Before I call Bob Blackman to move the motion, I must tell the House that we have two very heavily subscribed Back-Bench debates. In the first debate, we will start with a time limit of five minutes, and in the second one, the limit will be four minutes. With that in mind, I call Bob Blackman.
I beg to move,
That this House congratulates the Government on providing a scheme to compensate victims of the Equitable Life scandal; welcomes the Government’s acceptance of the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s findings in full; notes that the Parliamentary Ombudsman recommended that policyholders should be put back in the position they would have been in had maladministration not occurred; further notes that most victims have only received partial compensation compared to the confirmed losses and that the compensation scheme is now closed to new applicants; and calls on the Government to ensure that the entire existing budget allocated for compensation to date is paid to eligible policyholders and to make a further commitment to provide full compensation for relative losses to all victims of this scandal.
I draw Members’ attention to the fact that I am the co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for justice for Equitable Life policyholders. I share that honour with the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who regrettably has to be in another debate, otherwise he would have been here. I hope that he will be able to get here and put his point of view before we conclude. The all-party parliamentary group is one of the largest groups in Parliament, if not the largest group, with 195 members drawn from all political parties.
When I was elected in May 2010, I signed only a limited number of pledges. One that I was very happy to sign, having investigated the matter fully, was a pledge to seek justice for Equitable Life policyholders. There is no doubt that this has been an outrageous scandal in respect of the length of time it has lasted and the repeated failure of Governments of all persuasions adequately to compensate people who were the victims of a scam. These were hard-working people who invested their life savings in a pension scheme that they believed was secure.
We all know that when one invests on the stock market or in such schemes, the market can go up or down. The difference between this scam and other such schemes is that Equitable Life went round inducing people to put their life savings into it, promising huge bonuses and payouts. It swept up enormous amounts of money and numbers of people who thought that it was a great scheme. In reality, the scheme could not finance itself. It could never meet the commitments that it had made. That was very dangerous, but the regulator knew that it was going on, as did the Government and the Treasury. They conspired to prevent it becoming public knowledge so that people carried on investing their money and losing money.
To make matters worse, it took not only court action, but the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to bring to the attention of the public that this was maladministration of the worst kind. The last parliamentary ombudsman made it clear in her excellent report that Equitable Life policyholders who had suffered a relative loss should be put back in the position they would have been in had they not suffered as a result of this scam. I seek to ensure in this Parliament, as we did in the last, that all Equitable Life policyholders are given the compensation they are due.
After all the debates, the truth is that 95% of Equitable Life with-profits policyholders have received just 22% of their relative losses. That is the bottom line, is it not? The Government have a responsibility, given the maladministration that clearly happened, to help the many elderly people who have faced such appalling losses.
I thank my hon. Friend for that clear statement.
There are three sets of policyholders: the pre-1992 trapped annuitants, who were to get not a single penny under the compensation scheme; the with-profits annuitants, who were to get 100% compensation; and the pension holders, who got 22.4% of their relative losses, as my hon. Friend said. The coalition Government set up a compensation scheme, which I was pleased to support. However, it is a scandal that if someone purchased their policy on 31 August 1992, they got nothing, but if they purchased it on 1 September 1992, they got 100%. The rationale was that if the pre-1992 trapped annuitants had looked at the regulated accounts, they could have seen that there was a problem and that it was a scam. The reality is that when people sign up to such schemes, they do not expect to have to do that. I applaud the Government for taking steps, following the legislation, to partly compensate the pre-1992 trapped annuitants.
My hon. Friend has done great work with the other members of the all-party parliamentary group. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the fact that, as you know, for a number of reasons I will not be able to stay for the whole debate. Many of my constituents were victims of this scam. Does he agree that when there has been a failure of regulation, as there was in this case, the Government essentially stand behind the regulator, so the moral responsibility ultimately falls on the Government, regardless of party? Although the coalition did something, the financial constraints that enabled it to argue that it was not able to do as much as we would have wished at that time are beginning to ease. Do not decency, honesty and equity demand that we revisit the amount of compensation that is due to these people, who saved and did the right thing, and who, frankly, have been let down by Government agencies as much as by Equitable Life?
I thank my hon. Friend for that clear conclusion.
The Government allocated £1.5 billion of compensation to policyholders who had lost money. Some £45 million was then promised and delivered to the pre-1992 trapped annuitants. The Chancellor accepted at the Dispatch Box in November 2010 that the total loss was some £4.1 billion, so the shortfall in compensation is £2.6 billion.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue forward for debate in the Chamber. I am sure that, like me, he has received representations from elderly decent people who have done the right thing throughout their life and who invested in Equitable Life in order, they thought, that they had a secure pension in the long term. The Government need to foster a savings culture and promote pensions. Does he not think that the failure to compensate people in full for what they did responsibly and in good faith risks undermining the culture that we need to develop for the future of this country?
