That is the bleak warning contained in The Insurance Report from Swiss Re published this month.
The annual report says that at the end of 2006 there were 42,641 death benefit schemes and 19,065 income protection schemes in force, respectively 0.7 and 2.2 per cent fewer than in 2005. While schemes are getting larger, the report points to concern that intermediaries spend too much time rebroking and recycling existing plans rather than getting positive messages about group risk out to a wider audience.
The report, which carries out market research as well as taking opinions from across the industry on an anonymous basis to allow greater freedom of expression, found uncertainty around age discrimination regulations as one of the biggest concerns in the market. The research found only 30 per cent of employers understand the implications of age discrimination legislation for their business and employee benefits.
The consequences could be even more destructive for in-force cover than for any other. Scheme loss could accelerate as employer awareness grows, concludes the report. Increased pressure on the sector is expected if the default age of 65 is abolished altogether in 2011, as widely predicted.
Disability cover is the biggest issue, with one adviser interviewee saying one client, an established City bank with a very paternal outlook, was horrified that increasing cover to age 70 could increase their premiums by over 80 per cent, and indicated that it would not pay that.
The Swiss Re report also finds that the wide choices of more tangible benefits offered through flexible benefits schemes could lead to group risk products being overlooked in favour of more immediately gratifying benefits. It predicts that group risk products could go the way of staff mortgages and defined benefits unless they are able to respond to changes in market mood. The arrival of personal accounts in 2012 could also put pressure on group risk benefits as some firms level down their pension schemes to the cheaper state-sponsored offering.
Ron Wheatcroft, technical manager at Swiss Re and report co-author says: “Unless the group risk industry acts quickly to promote the protection benefits if offers, perhaps within a wider campaign to raise awareness of benefits generally, it runs the risk of becoming a minority part of the market, with flexible benefits being a bigger contributor to a market decline than any regulatory changes as core cover is trimmed away.
“The employee benefit sector is highly important in providing insurance protection to UK plc. We need to ensure that the benefits provided are communicated more effectively to employees, employers and wider stakeholders if the sector is to avoid a long hard road ahead.”