With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Equitable Life.
Both coalition parties are committed to justice for Equitable Life’s policyholders; we each made manifesto commitments, and these are reflected in our programme for government. No one should be in any doubt about our commitment to policyholders, who have waited a decade for justice. We are committed to implementing the parliamentary ombudsman’s recommendation, made two years ago, and
“to make fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policyholders through an independent payment scheme for their relative loss as a consequence of regulatory failure.”
We have taken important steps towards implementing that commitment. We announced in the Queen’s Speech that a Bill would be presented to Parliament in this legislative Session, and today we are doing just that.
When I came into office, I reviewed Sir John Chadwick’s terms of reference and asked him to complete the work that he had started. I can tell the House that Sir John’s report, alongside the extensive actuarial advice underpinning it, has been published today, and copies have been placed in the Vote Office. I want to thank Sir John for his dedication in completing this complex and challenging task. Sir John has helped to progress the aim to establish a scheme that is fair both to policyholders and to taxpayers. He has proposed a flexible approach to determining losses that eliminates the need for policyholders to show what they would have done if the maladministration had not occurred.
I want to stress, however, that Sir John’s review is just one of the building blocks in resolving what is a complex matter, and that there are other judgments to be made in determining the final shape of the scheme and the amounts that will be paid out. I have always been committed to dealing with this matter with the utmost transparency. I therefore want to set out to the House today the key elements of Sir John’s methodology and the figures calculated at each intermediate step in quantifying losses according to his approach. First, however, let me make it clear that these are preliminary figures. There is further work to be done before a final estimate can be produced. These figures have been produced for the Treasury by Towers Watson, and I have placed a copy of its letter in the Vote Office.
Let me remind the House that the ombudsman considered that the financial loss suffered by policyholders was a consequence of the reduction in policy values in July 2001. These amounted to a reduction in the gains they expected to make from their policies, rather than the sums they were contractually entitled to. As a result, Equitable Life’s policies are lower in value today than they would have been without these cuts. The difference is the absolute loss, which Towers Watson estimates as being between £2.9 billion and £3.7 billion. Sir John then goes on to identify relative loss—that is, the difference between the returns that policyholders actually received from their Equitable Life policies and the returns they would have received if they had invested in a comparable product in an alternative life insurance company. This step produces a loss of between £4 billion and £4.8 billion.
For a number of policyholders, because of the strong performance of comparable life companies, their relative loss is greater than the absolute loss they suffered. Consistent with the ombudsman’s recommendation, Sir John has advised that relative loss for an individual policyholder should be capped at the absolute loss they suffered. It is hard to see how it would be fair either to the taxpayer or to other policyholders if some policyholders received more through redress than they had actually lost. If the proposed cap is adopted, then the figure will be £2.3 billion to £3 billion.
Sir John and the Equitable members action group—EMAG—are in agreement that not all policyholders would have decided against investing in Equitable Life had its regulatory returns not been subject to maladministration. There is scope for debate about by how much investment would have been reduced. Sir John advises that the majority of policyholders would have invested in Equitable Life irrespective of maladministration. He therefore proposes that policyholders should receive only 20% to 25% of the capped figure that I mentioned. I know that some stakeholders will dispute this proportion. This results in a figure of £475 million to £650 million.
Another difficult aspect of Sir John’s methodology is the assessment of internal relative loss—the loss that policyholders have suffered as a result of keeping money in Equitable Life when it was not being regulated properly. Taking this step into account, Sir John’s final loss figure is £400 million to £500 million. This figure is lower principally because a number of policyholders made relative gains as a result of maladministration.
As I said earlier, Sir John’s work is a building block that helps us to produce a fair and transparent payment scheme. I am aware that some of his findings will be contentious and are based on complex analysis, so I will reflect on his report and I will listen to representations by interested parties, including Equitable Life and EMAG, which has campaigned tenaciously on behalf of policyholders. As is apparent from the letter from Towers Watson, further work needs to be done over the summer to produce a final estimate of loss.
As the ombudsman noted, it is appropriate to consider the impact of any scheme on the public purse. The scheme will be a significant spending commitment for this Government and will therefore be considered in the light of what is affordable as a part of the spending review. I will set out the funding available for the scheme at the spending review on 20 October, alongside the final loss figure.
