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Repairer campaign in talks with OFT

The RMI is hopeful of a full investigation into the accident repair industry following its meeting with the Office of Fair Trading last week.

Bob Hood, RMI Bodyshop Services director, said: "It was a good meeting. We discussed a range of issues and have been pointed towards the right Government departments for each concern."

He believes an investigation is imminent once the OFT receives the RMI's portfolio of evidence into unfair practices, gathered over the past 12 months. "We have also commissioned an economists' report on the industry - expected to be completed in around three months - that we will pass to the OFT," he added.

The RMI has accused insurers of seeking to do business with repairers who are willing to work at the lowest labour rates, disregarding whether they meet health and safety and environmental legislation. It also raised concerns over the level of free services demanded by insurers and the VAT exemption enjoyed by insurer-owned bodyshops.

"Insurers should only give work to bodyshops who meet EPA regulations and conform to quality standards," said Mr Hood. "We need to persuade the Government to regulate the industry to ensure only bodyshops that meet the regulations receive work. This would cut out a large element of bodyshops who undercut on labour rates and force insurers to work with compliant companies.

"We have to remove suspicion from the industry and increase trust between insurers and repairers."

Body repairers are gearing up for a sustained attack on the insurance industry after claiming years of under payment and overbearing pressure to deliver lower costs and greater customer service.

BRIC is negotiating for better working terms and relationships with insurers and other work providers. The campaign - believed to have a 'fighting fund' approaching £100,000 - has been heard by Parliament, with questions tabled by MPs sympathetic to the industry's plight. The RMI has also been in communication with Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers.

Mr Hood, who chairs BRIC meetings, believes the stage is set for a "gradual turnaround in the fortunes of body repairers".

He said: "We have not seen the end of insurer consolidation and repairer numbers will continue to fall, but it will be the better businesses that survive.

"We said at the outset that it would take a couple of years for BRIC to make an impact. It is now making progress."

The Vehicle Repairers and Builders Association has challenged the insurance industry to form a taskforce with industry representatives to establish a code of practice.

It hopes to eliminate unnecessary and duplication costs in the claims and repair process, allowing repairers to invest in their businesses.

The VBRA called the current relationships "a scandal", with insurers using their clout to "exert a stranglehold" on repairers.

"To expect highly skilled work to complex vehicles at such punitive rates is to court disaster," it warns.

Many repairers believe progress towards improved relationships will be hampered until the industry can present a united front to insurers and the Government.

One source said: "This means having one voice through one trade association and one quality standard."

However, with the three main associations - RMI, VBRA and Motor Vehicle Repairers Association - unwilling to concede ground, insurers will try to continue exploiting their fragmented position.

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