With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 2, page 1, line 7, at end insert-
'(2A) The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration shall report to Parliament on the implications for payments to which this section applies of the findings of the Independent Commission on Equitable Life Payments, no later than one month after the publication of such findings.'.
Amendment 7, page 1, line 7, at end insert-
'(2A) In determining the amount of the payments that it is appropriate for the Treasury to authorise under subsection (2), the Treasury must have regard to such matters relating to the adverse effects of that maladministration on those persons and the proper calculation of their resulting losses as have been determined by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to be relevant to and appropriate for that calculation.'.
I tabled my amendment because, although I am well aware that the Bill is an enabling measure, I feel strongly that a group of Equitable Life policyholders has been unfairly excluded from the compensation scheme that the Government have put in place. You will be pleased to know, Mr Evans, that I will not rehearse the entire history of the Equitable Life saga, because I do not think that we have the time this afternoon. However, to put my amendment into context, it might help right hon. and hon. Members if I remind them of some of the background to the case that I am about to put for the with-profits annuitants who took out their policies before 1992, for whom the Government's proposed scheme will not offer any compensation at all-in stark contrast to the post-1992 with-profits annuitants for whom 100% compensation is now proposed.
Founded in 1762 as a mutual insurance company based on the ideas of James Dodson, a fellow of the Royal Society and a man well ahead of his time, Equitable Life started selling pensions as early as 1913, but it was not until 1957 that the society started to sell its infamous guaranteed annuity rate, or GAR, pensions, which gave a clear and unambiguous return on capital invested depending on the age at which the policyholder decided to start taking the annuity. That was to carry on until 1988, at which point the society realised that its rates were so good and so far ahead of the rest of the market that they were unsustainable.
In December 2000, Equitable Life was forced to close to new business. By that time, it had more than 1.5 million members. In the last Parliament, the Select Committee on Public Administration said in its introduction to its December 2008 report:
"Over the last eight years many of those members and their families have suffered great anxiety as policy values were cut and pension payments reduced. Many are no longer alive, and will be unable to benefit personally from any compensation. We share both a deep sense of frustration and continuing outrage that the situation has remained unresolved for so long."
In June 2009, I introduced an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on Equitable Life following many complaints from constituents over the past few years. In my debate, I was critical of the then Labour Government-my own party's Government-and although I loyally and strongly supported almost all the previous Government's policies, I felt that we were wrong on this issue and should have done far more to implement the parliamentary ombudsman's full and damning report of July 2008 entitled "Equitable Life: a decade of regulatory failure". Needless to say, that did not make me very popular with my colleagues on the Front Bench at the time. My right hon. Friend Mr Byrne, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, tried his best at the end of the last Parliament to implement what I believe to have been a flawed exercise to bring in some sort of compensation scheme by employing Sir John Chadwick to design a system, but that took so long that it was overtaken by the general election in May.
The new coalition Government decided initially to continue the Chadwick process, to the disappointment of the Equitable Members Action Group. However, I must thank my right hon. Friend for his courtesy and the help that he tried to give me when he was Chief Secretary. He clearly understood the moral imperative that Parliament and the Government had to Equitable's policyholders, but his hands were tied and no compensation scheme was forthcoming under the previous Government. That was a great shame.
When Sir John Chadwick finally published his long-awaited report on
Any delight that surviving Equitable policyholders and I felt at the Chancellor's announcement was soon clouded by the details of the proposed compensation package. All the 37,000 post-1992 with-profits annuitants will eventually receive 100% compensation for their losses since then, but none of the estimated 10,000 pre-1992 with-profits annuitants will receive any compensation. Let me explain how my amendment goes to the heart of this issue.
I have no reluctance in paying tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his independence of thought and the campaign that he has waged on this issue. He has been not a lone voice, but one of very few Labour voices addressing the matter. On pre-992 annuitants, how on earth could one calculate what their losses might be as at that time, bearing in mind the fact that it is very likely that in the late 1980s and early 1990s bonus payments that were probably much larger than was warranted, given subsequent events, were added to their asset share? In other words, they might well already have been overcompensated.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I hope that in continuing my comments I shall answer his question.
I have long believed that the Equitable saga is a moral issue for us in Parliament. We sought, through the Financial Services Authority, to regulate financial institutions such as Equitable so that those who invested their valuable savings to ensure their future income were protected against fraud and maladministration. Our own ombudsman, Ann Abraham-she works for us-called the failure to regulate Equitable "catastrophic" and pointed to examples of savers encouraged to invest with that company long after it clearly could no longer meet its obligations.
If we as a nation want to encourage people to save and to provide for their retirement and old age, in addition to what they will receive in state pension, it is essential that the companies offering those savings products can be trusted and relied on. With hindsight, we can see that Equitable clearly could not deliver to the hundreds of thousands of investors who trusted it and those people have been badly let down as a result. We had an obligation to ensure that that could not happen and we now have an obligation-indeed, a duty-to ensure that those who have lost out are fairly compensated for all their losses. This matter is above crude party politics; it is an obligation to which 380 sitting MPs signed up before the last election when they put their names to EMAG's pledge. We must not let the policyholders down now.
Let me relate some heartbreaking cases that will illustrate better than I can just how people have suffered as a result of Equitable's failure. One of my constituents, Mrs B of Leeds, has written:
"I signed for my With Profits Annuity in March 1991, investing £57,000. I am really suffering just now with my husband now being disabled and I am still trying to work four days a week to make ends meet. I receive only £141 a month from Equitable and it will continue to reduce. Surely all With Profits Annuitants should be included in the compensation! Have I been harbouring false hopes all these months? If so, there does not seem any point in my continuing to write to my MP or the Prime Minister."
Another policyholder, Mr D, who is not a constituent of mine as far as I am aware but will be a constituent of somebody in the House, writes:
"In his letter of
Fortunately Paul Braithwaite [the Secretary of EMAG] perceived from the first what was going on and has placed the matter of the treatment of the pre-September 1992 WPAs at the top of the agenda for a judicial review. However"- this is the crux of what Mr D says-
"I think our MPs are fair minded enough to perceive for themselves how unjust the proposed action of the Government is. I am writing to my MP straight away."
Whoever that might be should look out for the letter.
Once an annuity has been purchased it cannot be sold or changed, so the with-profits annuitants who took out annuities before the September 1992 cut-off date are trapped.
I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work. It has been a pleasure to work with him on this issue and I support his amendment. In a nutshell, on the moral case, the parliamentary ombudsman and Sir John Chadwick both said in writing in advance that all the annuitants should be treated equally and that these annuitants should not be excluded, not least because they are the oldest and most frail.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the work I have done but, as the Committee will know, he is the secretary of the all-party group on justice for Equitable Life policyholders, and I thank him for his efforts in this regard. He is absolutely right: Sir John Chadwick did say that, as I shall mention later.
The with-profits annuitants who took out annuities before the September 1992 cut-off date are as trapped as those who purchased them after that date and their incomes diminish each year. Having taken out policies that they believed would allow them to make ends meet in old age, they now face increasing poverty because Parliament did not act soon enough to prevent the collapse of Equitable. That is why we owe them the compensation that they deserve as much as the post-1992 with-profits annuitants.
What is so important about September 1992? Let me give further reasons why this is an artificial and unfair cut-off date, which I seek to stop with my amendment. First, annuities could not be exchanged once bought, so every annuitant has suffered from the consequences of regulatory failure irrespective of when their annuity was taken out or what extra bonuses were added. The cut-off date ignores the views of the parliamentary ombudsman, Ann Abraham, and Lord Chadwick in their reports. Even Chadwick, who came up with a much smaller overall compensation package than the £1.5 billion now on the table, agreed that the pre-1992 with-profits annuitants should not be excluded, as Jonathan Evans pointed out.
It is said that because of the changes to the computer system, Equitable's records prior to late 1992 were not available, but the current chief executive of Equitable, Chris Wiscarson, who has been extremely helpful, has previously stated that this is a problem that could be surmounted. The parliamentary ombudsman has previously made it clear that nobody would sensibly have invested in Equitable after
It seems clear to me that anybody who took out a policy between July 1991 and September 1992 is being unfairly penalised simply because of a change in Equitable's computer system. This is exacerbated by the fact that policies brought out in this period had the longest exposure to the adverse effects of maladministration. The coalition Government gave a commitment to
"implement the Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman's recommendation to make fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policy holders, through an independent payment scheme, for their relative loss as a consequence of regulatory failure."
My amendment would ensure that this commitment could be carried out properly and at a relatively small additional cost.
Let me be clear. I am not recommending that we take some of the compensation from the 37,000 who have already been promised 100% compensation, which amounts to about 50% of the total offered by the Government. I am suggesting that we bring forward the £100 million of the total package that was proposed to be given in the next Parliament, and that we add to that a further £100 million from current, albeit limited, reserves.
As I said earlier, I believe that this is a moral obligation and that Equitable pensioners are looking to us, their recently elected representatives in this Parliament, for justice, which is why I intend to press the amendment to a vote so that there can be no discrimination between with-profit annuitants according to when they purchased those annuities.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there might be more support for the amendment if it did not incur further cost to the taxpayer, bearing in mind the current severe financial constraints?
Yes, of course the amendment would attract far more support if there was a net zero cost. However, this is an important moral issue. Many of my hon. Friends and other Members know my views, for example, on the Trident replacement, which I know has now been shelved for a while, and on various schemes that take a huge amount of capital expenditure. The sum that we are discussing now is relatively small. I believe there are other savings that may be made, particularly in defence spending, which could pay for this.
That is a decision that the Government and the two parties that make up the coalition will have to grapple with, but I believe that the policyholders look to us to ensure that the justice they have been promised is delivered. It is a moral obligation, and it overrides many of the other areas of expenditure to which any Government are committed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is a moral case to compensate anybody, there must be a moral case to compensate everybody, and not leave some people out because of some mess-up over a computer system?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. He is right. It is galling when the very vulnerable and frail pensioners who are the ones suffering most because they are the pre-1992 with-profits annuitants look, for example, to the quite correct compensation given to Icesave investors of up to £50,000 per investor, and to some of the other compensation schemes in which the Government have been involved over the years, and find that they, who might not have much longer to live, are going to be without compensation at all.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being extremely generous in giving way. I fully accept the moral argument that he is putting forward. That is why I was a signatory to the pledge as well. In response to the question I asked earlier, he certainly has a point about taking back the date to 1991. His amendment, though, would go back well before that, but he has not made the argument for going beyond 1991. My second question was how he would compute the compensation. That must be a central question, and in his argument so far I have not heard an answer to that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. First, there would be relatively few annuitants from further back in time. Clearly, a person who retired in 1981 or 1985 would be getting on a bit in years now, so only a small number of people would be involved. Secondly, Equitable must have records showing what bonuses were paid at different times.
The further back the scheme goes before 1991, the fewer annuitants there will be who demand or need that compensation, but the need will be greater because of the frailty and the loss in the value of those annuities since then. Since 1991, those annuitants, even though they may have had bonuses before that, continue to see a decline because of the maladministration, which affects them as much as it affects post-1992 annuitants. I hope I have at least partly answered the hon. Gentleman's point.
Actuaries are sometimes disdainfully referred to as people who found accountancy too exciting, but surely a good actuary would be able to calculate the sums in question, whether for pre-1991 or post-1991 annuitants.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that very good point. We are talking about many hundreds of thousands of policyholders throughout the United Kingdom, but we know that there are about 37,000 or so post-1992 with-profits annuitants. We think there are about 10,000 pre-1992 such annuitants, but the further back we go the fewer there will be, so if it was a difficult, time-consuming exercise to work out relative losses for all policyholders, which it certainly was, which is why Sir John Chadwick was engaged, it will surely be a much easier exercise for the far fewer people who are with-profits annuitants prior to 1991. My hon. Friend's point goes some way to answering the question.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. This has been a long-standing issue, and perhaps he can help some of us who are new to the House. He mentioned a total of £100 million from subsequent years' Budgets, plus £100 million from reserves to be allocated to pre-1992 annuitants who are not covered in the proposals. Is the hon. Gentleman making an estimate, or is that sum firm is in his mind? That is a key issue. The concerns expressed about computer records do not stand up against a point of principle, but it is important that we have a sense of how firm and solid the hon. Gentleman's understanding is of the sums that might need to be paid.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I cannot give him a precise answer. The figures that I have quoted are estimates I obtained from the Equitable Members Action Group, which has quite a lot of good people working for it-people who have been in the financial services industry. I go on their expertise. This is the best estimate that we can gain.
The reality is that many of the annuitants are quite elderly. It is unlikely that in five years we will have the same number we have now. We already know, for example, that 15 policyholders throughout the entire spectrum of Equitable policyholders have died every single day since the disaster happened. We can therefore assume, unfortunately, that more will no longer be with us in the years to come, so the amount of money will be a diminishing sum. The best estimate that we can gain is £200 million, and that estimate comes from EMAG.
Can the hon. Gentleman clarify that last point? Obviously, since our last debate on the subject in the Chamber way back in July, some people have passed away. Is there any provision in the amendment for the next of kin to take advantage, in the absence of those who have passed on?
That is a good point, and it was made during the previous Parliament, in February, at a packed meeting with the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, and Sir John Chadwick. My right hon. Friend made a commitment, which I am not sure the Financial Secretary has made, so perhaps he will clarify the situation in his contribution, that the estates of those who had passed away would receive some compensation. The point that I have just made may be contradicted, but it depends on what the Financial Secretary and the Treasury want to do.
Before the hon. Gentleman continues, let me just make it clear that long ago we established the fact that, under any compensation scheme designed, we would make payments to those who had deceased, and that there would be no means-testing.
I thank the Financial Secretary for clarifying that point, which somewhat contradicts what I said earlier about the diminishing amount of money.
The best estimate that EMAG can give us is £200 million for the 10,000 existing pre-1992 annuitants. I confirm that I wish to press my amendment to a vote, and simply conclude that we owe some of our most frail and vulnerable pensioners no less. I urge all Members to support my amendment.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this debate, but may I begin by declaring an interest? I am the chairman of a life insurance company, but I have no connection whatever with Equitable Life, financial or otherwise.
Mr Hamilton, alongside very many Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members prior to the election, fought very hard to put forward the cause of Equitable Life policyholders, and I am pleased and proud of the position that my colleagues and the Minister adopted. Many of us, in the lead-up to the election campaign, signed a pledge to seek to put into operation a number of factors. The first was the recognition of all the individual provisions that the parliamentary ombudsman put forward. The hon. Gentleman will know that the previous Government only partially accepted the ombudsman's report, and I am very pleased, and proud of the fact that the Minister fully accepted all its points. I rather wish that EMAG had been a little more generous in its praise of him for having done so.
Secondly, the compensation that has been put forward will come as a disappointment to some, but the ombudsman made it clear that we had to take account of pressures on the public purse at the time. When we heard Sir John Chadwick's proposals, there was virtual unanimity among those newly elected Government Members that £400 million was completely and utterly inadequate. I thought that the Government might put the figure up to about £1 billion and hope for the best, but we ended up with £1.5 billion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we would not be in this situation, or have to have this conversation, if it had not been for the delay imposed by the previous Government?
That is true, and the record of the outgoing Labour Government in that regard is inglorious, but I do not want to be partisan. In essence, Equitable Life policyholders do not want us endlessly to bash the Opposition; they want to know which way we can go forward. So I shall turn my remarks to the specific points made by the hon. Member for Leeds North East. He made a good moral case for not excluding people who ought properly to be included in the category to whom compensation could be paid, but, as I suggested in my intervention on him, some factors cause me some concern.
First, the hon. Gentleman referred to the elderly pensioner who had put in £57,000 and now receives a very low monthly figure. I certainly share his concern about that, but, if we were to unpick financial arrangements going back to the 1980s, we would have to consider the difficulty that arose from the fact that Equitable Life gave guaranteed annuity rates to some of its policyholders and, at the same time, record bonus rates to those people who did not have those guarantees. In reality, Equitable Life was building its business on the basis of becoming a market leader in the bonuses that it granted-even to the point where the parliamentary authorities recommended that all hon. Members making additional voluntary contributions should make use of Equitable Life because of its market-leading rates.
We know now that those rates were deceptive, but during the 1980s those rates were paid and those bonuses added to the asset pool being put together. Therefore, it cannot be gainsaid that, certainly by 1990, most people with an asset share in an Equitable Life policy probably had an amount that was well beyond what was appropriate for the investment that they had made. In other words, they were over-supplied with bonuses during that period.
