I beg to move,
That this House
welcomes the Government’s acceptance in full of the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s findings in relation to its maladministration with regard to Equitable Life;
notes that the Parliamentary Ombudsman recommended that policyholders should be put back in the position they would have been had maladministration not occurred;
further notes that the overwhelming majority of victims have only received partial compensation compared to the confirmed losses directly attributed to regulatory failures;
regrets that the Government made no further funding available in the Spring Budget 2017; and calls on the Government to make a commitment to provide full compensation to victims of the scandal as the economy continues to recover.
I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am the co-Chair of the all-party parliamentary group for justice for Equitable Life policyholders.
This saga has been going on for more than 25 years. There have been debates in this House on many occasions. I am delighted the Government took action as early as 2010 to provide compensation for the victims of this scandal. This is a unique scandal, and there are three sets of individuals involved. For the benefit of all Members, I will in due course briefly go through the issues faced by those three sets of people.
It is clear that this is a unique case. When I stood for election in 2010, individual candidates made relatively few promises and pledges, but one of the pledges I made was to seek full compensation for Equitable Life policyholders, and I can assure those affected that I and my colleagues will continue this fight until every policyholder has received the full compensation they are due.
Given the failure of the regulator to identify, let alone expose, the problem, what information was in the public domain that a savvy investor could have taken into account and that might have alarmed him?
That intervention goes to the heart of the matter. The reality is that people who were investing their life savings in pension schemes, from the time when it was possible to take out personal pensions, were persuaded by unscrupulous Equitable Life salespeople to transfer those life savings—their hard-earned money—into a Ponzi-like scheme. They were promised bonuses that were unachievable, and the regulator knew they were unachievable. All was well while enough money was coming in, but eventually, as we know, the money coming in was insufficient to pay the bonuses expected, and disaster loomed. The key point, as my right hon. Friend points out, is that there was no information in the public domain, and individuals could not have known that they would be affected, but they were none the less. The regulator, who should have been overseeing this, knew what was going on, and the Treasury knew what was going on, but no one took any action. This was hidden because the cost of collapse to the public purse was so immense that this could not be allowed to continue.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this issue to the House yet again because policyholders with Equitable Life have been very badly treated. The finances of this country are now much improved, and it is time that we looked yet again at the situation of these policyholders, because their policies were oversold and actuaries hyped up their value well beyond anything that could be delivered, even at the time. Many people have never been held to account, but the policyholders have had millions of pounds taken from them through their insurance policies and pensions.
I thank my hon. Friend for that lengthy intervention. The reality is that, as he suggests, there are more than 1 million victims. The former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend Mr Osborne, accepted at the Dispatch Box that the total sum to be paid in compensation should be £4.1 billion, but 895,000 people have received only 22% of their losses. The payments process has been less than transparent, and policyholders have no way to check the calculations that have been made. That creates a difficulty for all who support the policyholders; at this point, I want to pay tribute to the Equitable Members Action Group, which has done such diligent work on their behalf.
Given the failure of regulation and the Treasury’s knowledge of it, as the hon. Gentleman outlines, this is a matter of obligation for the Government, is it not? No individual can discard their obligations because they do not have enough cash, and the Government do have enough cash at the moment.
I believe that this is a debt of honour. I do not expect my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to announce that he will open the Treasury chequebook and pay the full compensation today. I have sympathy with the suggestion that, because of the most recent decisions on national insurance, the Budget has not yet been brought into balance. As the motion states, however, I believe that in the long run, as the economy recovers, this debt of honour should be satisfied, and I think that there is a way to do so within the remit of the legislation and the capability of the Treasury.
My hon. Friend is making a very good case. I, too, have been contacted by many constituents about this issue. I understand the Government’s position, but the public finances are looking better than they were when this all hit and we have cut the deficit by two thirds. On behalf of my constituents, I urge the Government to continue to look at the matter to see whether they can help these very deserving people, and I am sure that he will support me.
As I have said, this is a debt of honour and the economy is recovering. In the long term, we should compensate in full all those who suffered, through no fault of their own. We are encouraging people from across the country to invest in savings for their retirement, so they need to know that the regulator and the Government will safeguard and look after their savings and make sure that they are not short-changed as the vulnerable people we are discussing have been.
I draw to the attention of the House my interest as a policyholder—mercifully, a very small one—in Equitable Life. I lost a few hundred pounds, but others lost very much larger sums. I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman says. He has mentioned the lack of information accessible to the public. Does he agree that one of the most shocking things was the fact that, right up to the end, advertising continued to encourage people to put their savings into Equitable Life? I remember distinctly seeing large advertisements on the tube in 2000, weeks before the company went down.
Quite clearly, there was irresponsibility. I would absolve the current leadership of Equitable Life from that, because it has been co-operative in every way. It has identified the policyholders and assisted the Government and EMAG to ensure that everyone could be compensated. That does not apply to the previous management, however.
Let us turn to the current position. I applaud the Government for honouring the pledge to provide compensation to Equitable Life policyholders immediately after the 2010 general election. At that point, £1.5 billion was set aside to provide compensation. That was too little, and there is still a debt of honour, as I have said.
There are effectively four sets of people involved. The with-profits annuitants, of whom there are 39,858, have been paid out £336 million. The pre-’92 trapped with-profits annuitants were left out of the scheme quite deliberately, because the Government took the view that anyone who took out a policy before
We also have the non-with-profits annuitants, of whom there are 1,000,605. They have received, thus far, £749 million, but that represents only 22.4% of their losses. That is an arbitrary number. If the Government have accepted that they are responsible for the pensions of those individuals, it cannot be right that they receive an arbitrary percentage merely because that is the balance left of the money that was set aside. All I ask is for my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to say that the Government will keep that under review and that, as the economy recovers, the compensation should be paid out.
Policyholders in my constituency who did the right thing have been left in dire straits through no fault of their own. Given that even modest additional sums can make a difference, does my hon. Friend agree that it must be possible, at the very least, to do better than 22% and to link that to the improving public finances?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we can, and should, do better. The current position is unfair on those individuals, many of whom are approaching retirement and seeking to draw on their pension pots but do not know what security they will have in their old age. For them to get just 22.4% is absolutely unacceptable, and the battle will continue until such time as they receive the compensation that they are due.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all the work that he has done, over many years. He deserves huge credit for that. Does he agree that when we are quite rightly seeking to show that the United Kingdom is the world financial centre, we need to show that we have the best possible regulation and that we are prepared to stand behind people who have been let down by regulation in such cases?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I trust that he will make a further contribution to the debate later. The position is as he has set out. We should ensure that the City of London remains the financial centre of the world, and we must show that we can be trusted to look after people’s investments.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I, like other Members, have a number of constituents who are affected by this. He talks about people reaching their old age. In addition to the fact that the compensation is too little, is there not an increasing risk that it will come too late? The longer justice is delayed, the greater the chance that it will be denied.
Indeed. Unfortunately, as we know, many of the individuals affected by the scandal are deep into old age. They may be very vulnerable, and, regrettably, there are fewer and fewer of them every day. For every day that goes by without them receiving proper compensation, the scandal is maintained.
My hon. Friend just made an important point about the significance of London’s international reputation. That depends, in part, on the strength of our regulatory environment. Does it not follow, as a matter of both good policy and common decency, that when there is a massive regulatory failure, the Government should be seen to stand behind those who lose out as a consequence?
I absolutely agree with that comment. I want to say something about the commitments we have made, which are very important. As I have said, the former Chancellor accepted the reality of the situation at the Dispatch Box. He said that
“I accept the findings of the parliamentary ombudsman in full.”—[Official Report,
Let us be clear about the parliamentary ombudsman’s findings at the time. There had been 10 years—a decade—of regulatory failure, which was responsible for the losses suffered by pensioners when Equitable Life collapsed. In her report, which was 2,872 pages long by the way, she recommended that the Government
“should restore complainants to the position they would have been in, had maladministration not occurred”.
I believe that we should ensure we honour the commitments we have made and honour the situation in law.
I note that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary is a former member of the all-party group and a strong supporter of justice for the Equitable Life policyholders. I know him to be an honourable man, and I know he will want to do the best he can for the people who have suffered such losses.
