|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Nadhim Zahawi: The hon. Gentleman would be right if the date were purely arbitrary. However, the ombudsman stated that the malpractice occurred in 1991, so the date is not quite as the hon. Gentleman puts it. It has not been plucked out of the air.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Leaving aside the economic difficulties that we face, is not the central problem that when we put a cap on something, we have to make it work? Therefore, we have to arrive at a certain formula to make the cap work, because we are largely in the hands of the Treasury, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) said earlier. Unless we get a grip on the Treasury, we will find ourselves in similar situations, and it is my guess that the Treasury has imposed the cap.
Nadhim Zahawi: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. What I would say is that, in contrast to the quotation from Winston Churchill earlier, my observation as a new boy to this House over the past six months is that the Treasury has behaved positively. We must remember that we will be administering public money. The Government have no money of their own; rather, we collect money on behalf of the people and then we administer it. It would be foolhardy and perhaps even foolish for us to say, "Let's have somebody else administer public money." At the end of the day, people have to have someone who is accountable, and we are accountable, as is the Treasury.
Amendment 7 seeks to ensure that the Treasury takes into account a proper evaluation of the total relative losses when determining payments-that is, the figure should not be £4.3 billion, but could be much higher. I strongly disagree with that. Many EMAG members have written to me, lobbying me to see the matter differently, but I have to say that I disagree. Given the current economic hardship, we all face an incredibly difficult situation, in which we are all having to tighten our belts. To deliver compensation of £1.5 billion at this time is entirely fair.
Amendment 2 is in the name of the hon. Member for Leeds North East and all I would say to him is that I understand the thrust of his argument that we should consider what the ombudsman says about the behaviour and actions of the coalition Government in dealing with the issue. However, I would rather get things done and dusted, and have something delivered to the victims than procrastinate further and wait for longer.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I can fully appreciate what the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) said about the Government's proposals being clearly better than what was offered by the previous Government. Frankly, that is not a very hard test to pass. The real test for us in this Committee is surely not whether what we have from this Government is better than what we had from the previous Government. It clearly is better. Rather, we as a Committee have to see whether it is as good as what is set out in the parliamentary ombudsman's findings and recommendations.
Just to offer some explanation, what the Government have delivered is not just better than what the previous Government were thinking about-or dithering about-trying to deliver. I also believe that
there was a point in this Parliament when the coalition Government were seriously considering implementing only what Chadwick had recommended, but we have moved away from that. We have buried that, and we are now in a much better place for the victims of Equitable Life.
Mark Durkan: My point still stands: the test is a fairly easy one. The Chadwick report was so grossly inadequate as not to be a credible starting point for any Government. Many of us said that to the previous Government, including the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Mr Hamilton)-very bravely, loudly and consistently-and many of us have said it to this Government as well.
For us as Members of the Houses of Parliament, the test that many people will apply is: what regard do we have to the findings and recommendations of the parliamentary ombudsman? As the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) stressed earlier, the public understand the parliamentary ombudsman to be a creature of Parliament and to have some weight and merit in Parliament's considerations. However, the previous Government acted pretty dismissively towards the ombudsman. What we have in some of the amendments before us is an attempt to show clearly that this House will give proper weight to what the parliamentary ombudsman is saying.
We all received a letter from the parliamentary ombudsman about some of the Government's proposals. Given that, is it wrong that we should reference the judgment of the parliamentary ombudsman-as the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) is suggesting we do with amendment 2-perhaps as a way of moving on from the scandal and confusion that many feel surrounds the fact that the ombudsman was largely ignored by the Government and, in effect, by Parliament for so long?
Jonathan Evans: I am anxious to ensure that the hon. Gentleman does not undersell what the Minister has done. The hon. Gentleman will recall that every aspect of the parliamentary ombudsman's report has been accepted by the Government and that, furthermore, the report said that whatever the overall compensation package should be, it had to take account of the impact on the public purse. Many of us on the Government Benches think that those are the two crucial tests.
Mark Durkan: That is what the hon. Gentleman is arguing. However, given that the money that we are talking about has been capped according to the Treasury's judgment of what it believes is available-that means that the overall sum to be offered by way of remedy and redress will be a long way short of what all the other assessments say-I believe that it would useful for the Committee to accept an amendment that would allow us to ensure that the parliamentary ombudsman has some say in overseeing the measures. Under the circumstances, that is fair and reasonable, but if the hon. Gentleman is so content that the scheme as it stands meets everything that the ombudsman has said, he should see such an amendment as adding no particular stress or difficulty for the scheme. Such an amendment would be a way of offering public assurance after all the doubts that have been raised about how Government and Parliament have dealt with the issue.
Jonathan Evans: I do not want to delay the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous in giving way, but if he waits until Third Reading, he will hear what I have to say about the totality of the package.
On amendment 1, the hon. Member for Leeds North East set out a compelling case for why it is not just the cap, but the cut-off that we need to be seen to address. We have seen in the past how dates set for various reasons have ended up creating unfair and unforeseen consequences that Parliament did not truly intend. That certainly happened with dates for schemes in previous pension Bills, for reasons that seemed reasonable and understandable to the House at the time. We are now struggling with the consequences that were never intended. We must be wary about such cut-offs.
The arguments from the hon. Member for Cardiff North about amendment 1 had some validity. I suggest that some of the answers may be found in amendment 7, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson). The hon. Member for Cardiff North said that it might be harder for some pre-1991 annuitants to make the case that some of their losses were directly due to maladministration and that the nature, degree and pattern of maladministration was more obvious and accentuated after that. If so, amendment 7 would allow account to be taken of that, because it states:
"In determining the amount of the payments that it is appropriate for the Treasury to authorise under subsection (2), the Treasury must have regard to such matters relating to the adverse effects of that maladministration on those persons and the proper calculation of their resulting losses as have been determined by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to be relevant to and appropriate for that calculation."
Amendment 7 would cut both ways. It would be an assurance that the loss suffered because of maladministration is duly reflected, and it could be used the other way because if it can be shown that some of the people who would be brought into the scheme by virtue of amendment 1 had not suffered because of maladministration, due weight could be given to that. Equally, the pre-1991 undue profits issue-some people went for market glister rather than reliable long-term worth-would not be precluded from being properly addressed and balanced. We all want to achieve an adequate compensation scheme.
I shall support amendment 1 if it is pressed to a vote, and I commend amendments 2 and 7. Together, they would go some way to improving the Bill. They would also go some way to improving Parliament's reputation at a time when people have been so disappointed and frustrated by how long this problem has been allowed to run on. I welcome the Minister's assurances, which he made in an intervention, that the interests of the dependants of those who have died will also be properly addressed.
It is not enough to say, "Well, this is great; we now have something that is better than Chadwick. We now have something that is better than the previous Government's proposals." People were deeply distressed by the previous Government's long inertia and indifference, but they are not hugely impressed by urgent inadequacy. The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that we do not make errors through urgent inadequacy.
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Members who have spoken to the amendments. I praise our Treasury team, who have done a magnificent job of righting the wrong that was done to Equitable Life policyholders over many years. Opposition Members-there are some exceptions-should hang their heads in shame because of what they did when in government to Equitable Life policyholders. I came to the issue of the damage to policyholders rather late in the process-shortly before the general election. Like others, I was encouraged by my former employer to invest in Equitable Life, but it was a good job that I did not do so, or my view now might be different.
I remind hon. Members about the pledge that we made before the election: 380 MPs agreed to press for proper compensation for victims by swift, simple, transparent and fair payment schemes, as recommended by the ombudsman; and we agreed that we would all join the all-party group on justice for Equitable Life policyholders. I agree with the pledge, which I signed, and I have honoured every element of it. A large number of colleagues have not joined the all-party group that I have the privilege of co-chairing, and I encourage them to do so even if latterly.
I want to concentrate on three aspects of the amendments. The first is the moral duty that we owe to people who relied on advice and on the system of the regulator, the Government and Equitable Life. There was a major scandal, because those three bodies connived to swindle people out of their money. That is a sad indictment of what happened, and that is what set Equitable Life aside from all other aspects of the pension industry. We must demonstrate to people, especially young people, that it is worth investing in their future. If young people do not do so, there will be a sad and sorry state of affairs in this country. There is a clear moral duty.
The second issue is the amount of money that is due in compensation. I am delighted that the Treasury accepted that the ombudsman's recommendation of £4.26 billion was the right amount to which policyholders were entitled. The debate today is not about money, but the Treasury team has come to a view that because of the economic circumstances only £1.5 billion is affordable. It has also had regard to the ombudsman's report, which said clearly that relative loss must be taken into account. The Treasury team must have done some calculations to reach the figure of £1.5 billion, and I trust that the Minister will tell us in his reply today how that figure was arrived at. The reduction from £4.26 billion to £1.5 billion is dramatic, and he must respond to our points.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con):
My hon. Friend eloquently sets out the outrage that many of us feel, having signed the pledge. Does he agree that our Government, unlike the previous Government, have reached a speedy conclusion,
as a result of which more people in the claimant group will receive compensation before there are further deaths? I agree with my hon. Friend about transparency and I, too, would support a motion to set out exactly how the calculations were made, in the spirit of our Government's commitment to greater transparency in all financial matters.
Bob Blackman: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The issues are complex, and the more one reads about and understands the scandal, the more difficult it becomes to resolve it. The Government in their wisdom have set out a compensation scheme that will continue for many years. The £1.5 billion is not a one-off payment that will go into a fund this year and end the matter. It will be spread over many years, and it will extend into the next Parliament.
Mr Hoban: May I clarify the fact that those who receive compensation and are not with-profits policyholders will receive a one-off payment during this Parliament? Only with-profits annuitants will have their payments spread over the rest of their lives.
Bob Blackman: I thank the Minister for his intervention. I was going to refer to that while I was responding to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry). The clear issue now is justice for the people in the worst possible position-the trapped annuitants. I applaud the Government for honouring the pledge that 37,000 people who have been trapped as a result of the scandal will receive 100% compensation. I strongly support and endorse that.