When people make an investment decision, they understand that the market can go up or down. What made this scheme different from other investment choices was that it was a scam, and we should recognise it as such. It was a scandal. There is a moral duty, as hon. Members have said, on the Government to provide full compensation.
What has changed is that the Government set a time limit for the submission of new applications for compensation and said that they had to be in by 31 December 2015. Therefore, we now know the total number of people who are due compensation and can look at how the compensation scheme is operating. I have no doubt that the Minister will outline the progress that has been made in compensating individual policyholders.
I want to draw attention to two elements. A contingency fund of £100 million was deliberately set aside because, at that time, it was not known how many policyholders would need to be compensated. Also, because it has not been possible to trace a large number of policyholders—I think it is about 110,000—there has been an underspend of some £39 million. My first ask of the Minister is that that £139 million goes to the people who have suffered loss. That would not cost the Treasury anything because it has already allocated that money.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. This is an important matter for my constituents, particularly those who worked at the carriage works in York, which has closed, many of whom have suffered from mesothelioma. For some of them, it is too late. Is not expediency an important criterion for the Government to consider so that the survivors have the opportunity to receive compensation?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention.
Because of the different categories of policyholder, the pre-1992 trapped annuitants—of which 9,000 are still alive—have a minimum age of 88, and most are in their late 80s or early 90s. They are coming to the end of their lives, and it is right that they should seek and receive compensation. It is wrong and reprehensible that some of those individuals who invested their money have had to exist on pension credit, when they expected to have a proper pension scheme. Those 9,000 people should receive the £100 million contingency fund, which would lead roughly—I will leave the Minister to consider the detail—to an average of about £12,000 compensation each. That would be a dramatic change for those individuals who are coming to the end of their lives.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate on a matter that affects a number of my constituents. The Government have cited affordability constraints as a reason for not bridging the gap and providing full compensation. Given that we are now in 2016, and the Chancellor constantly tells us that the economy is in a far stronger position, should we urge him to look again at the issue, so that those who have been so badly affected and who have worked all their lives and invested in a prudent fashion, should be compensated?
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. We now know how many victims there are, and what the payouts have been. For with-profit annuitants, 38,135 victims have received £336 million, and those payments will continue over the next few years. However, 890,472 victims have received only 22.4%, and it has been difficult for members of the scheme to understand the basis on which that has been delivered. As has been mentioned, the Government said that they could not afford all that money to pay people out, but people who are in that position will need compensation over several years. They do not need all the money to be put into the scheme upfront; they need it to be spread over a number of years while they are pensioners. As the economy recovers, the Government should supply additional funds, as the Treasury can afford it, to top up the scheme and ensure that those who suffered relative loss receive the full compensation package due.
We must find a further £2.6 billion to meet the commitment that all of us signed up to. Those of us who made that pledge said that we wanted full and fair compensation, and the Chancellor made it clear at the Dispatch Box that that was the figure, although he was only able to come up with £1.5 billion at the time. The shortfall is now £2.6 billion. I could go through a whole list of other things that the Chancellor has found money for but that have perhaps less merit than the plight of those elderly people who invested their money.
I do not expect the Minister suddenly to say, “Don’t worry, we’re going to provide all the money. Here it is”—it would be good if he did—but the Chancellor will be at the Dispatch Box on 16 March to deliver the Budget, and I hope that he will announce further compensation for the pre-1992 trapped annuitants so that they receive full compensation. I also hope he will confirm that none of the money that has already been pledged will be clawed back at the end of the scheme, and that further moneys will be made available as and when that is allowed in the Treasury forecast.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all his work on behalf of the victims of the Equitable Life saga. It surprises me that the Treasury has not yet conceded that it will have to spend the £139 million that it has in its coffers on this compensation, as it expected to, rather than take it as a windfall. Surely that is the starting point.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend—that is the starting point, but to be fair to the Treasury, we expected and hoped that the agency would be able to trace more victims of the scandal so that they could receive the compensation due. Tracing has taken place over an extended period, and I applaud the Government for using many different means to try to trace those individuals. Some people will have died, some have moved multiple times, and some were in all sorts of pension schemes that then moved on. Some people had small pension policies and may not have seen any point in requesting compensation. However, we now know exactly how many victims there are, and there is no excuse for retaining the contingency or the underspend.