The ask today is very simple. The pre-1992 trapped annuitants, who are the most vulnerable group—I am afraid that, every day, fewer and fewer are with us any longer—should be compensated in full, even though that is outside the scope of the legislation. Full compensation for those individuals would cost the Government less than £100 million. For the people who have received compensation for 22.4% of their losses, a plan should be set out to enable them to receive full compensation. I am not expecting that to happen straightaway—it may take time—but those people should receive compensation as the economy recovers. We could have a plan so that, in line with the recovery of the economy, much more money is paid out. That would fair, reasonable and—dare I say?— equitable.
In conclusion, I look forward to my hon. Friend giving us some commitments and clear guidance on what the Treasury will do to assist people who invested and did the right thing. This House owes a debt of honour to those individuals, and those of us who support these honourable people will not rest until such time as they receive every penny piece of the compensation to which they are entitled.
Order. May I tell Members that if they take about 10 minutes, everyone will have an equal time, including for the second debate?
It is a pleasure to follow Bob Blackman, with whom I have worked for the past few years as—I should declare this—the co-chair of the all-party group on justice for Equitable Life policyholders.
I am very sad that after so many years of debating this issue in this House, we are back once again talking about the continuing losses suffered by hundreds of thousands of Equitable Life policyholders. As we have heard, they invested in the world’s oldest life assurance company in the belief that they would be able to have a comfortable old age, but instead, after a lifetime of saving, they find themselves sometimes destitute, and often much poorer through no fault of their own.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue is not just one of restitution for our constituents who have lost out, but one of confidence in the whole savings culture for future generations, which is very important, and that the two issues are linked?
Indeed, I do agree, and I will go on to say something about that, but there is also a third dimension, which is that we have a moral duty to ensure that the Equitable Life policyholders are compensated.
How have we arrived at this situation at this point in time, 17 years after Equitable closed its doors to new investors, and seven years after the previous Government promised to ensure that the losses incurred by Equitable policyholders would be compensated? My first involvement in the Equitable saga was to speak in an Adjournment debate that I secured in Westminster Hall on
In that year, there was the, to me, rather surprising Appeal Court judgment regarding those who had contracts saying that if they put in more money, they would get greater rates of return. The judgment totally missed the fact that all the policyholders were members of the society. The senior judges did not fully understand the consequence of what they were doing, and it was unfair to too many.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Unfortunately, the time available limits what I can say about the judgment, and I want to talk about what we need to do now.
By the time Equitable was forced to close, it had more than 1.5 million members, and was one of the biggest societies in the world.
I certainly do agree, and I will go on to make that point. It is the very reason I took up this cause in the first place. Like many of my colleagues, I had believed that only the wealthy invested in Equitable—people with hundreds of thousands of pounds to put into their pensions seeking to make a huge return—but I discovered that, in fact, the average pension pot was just £45,000. Ordinary people, saving £20 or £30 a month over a working life, were investing in Equitable.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an important business case, as it were, for the Government to do more? If people cannot support themselves without the income that they expected, the burden of doing so will fall on the state, which means there is all the more reason to do more now.
Absolutely. That is a very good point. People were encouraged to save for themselves exactly because neither the state nor the individual wanted people to have to depend on the state always coming up with the money necessary to enable them to have a full and enriching retirement. It was about self-reliance, which has been at the core of the arguments today and over many years in debates in this House. The people who were helping to provide for themselves and who were encouraged to invest in Equitable are the very people who have been let down. They are not the wealthy, but the ordinary people who were putting aside a little bit more for their retirement so they could have a comfortable retirement, and that money has now gone.
The hon. Gentleman mentions that over 1 million people subscribed to the Equitable Life pension funds. Over 900 of them are in my constituency, many of whom, as he says, are people who are just about managing. They have done the right thing, but they are now, at the very best, just about managing. This is about maladministration under previous Governments, so is it not incumbent on this Government at least to open the door a little more to an improved offer that will possibly improve over time to give such savers a fair deal?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because one of the great things we do in this House is to work on moral issues such as Equitable together, across party lines. I am proud to work with the hon. Member for Harrow East—I hope he will allow me to call him an hon. Friend—because he has done an awful lot, and I pay tribute to him for the work he has done. I have done my best to work collectively and collaboratively as the co-chair of the all-party group, because we need to do this together. This is a moral issue, as I shall come on to elaborate.
In July 2008, the parliamentary ombudsman published her first report on Equitable Life, “Equitable Life: a decade of regulatory failure”. On
“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.”
Well, there has certainly been no shortage of reports, just a shortage of justice for those who, through no fault of their own, suffered huge losses in the life savings they had accrued over years of hard work.
At the core of the problem is the fact that Equitable Life simply could not meet the obligations it had made for itself, because it had made no provision for guarantees against low interest rates on policies issued before 1988. It therefore declared bonuses out of all proportion to its profits and assets.
Following the ruling of the House of Lords in July 2000, the society effectively stopped taking new business in December of that year, which spelled the end for Equitable. More than 1 million policyholders found that they faced severe cuts in their bonuses and annuities, which caused a huge loss of income on which many small investors were depending. After all, as I have said, the average investment among the 500,000 individual policyholders was just £45,000, which even at its height, according to the Equitable Members Action Group, would have yielded no more than £300 per month.
In its December 2008 report, one of the many recommendations of the Public Administration Committee stated:
“We strongly support the Ombudsman’s recommendation for the creation of a compensation scheme to pay for the loss that has been suffered by Equitable Life’s members as a result of maladministration. Where regulators have been shown to fail so thoroughly, compensation should be a duty, not a matter of choice.”
Reacting to the Government’s lack of response to the ombudsman’s report, the then Conservative Opposition expressed their determination to introduce an Equitable Life (Payments) Bill early in the next Parliament, should they form a Government after the general election of 2010. The legislation planned in the coalition agreement did, indeed, include such a Bill and it was introduced in June 2010, shortly after the new Government took office.
My amendment to the Bill simply read:
“Payments authorised by the Treasury under this section to with-profits annuitants shall be made without regard to the date on which such policies were taken out.”
The Public Bill Office helped me to draft that amendment. The debate on the amendment took just over two hours, but the Division was lost by 76 votes in favour to 301 against. The debate did, however, strongly set out the case for including the pre-1992 with-profits annuitants.
The Bill received Royal Assent in early 2011 and the compensation scheme was set in motion. At first it was slow, but it began to pick up over the subsequent years. By the end of January 2015, more than £1 billion had been paid out to 896,367 policyholders, although more than 142,000 policyholders were still to be found and could not be traced. The scheme, as we know, has now closed. We also know that 37,764 with-profits annuitants, or their estates, were issued payments by the scheme. Those initial and subsequent payments totalled £271.4 million.
In conclusion, I have to give credit to the coalition Government for introducing a compensation scheme from which the majority of Equitable policyholders received 22p in the pound. I am sure we would all agree that that is a lot better than nothing. However, when we examine the compensation that was paid to Icesave investors following the collapse of the Icelandic banks in 2008, from which every investor received up to £50,000 of their losses in full, the Equitable scheme looks rather less than generous. Given that the average policy involved a total sum invested of £45,000, as I have said, it seems rather unfair to Equitable policyholders that they did not receive more. That is why EMAG continues to campaign for full compensation for all Equitable policyholders in a reasonable way—in line with the growth of the economy, not all at once—and why so many Members from all parts of the House continue to support that view.
Equitable policyholders have been very patient. They understand that the recession, at the time, meant austerity and a huge shortage of money for many parts of Government and the state. What they cannot understand is that, as the economy grows, they are denied any further payments against their very real losses. I have heard, as many right hon. and hon. Members will have heard, heartbreaking stories from individuals and constituents, some of whom have lost everything, including their homes, all because of Equitable’s failure and the company’s “catastrophic” regulation.
I have said in all my previous speeches in the House on Equitable Life that this is fundamentally a moral issue. When the Government are supposed to protect the life savings of individuals who have been encouraged to provide for themselves, as was the case with Equitable, they have a duty to ensure that the losses incurred are adequately compensated. That obligation should I believe, come above pet projects such as, perhaps, HS2 and even Trident renewal; otherwise, the whole fabric of trust in the state is damaged, which I believe is exactly what has happened in this case. Finally, I urge all Members of this House to continue to uphold the cause of Equitable policyholders and to try to restore their faith in the ability of Members of this House, as the elected representatives of the people, properly to compensate the victims of one of the greatest financial scandals of our age. After all, I believe we have a moral duty and we should not be afraid to carry it out.