We have a problem, however, and amendment 1 attempts to address it. The amendment has cross-party support; we must be seen to be acting not just as a party but as parliamentarians overseeing the Executive. The problem is that if someone took out a policy on a particular day, they would receive no compensation at all, even though the maladministration was taking place at the time; whereas someone who took out a policy on the following day would get 100% compensation. There are always difficulties when arbitrary dates are set, but that is neither fair nor reasonable.
I believe that we should set aside the date and review all the trapped annuitants to ensure that they get fair and proper compensation. The Chadwick report has been rubbished by EMAG, and by Members on both sides of the House, but even Chadwick proposed a scheme that would have compensated those trapped annuitants whose policies were taken out before the cut-off date.
Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): When my hon. Friend signed the EMAG pledge, as many hon. Members across the House have done, did he believe that we would end up leaving out about 10,000 pre-1992 annuitants from the compensation scheme?
I and all the others who are new to the House signed the pledge in the belief that, if we were elected, we would compensate everyone who had suffered as a result of the maladministration, rather than taking an arbitrary position to compensate some and not others. I have heard heart-rending stories from my constituents and from people all over the country
who are now living on desperately low pensions, having expected much larger ones, and we have a very strong moral duty to all those people. We throw that away at our peril.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): This is not just a question of fairness. Many of those individuals are older and very vulnerable indeed. The letters that I have received make the point that those people are living on very low incomes at a very vulnerable time of their lives, and they have already suffered from the effects of inflation. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should talk about this as parliamentarians, not on a party political basis.
Bob Blackman: My hon. Friend clearly demonstrates that we are talking about the oldest and most vulnerable people, and that they have been dealt with in a most disgraceful way following this scandal. We have a moral duty to compensate them.
Going back to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans), it is clear that when the bonuses that were attached early in the process are taken into account, some policyholders might not receive a penny piece in compensation. We need to recognise that, but there is an 18-month gap between the cut-off dates. A large number of the retired people who had taken out annuities could not adjust them once they had purchased them, and they are now trapped in that position. That is why we have a moral duty to compensate them.
Nadhim Zahawi: What action would my hon. Friend recommend? My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North mentioned the possibility of people being judged to have received too much. Should we take that money away from them? The malpractice took place in 1991, and we should be talking about 1991, not about 1992 or about an open-ended process.
Bob Blackman: Clearly, if exorbitant bonuses were attached to certain policies, the policyholders would not be due compensation and they would not receive a penny piece. Remember, we are talking about compensation. We cannot take money off policyholders who have been receiving pensions. Parliament just cannot do that; it would be a retrograde tax and therefore unacceptable. Those who are due compensation should receive it, but those who are not due any would not receive any, and if they have benefited in the meantime, well, that is fine and dandy for them.
Jonathan Evans: In regard to the morality of the issue, I agree with many of my hon. Friend's arguments. My concern, however, relates to the practicalities involved when people are policyholders with other companies. Many of them had large bonuses from the 1980s onwards, but get hardly any at all nowadays. We have to take account of this when we look at their asset share, compared with everyone else in the pool in a with-profits system. That is why many people believe that there is no future for with-profits business nowadays.
The independent commission will need to look at the relative loss that individual policyholders have experienced as a result of the maladministration.
If annuitants took out policies well before the maladministration took place, there would be no relative loss, and they would receive no compensation. The nub of the issue is that we want the review to be independent, so that we can all look the policyholders in the eye and say that we have honoured our pledge to ensure that they were treated properly, and properly compensated. Under the Bill as it is drafted, we cannot do that because of the arbitrary cut-off date.
Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): My hon. Friend is obviously extremely knowledgeable on this subject. Does he agree that this is perhaps not so much a question of a specific date as of whether or not a policyholder was trapped? If they are trapped, there is absolutely nothing they can do about it.
I want to speak briefly to amendment 7. The Government have accepted that £4.26 billion should be the full amount available to policyholders, 37,000 of whom will receive 100% compensation. That clearly involves a huge amount of money, which will come out of the £1.5 billion. The policyholders who are not trapped annuitants would therefore get something like 15% of the compensation due to them, which seems pretty unfair and unreasonable. We should set up a commission to devise a payment scheme, then look at the results. Instead, £1.5 billion has now been set aside, and an independent commission will set up the mechanism for distributing that money. That could have very serious consequences indeed.
Parliament has a problem in this regard. I applaud the Government for moving swiftly to settle this matter once and for all, but we are setting up a method for distributing the money and creating expectations out there. About 1.4 million policyholders have been affected by the scandal, and 37,000 will receive full compensation while 10,000 will not get a penny. That leaves rather a lot of policyholders among whom to divide a relatively small amount of money. When the Minister responds to the debate, I trust that he will be able to set out how the calculations were made, so that we can be clear about them.
Amendment 7 would allow us to review the position in five years' time, when the economy has recovered and the benefits of this Government are clear for all to see, and to top up the compensation further for those people who will be retiring in five, 10, 15 or 25 years' time. We also have a moral duty to honour our pledge to those people. This is one of those cases in which we have set out to do something in the proper way, and I applaud those on the Treasury Bench for moving swiftly to bring the matter to a conclusion so that payments can be made as soon as possible, but we must ensure that we fulfil our moral duty to those policyholders.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD):
I start by putting firmly on the record my belief that the Government have implemented the parliamentary ombudsman's report and have honoured the pledges made before the election.
It was always part of the parliamentary ombudsman's report that this would be a political decision for the Government to make, taking the public finances into account when they set the cap. The Government have set the cap at £1.5 billion. I wish it could have been more, and I hope that it will be possible to revisit this in future when the public finances are in a better state.
I have sympathy for amendment 1, but let me state my understanding of how it would work in practice. It does not alter the cap that has already been set, so if the pre-September 1992 with-profits annuitants were to be compensated to the same level as the post-September 1992 with-profits annuitants, there would be less for the latter group of people. If the cap remains the same, and the amendment does not alter the cap, giving more to some people would mean giving less to others. I ask the Financial Secretary and the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Mr Hamilton) who moved the amendment to comment on that when they respond.
I want to press the Government on why they have chosen the date of September 1992. As other hon. Members have said, the maladministration started in June 1991. Penrose found that when the Equitable Life Assurance Society's board papers were sent to the Government Actuary's Department on 11 June 1991, there was information in those papers showing that the society was not in a good position. Had the Government Actuary's Department publicised that information at that time, investors would have been deterred from investing in the society. There is a strong argument for saying that the date should be not September 1992 but June 1991.
"companies on whom we have been keeping a close watch for a number of years"
and said that Equitable Life remained a company "which caused serious concern". There was evidence in July 1992-in fact, before July 1992-that the Government Actuary's Department was aware that Equitable Life had problems. Surely that should have been made public and investors should have been deterred. In his response, will the Minister clarify why the date of September 1992 was chosen, because it certainly seems to me that an earlier date-say June 1991 or possibly even earlier-would have been more appropriate?
Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): I would like to speak mainly about the position of with-profits annuitants and the pledge that I and other Members of all parties made before the general election-that the Government should make fair and transparent payments to those who had suffered as a consequence of the debacle of Equitable Life. I am talking about 350 local people in my constituency who are part of the Equitable Members Action Group. Those 350 include people associated with many companies that were in the Equitable Life scheme. Many hundreds of other people are affected. For some, Equitable Life provided their only private pension to supplement their state pension provision.
I welcome the fact that for a number of my constituents, that pledge has been made good, and I understand that the trapped annuitants in the post-1992 cohort will receive 100% of their compensation. I am delighted about that. Needless to say, I am also very concerned
for the pre-1992 Equitable Life investors for whom, it seems, there will be no compensation at all. That seems contrary to the recommendations of the parliamentary ombudsman, contrary to EMAG's suggestions and contrary to the views of Sir John Chadwick, for whom not many Members have a great deal of time.
I understand that it is difficult to quantify the losses, but, if the Government have the will, the losses of the pre-1992 annuitants should be explored. The people to whom we made a pledge before the general election in May were not necessarily concerned whether they were pre-1992 annuitants or post-1992 annuitants. Their concern was as Equitable Life policyholders looking for justice.
If the Government and the Treasury are prepared to look at compensating the pre-1992 annuitants, there has to be a health warning, because there is a law of unintended consequences, should we be stuck at the compensation figure of £1.5 billion. Many of my constituents who are post-1992 annuitants might be unaffected by any decision to include the pre-1992 annuitants.
Amendment 7 deals with that position and the relative losses. The Treasury should consider it, although I am concerned about whether it could be taken into account within the current comprehensive spending review or would need to be considered after the current CSR period expires.
I would like to ask the Minister several questions. First, will he look again at how to compensate the pre-1992 annuitants, and at how that might be quantified? Will he commit to working with his Treasury colleagues to take into account payments beyond the CSR period to enable the pre-1992 annuitants to be compensated without prejudicing the position of the post-1992 annuitants and that of Equitable Life policyholders generally?
I implore the Minister again-I did so in the last debate on this subject-to recognise that the Government's decision over Equitable Life raises questions not only about the integrity of the current Government, but about the integrity of savings and investments for one's retirement. I am well aware that many of my constituents do not have their own retirement provision. The Government should encourage people to provide for their retirement, but if we do not ensure that there is a safety net for people who have invested and done the right thing for their retirement, they will think that it is not worth putting themselves out by investing money for their retirements during their early years of work.
Mr Hoban: I start by referring to the closing question from my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones). He will be aware that in July we published proposals to strengthen the regulation of retail financial services, including pensions, which I hope will go some way towards reassuring people that we have learned the lessons from the past and put in place a much more stable and robust framework for the regulation of long-term savings.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss, first, the role of the parliamentary ombudsman in developing our policy on the payment scheme. Her work has been central to our approach. I also want to focus on with-profits annuitants and those who took out their policies prior to September 1992. These issues have been raised particularly since our announcements in the spending review. I hope that I can bring some clarity to the treatment of different groups of with-profits annuitants.
