I'm no poet and have few leanings in that direction. However, I do find T S Eliot a very interesting man. Although an American modernist poet, playwright and critic, he is well known in the UK as a result of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats”. It was based on Eliot's collection “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats”.

But why am I writing about him? What is the insurance connection? It comes from messages in his writing. He wrote:

“Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.”


“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I interpret this as the value in looking around and learning from what is happening and what has happened in the past. It also highlights the potential danger of seeking new solutions when there are perhaps obvious answers and valuable experiences already out there.

Nowhere is this more appropriate than when looking at ethical and consumer issues. Many companies and industries have come to regret the sins of the past. No one questioned what was happening at the time or how it might rebound in the future. The recent Alder Hey report is a good example.

The insurance indus-try has already had some very painful lessons to learn: mis-selling and over-selling of products and making promises that could not be met are just some of them. These have primarily been in the life and pensions area. Now the industry has moved to try and ensure these mistakes are not repeated. Customer desires for clarity, comparability and confidence have been recognised. Time will tell whether the industry can deliver.

For general insurance, considerable progress has been made to embrace consumerism and the higher expectations of the buying public. Examples include improved regulation and the claims code. It is by no means certain that what is planned will be sufficient, but it is a positive start that has generally been welcomed.

There is, however, value in stepping aside from the day-to-day issues and reflecting whether current practices and ethics will be accepted as reasonable in the future.

My thoughts turned to this area as a result of two news items. First, there were the winter floods. There was a view that flood property damage was inevitable in some areas, and that there could be problems over the cost and availability of insurance. A debate on the social and economic responsibilities of the industry has yet to take place. A company can maintain that it must operate in a commercial way, but can an industry use the same arguments?

Then there was a tragic court case in December. A car dealer ran over and killed three young women as he tried to escape a breathalyser test. He was jailed for eight years. Not so prominent in the news was that he was under 40, had two previous convictions for drink driving and was driving a three-litre BMW. Presumably he was insured, but should he have been insured to drive such a fast, powerful car? Does the insurance industry's record on drink driving or road safety bear scrutiny?

What practices are still going on in the industry that would horrify a chief executive if he or she knew? “None” may be the answer, but this was also the original answer when the industry was confronted by pension mis-selling.

  • Tony Baker was deputy director general of the Association of British Insurers and now runs his own consultancy. He can be contacted on 01920 465000 or at thetbaker@aol.com.

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