I know that a number of Members wish to speak, so in conclusion, this is all about justice for people who have suffered loss. Indeed, not only did they suffer that loss, but it was avoidable. The Government, the company and the regulator knew that the scam was going on, but it was too big to fail because had it done so, the Government would have had to come up with all the compensation straightaway. This is a matter of justice, and on behalf of the all-party group for justice for equitable life policyholders, I pay tribute to the Equitable Members Action Group for its wonderful work over the years in bringing the plight of those people to light in both the public eye and in Parliament. The fight will go on until every single policyholder who suffered relative loss is receiving full compensation. I invite the Minister to receive comments from across the House, and to do the right thing by people who have suffered injustice.
I have been contacted by a number of constituents who were affected by the collapse of Equitable Life. One woman wrote to me to say:
“I myself have lost over £40,000, and have only received £12,000 in compensation. Does this sound fair to you?”
Successive Governments have failed to appreciate the anger that this issue has caused people. A couple who contacted me asked why the Treasury had provided 100% compensation to Icelandic bank depositors, when they had received only a fifth of the sum that they were due and had planned their retirement around. They said:
“In the years prior to our retirement we actually took money from our own savings to top up our pension payments and feel that we have lost twice over. We would have been better off being irresponsible and spent every penny we had and then relied on the State. It seems the government departments are hoping that we will die and the problem will go away.”
The Library briefing points out that there is a ticking time bomb because the beneficiaries of the scheme are elderly. Like my hon. Friend, I have received representations from many constituents. Has she heard the same sentiment that I heard expressed by Brian Watkins, who faces losing up to £40,000 and thinks that the Government are waiting until policyholders die, so that they do not have to deal with them? Surely, we should reassure those people, and the Chancellor should find that money down the back of the sofa.
I agree, and our constituents in London and the north of the country clearly share the view that this is a significant issue. People feel seriously let down by the Government’s failure to act on this matter in a timely fashion. I wonder whether the Minister is confident that the current regulations are strong enough to prevent any repeat of what happened. Future investors will be particularly keen to know that they are not going to fall into a similar trap and that if a similar situation were to come to light in the future, the Government would engage with the victims and allow their voices to be heard when trying to devise a solution.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about victims feeling that their voices are not being heard; that is the message that has come across loud and clear from my constituents, who have also been affected and have found themselves re-mortgaging their homes in their old age just to make ends meet. Does she share my concerns on that?
It must be a significant concern to people to find themselves at retirement age without the money they were expecting, having prudently invested. The example I gave was of people taking money out of their savings to top up their pensions, and they would have expected to have some security in their older years.
It is welcome that the Government do step in where regulation has failed; but unfortunately, the delivery is too often lacking. We know about this in Grimsby, because there has also been appalling maladministration of the fishermen’s pensions and the fishermen’s compensation scheme. Despite it being 30 years since those were due to pay out, a constituent of mine is still waiting and has not received the £3,000 that he is due, simply because of poor record keeping. The Government must understand that when compensation packages are devised, the mechanism to deliver them must be properly put in place and all the calculations must be done appropriately, and where money is promised, it must be delivered. The Government need to ensure that the regulation of these industries is robust and they need to be quicker to compensate those who lose out in the future.
Much of what I wanted to say has been mentioned already by other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who has been a fierce and consistent champion for Equitable Life policyholders. I wish to make very clear my continued support for the Equitable Life policyholders in my constituency, and I believe the best way to do that would be to resurrect some comments I made in a speech in this House almost six years ago. That speech was one of my first after being elected in 2010, and it brings into sharp relief just how long some of us have been trying to get justice for those of our constituents affected by the collapse of Equitable Life, some of whom lost thousands of pounds.
I pointed out the following in that speech:
“Several hon. Members have suggested today that the Equitable Life scandal—and a scandal it was—is complicated, but for me it is actually quite simple. It is about fairness to a group of people who were badly let down by the regulatory failures of their Government. I went into the recent general election supporting a Conservative manifesto that made a promise to Equitable Life policyholders in my constituency. It said:
‘We must not let the mis-selling of financial products put people off saving. We will implement the Ombudsman’s recommendation to make fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policy holders, through an independent payment scheme, for their relative loss as a consequence of regulatory failure.’”
My hon. Friend refers to that manifesto commitment in 2010. May I tell him that in the previous Parliament I helped to set up the all-party group and that we interviewed the then shadow Ministers at that juncture and they promised they would do everything to help the people affected? My constituent, Mr Meinertzhagen has lost half his pension as a result of this terrible tragedy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to my attention.
I continued that speech by saying:
“I wish to take this opportunity to assure policyholders in my constituency that I for one do not intend to go back on that election pledge.