At the spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that about £1.5 billion of funding will be provided for the Equitable Life payment scheme. As hon. Members have said, that is more than four times the figure produced by the Chadwick process, which was set in motion by the Opposition. The funding includes the full cost of losses to policyholders with with-profits annuity policies-approximately £620 million-which will be paid through regular payments. That amount is to cover those with with-profits annuity policies, whose policies started between 1 September 1992 and 31 December 2000. As hon. Members have indicated, those who took out with-profits annuity policies prior to 1992-in fact, not just with-profits annuitants but anyone who took out a policy prior to 1 September 1992-are excluded from the scheme. The Government are committed to implementing the ombudsman's recommendation to introduce a fair and transparent payment scheme to Equitable Life policyholders for their relative loss as a result of regulatory failure. That is what the ombudsman asked us to do, and that is what we are implementing. The Bill authorises us to make payment under the scheme.
Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our obligation is to compensate people for regulatory failure by the Government when they were the regulator of Equitable Life. The scheme is not an open-ended compensation scheme. It is very focused, and that was the ombudsman's recommendation. Her locus in this matter is a consequence of the Government having acted as the regulator for Equitable Life during the period in question.
Let me explain to the Committee and to the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Mr Hamilton), who raised the question, why 1 September 1992 is a logical, not arbitrary, date. The ombudsman indicated in her report that there were problems with the regulatory returns for 1991, and that those could influence policyholder behaviour. However, they could not have come to the attention of policyholders, and prospective policyholders, before they were submitted at the end of June 1992. No policyholder would have been aware of that regulatory failure until the returns had been published. It is unlikely that those returns would have come to anyone's attention prior to 1 September 1992. I stress that the date is not arbitrary, but a consequence of the ombudsman's findings and how they impact on what policyholders would have been aware of. Policyholders would not have been aware of the regulatory failure until the autumn of 1992.
Mr Fabian Hamilton: I accept the Minister's point about the date not being arbitrary, but does he not accept that the regulatory failure affected those annuitants who could not change their annuities, even if they were purchased before September 1992? Along with those annuitants who purchased policies after September 1992, they continue to see a decline. Therefore, they were affected by regulatory failure.
Mr Hoban: The hon. Gentleman makes an assumption that the scheme is open-ended, but it is designed to compensate policyholders who invested in Equitable Life from 1 September 1992. With regard to the implications of that, I shall respond to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans).
Mr Weir: Will the Minister explain further, as I do not quite understand? He seems to be saying that only those who became aware of a regulatory failure in 1992 are affected. However, am I not right in thinking that that suggests that the regulatory failure goes back prior to 1992, and would have affected people then, although they would not have been aware of it? Are those people not entitled to compensation?
Mr Hoban: The ombudsman is concerned about people who invested in Equitable Life who might not have done so had they been aware of that regulatory failure. That regulatory failure would not have been known to them until September 1992, so there is a clear, rational argument for 1 September 1992 being the right date to start the calculation of losses.
We are excluding that group of people because they took out policies before any maladministration could have affected their investment decision. Therefore, to echo my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North, they suffered no relative loss.
Bob Blackman: But will the Minister answer the moral issue? At the time when people were making investment decisions, and taking out these policies, the regulatory failure was going on. As they became victims of that regulatory failure, surely we have a moral duty to compensate them.
Mr Hoban: When people made the decision on the information available to them, the relevant information was not in the public domain, and would not have affected their investment decision until September 1992. That is a clear, logical, sensible starting point, based on principles and on the ombudsman's findings, for the maladministration, and that is the point from which we should calculate relative loss for policyholders.
Mark Durkan: The Minister is in danger of asking the Committee to accept the notion that customer ignorance can be a legislator's excuse. That cannot be so. If the Minister is trying to say that what they did not know did them no harm, that is preposterous. They did not know, and they have suffered harm.
We should also bear in mind the issue of practicality and the lack of information available to Equitable Life's policyholders. Hon. Members should reflect on the fact that no one would have made investment decisions based on anything that happened prior to 1992 until that information was in the public domain. That is why the group has been excluded from the calculation of relative loss.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. No one suggests that the situation is not difficult, but whether or not one was aware of maladministration, and whether or not it existed pre '92, surely the central point is that annuitants who took out a policy pre '92 suffered relative loss post '92, courtesy of maladministration. To return to an earlier point, perhaps there is a moral duty to include such people in the compensation, as I believe that the parliamentary ombudsman suggested.
Let me deal with two issues that hon. Members should have take into account in assessing the point. First, as has been mentioned, there are challenges around getting information for the pre '92 period. Secondly, there is the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North about the timing of losses. We recognise that pre '92 with-profits annuitants were affected by how Equitable Life was run. Sir John Chadwick and Towers Watson looked into what those WPAs would have received from Equitable Life had there been no maladministration. They concluded that they received more from Equitable Life as a result of maladministration than they would have done had it been properly regulated. That was because Equitable Life paid out more to them in the early years than it would have done had there been no maladministration. Let me give an example to prove that.
If a with-profits annuitant had purchased their policy in 1989 and gained through that purchase an income of £7,200, by 1993 the policyholder would have been receiving an annuity of approximately £10,000 per annum. Part of that sum was a result of the bonuses that had been declared on the policy since commencement. It is recognised that Equitable Life was paying higher bonuses than it could afford during the late 1980s and early 1990s. If Equitable Life had not been over-bonusing during that period, Towers Watson has calculated that the policyholder would have received only £9,500 per year. It is a consequence of the maladministration that the policyholder is receiving £500 more than he or she should have during that period.
Equitable Life continued to overpay bonuses throughout most of the 1990s. As a result, by 2002 that policyholder was receiving £17,000 per annum. If the over-bonusing had not taken place, the policyholder would have received only £15,800, so he or she was still receiving more as a consequence of maladministration.
In 2003, Equitable Life cut the rate of annuity payments to its with-profits policyholders by about 20%. In the absence of maladministration, the value of payments to with-profits policyholders would also have been cut, although, owing to market performance, by only 18%. After the cuts in 2003, our example policyholder was receiving £12,900 per year from Equitable Life. Had there been no maladministration, he or she would have been receiving only £12,300. I hope that that example has helped to clarify the consequences of maladministration, namely that even after the cuts in 2003 policyholders are still receiving more than they would have if Equitable Life had been properly regulated. For a range of reasons, their plight is not as it has been represented.
The first question to be asked, then, is "When did maladministration affect policyholders and the decisions that were made?" The second relates to the practicality of extracting data pre-1992, which is well established and has been well aired in the Chadwick report and elsewhere; and the third concerns the consequence of maladministration in Equitable Life, which is that with-profits annuitants are receiving more over the lifetime of their policy than they would have received if that maladministration had not taken place.
Jonathan Evans: I was interested in the way in which my hon. Friend dealt with my point about over-bonusing, but I feel that he has undermined another point that I made: I suggested that it was not possible to make such calculations, but my hon. Friend has suggested that Towers Watson has done so. In a sense that also undermines the thrust of why the pre-1992 policyholders should be excluded. I had assumed that they might not have been disadvantaged and that it was too difficult to work out the numbers, but if Towers Watson has worked out those numbers and there is no relative loss, it seems a bit odd not to include them, at least for the purpose of calculating the position and telling them that there is no loss.
Mr Hoban: I was trying to make two points. First, those policyholders were excluded from the calculation of relative loss as a consequence of the ombudsman's findings and her view on when maladministration had taken place. According to the example that I have given, they would not have suffered loss in any event. I am merely saying that, in my opinion, there is a strong case in principle for the exclusion of those policyholders, and in practical terms they have not suffered loss.
The fact that with-profits annuitants who bought their annuities before 1 September 1992 have seen a reduction in the level of payments that they currently receive from their annuities is a result of poor investment market performance and the fact that their earlier annuity payments were artificially high. That was because of the structure of the policies that they bought, or because they received too much in the earlier years, as Equitable Life paid out more on a discretionary basis than it should have. Unlike the value of conventional annuities, the value of a with-profits annuity varies according to investment return. Although the reductions are regrettable, they are not instances of Government maladministration, and therefore Government should not be providing compensation for that group of policyholders.
A number of Members mentioned Sir John Chadwick. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said that Sir John's report had been rubbished by some people. The report included a mechanism for the calculation of internal relative loss that would have dealt with the pre-1992 annuitants, but, as my hon. Friend said, there was widespread criticism of it, not just in the House but by all the commentators, by EMAG and by others. No one came forward with an alternative scheme to compensate the pre-1992 annuitants, because no one had really thought about them. It needs to be recognised that they fall outside the parameters of the ombudsman's report, because she did not envisage a need to compensate them.
"implement the Parliamentary Ombudsman's recommendation to make fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policyholders".
As we all know, the ombudsman has worked tirelessly to help to ensure that justice is delivered to the policyholders who have waited so long for a resolution of this issue. Her continued interest in the matter has been of great help, and has brought some clarity to what is clearly a very complex issue. The ombudsman has been generous with her time, and has continued to contribute to the debate. She has, for instance, appeared before the Public Administration Committee. I discussed the Chadwick report with her in the run-up to the spending review, and her views helped the Government to reach a view on the losses suffered by policyholders.
I should welcome any continued contribution that the ombudsman might wish to make to the debate on Equitable Life, and if she wished to advise Parliament of her views on the work of the independent commission, that would assist both the House and the Government; however, I think it would be inappropriate to require her to play such a role. Her role and remit are clearly set out in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, which does not give the ombudsman a standing obligation to continue to advise this House as to the response to her reports. There is good reason for that, not least the need to make appropriate use of the ombudsman's resources. It must be for the ombudsman herself to decide what role she wishes to play once she has finished her investigation.