It is a pleasure to follow Fabian Hamilton and my hon. Friend Bob Blackman, both of whom deserve great credit for the work they have done. My hon. Friend also deserves credit for securing the debate. I would call both of them friends outside this Chamber. They have worked tirelessly on this issue.
As the hon. Member for Leeds North East just said, the vast bulk of Equitable Life losers were modest people who had bought in to what successive Governments of all parties had told them was the right thing to do. They were told to save for their retirement, to put something aside, and that they would benefit thereafter. Why did they lose because of catastrophic errors by the company and a catastrophic error of regulation? The Government create the regulator and the regulatory system. The Government, ultimately, must bear the responsibility for that failure. I do not mean that in a partisan sense, but morally they must be prepared to do so.
I have hitherto resisted the case for full compensation on the basis of two arguments. One of them was that if the returns were too good to be true, investors ought to have spotted that. However, I have begun to wonder whether that argument is sustainable, because if the benefits were too good to be true, the regulator should have spotted it. This is a regulated market in which ordinary investors ought to have had confidence.
My right hon. Friend is spot on about the gravity of the regulatory failure. It was not just the process—the nuts and bolts—that went wrong; there was a fundamental failure to see that something that had been put into the market should have been ringing alarm bells. That is a very important point. That is why the case that the Government should provide proper compensation is all the stronger. The superficially attractive argument that it was too good to be true so people acted at their own risk was put about quite early. It was also claimed that all those affected were lawyers—barristers and solicitors—consultants and the comfortable middle class. I have dozens of victims of Equitable Life in my constituency and most are modest people who had jobs that enabled them to put a little bit aside, which they did in good faith and were let down by the system. A Government-regulated system let them down. That is why the obligation is very strong.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East referred to EMAG’s work. I declare an interest as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on the matter. I particularly pay tribute to my constituents, David Truran and Richard Collins among others, who galvanised our local group of Equitable Life victims. They work hard to keep people in their area, many of whom are elderly and quite frail, in the loop about what is happening. That is a valuable local service. As has been said, the information about the compensation scheme and the way it worked was less than user friendly, to put it mildly. There was a lack of transparency and it was sometimes difficult for people in difficult circumstances, in the latter years of lives, to navigate the information. EMAG’s work, nationally and locally, to help them is important.
The moral case is overwhelming and I think that the Minister, given his background and experience, knows that. The coalition Government were right to move when the previous Government had sadly done nothing, and it is a fair point that something is better than nothing. However, that is not really a sound basis for policy, morally or in terms of good governance. Something was given, and circumstances now permit the Government to give more.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that policyholders do not regard what they are entitled to as compensation? They simply want back the money that they saved—their own money, which they put in to their long-term pension savings, believing it would be given back, with a reasonable return, when they retired and needed it.
That is an entirely fair and proper point. We use “compensation” only in a technical sense rather than to reflect the morality of what has happened. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East was right to describe the scheme as effectively a Ponzi scheme. In other jurisdictions, it would undoubtedly have been regarded as a fraud on the investors. They put in their money, lost out and the regulator that was supposed to protect them failed abysmally.
When the coalition Government introduced the compensation scheme, finances were difficult. Things have improved and it is not unreasonable to expect those people to be recompensed by more now. The distinction between pre-1992 and post-1992 annuitants was at best arbitrary. Although the case is made in a legalistic, dry, desiccated-calculating-machine way, it does not hold water for anyone who examines it. I hope for a measure of human decency and a broad view of the impact on public confidence. The Government let themselves down somewhat with that arrangement, although it was better than nothing. Now we can do better and I urge the Government to do that.
As well as the moral case, there is a case to be made for the importance for this country of good governance in our financial services sector. I am a passionate advocate of Britain’s financial services; 36% of my constituents work in the financial and professional services sector. It is a massive earner for this country and a jewel in our economic crown. However, it succeeds because of its reputation for integrity, which is based on the strength of its regulatory structures. When there is a failure, which is not followed by proper redress for those who lose out, confidence in our financial sector is dented and damaged.
As we emerge from the European Union—hon. Members know I regret that, but that is where we are—the financial services sector’s international reputation will be all the more important. It is in our national self-interest to ensure that we are seen to be 100% behind those who invest prudently and sensibly in our financial institutions. Britain is a world leader in the insurance sector, but this failure has the potential to damage us and it will always be held against us unless we do something to get it right. Given the national benefit that the sector brings, doing justice to the Equitable Life losers would be a drop in the ocean financially. Perhaps even for that reason, as well as for our long-term national economic self-interest, if not out of moral decency, the Government will think again.
I pay tribute to those who secured the debate, particularly Bob Blackman, who has worked tirelessly on behalf of the victims of the Equitable Life failure.
Equitable Life policyholders have been failed by three bodies. They were failed, first, by the life insurance scheme in which they invested; secondly, by the regulator; and thirdly, by the Government, who have not done enough, although I acknowledge that this Government and the previous Government moved to do something. The point of the debate is that they have a duty to do more for moral reasons, as other hon. Members have said. They should also do more, again as others, particularly Robert Neill, have said, in order to underwrite confidence in the financial sector throughout the United Kingdom.
In Edinburgh South West, the financial sector is extremely important. Many of my constituents work in it, and Edinburgh has the second largest financial sector in the UK outwith London. However, quite a number of my constituents are victims of the collapse of Equitable Life and I want to say a little about the personal experiences of two or three.
Others have already dealt more eloquently than I can with the nub of the issue. Basically, it is the shortfall: the difference between the amount in the scheme that the previous Chancellor, Mr Osborne, created—£1.5 billion—and the total loss, which he admitted was £4.1 billion. There was therefore a difference of £2.6 billion. In the great scheme of things, that is not a huge amount of money, especially when we consider it against the principles that should govern such a situation.
The Government initially attempted to exclude all those who took out schemes before 1992. That would have excluded some of the oldest, most vulnerable, and most incapable of making their voice heard. The Government’s sticking plaster on compensation for the pre-1992 scheme holders—an extra £50 million—does not cover the full amounts lost and continues the unfairness to those least likely to be able to continue the fight against the injustice. The Government’s choice—it is a choice; every Government have to choose their priorities—not to compensate fully those who are unlikely to live long enough to provide the sustained pressure necessary to reverse the decision is most unfortunate.
This is not the first time that the Government have failed on compensation or regulation. Like other hon. Members, I have been present in the Chamber for the debate on the losses of investors in the Connaught Income Fund. I have constituents who suffered as a result of that. Of course, there is also the ongoing issue of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. Those women invested in their future according to the rules that they understood to apply at the time. During the debate, I have received messages from WASPI women, reminding me to mention them and emphasising that they have suffered a similar injustice to those affected by the collapse of Equitable Life.
I want to say something about the effect on three of my constituents. I will not name them for reasons of personal privacy. I will call them Mr A, Mr B and Mr C. Mr A started to run his own business in his 40s and at that time, he took out three personal pensions with Equitable Life, two for him and one for his wife, who was a partner in the business. When Equitable Life was unable to deliver what it had promised, Mr A and his wife lost their guaranteed annuity rates as the company tried to avoid liquidation. That meant that they were getting only 50% of the rate that the company had guaranteed them. When the coalition Government announced their planned compensation scheme, Mr A expected to be reimbursed to a degree that would at least allow him to lead the sort of life in his old age that he had hoped for when he took the schemes out in the 1980s. However, when he was compensated, he realised he had received only about 4% of the money owed to him. His appeal was successful and was upheld by the independent panel, but the recalculation has never been carried out, despite the strenuous efforts of my predecessor, the previous Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South West.
Mr A still does not have the 50% compensation that he expected to receive, which means that he and his wife have very much had to lower their expectations of old age, and have had to use the equity release scheme to release funds on their home to help them to manage. They would never have expected to have to do that, and indeed had planned against doing so.
The second argument I have used to resist full compensation is that we would be requiring taxpayers, many of whom would never have been able to afford such investments, to compensate the annuitants—I accept that the annuitants were also taxpayers. However, the evidence about the modesty of so many annuitants has affected the argument. Equally, I wonder whether it is sustainable to subject justice to a means test.