I have taken part in a number of these debates during my short period as a Member, and, unlike some hon. Members, I am not reluctant to praise the Minister. However, in my constituency surgery last Friday I saw an 80-year-old gentleman who accepts the points that my hon. Friend now makes, but makes the point himself that the pre-1992 group are still trapped and unable to take any action. Had they been able to take some action to mitigate or ameliorate their circumstances, they would have done so. My hon. Friend the Minister has done a great job in moving the issue forward so quickly, but I hope that he will at least listen to the concerns of the pre-1992 annuitants.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution. He approaches the issue with significant expertise, so he will know that, if we are to achieve justice, it is not just a question of treating all those pre-1992 policyholders in the same way as everybody after 1992. One would go back and assess the pre-1992 annuitants' asset share to see whether they were paid 105%, 110%, 120% or 140% of asset share; and one would correct that, so that the pre-1992 and post-1992 annuitants were dealt with in a balanced way. The danger with the proposed approach is that there will not be that balance. It is already clear, from the question asked by my hon. Friend Richard Fuller, that we do not have a basis for the figure of £200 million; it is a wet finger in the air in order to assess the situation.
The second factor that causes me significant concern is the lack of available actuarial information. I share all the concerns about the Chadwick process, and, although Sir John might have made an observation about the pre-1992 annuitants, he did not compute their liabilities. The danger, therefore, of being seduced by the strong arguments of the hon. Member for Leeds North East, is that we would enter into an open-ended commitment and have great difficulty realising its objective. During the debate, however, he has made a good case on behalf of those annuitants who go back to 1991. We should remember the judgment made by the ombudsman and her terms of reference. Most of the inquiries started looking at the period from 1999 onwards, but most of the condemnation about regulatory failure goes back to events prior to 1991. It is important that the Committee should take that factor into account when invited to say that compensation should be granted going back very many years before that.
In wishing you a happy birthday, Mr Evans, let me say that I do not have any registrable financial interests in the matter under debate. However, I want to place on record that 18 months ago, some while before I was returned to the House, I was occasionally commissioned to give advice and training on parliamentary and public policy matters, and on one occasion, I undertook a day's work for a company whose clients included the former chief executive of Equitable Life; by then, of course, its fund had been closed for many years. I thought it important to disclose that encounter for the avoidance of any doubt. Although I had a day's work indirectly related to Equitable Life some time before coming into Parliament, I have not had any financial or policy discussions on the matter subsequently.
I have held this brief for a couple of weeks, and it has been an extremely steep learning curve of reviewing history and policy that dates back well over 25 years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East said. I was struck by the opening words of the House of Commons Library background note to the Bill:
"Describing the Equitable Life (Payments) Bill as the tip of an iceberg would be harsh on icebergs: at least they have 10% or so of their bulk above the water line. The Bill is but a tiny atoll below which lies the immense bulk of the Equitable Life tragedy."
In general, I intend to be as supportive as I can of the Bill, as it is a positive step forward in the attempts to rectify a long and sorry saga. The amendment simply seeks to encourage the parliamentary ombudsman to
"report to Parliament on the implications for payments...of the findings of the Independent Commission on Equitable Life Payments, no later than one month after the publication of such findings."
I do not want to go through the entire background that has brought us to this Committee stage today. By my count, eight separate inquiries, and possibly more, have done that, and there are conflicting and sometimes contradictory findings and accounts of what happened in the past and who should be responsible for rectifying the situation for policyholders. However, we know that in the spending review the Government accepted the ombudsman's approach to maladministration and, more relevantly to this debate, to the framework for a compensation package. The Government say that they want to honour the interpretation of the ombudsman's second report in full. That is their choice. There are clearly arguments in favour of that approach, as well as against it.
The Minister now places great emphasis-although it could be argued that he did so to a lesser degree before the general election, when there were a lot of loud campaigns on signing up to the EMAG pledge-on it being appropriate to consider the potential impact on the public purse of any payments of compensation in this case, as the ombudsman has said. The Treasury has concluded that it will initially focus on total relative loss as the basis for its payments and will cover those losses in full for post-1992 with-profits annuitants, to the tune of some £620 million. Some 37,000 individuals will be involved in that. That means that that group of with-profits annuitants will receive compensation equivalent to that which they would have gained had they invested in companies other than Equitable Life. However, because of the cap of about £1.5 billion that the Treasury is placing on the total payouts, the other 1 million or so policyholders, including annuitants with older policies-I presume, although I may be wrong about that-will have to have their compensation for relative loss adjusted to fit within the envelope available.
The Independent Commission on Equitable Life Payments, which is chaired by Brian Pomeroy, has been set up by the Minister to advise on the allocation of compensation to policyholders other than those with-profits annuitants, who will be getting 100% compensation. I am conscious of the words of Sir John Chadwick when I think through the technical challenge of administering a compensation payment scheme; it is important that its design and delivery are clear and efficient. I hope that we are not on the brink of a further failure that compounds the problems of the majority of policyholders by opting for a compensation scheme that could be so complex and opaque that it might risk grinding to a halt. We need a scheme that works in practice.
If the Minister is opting for the ombudsman's approach-as I say, that is the Government's choice-there are questions that need to be answered, and I would be grateful if he could reflect on those when he makes his comments. First, exactly how will the apportionment of the relative loss figures for other policyholders not receiving 100% compensation be calculated under the ombudsman's approach, if we will not be following the Chadwick methodology given the Government's acceptance of all 10 findings by the ombudsman?
Secondly, will the other policyholders-the vast majority-be classified into broad categories or subject to individual assessment of their cases? Will there be any burden of proof requirement on the other policyholders in the assessment of their relative loss, or is it likely that the compensation scheme will have some assumed automaticity in all cases? I ask that only because the ombudsman's findings of loss are very specifically linked to a policyholder's reliance on the regulatory return data. She said:
"I find that injustice was sustained by any policyholder who relied on information contained in the society's returns between 1990 and 1996."
I am trying to get a sense of precisely how that process will work.
Thirdly, how will the payment scheme take into account all the other maladministration factors for other policyholders that Sir John Chadwick's methodology would not have covered, if we are following a classification scheme?
Whatever compensation scheme the independent commission eventually alights upon, it is an important starting point to establish that it is consistent with the Minister's intentions-in other words, that it encompasses all the parliamentary ombudsman's conclusions. I gather that there are moves afoot by the Public Administration Committee to interpret whether the ombudsman's model aligns with the payment scheme that eventually emerges. That might be a good idea, but perhaps it is a little circuitous. It would be far better, in my view, to give the ombudsman directly the right and the opportunity to say publicly whether the payment scheme is indeed in keeping with the spirit of her own findings. She could then say whether the total relative loss figures are accurate and whether the compensation scheme is fair, particularly given the controversy over the dates and whether some people will or will not be included in the 100% compensation for with-profits annuitants. The purpose of our amendment is simply to give voice to the ombudsman so that she can confirm her view.
It is worth noting at this stage that, far from granting the wishes of the Equitable Life policyholders regarding everything they wanted, the main pressure group formed to speak for their interests, EMAG, is angry and perplexed at the nature of the compensation scheme envisaged by Ministers and the constraints placed on the independent payments commission. EMAG says on its website:
"The independent Commission's recently torn up terms of reference have not at this date"- this was a week after the announcement in the spending review-
"yet been replaced."
It says that the Minister's letter of
"makes clear that retrospectively the remit will now totally exclude" the full class of with-profits annuitants. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East alluded to that point. EMAG continues:
"So its remit now is to divvy up £775m between 600,000 and to suggest the prioritisation. This surely cannot be what the Parliamentary Ombudsman had in mind as the role for the independent Commission?"
Given this question mark over the parliamentary ombudsman's intentions, we felt it important to table the amendment to try to give voice to that.
There is doubt about whether the compensation arrangements are as much in alignment with the ombudsman's approach as the Financial Secretary would like to argue, and I hope that our amendment will give the ombudsman a chance swiftly to comment on the calibre of the scheme and clarify once and for all whether it fits with her approach. We believe that that can be done quickly, and there seems to us to be no reason why it could not happen within one month of the publication of the scheme's proposals. There would not be any reason to delay payments, and it would aid transparency and confirm whether the Government's arrangements via the commission's payment scheme were the same as those envisaged by the ombudsman. Although amendment 2 may be a belt-and-braces approach, at this stage of the saga we need some cast-iron assurances all round.
I have been debating Equitable Life in the House ever since I was first elected, and I well remember endless debates in the two previous Parliaments in which I was joined by Conservative Members in trying to get the Labour Government to take action. I recognise that some Labour Members also pushed their own Government for action. It was a long battle, and frankly we did not get very far.
When the new Government were formed, I cannot say I had any great enthusiasm for the thought of the coalition, but I did at least think that perhaps we could get an end to this saga, which had brought so much unfairness to so many people throughout the country, many of them elderly.
One difficulty has always been what the final compensation bill should be. It is easy to get lost in figures, as they range from Chadwick's £500 million up to EMAG's latest figure of more than £6 billion, but the generally accepted figure seems to be in the region of £4.6 billion. The Government have set a figure of £1.5 billion, which is about a third of that generally accepted figure. I understand their reasoning that that is all that can be afforded, but sorting out Equitable Life could have been one of their great early achievements. It is being undermined by arbitrary decisions, the worst of which is the overall cap on the amount. Rather than an independent commission considering the matter and recommending a figure, a figure has been put in place and all the independent commission can do is decide how it is divided among policyholders.
As I mentioned in my contribution, about half the overall £1.5 billion package will be consumed by the 100% compensation for the 37,000 post-1992 with-profits annuitants. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the remaining balance will provide a considerably smaller sum in the pound to the rest of the policyholders?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I understand that the figure quoted by EMAG is about 15% of their loss, which is a very small amount for people who have suffered.
What could have been a very good outcome seems to have been undermined by arbitrary decisions. I hope that the Financial Secretary will explain the rationale behind excluding the 10,000 pre-1992 annuitants from compensation altogether. I do not understand the logic of that. I do not see any suggestion that it should be done in the ombudsman's recommendations.
I have said in previous debates that it is important that this Parliament supports its independent ombudsman, and there seems to have been a major deviation from what the ombudsman recommended. Jonathan Evans made some interesting and relevant points about how compensation for pre-1992 annuitants should be calculated, which is undoubtedly a difficulty. I am not an actuary and cannot give him the answer to that, but I do not think it is beyond the wit of man-or even an actuary-to work out a figure.
Ultimately, this is a matter of principle. I raised that point on Second Reading. We are dealing with a situation in which many thousands of our fellow citizens have lost out through maladministration. The Government are ultimately responsible for that maladministration-the previous Government, not the present one, but they are the heirs to that. We should not accept the principle that the Government can say, "Okay, there has been maladministration. We are responsible, but we will set a cap on how much compensation we give and then arbitrarily decide which of the group who have suffered will be compensated." That is a very bad principle. In no other case in which there has been loss and there is liability would anyone be entitled to say, "I'm only paying a proportion of that. That's all I can afford." The Government should not go down that route.
I believe that we will debate an amendment later to set up a totally independent organisation to consider the matter. We need that to be done independently, not with a cap and not with some people arbitrarily excluded. We will support amendment 1 if it is pressed, because it is only reasonable. We have to right what has been a terrible injustice going back well over a decade.
I shall speak very briefly in support of all three amendments in this group-those tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North East (Mr Hamilton) and for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), and even the one that I have tabled.
As drafted, the Bill leaves practically everything to the discretion of the Treasury, which I find objectionable. I remind the Committee of what Winston Churchill said about people at the Treasury-that they were
"like inverted Micawbers, waiting for something to turn down".
The chance of their coming to any generous conclusion for people who suffered in the Equitable Life scandal is very small. The courts have held that bodies given discretion are not allowed to fetter their own discretion. It is therefore necessary for the House to fetter the discretion of the Treasury.
I strongly support the view that we should not allow a situation in which the most elderly people will be excluded from compensation. In view of the fact that everyone places so much weight on the ombudsman's contribution, I strongly support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East, which suggests that we should give her a further look at what is being proposed. It will be preposterous if, in trying to do what the ombudsman wants, we end up doing something that she thinks is unsatisfactory and inadequate. The reasoning behind the amendment in my name is the same.
I do not wish to say any more, but the House should do its proper job of telling the Treasury what the rules should be when it considers the matter. I am not getting at Ministers; I am getting at the Treasury as an organisation. It does not have a good record, and ethics and decency are not major considerations for it. They never have been, and perhaps they should not be its major considerations, but we should bear them in mind, so that we can bear down upon the Treasury.
I have taken a very keen interest in this issue. It has affected a significant number of people in Stratford-on-Avon, to the extent that I have had hundreds of letters and e-mails about it. Like many other Members, I signed the EMAG pledge before the election, and I believe that backing the Government to get the Bill through is delivering on that pledge.
It is probably worth our spending just a few moments thinking about the economic landscape in which we are operating. We are borrowing about £500 million a day. Every time we go to sleep and wake up in the morning, we notch up another £500 million. To service the debt costs about £120 million a day-that is not to pay it down, but just to stand still. It is against that background that we must try to resolve the tragedy of Equitable Life.
Let me spend a couple of minutes on the timelines of the events. In 1988, Equitable Life stopped selling its guaranteed annuity rate policies and, in 1990, those policies became too expensive to honour because of the falls in interest rates and in inflation. In 1999, after the 1997 election, Equitable cut its bonus paid to 90,000 GAR policyholders. In July 2000, the House of Lords ruled that Equitable Life must meet its obligations to its GAR policyholders, thus leaving it with a £1.5 billion liability.
In February 2001, the Halifax agreed to pay £1 billion for the assets. In July, with- profits policyholders saw the value of their savings slashed by 16%-by almost one fifth. In August, Lord Penrose announced his investigation. In October, the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury told the Treasury Committee that the previous Labour Government might consider compensation for some victims if a grave injustice had occurred.
In January 2002, policyholders backed a compromise package. In March 2004, the Penrose report blamed Equitable Life's management for the whole affair. Following the report's publication, the Government ruled out compensation and were accused in this House of abandoning policyholders. In April, the parliamentary ombudsman announced that she would reopen her investigation.
In 2007, the European Parliament called on the UK Government to compensate policyholders. In January 2008, Equitable agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to 407 with-profits annuitants who launched proceedings in 2004. The ombudsman's report was published in 2008. The previous Government said that they would respond by the autumn. When the deadline was missed, the then Prime Minister said that they would respond before Christmas. However, they did not respond until the new year.
In August 2009, Sir John Chadwick published his first interim report, and in March 2010-more than a year after his appointment-he published his third and final interim report with a promise of a final report in May 2010. That date was subsequently extended to July.
I go through these events in chronological order to demonstrate the pain that the victims of Equitable Life have had to go through. This is a true human tragedy. The hon. Member for Leeds North East talked about the e-mails and letters that he has received from his constituents, and the same is happening in all our constituencies.
The Government's offer is a very good one. My hon. Friend Jonathan Evans said that, at best, he expected them to offer up to £1 billion. Many colleagues and I voiced our concerns the last time we debated this matter in the Chamber. When one makes a pledge, one must try to honour it.
Like many of us, my hon. Friend is wrestling with this question of fairness and with the political obligation to find a fair payment scheme that was mentioned in the Public Administration Committee and that many of us have signed up to. Hon. Members from both sides of the Committee are caught between wanting to praise the Minister for the swiftness of his recommendations-and we praise him for that-and finding, in these difficult times, £1.5 billion. We often talk about that figure in comparison with the Chadwick number. However, does my hon. Friend not accept that we should view the figure with respect to what the Government themselves have said about policyholders' relative loss, which Towers Watson estimated at, I think, £4.3 billion? Does £1.5 billion represent meeting our obligation of fairness if it is set against the relative figure of £4.3 billion that the Government themselves have accepted?
My hon. Friend is quite right: the figure is £4.3 billion. I, too, have wrestled with the problem. In the current economic climate, offering £1.5 billion to the victims is fair and it delivers on the promise that many of us have signed up to. I hope that many colleagues will support the Government to expedite the process and finally get money flowing to the victims, which we hope will happen by the middle of next year. The figure of £1.5 billion is about four times higher than the £340 million that victims would have received if the coalition Government had accepted the Chadwick report, which is what we feared would happen. I am very comfortable with the sum being offered.
