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Equal Status (Amendment) Bill 2012: Second and Subsequent Stages (Continued)

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 3

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Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins That is fine. I thank the Minister of State. We accept that we have to amend our legislation because the derogation period is coming to an end. On that basis, we understand where the Minister of State is coming from. We are supporting the Bill. We do not have any particular issue with it.

When the Equal Status Act 2000 was introduced, it was a ground-breaking measure. Its effects on people's participation in civil society were felt throughout the country. It was right that so many sections of society, including religious and political organisations, had to ensure they offered a level playing field to both genders. It was important that many clubs and associations in this country experienced a mini-revolution when they had to rewrite their constitutions and go about their business differently. It went a long way towards promoting a greater mix and a greater balance with regard to the participation of women in organisations. Unfortunately, there were one or two high-profile instances of organisations in Dublin not abiding by the new law. One particularly high-profile golf club refused to amend its rules to allow women to become full members. It was regrettable that they did not comply with the spirit of the legislation. Neither I nor my party would subscribe to the notion of having exclusive men-only organisations in a modern society.

Perhaps we should review the complete effectiveness of the Equal Status Act 2000 by carrying out an audit, in so far as possible, of how it is being complied with by organisations throughout the country. That could be done in many ways. Our local authorities, for example, have a substantial active database of all community and voluntary organisations, including sports clubs and non-sporting organisations. If we could audit and monitor the level of compliance with the 2000 Act and the impact it has had, it would be a worthwhile exercise as it would be something we could refer to in time. If that is done, I am sure it will find that the legislation in question has had a very positive effect on the promotion of gender balance and a greater mix of participation by both genders.

One of the major concerns associated with the Bill before is that it will lead to an increase in the premiums to be paid across a number of insurance policies. I suppose the week after the budget is probably a bad week to discuss another increased bill that households will have to face. Given that the derogation will cease on 21 December next and will not apply to new insurance policies written after that date, it is unfortunate that so many insurance premiums are renewed in early January. The timing of this measure is particularly cruel because it means that many people will face increased insurance premiums late this year and early in the new year. In that context, I would like to know whether any regulatory impact assessment was carried out by the Department. Was that possible? If so, was it published? It might serve to inform the public.

The final issue I would like to raise with regard to this Bill relates to the financial services industry. Many of the organisations that underwrite this business are banks. As we know, some banks are involved in insurance as well as banking. Insurance is one of the many aspects of their financial services activity. We will have to keep an eye on how they treat the application of this change in the legislation. We must ensure they do not use it as an excuse to hike up premiums further than the actuarial people tell them they need to do. In other words, they must not use it as an opportunity to try to grow their capital bases further, or engage in another capital-gathering exercise. People are being squeezed by the banks on many fronts. This should not be viewed by the banks as an opportunity to squeeze the consumer a bit more. Consumers are being absolutely squeezed dry. The Financial Regulator and the Central Bank should have a role in ensuring the banks do not engage in opportunism. Unfortunately, we have learned to our detriment from our experience that the banks will take every opportunity possible to add a greater margin to the margins they are already squeezing out of people with the other products they are selling. Did we get the observations of the Financial Services Ombudsman's Bureau of Ireland as part of the regulatory impact assessment? Did that office make any input during the drafting of the legislation? Has the Department had any particular interaction with the ombudsman in that regard?

Deputy Sandra McLellan: Information on Sandra McLellan Zoom on Sandra McLellan As this is a very technical Bill, I will not take up too much time. This Bill has had to be introduced on foot of the ruling by the European Court of Justice that the derogation in the EU gender directive that allows gender to be used as a risk factor in determining insurance costs is illegal. While we are on the matter of European courts, I would like to mention briefly that it is a shame the Government does not seem to hold the European Court of Human Rights in the same regard. I assume that is why it has not legislated for the X case as required by the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of A, B and C v. Ireland. There is a point to be made here about the role of statistical evidence about risk factors when the price of insurance is being determined. Insurance premiums are based on risk factors. In general, women pay lower premiums as there is a lower risk attached to them. Geographical location is a further risk assessment factor. Insurance costs are much higher in some parts of the country than in others because a higher proportion of road traffic accidents takes place in such locations. My concern about this Bill is that it will not result in lower insurance premiums for male drivers, but higher premiums for female drivers. While it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, I am aware of some insurance companies in Britain that have introduced interesting initiatives to ensure women are not unfairly penalised in their insurance claims. Some insurance companies in Britain are offering discounts for young driver schemes, as well as safe driver schemes in which premiums are reduced for both genders where there is a demonstrable record of safety over a period of time. I hope insurance companies here will do the same.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality (Deputy Kathleen Lynch): Information on Kathleen Lynch Zoom on Kathleen Lynch I thank both Deputies. I assure Deputy Niall Collins that there was extensive consultation with the entire insurance industry, as well as with the Departments of Finance, Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Social Protection, the Central Bank, the National Consumer Agency, the Citizens Information Board, the Pensions Board, the Equality Authority and the Financial Services Ombudsman's Bureau of Ireland. The level of consultation was quite significant. People will always say there could have been additional consultation, but in this case I do not think that would have been possible. Anyone who was seen to be a stakeholder in this sector, including the consumer, was consulted.

As we all know, this measure has resulted from a case that was successfully taken in the European courts by a consumer group in Belgium. I know people are very conscious of what others pay for their insurance. We tend to know what is being paid. I appreciate what Deputy Collins said about the mortgage protection, income protection and life assurance products offered by banks. This Bill will not affect life assurance unless it is to be taken out after 21 December next and is therefore considered to be an ongoing contract rather than a new contract.

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