The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) asked how we would implement the ombudsman's approach. We have said that the Government accept the calculation of relative loss as £4.3 billion. The ombudsman wrote to Members on 26 July this year saying that she recognised that the relative-loss approach adopted by Towers Watson
"provides a firm foundation on which to build."
The independent commission will advise on the allocation of remaining funds to not-with-profits annuitants, apart from the post-1992 WPAs. The Equitable Life database allows us to apply relative-loss methodology to each
policyholder's data, so there will be no individual requirement to claim or provide evidence of claim, or indeed to reveal the instances of maladministration that are relied on. That will benefit all policyholders who suffered relative loss. The ombudsman spoke of reliance on regulatory returns, but Sir John's alternative approach does not require us to ascertain what reliance was involved. Effectively, that gives people the benefit of the doubt, and in my view it means a simpler, fairer and more transparent scheme.
Sir John also talked about the distribution of losses, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. Thirty per cent. of policyholders suffered no loss at all, about 405 suffered a loss of between £1 and £1,000, and 60% suffered a loss of between £1 and £5,000. Therefore, as Members will recognise, the distribution of losses is quite varied. A large number of policyholders either have no loss or suffered a relatively small loss. That gives the payments commission some flexibility in respect of the design of the scheme and how to use the pot. I should, however, stress to Members that the amount that is available is fixed, so while we may want to be more generous to one group, that would mean that another group suffers. We need to bear that in mind in considering eligibility.
I encourage my hon. Friends to reject any amendments in this group that are put to a vote. We have come up with a fair scheme that is based on the ombudsman's findings; the loss reflects her calculation. I therefore think this is a good scheme, representing a balance of fairness between policyholders and taxpayers.
Mr Fabian Hamilton: I am grateful to the Minister for his clear explanation of his rationale for the compensation scheme. I am afraid, however, that I still do not accept the argument that the cut-off should be absolute and rigid and that those who took out annuities before 1 September 1992 should not receive any compensation or be eligible in any way. As I do not fully accept his argument, I will press amendment 1 to a vote.
'(2C) The Treasury shall publish details of the independent appeals procedure for policyholders as defined in subsection (2) above to use in the event of dispute over the compensation payment decision in their case, no later than three months after commencement of this Act.'.
(3) In designing a distribution scheme under subsection (2) the independent payments commission shall consult with interested parties, including the Equitable Life Assurance Society and representatives of policyholders.
I shall speak to amendments 3 and 4, which stand in my name and the names of my hon. Friends. Amendment 3 would enshrine in the Bill the
fact that the design and administration of any payments scheme should be independent of Government. It is pretty straightforward and simple-in fact, it would be difficult for it to be more straightforward and simple-but we think it important to try to encourage the Government to enshrine in the Bill the Minister's pronouncements so far that the design of the compensation scheme should be independent of Government. That is an extremely important point, especially as it was part of the conclusions drawn by the parliamentary ombudsman herself.
The Minister has asked the independent commission, chaired by Brian Pomeroy, to report by the end of January, but there is too much wiggle room for the Minister then to take those recommendations and bring the design and the administration of the subsequent payments scheme in-house within the Treasury. I see no clear reason why the Bill does not contain clarity on the next steps forward, particularly in relation to the daunting task of creating a payments scheme to cover upwards of 1 million policyholders not falling into the 100% compensated with-profit annuitant category.
Many other policyholders are still sceptical of the Government's intentions and EMAG, which is the body representing many of those policyholders, is voicing its discontent with those who, before the election, signed up to their pledge to create "fair and transparent" payment schemes, which they now attack as akin to asking 1 million people-to quote the words of EMAG's Paul Braithwaite-to
"share a pack of Smarties".
Obviously, EMAG is making its point in its own particular way, but clearly there is some doubt and some cynicism about the approach that the Minister is taking. I am sure, having heard what he has had to say before, that he indeed wants a level of independence in the payments scheme as far as possible, but I do not understand why that commitment has not been included in the legislation. That would seem to me to be the best way forward.
Amendment 4 seeks to tackle the issue of any appeals procedure that might be necessary for policyholders in the compensation scheme. We suggest that no later than three months after the commencement of the Bill the Treasury be required to spell out quite how that appeals procedure would operate for the policyholders who are not content with the judgments made in the compensation scheme that eventually ensues. Several hon. Members argued for an appeals procedure on Second Reading on 14 September-my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) among them-and it was also raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms).
In that debate, the Minister stated that he had raised the issue with his officials but that there were clear problems. He said he would pursue it, so the purpose of the amendment is to find out whether he has had the opportunity to do so and what the appeals process will look like. I certainly expect that there will be complexity, not just in the payment scheme but in any subsequent individual appeals adjudication, and that could be quite difficult to imagine at this stage. However, it needs clarification given the route that the Minister has chosen,
moving away from the ex gratia model in the Chadwick methodology and instead accepting the ombudsman's approach to compensation.
I was glad that the Minister said there were components of the Chadwick methodology that he favoured bringing into any compensation scheme-specifically that there would be no burden of proof on individual policyholders to show that they had been misled by the regulatory returns. That would certainly make the scheme simpler. Will the Minister take this opportunity to tell us whether the independent payments commission will eventually metamorphose into an authority for administering the payments? If so, will it be asked to design an appeals system, or is it the Treasury's intention to undertake that part of the design?
Perhaps the Minister could say whether he sees any parallels with the appeals system set up when the former Department of Trade and Industry introduced an appeals mechanism in respect of the ill-health complaints about what was then known as vibration white finger. He will remember that a series of complex compensation payments were made in those cases, but an appeals system was set up that had a route into a judicial process and eventually to the High Court. If some policyholders might become involved in a judicial process, it would be useful to have clarity about whether the same will happen.
Will the Minister also confirm not only, as I think he said, that the administrative costs of operating the compensation programme will be separate from the compensation fund, but that any appeals costs will also be separate from the compensation fund? I am sure that the Committee will welcome any clarification of the Government's intentions, and in the meantime we felt that the amendment was a reasonable device to ensure that those answers are forthcoming.
We need to make the whole process clear, transparent and independent of Government so that the money that has been set aside to compensate the victims of this scandal is seen to be distributed so that they receive their due compensation in a manner that is independent of the Treasury. The dead hand of Treasury officials should not mean that the scheme is designed in a particular way. I do not necessarily need to press the new clause, but I seek assurances from the Minister that we have a full, independent, transparent way to compensate the victims, who have been so badly treated over the past 10 years.
Mark Durkan: Obviously we are waiting to hear what the Government will say about their amendment, but the other amendments-including the new clause proposed by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman)-are in essence an attempt to ensure that there is a sense of competent independence in how the scheme is administered and payments made. In terms of making appeals available and ensuring that the design and administration of the scheme are independent of Government, the new clause offers a reasonable construct of what a clearly independent scheme would be.
In the debate on the previous group of amendments, there were plenty of references to pledges that many of us signed and how far the Government's measures will mean that we have discharged those pledges, but I do not think that any of us signed pledges that said we would do the whole thing just according to Treasury lights and nothing else. The amendments are an attempt to ensure that it will be not only Treasury lights that govern the terms of the scheme and its performance.
Mr Weir: Does the hon. Gentleman not feel, however, that the problem remains that the whole thing will be governed by the ultimate cap? That is the difficulty that faces all Equitable Life policyholders.
Mark Durkan: Yes, I do. There is no escaping the constraints that the cap will create. In the last group of amendments, we considered the questions that arise when the cap comes together with the cut-off. That conspires to create a pretty selective injustice for a group of people who are then left with very marginal compensation.
Even a very independent process, such as that proposed in the amendments, will be constrained by the cap. However, people would trust a credible independent process applying that cap with due consideration for all the concerns, rights and needs of policyholders more than they would trust the Treasury. In the last debate some Government Members said confidently how impressed they had been with the Treasury since they came into the House. That might well be-we are in the early stages of this Parliament and this Government and the first few pages of the exercise book are lovely, neat, impressive and perfect-but degeneration creeps in later on and even the Treasury will revert to its traditional roots and habits.
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): I have confidence in the Treasury trying to sort this out-I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that. However, I am concerned about anything that pushes this matter into the long grass. We do not need any more delays caused by trying to set up other bodies. That is why I would like to say, "Get on with it and get the Treasury doing it."
Mark Durkan: I do not believe that the hon. Member for Harrow East, for example, is trying to sow or fertilise long grass. This is about getting something that is credible, competent and reliable and the Committee should try to help in that regard. That is the spirit of these amendments.
There has been much criticism of the underperformance, to put it mildly, of the previous Government on this issue over more than one Parliament. Let us remember that those Ministers were not deliberately ignoring the plight of their own constituents who were coming to them or the problems highlighted by many of us from constituencies across the United Kingdom. They were constrained by the advice that they were getting from the same Treasury that people are now so happy with. The Treasury was advising that serious precedents and problems would be created.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP):
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but Ministers are there to take decisions. They listen to advice but it is up to them to make things happen. He and I, as former
Ministers, know that only too well, so why is he making an excuse for the inaction of the previous Government and their failure to respond to the needs of Equitable Life policyholders?
Mark Durkan: If the right hon. Gentleman had been here for the debates on earlier amendments, he would know that I made no such excuses then. Indeed, in all previous debates, I have been very critical of the performance of previous Governments. We have both been the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland, as he says. When I held that position, I used the line, "I'm the Minister of Finance; I don't suffer from depression but I am a carrier." That is the effect: Treasury Ministers are put in that sort of position. They become aware of constraints and difficulties that they then have to put before everyone else and impose on them as well.
My point is not that Ministers were right or wrong to listen to the advice but that we, as a Committee, must choose whether to go along with the Bill and say that the scheme will proceed only according to Treasury lights or whether to say instead that it should go according to wider lights and be informed by the sort of considerations reflected in the various amendments that hon. Members have tabled and by the many good observations made by Members on both sides of the Committee. Either we want to trust the Treasury and leave the scheme entirely in its hands, with its considerations and constraints alone, or we want to honour the spirit of what we have all pledged to those who have lost out with Equitable Life and to act in the light of the sad experiences that we have heard about.