I accept my hon. Friend's premise that the amount is considerably higher than the previous Government proposed. I also accept that we are in a desperate situation in which we are paying £120 million a day to service a debt. That is outrageous and clearly we must focus on that. However, a way around the challenge is the one that I have presented to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, which is to urge the Treasury to revisit the matter in five years' time for the second tranche of the £500 million. By then, the economy will be transformed and we will be in a stronger position. Does my hon. Friend not agree that while the £1.5 billion seems a very generous sum at the minute, a little flexibility from the Treasury means that the further £500 million could be revisited in five years' time?
The First Deputy Chairman:
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds to that intervention, may I remind Members that interventions should be short and that this is not a Second or Third Reading debate? We are speaking to the amendments that are before us and if we focus on them, we will make quicker progress.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. However, having listed that extraordinary chronology of debacles, it is clear that there could be a problem if we left things open and said, "We might be able to revisit them at some other stage". We would be opening up other doors, and that may cause further delay. I come from a world of business rather than of politics and I believe that, if we try to put a line under a terrible situation and compensate people, we should do it quickly and completely.
Mr Evans, I take on board your remarks. All I will say is that the Minister should be applauded. There will be no means-testing and the dependants of the deceased policyholders should be included in any compensation. I have had a number of heartrending letters in which relatives have written, saying, "It is too late for us because our loved ones have passed away."
I understand the passion that the hon. Member for Leeds North East has shown through amendment 1. The problem with the amendment was outlined by my hon. Friend Jonathan Evans, who said that it was very difficult to put a quantum on what that number should be. In the current economic climate, I would find it hard to support it if we said, "Oh well, maybe it is £100 million extra from reserves; maybe it's £100 million that we can bring in from future years." None the less, the hon. Gentleman made a strong point about the annuitants from 1991 going forward, and I hope that the Minister was listening carefully.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that creating an arbitrary date-which is what the cut-off point would be-would lead to a great deal of anger and distress among some of the oldest and most vulnerable policyholders?
The hon. Gentleman would be right if the date were purely arbitrary. However, the ombudsman stated that the malpractice occurred in 1991, so the date is not quite as the hon. Gentleman puts it. It has not been plucked out of the air.
Leaving aside the economic difficulties that we face, is not the central problem that when we put a cap on something, we have to make it work? Therefore, we have to arrive at a certain formula to make the cap work, because we are largely in the hands of the Treasury, as my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson said earlier. Unless we get a grip on the Treasury, we will find ourselves in similar situations, and it is my guess that the Treasury has imposed the cap.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. What I would say is that, in contrast to the quotation from Winston Churchill earlier, my observation as a new boy to this House over the past six months is that the Treasury has behaved positively. We must remember that we will be administering public money. The Government have no money of their own; rather, we collect money on behalf of the people and then we administer it. It would be foolhardy and perhaps even foolish for us to say, "Let's have somebody else administer public money." At the end of the day, people have to have someone who is accountable, and we are accountable, as is the Treasury.
Amendment 7 seeks to ensure that the Treasury takes into account a proper evaluation of the total relative losses when determining payments-that is, the figure should not be £4.3 billion, but could be much higher. I strongly disagree with that. Many EMAG members have written to me, lobbying me to see the matter differently, but I have to say that I disagree. Given the current economic hardship, we all face an incredibly difficult situation, in which we are all having to tighten our belts. To deliver compensation of £1.5 billion at this time is entirely fair.
Amendment 2 is in the name of the hon. Member for Leeds North East and all I would say to him is that I understand the thrust of his argument that we should consider what the ombudsman says about the behaviour and actions of the coalition Government in dealing with the issue. However, I would rather get things done and dusted, and have something delivered to the victims than procrastinate further and wait for longer.
I can fully appreciate what Nadhim Zahawi said about the Government's proposals being clearly better than what the previous Government did. Frankly, that is not a very hard test to pass. The real test for us in this Committee is surely not whether what we have from this Government is better than what we had from the previous Government. It clearly is better. Rather, we as a Committee have to see whether it is as good as what is set out in the parliamentary ombudsman's findings and recommendations.
Just to offer some explanation, what the Government have delivered is not just better than what the previous Government were thinking about-or dithering about-trying to deliver. I also believe that there was a point in this Parliament when the coalition Government were seriously considering implementing only what Chadwick had recommended, but we have moved away from that. We have buried that, and we are now in a much better place for the victims of Equitable Life.
My point still stands: the test is a fairly easy one. The Chadwick report was so grossly inadequate as not to be a credible starting point for any Government. Many of us said that to the previous Government, including Mr Hamilton-very bravely, loudly and consistently-and many of us have said it to this Government as well.
For us as Members of the Houses of Parliament, the test that many people will apply is: what regard do we have to the findings and recommendations of the parliamentary ombudsman? As Mr Weir stressed earlier, the public understand the parliamentary ombudsman to be a creature of Parliament and to have some weight and merit in Parliament's considerations. However, the previous Government acted pretty dismissively towards the ombudsman. What we have in some of the amendments before us is an attempt to show clearly that this House will give proper weight to what the parliamentary ombudsman is saying.
We all received a letter from the parliamentary ombudsman about some of the Government's proposals. Given that, is it wrong that we should reference the judgment of the parliamentary ombudsman-as Chris Leslie is suggesting we do with amendment 2-perhaps as a way of moving on from the scandal and confusion that many feel surrounds the fact that the ombudsman was largely ignored by the Government and, in effect, by Parliament for so long?
I am anxious to ensure that the hon. Gentleman does not undersell what the Minister has done. The hon. Gentleman will recall that every aspect of the parliamentary ombudsman's report has been accepted by the Government and that, furthermore, the report said that whatever the overall compensation package should be, it had to take account of the impact on the public purse. Many of us on the Government Benches think that those are the two crucial tests.
That is what the hon. Gentleman is arguing. However, given that the money that we are talking about has been capped according to the Treasury's judgment of what it believes is available-that means that the overall sum to be offered by way of remedy and redress will be a long way short of what all the other assessments say-I believe that it would useful for the Committee to accept an amendment that would allow us to ensure that the parliamentary ombudsman has some say in overseeing the measures. Under the circumstances, that is fair and reasonable, but if the hon. Gentleman is so content that the scheme as it stands meets everything that the ombudsman has said, he should see such an amendment as adding no particular stress or difficulty for the scheme. Such an amendment would be a way of offering public assurance after all the doubts that have been raised about how Government and Parliament have dealt with the issue.
Does the hon. Gentleman not also agree that at no time did the ombudsman suggest that any group of annuitants should be debarred from receiving compensation, as is now being proposed?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which quite properly brings me to amendment 1.
What a trailer for Third Reading! We will all be waiting.
On amendment 1, the hon. Member for Leeds North East set out a compelling case for why it is not just the cap, but the cut-off that we need to be seen to address. We have seen in the past how dates set for various reasons have ended up creating unfair and unforeseen consequences that Parliament did not truly intend. That certainly happened with dates for schemes in previous pension Bills, for reasons that seemed reasonable and understandable to the House at the time. We are now struggling with the consequences that were never intended. We must be wary about such cut-offs.
The arguments from the hon. Member for Cardiff North about amendment 1 had some validity. I suggest that some of the answers may be found in amendment 7, which was tabled by Frank Dobson. The hon. Member for Cardiff North said that it might be harder for some pre-1991 annuitants to make the case that some of their losses were directly due to maladministration and that the nature, degree and pattern of maladministration was more obvious and accentuated after that. If so, amendment 7 would allow account to be taken of that, because it states:
"In determining the amount of the payments that it is appropriate for the Treasury to authorise under subsection (2), the Treasury must have regard to such matters relating to the adverse effects of that maladministration on those persons and the proper calculation of their resulting losses as have been determined by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to be relevant to and appropriate for that calculation."
Amendment 7 would cut both ways. It would be an assurance that the loss suffered because of maladministration is duly reflected, and it could be used the other way because if it can be shown that some of the people who would be brought into the scheme by virtue of amendment 1 had not suffered because of maladministration, due weight could be given to that. Equally, the pre-1991 undue profits issue-some people went for market glister rather than reliable long-term worth-would not be precluded from being properly addressed and balanced. We all want to achieve an adequate compensation scheme.
I shall support amendment 1 if it is pressed to a vote, and I commend amendments 2 and 7. Together, they would go some way to improving the Bill. They would also go some way to improving Parliament's reputation at a time when people have been so disappointed and frustrated by how long this problem has been allowed to run on. I welcome the Minister's assurances, which he made in an intervention, that the interests of the dependants of those who have died will also be properly addressed.
It is not enough to say, "Well, this is great; we now have something that is better than Chadwick. We now have something that is better than the previous Government's proposals." People were deeply distressed by the previous Government's long inertia and indifference, but they are not hugely impressed by urgent inadequacy. The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that we do not make errors through urgent inadequacy.
I pay tribute to the hon. Members who have spoken to the amendments. I praise our Treasury team, who have done a magnificent job of righting the wrong that was done to Equitable Life policyholders over many years. Opposition Members-there are some exceptions-should hang their heads in shame because of what they did when in government to Equitable Life policyholders. I came to the issue of the damage to policyholders rather late in the process-shortly before the general election. Like others, I was encouraged by my former employer to invest in Equitable Life, but it was a good job that I did not do so, or my view now might be different.
I remind hon. Members about the pledge that we made before the election: 380 MPs agreed to press for proper compensation for victims by swift, simple, transparent and fair payment schemes, as recommended by the ombudsman; and we agreed that we would all join the all-party group on justice for Equitable Life policyholders. I agree with the pledge, which I signed, and I have honoured every element of it. A large number of colleagues have not joined the all-party group that I have the privilege of co-chairing, and I encourage them to do so even if latterly.
I want to concentrate on three aspects of the amendments. The first is the moral duty that we owe to people who relied on advice and on the system of the regulator, the Government and Equitable Life. There was a major scandal, because those three bodies connived to swindle people out of their money. That is a sad indictment of what happened, and that is what set Equitable Life aside from all other aspects of the pension industry. We must demonstrate to people, especially young people, that it is worth investing in their future. If young people do not do so, there will be a sad and sorry state of affairs in this country. There is a clear moral duty.
The second issue is the amount of money that is due in compensation. I am delighted that the Treasury accepted that the ombudsman's recommendation of £4.26 billion was the right amount to which policyholders were entitled. The debate today is not about money, but the Treasury team have come to a view that because of the economic circumstances only £1.5 billion is affordable. They have also had regard to the ombudsman's report, which said clearly that relative loss must be taken into account. The Treasury team must have done some calculations to reach the figure of £1.5 billion, and I trust that the Minister will tell us in his reply today how that figure was arrived at. The reduction from £4.26 billion to £1.5 billion is dramatic, and he must respond to our points.
My hon. Friend eloquently sets out the outrage that many of us feel, having signed the pledge. Does he agree that our Government, unlike the previous Government, have reached a speedy conclusion, as a result of which more people in the claimant group will receive compensation before there are further deaths? I agree with my hon. Friend about transparency and I, too, would support a motion to set out exactly how the calculations were made, in the spirit of our Government's commitment to greater transparency in all financial matters.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The issues are complex, and the more one reads about and understands the scandal, the more difficult it becomes to resolve it. The Government in their wisdom have set out a compensation scheme that will continue for many years. The £1.5 billion is not a one-off payment that will go into a fund this year and end the matter. It will be spread over many years, and it will extend into the next Parliament.
May I clarify the fact that those who receive compensation and are not with-profits policyholders will receive a one-off payment during this Parliament. Only with-profits annuitants will have their payments spread over the rest of their lives.
I thank the Minister for his intervention. I was going to refer to that while I was responding to the intervention from my hon. Friend Claire Perry. The clear issue now is justice for the people in the worst possible position-the trapped annuitants. I applaud the Government for honouring the pledge that 37,000 people who have been trapped as a result of the scandal will receive 100% compensation. I strongly support and endorse that.
We have a problem, however, and amendment 1 attempts to address it. The amendment has cross-party support; we must be seen to be acting not just as a party but as parliamentarians overseeing the Executive. The problem is that if someone took out a policy on a particular day, they would receive no compensation at all, even though the maladministration was taking place at the time; whereas someone who took out a policy on the following day would get 100% compensation. There are always difficulties when arbitrary dates are set, but that is neither fair nor reasonable.
I believe that we should set aside the date and review all the trapped annuitants to ensure that they get fair and proper compensation. The Chadwick report has been rubbished by EMAG, and by Members on both sides of the House, but even Chadwick proposed a scheme that would have compensated those trapped annuitants whose policies were taken out before the cut-off date.
I and all the others who are new to the House signed the pledge in the belief that, if we were elected, we would compensate everyone who had suffered as a result of the maladministration, rather than taking an arbitrary position to compensate some and not others. I have heard heart-rending stories from my constituents and from people all over the country who are now living on desperately low pensions, having expected much larger ones, and we have a very strong moral duty to all those people. We throw that away at our peril.
This is not just a question of fairness. Many of those individuals are older and very vulnerable indeed. The letters that I have received make the point that those people are living on very low incomes at a very vulnerable time of their lives, and they have already suffered from the effects of inflation. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should talk about this as parliamentarians, not on a party political basis.
My hon. Friend clearly demonstrates that we are talking about the oldest and most vulnerable people, and that they have been dealt with in a most disgraceful way following this scandal. We have a moral duty to compensate them.
Going back to the points made by my hon. Friend Jonathan Evans, it is clear that when the bonuses that were attached early in the process are taken into account, some policyholders might not receive a penny piece in compensation. We need to recognise that, but there is an 18-month gap between the cut-off dates. A large number of the retired people who had taken out annuities could not adjust them once they had purchased them, and they are now trapped in that position. That is why we have a moral duty to compensate them.
What action would my hon. Friend recommend? My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North mentioned the possibility of people being judged to have received too much. Should we take that money away from them? The malpractice took place in 1991, and we should be talking about 1991, not about 1992 or about an open-ended process.
Clearly, if exorbitant bonuses were attached to certain policies, the policyholders would not be due compensation and they would not receive a penny piece. Remember, we are talking about compensation. We cannot take money off policyholders who have been receiving pensions. Parliament just cannot do that; it would be a retrograde tax and therefore unacceptable. Those who are due compensation should receive it, but those who are not due any would not receive any, and if they have benefited in the meantime, well, that is fine and dandy for them.
In regard to the morality of the issue, I agree with many of my hon. Friend's arguments. My concern, however, relates to the practicalities involved when people are policyholders with other companies. Many of them had large bonuses from the 1980s onwards, but get hardly any at all nowadays. We have to take account of this when we look at their asset share, compared with everyone else in the pool in a with-profits system. That is why many people believe that there is no future for with-profits business nowadays.
The independent commission will need to look at the relative loss that individual policyholders have experienced as a result of the maladministration. If annuitants took out policies well before the maladministration took place, there would be no relative loss, and they would receive no compensation. The nub of the issue is that we want the review to be independent, so that we can all look the policyholders in the eye and say that we have honoured our pledge to ensure that they were treated properly, and properly compensated. Under the Bill as it is drafted, we cannot do that because of the arbitrary cut-off date.
My hon. Friend is obviously extremely knowledgeable on this subject. Does he agree that this is perhaps not so much a question of a specific date as of whether or not a policyholder was trapped? If they are trapped, there is absolutely nothing they can do about it.
That is clearly where our moral duty arises. If policyholders are trapped and cannot adjust their position, they are unable to rectify the damage that has been done.
I want to speak briefly to amendment 7. The Government have accepted that £4.26 billion should be the full amount available to policyholders, 37,000 of whom will receive 100% compensation. That clearly involves a huge amount of money, which will come out of the £1.5 billion. The policyholders who are not trapped annuitants would therefore get something like 15% of the compensation due to them, which seems pretty unfair and unreasonable. We should set up a commission to devise a payment scheme, then look at the results. Instead, £1.5 billion has now been set aside, and an independent commission will set up the mechanism for distributing that money. That could have very serious consequences indeed.