The right hon. Gentleman has obviously thought this through carefully. The conclusions he has come to with his first concern, and the conclusions he is moving towards with his second concern, are very wise. As another hon. Member pointed out, the purpose of having a regulator is to spot when what is promised is not realistic. In a democracy such as ours, with checks and balances and regulators, ordinary investors are entitled to assume that the regulator would say, “This is nonsense and dangerous”, even when a well respected and reputable company had made those promises—these were not fly-by-night investments as far as my constituents were concerned, but investments in a very old and well respected company.
Mr B is quite elderly—he is in his 80s now—and his memory is fading a bit. He was a shopkeeper, which is just the kind of small businessman and entrepreneur that the Conservative Government purport to support. The Scottish National party, too, very much encourages entrepreneurialism and small business—it is in the interests of all of us to encourage entrepreneurialism.
Mr B took out his Equitable Life policy about 40 years ago and has suffered hugely. He told me that, whenever he thinks about what has happened to him and the losses he has sustained, he finds it very hard to describe the pain it makes him feel. He ran a shop in an area of Edinburgh where a lot of his customers were professional people who had also invested in the scheme and told him it was a good thing. He proceeded with all due caution.
Mr B has told people in my office that he is not looking for very much. He wants his rights and his reasonable expectations to be respected. He wanted me to make it very clear today that the current under-compensation underlines his belief that the ideas of trust and bond, which he says used to be so important to investment, seem to have no place in the modern world of financial transactions. It is unfortunate that an elderly gentleman such as Mr B, who has worked so hard all his life in his own business, should have reached that conclusion. He is anxious that, at this stage, late on in his life, if he is unable to pay the debts that the Equitable scheme should have covered for him, he will lose his house—the home where he lives.
The losses of Mr C, another constituent, are substantial —he told me that he believes his losses to be upwards of £200,000. Mr C was a shopkeeper too. He believes that, as he is getting very old, any year could be his last, and that time is quickly running out to find the justice he deserves.
I am making a heartfelt plea to the Minister on behalf of constituents such as Mr A, Mr B and Mr C to look at this again. I wrote to the Chancellor in advance of the last Budget. The Minister was generous in his reply and dealt with matters in detail. I realise that, to a certain extent, his hands are tied, but I make a plea to him to go to the Chancellor to revisit this issue, so that the compensation payments—I use the word “compensation” loosely, as we have discussed—can be considerably increased for all our constituents, but particularly for gentlemen and women in the position of Mr A, Mr B and Mr C. To echo what others have said, it is the right thing to do and the moral thing to do, but it is also in all our interests, because it would increase and underline confidence in the financial sector, which is so important to the United Kingdom.
I will be brief because we have heard so much wisdom and common sense from all hon. Members who have spoken. I wish to make three points, the first of which is about equity. People have spoken about the proposal being the right and moral thing to do. My hon. Friend Bob Blackman said that it is the equitable thing to do—indeed it is. We are about to enter negotiations with the European Union about our future responsibilities towards EU pensioners. As a Government, we will take the right and responsible attitude and fulfil our commitments, as the Prime Minister has said. If that is the case, the principle should also apply to our Equitable Life pensioners.
I have heard from many constituents about the problems that have arisen because promises and commitments made to them were not fulfilled, principally because of a massive failure of the organisation, but also of the regulators. Let us not forget that when we invest in organisations such as Equitable Life, we place our reliance on the regulators. As ordinary investors, we do not have the knowledge or experience to know whether the promises being made and, in small print, underwritten by the regulator can be carried out. We expect them to be carried out.
If my memory serves me correctly, the situation at Equitable Life occurred after the Bank of Credit and Commerce International debacle in the 1980s when, for instance, the highlands and islands lost something like £20 million. Many others lost money. I remember clearly from the time the phrase, “If it looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true.” One would have thought that, if I and others took that message on board, the regulators would have done so. It is absolutely equitable for us to do whatever we can and more than has been done for the Equitable Life investors.
I pay tribute to the coalition Government for the action they took in difficult times to set aside £1.5 billion partially to right this wrong. We should not forget that, but I want the Government to build on that as the economy improves.
The second issue, as other hon. Members have said, is confidence in financial services. The UK is a world centre for financial services, whether they are in London, Edinburgh, Leeds or Birmingham. As my hon. Friend Robert Neill said, many of our constituents—not just in London and the south-east, but right across the United Kingdom—depend on financial services for their living. Behind all financial services lies one simple word: “trust”. If a country or an organisation cannot be trusted, it will fail. Fortunately, the United Kingdom has a long and excellent reputation for the trustworthiness of its financial services sector. It is therefore all the more important for any blemishes to be set right quickly and properly.
My third point is about long-term security. People rightly want to even their wealth out over the course of their life, which is why they invest in pensions. They forego spending now so that they will have money to spend later on, when they do not have an income from employment. That is a very worthy thing to do. We should support that. We do support that through the tax system and we also support it through regulation, which is why it is vital in cases such as this. As hon. Members have said, it would be one thing if this was a matter of an investment fund or a hedge fund for people with millions to invest, who know what they are getting into and the risks involved, but this is another situation entirely. As we have heard, this concerns people who were expecting pensions of, on average, about £300 a month. That is not at all the kind of money that allows someone to go on lots of cruises around the world, but it is money to top up the basic state pension, as every Government have wanted people to do for almost the past 100 years.
I believe that the country needs to do something similar. I have long advocated our country investing in a sovereign wealth fund, whereby we put aside money every year and do not just rely on a pay-as-you-go attitude—if you like, a Government-operated Ponzi scheme—for the national health service and state pensions. We need to consider operating our public finances in the same way that we expect pension funds to run their operations, whereby future liabilities are met with future assets. That would in turn allow us, when we get hiccups such as this, to compensate for them in full.
Order. I notice that Members are asking questions that they would like the Minister to answer, so the House will want to hear from the Minister at some length at the end of the debate. I want to make sure there is enough time for the Minister to speak, so I hope colleagues will now restrict their remarks to eight or nine minutes.
I will aim not to disappoint, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing this extremely important debate. I congratulate Bob Blackman and my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton on their extremely hard work over a number of years to try to secure adequate compensation for everyone who lost out as a result of this scandal. The issue of Equitable Life and the fate of those who lost out after investing has been debated by Members on both sides of the House for more than 15 years. As has been said, there is a great deal of cross-party work on this matter. Throughout that time, the Equitable Life Members Group and the all-party group have campaigned tirelessly to ensure that the issue is not simply kicked into the long grass. I am pleased to have another opportunity to press the case for those who lost out.
After a long battle, I appreciate the action that the Government have taken to date for those affected by this scandal. However, as we have heard from Members and our constituents, many policyholders remain short-changed, receiving a payment of less than one quarter of the compensation to which the ombudsman found they would have been entitled. The second ombudsman’s report was clear that the aim of the compensation scheme should have been to put people back into the position they would have been in if maladministration had not occurred. Despite that—we have heard this from many Members today—1 million people have received only about 22% of the compensation they are due.
The hon. Gentleman, like all speakers in the debate, is making a very powerful point. I, too, have received a great number of letters from constituents who have corresponded with me about the money that they or their relatives lost. He is right to say that they received only 22% of the compensation they expected. Is it not the case that we are dealing with pensioners and that we are losing about 15 a day? If the Government were to look again at whether, with a growing economy, more could be done for the people who have lost out, that would need to happen sooner rather than later.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are dealing with people who are getting on in years. As he points out, sadly about 15 policyholders a day are dying before the situation has been resolved. I am strongly of the belief—we see this for a whole range of issues—that the longer people wait for justice, the harder it is to appreciate that justice has been served.
The core of this issue is that many people feel that, even after all these years, justice has not been done. That message has come across loud and clear from my constituents and those of other hon. Members who have spoken. These people worked all their lives only to find that their pension pot has failed to materialise in the manner they were promised and they genuinely believed would occur.