Mr Hoban: I take the same view as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on the responsibility of Ministers. Civil servants provide advice but Ministers decide and act and we cannot ignore that responsibility. We have taken this matter very seriously and have sought, over the past six months, to drive through a speedy resolution to the problem. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on tackling this matter.
On the amendments before us, the purpose of amendment 3 is to make the design and operational mechanism of the scheme "independent of government". I understand the need for independence in the design of the payment scheme, which is why I established the Independent Commission on Equitable Life Payments. The commission's advice will necessarily form the basis of the scheme's design. It will advise on how best fairly to allocate payments among policyholders, with the exception of with-profits annuitants, and it will consider which groups, if any, should be prioritised. It is right that that process should be independent, so the scheme will be independently designed.
The Government have considered whether the scheme should also be operated independently of the Government, as amendment 3 proposes, and have concluded that that would not be appropriate for three key reasons. First, it would delay the commencement of payments. Our ambition is to start making payments in the middle of next year using our preferred delivery partner National Savings
and Investment. I shall say more about that on amendment 6. If amendment 3 were accepted, NS&I, which is an Executive agency of the Treasury, could not be used as the delivery partner as it would not be operating independently of the Treasury, which would therefore have to establish a new, independent body or identify an existing such body that could operate the scheme. It is also likely that legislation would be required to task the independent body with the design and operation of the scheme, which would delay significantly the making of payments to policyholders.
Secondly, the Government have established an independent commission to advise on the allocation of payments. This function is independent of the Government and is key in determining a fair allocation of payments. Making the operational delivery provider, whose job is largely about sending out the payments and making sure that cheques get to the people who are entitled to receive them, independent of the Treasury would not add significant value to that task.
Finally, it is important to ensure that value for money is considered when deciding on a delivery partner. The Treasury has satisfied itself that NS&I has the capacity and the capability to deliver the scheme, while at the same time providing value for money. The Government consider that by establishing the Independent Commission on Equitable Life Payments on 22 July, we achieved the aim that is at the heart of the amendment.
I turn to amendment 4 and what policyholders should do if they consider that they are not being treated fairly under the scheme. The Government are committed to treating policyholders fairly. In line with that, there will certainly be a means by which policyholders can raise concerns about the incorrect application of scheme rules to individual cases. We have given much thought to how best to deal with complaints and have made a great deal of progress in putting together a process that is fair and thorough. Full details of this process will be included in the document that sets out the scheme design in full.
Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): I spoke about this last time we discussed the matter. Given that the message to savers from the previous Government was non-existent or at least negative, does my hon. Friend think the message that the present Government are sending to savers is adequate? Are we saying clearly, "We understand that you have been badly let down by Government and we want to put things right as much as we can, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves"?
Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are two aspects to it. First, in respect of Equitable Life, the speed with which we have acted demonstrates our commitment to a resolution of the problem. The second is a forward-looking and prospective issue, which is why we have brought forward proposals to improve the regulation of retail financial services through the establishment of the new Consumer Protection and Markets Authority. That will be a boost to regulation and give confidence to savers that the market will be better regulated. It is important, and we have introduced measures recently, to ensure that if anything goes wrong, there is a proper process in place to tackle that.
I was commenting on the scheme appeals mechanism, which will be published before the scheme begins making payments and will be made available for parliamentary scrutiny. If a policyholder believes that the rules of the scheme have been incorrectly applied to their data, they will be able to raise a query with the delivery body, stating the nature of their concern. The query will be pursued by the delivery body.
If there is merit in the challenge and it is upheld, a recalculation will take place. If the challenge is not agreed by the delivery body, the policyholder will have the option of taking their case to the review panel. The review panel will consider the case in full and be able to make a fresh decision based on the facts of the case. It will be independent of the original decision-making process. If a complainant's case is upheld, the review panel will ensure that a recalculation is carried out. If the complainant remains unhappy with the review panel's decision, they will be able to challenge that decision in court by way of judicial review.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): My hon. Friend referred to cases in which the rules of the scheme might not have been correctly applied, but such are the complexities of Equitable Life policyholders-for example, a constituent of mine whose policies were additional voluntary contributions in a pension scheme which has been wound up-that someone might wish to argue that their particular type of case had not been envisaged in the way the rules were formulated, and that a specific decision needed to be made in that case. Will the scheme be wide enough to make that possible?
Mr Hoban: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I would expect the payments commission to design a payments scheme that would be sufficiently comprehensive to ensure that all groups of policyholders were covered by it, so any appeal would be on the basis only of any data used to calculate the losses, rather than an appeal in principle against the design of the scheme. I will bear in mind the point that my right hon. Friend makes and encourage the commission, when it takes representations from people, to think as widely as possible about the different groups of policyholders that need to be taken into account.
Chris Leslie: The Minister is being extremely helpful and at least setting out a sense of what the architecture of that appeals system will be. He said that it would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Can he say for the record that the relevant statutory instrument will be subject to the affirmative procedure?
Mr Hoban: There is no requirement in the Bill to lay the scheme as a statutory instrument, but I shall ensure that when the scheme design is produced, it is laid before the House and there is an opportunity to scrutinise it.
The hon. Gentleman asked a question about the cost of administration and the cost of the appeals mechanism, and he was right to recollect that I said previously that the cost of administration would be separate from the compensation pot. That is still the case, and it goes without saying that the cost of the appeals mechanism
will also be separate from the compensation pot. We want the money that is set aside for compensation to be used for compensation.
Bob Blackman: I am grateful to the Minister for outlining the appeals process, which, in this complex and complicated arrangement, will be important. Will he elucidate further on the effect of the time frame of the appeals process? What would happen if, for example, an individual policyholder or set of policyholders, who felt that they had been wronged and not received the compensation that they were due, went through the process and that led to a breach of the cap? If they were suddenly compensated with a lot more money than had already been allocated, how would that be dealt with?
Mr Hoban: In that situation, there would be two aspects: first, the design that the payment scheme had applied; and secondly, the data that were available to the policyholder. The scheme will be designed in such a way that it does not breach the cap, so it would be possible to appeal only if the data were incorrect. The data that will be used to calculate the compensation will come from a database supplied by Equitable Life, and I hope that its data are of a high standard, so that those situations do not occur.
From the details given today, the Government have been considering very carefully the design of the appeals procedure, and we will publish details of the procedure, along with other aspects of the scheme, ahead of the time that amendment 4 proposes. So in light of that we believe that the amendment is not necessary.
Let me turn to amendment 6, which is in my name. The delivery of the Equitable Life payments scheme is an important matter, and since we took office we have made huge strides towards finding a resolution to the Equitable Life issue. However, we are aware that, for many policyholders, the issue will continue until they finally receive the money. As such, it is important that we find the right delivery partner to help us do that. Having given the matter careful consideration and looked at a range of options, our preferred option is to use NS&I, to deliver the scheme.
Officials have held many meetings with NS&I to find out not only whether it is capable of carrying out that important task, but the processes by which delivery could be carried out. There are many factors that make NS&I an appropriate delivery partner for the scheme. One of the most obvious and important is capability. As part of its everyday functions, NS&I makes millions of payments to customers every month. It has processes and infrastructure in place and experience of carrying out the functions that the scheme will require.
The need for value for money in the delivery of the scheme is also important. We are all aware that, in a climate where we have had to make difficult decisions about where to make cuts, the Government must look for ways of making the cost of delivering the scheme reasonable. Using NS&I will allow us to draw upon existing Government relationships and contracts, and I am satisfied that NS&I can provide a good delivery mechanism by which we can start making payments in line with our stated ambition of the middle of next year.
I am grateful to the Minister for the information about National Savings & Investment being the preferred vehicle. In theory, there is a separation
between policy, in terms of the scheme design, and operations, in terms of the administration but blurred edges can sometimes appear between the two. Will the independent commission hold the ring in any disputes about the mechanism, timing and administration of the scheme? Who will be the final arbiter of any disputes that arise from the process? Presumably, it will be the independent commission.
Mr Hoban: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it is vital that we are able to operationalise, as it were, the scheme design. That is why I have encouraged the payments commission to engage with NS&I to ensure that the scheme that the commission designs can be delivered. That is an important part of the process, and I expect the commission to do that during the course of its work. I think that addresses the hon. Gentleman's point.
Let me turn finally to new clause 1 and the status of the independent commission. I have already spoken about the importance of the work of the commission, and I am not sure that the new clause, which would give it statutory footing, would add value to its work.
Mark Durkan: Returning to amendment 6, can the Minister assure us that it is there only to provide proper statutory cover to the director of savings and NS&I in relation to the scheme, and not to extend Treasury control or constraints in relation to it?
Mr Hoban: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We could not use NS&I if we did not include this power in the Bill. Its purpose is to enable NS&I to act as a delivery partner, not to give the Treasury some way of reaching back into the payments scheme. I reassure him, and others, that the power is there merely to deliver the outcome of the scheme.
The role of the payments commission will be key. It will advise on the distribution of payments to those other than WPAs, and I will take its advice extremely seriously. The new clause would introduce a requirement for the commission to consult key bodies in the development of its advice, but let me tell my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that it would need no statutory encouragement to do so. The commission has already met Equitable Life and EMAG, and it has published a discussion paper asking for more views on the guiding principles for determining fairness in allocating and prioritising the funding. I do not believe that an amendment to the Bill would make it any more consultative and thorough in its task. My hon. Friend is aware that I have made the commitment to go along to the all-party group with the chairman of the commission to engage with parliamentarians on this matter. That is a very clear sign of the way in which we want to engage, or the commission wants to engage, with stakeholders to come up with the best design for the scheme. I encourage people to read and engage with the commission's discussion paper, too.