Parliament has a problem in this regard. I applaud the Government for moving swiftly to settle this matter once and for all, but we are setting up a method for distributing the money and creating expectations out there. About 1.4 million policyholders have been affected by the scandal, and 37,000 will receive full compensation while 10,000 will not get a penny. That leaves rather a lot of policyholders among whom to divide a relatively small amount of money. When the Minister responds to the debate, I trust that he will be able to set out how the calculations were made, so that we can be clear about them.
Amendment 7 would allow us to review the position in five years' time, when the economy has recovered and the benefits of this Government are clear for all to see, and to top up the compensation further for those people who will be retiring in five, 10, 15 or 25 years' time. We also have a moral duty to honour our pledge to those people. This is one of those cases in which we have set out to do something in the proper way, and I applaud those on the Treasury Bench for moving swiftly to bring the matter to a conclusion so that payments can be made as soon as possible, but we must ensure that we fulfil our moral duty to those policyholders.
I start by putting firmly on the record my belief that the Government have implemented the parliamentary ombudsman's report and have honoured the pledges made before the election. It was always part of the parliamentary ombudsman's report that this would be a political decision for the Government to make, taking the public finances into account when they set the cap. The Government have set the cap at £1.5 billion. I wish it could have been more, and I hope that it will be possible to revisit this in future when the public finances are in a better state.
I have sympathy for amendment 1, but let me state my understanding of how it would work in practice. It does not alter the cap that has already been set, so if the pre-September 1992 with-profits annuitants were to be compensated to the same level as the post-September 1992 with-profits annuitants, there would be less for the latter group of people. If the cap remains the same, and the amendment does not alter the cap, giving more to some people would mean giving less to others. I ask the Financial Secretary and Mr Hamilton who moved the amendment to comment on that when they respond.
I want to press the Government on why they have chosen the date of September 1992. As other hon. Members have said, the maladministration started in June 1991. Penrose found that when the Equitable Life Assurance Society's board papers were sent to the Government Actuary's Department on
"companies on whom we have been keeping a close watch for a number of years" and said that Equitable Life remained a company "which caused serious concern". There was evidence in July 1992-in fact, before July 1992-that the Government Actuary's Department was aware that Equitable Life had problems. Surely that should have been made public and investors should have been deterred. In his response, will the Minister clarify why the date of September 1992 was chosen, because it certainly seems to me that an earlier date-say, June 1991 or possibly even earlier-would have been more appropriate?
I would like to speak mainly about the position of with-profits annuitants and the pledge that I and other Members of all parties made before the general election-that the Government should make fair and transparent payments to those who had suffered as a consequence of the debacle of Equitable Life. I am talking about 350 local people in my constituency who are part of the Equitable Members Action Group. Those 350 include people associated with many companies that were in the Equitable Life scheme. Many hundreds of other people are affected. For some, Equitable Life provided their only private pension to supplement their state pension provision.
I welcome the fact that for a number of my constituents, that pledge has been made good, and I understand that the trapped annuitants in the post-1992 cohort will receive 100% of their compensation. I am delighted about that. Needless to say, I am also very concerned for the pre-1992 Equitable Life investors for whom, it seems, there will be no compensation at all. That seems contrary to the recommendations of the parliamentary ombudsman, contrary to EMAG's suggestions and contrary to the views of Sir John Chadwick, for whom not many Members have a great deal of time.
I understand that it is difficult to quantify the losses, but, if the Government have the will, the losses of the pre-1992 annuitants should be explored. The people to whom we made a pledge before the general election in May were not necessarily concerned whether they were pre-1992 annuitants or post-1992 annuitants. Their concern was as Equitable Life policyholders looking for justice.
If the Government and the Treasury have the will to deal with this situation, they should do so; if not, they should explain how I justify the position to constituents who have been wronged.
If the Government and the Treasury are prepared to look at compensating the pre-1992 annuitants, there has to be a health warning, because there is a law of unintended consequences, should we be stuck at the compensation figure of £1.5 billion. Many of my constituents who are post-1992 annuitants might be unaffected by any decision to include the pre-1992 annuitants.
Amendment 7 deals with that position and the relative losses. The Treasury should consider it, although I am concerned about whether it could be taken into account within the current comprehensive spending review or would need to be considered after the current CSR period expires.
I would like to ask the Minister several questions. First, will he look again at how to compensate the pre-1992 annuitants, and at how that might be quantified? Will he commit to working with his Treasury colleagues to take into account payments beyond the CSR period to enable the pre-1992 annuitants to be compensated without prejudicing the position of the post-1992 annuitants and that of Equitable Life policyholders generally?
I implore the Minister again-I did so in the last debate on this subject-to recognise that the Government's decision over Equitable Life raises questions not only about the integrity of the current Government, but about the integrity of savings and investments for one's retirement. I am well aware that many of my constituents do not have their own retirement provision. The Government should encourage people to provide for their retirement, but if we do not ensure that there is a safety net for people who have invested and done the right thing for their retirement, they will think that it is not worth putting themselves out by investing money for their retirements during their early years of work.
I ask the Minister to consider those points extremely carefully before any decisions are taken this afternoon.
I start by referring to the closing question from my hon. Friend Mr Jones. He will be aware that in July we published proposals to strengthen the regulation of retail financial services, including pensions, which I hope will go some way towards reassuring people that we have learned the lessons from the past and put in place a much more stable and robust framework for the regulation of long-term savings.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss, first, the role of the parliamentary ombudsman in developing our policy on the payment scheme. Her work has been central to our approach. I also want to focus on with-profits annuitants and those who took out their policies prior to September 1992. These issues have been raised particularly since our announcements in the spending review. I hope that I can bring some clarity to the treatment of different groups of with-profits annuitants.
At the spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that about £1.5 billion of funding will be provided for the Equitable Life payment scheme. As hon. Members have said, that is more than four times the figure produced by the Chadwick process, which was set in motion by the Opposition. The funding includes the full cost of losses to policyholders with with-profits annuity policies-approximately £620 million-which will be paid through regular payments. That amount is to cover those with with-profits annuity policies, whose policies started between
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our obligation is to compensate people for regulatory failure by the Government when they were the regulator of Equitable Life. The scheme is not an open-ended compensation scheme. It is very focused, and that was the ombudsman's recommendation. Her locus in this matter is a consequence of the Government having acted as the regulator for Equitable Life during the period in question.
Let me explain to the Committee and to Mr Hamilton, who raised the question, why
I accept the Minister's point about the date not being arbitrary, but does he not accept that the regulatory failure affected those annuitants who could not change their annuities, even if they were purchased before September 1992? Along with those annuitants who purchased policies after September 1992, they continue to see a decline. Therefore, they were affected by regulatory failure.
Will the Minister explain further, as I do not quite understand? He seems to be saying that only those who became aware of a regulatory failure in 1992 are affected. However, am I not right in thinking that that suggests that the regulatory failure goes back prior to 1992, and would have affected people then, although they would not have been aware of it? Are those people not entitled to compensation?
The ombudsman is concerned about people who invested in Equitable Life who might not have done so had they been aware of that regulatory failure. That regulatory failure would not have been known to them until September 1992, so there is a clear, rational argument for
Let me continue.
We are excluding that group of people because they took out policies before any maladministration could have affected their investment decision. Therefore, to echo my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North, they suffered no relative loss.
But will the Minister answer the moral issue? At the time when people were making investment decisions, and taking out these policies, the regulatory failure was going on. As they became victims of that regulatory failure, surely we have a moral duty to compensate them.
When people made the decision on the information available to them, the relevant information was not in the public domain, and would not have affected their investment decision until September 1992. That is a clear, logical, sensible starting point, based on principles and on the ombudsman's findings, for the maladministration, and that is the point from which we should calculate relative loss for policyholders.
The Minister is in danger of asking the Committee to accept the notion that customer ignorance can be a legislator's excuse. That cannot be so. If the Minister is trying to say that what they did not know did them no harm, that is preposterous. They did not know, and they have suffered harm.
I do not agree with that point. There is a clear principle: the basis on which people were investing in Equitable Life. At that point, no one knew about the maladministration.
We should also bear in mind the issue of practicality and the lack of information available to Equitable Life's policyholders. Hon. Members should reflect on the fact that no one would have made investment decisions based on anything that happened prior to 1992 until that information was in the public domain. That is why the group has been excluded from the calculation of relative loss.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. No one suggests that the situation is not difficult, but whether or not one was aware of maladministration, and whether or not it existed pre '92, surely the central point is that annuitants who took out a policy pre '92 suffered relative loss post '92, courtesy of maladministration. To return to an earlier point, perhaps there is a moral duty to include such people in the compensation, as I believe that the parliamentary ombudsman suggested.
The parliamentary ombudsman's findings were clear: she said that the maladministration started in 1991, but that it would not have been obvious to policyholders until September 1992.
Let me deal with two issues that hon. Members should have take into account in assessing the point. First, as has been mentioned, there are challenges around getting information for the pre '92 period. Secondly, there is the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North about the timing of losses. We recognise that pre '92 with-profits annuitants were affected by how Equitable Life was run. Sir John Chadwick and Towers Watson looked into what those WPAs would have received from Equitable Life had there been no maladministration. They concluded that they received more from Equitable Life as a result of maladministration than they would have done had it been properly regulated. That was because Equitable Life paid out more to them in the early years than it would have done had there been no maladministration. Let me give an example to prove that.
If a with-profits annuitant had purchased their policy in 1989 and gained through that purchase an income of £7,200, by 1993 the policyholder would have been receiving an annuity of approximately £10,000 per annum. Part of that sum was a result of the bonuses that had been declared on the policy since commencement. It is recognised that Equitable Life was paying higher bonuses than it could afford during the late '80s and early 1990s. If Equitable Life had not been over-bonusing during that period, Towers Watson has calculated that the policyholder would have received only £9,500 per year. It is a consequence of the maladministration that the policyholder is receiving £500 more than he or she should have during that period.
Equitable Life continued to overpay bonuses throughout most of the 1990s. As a result, by 2002 that policyholder was receiving £17,000 per annum. If the over-bonusing had not taken place, the policyholder would have received only £15,800, so he or she was still receiving more as a consequence of maladministration.
In 2003, Equitable Life cut the rate of annuity payments to its with-profits policyholders by about 20%. In the absence of maladministration, the value of payments to with-profits policyholders would also have been cut, although, owing to market performance, by only 18%. After the cuts in 2003, our example policyholder was receiving £12,900 per year from Equitable Life. Had there been no maladministration, he or she would have been receiving only £12,300. I hope that that example has helped to clarify the consequences of maladministration, namely that even after the cuts in 2003 policyholders are still receiving more than they would have if Equitable Life had been properly regulated. For a range of reasons, their plight is not as it has been represented.
The first question to be asked, then, is "When did maladministration affect policyholders and the decisions that were made?" The second relates to the practicality of extracting data pre-1992, which is well established and has been well aired in the Chadwick report and elsewhere; and the third concerns the consequence of maladministration in Equitable Life, which is that with-profits annuitants are receiving more over the lifetime of their policy than they would have received if that maladministration had not taken place.
I was interested in the way in which my hon. Friend dealt with my point about over-bonusing, but I feel that he has undermined another point that I made: I suggested that it was not possible to make such calculations, but my hon. Friend has suggested that Towers Watson has done so. In a sense that also undermines the thrust of why the pre-1992 policyholders should be excluded. I had assumed that they might not have been disadvantaged and that it was too difficult to work out the numbers, but if Towers Watson has worked out those numbers and there is no relative loss, it seems a bit odd not to include them, at least for the purpose of calculating the position and telling them that there is no loss.
I was trying to make two points. First, those policyholders were excluded from the calculation of relative loss as a consequence of the ombudsman's findings and her view on when maladministration had taken place. According to the example that I have given, they would not have suffered loss in any event. I am merely saying that, in my opinion, there is a strong case in principle for the exclusion of those policyholders, and in practical terms they have not suffered loss.
I want to make some more progress.
The fact that with-profits annuitants who bought their annuities before
A number of Members mentioned Sir John Chadwick. My hon. Friend Bob Blackman said that Sir John's report had been rubbished by some people. The report included a mechanism for the calculation of internal relative loss that would have dealt with the pre-1992 annuitants, but, as my hon. Friend said, there was widespread criticism of it, not just in the House but by all the commentators, by EMAG and by others. No one came forward with an alternative scheme to compensate the pre-1992 annuitants, because no one had really thought about them. It needs to be recognised that they fall outside the parameters of the ombudsman's report, because she did not envisage a need to compensate them.
Let me now deal with the future role of the ombudsman in this process. When we came to office, we pledged to
"implement the Parliamentary Ombudsman's recommendation to make fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policyholders".
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed that pledge at the time of the comprehensive spending review, when he announced our plans that we have for the scheme.
As we all know, the ombudsman has worked tirelessly to help to ensure that justice is delivered to the policyholders who have waited so long for a resolution of this issue. Her continued interest in the matter has been of great help, and has brought some clarity to what is clearly a very complex issue. The ombudsman has been generous with her time, and has continued to contribute to the debate. She has, for instance, appeared before the Public Administration Committee. I discussed the Chadwick report with her in the run-up to the spending review, and her views helped the Government to reach a view on the losses suffered by policyholders.
I should welcome any continued contribution that the ombudsman might wish to make to the debate on Equitable Life, and if she wished to advise Parliament of her views on the work of the independent commission, that would assist both the House and the Government; however, I think it would be inappropriate to require her to play such a role. Her role and remit are clearly set out in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, which does not give the ombudsman a standing obligation to continue to advise this House as to the response to her reports. There is good reason for that, not least the need to make appropriate use of the ombudsman's resources. It must be for the ombudsman herself to decide what role she wishes to play once she has finished her investigation.
Chris Leslie asked how we would implement the ombudsman's approach. We have said that the Government accept the calculation of relative loss as £4.3 billion. The ombudsman wrote to Members on
"provides a firm foundation on which to build."
That is the basis on which we introduced the scheme and accepted the losses.
The independent commission will advise on the allocation of remaining funds to not-with-profits annuitants, apart from the post-1992 WPAs. The Equitable Life database allows us to apply relative-loss methodology to each policyholder's data, so there will be no individual requirement to claim or provide evidence of claim, or indeed to reveal the instances of maladministration that are relied on. That will benefit all policyholders who suffered relative loss. The ombudsman spoke of reliance on regulatory returns, but Sir John's alternative approach does not require us to ascertain what reliance was involved. Effectively, that gives people the benefit of the doubt, and in my view it means a simpler, fairer and more transparent scheme.
Sir John also talked about the distribution of losses, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. Thirty per cent. of policyholders suffered no loss at all, about 405 suffered a loss of between £1 and £1,000, and 60% suffered a loss of between £1 and £5,000. Therefore, as Members will recognise, the distribution of losses is quite varied. A large number of policyholders either have no loss or suffered a relatively small loss. That gives the payments commission some flexibility in respect of the design of the scheme and how to use the pot. I should, however, stress to Members that the amount that is available is fixed, so while we may want to be more generous to one group, that would mean that another group suffers. We need to bear that in mind in considering eligibility.
I encourage my hon. Friends to reject any amendments in this group that are put to a vote. We have come up with a fair scheme that is based on the ombudsman's findings; the loss reflects her calculation. I therefore think this is a good scheme, representing a balance of fairness between policyholders and taxpayers.
I am grateful to the Minister for his clear explanation of his rationale for the compensation scheme. I am afraid, however, that I still do not accept the argument that the cut-off should be absolute and rigid and that those who took out annuities before
The First Deputy Chairman:
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 4, page 1, line 7, at end insert-
'(2C) The Treasury shall publish details of the independent appeals procedure for policyholders as defined in subsection (2) above to use in the event of dispute over the compensation payment decision in their case, no later than three months after commencement of this Act.'.
Government amendment 6.
New clause 1- Distribution of payments-
'(1) An independent payments commission shall be established comprising three members appointed by the Secretary of State.
(2) The independent payments commission shall design a distribution scheme for payments made arising from this Act.
(3) In designing a distribution scheme under subsection (2) the independent payments commission shall consult with interested parties, including the Equitable Life Assurance Society and representatives of policyholders.
(4) The Treasury may make provision by order made by statutory instrument for payments to be made in line with the distribution scheme designed by the independent payments commission.
(5) A statutory instrument containing an order under subsection (4) may not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.'.