Most people accept that Equitable Life policyholders were the subject of Government maladministration, and that is certainly the view of the ombudsman, Ann Abraham. There is some dispute on all sides, however, about the level of compensation that should be paid to policyholders. Sir John Chadwick’s report established that the relative loss suffered by Equitable Life amounted to between £4 billion and £4.8 billion, and the Financial Secretary, in his statement to the House this July, supported that figure. However, Sir John then used a series of convoluted calculations and speculative assumptions that allowed him to suggest a cap on the total amount of compensation that should be paid. He then went on to reduce that cap figure to just 10% of the relative loss figure that he himself originally calculated.
One of Sir John’s most telling assumptions was that the majority of policyholders would have invested in Equitable Life irrespective of maladministration. That is a very big assumption that cannot be proved or disproved…
Like many Members, I have been in touch with many of those policyholders, and all they want is fairness, because they are fair-minded people. However, they are not stupid people, and they recognise that in these times of austerity even they must shoulder some of the burden needed to bring down the country’s massive debt mountain.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 834-35.]
That was my position in 2010 and that position has not changed.
The Government went some way towards compensating those who lost money in the Equitable Life scandal, but that compensation met only part of the loss, so the Equitable Life investors in my constituency received partial justice. In truth, partial justice is no justice at all, and I urge the Government to give people justice now.
It is a somewhat novel experience for me, as a Scottish National party Member, to stand up to support a motion that starts by saying
“this House congratulates the Government”.
However, I do so because this matter has been dragging on for a large number of years. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) said that he had been dealing with this for six years. I was first elected to this House in 2001, and I have been talking about it for coming up to 15 years now. This all started when the policyholders won their case before the House of Lords in 2000, so they have been fighting this for 16 years. Many Administrations refused to take it seriously, but I give the coalition Government credit for finally grasping the nettle and introducing a scheme. We may not agree with all the terms of the scheme, but that Government did do something about this. I see from a note I received from the Library that it appears that, when the scheme closed on 31 December, some 125,000 policyholders had not come forward to submit a claim. That is a large number of people who have not even got any money out of the existing scheme.
It took a report from the ombudsman to get the ball rolling on compensation, and I suppose the reason we are still debating it today was her conclusion:
“the diversion of scarce public resources is a relevant consideration which should be taken into account and weighed in the balance along with other relevant considerations”.
In introducing this debate, the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said that the agreed sum outstanding was some £2.5 billion, but it is not entirely straightforward to see exactly what sum is required to put the policyholders back to where they would have been in terms of the relative loss. I have seen figures of up to £5 billion and as low as £500 million in this regard. First, we have to be clear exactly what the figure is. The Government, policyholders and the Equitable Members Action Group must agree what the figure is, because at the moment a large range of figures are being talked about.
The action group has consistently campaigned for full compensation. It is a disgrace that people have got less than a quarter of what they should have received, all because of the Treasury. That is where I disagree slightly with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who said that the Government stand behind the regulator, as in this case the Treasury was the regulator for the relevant period during the 1990s. The Government have a direct responsibility for what went wrong in this case, which is why compensation is due. As has been pointed out, many policyholders have received compensation amounting to only about 22% of the losses.
Over the years, like many Members, constituents, many of them elderly, have come to me about this matter. Sadly, time has whittled down their numbers. One constituent, a Mrs Smith from Arbroath, told me the other week that she did everything she should have done. She made provision for what she expected to be a relatively good retirement not reliant on Government funds, but she was robbed of it because of a regulatory failure. Equitable Life was touted as a long-established, steady company. I used to be a practising solicitor and remember it well—not that I ever put any money into it, thankfully—but no one then realised the problem lurking below the surface.
The Government need to grasp the point about what happens from hereon in. We are now asking people to make greater provision for their own pensions, but that will work only if people are confident they will get the pension they are investing in. Equitable Life and other such scandals have greatly undermined that confidence. We need to show that when something goes wrong, through the fault of the Government, compensation will be available to put people in the position they would have been in. If we do not, the danger is that people will not be convinced to invest in the new pension landscape. In the future, the Government might face a much higher bill, because if we do not encourage people to invest in their own pensions, the state will inevitably have to step in. I urge the Minister to reconsider, given the confusion about the figure.
I can reassure Members that I probably will not take up seven minutes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) not just on securing this important debate, but on his tireless work on Equitable Life since he entered this place in 2010. This sorry saga has been extremely long running. The hon. Member for Angus (Mike Weir) indicated that he had been speaking about Equitable Life in this place for 15 years. I know from EMAG, which has also worked very hard and diligently provided information to Members, that every constituency has roughly 2,000 people affected by Equitable Life. I wanted to highlight that figure.