The ombudsman also concluded that the design of the scheme should be independent of the Government. I support this view, and I announced on 26 May that I would establish an independent commission to advise on the best way to allocate payments to policyholders and help to develop the design of the scheme. Today I can announce that Brian Pomeroy, John Howard and John Tattersall have agreed to form the independent commission on Equitable Life payments. I believe that their experience and expertise will be invaluable to the commission, and I am confident that we have the right people to do the job. The commission will start work imminently so that we can begin making payments as soon as possible. I have asked the commission to report by the end of January 2011.
The final question that I would like to address is how soon policyholders will receive payments. I would like to end the plight of policyholders as quickly as possible, and I aim to begin making payments in the middle of next year. If we are to achieve this goal, however, it is important to avoid any unnecessary delays. I will do all that I can to make sure we stick to this timetable, and I hope all interested parties will help us to do so. This is, however, a very complex task. We have made much progress since the Government were formed, but there is a great deal left to do. We need a simple, transparent and fair scheme that meets the needs of 1.5 million policyholders who have between them 2 million policies and have made 30 million premium payments. It is in the interests of each of those policyholders to complete this task quickly, but also carefully and thoughtfully.
In the past two months, we have published Sir John’s report; set up the independent commission on Equitable Life payments; published the first robust figures surrounding the calculation of relative loss; opened up the process, making it much more transparent; put in place a framework for the payment scheme; and produced legislation to give the Treasury statutory authority to make payments. We have achieved more in two months than the last Government did in the two years since the ombudsman reported. The coalition Government have demonstrated their commitment to justice for Equitable Life policyholders, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for early sight of his statement and for the opportunity to review Sir John’s report in full at the Treasury this morning.
I would like to start by repeating the words of apology to Equitable Life policyholders that I made to the House earlier this year for the failure of regulation of Equitable Life under successive Governments between 1990 and 2001.
I thank Sir John Chadwick for his detailed report, which we commissioned. He has taken on an extraordinarily complex matter, and he has done an admirable job. I also thank officials at the Treasury for the work that they have done over the past six months in getting ready the legislation which I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman has published today. I, too, thank EMAG. I am grateful for the work done by the all-party Equitable Life policyholders group, chaired by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Mr Hamilton).
When I came to the House earlier in the year, I said that there was a clear ethical obligation, even if not a legal obligation, for compensation for Equitable Life policyholders. Equally, however, I knew that case-by-case compensation for policyholders, as suggested by the ombudsman, was not practical. I said that there were two tests for the right solution—speed and justice. I went on to say that we expected the Government to produce a report within two weeks of Sir John’s final report, which we wanted to see in May. So here we are in July, and there are a few questions that I should like to put to the Minister this afternoon.
First, is the Minister actually accepting Sir John’s recommendation? Earlier in the year he did a good impression of wanting to ditch Sir John’s approach and revert to the one set out by the ombudsman. Today, Sir John makes it clear in paragraph 10.17 that the ombudsman’s approach
“poses very difficult issues of principle, and would be impossible to implement within any realistic time-frame.”
Can the Minister confirm that Sir John’s approach is the right one? He called it one of the building blocks, but will he set out whether he is accepting Sir John’s report?
The second question that the House will want to know the answer to is who precisely will be entitled to help. Sir John states in paragraph 6.3 that help should cover new investments made between 1 September 1992 and 31 December 2000. Does the Minister agree with that approach? How many policyholders will be included on that basis, and how many will be excluded?
Thirdly, how much are policyholders actually going to get? Part 6 of the report sets out an approach and a method for calculating losses. Can the Minister confirm that what he has just said is that the maximum compensation will be based on a quarter of the relative losses faced by policyholders, and that that figure will itself be capped at absolute loss? Many policyholders will find that hard to square with what he said in the House earlier this year. What the House will want to know this afternoon is how much, on average, policyholders will actually get.
Fourthly, how quickly does the Minister want to complete this process? I am glad that he wants to get started next year, but the House will want to know how quickly he wants the final payments to be made. Finally, what appeal mechanism will the Government put in place for those policyholders who want to challenge their individual determinations?
It is incumbent on all of us to speed this matter to resolution. I am glad that the Minister has set out legislation this afternoon, and we will support it going through as rapidly as possible, but there are questions that our constituents will want answers to today. I hope that he will be as full as he can in replying to what I have asked.
