A mere eight years after the near-failure of Europe’s oldest mutual society left over a million policyholders facing losses of about £4bn, Cooper told Parliament: ‘I wish to apologise to policyholders on behalf of the public bodies and successive governments responsible for the regulation of Equitable Life between 1990 and 2001, for the maladministration we believe to have taken place.’ So that’s alright then.
She also announced a plan to compensate some of the victims, or ‘make ex-gratia payments to those who have been disproportionately affected’, to use the official terminology. Unfortunately, her statement was very short on the kind of details which cash-strapped Equitable pensioners were hoping to see – like who exactly is going to get these payments, and how much they will be. It’s certainly a long way short of the full compensation that campaigners have been demanding over many years.
And the apology has been an awful long time coming, after two damning official reports - one from Lord Penrose in 2004, one from the Parliamentary Ombudsman Anne Abraham last July - catalogued a depressing litany of regulatory failure and government ineptitude. All the same, if there’s one thing that politicians really hate, it’s having to say sorry. So Ms Cooper’s act of public contrition was pretty unexpected.
However, cynics might say that it’s just another delaying tactic in a long war of attrition. The determined Equitable Life campaigners made it clear that continued government prevarication would lead to their mounting a legal challenge - so this announcement could be seen as an effort to defuse that risk without actually moving things on very much. A view which some might regard as being reinforced by the fact that yet another report has been commissioned - this time an independent enquiry into the extent of policyholders’ relative losses, to be chaired by Sir John Chadwick.
After all, most of the Equitable victims are pensioners, so the longer HMG can delay putting its hand in its pocket, the fewer surviving policyholders there will be to compensate. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of other calls on Government money at present – all those bank loans to underwrite for a start, and the VAT cut...
To paraphrase the wonderfully Machiavellian Sir Frances Urqhart from the House of Cards novels: ‘You might very well think that, but of course we couldn’t possibly comment.’
In today's bulletin:
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Cooper 'sorry' for Equitable Life
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