The insurance industry may yet be dragged into the "rip-off Britain" debate, warned ABI director-general Mary Francis last week.

Speaking at the 1999 Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales General Insurance Conference, Francis said: "The populist slogan 'rip-off Britain' hasn't targeted insurance yet – for a change. But mud tends to have a spatter effect. Politicians after a quick cheer, and anxious to prove fleeting left-wing credentials, should think what they're doing. It's about time our Government and our regulators stood up for the industry, and remembered the contribution it makes to jobs and the economy and to Britain's overseas earnings."

She continued: "Of course the regulators must be concerned with standards and solvency. Of course the politicians must be on the look-out for abuses and areas for improvement. But could they please single out what's best in the industry, so that it can be built on – not always go for the quick applause that comes from knocking us."

Rising premiums are one area where consumers may be critical of the industry. Used for years to downward movement, the current upward stage of the cycle in certain sectors may fuel consumer dissatisfaction. Said Francis: "Whilst the hardening of the market is necessary, it brings with it the inevitable outcry from policyholders. It is difficult for the industry that premiums carry with them elements which are nothing to do with the essential economic transaction between insurer and insured – premium tax."

However, she noted: "Alert consumers are interested consumers. And interested customers buy more than switched-off customers. But customer power puts the industry on its toes. It means we have to sell protection – it's not just bought.

"It means we have constantly to innovate – both in what we sell and how we sell it – and we have constantly to raise the standards of service we offer to customers, both at the point of sale and later, not least when claims come in."

Also speaking at the ICAEW Conference, David Anthony of Standard & Poor's Rating agency commented on industry consolidation: "There is no such thing as the impossible any more. We are talking to major insurers all the time about their strategies, and there is clearly a lot more consolidation in the pipeline."