When I was first elected in 2010, I could reliably expect about 20 or 30 people to contact me about Equitable Life every time it was raised in the House. Ahead of today’s debate, the number of constituents who either emailed or came to see me in my surgery dwindled to just half a dozen. I found that interesting but also incredibly sad. There are many reasons why our constituents are no longer contacting us. First and foremost, there is the sad truth that many have passed away, and some are too frail to make contact. They might not have easy access to email. They might be in care homes or reliant on family or carers. For them, it is not simply a case of popping off a quick email. In many ways, however, the saddest cases are those who have simply given up and no longer see the value in contacting us because they do not expect anything to change. Those who were once optimistic they would recover their losses now no longer come to our surgeries because they do not expect to get anything.
Those who remain in contact, however, are forceful in their arguments. One reason they feel so aggrieved is that, as we have heard repeatedly, they acted responsibly and did the right thing—or thought they had. They made provision for their retirement and took out policies they expected to provide them with a comfortable old age and the means to support themselves in their retirement. The Government need to encourage and incentivise people to do exactly that. Equitable Life was a very sorry saga indeed, and one that has left a legacy of suspicion and mistrust. Those who invested bitterly regret their decision, but it has longer tentacles than that. Even today people point to Equitable Life as a reason not to bother saving for their future. We must not allow that to happen.
I do not intend to repeat the comments of the chair of the APPG or other hon. Members. They have already set out the case in the motion. Instead, I want to highlight the difficult circumstances of some of my constituents—good decent people saving for their retirement. For them, a foreign holiday is now out of the question. They are reliant on public transport in an area that has little of it, because they cannot afford to run a car. They expected their retirement to be comfortable; they did not expect still to be working—in many cases, well into their 70s. Eight years after the ombudsman’s report, they remain of the view that the compensation they have received is not adequate.
I know what my hon. Friend the Minister will say: he will highlight the element of the ombudsman’s report emphasising that the Government had to recognise fairness to the taxpayer as well policyholders. I do not regard £1.5 billion as “diddly squat”, as one of my constituents described it. It is an enormous sum, and I welcome the Government’s efforts to identify and compensate policyholders. My one request is that, for the sake of the Equitable pensioners, he keep the situation under review. I know the scheme is closed, but should public finances permit it, he should consider reopening it.
I declare an interest: I invested in Equitable Life while a special adviser. I cheerfully put 17.5% of my salary into an Equitable Life scheme over four years, when I worked for Malcolm Rifkind, and then watched, after I was elected to this place, as the whole Equitable debacle developed over the next decade or so. But at least I was sharing the pain of many of my constituents—well north of 3,000, according to an estimate given to me. The situation that my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) laid out is exactly my experience. To start with, there was a substantial lobby, but that dwindled, although there remain some persistent people—I have their letters—who lost hundreds of thousands of pounds, and they come from all classes of annuitants and policyholders.
I welcome this debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that some people, like him and my father, did at least have time to make up the shortfall, but that others, including many of my constituents, simply did not have that time? Will he mention the fact that some people did not have the opportunity to recover their losses?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely pertinent point.
On being returned in 2010, I found myself a member of the Government and obliged, at one level, to support their decision to limit the compensation to £1.5 billion. At the time, as the Prisons Minister, and the prisons budget being rather less than the total compensation required, I could understand, in the circumstances, why they decided to limit the overall compensation. I resolved, however, to speak in this debate and to re-examine the letters I sent out defending the Government’s position, and to re-evaluate my position to see whether it was reasonable.
I was much taken with the comments from the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey), the former Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. This is about confidence in the entire savings system. I can remember Labour’s first Budget in 1997 and the consequences—unreported from the Dispatch Box—of IR35, which saw £5 billion cheerfully lifted from investors in pension funds through a tax on dividends. If a £5 billion change can be made in a Budget, announced not in the House of Commons but by press release, we need to be aware that we are dealing with vast numbers when it comes to pension policy. I tell the Economic Secretary, who is replying to the debate, that I believe we are on the verge of a substantial—and, for me, very welcome—change in pension policy. As part of that, we need to acknowledge the point made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West that this issue is about confidence in the system as well as fundamental fairness to our constituents.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who introduced the debate so effectively, on securing it. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on setting up the all-party group in 2006-07 to reinforce the efforts that were already under way. He attempted to corral those efforts, make them more effective and secure from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats an undertaking that the issue would be addressed in their manifestos leading into the 2010 election. It is important to highlight that as a simple issue of fairness we need to revisit the sum of £1.5 billion and decide whether or not we have discharged our duty.