I shall speak to amendments 3 and 4, which stand in my name and the names of my hon. Friends. Amendment 3 would enshrine in the Bill the fact that the design and administration of any payments scheme should be independent of Government. It is pretty straightforward and simple-in fact, it would be difficult for it to be more straightforward and simple-but we think it important to try to encourage the Government to enshrine in the Bill the Minister's pronouncements so far that the design of the compensation scheme should be independent of Government. That is an extremely important point, especially as it was part of the conclusions drawn by the parliamentary ombudsman herself.
The Minister has asked the independent commission, chaired by Brian Pomeroy, to report by the end of January, but there is too much wiggle room for the Minister then to take those recommendations and bring the design and the administration of the subsequent payments scheme in-house within the Treasury. I see no clear reason why the Bill does not contain clarity on the next steps forward, particularly in relation to the daunting task of creating a payments scheme to cover upwards of 1 million policyholders not falling into the 100% compensated with-profit annuitant category.
Many other policyholders are still sceptical of the Government's intentions and EMAG, which is the body representing many of those policyholders, is voicing its discontent with those who, before the election, signed up to their pledge to create "fair and transparent" payment schemes, which they now attack as akin to asking 1 million people-to quote the words of EMAG's Paul Braithwaite-to
"share a pack of Smarties".
Obviously, EMAG is making its point in its own particular way, but clearly there is some doubt and some cynicism about the approach that the Minister is taking. I am sure, having heard what he has had to say before, that he indeed wants a level of independence in the payments scheme as far as possible, but I do not understand why that commitment has not been included in the legislation. That would seem to me to be the best way forward.
Amendment 4 seeks to tackle the issue of any appeals procedure that might be necessary for policyholders in the compensation scheme. We suggest that no later than three months after the commencement of the Bill the Treasury be required to spell out quite how that appeals procedure would operate for the policyholders who are not content with the judgments made in the compensation scheme that eventually ensues. Several hon. Members argued for an appeals procedure on Second Reading on
In that debate, the Minister stated that he had raised the issue with his officials but that there were clear problems. He said he would pursue it, so the purpose of the amendment is to find out whether he has had the opportunity to do so and what the appeals process will look like. I certainly expect that there will be complexity, not just in the payment scheme but in any subsequent individual appeals adjudication, and that could be quite difficult to imagine at this stage. However, it needs clarification given the route that the Minister has chosen, moving away from the ex gratia model in the Chadwick methodology and instead accepting the ombudsman's approach to compensation.
I was glad that the Minister said there were components of the Chadwick methodology that he favoured bringing into any compensation scheme-specifically that there would be no burden of proof on individual policyholders to show that they had been misled by the regulatory returns. That would certainly make the scheme simpler. Will the Minister take this opportunity to tell us whether the independent payments commission will eventually metamorphose into an authority for administering the payments? If so, will it be asked to design an appeals system, or is it the Treasury's intention to undertake that part of the design?
Perhaps the Minister could say whether he sees any parallels with the appeals system set up when the former Department of Trade and Industry introduced an appeals mechanism in respect of the ill-health complaints about what was then known as vibration white finger. He will remember that a series of complex compensation payments were made in those cases, but an appeals system was set up that had a route into a judicial process and eventually to the High Court. If some policyholders might become involved in a judicial process, it would be useful to have clarity about whether the same will happen.
Will the Minister also confirm not only, as I think he said, that the administrative costs of operating the compensation programme will be separate from the compensation fund, but that any appeals costs will also be separate from the compensation fund? I am sure that the Committee will welcome any clarification of the Government's intentions, and in the meantime we felt that the amendment was a reasonable device to ensure that those answers are forthcoming.
I shall speak to new clause 1, which I tabled, but I made a long speech on the earlier group of amendments and I do not want to repeat all the points I made then.
We need to make the whole process clear, transparent and independent of Government so that the money that has been set aside to compensate the victims of this scandal is seen to be distributed so that they receive their due compensation in a manner that is independent of the Treasury. The dead hand of Treasury officials should not mean that the scheme is designed in a particular way. I do not necessarily need to press the new clause, but I seek assurances from the Minister that we have a full, independent, transparent way to compensate the victims, who have been so badly treated over the past 10 years.
Obviously we are waiting to hear what the Government will say about their amendment, but the other amendments-including the new clause proposed by Bob Blackman-are in essence an attempt to ensure that there is a sense of competent independence in how the scheme is administered and payments made. In terms of making appeals available and ensuring that the design and administration of the scheme are independent of Government, the new clause offers a reasonable construct of what a clearly independent scheme would be.
In the debate on the previous group of amendments, there were many references to pledges that many of us signed and how far the Government's measures will mean that we have discharged those pledges, but I do not think that any of us signed pledges that said we would do the whole thing just according to Treasury lights and nothing else. The amendments are an attempt to ensure that it will not only be Treasury lights that will govern the terms of the scheme and its performance.
Does the hon. Gentleman not feel, however, that the problem remains that the whole thing will be governed by the ultimate cap? That is the difficulty that faces all Equitable Life policyholders.
Yes, I do. There is no escaping the constraints that the cap will create. In the last group of amendments, we considered the questions that arise when the cap comes together with the cut-off. That conspires to create a pretty selective injustice for a group of people who are then left with very marginal compensation.
Even a very independent process, such as that proposed in the amendments, will be constrained by the cap. However, people would trust a credible independent process applying that cap with due consideration for all the concerns, rights and needs of policyholders more than they would trust the Treasury. In the last debate some Government Members said confidently how impressed they had been with the Treasury since they came into the House. That might well be-we are in the early stages of this Parliament and this Government and the first few pages of the exercise book are lovely, neat, impressive and perfect-but degeneration creeps in later on and even the Treasury will revert to its traditional roots and habits.
I have confidence in the Treasury trying to sort this out-I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that. However, I am concerned about anything that pushes this matter into the long grass. We do not need any more delays caused by trying to set up other bodies. That is why I would like to say, "Get on with it and get the Treasury doing it."
I do not believe that the hon. Member for Harrow East, for example, is trying to sow or fertilise long grass. This is about getting something that is credible, competent and reliable and the Committee should try to help in that regard. That is the spirit of these amendments.
There has been much criticism of the underperformance, to put it mildly, of the previous Government on this issue over more than one Parliament. Let us remember that those Ministers were not deliberately ignoring the plight of their own constituents who were coming to them or the problems highlighted by many of us from constituencies across the United Kingdom. They were constrained by the advice that they were getting from the same Treasury that people are now so happy with. The Treasury was advising that serious precedents and problems would be created.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but Ministers are there to take decisions. They listen to advice but it is up to them to make things happen. He and I, as former Ministers, know that only too well, so why is he making an excuse for the inaction of the previous Government and their failure to respond to the needs of Equitable Life policyholders?
If the right hon. Gentleman had been here for the debates on earlier amendments, he would know that I made no such excuses then. Indeed, in all previous debates, I have been very critical of the performance of previous Governments. We have both been the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland, as he says. When I held that position, I used the line, "I'm the Minister of Finance; I don't suffer from depression but I am a carrier." That is the effect: Treasury Ministers are put in that sort of position. They become aware of constraints and difficulties that they then have to put before everyone else and impose on them as well.
My point is not that Ministers were right or wrong to listen to the advice but that we, as a Committee, must choose whether to go along with the Bill and say that the scheme will proceed only according to Treasury lights or whether to say instead that it should go according to wider lights and be informed by the sort of considerations reflected in the various amendments that hon. Members have tabled and by the many good observations made by Members on both sides of the Committee. Either we want to trust the Treasury and leave the scheme entirely in its hands, with its considerations and constraints alone, or we want to honour the spirit of what we have all pledged to those who have lost out with Equitable Life and to act in the light of the sad experiences that we have heard about.
I commend the amendments to the Committee. I shall wait to hear what the Government say about their amendment, but it seems to reinforce the Treasury's whip hand over the whole scheme.
I take the same view as Mr Dodds on the responsibility of Ministers. Civil servants provide advice but Ministers decide and act and we cannot ignore that responsibility. We have taken this matter very seriously and have sought, over the past six months, to drive through a speedy resolution to the problem. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend Mrs Main on tackling this matter.
On the amendments before us, the purpose of amendment 3 is to make the design and operational mechanism of the scheme "independent of government". I understand the need for independence in the design of the payment scheme, which is why I established the Independent Commission on Equitable Life Payments. The commission's advice will necessarily form the basis of the scheme's design. It will advise on how best fairly to allocate payments among policyholders, with the exception of with-profits annuitants, and it will consider which groups, if any, should be prioritised. It is right that that process should be independent, so the scheme will be independently designed.
The Government have considered whether the scheme should also be operated independently of the Government, as amendment 3 proposes, and have concluded that that would not be appropriate for three key reasons. First, it would delay the commencement of payments. Our ambition is to start making payments in the middle of next year using our preferred delivery partner National Savings and Investment. I shall say more about that on amendment 6. If amendment 3 were accepted, NS&I, which is an Executive agency of the Treasury, could not be used as the delivery partner as it would not be operating independently of the Treasury, which would therefore have to establish a new, independent body or identify an existing such body that could operate the scheme. It is also likely that legislation would be required to task the independent body with the design and operation of the scheme, which would delay significantly the making of payments to policyholders.
Secondly, the Government have established an independent commission to advise on the allocation of payments. This function is independent of the Government and is key in determining a fair allocation of payments. Making the operational delivery provider, whose job is largely about sending out the payments and making sure that cheques get to the people who are entitled to receive them, independent of the Treasury would not add significant value to that task.
Finally, it is important to ensure that value for money is considered when deciding on a delivery partner. The Treasury has satisfied itself that NS&I has the capacity and the capability to deliver the scheme, while at the same time providing value for money. The Government consider that by establishing the Independent Commission on Equitable Life Payments on
I turn to amendment 4 and what policyholders should do if they consider that they are not being treated fairly under the scheme. The Government are committed to treating policyholders fairly. In line with that, there will certainly be a means by which policyholders can raise concerns about the incorrect application of scheme rules to individual cases. We have given much thought to how best to deal with complaints and have made a great deal of progress in putting together a process that is fair and thorough. Full details of this process will be included in the document that sets out the scheme design in full.
I spoke about this last time we discussed the matter. Given that the message to savers from the previous Government was non-existent or at least negative, does my hon. Friend think the message that the present Government are sending to savers is adequate? Are we saying clearly, "We understand that you have been badly let down by Government and we want to put things right as much as we can, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves"?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are two aspects to it. First, in respect of Equitable Life, the speed with which we have acted demonstrates our commitment to a resolution of the problem. The second is a forward-looking and prospective issue, which is why we have brought forward proposals to improve the regulation of retail financial services through the establishment of the new Consumer Protection and Markets Authority. That will be a boost to regulation and give confidence to savers that the market will be better regulated. It is important, and we have introduced measures recently, to ensure that if anything goes wrong, there is a proper process in place to tackle that.
I was commenting on the scheme appeals mechanism, which will be published before the scheme begins making payments and will be made available for parliamentary scrutiny. If a policyholder believes that the rules of the scheme have been incorrectly applied to their data, they will be able to raise a query with the delivery body, stating the nature of their concern. The query will be pursued by the delivery body.
If there is merit in the challenge and it is upheld, a recalculation will take place. If the challenge is not agreed by the delivery body, the policyholder will have the option of taking their case to the review panel. The review panel will consider the case in full and be able to make a fresh decision based on the facts of the case. It will be independent of the original decision-making process. If a complainant's case is upheld, the review panel will ensure that a recalculation is carried out. If the complainant remains unhappy with the review panel's decision, they will be able to challenge that decision in court by way of judicial review.
My hon. Friend referred to cases in which the rules of the scheme might not have been correctly applied, but such are the complexities of Equitable Life policyholders-for example, a constituent of mine whose policies were additional voluntary contributions in a pension scheme which has been wound up-that someone might wish to argue that their particular type of case had not been envisaged in the way the rules were formulated, and that a specific decision needed to be made in that case. Will the scheme be wide enough to make that possible?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I would expect the payments commission to design a payments scheme that would be sufficiently comprehensive to ensure that all groups of policyholders were covered by it, so any appeal would be on the basis only of any data used to calculate the losses, rather than an appeal in principle against the design of the scheme. I will bear in mind the point that my right hon. Friend makes and encourage the commission, when it takes representations from people, to think as widely as possible about the different groups of policyholders that need to be taken into account.
The Minister is being extremely helpful and at least setting out a sense of what the architecture of that appeals system will be. He said that it would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Can he say for the record that the relevant statutory instrument will be subject to the affirmative procedure?
There is no requirement in the Bill to lay the scheme as a statutory instrument, but I shall ensure that when the scheme design is produced, it is laid before the House and there is an opportunity to scrutinise it.
The hon. Gentleman asked a question about the cost of administration and the cost of the appeals mechanism, and he was right to recollect that I said previously that the cost of administration would be separate from the compensation pot. That is still the case, and it goes without saying that the cost of the appeals mechanism will also be separate from the compensation pot. We want the money that is set aside for compensation to be used for compensation.
I am grateful to the Minister for outlining the appeals process, which, in this complex and complicated arrangement, will be important. Will he elucidate further on the effect of the time frame of the appeals process? What would happen if, for example, an individual policyholder or set of policyholders, who felt that they had been wronged and not received the compensation that they were due, went through the process and that led to a breach of the cap? If they were suddenly compensated with a lot more money than had already been allocated, how would that be dealt with?
In that situation, there would be two aspects: first, the design that the payment scheme had applied; and secondly, the data that were available to the policyholder. The scheme will be designed in such a way that it does not breach the cap, so it would be possible to appeal only if the data were incorrect. The data that will be used to calculate the compensation will come from a database supplied by Equitable Life, and I hope that its data are of a high standard, so that those situations do not occur.
From the details given today, the Government have been considering very carefully the design of the appeals procedure, and we will publish details of the procedure, along with other aspects of the scheme, ahead of the time that amendment 4 proposes. So in light of that we believe that the amendment is not necessary.
Let me turn to amendment 6, which is in my name. The delivery of the Equitable Life payments scheme is an important matter, and since we took office we have made huge strides towards finding a resolution to the Equitable Life issue. However, we are aware that, for many policyholders, the issue will continue until they finally receive the money. As such, it is important that we find the right delivery partner to help us do that. Having given the matter careful consideration and looked at a range of options, our preferred option is to use NS&I, to deliver the scheme.
Officials have held many meetings with NS&I to find out not only whether it is capable of carrying out that important task, but the processes by which delivery could be carried out. There are many factors that make NS&I an appropriate delivery partner for the scheme. One of the most obvious and important is capability. As part of its everyday functions, NS&I makes millions of payments to customers every month. It has processes and infrastructure in place and experience of carrying out the functions that the scheme will require.
The need for value for money in the delivery of the scheme is also important. We are all aware that, in a climate where we have had to make difficult decisions about where to make cuts, the Government must look for ways of making the cost of delivering the scheme reasonable. Using NS&I will allow us to draw upon existing Government relationships and contracts, and I am satisfied that NS&I can provide a good delivery mechanism by which we can start making payments in line with our stated ambition of the middle of next year.
I am grateful to the Minister for the information about National Savings & Investment being the preferred vehicle. In theory, there is a separation between policy, in terms of the scheme design, and operations, in terms of the administration but blurred edges can sometimes appear between the two. Will the independent commission hold the ring in any disputes about the mechanism, timing and administration of the scheme? Who will be the final arbiter of any disputes that arise from the process? Presumably, it will be the independent commission.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it is important that we are able to operationalise, as it were, the scheme design. That is why I have encouraged the payments commission to engage with NS&I to ensure that the scheme that the commission designs can be delivered. That is an important part of the process, and I expect the commission to do that during the course of its work. I think that addresses the hon. Gentleman's point.
Let me turn finally to new clause 1 and the status of the independent commission. I have already spoken about the importance of the work of the commission, and I am not sure that the new clause, which would give it statutory footing, would add value to its work.
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We could not use NS&I if we did not include this power in the Bill. Its purpose is to enable NS&I to act as a delivery partner, not to give the Treasury some way of reaching back into the payments scheme. I reassure him, and others, that the power is there merely to deliver the outcome of the scheme.