I find the right hon. Gentleman’s comments rich, as he was a member of the Government who for nine years sought to frustrate, block and delay investigations into Equitable Life and its regulation; who ignored Lord Penrose’s findings of maladministration in 2004; who did everything they could to stop the ombudsman’s second inquiry; who bombarded the ombudsman with new documents and comments on her draft report; who took six months to reply to her report when it was published; and who set up a review by Sir John with a report carefully timed to be released after the general election. I will take no lessons at all from him about speed of response.
Sir John’s report sets out a range of approaches to calculating loss. As I said in my statement—the right hon. Gentleman had sight of it, as he said—I have not accepted that report. I will reflect on Sir John’s findings and think very carefully about them. The amount that policyholders will receive will be determined by a number of factors, and partly by the compensation figure set as part of the spending review process, as I said very carefully in my statement. The independent commission will need to respond to that matter when it designs the payment scheme, which was a key recommendation of the ombudsman that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues rejected but we are prepared to accept and put in place. He will have to wait until that scheme design has taken place and we have worked through its implications across 1.5 million policyholders, their 2 million different policies and the 30 million transactions that they entered into.
I am determined that the scheme will proceed as quickly as possible and that we can resolve the problems faced by Equitable Life policyholders—problems that the right hon. Gentleman and his party did little to sort out over the course of the past nine years.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary on achieving so much in two months. He said that he had done more in two months than Labour did in two years, but he underestimates it. He has done more in two months than they did in 10 years.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal left to be done, as my hon. Friend himself said. Halfway through next year is still a long time to wait for many of the more elderly policyholders. Can he give the House an undertaking that he will stick to that timetable so that those policyholders receive their compensation before they die, in many cases? He said that he was still considering Sir John Chadwick’s proposals. Will he ensure that not only he but the independent commission takes representations from EMAG, and do so quickly?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for welcoming the statement. I am committed to the process taking place as quickly as possible. There are some challenges in the design of the scheme that we will need to think about when it comes to payments, but I am determined to ensure that payments start at the end of the first half of next year.
I want EMAG and others to take part in the debate about the scheme, and I am very happy for them to make representations to the independent commission that will help to draw up the detail of the scheme. I think we have a programme that will deliver justice in a way that is more robust, transparent and open than the process set out by the previous Government. I would also say to my right hon. Friend that we would have been in a better place if the previous Government had acted sooner to tackle the problem rather than trying to kick it into the long grass.
I appreciate the difficulties of calculating loss and the complexities of the process that the Minister has set up, but can he give us any idea of the percentage range of compensation that our distressed constituents might receive? That is the question that people want an answer to.
I accept that point. It would have been better if this whole process had started much sooner and we could have given policyholders much more assurance. We will not be able to determine how much will be paid to policyholders until we go through the spending review process, but I have committed to return to the House in October to say how much will be allocated by way of compensation. That pot of compensation will then be allocated by the independent commission.
I am a member of EMAG, but I will not take any compensation for my own benefit.
May I put it to my hon. Friend that his statement will be welcomed? However, although no one thought that £4 billion was likely to come, most of my constituents—I probably have more than most who are affected—would regard £400 million as less than they expected. About £1 billion would be far more likely to be acceptable and proper.
The hon. Gentleman’s failure to disclose the figure for the likely compensation today is unlikely to reassure Equitable pension holders. What they are looking for is a body to be set up that is both independent of the Treasury and totally transparent in delivering figures that they can trust. They are looking for him to expedite that so that payment will be made as soon as possible.
The hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully to statements given in the House. The independent commission is at arm’s length from the Treasury and will be responsible for designing the payment scheme. I would have thought his constituents would welcome that independence and transparency, which was not evident in the ideas put forward by his colleagues.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some of the changes that I want to make to the process of ensuring that Equitable Life policyholders receive justice are to do with speed and transparency. More information will be available to policyholders on the Treasury website, where they will be able to see some of the work that Sir John has done and the letter that Towers Watson provided to us. There will also be questions and answers on the website to help address their concerns.
Given that the Financial Secretary said that the cost to the Exchequer will be considered in the light of what is affordable according to the spending review, will the independent commission, which is designing the disbursement scheme, have terms of reference that allow it to challenge or influence the amount in the light of its findings?
I may be old-fashioned, but I think that it is up to Parliament to decide amounts that are spent and taxes that are raised. The commission will have a role in designing the scheme, but it is important that Parliament takes a view about how much should be spent. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the ombudsman herself said in her report that we need to take into account the impact of any compensation arrangements on the public purse.