The new clause would also introduce a statutory duty for the Government to lay the design of the scheme before Parliament in the form of a statutory instrument in order to allow full scrutiny. I entirely understand the thinking behind this, and transparency has been at the heart of our approach to developing the payments scheme. However, as I have said, I will publish and lay
before Parliament a document setting out the scheme design in detail, which may then be debated as Parliament chooses. Again, I do not think that a statutory requirement will make my commitment to full transparency any stronger. The Government therefore resist the new clause.
Furthermore, including provision in the Bill as to the status and operation of the independent commission would pose a very serious risk to the timetable of the commission. The commission is already in operation and has been since July, and it is due to report at the end of January. Notwithstanding the speed with which the House is dealing with the Bill, it will still take several weeks for it to finish its passage through this House and the other place. If the commission had to be reformed after the Bill received Royal Assent, to restart its deliberations so as to comply with the provisions of the new clause, there would be a real risk of delay to its advice. This would, in turn, delay the making of payments to policyholders-something that I am sure none of us would want to happen. In the light of this, and given the comfort that I hope I have provided on the operation of the commission, I invite the hon. Member to withdraw his amendment.
Chris Leslie: I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the information about the preferred vehicle for the payment scheme. Although we would have preferred to see some of the issues regarding the design of the scheme independently set out and enshrined in the Bill for the avoidance of doubt, I accept his commitment in making these points on the record. Similarly, in respect of the appeals mechanism, this debate has given us the opportunity to shed a little light on to how he envisages that arrangement playing out.
I hope that the Minister's commitment to allowing further parliamentary scrutiny will not involve merely tabling a negative resolution on the Order Paper so that Members have to beg the indulgence of those on the Treasury Bench to find time to debate it. Given the amount of interest in these matters across the House, the affirmative procedure would be preferable, as that would allow us to consider them in detail. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
'(2D) The Treasury shall lay before Parliament details of the timings and planned dates for payments of compensation to which this section applies, no later than three months after commencement of this Act.'.
Chris Leslie: The amendment is intended to draw out more information specifically about the timing of the compensation payment scheme that the Financial Secretary envisages. In particular, we wish to ensure that the Treasury will lay before Parliament details of the timing and planned dates for payments no later than three months after the commencement of the Act.
We know that this long saga has involved many raised hopes, which have often been dashed. Although there were very good reasons for the last Government's detailed consideration of complex issues, I accept in hindsight that decisions could and should have been taken more quickly and handled better. There were sound reasons why Ministers took a different approach to that of the Government today, but we are where we are, as the saying goes, and I wish to the ask the Financial Secretary a few questions about how the matter will progress from here onwards.
I am aware that table 3 in the spending review document, on page 12, sets out the phasing of the total finance set aside as being £520 million in 2011-12, £315 million in 2012-13, £210 million in 2013-14 and finally £100 million in 2014-15. As the explanatory notes to the Bill state, that comes to a total of £1.1 billion that has been set aside for this spending review period. Clearly there is a discrepancy with the £1.5 billion figure that we have been talking about, which presumably goes beyond the spending review period. I have a number of questions for the Financial Secretary, and I hope that he will expand upon the details.
First, on what basis have those figures been arrived at? Do they represent the expected phasing of payments, or are administrative costs included, for example, distorting the apparently higher first-year figure set out in the spending review document? I presume that the administration costs have to be set out somewhere in the budgetary figures. If so, will the Financial Secretary clarify his intentions? I do not want policyholders to labour under the misapprehension that they will necessarily receive the bulk of their compensation up front, as those figures might suggest.
At what stage will the timing and phasing of payments become clear? Does the Financial Secretary expect that the independent commission will set out those details early on, and will there be any opportunity to enshrine the timing of those arrangements in law, perhaps through regulations, even though they will be designed independently of Ministers? In other words, will the commission come back to Parliament and say, "This is how we are going proceed"?
There have been reports that three tranches of payments are expected over a four-year period. Can the Financial Secretary clarify whether that expectation is broadly reasonable for the policyholders involved? The Government are clearly about to hand over many of the arrangements to the independent commission and to National Savings & Investment, but it is still important that we know the broad parameters that they will use. That is the purpose of the amendment-we are seeking a public commitment and transparency about the timing of the payments.
I rise to support amendment 8. I do not want to go over all the ground that we covered in debating the previous amendments, but the purpose of the amendment is precisely what we talked about earlier.
Hon. Members intervened to say, "Let's get this done. Let's get it over with and ensure that policyholders are properly compensated as quickly as possible."
It is clear that trapped annuitants will receive their compensation in staged payments over the life of their pensions. However, we get into complex territory again when discussing the other policyholders and the difference between with-profits and other annuities. As I understand it-I hope that the Financial Secretary will clarify this-tranches will be paid out over the life of the comprehensive spending review period. The third tranche will be paid only in 2013, which still leaves some £500 million to be paid out in the next comprehensive spending review period. As we understand it, this will be a long-drawn out affair, so perhaps we can have further clarification on the issue.
We have set aside £1.5 billion to compensate the victims of this scandal and we have set up an independent commission to design the scheme and decide how that money should be dispensed. The purpose of the amendment is to say that we should now get on with it and compensate those people while they are still alive. We should not hang on to the money and drag these payments out over an extended period.
We want to put in place a rapid approach. Once again, I congratulate the Treasury team on its rapid approach to resolving the scandal. None the less, if we are to have long and extended periods of payment, many policyholders who have been affected by this scandal will sadly have died before they can receive their money. Therefore, I trust that we can implement this clause and ensure that we demonstrate to all the policyholders who have been so badly affected by the scandal that they will receive their due compensation very quickly.
Mr Hoban: Let me deal with amendments 5 and 8. We have stated that our ambition is to commence payments in the middle of next year. As the Committee is aware, we have made great progress on this issue. Within six months of coming to office, we have published Sir John's report and the supporting material; we have provided the first bottom-up estimate of losses suffered by policyholders; we have set aside £1.5 billion for the payment schemes; we have announced that we will cover the full losses of eligible with-profits annuitants; and we have established the Independent Commission on Equitable Life Payments to advise us on the fair allocation of payments among policyholders. Such progress shows how seriously we take this matter and how quickly we want to find a resolution. Our ambition is to commence payments in the middle of next year, and our track record of getting things done quickly on Equitable Life shows that we are capable of doing so.
Let me set out the process that we are following to ensure that payments are made as quickly as possible. In line with our commitment to independence, we have set up the independent commission to advise us on how we can fairly allocate the funds among policyholders, with the exception of the with-profits annuitants and their estates, and on any priority groups or classes of person who should be paid earlier.
Such an approach will help to inform the sequencing of payments. To ensure that the payments can begin as soon as practicable, we have set a challenging timetable
for the commission and it will report at the end of January 2011. Between the end of January and the dates that payments commence, we will be laying the advice of the independent commission over the operational technicalities of the scheme to ensure that the end-to-end process operates well. We will then publish a scheme design document that sets out the end-to-end process of the scheme in the spring. We will also finalise the arrangements with the delivery agent. That will help to ensure that when the scheme goes live, we can get payments to policyholders efficiently.
I hope that I have reassured hon. Members that this Government are committed to making payments to policyholders as soon as it is practicable and that we are taking all possible steps to achieve that. As a result, amendment 5 is unnecessary. I have addressed the points raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) about the sequencing of payments. We are seeking advice from the new payments commission on how that sequencing will take place and how it will fit within the envelope of public spending that is set out in the comprehensive spending review.
Let me turn to amendment 8, standing in the name of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) spoke. The amendment deals with the issue of how payments should be made. I recognise the fact that policyholders have waited far too long for a resolution to the matter. That is why at the spending review we set out how we envisage the scheme working. I want to set out that vision again. Those policyholders who do not have a with-profits annuitants policy will receive their payments in one lump sum to give them the closure that they need quickly. As it happens, amendment 8, tabled by the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend, would mean that with-profits annuitants would not receive their payments in the way that we envisage. One of the reasons why we have been able to increase the amount available to policyholders is so that we can spread the amounts going to with-profits annuitants over the remainder of their lives. If my hon. Friend's amendment were accepted, it would stop that process and mean that their payments would come out of the £1 billion set aside at the time of the CSR. I therefore suggest that the amendment would not help policyholders to receive quite as much money as we believe they should.
Owing to logistical constraints associated with such a large and complex scheme and to affordability constraints, we cannot make all lump sum payments immediately. They will be paid out over the first three years of the spending review period. That is why I have asked the commission on payments to advise me on whether there are any classes of policyholders whose payments should be prioritised, to ensure that those in most urgent need of redress are paid first.
"The Government expects the total amount of funding for the scheme to be in the region of £1.5 billion."
"£1 billion will be allocated to the Payments Scheme in this Spending Review period, which will cover...the initial costs of the first three years of WPA"-
"regular payments, and all payments to other policyholders."
Can the Minister explain the difference between the £1 billion and the £1.5 billion, and say how the timings will be affected? Presumably the other £500 million will arrive after the spending review period, but I am a bit confused on that point.
Mr Hoban: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which gives me the opportunity to clarify the make-up of the £1.5 billion. The figure includes the full cost of the losses to with-profits annuitants-approximately £620 million-which will be made through regular payments. However, taking into account the pressures on the public purse, the Treasury could allocate only £1 billion over the first three years of the spending review. That will cover two things: the first three years of payments to with-profits annuitants, and lump-sum payments to all other policyholders and to the estates of deceased with-profits annuitants.
It is important to start to pay off with-profits annuitants' losses quickly, alongside the lump-sum payments to other policyholders. About £225 million of the £1 billion is for with-profits annuitants and their estates, leaving approximately £775 million for lump-sum payments to non-with-profits annuitants. The Towers Watson estimate of £620 million for with-profits annuity losses leaves approximately £395 million for the rest of the WPA losses from 2014-15 onwards. Those who are quicker at mental arithmetic than me will have worked out that the total comes to about £1.4 billion. The balance is a contingency, because the payments to with-profits annuitants are based on their longevity. We hope that they live long and healthy lives, and that buffer is set aside to cover this need. That is how the maths works out.
