Equitable Life Progress

On Tuesday 15th March a further Commons consideration on Equitable Life took place with Fabian making a major contribution to the debate. Previously, Fabian has made major contributions to debates in the House regarding a just settlement for Equitable Life policyholders (details here). Specifically, this debate was on a government amendment to an opposition motion.

A final report on the saga will be published by Sir John Chadwick. The government has promised to respond within two weeks and it is expected that policyholders will receive some measure of compensation for their losses at Equitable Life. Fabian has been very conscious of the sad fact that about 15 policyholders die each day. They will never benefit directly themselves from the anticipated settlement but their estates will receive the money that was awarded to them.

To read the full debate on Hansard Click here.

Fabian's contributuion is shown below with the interventions from other MP's he accepted while he was speaking.

Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East) (Lab): We are here again to debate Equitable Life because we all have constituents who continue to suffer, as hon. Members have said throughout the debate. However, I am a little dismayed and disturbed that the issue is becoming a party political football, although I suppose that that is inevitable with a general election fast approaching. I remind all right hon. and hon. Members present for the debate-instigated, I accept, by the Opposition-that we are here today for one reason: to ensure that those who have suffered as a result of the Equitable Life scandal are properly compensated and that they stop suffering. For the 15 policyholders a day who are dying- 15 policyholders who will never see justice-we know that their estates are compensated, as I believe the Chief Secretary indicated, and as the Government amendment certainly indicates.

It is a real shame that the issue has become so partisan. I thank the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) very much for his kind remarks, but he said that the Government were trying to block, frustrate and delay the process. That might have been the case in the early days, and we all regret that. I certainly made it clear in my Adjournment debate last June that I regretted it, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, has done so too. However, we now have a process that perhaps many of us would not have wanted, but which is none the less approaching its conclusion. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made it clear that the Opposition would see that process through, should they win the general election.

We had an Opposition day debate on 21 October last year, to which the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) referred. My debate, which was an hour and a half-long debate in Westminster Hall, was held on 24 June last year. The all-party group on justice for Equitable Life policyholders held a meeting on 24 February -less than a month ago-which Sir John Chadwick was able to attend, thanks to a little pressure from me and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), co-chairman with me of the all-party group. Chadwick answered some questions-some Members got some answers-but I share the view that the hon. Member for Twickenham expressed, which is that the lack of independence of which EMAG has been so critical was quite evident in Sir John's remarks on 24 February. It was a shame indeed-we have already made our view clear-that the room was so inconvenient that not all Members who wanted to ask questions were able to do so. As hon. Members know, I have been very critical, but the aim of my criticism-I hope that this is the aim of everybody's criticism of the Government-is to improve the chances that those who have had justice denied as a result of what happened at Equitable Life will get that justice. That is what we are here to do, and we must not forget that.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but after 10 years of obfuscation and delay, which have caused mass injustice to so many people, is it not right that, as we approach a general election, people should be able to look at Labour's record on this issue and come to the same conclusion that we do, which is that if people want justice, they need to vote for a change? We have had 10 years of a failure of justice, and the hon. Gentleman has been honourable in pointing that out, but it is also worth pointing out that it is his party-the Government-who have carried out that injustice.

Mr. Hamilton: We now have a chance to put things right and do what we have not done so far. I think that that is finally happening on this side of the House, and that is why I want to see the Chadwick process completed. The question about timing that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris)-who has now left the Chamber-put to the Chief Secretary is critical. I thank the hon. Member for Fareham for his kind remarks about the work that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and I have been doing in the all-party group. I also commend the Chief Secretary on his openness. I think all Members will agree that he tried hard when he attended a meeting of the group. He listened to what we had to say, but it was clear that he was also attempting to make up for the years in which nothing had been done-although we should bear in mind that it took the ombudsman four years to complete her report.

I strongly support what the amendment says about compensation. It states that

"there is a strong case for policyholders who have passed away to be included in the scheme".

That point also arose when the Chief Secretary addressed the all-party group. However, one word is missing from the amendment. It ends with the words

"and recognises the impact and significant distress that maladministration and injustice have caused in respect of Equitable Life".

