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Equality Bill is starting to look tricky for insurers

The Equality Bill is starting to look rather less straightforward than the insurance industry initially hoped.
The Committee stage is now underway. Last week and this week they have been taking evidence from a wide range of organisations, including the Association of British Insurers, and next week will get onto the serious business of a clause-by-clause examination of the bill. The evidence sessions will have done little to soothe the nerves of the insurance industry. The insurance industry knows it is vulnerable to criticism on the way age limits are applied in certain classes of business such as travel insurance but it will not have expected to end the week attacked for disability discrimination against victims of pleural plaques and facing a possible ban on using genetics and family history in underwriting decisions.
Not surprisingly, Help the Aged and Age Concern took the opportunity of appearing before the committee to stress their opposition to the insurance industry being given any blanket exemption from the age discrimination provisions in the bill. The thrust of their complaint, which seemed to be listened to sympathetically by the committee, was that the insurance industry uses age as a proxy for other factors such as health and does so relatively crudely with broad age bands, such as over 65 or 65-75.
Where these organisations seemed to be in agreement with the insurance industry was over the need for all exemptions to be dealt with in the bill and not left to ministerial order. It seems that they are as worried as the insurance industry that exemptions could be granted or taken away almost on a ministerial whim.
Poor Nick Startling from the ABI went in well briefed to deal with the age discrimination issues but had hardly got into his stride when Labour MP Jim Sheridan launched into an attack about the insurance industry's stance on compensation for people with pleural plaques and those who go on to develop mesothelioma. Mr Sheridan seemed to want to hold Mr Startling personally responsible for the lack of compensation paid to people with pleural plaques and steer him into admitting that this constituted disability discrimination.
Next up was the Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris who wanted to get genetic testing on the agenda and pressed for a guarantee that the current moratorium on using genetic tests in underwriting would be extended beyond 2014. Of course, Mr Starling couldn't give this and it looks as if Dr Harris will press for an amendment to the bill to make the moratorium permanent and may even include some aspects of family medical history in this proposed ban too.
The week's evidence was rounded off by Vera Baird, the Solicitor General and the minister on the committee. She was supportive of the complaints from older people's charities that the insurance industry's use of age in underwriting was "gratuitously discriminatory" and was not always actuarially justifiable. She said the Government Equalities Office was working on a policy document specifically on this area and was consulting with both the industry and the age lobbies. Apparently, a draft version is doing the rounds at the moment. I think its publication will be awaited by the insurance industry with a little more anxiety after the last week. 
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