The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. There has been a very expansive debate so far, so there will not be a clause stand part debate. If the Minister wants to say anything, I would encourage him to say it now.
Mr Hoban: You are right, Ms Primarolo, we have had an extensive debate, so I will ensure that I now have my notes to hand for the clause stand part debate. I should clarify the treatment of the payments under the tax and benefits system. They will not be treated as income for tax purposes, and will not be taken into account in the calculation of tax credits, which is a benefit for policyholders. In terms of benefits, they will be treated as capital rather than income, and given the beneficial nature of the treatment of capital in the benefits system, that helps policyholders. We have sought in the design of the scheme, through measures such as the tax and benefits treatment, to maximise the value so that policyholders will receive the full amount.
Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It is difficult to calculate that because, as he will recognise, the tax status of Equitable Life policyholders varies. Some pay no tax, some pay tax at the 20p rate, some pay tax at the 40p rate, and some may even pay tax at the 50p rate. The value will depend on their tax status, and we do not have sufficient access to taxpayers' records to be able to match Equitable Life policyholders with their tax records, so we cannot calculate the benefit. However, he will appreciate that it could provide a significant benefit to some policyholders, and I hope that they will recognise that when they receive their payments. We have sought to be as generous as possible in the tax and benefits treatment for that purpose.
Mr Hoban: I thank my right hon. Friend. When designing the scheme, we considered seriously how to ensure that policyholders would benefit as much as possible from the payments. If we had been less generous, we would have been accused of clawing back money through the back door, and that is an impression that we want to dispel.
Sir Alan Beith: I welcome that announcement, but there is a group of people who are affected in multiple ways: those who have funds in Equitable Life that are not yet in payment and who have been given transfer values substantially below what they believe the fund to be worth, even now. If they are waiting up to three years, and take the money out, accepting the transfer penalty, will they invalidate their entitlement under the scheme?
Mr Hoban: That is an important point. I am sure that a range of issues will emerge as we move through the scheme's design to payment. People who have had Equitable Life policies throughout the period and bought them post-September 1992 will receive compensation even if they have exited from Equitable Life's current arrangements. I hope that that provides clarification.
Jonathan Evans: Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity, perhaps later, to issue a fuller statement on his very important announcement in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood)? I intended to raise the matter on Third Reading. There is no doubt that many policyholders will be delighted to hear the news, and it should be made more widely available to all policyholders so that they are aware of it.
Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend is right. The old saying is that the best way of keeping a secret is to make a speech in the House of Commons. I am sure that those of my hon. Friends who are in contact with Equitable Life policyholders will take the opportunity to write to them, and I hope that the Equitable Members Action Group, which is the main lobbying organisation on behalf of policyholders, will also take the opportunity to pass the information on to its members. It is important information for them, and we will continue to make policyholders aware of it as we communicate further details of the scheme.
Before that series of interventions, I was reflecting on amendment 8, and I want to say a little about why we are treating the with-profits annuitants differently from others in regard to payments. We need to recognise that the nature of the policies of that particular group of people is very different from that of other Equitable Life policyholders. Their losses relate not just to what has happened in the past, but to what will happen in the future. They will continue to receive a stream of income over a number of years from their with-profits annuity policy. We are now able to match that stream of income with their historic losses and their future losses. It makes sense for them to receive their payments in a way that reflects the income stream that they have lost, which is why they will receive their losses in regular payments over their lifetime.
In the light of that, I hope that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras will decide not to press amendment 8 to a vote, because the approach that he suggests is not appropriate for with-profits annuitants. We are determined to make swift progress on making payments to other policyholders, however, and they will get lump sum payments that will be free of tax.
Chris Leslie: The Minister has put on record some helpful information about the timing of the payment arrangements, and I do not think that it would add a great deal if we were to press the amendment to the vote. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
"In determining the amount of the payments that it is appropriate for the Treasury to authorise under subsection (2), the Treasury must have regard to such matters relating to the adverse effects of that maladministration on those persons and the proper calculation of their resulting losses as have been determined by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to be relevant to and appropriate for that calculation.".- (Frank Dobson.)
"( ) The functions of the Director of Savings include anything the Director is appointed by the Treasury to do in connection with payments to which this section applies.".- (Mr Hoban.)
The Government want to see justice for Equitable Life's policyholders, and this is clearly reflected in the actions that we have taken since coming to office. In six
short months, the coalition Government have made real progress towards implementing their pledge to make
"fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policyholders...for their relative loss as a result of regulatory failure."-[ Official Report, 26 May 2010; Vol. 554, c. 1WS.]
Since coming to power, we have published the first ever estimates of losses suffered by policyholders, considered representations on them, and endorsed a relative loss figure of £4.3 billion-in line with the parliamentary ombudsman's findings. We have set aside £1.5 billion to make payments, which is more than four times the amount that Sir John Chadwick's methodology produced. This strikes the right balance between fairness to policyholders and fairness to the taxpayer.
We have announced that we will cover the full losses of those policyholders who have or have had with-profits annuities. We have established an independent commission to assess how best to allocate payments to policyholders. While giving the commission wide discretion, we have made it clear that we do not expect payments to policyholders to be means-tested and that we expect payments to be made to the estates of deceased policyholders. Our goal is to make the first payments to policyholders towards the middle of next year. This is a huge achievement, of which we can be rightly proud.
The Bill is a vital part of this work. It gives the Treasury the authority to incur expenditure to make payments to policyholders. Without this Bill, redress for those who have suffered so long would be impossible. That is why we have moved so quickly. To delay further action would be unfair to those who have already waited over a decade for a resolution. The sooner the legislation is in place, the sooner we can bring their suffering to an end. I know that right hon. and hon. Members of all parties fully support us on that.
We announced as part of the spending review that it was our intention to make these payments tax free. Today's Bill gives the Treasury the power to make an order allowing these payments to be disregarded for tax. The payments will also be disregarded for the purposes of tax credits.
Finally, the Bill enables the Government to consider what effect, if any, these payments will have on people's eligibility for certain means-tested, state-funded support. I outlined in the debate on the final group of amendments how this treatment will apply to welfare benefits. We are still considering how the payments will affect support such as social care.
We have concluded that lump-sum payments made as part of this scheme will be disregarded as income for the purposes of assessing eligibility for means-tested benefits. Instead, they will be classed as capital. Capital limits do not immediately cut off eligibility for benefits; they work on a sliding scale, gradually reducing support for individuals with larger assets. It is unlikely that many recipients who would otherwise have been eligible for means-tested benefits will receive payments that dramatically affect this eligibility. For with-profits annuitants, regular payments will be treated as income in a similar way to the lost income stream that these payments represent.
Earlier today, hon. Members debated in detail a Government amendment that gives National Savings & Investments the power to deliver payments. That being a large and potentially complex task, it is essential that
the delivery partner has the experience and expertise to do the job properly and cost-effectively. When judged against these criteria and the imperative for payments to begin as soon as possible, National Savings & Investments was the strongest candidate, which was the motivation for including this amendment in the Bill.
I am aware of the concerns that hon. Members have voiced about the Bill's brevity. It is, indeed, a two-clause Bill and it does not include detail about the payments scheme that would allow Parliament to scrutinise and debate the issue. I would like to point out that there is no requirement for the Bill to do so; it is simply an enabling Bill to give the Treasury the power to make these payments to policyholders-and nothing more. The scheme design does not require statutory footing and, of course, before the scheme design is finalised, we first need to make progress on this Bill. If we had waited for the scheme design to be finalised before proceeding with the Bill, it would have taken far longer before we could start to make payments. What the Treasury has sought to do is to work on as many streams as possible in parallel, within the constraints of our legal powers.
Let me reassure all hon. Members that I am fully committed to transparency at every stage of this process. I understand and sympathise with Members' concerns, and for this reason I will publish a document setting out the scheme design in detail and lay it before Parliament for full scrutiny. Following the independent commission's publication of its final advice, I will make a statement setting out the Government's response.
I also know that Members are keen to discover whether a robust appeals process will be in place, one that will allow policyholders who believe their payment has been wrongly calculated to challenge this judgment. I am therefore pleased to confirm that we will be appointing a review panel, independent of NS&I, with full powers to consider any such challenges and to overturn any decision that it finds incorrect. As I said to the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) in an earlier debate, the costs of that appeal mechanism will not be borne by the compensation pot. We want to ensure that policyholders get the full value of the money that we set aside for compensation payments.
In the interests of transparency, I should like to set out the next steps in the process of resolving this long and complex issue. As a starting point, I hope that today's Bill will receive Royal Assent by the end of the year. That will allow the delivery partner to start preparations early in the new year, and to be well placed to make the first payments by the middle of the year, as is our ambition. It is important for the delivery partner to start work early, in order to accelerate the timetable to make those payments. The independent commission is due to report to me in late January and, following that, we will incorporate its recommendations in the design of the scheme, which will then be scrutinised by Parliament.
As I said earlier, I would encourage hon. Members on both sides of the House, whether they are new to the issue or have run with it for many years, as so many of us have, to engage with the commission in its work. It is independent of the Treasury, and the three commissioners are very experienced. I believe that they have the expertise
and skills to design a proper payments scheme for policyholders. However, they would welcome contributions from everybody who has participated in the debate, not just in the House but across the country over the past decade, to enable them to produce the best possible scheme design, which meets as far as possible the aspirations of people who have had policies with Equitable Life.
Since the Government took office in May, we have come a long way. We have achieved far more in recent months than was achieved in recent years. We have quantified relative loss suffered because of maladministration. We have identified the losses that policyholders have suffered on a bottom-up basis, by groups of policies and by age. For the first time, a proper understanding has been established of the losses suffered. That is a tribute to the hard work conducted by Towers Watson and others to develop that estimate. As a consequence of the spending review, we have been able to assess the quantum of losses, to decide the loss figure that we accept. We have accepted the ombudsman's view that relative loss is the best guide. We set aside £1.5 billion of funding to cover the cost of the payments scheme. We have announced that the losses of post 1992 with-profits annuitants will be covered entirely by the Government. We have also established an independent commission to advise on the allocation of funding to not-with-profits annuitants policyholders.