I just wanted to remind my hon. Friend of my constituent Mr Meinertzhagen, whose living standards are suffering. He is now worried about the consequences for his wife when he departs from this world. It is a real struggle for him, and I hope my hon. Friend will join me in urging the Economic Secretary to find money and set it aside to help these people in desperate situations.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. This is why these artificial divisions—between 31 August 1992 and 1 September 1992—are so unfair on the people involved. My constituent Derek Burton estimates his losses at around £175,000 as a consequence of his having invested before the cut-off date in 1992. That shows the impact on him of the changes that were subsequently made. These are enormous sums of money that have destroyed the planned retirements of thousands of my constituents—an average of 2,000 of every Member’s constituents have been affected.
Frankly, we have to grasp this problem and address it. I hope it can be done through the Budget and through further substantial and welcome changes to pension policy, on which the Chancellor absolutely deserves our support. By those means, he can address this lingering unfairness so that people can be given the confidence to invest in pensions again. The lesson I took from my little episode with Equitable Life was that I was simply not going to undertake any extra investment in pension schemes thereafter.
On the figures, I do not know whether we will get an answer from the Minister on whether £2.7 billion remains the sum required to put this right. In trying to do the mathematics, that figure does not seem to work out precisely to me, given that about £1 billion went to 890,472 policyholders who received only 22.4%. Provision should now be made for us to address this issue.
Maladministration was recognised and a clear recommendation was eventually made by Ann Abraham in her report, after various other people had looked at the problem. I have a lingering sympathy for some of the Equitable Life administrators at the time. The original legal challenge to their policies always struck me as ludicrous. It lost at every conceivable stage until the last one, when there was no possible course of appeal. Provision had not been made, as it should have been, for the possibility that they might lose the action. That was how the maladministration came to be identified in all the reports.
If we—the system—have overseen people not doing their job properly and not protected people who were wholly innocent, including those who were investors before 31 August 1992, it is right that we do our duty —out of fairness to them and to restore confidence in the whole pension system. If people find that they have invested resources other than their house in the biggest single asset they are going to invest in, and encountered circumstances utterly beyond their control, or utterly beyond any reasonable duty of care they would have taken to find out about what they were investing in; and given that Equitable Life was the most reputable pension provider around at that time, we need to put things right. We are now able to afford to compensate these people, and we should be able to do so by continuing significant pension reform to put this right properly and fully.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Stephen O’Brien, who fought tirelessly on behalf of Equitable Life policyholders in my constituency. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this debate.
The Minister may be surprised to know that some of my constituents who have received support from the compensation scheme have recognised the role of the coalition Government and want me to pass on their thanks to that Government for setting up the compensation scheme that has allowed them to salvage a little from the shipwreck that Equitable Life has in effect been. They fully recognise the good intentions of the last coalition Government in attempting to do something, when nothing had been done previously. I want to put that on the record.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the dignified yet forceful way in which EMAG has conducted itself—Mr David Wakerley in my constituency has been involved—shows the realistic view it has taken of what has been done so far, but this in no way addresses the needs of those left behind?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. A constituent of mine who wrote to me has lost 75% of his life savings. He is living on a pittance by contrast with the position he would have been in if Equitable Life had not gone under. There is a broad recognition among Equitable Life policyholders of the stresses and strains that the last coalition Government faced, particularly with a severe economic crisis and a ballooning deficit.
Of course, we are now seeing the impact of the long-term economic plan. When the Government were in difficulties and faced stark choices, I believe that my constituents recognised that and were grateful that the Government were willing to act. Now they can see that circumstances are changing, they are asking the Minister to keep this matter under review, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) suggested. We are in a different economic situation from that when this fund was originally set up.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point, as indeed have others. I do not wish to be pedantic, but when we talk about “keeping the matter under review”, we must remember that pension holders are dying, which makes the matter very urgent. My hon. Friend is right to say that the economy has improved to the extent that the Government can afford to pay full compensation, but beyond that I think there is a moral duty. There was regulatory failure, so whether or not they can realistically afford it today or tomorrow, do the Government not have a duty to pay this money?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because his point about regulatory failure is absolutely key. Had the regulator been doing its job properly and effectively, we would not be in this situation. That is what lies behind the requests for fairness, justice and equity for the policyholders, who were entitled to believe that proper, appropriate and fit regulation was in place and would keep their policies safe. That is the inherent injustice about which those policyholders are rightly aggrieved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East has said, it is unarguable that the unspent £139 million must be distributed among the pre-1992 policyholders.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady’s argument. I think that all Members want to find a constructive, positive approach. It occurs to me that a number of those who are not eligible for compensation might be falling on social security benefits, which, of course, is a cost to the taxpayer. Perhaps this is too difficult for us as individual Members, but I wonder whether it would be possible to do some modelling in order to see whether that accruing cost to the taxpayer would justify changing the compensation profile at this early stage. If we are trying to find ways to find money to improve the compensation offer, perhaps that would be an option.