The role of the payments commission will be key. It will advise on the distribution of payments to those other than WPAs, and I will take its advice extremely seriously. The new clause would introduce a requirement for the commission to consult key bodies in the development of its advice, but let me tell my hon. Friend Bob Blackman that it would need no statutory encouragement to do so. The commission has already met Equitable Life and EMAG, and it has published a discussion paper asking for more views on the guiding principles for determining fairness in allocating and prioritising the funding. I do not believe that an amendment to the Bill would make it any more consultative and thorough in its task. My hon. Friend is aware that I have made the commitment to go along to the all-party group with the chairman of the commission to engage with parliamentarians on this matter. That is a very clear sign of the way in which we want to engage, or the commission wants to engage, with stakeholders to come up with the best design for the scheme. I encourage people to read and engage with the commission's discussion paper, too.
The new clause would also introduce a statutory duty for the Government to lay the design of the scheme before Parliament in the form of a statutory instrument in order to allow full scrutiny. I entirely understand the thinking behind this, and transparency has been at the heart of our approach to developing the payments scheme. However, as I have said, I will publish and lay before Parliament a document setting out the scheme design in detail, which may then be debated as Parliament chooses. Again, I do not think that a statutory requirement will make my commitment to full transparency any stronger. The Government therefore resist the new clause.
Furthermore, including provision in the Bill as to the status and operation of the independent commission would pose a very serious risk to the timetable of the commission. The commission is already in operation and has been since July, and it is due to report at the end of January. Notwithstanding the speed with which the House is dealing with the Bill, it will still take several weeks for it to finish its passage through this House and the other place. If the commission had to be reformed after the Bill received Royal Assent, to restart its deliberations so as to comply with the provisions of the new clause, there would be a real risk of delay to its advice. This would, in turn, delay the making of payments to policyholders-something that I am sure none of us would want to happen. In the light of this, and given the comfort that I hope I have provided on the operation of the commission, I invite hon. Members to withdraw their amendments.
I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the information about the preferred vehicle for the payment scheme. Although we would have preferred to see some of the issues regarding the design of the scheme independently set out and enshrined in the Bill for the avoidance of doubt, I accept his commitment in making these points on the record. Similarly, in respect of the appeals mechanism, this debate has given us the opportunity to shed a little light on to how he envisages that arrangement playing out.
I hope that the Minister's commitment to allowing further parliamentary scrutiny will not involve merely tabling a negative resolution on the Order Paper so that Members have to beg the indulgence of those on the Treasury Bench to find time to debate it. Given the amount of interest in these matters across the House, the affirmative procedure would be preferable, as that would allow us to consider them in detail. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment 5, page 1, line 7, at end insert-
'(2D) The Treasury shall lay before Parliament details of the timings and planned dates for payments of compensation to which this section applies, no later than three months after commencement of this Act.'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 8, in page 1, line 7, at end insert-
'(2A) After determining the total amount of the payments that the Treasury is to authorise under subsection (2) and the persons to whom those payments are to be made, the Treasury must secure-
(a) that each of those persons is paid the full amount due to that person in a single payment, and
(b) that the single payment is made as soon as practicable.'.
The amendment is intended to draw out more information specifically about the timing of the compensation payment scheme that the Financial Secretary envisages. In particular, we wish to ensure that the Treasury will lay before Parliament details of the timing and planned dates for payments no later than three months after the commencement of the Act.
We know that this long saga has involved many raised hopes, which have often been dashed. Although there were very good reasons for the last Government's detailed consideration of complex issues, I accept in hindsight that decisions could and should have been taken more quickly and handled better. There were sound reasons why Ministers took a different approach to that of the Government today, but we are where we are, as the saying goes, and I wish to the ask the Financial Secretary a few questions about how the matter will progress from here onwards.
I am aware that table 3 in the spending review document, on page 12, sets out the phasing of the total finance set aside as being £520 million in 2011-12, £315 million in 2012-13, £210 million in 2013-14 and finally £100 million in 2014-15. As the explanatory notes to the Bill state, that comes to a total of £1.1 billion that has been set aside for this spending review period. Clearly there is a discrepancy with the £1.5 billion figure that we have been talking about, which presumably goes beyond the spending review period. I have a number of questions for the Financial Secretary, and I hope that he will expand upon the details.
First, on what basis have those figures been arrived at? Do they represent the expected phasing of payments, or are administrative costs included, for example, distorting the apparently higher first-year figure set out in the spending review document? I presume that the administration costs have to be set out somewhere in the budgetary figures. If so, will the Financial Secretary clarify his intentions? I do not want policyholders to labour under the misapprehension that they will necessarily receive the bulk of their compensation up front, as those figures might suggest.
At what stage will the timing and phasing of payments become clear? Does the Financial Secretary expect that the independent commission will set out those details early on, and will there be any opportunity to enshrine the timing of those arrangements in law, perhaps through regulations, even though they will be designed independently of Ministers? In other words, will the commission come back to Parliament and say, "This is how we are going proceed"?
There have been reports that three tranches of payments are expected over a four-year period. Can the Financial Secretary clarify whether that expectation is broadly reasonable for the policyholders involved? The Government are clearly about to hand over many of the arrangements to the independent commission and to National Savings & Investment, but it is still important that we know the broad parameters that they will use. That is the purpose of the amendment-we are seeking a public commitment and transparency about the timing of the payments.
I rise to support amendment 8. I do not want to go over all the ground that we covered in debating the previous amendments, but the purpose of the amendment is precisely what we talked about earlier. Hon. Members intervened to say, "Let's get this done. Let's get it over with and ensure that policyholders are properly compensated as quickly as possible."
It is clear that trapped annuitants will receive their compensation in staged payments over the life of their pensions. However, we get into complex territory again when discussing the other policyholders and the difference between with-profits and other annuities. As I understand it-I hope that the Financial Secretary will clarify this-tranches will be paid out over the life of the comprehensive spending review period. The third tranche will only get paid in 2013, which still leaves some £500 million to be paid out in the next comprehensive spending review period. As we understand it, this will be a long-drawn out affair, so perhaps we can have further clarification on the issue.
We have set aside £1.5 billion to compensate the victims of this scandal and we have set up an independent commission to design the scheme and decide how that money should be dispensed. The purpose of the amendment is to say that we should now get on with it and compensate those people while they are still alive. We should not hang on to the money and drag these payments out over an extended period.
We want to put in place a rapid approach. Once again, I congratulate the Treasury team on its rapid approach to resolving the scandal. None the less, if we are to have long and extended periods of payment, many policyholders who have been affected by this scandal will sadly have died before they can receive their money. Therefore, I trust that we can implement this clause and ensure that we demonstrate to all the policyholders who have been so badly affected by the scandal that they will receive their due compensation very quickly.
Let me deal with amendments 5 and 8. We have stated that our ambition is to commence payments in the middle of next year. As the Committee is aware, we have made great progress on this issue. Within six months of coming to office, we have published Sir John's report and the supporting material; we have provided the first bottom-up estimate of losses suffered by policyholders; we have set aside £1.5 billion for the payment schemes; we have announced that we will cover the full losses of eligible with-profits annuitants; and we have established the Independent Commission on Equitable Life Payments to advise us on the fair allocation of payments among policyholders. Such progress shows how seriously we take this matter and how quickly we want to find a resolution. Our ambition is to commence payments in the middle of next year, and our track record of getting things done quickly on Equitable Life shows that we are capable of doing so.
Let me set out the process that we are following to ensure that payments are made as quickly as possible. In line with out commitment to independence, we have set up the independent commission to advise us on how we can fairly allocate the funds among policyholders, with the exception of the with-profits annuitants and their estates, and on any priority groups or classes of person who should be paid earlier.
Such an approach will help to inform the sequencing of payments. To ensure that the payments can begin as soon as practicable, we have set a challenging timetable for the commission and it will report at the end of January 2011. Between the end of January and the dates that payments commence, we will be laying the advice of the independent commission over the operational technicalities of the scheme to ensure that the end-to-end process operates well. We will then publish a scheme design document that sets out the end-to-end process of the scheme in the spring. We will also finalise the arrangements with the delivery agent. That will help to ensure that when the scheme goes live, we can get payments to policyholders efficiently.
I hope that I have reassured hon. Members that this Government are committed to making payments to policyholders as soon as it is practicable and that we are taking all possible steps to achieve that. As a result, amendment 5 is unnecessary. I have addressed the points raised by Chris Leslie about the sequencing of payments. We are seeking advice from the new payments commission on how that sequencing will take place and how it will fit within the envelope of public spending that is set out in the comprehensive spending review.
Let me turn to amendment 8, standing in the name of Frank Dobson, to which my hon. Friend Bob Blackman spoke. The amendment deals with the issue of how payments should be made. I recognise the fact that policyholders have waited far too long for a resolution to the matter. That is why at the spending review we set out how we envisage the scheme working. I want to set out that vision again. Those policyholders who do not have a with-profits annuitants policy will receive their payments in one lump sum to give them the closure that they need quickly. As it happens, amendment 8, tabled by the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend, would mean that with-profits annuitants would not receive their payments in the way that we envisage. One of the reasons why we have been able to increase the amount available to policyholders is so that we can spread the amounts going to with-profits annuitants over the remainder of their lives. If my hon. Friend's amendment were accepted, it would stop that process and mean that their payments would come out of the £1 billion set aside at the time of the CSR. I therefore suggest that the amendment would not help policyholders to receive quite as much money as we believe they should.
Owing to logistical constraints associated with such a large and complex scheme and to affordability constraints, we cannot make all lump sum payments immediately. They will be paid out over the first three years of the spending review period. That is why I have asked the commission on payments to advise me on whether there are any classes of policyholders whose payments should be prioritised, to ensure that those in most urgent need of redress are paid first.
This may be a naive question, but box 2.7 in the spending review says:
"The Government expects the total amount of funding for the scheme to be in the region of £1.5 billion."
That is the envelope that we have been debating, and that figure matters quite a lot, especially for those other policyholders. However, the same box says that
"£1 billion will be allocated to the Payments Scheme in this Spending Review period, which will cover...the initial costs of the first three years of WPA"- with-profits annuitants-
"regular payments, and all payments to other policyholders."
Can the Minister explain the difference between the £1 billion and the £1.5 billion, and say how the timings will be affected? Presumably the other £500 million will arrive after the spending review period, but I am a bit confused on that point.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which gives me the opportunity to clarify the make-up of the £1.5 billion. The figure includes the full cost of the losses to with-profits annuitants-approximately £620 million-which will be made through regular payments. However, taking into account the pressures on the public purse, the Treasury could allocate only £1 billion over the first three years of the spending review. That will cover two things: the first three years of payments to with-profits annuitants, and lump-sum payments to all other policyholders and to the estates of deceased with-profits annuitants.
It is important to start to pay off with-profits annuitants' losses quickly, alongside the lump-sum payments to other policyholders. About £225 million of the £1 billion is for with-profits annuitants and their estates, leaving approximately £775 million for lump-sum payments to non-with-profits annuitants. The Towers Watson estimate of £620 million for with-profits annuity losses leaves approximately £395 million for the rest of the WPA losses from 2014-15 onwards. Those who are quicker at mental arithmetic than me will have worked out that the total comes to about £1.4 billion. The balance is a contingency, because the payments to with-profits annuitants are based on their longevity. We hope that they live long and healthy lives, and that buffer is set aside to cover this need. That is how the maths works out.
My right hon. Friend pre-empts a point that I was going to refer to in the clause stand part debate. He gives me an opportunity to say now that the payments will be free of tax.
You are right, Ms Primarolo, we have had an extensive debate, so I will ensure that I now have my notes to hand for the clause stand part debate. I should clarify the treatment of the payments under the tax and benefits system. They will not be treated as income for tax purposes, and will not be taken into account in the calculation of tax credits, which is a benefit for policyholders. In terms of benefits, they will be treated as capital rather than income, and given the beneficial nature of the treatment of capital in the benefits system, that helps policyholders. We have sought in the design of the scheme, through measures such as the tax and benefits treatment, to maximise the value so that policyholders will receive the full amount.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It is difficult to calculate that because, as he will recognise, the tax status of Equitable Life policyholders varies. Some pay no tax, some pay tax at the 20p rate, some pay tax at the 40p rate, and some may even pay tax at the 50p rate. The value will depend on their tax status, and we do not have sufficient access to taxpayers' records to be able to match Equitable Life policyholders with their tax records, so we cannot calculate the benefit. However, he will appreciate that it could provide a significant benefit to some policyholders, and I hope that they will recognise that when they receive their payments. We have sought to be as generous as possible in the tax and benefits treatment for that purpose.
I thank my right hon. Friend. When designing the scheme, we considered seriously how to ensure that policyholders would benefit as much as possible from the payments. If we had been less generous, we would have been accused of clawing back money through the back door, and that is an impression that we want to dispel.
I welcome that announcement, but there is a group of people who are affected in multiple ways: those who have funds in Equitable Life that are not yet in payment and who have been given transfer values substantially below what they believe the fund to be worth, even now. If they are waiting up to three years, and take the money out, accepting the transfer penalty, will they invalidate their entitlement under the scheme?
That is an important point. I am sure that a range of issues will emerge as we move through the scheme's design to payment. People who have had Equitable Life policies throughout the period and bought them post-September 1992 will receive compensation even if they have exited from Equitable Life's current arrangements. I hope that that provides clarification.
Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity, perhaps later, to issue a fuller statement on his very important announcement in response to my right hon. Friend Mr Redwood? I intended to raise the matter on Third Reading. There is no doubt that many policyholders will be delighted to hear the news, and it should be made more widely available to all policyholders so that they are aware of it.
My hon. Friend is right. The old saying is that the best way of keeping a secret is to make a speech in the House of Commons. I am sure that those of my hon. Friends who are in contact with Equitable Life policyholders will take the opportunity to write to them, and I hope that the Equitable Members Action Group, which is the main lobbying organisation on behalf of policyholders, will also take the opportunity to pass the information on to its members. It is important information for them, and we will continue to make policyholders aware of it as we communicate further details of the scheme.
Before that series of interventions, I was reflecting on amendment 8, and I want to say a little about why we are treating the with-profits annuitants differently from others in regard to payments. We need to recognise that the nature of the policies of that particular group of people is very different from that of other Equitable Life policyholders. Their losses relate not just to what has happened in the past, but to what will happen in the future. They will continue to receive a stream of income over a number of years from their with-profits annuity policy. We are now able to match that stream of income with their historic losses and their future losses. It makes sense for them to receive their payments in a way that reflects the income stream that they have lost, which is why they will receive their losses in regular payments over their lifetime.
In the light of that, I hope that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras will decide not to press amendment 8 to a vote, because the approach that he suggests is not appropriate for with-profits annuitants. We are determined to make swift progress on making payments to other policyholders, however, and they will get lump sum payments that will be free of tax.
The Minister has put on record some helpful information about the timing of the payment arrangements, and I do not think that it would add a great deal if we were to press the amendment to the vote. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: 7, page 1, line 7, at end insert-
"In determining the amount of the payments that it is appropriate for the Treasury to authorise under subsection (2), the Treasury must have regard to such matters relating to the adverse effects of that maladministration on those persons and the proper calculation of their resulting losses as have been determined by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to be relevant to and appropriate for that calculation.".- (Frank Dobson.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment made: 6, page 1, line 20, at end insert-
"( ) The functions of the Director of Savings include anything the Director is appointed by the Treasury to do in connection with payments to which this section applies.".- (Mr Hoban.)
Question put forthwith (
Question agreed to.
Clause 1, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair .
Bill, as amended, reported .
Bill, as amended in the Committee, considered .
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Government want to see justice for Equitable Life's policyholders, and this is clearly reflected in the actions that we have taken since coming to office. In six short months, the coalition Government have made real progress towards implementing their pledge to make
"fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policyholders...for their relative loss as a result of regulatory failure."-[ Hansard, 26 May 2010; Vol. 554, c. 1WS.]
Since coming to power, we have published the first ever estimates of losses suffered by policyholders, considered representations on them, and endorsed a relative loss figure of £4.3 billion-in line with the parliamentary ombudsman's findings. We have set aside £1.5 billion to make payments, which is more than four times the amount that Sir John Chadwick's methodology produced. This strikes the right balance between fairness to policyholders and fairness to the taxpayer.
We have announced that we will cover the full losses of those policyholders who have or have had with-profits annuities. We have established an independent commission to assess how best to allocate payments to policyholders. While giving the commission wide discretion, we have made it clear that we do not expect payments to policyholders to be means-tested and that we expect payments to be made to the estates of deceased policyholders. Our goal is to make the first payments to policyholders towards the middle of next year. This is a huge achievement, of which we can be rightly proud.