In practice, this means that people who spent decades working for a comfortable retirement have had it denied them. It means that they are downsizing or even re-mortgaging their homes in their old age just to make ends meet. That is clearly not what we want for people who have contributed throughout their lives.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking extremely powerfully. He is absolutely right to focus on those who will not have the opportunity to recover the money they have lost unless the Government change their mind. Does he agree that a real message can be sent to young people and those of us who, like myself, are less young? We must show that saving and responsible action during a working life is rewarded. There is a danger that if we continue to get this wrong, the lesson we are providing is that people should not bother to save, because it is not worth it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I am sure that he has many years to go before he reaches retirement age, but that is something that is absolutely central to the debate, so I will expand on it a little more. We are entering an era in which retirement ages will increase and there will be more and more onus on people to take responsibility for their own retirement. If we have a system that people lack confidence in, it simply will not work. That is why compensation in these situations should be delivered in full.
One of my constituents told me:
“what I personally find sickening is that Her Majesty’s Government, no matter which party is in power, has utterly refused to act on the Ombudsman’s findings, which point to its own shortcomings.”
That point, which has been made by many Members, really does sum up where we are. I hope that the Minister will update us on what the Government are doing and focus on what good news those individuals who feel that the system has short-changed them can expect. That is important not just for them, but for the trust we should have in the system to secure our own futures. There is a need to restore confidence and build trust not just for the individuals affected by the scandal, but for everyone. As Joanna Cherry said, there are uncomfortable parallels with the WASPI campaign. People’s confidence has been shattered by what they consider to be broken promises by the Government and the institutions in which we place our trust.
I agree that we all need to encourage people to plan for their retirement and to contribute to their pensions, but what kind of message does it send if the Government fail to properly regulate a provider and then fail to compensate people fully for their losses? It is not just trust in the finance sector that is at stake here; it is trust in politics itself. As has been said in previous debates as well as today, the 2010 Conservative manifesto included this comment, which links these issues in a neat way:
“We must not let the mis-selling of financial products put people off saving. We will implement the 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.”
I think that all Members agree that that is a worthy aim, but the question of whether the pledge has been met in full is a matter of some debate.
I am conscious of the time, because we do want to hear from the Minister. What has already been said today has really summed up the situation, but let me end by making what I think is a key point. A failure to correct the wrongs of the past will lead to a failure to secure confidence in the future. I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the erosion of confidence that this episode has engendered could, in fact, be of greater impact in the long run than the cost of full compensation. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will do the right thing, not only for the policyholders of Equitable Life, but to restore confidence in the entire system of savings and pensions.
The hon. Member for Harrow East spoke of a debt of honour, and I think that that is an excellent way of referring to our obligations. We need to act honourably, and to correct this injustice in full. Given the age of many of the policyholders involved, it is clear that the adage “Justice delayed is justice denied” was never more true that it is in this case.
I am pleased to be able to speak today and to keep up the pressure on behalf of constituents who have been hard hit and who deserve better. I thank Bob Blackman for initiating the debate and for his continued hard work on behalf of all those affected.
Like, I am sure, other Members, I remember the reassuring adverts that must have attracted many people at the time. They were warm, homespun and affirming, telling us that “It’s an Equitable Life,” which it clearly was not. If there were any equity or justice in life, we would not be here today on behalf of our constituents whose lives have been changed in such a damaging way. Although I understand the steps that have been taken so far, their confidence in both government and financial regulation has been shattered.
I think of constituents of mine, such as James Moore of Newton Mearns or Howard Lyle, who lives in Eaglesham. Howard is now 81, but he was a self-employed business man. He worked hard for his living and did all the right things to provide financial security. In fact, he ended up working until he was 72 years old. He felt that he had done everything possible to ensure that he had good financial plans in place and would not be dependent on the state in his retirement. But, of course, all his well-laid and well-paid-for plans are in tatters. Howard says:
“All I am looking for is a repayment of what I and hundreds of other pensioners are owed.”
Who could possibly argue with that? I have named only two constituents, but, like other Members, I know of many others who are similarly affected and have been similarly failed by what is clearly a toothless regulatory system, which has utterly let them down.
My hon. Friend is making some great points. Given the hardships that some of our constituents have faced, given the injustice and, indeed, given the age that some of them are reaching, will she join me in expressing admiration for their tenacity and their determination to keep the issue on the political agenda and to continue to fight this injustice?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We should commend those people for all their continued work in keeping the issue at the forefront of our minds.
A cynical person might wonder whether—as with the collapse of the Connaught Income Fund, which was mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry—there is a strategy of dragging action out for an extraordinarily long time to ensure that fewer of those affected are still with us. It is simply not good enough for this sorry saga to continue for even longer. The UK Government must now finally deal fully with the outstanding injustices experienced by these unfortunate policyholders.
We really do need to grasp the nettle, and acknowledge the wrong that has been done and the impact that it has had on people’s lives. It is essential for action to be taken on behalf of the people who have lost out, but we also need to ensure that they can maintain confidence in our pension provision and in financial and regulatory bodies.
The hon. Lady is making some powerful points on behalf of her constituents. Many of my own constituents have also been in touch to say that they see this as such an unfairness because they did the right thing. They worked all their lives, and they paid into a scheme that they thought was the right one. That sense of unfairness is compounded by the way in which so many other schemes that have failed have been dealt with. Banks have been bailed out by the Government, and policyholders have been refunded. Does the hon. Lady agree that the grievance of these policyholders is perhaps all the more because so many other organisations have already been bailed out?
The point is well made. I think that Equitable Life policyholders, like Connaught Income Fund investors, feel particularly hard done by, and that is perfectly understandable. We need to deal with the compensation, and that can only happen when we have fully quantified the loss by negotiating the sums involved. At present, we are simply not there. After all this time, the Government need to acknowledge and deal with the injustice that people understandably feel. They have worked hard, and they have saved hard. They have done all the things that Governments emphasise are financially responsible and the way to guarantee security in retirement. Imagine how they must have felt when not only did their hard-earned money vanish, but the Government failed to protect them and then, to compound the problems further, failed to offer fair compensation.
Of course I recognise that there has been some compensation, but those affected understandably feel that that is not good enough and that it is not right for them to lose out because the Government claim that there are financial constraints. Why should they pay the price for failures of Treasury regulation in the 1990s? The Government must realise how much damage scandals such as this cause to public confidence in saving and in regulation. Surely, as the hon. Member for Harrow East said, righting wrongs like those suffered by Equitable Life and, indeed, Connaught investors is part of the way to restore that confidence.
There is real confusion, much of it arising from inaccurate communication from the Department for Work and Pensions, about the national insurance contributions that are needed for the new state pension. As we have heard from a number of Members today, WASPI women are marching on Parliament because the UK Government have whipped the pension rug from under their feet. Here, the saga of the Equitable Life policyholders drags on and on, and their pension provision has also vanished into the ether. If the Government are at all serious about pensions and about people saving for their future, they must listen and they must act now, finally, to deal with the Equitable Life scandal once and for all.
I congratulate Bob Blackman on setting the scene. I also thank him personally, because for the time that I have been in the House—since 2010—he has always championed the Equitable Life policyholders. Today, some seven years later—for me, if not for him—we find we are still fighting for something for which we were fighting back then. Fabian Hamilton is no longer present, but he should be commended as well, because he has clearly fought equally hard to bring about justice for the policyholders. Like both those Members, we all support the continued attempts to ensure that our constituents are not left financially ruined after doing their best to save for a rainy day.
There is not a big representation in the Chamber today, but that does not detract from the importance of the debate or lessen the impact of what we are about to say or have said so far. All those who have spoken have made valuable contributions, all of them saying the same thing and all of them looking to the Minister—there is no pressure on the Minister, is there?—to deliver the answers that we want. With respect, and the Minister knows that I mean this in the best possible way, we must convey to him what our constituents are telling us. We need the Government to know exactly where we stand.
Before I came to the House, when I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, we debated this matter there, and we also had debates and correspondence about it when we were councillors, and we were probably following these issues in other roles even longer ago, many years before I came here.
People always use that phrase about saving for a rainy day. Well, the rain is falling now, and it is the Government’s responsibility to hold out the umbrella. The newspaper over the head is starting to wear out: it is useful at the start, but it does not last. It is time for the Minister to step up to the mark and do the right thing by these savers. I have received dozens of e-mails and letters from my constituents, and I have never come across an Equitable Life policyholder who was in a high income bracket. The hon. Member for Leeds North East spoke of people in a low income bracket, and those are the people we are talking about. The impact on them is greater, and, unfortunately, they do not have time on their side either.
