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The Minister will be in no doubt that there are those-in EMAG in particular-who are far from happy with what is proposed. Their anger has been fuelled by raised expectations created by the pledge made by many MPs, overwhelmingly Tories and Lib Dems, in the run-up to the last election-in particular the commitment to support and vote for proper compensation for victims of the Equitable Life scandal and a scheme, independent of government, which was,
This pledge was effectively replicated in the coalition agreement. Does the Minister argue that what is proposed meets the terms of this pledge, or were those who now support what is on offer ill informed or ill advised? How does the Minister respond to the challenge from the Equitable Members Action Group that the £4.3-billion figure reflects a calculation based on accepting just some of the findings of the ombudsman, which are those that the previous Government accepted, and not the full findings which the coalition Government have adopted?
The Minister will be aware that a particular bone of contention, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, is the start date for compensation. This is set at policies taken out from September 1992, notwithstanding that the ombudsman concluded that nobody would have sensibly invested in Equitable Life after 1 July 1991. Others have argued on moral grounds that a compensation scheme should even predate 1991. In the other place, the Government have seemingly relied upon a variety of arguments to justify the September 1992 date, including the arguments that: maladministration before that date would have led to overbonusing, a term I am not sure has entered the lexicon of the banking community; that records prior to this time are not readily available; and that policyholders would not have been aware of regulatory failure, had proper regulatory returns been made, before the autumn of 1992. It would be helpful if the Minister could be clear precisely on which of these grounds, or indeed any other, is the basis for the chosen start date. Should the ombudsman at any point in future review the compensation scheme and determine on one basis or another that it is not consistent with her findings and recommendations, will the Government seek to adjust the funding envelope?
The challenge of calculating and devising a compensation scheme is daunting, which is why we in government appointed Sir John Chadwick. His approach was based on different terms of reference, but the concept of looking at classes of policyholders rather than seeking to unpick the investment decisions of millions of separate transactions is sensibly being
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That implies an opportunity to challenge the calculation, but not the rules of the scheme itself. My noble and learned friend inquired about this, but does the Minister have any further news on how this might operate?
The noble Lord's ministerial colleague has received representations from the Guernsey Financial Services Commission about Equitable Life policies written by its Guernsey branch. This seeks assurances of equality of treatment with UK resident policyholders and policyholders resident in other jurisdictions. What is the Government's response to this and to what extent did the financing envelope reflect this potential obligation?
This has been a brief discussion. As we have already said, we will support the Bill. This has been a long and arduous journey for those who have lost out from regulatory failure, and I fear for some that the journey is not yet at an end. But the Government are entitled to be given credit for the determined manner in which they have taken this forward. We need to ensure that we have robust regulatory systems so that people have confidence to save. As my noble friend Lady Drake has noted, this is even more important with the onset of auto-enrolment. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, first, I thank noble Lords for their valuable contribution to this afternoon's debate. It is clear that there is a depth of support for ending the plight of Equitable Life policyholders and that we all agree that this saga has gone on for far too long. I am particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson of Glen Clova, and the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, for making it clear at the outset that the Opposition support the Bill.
The matter of Equitable Life is very complex and continues to affect directly the lives of a very large number of people, both in Britain and abroad. There is a pressing need to get on and reach a resolution swiftly, as policyholders have already waited 10 years for the Government to address this long-standing issue. Many of those people are elderly, as we have been reminded, and should not have to wait a day longer than necessary for justice. I shall not repeat the steps that we have already taken since coming into office, but I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope for recognising the steps that the coalition Government have taken.
I am getting somewhat experienced in doing Second Readings and other readings in this House. A great number of technical questions were asked today in
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First, I want to take the opportunity to recognise those who have continually fought in the interests of policyholders, going back to 2000. That point was first mentioned by my noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope. Particular mention must go not only to the Parliamentary Ombudsman but to the Equitable Members Action Group and the Equitable Life Trapped Annuitants, who have been referred to already. The Government have held meetings with these parties on numerous occasions and I commend them for their commitment to this cause. Their views have helped us to shape our understanding of the issue and given us an insight into the views of the broader group of policyholders. Their insights have of course proven invaluable. We need to get this right. The best way to achieve that is to interact with the people directly affected and to gain a clear understanding of their position.
There has, of course, been disappointment from those policy action groups about the amount that we have made available for the scheme, but we have had to strike a difficult balance between the valid, deserving cause of policyholders and the wider interests of British taxpayers. It is important to remind the groups that the Parliamentary Ombudsman herself stated that it was appropriate to consider the potential impact on the public purse of any payment. I know, as has been recognised today, that there are many important conversations to be had about how the scheme will operate. It would be preferable to have had all those conversations before turning our attention to the Bill but, in the context of needing to get on and conclude this episode, we wanted to make sure that the process was not unnecessarily extended.
I shall address some other, specific points that came up. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson of Glen Clova, and the noble Lords, Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord McKenzie of Luton, in different ways, raised the question of the quantum of the pot and the size of the cut for non-WPAs. I can confirm that it is, on average, around 66 per cent. One question was how this compares with a spending review where the departmental cuts were, on average, around 20 per cent. First, the spending review was not a linear exercise; there were different cuts in different areas. Secondly, it has been a difficult balance between fairness to policyholders and fairness to the taxpayers. It is important that we have still managed to cover the costs of payments to the WPAs who purchased their policies after 1 September 1992. I will come back to that cut-off point in a moment, but it is important to recognise that we have covered those payments in full, because we believe that that is the hardest-hit group. It is also important that non-WPAs are still getting more than twice what they would have received with a scheme based on the loss figures produced by Sir John Chadwick's methodology.