The Bill is a vital part of this work. It gives the Treasury the authority to incur expenditure to make payments to policyholders. Without this Bill, redress for those who have suffered so long would be impossible. That is why we have moved so quickly. To delay further action would be unfair to those who have already waited over a decade for a resolution. The sooner this legislation is in place, the sooner we can bring their suffering to an end. I know that right hon. and hon. Members of all parties fully support us on that.
We announced as part of the spending review that it was our intention to make these payments tax free. Today's Bill gives the Treasury the power to make an order allowing these payments to be disregarded for tax. The payments will also be disregarded for the purposes of tax credits.
Finally, the Bill enables the Government to consider what effect, if any, these payments will have on people's eligibility for certain means-tested, state-funded support. I outlined in the debate on the final group of amendments how this treatment will apply to welfare benefits. We are still considering how the payments will affect support such as social care.
We have concluded that lump-sum payments made as part of this scheme will be disregarded as income for the purposes of assessing eligibility for means-tested benefits. Instead, they will be classed as capital. Capital limits do not immediately cut off eligibility for benefits; they work on a sliding scale, gradually reducing support for individuals with larger assets. It is unlikely that many recipients who would otherwise have been eligible for means-tested benefits will receive payments that dramatically affect this eligibility. For with-profits annuitants, regular payments will be treated as income in a similar way to the lost income stream that these payments represent.
Earlier today, hon. Members debated in detail a Government amendment that gives National Savings & Investments the power to deliver payments. That being a large and potentially complex task, it is essential that the delivery partner has the experience and expertise to do the job properly and cost-effectively. When judged against these criteria and the imperative for payments to begin as soon as possible, National Savings & Investments was the strongest candidate, which was the motivation for including this amendment in the Bill.
I am aware of the concerns that hon. Members have voiced about the Bill's brevity. It is, indeed, a two-clause Bill and it does not include detail about the payments scheme that would allow Parliament to scrutinise and debate the issue. I would like to point out that there is no requirement for the Bill to do so; it is simply an enabling Bill to give the Treasury the power to make these payments to policyholders-and nothing more. The scheme design does not require statutory footing and, of course, before the scheme design is finalised, we first need to make progress on this Bill. If we had waited for the scheme design to be finalised before proceeding with the Bill, it would have taken far longer before we could start to make payments. What the Treasury has sought to do is to work on as many streams as possible in parallel, within the constraints of our legal powers.
Let me reassure all hon. Members that I am fully committed to transparency at every stage of this process. I understand and sympathise with Members' concerns, and for this reason I will publish a document setting out the scheme design in detail and lay it before Parliament for full scrutiny. Following the independent commission's publication of its final advice, I will make a statement setting out the Government's response.
I also know that Members are keen to discover whether a robust appeals process will be in place, one that will allow policyholders who believe their payment has been wrongly calculated to challenge this judgment. I am therefore pleased to confirm that we will be appointing a review panel, independent of NS&I, with full powers to consider any such challenges and to overturn any decision that it finds incorrect. As I said to Chris Leslie in an earlier debate, the costs of that appeal mechanism will not be borne by the compensation pot. We want to ensure that policyholders get the full value of the money that we set aside for compensation payments.
In the interests of transparency, I should like to set out the next steps in the process of resolving this long and complex issue. As a starting point, I hope that today's Bill will receive Royal Assent by the end of the year. That will allow the delivery partner to start preparations early in the new year, and to be well placed to make the first payments by the middle of the year, as is our ambition. It is important for the delivery partner to start work early, in order to accelerate the timetable to make those payments. The independent commission is due to report to me in late January and, following that, we will incorporate its recommendations in the design of the scheme, which will then be scrutinised by Parliament.
As I said earlier, I would encourage hon. Members on both sides of the House, whether they are new to the issue or have run with it for many years, as so many of us have, to engage with the commission in its work. It is independent of the Treasury, and the three commissioners are very experienced. I believe that they have the expertise and skills to design a proper payments scheme for policyholders. However, they would welcome contributions from everybody who has participated in the debate, not just in the House but across the country over the past decade, to enable them to produce the best possible scheme design, which meets as far as possible the aspirations of people who have had policies with Equitable Life.
Since the Government took office in May, we have come a long way. We have achieved far more in recent months than was achieved in recent years. We have quantified relative loss suffered because of maladministration. We have identified the losses that policyholders have suffered on a bottom-up basis, by groups of policies and by age. For the first time, a proper understanding has been established of the losses suffered. That is a tribute to the hard work conducted by Towers Watson and others to develop that estimate. As a consequence of the spending review, we have been able to assess the quantum of losses, to decide the loss figure that we accept. We have accepted the ombudsman's view that relative loss is the best guide. We set aside £1.5 billion of funding to cover the cost of the payments scheme. We have announced that the losses of post 1992 with-profits annuitants will be covered entirely by the Government. We have also established an independent commission to advise on the allocation of funding to not-with-profits annuitants policyholders.
As a Government, we want to see a swift resolution to this matter. We want the many policyholders who have waited in financial purgatory for so many years, and who have campaigned so hard for justice, to receive the payments that are rightfully theirs. No one could disagree that policyholders have waited too long for justice. Although the debate has been relatively brief, it is not just the tip of the iceberg-to which the hon. Member for Nottingham East referred-as anyone who has participated in the debate will recognise. Passing this important Bill is essential to achieving justice, and I commend it to the House.
The short debate that we have had has covered a set of specific issues, largely arising from the Government's conclusions in the spending review about how to compensate those suffering injustice following maladministration by insurance and financial regulators in the case of Equitable Life. I am glad that we have had the opportunity to talk about the independence of the payment scheme. We have been able to hold the Government's feet to the fire on whether it will match the ombudsman's model. I am glad that the Minister said that he would welcome further comments from her on the design of the compensation scheme. It will be interesting to see whether she endorses it as being the fair and transparent scheme that many Members have pledged to deliver.
We have also discussed the appeals procedure and the timing of payments. In response to the second ombudsman's report, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, offered an apology for the past failings of the regulators. That is an important point, which is separate from the question of whether the regulators can be held fully or only partly responsible for the losses incurred by the maverick actions of Equitable Life's management during the 1980s and early 1990s. I am sorry that, at least during this debate, Ministers have not also expressed regret, clearly and on the record, for the part that their party played during the 1980s in failing adequately to establish a regulatory system to prevent the vast bulk of the Equitable Life problems from arising in the first place. I know that it was a long time ago and that none of the current Ministers were in any way responsible, but I think it would have been a helpful gesture to draw a line under the failings that had occurred in the past. After all, Lord Penrose concluded in his inquiry report that Ministers in the late 1980s
"did not regard the subject" of updating life insurance regulation
"as a high priority for legislation."
He noted that
"the Government's objective was to deregulate, to reduce regulatory burdens on business, to avoid interference in private companies, and to let market forces prevail."
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is new to this topic, but we have already clearly expressed our apologies. Unlike the last Government, we immediately accepted all the ombudsman's findings of failure. The hon. Gentleman's party did not even have the courage to do that.
I am glad that the Minister has been able to reiterate points that he did not make in his Third Reading speech. I do not necessarily want to reopen the box entirely, but it is important for both parties to recognise that mistakes have been made, and that things should and could have been done better by those on both sides. In particular, however, I think it is important not to gain the impression that failings did not occur on the watch of the Minister's party. Lord Penrose found that Conservative Ministers
"argued against reform in the... 1990s", and that the United Kingdom "led the resistance" to Europe-wide attempts to update the third life directive. Those who argue that Labour alone fell short in respect of reacting to the Equitable Life debacle should realise that the ideological approach pursued by the Conservatives was absolutely central to causing the mess in the first place.
As Members know, the last Government would have chosen a different route to compensation. We were anxious that a poorly designed compensation scheme might entail a person-by-person review aimed at disentangling individual losses one by one, examining more than 30 million investment decisions by 1.5 million people over 20 years. That would have been a mammoth administrative task. Moreover, the ombudsman had implied that individuals would need to prove that they had relied on the regulatory returns and had been misled as a result. The last Government did not believe that such an approach could be feasible.
It was for those reasons that Sir John Chadwick was asked to explore a more realistic and reliable payment scheme methodology. He concluded that the Treasury should deal with the issue by grouping cases into about 20 broad categories of policyholders who were in similar circumstances. The payment scheme would then deduce the relative loss in each category in comparison with the outcomes of a basket of other policies that had not suffered from the same regulatory failings. The Government have clearly embarked on a different course, although they have taken up some of Chadwick's pragmatic suggestions about the automaticity of compensation. We genuinely hope that that will work.
We are pleased that this short paving Bill is before the House, because we feel strongly that the matter should be resolved. The Committee stage gave us an opportunity to question the Government on several aspects of their approach, and I am glad that we have had an opportunity to draw them out further today.
Let me end by simply raising a question mark over the words of Ministers before May, when the general election took place, in comparison with their actions today. Many hundreds of thousands of Equitable Life policyholders-possibly as many as 1 million-were led to believe that in signing the EMAG pledge, Ministers were supporting a particular outcome that may not now arrive. Most Conservative Members signed that pledge. They pledged to their constituents that
"if I am elected to Parliament at the next general election, I will support and vote for proper compensation for victims of the Equitable Life scandal and I will support and vote to set up a swift, simple, transparent and fair payment scheme-independent of government-as recommended by the Parliamentary Ombudsman."
As the payment decisions are made in the next few years and the cheques finally start to arrive, EMAG members and policyholders who are not in line to receive 100% compensation for their full relative losses will have to draw their own conclusions as to whether the Government have fulfilled their promises. So far the signs are that many policyholders do not feel that those Members who signed the pledge are keeping their word. They feel that the scheme will fall short of proper compensation and a fair payment scheme.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that £1.5 billion does not amount to proper compensation. I came to watch the earlier debate when the Minister was Stephen Timms, and he was standing by the Chadwick figure, but Chris Leslie now seems to be saying that four times more than the position the Labour party were defending back then is not proper compensation.
The difference between the hon. Gentleman and me is that I did not sign the EMAG pledge. I always felt, as did many of my colleagues, that there were real and practical difficulties in raising constituents' hopes in the way that the hon. Gentleman perhaps did. That is a matter for him and his constituents. It is up to him to convince them that the result of these deliberations has been to put in place full and fair compensation in accordance with the pledge. I am simply making the point that this is a matter of honour for those hon. Members who signed the pledge.
I rise to gently chide the hon. Gentleman. We have had discussions with EMAG representatives, and I do not think they were under any illusions that they were necessarily going to get back every single penny that was lost. I have talked to my local representatives, and I think they are realistic enough to realise that we have done the best we possibly can. I am not happy with the situation for the pre-1992 annuities, but even so, what we are giving them is 100 times better than previously. They look to us to deliver that, but they are realistic enough to know that, in these hard times we cannot give them everything. I think for the hon. Gentleman to say, "I didn't sign the pledge" is just copping out.
I disagree about the pledge, and I did not sign it for particular reasons, but my point is simply that the hon. Lady signed the pledge before the general election and it committed her to a number of things, one of which was somehow to fulfil the aspirations of those policyholders who interpreted the pledge in a particular way. I, too, have met EMAG representatives and they are not as happy and understanding as the hon. Lady suggests.
The difference is that I did not raise people's hopes for electoral purposes-because I wanted to harvest their support-only to dash them after the general election. We are very used to Conservative Members making pledges on a whole series of things-not least student finance, which is quite pertinent right now-and then breaking their promises. I am not saying that Members are necessarily in breach of their pledge. All I am saying is that it is for them to honour it, in accordance with their consciences and what their constituents will say to them as to whether the compensation outcome amounts to a fair payment scheme and proper compensation.
There is a key point for the victims of this scandal in my constituency of Stourbridge. Most of those whom I have met understand that the commitments that were given always had the proviso of the state of the public finances. That is a very relevant point.
I wish so much that we could have offered people more, but given the difference between Chadwick's recommendations, which were the baseline, and the £1.5 billion, as well as the state of the public finances, many people who have suffered in this scandal will feel that they have been treated reasonably, although I accept the hon. Gentleman's assessment that the EMAG pressure group is still battling for more. That is its role as a pressure group.
A reasonable point from the hon. Lady. All I am saying is that the pledge that some Members signed did not say explicitly, "As resources allow." [Interruption.] No, it does not say that in the pledge. The pledge simply says that they will have a fair and transparent payments scheme. I doubt very much that the vast majority of those other policyholders who will not be getting the 100%-clearly it will be welcomed by those with-profits annuitants, who are receiving 100% of their relative losses-but may be receiving, I am told, between 15 and 20% of their relative losses will feel that hon. Members who raised their hopes are actually fulfilling them.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is new to his role, but I would have hoped that he had read the ombudsman's report before representing the Opposition at the Dispatch Box. He would have seen that the ombudsman says that the compensation figure must take account of the effect on the public purse.
I completely accept that that is what it says in the detail of the ombudsman's report, but it does not say that in the pledge that the hon. Gentleman signed. In an electoral context, he raised the hopes of many of his constituents. He may be able to face them and say, "Absolutely, I am fulfilling what I promised." If he feels that and they are happy with it, they will re-elect him, and everybody will be happy and ride off into the sunset, but I have a feeling that some policyholders will continue to be discontented with the Government's position. It certainly did not say, either in the manifestos or in the pledge that he signed, perhaps scribbled in a little addendum, "Oh, by the way, we are going to give you only a fraction of the £4.5 billion to £6 billion that you understand as the relative losses." That is simply not there. I am not claiming, because I did not sign that pledge, to have raised those hopes, but Members on the Government Benches did.
Is it the hon. Gentleman's position that he did not promise anything, he was not going to give anything, Chadwick was the maximum and he might as well vote against the Bill?
Liberal Democrats need to learn that people should not make promises they cannot keep. There is a suggestion that Liberal Democrats in particular have been growing used to making promises that they cannot keep, so the right hon. Gentleman should pause for a moment because his political arguments are haemorrhaging on a number of fronts. That is because some Members raised a series of aspirations before the election, making suggestions and promises, and there are some who will feel that he is now falling short of that. That is the only point that I seek to make. I am not claiming perfection for my behaviour, nor am I claiming in any way that I could fulfil all the hopes of the policyholders, but my point is that Members on the Government Benches did, and they should be hoist on their own petard for signing that EMAG pledge.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I know him to be a generous Member of the House. With his customary generosity, will he acknowledge that the amount is nevertheless three times that which the previous Government said they would have given as compensation?
We will not know that, because Chadwick's report was published after the general election. We had a series of steps that would have then been taken, but history went in a different direction because the spending review and the Budget were undertaken by a different party, not by our party in government. I am not saying that there are magic solutions to this issue. These are complex matters and there are technical reasons for both the methodologies that are being used in the compensation and the timings and the discussions around them. It is important to bear in mind the wider needs of the public purse. We have consistently said that and now the Government have come round to that point of view. I understand why they did.
The previous Government took six months to dither over what they would do about the ombudsman's report, whereas we accepted her recommendations straight away-there had been maladministration, there should be compensation for relative loss, and affordability was a key part of her recommendations. We accepted that quickly, whereas his right hon. and hon. Friends sat on their hands.
I disagree with that. The hon. Gentleman certainly did not say before the general election that this would be £1.5 billion- [ Interruption. ] Oh, did he? Where did he say before the general election that this would be £1.5 billion? I shall give way to him if he can give a reference for that. Answer came there none-proof in point that after the general election a different set of expectations was set out by the Government than those that might have been an interpretation of the Minister's words before the election.
Will the shadow Minister at least concede that one of the greatest groups of victims-some were in my constituency-were those who died while waiting for his Government to make any progress? This Government should at least be congratulated for getting on and doing something, because in this context something is definitely better than the nothing that was offered by the Opposition.
I am not going to claim that everything in the garden was rosy in the period that elapsed between the findings of the various commissions. Suffice it to say that Penrose spent some two and half years on his inquiry and the ombudsman spent nearly four years on hers. This was not simply a Government issue. There were very complex issues in which a set of decisions had to be resolved. There are perfectly good and sound reasons for some of the time that it took to come to conclusions on these questions. Things could certainly have been handled better; I have already said that this evening.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain the inactivity on the matter while his party was in government, particularly during the demise of the Icelandic banking industry, when his Government bailed out many investors who were affected by it at the drop of a hat?
