Analysis & Comment

Charlie Weston: 'Firms should be afraid, very afraid, of cartel buster Vestager'

Accusations have been swirling around for a while that the insurance market in Ireland operates as a cartel.

The charge has been lobbed in to help explain why we are in the midst of a severe insurance crisis.

At one stage motor insurance costs shot up before easing back a bit. Now a surge in premiums for businesses, and the difficulty of even getting a quote from an insurer, is forcing some to close with jobs being lost.

This is particularly a problem in the leisure, childcare and community events sectors.

Such is the insurance crisis we face a real risk of children having fewer places to enjoy themselves as play centres, adventure facilities and festivals are forced to call it a day due to unsustainable insurance costs.

Blame for this situation has been placed at the door of a number of vested interests.

Insurers have mismanaged their businesses in the past, forcing policyholders to effectively bail them out with sharply increased premiums. Now they are picking and choosing which risks to insure.

But there are other snouts in the trough. Our “compo” culture means lawyers can make easy money taking personal injuries claims. And if they are lucky enough to get one of the “Santa Claus” judges then they are on to a winner.

Our toxic compensation culture is why the industry representative body, Insurance Ireland, set up a database to try to keep track of fraudulent claimants. InsuranceLink is a database with information about potentially fraudulent insurance claims and suspicious activity by dodgy claimants.

But there are allegations that access to this database is not open to all insurers. If this is true it puts potential new entrants to the market at a disadvantage as it would mean a cartel is effectively operating a closed shop to keep prices high.

Insurer Zenith Insurance pulled out of the Irish market in 2016 claiming it could not get access to insurance data. At the time it cited a “lack of engagement with us by Irish industry bodies, which we believe creates a market disadvantage for us and our partners”.

Insurance Ireland insists InsuranceLink is accessed by its members and non-members.

The move by the European Commission’s anti-trust tzar Margrethe Vestager to open a formal investigation into Insurance Ireland, and how it operates the database, is directly related to the dawn raids her officers carried out here two years ago.

Insurers should fear Ms Vestager and her officers. If her office finds against Insurance Ireland it could impose a huge fine, which would have to be paid by member insurers and could run to millions of euro.

After all, she slapped one of the largest companies in the world, Apple, with a bill for €13bn in back tax to the Irish Exchequer.

Now the world’s toughest regulator is rattling the cages of insurers, maybe Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will wake up to the fact real reform of the insurance market here needs their urgent attention.

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