Saturday 24 August 2019

Cormac McQuinn: 'Unrest in FG at pace of change as war on claims culture enters crucial phase'

Efforts at reform in coming weeks will set public view of party in the wake of the Bailey case, writes Cormac McQuinn

Maria Bailey. Picture: Tom Burke
Maria Bailey. Picture: Tom Burke
Chief Justice Frank Clarke. Picture: Colin O'Riordan
Minister Michael D’Arcy
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Junior minister Michael D'Arcy appeared before his colleagues at a private meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party last month to talk insurance reform. It was a topic at the top of the political agenda, and backbenchers and senators weren't shy about expressing their dissatisfaction at progress to tackle claims culture and spiralling premiums for consumers and businesses.

Mr D'Arcy wasn't giving the kind of comprehensive answers they wanted and the pace of reform was not fast enough. "Nothing was being done," was one claim. One source said: "There was a feeling he was talking a lot but saying nothing."

Another TD said: "This was before the Maria Bailey case came out, that's how prominent this is. We had a half-hour/45-minute discussion on it".

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Wexford TD Mr D'Arcy has been under pressure, facing criticism from lobby groups over the snail's pace of reform for months.

That meeting came amid headlines over businesses such as Rathbeggan Lakes Family Adventure Park in Co Meath announcing it would be closing after its public liability insurance bill rocketed more than 100pc this year to €400,000.

People in Fine Gael aren't happy. The insurance issue is described by one source as a "long-running sore". They added: "Now the Maria Bailey case has brought it into sharp focus. And then you had Alan Farrell on top of that on Prime Time."

Mr D'Arcy and the two senior ministers involved in efforts to tackle problems in the insurance sector, Paschal Donohoe and Charlie Flanagan, had a tough job already.

The pressure has been piled on amid weeks of media coverage on the cases taken by Ms Bailey and Mr Farrell.

News of Ms Bailey's personal injury claim against a Dublin hotel after she fell off what her legal representatives described as an "unsupervised" swing during a night out broke on May 20.

The revelation saw Ms Bailey at the centre of a storm over the legal action she took, seeking compensation for injuries she suffered in the fall at the Dean hotel.

It denied liability and Ms Bailey declined to comment on the case for almost a week before confirming she was dropping the case.

A later disastrous interview with RTE's Sean O'Rourke, in which she blamed the media, lawyers and the Opposition for her plight, added fuel to the fire.

Perhaps one of the kinder assessments of the saga among Fine Gael colleagues was that it was "unhelpful". Others say there is still anger in the party over the controversy that hit them days before the local and European elections.

One source said: "It makes the ordinary individual think that there are people in Fine Gael who are detached from reality."

There is a certain amount of sympathy in the party for the Dun Laoghaire TD, who has suffered online abuse and ridicule. But they also want a swift resolution to the issue.

Fine Gael has launched an internal probe into the compensation claim with senior counsel David Kennedy hired to inquire into "all the facts" surrounding the legal suit.

His conclusions may be delivered to party headquarters as early as this week.

Alan Farrell's Prime Time appearance, meanwhile, was not a good look for the party.

The Dublin Fingal TD refused to comment while being pursued on the street by an RTE reporter asking questions about his own legal action. Mr Farrell last year won a personal injury case he took after a road traffic incident. He was awarded €2,500 in damages following a collision with a rental van that left him with minor injuries. He also alleged he would need more than €880 of repairs to his car but later dropped a claim for material damage after photos of the vehicle were shown in court.

He broke his silence last week, telling the Irish Independent he is "satisfied the matter is concluded".

All of this has added to the pressure for Mr D'Arcy to deliver on insurance reform.

There have been claims the insurance reform brief should be held by a senior minister and rumblings that Finance Minister Mr Donohoe is taking a more hands-on role, though this is disputed by others.

Two years into the job, Mr D'Arcy is not without his defenders. One TD said he has made progress and has been "working hard, to be fair to him".

"It's one of these things that when you get it over the line people say 'well done' but until you get it over the line you're dealing with the problem... You're dealing the industry and the businesses saying they can't get insurance.

"It didn't start overnight and it wasn't going to be possible to end it with the wave of a magic wand."

Another source said Mr D'Arcy is also frustrated with the pace of progress but is more concerned with bringing in the correct reforms and "doing it right" than making faster changes that may not work.

However, there has been at least one example of where the Government has been accused of 'not doing it right'. That is the now-abandoned proposal to set up an interim group of judges and other officials to determine ways to bring down the size of awards for minor injuries.

It was proposed as a measure pending the introduction of a Judicial Council which has been mired in the legislative process.

However, Chief Justice Frank Clarke raised serious concerns about the plan, writing to Minister Charlie Flanagan to warn there were "very considerable legal difficulties" with that proposal. He said it "would almost certainly lead to a succession of challenges".

Mr Flanagan dropped the stop-gap measure in favour of fast-tracking amendments to the Judicial Council Bill to allow for the setting up of the personal injuries guidelines committee within the framework of the proposed council.

The idea is that judges will set guidelines for claims payout levels with reviews every three years to take inflation and medical advances into account. The amendments are due to be published in the coming days and are to be introduced into the Seanad the following week.

The Government desperately want this legislation to get over the line before the summer recess as it is seen as key to demonstrating to consumers and businesses that progress is being made in fixing Ireland's broken insurance system.

The Personal Injury Commission (PIC) chaired by former High Court president Nicholas Kearns found award levels for minor injuries, including whiplash, in this country are almost five times higher than in the UK.

Public liability and employers' liability insurance has been identified as "the big challenge" and the "final hurdle is trying to bring these payments in line with other jurisdictions". The Fine Gael-led Government is at pains to point to progress they believe has been made in reforming the insurance sector. Sources insisted Government efforts were at "full throttle" even before the Bailey case emerged.

Reasons offered for delays in reform include the filibustering of the separate Judicial Appointments Bill which has delayed other legislation and the minority Government's battle for Oireachtas time with opposition parties.

The Government will be relying on the Opposition to play ball if they hope to have the Judicial Council Bill over the line by the summer recess.

Amid the controversy over its own TDs' legal actions and delays in reform, the coming weeks will be crucial when it comes to public perception on Fine Gael's efforts to overhaul insurance.

Will it be able to point to concrete progress and say a judges' committee will be set up to finally crackdown on spiralling claims. Or will insurance reform be added to housing and health as issues with no silver bullet solution, but little progress to show, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's party faces into a general election in the coming months.

Sunday Independent

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