Order. Before Chris Leslie answers, may I remind the House that this is Third Reading and that it is timed, which means that it will conclude at three minutes past 5? Members who have sat through the debate this afternoon and who wish to speak on Third Reading might not get the opportunity to do so. I shall call Mr Leslie back to the Dispatch Box to respond to the intervention, but perhaps everybody in the Chamber could bear my point in mind.
Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is certainly incumbent on us all to be brief as far as we can. I have set out the position as I see it. I know that Government Members will disagree, but I do not wish to impugn their intentions. I was simply seeking to point out that they are held to a pledge that not all Members are held to and that they will be judged on that.
We are not minded to oppose the legislation this evening. This is a necessary paving Bill, but we accept that the devil will be in the detail and we await the further scrutiny of the measures that will come subsequently.
The mere fact that it is
The Front-Bench spokesman for the coalition Government is to be commended, because we are debating a figure that is four times the amount that Chadwick recommended. I remind the House of the economic landscape that we have inherited. We are borrowing £500 million a day; every time we go to bed and wake up in the morning, we have been saddled with another £500 million of debt by the previous Government. Just paying the interest on that debt costs £120 million a day-just to stand still. Against that background, and within six months of this Parliament, we have been able to deliver the Third Reading of this Bill for victims of the Equitable Life tragedy.
I want to highlight some of the points that my hon. Friend Bob Blackman, chairman of the all-party group on justice for Equitable Life policyholders, has made. He has made some forceful points, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans). It is important to remember what we heard from the Minister about the additional money that will come as a result of the tax treatment of the payments. He would be right to say that he had already shared this information with us but that it was hidden in the detail. That important point needs further airing.
I repeat a recommendation that I made in Committee, although I know it would be complex: it would be incredibly helpful for us all if the additional benefit for different tax bands provided by that tax treatment could be calculated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East rightly reminded us, many hon. Members signed the pledge on Equitable Life before the election. I am proud that I signed it and many of my colleagues and I believe that we have absolutely delivered on it. There is a lot of detail to get through and we will all work very hard to ensure that we deliver for the victims of Equitable Life. I hope that the shadow Minister will reflect on his remarks and feel that he could take some of them back. I hope also that he will be much more considered next time he speaks on this topic.
Given the shortage of time I shall be brief. Nadhim Zahawi reminds us of the daily interest payments on the current national debt and I could respond that if we delayed payments by two days, we might have enough, by his calculations, to pay the pre-1992 annuitants, but I shall not be frivolous.
In Committee, I might have been a little churlish in my introductory remarks on my amendment, because I really do want to congratulate the Government on what they have done. They have not gone far enough, but they have made progress and I do not want to appear reluctant in congratulating them. Many hon. Members thought I was being reluctant, but my remarks were slightly tongue in cheek. It is good that the Government have introduced a scheme quickly, that payments will be made from next year and that the quantum is now roughly £1.5 billion instead of £0.5 billion-about three times more than Chadwick suggested. That is progress, and many Equitable policyholders will be very pleased.
I hope the Minister will accept that there is still some injustice, not least for those pre-1992 annuitants, for whom 76 right hon. and hon. Members voted for my amendment. As the Minister knows, I do not accept his argument on that. I hope he will understand that injustice still exists, that we will have to deal with it in some way or another if we can, and that EMAG will continue to fight its corner, as it must, until it sees justice for all policyholders and annuitants who took out policies with the discredited Equitable Life.
I and my co-chair, Bob Blackman, together with the secretary of the all-party group, have written to Ann Abraham, the ombudsman, asking her a number of questions. We hope that in due course we will receive a response, which we would want to share with the House or at least with the rest of the all-party group. On that subject, I hope the Minister will be able to accept my previous invitation to attend one of our meetings at a time convenient to him, so that we can discuss the details of the scheme, understand more clearly how it will work and perhaps add some thoughts of our own on how to make it work more effectively.
Finally, I hope that in passing the Bill today and making it become law, and in paving the way for the compensation scheme, we as parliamentarians all appreciate the lessons that have been learned from the poor or non-existent regulation of companies such as Equitable Life so that future annuitants and policyholders never have to suffer in this way again.
I am privileged to follow my co-chair of the all-party group that is seeking justice for the policyholders who were so wrongfully treated by the previous Government. We can see where interest in supporting the policyholders lies. It is on the coalition Government Benches. Sadly, with the exception of those hon. Members who are present, there is a total lack of interest among Opposition Members in listening to or participating in the debate. That is typical of what has gone on for the past 10 years. It is not fair to compare a potential failure to regulate with the fact of conniving with the regulator and the company to prevent people from receiving compensation. That is precisely what the previous Government did.
I congratulate the Treasury team on taking swift, firm and transparent action to ensure that we can pay swiftly those who have been wronged. That is not being done as quickly as I would like, but we have to go through the mechanisms of government and legislation. We must make sure that the people who have been so badly wronged are compensated properly, and that that process is fair and is seen to be independent of Government.
The debate that we had this afternoon in Committee clarified a number of issues. I trust that the people who are watching from home, thinking about how much money they will receive and when they will receive it, will be more satisfied that the Government and the Treasury team have taken on board the lobbying and the actions undertaken by Members, primarily on the Government Benches, to make sure that the scheme is put in place as swiftly as possible and pays the maximum possible.
We should remember that the Bill will enable the Treasury to pay the money out as swiftly as possible. It does not deal with the sums that are due to be paid out, although the Government accept completely the ombudsman's view that the compensation would be £4.6 billion if the public purse had permitted that. That is massively different from what Chadwick recommended.
If the Labour Government had acted when they should have done, £1.5 billion would have represented 100% compensation for everyone that had been so badly wronged. However, the dragging of feet over the past 10 years means that we are in the parlous state in which people who should be due their compensation are dying every day, and every day that we delay means that, sadly, more people will not receive their compensation.
Many Members have talked about the moral imperative behind sorting out the situation, but does my hon. Friend agree that moral intervention requires practical Government action, which is what we are seeing today?
Indeed. That is the clear duty of the coalition Government, and that is why I wholeheartedly praise the Treasury team for demonstrating such action.
There has been no greater issue than the tax treatment of the compensation that is due, and I congratulate once again the Treasury on that measure, because it will add to the compensation. Many people sitting at home will have been calculating their compensation less the amount of tax that they regularly pay. Now they know that they will receive a far bigger tax-free income, and that is something else of which we can be proud.
I would have much preferred more money to be provided. Would not we all? But would not we all rather be in a position whereby the Treasury was not almost bankrupt and we had not been left with a massive deficit? The all-party group will continue to ensure that, in this process, the Treasury will be able to communicate with all parliamentarians, and EMAG will be able to lobby to ensure that, when individuals begin to receive their payments, which will be the acid test, they feel satisfied that the wrong that has been done to them has been compensated. That is something of which we would all be proud. We can take great pride in the fact that the process is happening quickly, with purpose and transparency, and that the pledge that we all signed is being honoured. Some people may say, "It is not being honoured in full," but it is, and clearly the economic circumstances of the day dictate what we can do.
As I said in an earlier intervention, we should revisit the position in five years' time when the economy will have recovered and we will be in a much stronger position because of the coalition Government's decisions. There may be a case then for reconsidering whether the people who took out policies but will not retire for five, 10, 15, even 25 years should receive a top-up. That is a reasonable proposal, and it is sensible for the coalition Government to consider it.
I commend the Bill to the House. I support it 101%, and the Treasury team are to be congratulated not only on what they have done, but on the clear answers that they have given to the points that have been made as we have considered the Bill in detail.
No one is going to oppose the Bill's Third Reading, for the simple reason that, if it fell, no one would receive any money. None the less, dealing with the Bill has in many ways been a frustrating experience. It is a paving Bill, as others have said, and the big elephant in the room is the cap and its effect on the overall amount of money available.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the Government have moved swiftly, and that is welcome. After 10 years spent arguing about the matter, we are finally getting somewhere with it, but to some extent the Bill is a missed opportunity, because of the cap and the inability to do anything about the Treasury's decision to introduce one. The effect will be dramatic. Nobody is arguing that, in the current situation, everybody should receive all the money to which they might be entitled. Even EMAG accepts that there will be, as the group put it, a "haircut", but some people will lose 80% of the compensation that they should have received, and that is not fair.
There are other inequities involved. I was frankly baffled by the Minister's mental contortions over the exclusion of pre-1992 with-profits annuitants. As I understand his remarks, we are now in the position where maladministration is okay as long as one does not know about it and where it becomes an issue only when one does know about it. That seems utterly perverse. By resorting to these measures, the Government have undermined what could have been a very good end to this long-running matter.
Bob Blackman is right-had the previous Labour Government grasped the nettle at an early stage, this issue could have been dealt with much more cheaply. A lot of the fault over the cost lies with the previous Government's unwillingness to do anything about it. Many of us have spent years in this House arguing that they should have done so; I have not changed my position over that period.
I think that there should be compensation, and I welcome what has been done. It is not sufficient, however, and many policyholders will still feel very aggrieved, and rightly so. It could have been dealt with better had it been done differently, perhaps with a larger cap or payments over a longer period. I can give half a thanks for the Bill, but I think that the Government will face problems in future because of their failure fully to deal with the issue.
I must declare an interest in that I have a very small Equitable Life policy-so small that I do not think I will qualify for any repayment. My concern is for the large number of my constituents whose entire retirement is dependent on Equitable Life policies. The list of the people who write to me includes many of those who have contributed most to the community over the years: that is a striking feature of the names that I see in the correspondence. Many of them will still be angry at how little they are going to get for all the savings they put by.
The first thing to remember is that the primary responsibility for this situation rests with the utterly irresponsible management of Equitable Life. In many ways, that was a disgrace to the mutual movement. It underlines a weakness in the mutual movement, of which I am very supportive in general, which is that executives who want to advance their own careers favour the acquiring of new members at the expense of the interests of existing members. It happened at Equitable Life, it happened at Northern Rock, and it happens in building societies; it is something that the mutual movement has to watch very carefully.
The regulatory failure that occurred is the basis of the Bill, which I hope we shall give a Third Reading. That regulatory failure has not led to action within anything like the time scale that it should have done. A decade has gone by: people have got older and people have died while action should have been taken.
I very much welcome the action that the Government have taken, very quickly, within a short time of their coming into office. I welcome the further announcements that the Minister has made in saying that there will be no tax liability and no effect on tax credits, and that special considerable will be given to the social care situation, bearing in mind that quite a lot of Equitable Life policyholders are now in social care, either at home or in residential care, and their cases need to be considered very carefully. I am grateful to the ombudsman for the work that she has put into this matter, and for her persistence in doing so, and to EMAG, which has done such a tremendous job.
This is not full redress even for all the regulatory failure that occurred, and I would not expect policyholders to be satisfied that they have got all that they are morally entitled to. However, the fact that the Government have moved quickly to ensure that payments will be made makes me feel entirely justified in going into the Lobby in support of the Bill. I am rather depressed that the response of Labour Front Benchers has been to say to the Government, "You gave people the impression that they might get more, and even though you're giving three times more than Labour would even have contemplated, we, the Labour party, did not promise anything at all." We had to act, and I am grateful for the fact that Ministers are doing so.
This is a Third Reading debate, and I do not believe that the House should, or will, divide on the Bill at this stage.
As we have rehearsed in debates not only today but on other occasions, this is a can that was kicked in front of the Government for a very long time, to the frustration and disgust of very many people. I am glad that although not everyone who has lost out will be doing handstands, we no longer have the degree of hand-wringing from Government that we had for too many years.
In the earlier debates, I, like others, had some questions and criticisms. Those criticisms were because of the inadequacies and arbitrary limits in the provisions that have been put in place. Some of us have genuine concerns that, notwithstanding how much better the provisions are than those the previous Government were going to make, we as a Parliament should be careful about creating a situation in which we have a cap one on hand and a cut-off on the other, which together will conspire to create a selective injustice against some people.
When the Financial Secretary responded to debates on amendments, he made it clear that assessments of pre-1992 annuitants could be made to allow cases to be identified in which people had benefited from the inadequate regulation rather than losing out. In those cases, we should better provide for a scheme that will deal with everyone on a case-by-case basis, rather than risk class exclusion by assumption, which is what the cut-off provides for. I ask the Government to consider that further as they take the scheme forward.
I appreciate the Financial Secretary's indications that added consideration has been given to tax treatment and tax credits, and to the social care implications complications that could arise. I give the Government credit for that sensitivity and responsiveness.
My hon. Friend Chris Leslie rightly warned the Liberal Democrats to be careful not to make promises that they cannot keep. As a friend of the Labour party, but someone who was frustrated sitting on the Benches with Labour Members during the last Parliament, may I say that I hope Labour's Front Benchers also learn to be careful about making arguments that they cannot sustain? He has unfortunately been left in a position of trying to criticise the Bill, but he could not even afford to divide the Committee on straightforward, pure amendments. I feel sorry for him that the last Government's record put him in that position, and that he was left to make arguments that ended up, with all due respect, veering towards cynicism while the rest of us were trying to keep our arguments within the realms of legitimate criticism. However, I accept fully that he is not responsible for that position.
It is important to remember that this is not just a matter of what one Government or another did. The debates have shown that many Members of all parties have met constituents and carried their concerns. People have suffered compound distress, and that is what cannot be quantified. Someone might quantify what amount of money should be due to people and how much we can afford to give them, but we cannot calculate the compound distress caused to people not just by their loss but by the long indifference and inertia.
I acknowledged earlier the work in the previous Parliament done by my hon. Friend Mr Hamilton, and we all acknowledge the work in this Parliament of Bob Blackman, who has served notice that he will continue it. It is also appropriate to acknowledge the huge role played in the previous Parliament by Daniel Kawczynski. Perhaps it is right that a Member from one of the smaller parties says so; as he is currently a Parliamentary Private Secretary, he may not be in a position to participate in the active, vocal way that he so often did.
Many of us have criticised Sir John Chadwick today and at other times. I remember the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham reminding me of a line that I used to hear about Fanny Craddock. Apparently she used to offer some chicken recipe, and the first line of the recipe was, "First, catch your chicken." The hon. Gentleman and the all-party Equitable Life group had that difficulty with Sir John Chadwick, in trying to get him in and ensure that he and the Government properly engaged with them. Although many people will see shortcomings in the provisions, the fact is they represent huge and welcome progress. Some redress will now be given to people, and the quicker that that can happen the better.
None the less, we need to iron out any inconsistencies. Some of us are worried about something the Minister said earlier and the sort of precedence that it might create. He said that because people did not know about the maladministration, they can be deemed not to have suffered the same loss as those who did know. That is not an argument that I would ever want to become a rule of thumb for any such scheme again.
Like many others hon. Members, I have had a huge amount of correspondence on this issue. I have also met many of the policyholders and heard their sad tales and the way in which this drawn-out saga has affected their lives. I congratulate the Equitable Members Action Group on its hard-fought campaign and commend the great work that has been going on in the all-party parliamentary group. That has given many of us in this House, particularly new Members, an awareness of the situation. None the less, it has been a drawn-out saga, and I am delighted that the Minister has taken very speedy action to address the outstanding issues. He has made this Bill a priority and put forward £1.5 billion to assist with compensation at a very difficult time for the economy. Those are genuinely positive developments. As my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) have said, we have also had clarity on the tax treatment, which is welcomed by all of us.
I congratulate the Minister on his quick choice of National Savings & Investment to lead forward the speedy implementation. At the time of his ministerial statement, I remember his assuring the House that there would be a clear communication plan to help him inform policyholders on developments. I continue to urge both him and his Treasury officials to learn from previous compensation schemes to ensure that this one has flawless implementation. That is what the policyholders deserve after years of waiting. We cannot let them down at the point of implementation and operation.
Although it is essential to have clear information available through e-mails and websites, we must not forget the age profile of the people whom we seek to help. They are, typically, older-much older-and will need written communication and properly manned contact centres to ensure that they get the customer service that they need.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is a real scandal that no settlement was made during the long years of the previous Government while many thousands of innocent victims, including my mother, died, and that that should remain on the previous Government's conscience for ever?
I agree. It is a tragedy that this has taken this long. Today's debate has been reasonable, but I felt let down by the uncharacteristic tone that was struck by Chris Leslie.
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order,
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.