Biba’s public affairs team, led by chief executive Eric Galbraith, is increasingly adept at getting brokers’ voices heard in the government and the media. Ellen Bennett met the lobbyists.

Thirty-two MPs, MSPs, peers and civil servants; 17 FSA meetings; 396 press inquiries and 42 consultation documents. It’s been a busy year for the public affairs team at Biba, running around Westminster and Brussels on behalf of the UK’s general insurance brokers.

But on this sunny Wednesday afternoon, the team is relaxed. Crowded into the small office of Eric Galbraith, the association’s chief executive, at Biba House in the City, they are chatty, smiling, teasing one another – but clearly keen to talk about their work.

Galbraith, Steve White, regulation and compliance manager, Graeme Trudgill, technical and corporate affairs executive, and Leighann Burtrand, communications manager, make up Biba’s crack team of lobbyists. From handling sensitive political discussions with irate MPs, to fact-finding on behalf of the Treasury and promoting brokers in the media, they work tirelessly to influence the public agenda in their members’ favour.

Their victories so far include ensuring that travel agents that sell insurance are FSA-regulated, a move towards the introduction of electronic motor certificates and continuous insurance enforcement. They have also led the industry response to the FSA’s consultation on whether brokers should be forced to disclose their commission to clients.

The team is now busy drawing up its manifesto for 2009. Some of the big lobbying issues include access to and availability of insurance, such as the promotion of good practice on internet sales, the ever-present issue of flooding, financial inclusion and safeguarding the UK’s position as a leading financial centre. Motor continues to be high on the agenda too, with ongoing campaigns around the electronic delivery of motor certificates and continuous insurance enforcement to reduce uninsured driving.

It hasn’t always been so. Galbraith admits that two years ago, soon after he joined, Biba simply dabbled in public affairs. “It wasn’t co-ordinated,” he says. “We had yet to really engage with government or opposition members. We didn’t have a structured programme – we might identify one issue then run around trying to deal with it. However, we were putting the groundwork in place and that’s what a lot of it is.”

So what has changed? Galbraith believes public affairs are a core element of Biba’s responsibility and, although he is too modest to boast, his colleagues confirm that he has driven much of the change. A success or two – convincing the government that travel agents selling insurance should be regulated, for instance – also encouraged Biba staff to step up their campaigning.

The team recruited a public affairs consultancy, which monitors political developments and publications and offers professional advice on how to gain an influence. “It looks at changes in government and what that could mean,” says Trudgill. “Political views on certain things do change.”

As well as getting the heads-up from consultants, Biba is linked to the grass roots through its regional committees, which pass problems up to London. Then it’s a matter of prioritising and drawing up the manifesto. “We know we can’t represent 20 issues at the same time so we’ve tried to group them into relevant areas,” says Trudgill.

Then begins the dark art of political lobbying – which the team admits has been quite an eye-opener. “It’s certainly been a learning curve for me,” muses Galbraith.

“It’s not something I’ve had any training in.”

Trudgill recalls a constituent’s complaint to her MP that she had been unfairly penalised by the Motor Insurance Database. This was a one-off, due to incorrect reporting from a direct insurer, but the MP began to oppose the database and denigrate it in parliament. Enter Biba, which went to see him, explained the database and scored the political coup of winning him over. It even enlisted his help in its campaign to get the government to move faster on expanding the database.

The lobbying process is never the same twice, and usually begins with identifying a route in. “If there’s an issue we want to make a fuss about, we try to meet with the relevant MP or civil servant. If we’re not satisfied with their level of response, we’ll move on to the shadow MPs, or a peer, and get a question raised in parliament,” says Trudgill. “That puts the government on the spot – they have to give an answer. Then we can get hold of that answer and take it from there.”

The team is excited by talk of recent successes. The Treasury has started coming to them for information because they have worked together before. This gives Biba a valuable opportunity of exerting influence behind the scenes, before decisions are taken.

“We’ve moved ahead of the game,” smiles Galbraith. “Before, we were running to catch up. Now, we’re out in front and influencing future change. But there’s still a way to go. I would like us to be more recognised and known by more government departments.”

Perhaps one of the greater difficulties Biba faces is the high profile of the ABI, which is familiar to politicos and the media. Galbraith admits that the ABI is well known, but adds: “When we go in to see people, we explain where we fit in the financial services sector. We say, ‘You’ve probably heard of the ABI’, and that’s quite right but they need to understand that we sit between the consumers and business. We can give them an opinion which is broad-based, about the whole sector.”

Does the ABI mind that the Biba has moved on to its traditional turf? There are smiles around the table, but Galbraith says: “It’s been very positive. I don’t think we’ve had any downsides.”

In all this, Biba must keep the brokers at the forefront and the team is quick to emphasise the tangible benefits. Campaigns will save brokers time and money – such as the campaign to introduce the electronic delivery of motor certificates, which could save individual brokers as much as £1m. “We’re always mindful of what’s in it for the brokers – that’s always at the forefront of the work we do,” says White.

Galbraith adds: “We’re protecting brokers’ interests and rights and ensuring that they are operating on a level playing field. Our work can save them money and bring them real business and, at its heart, it is always about promoting access to general insurance through a broker.”

Brokers have traditionally struggled to win recognition as a profession and influence in the political sphere but, with Biba raising their public profile, this seems set to change. And with this team leading, there’ll be some fun along the way.

Graeme Trudgill

Technical and corporate affairs executive
Trudgill started in 1989 as a broker in general insurance. He joined Biba in 2001 and ran the successful Biba schemes and facilities portfolio. He now runs the Biba motor panel and professional indemnity initiative and plays a key role in Biba's public affairs. Working closely with the industry and the government, he sits on the Department for Transport's motor insurance compliance action board and on the Motor Insurers' Bureau's Motor Insurance Database programme board.