My hon. Friend will know that EMAG and many Equitable Life members consider that Sir John Chadwick’s remit, which the Labour party set when it was in government, is deeply flawed. I am glad that my hon. Friend says that what he has announced will be only one building block. Why will Equitable Life members get only 20 to 25% of the absolute loss? Can he reassure me that retrospective payments for Equitable Life members who died waiting for justice will be honoured?
My hon. Friend makes two important points. She referred to the cap of 20 to 25%, which is Sir John’s assessment and proposal. I am conscious that others, including EMAG, have different views about what the proportion should be, but they accept the principle that some policyholders would have stayed with Equitable Life. Her second point, about the estates of deceased policyholders, is very important. I have given the commission wide terms of reference, with two exceptions. First, it must take into account the estates of deceased policyholders—that is fair. Secondly, there should be no means-testing.
The Financial Secretary’s fair and measured statement might be taken more seriously had he not, in opposition, belaboured the Labour Government and made wild promises about paying full compensation to Equitable Life policyholders. Does he understand that people thought—
Where’s your tie?
Mr Speaker, I have just had extensive root canal treatment and cannot tighten anything around my neck—I am terribly sorry—but I can open my mouth. Does the Financial Secretary understand that Equitable Life policyholders will feel betrayed? When will the Government stop doing endless U-turns?
Whether or not the right hon. Gentleman wears a tie, it does not add to the sense that he makes when asking questions. We made it clear in opposition that we accepted the ombudsman’s findings the day she published her report, unlike the Labour Government, who took six months to do that. We accepted the recommendations that compensation should be for relative loss and that account should be taken of the impact on the public purse. We have been consistent in that approach. I do not believe that the Conservative party has U-turned in any way. We have stuck to our commitment and made more progress on the matter in the past two months than the Labour party made in two years.
I am delighted with the Financial Secretary’s announcement. The largest postbag that I receive as a south Derbyshire MP is about Equitable Life. It is disgraceful that the matter has been going on for so long. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend and greatly look forward to the announcements next April.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is not the only Member with a bulging postbag as a consequence of the issue. I am surprised at how many more of my constituents have announced that they are Equitable Life policyholders since I became the Minister responsible. I believe that there is good news in the statement, and I hope that hon. Friends will contact their constituents who have policies to let them know about the coalition’s progress.
I think that my right hon. Friend the shadow Chief Secretary deserves some credit for his work on the issue. However, I thank the Financial Secretary for his helpful statement. Will he attend a meeting of the all-party group when it is re-formed so that a more detailed discussion can take place, given the shortage of time here and all hon. Members’ interest in the issue?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s excellent work as one of the joint chairmen of the all-party group. I note that the shadow Chief Secretary spoke to its members early this year, and I am happy to do the same. We have a good story to tell and I will not turn down any opportunities to tell it.
Does the Financial Secretary feel bound by the 20 to 25% cap that Sir John seems to have plucked from the sky, or does he share my view that that flies entirely in the face of the transparency that the Government are trying to achieve for Equitable Life policyholders?
The debate is one of proportion rather than principle. In its representations on the matter, EMAG accepted that some policyholders would have stayed with Equitable Life or invested in it, despite knowing that it was not properly regulated. Indeed, several people joined Equitable Life quite late on, when its problems were well known, so there is some sense to the approach. The debate is about proportion, and I am prepared to take representations on that.
It is unfortunate that the Financial Secretary has omitted any word of gratitude to Tony Wright and other members of the Public Administration Committee, who pursued the matter with great energy and intelligence. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman wants to make the issue a political football. My constituents will ask what alchemy reduced £4.8 billion to a maximum of £650 million. Why do they have to wait another year? Were they not deceived by the Conservatives’ exaggerated claims in their election propaganda?
Given that the hon. Gentleman was meant to be seeking a bipartisan spirit, it did not last much longer than his first sentence. I paid tribute to the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Mr Hamilton), and I know from discussions with hon. Members of all parties that all Members of Parliament want to get the matter resolved. We all have constituents who have been involved, and the Public Administration Committee was one of many routes whereby the previous Government were pursued to deliver justice for policyholders quickly.
I thank the Financial Secretary very much indeed for his comments about the speed with which he will deal with the matter, particularly on behalf of my 80-year-old constituent, Jim Barratt, who said that, at his age, time was not on his side. Given that the coalition has declared that it will apply transparency to the matter, has EMAG received the information on “Head A” calculations, which it requested, but was not forthcoming under the previous Administration?