I am sure that the Exchequer Secretary has listened to the hon. Gentleman’s submission and I have no doubt that he will pay due regard to it. The Government have announced that payments to non-profit annuity policyholders who are on pension credit will be doubled, so some action has been taken, but we will not get to the heart of the unfairness until the regulatory failure has been properly addressed. That is what I am arguing for on behalf of my constituents.
We know that there are difficult spending decisions to be made, but these people trusted the system and paid in, in good faith, over many years, only to find that there has been consistent, repeated and unwarranted failure of regulation, and that it was so bad that there was found to be maladministration. In such circumstances, our constituents should not be having to pay the price for the failure of Government.
My hon. Friend has mentioned difficult spending decisions—which is true, to an extent—and the £139 million, which has already been voted through by Parliament. It would be completely wrong for that not to be used for additional policyholders, if they can be found. Indeed, if it were not used for that purpose, it would represent a windfall for the Treasury in this fiscal year, which cannot be the right answer. I am as interested as my hon. Friend is to hear the Exchequer Secretary explain the plans for that £139 million.
The Exchequer Secretary would be in danger of undoing all the good work the coalition Government did in setting up the fund in the first place if he were seen to be mealy-mouthed, if I may put it that way—I know he most certainly is not—and were to withhold those funds and to seek to bring them back into the Treasury, given the huge injustice suffered by the policyholders.
I am not going to take up much more time, Minister, because I know that you have other Members to hear from. I urge you please to look at the settlement and at what you can do to support those who are in desperate straits, including constituents of mine, and to do the right thing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this incredibly important debate. In common with Members on both sides of the House, I have received a considerable amount of correspondence on the issue and met people in my surgeries who have been affected by it.
Other Members have mentioned this, but I want to pay particular tribute to the Equitable Members Action Group, which has done extraordinary work to highlight the issue and to represent members who have suffered as a result of the unfairness. The group members are persistent, dogged and effective campaigners and lobbyists. I have had the pleasure of meeting the EMAG chairman who covers the whole of the south-west. He is an extraordinarily effective campaigner.
As many Members have said, this is an issue of fairness. Policyholders who were doing the right thing and saving for the future have found themselves in an awful position. We need to take account of that. They have our sympathy, without doubt. Whatever solution we find, however, we also have to keep it in mind that we need to be fair to taxpayers as a whole. Although £2.6 billion is a considerable amount of money that would plug the gap and ensure that those who lost out are compensated in full for their losses, it does, none the less, place a burden—it is a big ask—on the taxpayer and the Treasury to find it. We need to be aware of that.
I am glad that the Treasury has responded to a number of letters from me. There has been a considerable amount of correspondence back and forth. I am particularly happy to have received a letter from a Treasury Minister, which addresses the need and, indeed, the desire to keep the matter under review. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) says, time is short, so I urge the Treasury not only to keep the matter under review, but to bear it in mind that, sadly, the passage of time means that it needs to be addressed quickly. The letter, which I received in response to a letter I wrote on behalf of the chairman of EMAG in the south-west, makes it clear that the Treasury welcomes submissions and ideas for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to include in the Budget statement. I am sure that the Treasury is taking account of all those submissions.
It is worth bearing in mind that the Chancellor has already announced—and I am sure he will announce more—extremely welcome changes and reforms to the pension system. I hope we can look at the issue as part of that wider package of reforms.
As the Treasury looks at that wider package, may I urge it to ensure that helping the EMAG pensioners is very much part of setting the conditions for other people to save? If people feel that their savings will go unrewarded, that undermines the tone that the Chancellor and the Economic Secretary have rightly set in the various pension arrangements they have made, helping people to realise that pensions are worthwhile and will help them in the future.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) for rising at the same time. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) is absolutely right to say that this is part of a wider package relating not just to pensions, but to the savings culture more generally. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Exchequer Secretary has done fantastic things to support savers, particularly small savers, in his championing of the credit union movement? Any move in the direction of further support for Equitable Life savers would take that legacy further.
I entirely agree. The Government have done a great deal to support savers and to support and encourage those who invest for the future, and have done a great deal for pensioners as well. That is undeniable. I hope that, as part of the package, there will be some movement on the issue, and that it will be kept under careful consideration.
The letter that the Treasury Minister wrote to me in response to the letter that I wrote on behalf of the EMAG representatives in my constituency contains the welcome information that she is open to submissions in relation to the Budget. She also points out that the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s report was published in 2008, and that—as we heard from the hon. Member for Angus (Mike Weir)—it is only since the Conservative-led coalition Government came to office in 2010 that any compensation has been paid. It is important to remember that this Government started the ball rolling.
