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Equitable Life

March 26, 2009

Equitable Life

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What progress has been made by the Chadwick review into compensation for Equitable Life policyholders. [266527]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ian Pearson): Sir John Chadwick has begun the work that the Government asked him to undertake on aspects of the ex gratia payments scheme that was announced by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 15 January. The Government will keep the House updated and report back on progress at regular intervals.

Annette Brooke: The Government’s position has been described as “shabby, constitutionally dubious and procedurally improper”.

It is clear that the parliamentary ombudsman does not think that injustices will be fully remedied. What assurances will the Government give that my constituents and other Equitable Life policyholders who have clearly suffered injustices will get justice delivered with speed, clarity and transparency?

Ian Pearson: I am very disappointed that the Public Administration Committee should choose to obscure the real help that it accepts the Government’s payments scheme will deliver under extreme headlines, seemingly driven by an uncritical acceptance of the findings of the ombudsman’s report and by its unjustifiable and irresponsible characterisation of the manner of the Government’s response. [ Interruption. ] As a Government, we do not depart lightly from any of the ombudsman’s findings, but— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is in order.

Ian Pearson: The Government do not depart lightly from any of the ombudsman’s findings, but in such an important and complex case we have a clear duty to the taxpayer to ensure that our response is informed by a proper and comprehensive consideration of her report. That is what we have done and, as I have indicated previously, we want to move forward with an ex gratia payment scheme just as quickly as possible. We are talking to Sir John Chadwick about the advice that he is providing.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is the Minister aware that he has just made one of the most shameful statements to have been made from that Dispatch Box in many years? He has rubbished a Committee presided over by one of his own greatly respected colleagues, and discounted the unprecedented second letter from the ombudsman that we all received this week. He has had no support from the Benches behind him, as not a single Labour Member has risen to echo his words. He should be deeply ashamed of himself, because he is bringing the Government and the whole system into disrepute.

Ian Pearson: I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has a very long track record of upholding standards in this House, but we have departed from the ombudsman’s findings only where we have clear and cogent reasons for doing so. We have applied scrupulously the terms of the Parliamentary Commissioners Act 1967, as interpreted by the Court of Appeal in the Bradley judgment. For no other reasons have we departed from those findings. I have to say that I remain very disappointed indeed that the PAC does not appear to have understood some of the arguments that we have made to it.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): May I associate myself entirely with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)? I think he speaks for many people in the House, including many of the silent Back Benchers behind the Minister. What is the Minister now saying to all of our constituents? They are not unreasonable, and do not necessarily expect to get a share of the £4 billion that is being proposed, but are the Government simply waiting for many constituents across the country who relied on Equitable Life literally to die before there is any chance of getting any money on their behalf? Does he not find that a disgraceful state of affairs?

Ian Pearson: No, we are not saying that. We are saying that we want to move forward with introducing an ex gratia payment scheme as quickly as possible to help those who have suffered disproportionate impact as a result of losses through Equitable Life. We shall continue to do that. The fact that we have a disagreement with the Public Administration Committee will not deflect the Government from moving forward with all speed and providing a remedy for Equitable Life policyholders who have suffered disproportionate impact.

Several hon. Members rose —

Mr. Speaker: Order. Condemning the Minister’s reply is not what this is about—it is about asking a supplementary on the subject. I am sure Sir Nicholas Winterton will be able to do that.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I hope, Mr. Speaker, I do not let you down.

Is the Minister not aware that the way that Equitable Life policyholders are being treated is viewed—by the public, and not just the policyholders themselves—as another example of the way the Government treat people who have been responsible and prudent? Here are people who have tried to save for their retirement. The reports produced by the ombudsman have, in a way sadly, been critical of the Government, so is it not time that the Government speeded up the process to help people such as those who are losing out from virtually negative interest on their savings under the credit crunch, and to give them the benefit of their prudence and responsibility?

Ian Pearson: The ombudsman herself admitted that the issue was not clear cut. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the findings of the Penrose report, which said that the company was largely responsible for the demise in the situation. We will continue to move ahead with all the speed we can. We have asked Sir John Chadwick to provide us with advice; we want to introduce a scheme and we want to make sure that we can offer a remedy to Equitable Life policyholders. There is a technical dispute between the Public Administration Committee and the Government, because we clearly do not agree with its report and we shall respond in due course.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): That was an extraordinary attack on an Officer of the House and a Committee of the House, and the Minister’s comments will be noted across the country. They typify the Government’s approach to the whole issue. At every step on the way, the Government have sought to block, frustrate and delay justice for Equitable policyholders. On Saturday, The Daily Telegraph nailed them completely. An early draft of the Treasury response to the ombudsman’s report said:

“Sir John will aim to provide his final advice to Government by June 2010.”

Is it not time for the Government to stop their shabby treatment of policyholders and give them a clear timetable for justice?

Ian Pearson: I and the Government have every sympathy for Equitable Life policyholders who have suffered genuine losses as a result of the failure of regulation, for which we have apologised. I have still not heard an apology from the Opposition for the period when they were responsible with regard to public bodies. Let us be clear. We have said all along that it is not normal practice for the Government to compensate for regulatory failure, and that is not the response just of this Government—it has been the response of successive Governments.

With particular regard to the date the hon. Gentleman gave, let me be very clear in response: we have said that we want Sir John Chadwick to advise us as quickly as possible and we want to make sure that we can introduce a payment scheme and make payments as quickly as we have the evidence, but we are talking about spending taxpayers’ money, and we have to have regard for the public purse. We have to do the right thing in the right way, and we will do that as quickly as possible.