January 12, 2012

[This story subject to an official complaint from the National Institute for Ornithological Nomenclature] Two of the big guns of the Cost of Motor Insurance debate came virtually face to face on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week when Nick Sparrow (in the studio) and Jack Straw (on the line) aired their respective views on stuff like whiplash and referral fees.

Straw began by making some frankly bizarre allegations about the fragility of English necks. People living in this country, he claimed, have “infinitely weaker necks” than people in other countries. Then, rounding on the very region within which his own constituency Blackburn lies, he suggested that people in the North West have infinitely weaker necks than those across the border in Scotland.

What on earth can have triggered this extraordinary outburst? Why was he not pulled up on this vile slur upon the cervical robustitude of an entire nation? Bankstone News was utterly perplexed. As, seemingly, was Nick Sparrow who only added to the confusion by “agreeing” with Jack that Britons do not [sic] have weaker necks.

Sparrow then proceeded to reveal that a curiously regular pattern of claims reporting sees precisely one whiplash claim reported every minute of every day in the UK. This seems deeply suspicious, but before Bankstone News could properly absorb its implications, Sparrow was plunging into philosophical fraught waters with the contention that the current system places an unfair burden on insurers by effectively requiring them prove a negative when someone with a certificate claims they have whiplash (or indeed any other condition with no outwardly verifiable symptoms).

It would be good, he said, if we could be more like the Germans and have a system that bans people claiming they have whiplash if the collision in which they have been involved took place below a certain speed (10kmph to be precise). Perhaps he would agree with Andrew Tollerance of German insurer Allianz who opined in this week’s Post Magazine that whiplash claims should be thrown out unless the vehicle’s airbags have deployed. This might seem a bit harsh on drivers of older vehicles, classic cars and those with faulty bags – but if it helped bring premiums down for everyone/improved motor insurers’ results a bit, who could really object?

Yes, but were insurers engaged in some kind of a racket and/or hopelessly enmired in the rotten system of trading accident victims’ details for cash? In a dysfunctional system, Sparrow explained (harking back to classic arguments like ‘society made be good it’ and ‘I only did what everybody else did‘  – arguments that proved so effective for those accused of looting during the summer riots) everyone is bound to behave in dysfunctional ways.

Not to be outdone by Sparrow’s ‘proving the unprovable’ schtick, Straw chipped in with the equally recondite observation that insurers could have sorted the whole mess out years ago if they hadn’t been trapped in what game theorists term the prisoner’s dilemma.

For those not already familiar with this concept, the prisoner’s dilemma goes a bit like this: two men are held separately in police custody on suspicion of some or other unspecified crime. Each has two options. They may remain silent or betray the other man.

If neither man betrays the other they each receive a sentence of three months. If one betrays the other, who says nothing, he goes free while the silent prisoner receives a one-year sentence. If each betrays the other they each serve three months.

What this proves in practice is that everyone sells everyone else out every time. The fit with today’s dysfunctional motor insurance landscape is clearly uncannily precise. Unless you think it’s more a question of insurers only being willing to give up various questionable practices once they are certain everybody else will do the same.

Straw went on to blame insurers for accepting claims based on a single medical expert, castigating medical firms who he said were happy to tick boxes indicating injury for £300 to £400 a pop.

If AXA can stop accepting referral fees, Sparrow was then asked, why can’t other insurers. “The problem with referral fees,” he explained patiently is that “it’s not just insurers who deal with referral fees.” Excessive legal fees are the real problem he suggested, noting that lawyers are happy to pay £800 to get their hands on the minimum £1200 available for handling run of the mill PI claims through the RTA PI claims process (for which Straw was big enough to take the blame). In Germany, Sparrow noted ruefully, returning to a favourite theme, they’ll do it for EUR300 a time.

The only way “to get some sense and morality back into the motor insurance industry,” Straw concluded is to cut the aforementioned £1200 to £600 or less, ban referral fees across the board, and tackle all the other “appalling rackets” insurers are up to their necks in.

Are insurers to blame morally, Sparrow was asked. “In a dysfunctional system,” he intoned for the umpteenth time, “everyone is to blame.” Which amounts, in a comforting kind of way, to saying that nobody is particularly to blame.

“Unless you deal with this collectively,” he declared firmly, “you will always be with the problem.”

Think we made this up? Judge for yourselves by clicking here to hear it for yourself.



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