1) places a first instance liability to pay compensation on insurers, clause 2 (2) places it on the public body or the Crown, as the hon. Gentleman has said, if they choose to self-insure a vehicle. That will ensure that innocent victims would have quick and easy access to compensation, and mirrors the arrangements under the Road Traffic Act, where a public body or the Crown self-insures a conventional vehicle.

The risk with the amendment is that it might confuse that policy intent, as the driver of the vehicle may not have sufficient financial resources to pay compensation at all, let alone in a timely manner. I know that that is not the intention of the amendment but it might be its effect.

There is also a question of fairness. One can imagine that in a large public sector body, it would be unlikely that the driver of an automated vehicle would be the person who made the decision whether or not it should be self-insured. Also, the driver may not have contributed in any way to causing the collision. I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman does not intend to press his amendment, but my fear about it is that it may actually confuse all the issues in respect of the relative responsibility of the body and the driver. I will certainly look at the semantic point that he raised; the addition of a single word is a modest request, and inevitably as the Bill progresses a series of minor and technical changes will be made. If his suggestion is helpful, we will of course consider it. I absolutely understood that the intent of the amendment was not to do what I said, but I think that might be its effect.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Ryan. I have a couple of minor points for the Minister.

First, on line 5 of page 2, the first three words of subsection (1)(c) are “an insured person”. I tried to clarify this, I think with the Association of British Insurers, during our oral evidence session two days ago, but my understanding is that the insurance architecture for automated vehicles is changed by the Bill. Rather than the driver being covered by a policy of insurance, which is the existing situation, for an automated vehicle pursuant to clause 2 it will be the vehicle itself that is insured. Unlike now when negligence is alleged in a road traffic collision, the claim legally will be against the tortfeasor, the wrongdoer, not against the insurance company, although legislation from the 1930s enables the insurance company to step in at present. Under the Bill, were there to be legal proceedings, the person on the other side would be the insurance company directly, not, as now, indirectly, in lay terms.

If that is the case, there is no insured person on the scene, unless “person” in that context somehow means the insurance company as a legal person. The way the clause appears to be worded, the policy of insurance is carried not by the driver, the human being, but by the vehicle itself. In which case, if I am reading the Bill correctly, there is no insured person. I am hoping that the Minister will clarify that today or in writing to me later. I fully accept that he might say that I have misinterpreted it.

Secondly, on lines 19 and 20 of page 2, subsection (3) includes a definition of “damage”, but that definition does not include what used to be called special damages and have since 1998, I think, technically been called financial losses and expenses. For example, if someone is injured in a road traffic collision and loses pay at work as a result, that is liquidated damages, but it does not seem to be covered in the definition of damages in that subsection. That might be deliberate and might come in somewhere else, but I hope that the Minister will clarify the wording.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point about special damages. As he knows all too well, special damages in any given case could dwarf the compensation for pain, suffering and loss of amenity, so it is a hugely important point, which I want to support. I hope that the Minister can clarify it.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. For someone who has to have two years off work, is earning £50,000 a year and so on, that can be a loss of money. I fully concede to the Minister that I may have overlooked something, or it might be covered somewhere else or not need to be covered, but I would find it helpful were he able to explain to the Committee why special damages, as they used to be called, are not included in the clause. Will he also explain why we have “an insured person” in subsection (1)(c)?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Welcome to the Chair, Ms Ryan. We had a fairly lengthy discussion this morning about the early parts of the Bill, but in doing so we were able to establish context and purpose. Many hon. Members in all parts of the Committee made important points that I have listened to carefully. I will take them into further consideration as the Bill enjoys its passage.

At the very beginning of our consideration we set out the tone of this scrutiny. The Bill matters a great deal, but it is essentially a technical, not a partisan, measure, and not one that should give rise to unnecessary discord, disharmony or contumely. None the less, it is right that we get it right, as it is for all legislation, and so I want to say a word about clause 2.

Clause 2 details the liability of insurers where an accident is caused by an automated vehicle. Where an accident is caused by an automated vehicle when it is driving itself, the clause creates first instance liability on the insurer to compensate innocent victims.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West has made a number of interventions already, and in each one, with a humility that personifies all of his contributions to this House, has suggested that he is finding his way through this, just as other members of the Committee are. He is right to say that the definition of damage that applies will be the definition established in the Road Traffic Act 1998 and so it is not necessary to do more here. He suggested that might be so and I can confirm that that is indeed the case.

The hon. Gentleman raised a second important issue about the character of the relationship between the driver and the vehicle. The point is that the driver has motor insurance. It is true that when someone has motor insurance, they designate a vehicle, but the driver will apply to an insurer to take out a policy in the same way that they do now. In respect of a claim, the difference that automation will make is that the insurer will then be in the business of determining subsequent liability. Of course, that will depend whether the car is being driven in automated mode or not, which is something we have all talked about both informally and formally in the Committee.

In a sense, that is immaterial to the hon. Gentleman’s question, because our absolute determination is to ensure that all the changes that are necessary as a result of the developments we are discussing are largely invisible and that, from the driver’s point of view and that of any other party that might suffer a loss as a result of an incident—a victim of an accident and so on and so forth—they are no worse off than they are now and at no greater risk, and that the driver, from the perspective of acquiring insurance, is in the same situation as they are now. So the issue of subsequent inquiries necessary to settle a claim is not dealt with in the Bill and, frankly, does not need to be, for that is in the end a matter for insurers. I think that clarifies the point, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene again, I am happy to give way.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I understand the points that the Minister is making, but clause 2(1)(b) says, “the vehicle is insured”. It does not say a policy of insurance is in effect covering the person in charge of the vehicle. It specifically says that the vehicle is insured. Secondly, I would point out to the Minister that unless we get this right, there may be problems later if a minor is in the vehicle alone because of full automation—that minor cannot hold an insurance policy because as a minor they cannot contract insurance.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

That is true enough. I suppose perhaps the easiest way of putting this is that, compared with the compulsory insurance cover that is the necessary result of the Road Traffic Act 1998 and is long established, the clause widens the insurers’ liability to include damage as a result of automation. Essentially, it includes damage suffered by the driver when the automated vehicle is driving itself, or damage suffered by any third party.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at clause 7, which deals with this matter—as I am sure other Committee members will do so with enthusiasm and speed. Clause 7(1)(a) describes a vehicle “driving itself” and subsection (1)(b) states that

“a vehicle is ‘insured’ if there is in force in relation to the use of the vehicle on a road or other public place in Great Britain”,

and so on.

That clause provides the clarity the hon. Gentleman seeks. When it is combined with what I described—the existing arrangements under the Road Traffic Act—I think he can be satisfied that we have got this right.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3