My constituents and those of my Northern Ireland colleagues have spoken to us about this issue, and I believe that this is an opportunity for me to make my constituents’ case and, like other Members—including some who have now left the Chamber—to give examples. I am very aware of the fact that the Government have paid out a substantial sum of money—at present, almost £1 billion—which is commendable; we should give credit where it is due. However, that is an indication of the fact that the Government have a further responsibility that needs to be fulfilled. I understand as well as anyone else in this Chamber that we currently have an £89 billion deficit, and I congratulate the Government on their economic policies. Unemployment in my area has fallen— that is a devolved responsibility—but the fall is in part a result of the greater economic policy carried out centrally by the Westminster Government. We must seek to lower the deficit, but we must also honour our obligations, and that is what we are asking the Minister to do today: to honour this obligation.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East mentioned in an intervention that some of the policyholders might never see this issue being brought to a conclusion and get the benefits, and they will therefore live on low incomes until the day they die and pass on from this world. If Governments have a mind to settle and help out the savers, could that be retrospectively passed on to their families? Will the Minister address that in his summing up?
I was brought up in a household where saving was drilled into us from an early age. That was not just because of our Ulster-Scots background, which meant that every pound was a prisoner; we were encouraged at a very early age to have savings, and we have done that throughout our lives. It was good to learn that lesson, because it showed us the value of money, and there was not much of it.
That points to what we need to do. “Put a bit aside for the future” was a phrase that was repeated often, and I have instilled that principle in my boys—successfully, I believe. But times have changed as well; it is difficult for my boys to buy a house and live their lives, never mind save on their wages. For that reason, the Government have put schemes in place to encourage saving, yet the question must be asked: why bother when we have an example of a generation—the one just before us and alongside us—who scrimped and saved and are still having to do so, through no fault of their own? We must incentivise a generation to know that savings are safe, and we should demonstrate that by doing the right thing by the Equitable Life savers.
A good point was made to me, and I shall repeat it now as it is important for it to go on the Hansard record:
“The Government ensured that no savers lost out because of the banking crisis. £133 billion was found to support the banks. According to the NAO, £76 billion is still to be recouped. At recent share prices, the taxpayer is likely to end up losing £15 billion”,
and it was suggested that there could be a loss of up to
“£22 billion on RBS alone, with annual losses in billions continuing year after year. EMAG does not believe that Equitable Life savers—who did the right thing in saving for their retirement—should have to pay for the recklessness of the banks.”
I am sure that the Minister is aware of that, but if he is not, he needs to be.
The banks got special treatment. I know the importance of giving that to the banks, but it is equally important for Equitable Life policyholders, although we must also be ever-mindful that the Government have made a substantial contribution in that regard. However, as Bob Blackman, who set the scene today, and others have said, we need to do that little bit extra.
The facts are that £2.6 billion of relative losses should be paid to the 895,000 Equitable Life victims who are still 78% short of what they are due—a substantial sum for them—and pre-1992 with-profit annuitants should be treated the same as post-1992 WP annuitants.
Equitable Life policyholders are justified in their grievance and in pursuing full compensation. We in this House, as their representatives at Westminster, have been tasked with putting their case. That is the reason for today’s debate, and it is why I am standing with those Equitable Life victims, alongside my colleagues in this Chamber from across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are all together, asking for justice for the Equitable Life victims. I ask the Government to pledge simply to do the right thing by these pensioners.
At times, the debate has seemed like a meeting of old lags, since some of us have been discussing this issue for many years.
I would like to be able to say, like other Members, that many of my constituents are still coming to see me about Equitable Life. I cannot, however, although many constituents used to do so; unfortunately, time has done its work and there are now few left. They are people like my constituent Gertrud, an elderly lady who thought she had made the right choice and would have a decent standard of life in retirement, but who is now living off 25% of what she thought she would get, which is very difficult. The situation is the same throughout the country. My hon. Friend Deidre Brock unfortunately cannot be here today, but she told me of her constituent Ishbel, who is in the same situation. These are elderly people who had made the right decision and found that they had lost out.
The motion before us today notes that the Government have made no further funding available in the spring Budget. Several Members have mentioned that this is similar to the situation of the WASPI women. These are totally different issues—one is about retirement age while the other is about the amount received from private pensions—but, as others have mentioned, they bring us to the same thing: ever more people believe that it is not worth saving for pensions. That will cause huge difficulties in the future. Young people today say, “What’s the point of doing that? Look at what’s happened to others, like my granny. That’s what is likely to happen to me.” Reports such as one today saying that the pension age is likely to go up yet again, and young people may now be working into their 70s before getting a pension, continue to undermine confidence in pension provision. We will face a huge problem in the future if we continue in this way.
I was an MP when we tried to persuade the last Labour Government to do something about this issue, and they turned their face against that and refused to do anything. I acknowledge that the coalition Government and the current Government have grasped the thistle to some extent, and have made some money available. They must be given credit for that, but of course it took a report from the ombudsman to get the ball rolling for compensation, and she concluded that the state of the public finances was “a relevant consideration”, which I suppose is why we are still here today.
Part of the difficulty is that there is a huge difference between the amount sought by the action group and the sum the Government say was actually lost. There is no real agreement as to what the total losses are. In a sense, the Government came down in the middle with a figure of £1.5 billion, and in coming to that figure cited the state of the public finances. It is disappointing that the Minister stated in his letter to the hon. Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) of
“The announcement was clear that the funding available to the Payment Scheme was not a fixed amount of £1.5 billion but rather that up to £1.5 billion would be made available.”
Should we take that as confirmation that the Government have no intention of even putting the remainder of that amount—about £140 million, I understand—towards the plight of those who have lost out? To be frank with the Minister, given the Government’s previous record, that seems rather small minded and mean, and it undermines the Government’s commitment, which they have shown previously, to tackle this matter.
EMAG argues that the policyholders’ pension savings, carefully accumulated over decades, should be safeguarded in exactly the same way as funds deposited in banks and building societies. They have a point, although they should not stretch it too far, as there is a limit on those funds and it is not an exact analogy. But it is also worth recording that, in her response to the Government scheme, the ombudsman stated:
“I am unable to conclude that the Government’s proposals comply with the recommendation for the establishment of a compensation scheme which I made in my report.”
Such comments will continue until the Government do something to address the continuing sense of injustice.
Others have said that Equitable Life was touted as a long-established, steady company, and that small business people and the self-employed were encouraged to invest their pension savings in it. When I was a practising solicitor—many years ago now—Equitable Life was considered one of the best investments, which is why so many people were encouraged to go into it. Increasingly, however, we are being encouraged to invest in pension provision to augment our state pensions, and people will find it difficult to have confidence in any pension company while this issue remains unresolved. It is also clear that fewer than half of new pensioners will receive the whole of the new single tier pension when it is introduced, so this issue is becoming more and more important.
The fact that pensioners now have much greater freedom to access their pension savings will also greatly alter the pension landscape and the attitude of savers towards pensions, but it could also make it more difficult for companies’ investment strategies. It is doubly imperative in this new environment that there is confidence in the stability and worth of pension investment. Pension investment is not the same as putting money in a bank or building society; as we know, it depends on fluctuations in the market and the type of investment made.
The hon. Gentleman is making many powerful points. He has mentioned confidence. Does he agree with the point made by Jim Shannon that, having encouraged members of the public to do the right thing and invest in what was seen as a secure and safe scheme, there is a danger that a precedent could now be set and that those people could now decide that investing in a pension would not give them safety or security in retirement? Does he also agree that the unfairness that that creates is unhelpful to the pensions industry as a whole?
Indeed it is. That is the point that I was making.
Some of us are now getting to the age at which we are beginning to think seriously about what our pensions will bring us—it is going to hit us pretty shortly—but I have children who are in their 20s, and this is a very long-term investment for people in their 20s and 30s. Young people today who look at the WASPI women or at Equitable Life pensioners will not have the same confidence that people of my generation might have had that they are putting aside savings to augment their state pension. The state pension is changing, and we are looking at different ways in which people will invest for the future, such as auto-enrolment. All these things require confidence, but that confidence has been undermined by continuing scandals such as Equitable Life.