We accept that the relative loss figure is around £4.3 billion. At the end of the day, it has essentially been a matter of judgment as to what the appropriate number should be. Approximately £225 million of the initial £1 billion is for WPAs and their estates, leaving approximately £775 million for the lump-sum payments to non-WPAs. Based on the current Towers Watson estimate of WPA losses, that leaves approximately £395 million for the rest of the WPA losses from 2014-15 onwards.
There were questions from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, about an appeals process. There will indeed be means by which policyholders can raise concerns about any incorrect application of the scheme rules to individual cases. Full details of that will be included in the document setting out the scheme design, but I can say today that it will certainly include a process whereby, if a policyholder believes that the rules of the scheme have been incorrectly applied to his or her data, he or she will be able to raise a query with the delivery body stating the nature of the concern. The query will be pursued by the delivery body and, if there is merit in the challenge and the challenge 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 the case to the review panel. The panel will consider the case in full and will be able to make a fresh decision based on the facts of the case. If a complainant's case is upheld, again, a recalculation will be carried out. The review panel will be independent of the original decision-making process and will be suitably qualified to consider the complaint in full according to public law principles, although it is too early at this stage to state who might be on the panel.
On the question of why we are covering the cost of post-1992 WPA losses in full, throughout this process the policyholder groups have made it clear that, due to the nature of their policies, WPAs have been one of the hardest-hit groups. They were particularly vulnerable to losses because they were unable to move their funds elsewhere or to mitigate the impact of their losses through employment. They are also generally the oldest policyholders. In answer to the specific question from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson, approximately 37,000 WPAs will be paid under the scheme.
The noble and learned Lord also asked about the role of reliance. Given the time that has elapsed and the almost impossibility of policyholders proving what they would have done in a counterfactual situation, faced with properly regulated returns, a truly reliance-based approach is impossible in this case. I have explained the approach that we have taken.
On the question of how fairness has been worked out within the compensation pot and the principles that applied, the independent commission is now considering the split of the pot. It has made an interim report and its final report will be published by the end of January. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about public scrutiny of the commission's report. At the time we publish the document, I anticipate that my honourable friend the Financial Secretary will want to
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My noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope asked about the scheme paying out. I confirm that it is our ambition to make the first payments in the middle of 2011. This is a complicated scheme, and we must get the details right. We believe that starting to make the payments in the middle of next year is an ambitious but achievable target.
My noble friend also asked whether we might in any circumstances be able to pay out more than £1.5 billion. I should make it clear that £1.5 billion is the figure that we judged the British taxpayer can afford to pay, so I cannot hold out any hope of us finding more money at a future date. This process has dragged on too long already, and we need finality.
On capital thresholds and the way in which benefits operate, capital limits do not immediately cut off eligibility for benefits because 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 large enough payments to affect their eligibility dramatically.
In answer to a couple of questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, we have no plans to make interim payments. Again, they would introduce more complexity and could delay the set-up of the overall scheme. We want to focus on getting the main scheme up and running as quickly as possible.
There was a question about consistency with similar payment schemes. The independent commission will consider aspects of fairness that it deems appropriate and the Government will take its advice very seriously. However, it is important to remember that the specific features of the Equitable Life payment scheme make it very different from some other pension schemes, so there is no broad read-across.
There were a couple of questions, including from the noble Baroness, on the gross/net issue. The calculations for the WPA payments are being made on a gross basis. The noble Baroness asked a broad question about long-term savings, which links back to my noble friend's question about different regulatory regimes. I think that in some ways she answered my noble friend's question when she pointed out that we had been through one very significant change in the insurance regulatory regime a number of years ago and are about to go through another fundamental change to the overall regulatory set-up. Of course, there is never a no-failure regime in financial regulation, but the landscape will change significantly. In that context, we take the sustainable and healthy long-term savings market in the UK extremely seriously.
I am conscious that one very important question was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton. That is the question of the pre-1992 with-profit annuitants. The first issue here is
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That is the absolute definition of the pre-1992 annuitants. Their income has gone down very significantly since 2002 and it was not, as I said, their fault that they did not know that there was maladministration. It is grossly inequitable that they are left out of this arrangement altogether and just abandoned to twist in the wind by the Government.
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I am conscious of the time that we have got to. I can only repeat that, while I accept what the noble Lord reads out as factually correct, he omits to point out what I have said: it is nevertheless the fact that those pre-1992 annuitants could not have been affected by maladministration, which is the purpose of this compensation scheme. Although I entirely accept the analysis of what has happened to their income levels in recent years, the judgment is that, on balance, they were paid more in the early years than they should have been, and that exceeds the reduction in more recent years. It is a regrettable situation but not one that it would be proper to bring into the compensation scheme.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the Minister has been very full in his replies. Could he comment on one specific point? I think that he has confirmed that the comparator is on a gross-of-tax basis. Therefore, if WPAs who have been kept whole in addition get a tax exemption, does that not provide for that group more than its actual loss on that basis?
Lord Sassoon: I am conscious that I have not answered the question. Given the time, I will write with a clear analysis of the tax position and what it results in. I have not lost sight of the question and I will sweep up anything else that I have missed.
I reconfirm that the Government take the maladministration of Equitable Life very seriously. We have shown that resolving this issue is a real priority of the Government and have taken the necessary action to reach a fair and swift resolution. I fully
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