I have made it my duty to maintain a good and open relationship with EMAG. I met its members again earlier this week and I spoke to the chairman, Paul Braithwaite, this morning to advise him that I was making the statement. Today, I am publishing 2,500 pages of material that help underpin Sir John’s work and I hope that people who are interested will examine that in detail and respond to his findings and the actuarial advice that he received.
When the policyholders realise just how much they will get, they will think that it is a far cry from all the statements by the then Tory Treasury spokesman, who has somehow landed up as Secretary of State for Transport, and the Liberal spokesman, who promised the moon and to pay everything in full. The small print indicates that those policyholders will now realise that the Tory party and the coalition are in full retreat on the payments that they should receive.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about pension arrangements, but in all the debates in which I participated on the matter, whether in Westminster Hall or Opposition day debates, I do not think that he spoke up once for Equitable Life policyholders.
I thank the Financial Secretary for the speedy and decisive action that the Government have taken in the past two months. However, my constituents will ask whether, given that Sir John’s report is supposed to be a founding block, there is any likelihood of moving towards fuller compensation. Secondly, my hon. Friend mentioned the spending review. How fixed is the £400 million to £500 million? Could the figure be lower?
Sir John’s report presents a range of numbers, which we need to look at in the context of the spending review. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary will hear Members’ representations on the matter, but we need to ensure that we put this matter in the context of the other spending commitments that the Government wish to make.
I have been consistent in my support of the parliamentary ombudsman recommendations, and I welcome the Financial Secretary’s statement as a building block. He has been very clear that he wants payments to begin in the middle of next year, but may I press on him an appeals procedure, because if we do not have one or a timetable for appeals, the matter could drag on for many years?
The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point and I am grateful for his welcome of today’s statement and the progress that I announced. He is absolutely right about an appeals mechanism, and the Treasury are looking at that proposal at the moment. Policyholders who question the data that are used—some data are quite old and policies are complex—will want a mechanism by which they can appeal, so that is important. However, I am keen to ensure that the appeals process is quick and thorough, so that people are comfortable with the outcome they get.
I congratulate my hon. Friend. As someone who took part in the Equitable Life debate in March, I do not recognise some of the wilder accusations that are being levelled against him. May I press him on the key point of his statement, which is the capped figure? I think he confirmed to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) that he will review the figure when he reflects on Sir John’s report, but will he confirm that he will publish, and make a statement on, his methodology as to how he reaches it, whether or not he agrees with the report?
Although I congratulate the Minister on the undoubted speed and transparency of the process, many of my constituents will be seeking reassurance that it is safe to save in future. Will the cap of 20 to 25% be sufficient in giving them that reassurance? If not, what other measures will be taken?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. Many people’s confidence in saving has been shaken as a consequence of what happened at Equitable Life, but she will recall that last month, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced reforms to the regulation of financial services, which will include a new consumer champion—a consumer markets and protection authority. That is one way to help to improve regulation and to give people confidence about saving for their future.
I congratulate the Minister on the speed with which he has dealt with this matter compared with the previous Labour Government. He is looking to make payments in mid-2011, which is a great deal better than the other lot led us to believe, but winter is coming up—winters tend to be a bit colder in the High Peak than in other constituencies—so is there any opportunity to make interim payments?
That suggestion has been made on a number of occasions, and I thought very carefully about interim payments. It is difficult to make an interim payment before the scheme is designed. Such payments would add complexity and delay to the creation of the scheme. When the commission considers its findings, I hope it may well decide that certain groups should receive payments in priority to others.
Policyholders in my constituency were pushed from pillar to post and had to get judicial review to get some accountability, but the previous Government did absolutely nothing. With regard to the timeline of making payments by the middle of May next year, what criteria will be applied as to who gets their money first?
The Financial Secretary has intimated that he aims to begin to make payments by the middle of next year. Thirty thousand policyholders, including a sizeable number in my constituency, have already died, and I urge him to rethink the question of making a pro rata, interim payment based on his cap figure. Will he please think about that more seriously than his previous answers suggest, because I am fearful that more people in my constituency will die and not receive fair treatment?
Many hon. Friends have raised that issue with me in debates in recent weeks, and I have asked my officials to look carefully at it. I have also thought through very carefully how we could make such a proposal work, but I am yet to be persuaded that we can do so in a way that is fair to policyholders who might not receive an interim payment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his announcement. Many of my constituents will be delighted at the speed with which he has tackled the matter. I noted the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s apology, but also that it was limited to Equitable Life policyholders. He did not apologise for the fact that the economic situation left behind by the previous Government has limited necessarily the payments that my constituents and others will receive. Should his apology extend to that?