The Government have to look at the bigger picture, rather than simply looking at Equitable Life in isolation. They have to look at how we can get over this hump and ensure that all young people make provision for the future. If we do not do that, a much bigger problem will be coming over the horizon when those young people get older, having made no provision because they lacked confidence in the system. What are we going to do then? The fall-backs that exist today will no longer be there for them. I urge the Minister, even at this late stage, to go back to the Chancellor and say, “Look at the bigger picture. Look at how we are dealing with pensions. How can we get confidence back?” If we do not do this, the picture will get even worse later.
The hon. Gentleman reminds me of a point I should have made earlier. It is recognised that parents often need to make financial provision for their children, and that we are using some of the money that we have to make that happen, yet some Equitable Life policyholders have told me that they are unable to do that. Has the hon. Gentleman come across similar cases?
I have a daughter who is now into her third university degree, so I know exactly what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. Yes, parents are having to use their own money to help out their children, and that can cut down the amount that will be available to them in the future. That is a decision that they have to make, however; it is a slightly different issue. The bigger issue is the future. Many young people today are not earning enough money, and many have been landed with large debts following their university degrees. That, and the lack of confidence in the system, will have an impact on their ability to save for a pension. I think I have gone on long enough now, so I will end on that point.
First, I should like to associate myself with all the comments that Members have made about the dreadful events that occurred yesterday. I send my condolences to the families of those who died and I wish a speedy recovery to those who were injured.
This has been an incredibly thoughtful and considered debate on both sides of the House. I should like to thank Bob Blackman for bringing this subject before us today. He has devoted a huge amount of time and commitment to this issue over the years. He and my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton have pursued it doggedly, and I would like to thank them for that. The hon. Member for Harrow East set out the situation clearly today. Words such as “scandal” and “confidence” have been thrown in during interventions, and they sum up the issue for many people. I thank the hon. Gentleman for setting out the landscape for us today.
I should also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East, who said that there was a moral duty to compensate the hundreds of thousands of people who have been affected over the years. He said that this was a moral issue and a question of trust in the state, and I think that that resonates with many of us. Robert Neill reminded us that people had been encouraged to save, and that that was the right thing to do. He said that they should not be dis-benefited as a result of that now. He also talked about the catastrophic regulatory and company errors that were made—I shall say more about that later—and about the alarm bells that were ringing. He said that the Government’s providing the necessary resource would be a gesture of confidence for the public.
Joanna Cherry also raised the issue of the failures in the system, and said that the unfairness was continuing. She spoke movingly about her constituents’ experiences, and about the trust that people must have in the system. Jeremy Lefroy talked about equity, and I think that he probably meant equity not only with only a big E but a small one. He said that the regulations should not only be carried out but be seen to be carried out. He also talked about confidence and trust in the system, and the question of long-term security through confidence in the regulatory process.
It is alleged that when Gordon Brown was put under pressure by members of his own party in the early 2000s to compensate the policyholders, he retorted, “These aren’t our people.” Whether that is true or not, would the hon. Gentleman accept that they are very much his people, as indeed they are ours as well?
I have no doubt whatever that these people are all our people.
My hon. Friend Justin Madders talked about cross-party support and about the appropriate action that the Government need to take. He said that policyholders were still being short-changed. He, too, talked about the restoration of trust and confidence in the system, and referred to the WASPI women. He said that the erosion of confidence could cost more in the long run, and that justice delayed was justice denied. Kirsten Oswald talked about her now elderly constituents who are in distress, and about the failed and toothless regulatory system. That saga cannot continue. Jim Shannon talked about his constituency and looked to the Minister for solutions, saying that people are justified in their pursuance of full compensation.
The hon. Gentleman is making a characteristically erudite speech. Does he agree with me, and possibly Mike Weir, that it is important to redouble our efforts at the opposite end of the spectrum? It is imperative that young people receive financial education so that they understand the long-term benefits of securing a long-term and sustainable pension income.
That is an excellent suggestion—I would expect nothing less from the hon. Gentleman—but if people do take out a pension, they must have confidence in the system.
The Minister has heard the clear and unambiguous views of many Members from across the Chamber. The Opposition will not make any cheap party political points on this matter. We give credit where credit is due to the coalition Government for setting aside £1.5 billion in a compensation fund for those who invested in the Equitable Life Assurance Society, most of which was invested in pensions. The compensation scheme was set to close in 2014, but the previous Chancellor extended it to December 2015, with the fund set to close mid-2016. EMAG—the group that represents the policyholders—has called since February 2016 for £2.7 billion of additional compensation, arguing that that is the shortfall, and many Members have made the same point today.
The Conservatives committed in their 2010 manifesto to make fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policyholders, and the debate continues about what that amount should be, but £4 billion is the generally accepted figure. In the previous debate on this subject, the then Minister, Damian Hinds, stated:
“The improvements our economy has made since 2010 are greatly to be welcomed and show that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working, but the plan is not complete and we have some way to go to fully restore the public finances.”—[Official Report,
The current Minister will also note that. The Chadwick report of July 2010 concluded that relative loss should be defined as those who have suffered financial loss, pointing out that the Ombudsman recognised that losses in policy values were only partly due to maladministration and that the backdrop to cuts in policy values was a sharp fall in world stock markets that all life insurance companies were forced to respond to. Similarly, the report also argued that compensation should be assessed on the cost of maladministration as opposed to the size of investor losses. However, we are politicians and we can make different decisions and choices, and the Minister has been asked to consider carefully whether we want to make different decisions or choices.
I want to make an important point that has been pushed time and again about regulatory failure. There is a broad consensus among the parties that compensation should have been paid out by the Government for maladministration, which has happened to a degree, but we are unsure whether regulatory failure continues to exist. We have to ensure that the regulatory frameworks that operate in this country are continually stress-tested and reviewed again and again. The regulatory organisations need the appropriate resources to ensure that proper regulation occurs. We have to consider that 100 or 150 people are looking at 200 insurance companies. I am not suggesting that there should be more staff; I am saying that we should take the resourcing of regulatory authorities into account.
This scandal does not relate to one particular Government. As Members have said, it was ignored by regulators throughout the ’80s. With the knowledge that the regulatory system did not work, however, it is all the more important that we continue to check it. The second ombudsman report states:
“The central story of this report is that this robust system of [financial] regulation was not, in respect of the Society, implemented appropriately—that is, consistently, fairly, and with proper regard to the interests of those directly affected—by the prudential regulators and those providing assistance and advice to those regulators.”
That is absolutely salutary. We have had scandals in the past, such as with PIPs and the 1980s endowment scandal, and we must always keep a lookout for them. There is the growing concern about the sale of leaseholds and some new properties, which we should not allow to become a scandal. There is even the problem of airlines refusing to pay people compensation for delays, so it is important to keep looking at the regulatory system.
I want to conclude by pushing the question about confidence in the regulatory system. What efforts are the Government making to trace policyholders who have still not been found after the scheme has closed? Can we have an update on the number of people who have received compensation from the £1.5 billion? How many policyholders does the Minister estimate are still affected? I know that this is a moveable feast. What are the broader steps that the Treasury has to take to restore faith in the financial regulatory system? In summary, it may be that the Government are not legally required to pay the compensation, but many Members have pushed the moral imperative, and the Government will have to consider that matter today and in the coming months and years.
I start by associating myself with the earlier comments about yesterday’s terrible events. I congratulate my hon. Friend Bob Blackman and Fabian Hamilton on securing this important debate. It is fair to say that their tireless work on this issue and their involvement in the all-party parliamentary group for justice for equitable life policyholders are of great importance to many of our constituents up and down the country. Hon. Members from across the House have done a great deal for their constituents on this matter. It has been a thoughtful debate, and I have listened carefully to the individual cases that have been mentioned. I am also grateful for the opportunity to set out what the Government have done to address this long-standing issue.
This topic has a long and well-documented history, which I do not propose to go over in my limited time. Instead, I will focus on the action we have taken to make payments to the people affected, and these figures are well known. The ombudsman’s findings assess the loss from Government maladministration to be £4.1 billion, and it is worth noting that that is significantly more than the evaluation commissioned by the then Labour Government. That report, known as the Chadwick report, rejected some of the ombudsman’s findings and concluded that only £340 million should be paid to policyholders.