The missing word is "policyholders". We seem to be forgetting that individuals are involved, and we should not do so.

I thank EMAG because although-as the hon. Member for Twickenham reminded us-it has pulled away from the process following Sir John Chadwick's third interim report, it has constantly reminded every single Member that this is an issue for his or her constituents and is crucial to many of them. As I said during my Adjournment debate, EMAG told the Public Administration Committee that"the majority of Equitable Life's policyholders had modest sized pensions and were not 'fat cats' who 'risked their money to get above average returns'. In particular, the average investment of the half million individual policyholders amounted to £45,000 each, which in today's money would buy a pension paying around £75 per week".

That is why it is so important that EMAG continues to support, lobby, push and, ultimately, try to obtain justice.

 

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman has praised EMAG. Does he share its concern about the way in which the Chadwick process is evolving? That is underlined by its submissive language, which refers to

"what factors the Government may wish to take into account when considering which policyholders have experienced disproportionate impact".

That does not sound as directive as we would wish. We may end up with a process that will not lead to the quick resolution that we all seek.

Mr. Hamilton: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is wrong, and I hope that EMAG is wrong. I was about to say that I did not approve of EMAG's recent action in pulling away from the Chadwick process. I think that many Members share my belief that, however much we regret the fact that the Treasury introduced the process, the fact is that we have the process now and we must see it through to its conclusion. I believe that that is the only way in which we can secure the compensation that policyholders need and deserve as quickly as is humanly possible from this moment onwards, whatever has happened in the past.

Anne Main: I asked the Chief Secretary why there was not a parallel process of cleaning up the data, but I did not receive an answer. The hon. Gentleman praises the Chief Secretary for trying to put things right. Cleaning up the data would be a simple way of trying to put things right. A Labour Member-the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble)-asked whether the Treasury was liaising with the Department for Work and Pensions, but again there was no answer. There are more things that could be done. Let us be critical about this, in a cross-party way.

 

Mr. Hamilton: I entirely agree. I am not suggesting for a moment that everything that the Chief Secretary has done is perfect. The cleaning up of data was raised at the all-party group meeting, but we have not received a definitive answer, and we need one. I hope that we will be given that answer in the winding-up speech, because it is important that the data is cleaned up so that the people who need and deserve compensation receive it when we finally have a scheme. The issue today, however, is what resolution we secure in the House, what debate we engage in and what decisions we make will best achieve our common aim, which is to ensure that compensation is paid as rapidly as is humanly possible from this day forward. We have not yet had an answer on when the scheme will begin and end. The Chief Secretary made it clear that he could not answer that question until he had seen Sir John's final report, which is a great

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The hon. Gentleman says that we do not know when the Chief Secretary will be able to give an answer, but the Government's amendment contains a commitment that they will

 

"respond with details of a payment scheme within two weeks of receiving this advice",

and we are due to receive that advice at the end of May, are we not, whatever the failings of the process?

Mr. Hamilton: I apologise if the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the point I was trying to make. I am very pleased that the Government are committed to giving a response within two weeks, but my point is that we do not yet know when the payments will begin-indeed, we will not know that until they begin-or when they will be completed.

I recently met Chris Wiscarson, the new chief executive of Equitable Life, and I know that other Members have also met him. I thank him for his engagement with Parliament and hon. Members in order to ensure that, as leader of Equitable Life, he is focused on the policyholders and on trying to reduce his overheads and what he calls the bottom line-the expenses involved in running the organisation-to the absolute minimum, so that the maximum amount is available for policyholders. I commend him for that.

Turning to the Chadwick process, Sir John will give his final advice to the Government in May. He is looking into the details of 2 million policies, so he has to get this right. As we are dealing with about 2 million policies, the data must be clean. The Government said they will respond to Chadwick within two weeks of receiving his report, but a literal interpretation of the ombudsman's findings would mean excluding at the very least trapped annuitants, which-

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman's speech now. He was, perhaps, a little too generous in allowing interventions.