Equitable Life

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:22 pm on 24th June 2009.

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Photo of Susan Kramer Susan Kramer Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park 3:22 pm, 24th June 2009

I shall take that as absolute direction, Mr. Caton; in fact, I am being instructed to take an even shorter time, perhaps to allow one more hon. Member a couple of words, if possible.

I particularly want to congratulate Mr. Hamilton on obtaining the debate, because debates keep up the constant pressure. Although relatively little that is new happens between each of the Westminster Hall debates on the subject under discussion, the Government must know that the Members of this House are not going to go away. That is a critical message.

I also congratulate the Equitable Members Action Group, whose activities have made it clear that pressure from policyholders is not going to go away. It will continue, and they will have their day in the High Court, pursuing their judicial review, towards the end of July. I wish them the best. Perhaps most importantly I congratulate the 272 Members of Parliament who have signed the early-day motion. That is practically a voting majority in the House, particularly if we take into account the number of hon. Members who simply do not sign EDMs. I think it is the No. 1 EDM, if one can calibrate them in that way. That carries through the incredibly important message that were the motion to be put to the House, which, it seems to me, should be the ultimate decision maker, it would almost certainly pass, and would uphold the ombudsman and her report, and the decision for compensation. I join the others who have argued that as we look, now, to reforming the House, a crucial message is being given, to drive us towards creating opportunities for the House to have its say on such crucial matters.

I read with dismay the proposals from Sir John Chadwick on the approach that he would adopt and the issues to be addressed in his work on the Equitable Life ex gratia payment scheme. I know that I am putting words into his mouth, but between every line one discerns a great sense of virtual despair as Sir John repeats again and again that he is limited by the terms of reference that require him not to address any issues that have not been accepted by the Treasury. Going through the document one gets his sense that his work is practically pointless because it covers so few issues and can bring about so little compensation.

There have been discussions of the cost of compensation, but they come in the context of a banking crisis in which the Government have stepped in to rescue many individuals facing hardship, often, again, because of regulatory failure. The underlying principle that the Government should compensate for regulatory failure seems to me fundamental for a civilised society. We are not asking the Government to compensate for market failure.

The issue is one on which the House is exercised not only because of the victims—the Equitable Life policyholders—but because it represents the dismissal, once again, of Parliament's voice, in Parliament's ombudsman. If that role is to have importance and strength Members of Parliament must stand behind the ombudsman. If we choose not to do so in a situation of this kind, where the case is so evident, we shall be ceding powers that should be retained by Members of the House, and not transferred even to so important a body of Government as the Treasury.