This Government, in contrast and despite the constraints facing the public purse, have agreed that £1.5 billion will be made available, tax free, for payments to eligible policyholders. We consulted carefully on how that £1.5 billion should be paid out and reached the conclusion that we must pay the with-profits, or trapped, annuitants in full. As a result, that group will receive an annual payment for life, with the total cost of those payments assessed to be around £625 million. The £100 million contingency fund, which is often referred to, is to ensure provision for policyholders who exceed the life expectancy forecast. On the advice of an independent commission, the remaining £775 million of available funding was distributed pro rata to other policyholders, representing a payment of some 22.4% of their relative loss. I recognise that, for many, that was disappointing, but it is about striking the right balance while also taking into account the position of the public finances and fairness to all taxpayers.
The point about affordability was raised explicitly by the ombudsman in her report, in which she stated that it was appropriate to take into account the impact on the public purse when considering the funding of the payments. Indeed, the ombudsman has written to the all-party parliamentary group on Equitable Life about the level of funding and said that the Government’s decisions on affordability cannot be said to be incompatible with her report. I also understand it has been suggested that, as the economy improves, further funding should be made available to the payment scheme.
I accept that the decision on funding is not incompatible with the ombudsman’s report, but that is not to say that the decision follows the spirit of the ombudsman’s report or that it is right.
I repeat that this is about striking the right balance between the position of the public finances and fairness to all taxpayers, and I will cover that point in more detail as I proceed.
I was talking about further funding being made available to the scheme, but with debt at its highest level since the second world war, tackling the deficit and getting debt falling are challenges that call for long-term discipline, which is why we have no plans to reopen the payment scheme or to review its level of funding.
I thank the Minister for giving way because I realise that time is short. I spoke earlier about Icesave and the £50,000 maximum compensation ceiling. Those who lost money with Icesave and other collapsed banks in 2008 received up to £50,000. Given that most of the investments in Equitable Life totalled around £45,000, will the Minister consider looking at those particular individuals who have suffered most?
I was going to cover the issue of Icelandic banks later, as might be expected, but there is a big difference between the two. Those ex gratia payments were different from the Equitable Life scheme in that the Government expected to recover, and indeed did recover, all the money paid to UK depositors as the banks were wound up. It is not fair to compare the two.
I will now address some of the specific issues that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East said that the payments were not transparent. Transparency is one of the core principles of the scheme, and the methodology of calculation was published in full along with a simplified explanation for the layperson. I am also aware that Her Majesty’s Treasury has met EMAG to discuss the matter and found there to be no errors.
My hon. Friend sensibly asked why the Government cannot commit to paying Equitable Life policyholders in full when the economy has fully recovered and the debt starts shrinking, and it is right that the Government balance the needs of affected policyholders against those of taxpayers, and of public service users more generally. The Government have to tackle a debt of nearly £1.7 trillion, or almost £62,000 for every household in this country, which is a salient point. He also said that the cost of paying the pre-1992 annuitants would be less than £100 million. No assessment has been made of the pre-92 losses, but the Government recognised the hardship faced by the group so paid lump sums of up to £10,000, at a cost of around £50 million. That was new money over and above the original £1.5 billion.
Several hon. Members, including Peter Dowd, mentioned the failure of regulation and the need to stand behind any failure in a financial services group. It is fair to say that this Government, and the coalition Government before us, have fundamentally reformed financial regulation, including, importantly, through the expansion of the financial services compensation scheme.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East, who has moved places and is confusing me only very slightly, said it was unfair that we excluded pre-92 policyholders. I have every sympathy with the position such policyholders find themselves in during retirement, but the policies commenced before any maladministration could have affected investment decisions. Pre-92 policyholders have instead been affected by falling comparative annuity rates in the light of the issues at Equitable Life. I have already referred to the ex gratia payments of £5,000, or £10,000 for those in receipt of pension credit, that were made in December 2013.
Joanna Cherry said that the Government have not done enough—a point also made by others. I sympathise with the plight of her constituents. I am glad she recognises that the coalition Government did more to address the issue than any Government who preceded them. She asked about the Chancellor of the Exchequer; he was clear in his spring Budget that the scheme is closed and no more money is forthcoming.
My hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy made some eloquent points about regulation. I agree that trust is vital, and I am proud of the reforms made to the regulatory system. Many people say we have too many regulations; I always think that financial services are there for everyone so it is important that we provide an appropriate level of protection for everyone, big or small.
Justin Madders suggested that the Government had ignored the ombudsman’s recommendations. The ombudsman’s report was the foundation of the payment scheme. As I said, the ombudsman subsequently wrote to the all-party group. Whether or not we agree about the term “incompatible”, the ombudsman said that the Government’s decisions on affordability and eligibility cannot be said to be incompatible with her report. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the 2010 manifesto. It is worth saying that payments were fair to both the taxpayer and policyholders, with the most vulnerable groups receiving 100% of their losses. The whole scheme is based on the ombudsman’s report.
I hate to interrupt the Minister’s flow, but I wish to take him back to my intervention on my hon. Friend Bob Blackman about the regulator’s failure to identify problems. My hon. Friend said in response that the Treasury itself was aware of Equitable Life’s problems long before they emerged; does the Minister know whether that is true?
It is fair to say that there were a lot of issues and that a lot of things were done that we would do differently today. All that was taken into account in the vast number of reports and inquiries, and is now represented in a fair and equitable scheme for payments.
Connaught was mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West. As I understand it, I will be meeting her in the very near future to discuss that issue, and I am very pleased to do so. The matter is currently being investigated by the Financial Conduct Authority.
I thank Jim Shannon for his understanding. He made a very thoughtful contribution in which he mentioned children. I say to him that we must be careful to strike the right balance and that we do not saddle our children and grandchildren with unfair levels of debt. It is about making sure that those people affected receive a fair amount.
Mike Weir set out cases in which constituents have a reduced annuity in their retirement. I have a great deal of sympathy with them, as I know the difficulties that a reduced income in retirement causes. The Government recognised that, which is why annuitants should receive 100% of their losses.
I will, if I may, finish with some figures, because I need to clear up the confusion. To date, the Government have paid out £1.12 billion. They will be paying out another £355 million, totalling £1.47 billion, leaving a balance for those who can add up of £25 million. We intend to provide a safety net to ensure that payments to the most vulnerable are maintained as they live longer—let us hope that they all live longer—and so I do not recognise the £140 million figure that was cited.
In conclusion, I appreciate that some policyholders who have carefully invested for their retirement are now not receiving the income they expected, but we have done more than any other Government to resolve the Government’s part in the Equitable Life issue. We have committed £1.5 billion. We have paid out the £1.12 billion, with more to come, and we have struck the right balance, which is fair to the British taxpayer and supportive to those most vulnerable policyholders.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response to the debate. We have had a very good debate, with representations and interventions from Members of no fewer than five political parties represented in this House. Everyone has spoken with the same voice. This is a debt of honour that we owe to vulnerable people across this country. We will not allow this matter to rest until such time as those vulnerable people are properly compensated for their losses, which happened through no fault of theirs.
I thank the hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. It is good to hear some fresh voices in this debate, as well as those that we have been hearing for many years. May I say to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench: I was disappointed that we did not get a mention in the spring Budget, but there are many opportunities to come—I am talking about the autumn Budget and further such Budgets. It is not fair to say that the scheme is closed; the scheme is closed to new applicants. We know that it will continue paying out for as long as those receiving compensation live. It is absolutely open to the Government to top up this compensation scheme so that everyone who suffered losses would receive their proper payment. If those pre-1992 trapped annuitants receive their proper compensation, they would put that money immediately into the economy. That would help boost our hard-pressed retailers, which means a double benefit to the Treasury.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
welcomes the Government’s acceptance in full of the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s findings in relation to its maladministration with regard to Equitable Life;
notes that the Parliamentary Ombudsman recommended that policyholders should be put back in the position they would have been had maladministration not occurred;
further notes that the overwhelming majority of victims have only received partial compensation compared to the confirmed losses directly attributed to regulatory failures;
regrets that the Government made no further funding available in the Spring Budget 2017; and calls on the Government to make a commitment to provide full compensation to victims of the scandal as the economy continues to recover.