As a Government, we want to see a swift resolution to this matter. We want the many policyholders who have waited in financial purgatory for so many years, and who have campaigned so hard for justice, to receive the payments that are rightfully theirs. No one could disagree that policyholders have waited too long for justice. Although the debate has been relatively brief, it is not just the tip of the iceberg-to which the hon. Member for Nottingham East referred-as anyone who has participated in the debate will recognise. Passing this important Bill is essential to achieving justice, and I commend it to the House.
Chris Leslie: The short debate that we have had has covered a set of specific issues, largely arising from the Government's conclusions in the spending review about how to compensate those suffering injustice following maladministration by insurance and financial regulators in the case of Equitable Life. I am glad that we have had the opportunity to talk about the independence of the payment scheme. We have been able to hold the Government's feet to the fire on whether it will match the ombudsman's model. I am glad that the Minister said that he would welcome further comments from her on the design of the compensation scheme. It will be interesting to see whether she endorses it as being the fair and transparent scheme that many Members have pledged to deliver.
We have also discussed the appeals procedure and the timing of payments. In response to the second ombudsman's report, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), offered an apology for the past failings of the regulators. That is an important point, which is separate from the question of whether the regulators can be held fully or only partly responsible for the losses incurred by the maverick actions of Equitable Life's management during the 1980s and early 1990s.
I am sorry that, at least during this debate, Ministers have not also expressed regret, clearly and on the record, for the part that their party played during the 1980s in failing adequately to establish a regulatory system to prevent the vast bulk of the Equitable Life problems from arising in the first place. I know that it was a long time ago and that none of the current Ministers were in any way responsible, but I think it would have been a helpful gesture to draw a line under the failings that had occurred in the past. After all, Lord Penrose concluded in his inquiry report that Ministers in the late 1980s
"did not regard the subject"
"as a high priority for legislation."
"the Government's objective was to deregulate, to reduce regulatory burdens on business, to avoid interference in private companies, and to let market forces prevail."
Mr Hoban: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is new to this topic, but we have already clearly expressed our apologies. Unlike the last Government, we immediately accepted all the ombudsman's findings of failure. The hon. Gentleman's party did not even have the courage to do that.
Chris Leslie: I am glad that the Minister has been able to reiterate points that he did not make in his Third Reading speech. I do not necessarily want to reopen the box entirely, but it is important for both parties to recognise that mistakes have been made, and that things should and could have been done better by those on both sides. In particular, however, I think it is important not to gain the impression that failings did not occur on the watch of the Minister's party. Lord Penrose found that Conservative Ministers
"argued against reform in the... 1990s",
and that the United Kingdom "led the resistance" to Europe-wide attempts to update the third life directive. Those who argue that Labour alone fell short in respect of reacting to the Equitable Life debacle should realise that the ideological approach pursued by the Conservatives was absolutely central to causing the mess in the first place.
As Members know, the last Government would have chosen a different route to compensation. We were anxious that a poorly designed compensation scheme might entail a person-by-person review aimed at disentangling individual losses one by one, examining more than 30 million investment decisions by 1.5 million people over 20 years. That would have been a mammoth administrative task. Moreover, the ombudsman had implied that individuals would need to prove that they had relied on the regulatory returns and had been misled as a result. The last Government did not believe that such an approach could be feasible.
It was for those reasons that Sir John Chadwick was asked to explore a more realistic and reliable payment scheme methodology. He concluded that the Treasury should deal with the issue by grouping cases into about 20 broad categories of policyholders who were in similar circumstances. The payment scheme would then deduce the relative loss in each category in comparison with the outcomes of a basket of other policies that had not suffered from the same regulatory failings. The Government
have clearly embarked on a different course, although they have taken up some of Chadwick's pragmatic suggestions about the automaticity of compensation. We genuinely hope that that will work.
We are pleased that this short paving Bill is before the House, because we feel strongly that the matter should be resolved. The Committee stage gave us an opportunity to question the Government on several aspects of their approach, and I am glad that we have had an opportunity to draw them out further today.
Let me end by simply raising a question mark over the words of Ministers before May, when the general election took place, in comparison with their actions today. Many hundreds of thousands of Equitable Life policyholders-possibly as many as 1 million-were led to believe that in signing the EMAG pledge, Ministers were supporting a particular outcome that may not now arrive. Most Conservative Members signed that pledge. They pledged to their constituents that
"if I am elected to Parliament at the next general election, I will support and vote for proper compensation for victims of the Equitable Life scandal and I will support and vote to set up a swift, simple, transparent and fair payment scheme-independent of government-as recommended by the Parliamentary Ombudsman."
As the payment decisions are made in the next few years and the cheques finally start to arrive, EMAG members and policyholders who are not in line to receive 100% compensation for their full relative losses will have to draw their own conclusions as to whether the Government have fulfilled their promises. So far the signs are that many policyholders do not feel that those Members who signed the pledge are keeping their word. They feel that the scheme will fall short of proper compensation and a fair payment scheme.
Jonathan Evans: The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that £1.5 billion does not amount to proper compensation. I came to watch the earlier debate when the Minister was the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and he was standing by the Chadwick figure, but the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) now seems to be saying that four times more than the position the Labour party were defending back then is not proper compensation.
Chris Leslie: The difference between the hon. Gentleman and me is that I did not sign the EMAG pledge. I always felt, as did many of my colleagues, that there were real and practical difficulties in raising constituents' hopes in the way that the hon. Gentleman perhaps did. That is a matter for him and his constituents. It is up to him to convince them that the result of these deliberations has been to put in place full and fair compensation in accordance with the pledge. I am simply making the point that this is a matter of honour for those hon. Members who signed the pledge.
Mrs Main: I rise to gently chide the hon. Gentleman. We have had discussions with EMAG representatives, and I do not think they were under any illusions that they were necessarily going to get back every single penny that was lost. I have talked to my local representatives, and I think they are realistic enough to realise that we have done the best we possibly can. I am not happy with the situation for the pre-1992 annuities, but even so, what we are giving them is 100 times better than previously. They look to us to deliver that, but they are realistic enough to know that, in these hard times we cannot give them everything. I think for the hon. Gentleman to say, "I didn't sign the pledge" is just copping out.
Chris Leslie: I disagree about the pledge, and I did not sign it for particular reasons, but my point is simply that the hon. Lady signed the pledge before the general election and it committed her to a number of things, one of which was somehow to fulfil the aspirations of those policyholders who interpreted the pledge in a particular way. I, too, have met EMAG representatives and they are not as happy and understanding as the hon. Lady suggests.
Chris Leslie: The difference is that I did not raise people's hopes for electoral purposes-because I wanted to harvest their support-only to dash them after the general election. We are very used to Conservative Members making pledges on a whole series of things-not least student finance, which is quite pertinent right now-and then breaking their promises. I am not saying that Members are necessarily in breach of their pledge. All I am saying is that it is for them to honour it, in accordance with their consciences and what their constituents will say to them as to whether the compensation outcome amounts to a fair payment scheme and proper compensation.
Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): There is a key point for the victims of this scandal in my constituency of Stourbridge. Most of those whom I have met understand that the commitments that were given always had the proviso of the state of the public finances. That is a very relevant point.
I wish so much that we could have offered people more, but given the difference between Chadwick's recommendations, which were the baseline, and the £1.5 billion, as well as the state of the public finances, many people who have suffered in this scandal will feel
that they have been treated reasonably, although I accept the hon. Gentleman's assessment that the EMAG pressure group is still battling for more. That is its role as a pressure group.
Chris Leslie: A reasonable point from the hon. Lady. All I am saying is that the pledge that some Members signed did not say explicitly, "As resources allow." [Interruption.] No, it does not say that in the pledge. The pledge simply says that they will have a fair and transparent payments scheme. I doubt very much that the vast majority of those other policyholders who will not be getting the 100%-clearly it will be welcomed by those with-profits annuitants, who are receiving 100% of their relative losses-but may be receiving, I am told, between 15 and 20% of their relative losses will feel that hon. Members who raised their hopes are actually fulfilling them.
Jonathan Evans: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is new to his role, but I would have hoped that he had read the ombudsman's report before representing the Opposition at the Dispatch Box. He would have seen that the ombudsman says that the compensation figure must take account of the effect on the public purse.
Chris Leslie: I completely accept that that is what it says in the detail of the ombudsman's report, but it does not say that in the pledge that the hon. Gentleman signed. In an electoral context, he raised the hopes of many of his constituents. He may be able to face them and say, "Absolutely, I am fulfilling what I promised." If he feels that and they are happy with it, they will re-elect him, and everybody will be happy and ride off into the sunset, but I have a feeling that some policyholders will continue to be discontented with the Government's position. It certainly did not say, either in the manifestos or in the pledge that he signed, perhaps scribbled in a little addendum, "Oh, by the way, we are going to give you only a fraction of the £4.5 billion to £6 billion that you understand as the relative losses." That is simply not there. I am not claiming, because I did not sign that pledge, to have raised those hopes, but Members on the Government Benches did.
Chris Leslie: Liberal Democrats need to learn that people should not make promises they cannot keep. There is a suggestion that Liberal Democrats in particular have been growing used to making promises that they cannot keep, so the right hon. Gentleman should pause for a moment because his political arguments are haemorrhaging on a number of fronts. That is because some Members raised a series of aspirations before the election, making suggestions and promises, and there are some who will feel that he is now falling short of that. That is the only point that I seek to make. I am not claiming perfection for my behaviour, nor am I claiming in any way that I could fulfil all the hopes of the policyholders, but my point is that Members on the Government Benches did, and they should be hoist on their own petard for signing that EMAG pledge.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|