Does the Minister agree that it is important that the compensation scheme is seen to be administered by an independent commission, and that it was wrong of the previous Government to ignore many of the parliamentary ombudsman’s recommendations?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that the scheme should be designed to be independent. That is what will give maximum credibility to the scheme, and that will get maximum transparency for, and maximum support from, Equitable Life policyholders.
Equitable Life was a poisoned pill left by the previous Government, even if no note accompanied it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) rightly said, 30,000 people have died waiting for justice. Conservatives, who have long pushed for justice for policyholders, recognise that there will be an element of rough justice no matter what happens. Will the Financial Secretary ensure that the process is speedy? Even if interim payments are not possible, will he bring the matter to a close quickly, so that people can have certainty, because they did not get that from the previous Government?
I accept my hon. Friend’s point about speed, but I also accept the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on the need for appeals mechanisms, because rough justice works both ways, and we need to ensure that people are treated fairly under the scheme.
I welcome the fact that the Financial Secretary has recognised that the 25% cap will probably be the greatest concern of many of our constituents. He said that he will receive representations, but what is the deadline for those? People will want to influence him on that decision.
As I said, the process for deciding on the maximum compensation that is payable will conclude at the spending review, and we will publish the results on 20 October. I encourage the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to write sooner rather than later in that process. There are a range of views on that number and people will have their opinions on whether it is appropriate, but of course, we must set the overall position in the context of what the public purse can afford.
We have heard a non-apology from the shadow Chief Secretary for the previous Government’s obfuscation. Will the Minister write to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to ask for a special communications allowance for Labour Members, so that they can write and apologise to the families of the 30,000 people who have died and the 1.5 million policyholders who have had to wait 10 years?
May I welcome the Minister’s announcement and the speed with which he has come to the House to outline the next steps in the process? Further to an earlier question, will he clarify the time scale in which he wants to receive further representations from interested parties? He said that he wants to reflect on Sir John’s findings, but can he give us an indication of the time scale for receiving those representations?
I have not set a formal deadline or time scale, but I am sure that over the summer recess, my hon. Friends will talk to policyholders in their constituencies and gather their views. The Leader of the House today announced a debate on 14 September, I believe, on Second Reading of the Equitable Life (Payments) Bill, which might give my hon. Friends the opportunity to make an oral representation.
Earlier this month, I held a public meeting in my constituency on Equitable Life, and I heard directly from many policyholders how they suffered, especially because of the inaction of the previous Government and their callous disregard for their rights. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the coalition Government will do all they can to end the long suffering of the Equitable Life victims?
Indeed I can give that commitment. I am also very mindful that at points over the previous nine years, the previous Government could have acted to bring justice to policyholders but chose not to do so. I am afraid that that is another aspect of that Government’s legacy that the Conservatives have to sort out.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has moved so swiftly. Equitable Life victims in Elmbridge, like those across the country, were subject to the most shabby treatment by the last Government and no amount of synthetic outrage now can hide that. They feel raw and their trust in government is almost totally undermined. May we have further reassurance that there will be close consultation with the victims in the weeks ahead, especially on the vital issue of quantum and the mooted cap?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Confidence in this process was significantly eroded by the previous Government. I hope that what I have announced today will enable policyholders to turn a new page and recognise that we are determined to be much more open and transparent in our approach, and that will help to build the credibility of the process.
Policyholders in my constituency are not interested in apologies that come nine years too late: they want justice. The Financial Secretary has outlined the start date for payments, but will he set a concluding date for the completion of this whole saga?
I am conscious that this is a very complex business. There are 1.5 million policyholders with 2 million policies and 30 million transactions. The policies are not straightforward and the data are old and difficult to access. I want to do as much as I can to make the process as quick as possible, and my hon. Friend has my commitment that I will do everything that I can to ensure that the date is speeded up.
Dozens of my constituents affected by the scandal, and a cousin who lives abroad, were favourably impressed by what was said in opposition creditably by Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs. Will my hon. Friend accept that the experience of root canal surgery by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) will be as nothing compared with what those MPs will suffer if we fail to live up to our promises? I welcome the speed with which my hon. Friend is taking action, but the content of that action must live up to the speed.