I appreciate everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying, but there is clearly a difference between banks that have been mis-selling having to pay up for their misdeeds, and the Treasury, regardless of party—and the state, regardless of who are the Government of the day—paying for a regulatory failure. It is not a question of charity from a Government to the individuals who have suffered under Equitable Life. People suffer as a result of a regulatory failure, and therefore it is the Treasury’s duty to pay full compensation, just as it is the banks’ duty to pay full compensation to those who have suffered as a result of mis-selling.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but let me return to a point that I made earlier. He refers to the Treasury paying compensation. The Treasury has no money; it is all taxpayers’ money. We need to strike a careful balance. There must be fairness, not only to Equitable Life policyholders but to taxpayers in general, because it is they who will ultimately have to foot the bill for any compensation.
May I briefly make the point that there is a taxpayer interest here? If the savings culture is undermined, the taxpayers’ interests are absolutely at stake. We need people to invest in pensions to ensure that they are not dependent on the taxpayer in their retirement.
That is a good point, and I do not think that it is wholly at odds with the point that I was seeking to make.
I shall not delay the House for much longer. We all recognise that Equitable Life policyholders have found themselves in an impossible position—and, again, I pay tribute to all the work that they have done—but it should also be recognised that asking the taxpayer to provide £2.6 billion of compensation, if that is indeed the figure, is a big ask. Let me say to the Minister that that I acknowledge that balance, and I hope that we can find a way along what is a difficult path. I welcome the Treasury’s assurance that it will entertain all submissions from Members of Parliament, members of EMAG and members of the public, and will keep the matter under careful consideration so that we can resolve it in a way that will satisfy both Equitable Life policyholders and the interests of the wider taxpayer.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for initiating the debate, and I have been asked by my constituents to thank him for everything that he has done on their behalf over the years.
In 2010, when standing for election in North East Derbyshire, I engaged with many Equitable Life policyholders. They were your constituents, Madam Deputy Speaker, and they were full of praise for the work that you had done on their behalf. I added that to a lengthy list of reasons why you were returned and I was not. Having served my apprenticeship, I put some of those best practices to good effect when I was selected for the constituency of Bexhill and Battle, and was subsequently elected.
All the constituents with whom I have interacted have put their positions with clarity and with understanding of the economic challenges that the Government face in balancing the books. Given that those people had planned to save so sensibly for their own retirement, it is clear that prudence and budget-planning were second nature to them. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who has responded to my numerous items of correspondence on this subject both in person and in writing. Her explanations, and the time that she has given to explaining, have helped me to communicate with my impacted constituents, and for that I am very grateful.
As I interpret a recent letter from the Treasury, prompted by one of my constituents, I understand that the Government have closed the scheme to new compensation claims, and will reallocate unclaimed moneys remaining in the pool to policyholders who are receiving pension credit. I had understood the words
“I am sorry to say that no changes to the funds allocated to the Scheme are planned”
to mean that no new moneys would be added to the pool, and that the £1.5 billion paid out would be the final payment, in the light of the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s direction that the Government should have regard to the impact on public finances. However, one of my more eagle-eyed constituent policyholders has read those words to mean that, while the manner in which the funds within the pool are to be allocated is fixed, that does not expressly rule out the possibility that new funds could be added to the pool, and go towards the £2.6 billion shortfall, during the current term.
I should be grateful if the Minister made it clear whether any further funds for the pool are expressly ruled out for this term, so that I can pass on that clarification to my constituents. It may sound perverse, but many of them would accept that position, because they have reached a stage at which they would like to have absolute finality, and to know whether it makes sense for them to continue funding the fight.
I also want to say something about the stated position for with-profits policyholders. The letter that I received from the Treasury states that they were compensated in full. I understand that the proxy value of the pensions of pre-1995 with-profits policyholders was calculated by virtue of a benchmark from the Prudential, which was considered to be a similar proxy for their own policies. However, I understand that in the case of post-1995 with-profits policyholders, the proxy value was calculated by the benchmarking of not only Prudential, but Scottish Widows. The appropriateness of the latter as a benchmark was disputed by some of my constituents on the grounds that it was a poorly performing policy. Those policyholders dispute the claim that they have received full value, and have drawn distinctions between their own policy and that of the Prudential, and the policy of Scottish Widows. I should like the Minister to tell me whether my understanding is correct. Perhaps he will also comment on why the Scottish Widows policy was seen as a fair benchmark for this exercise, if my contention is indeed along the right lines.
I should add that I empathise hugely with all the policyholders who have been impacted by the losses to their policies. However, I am also conscious that this matter was determined before my election, and that I was elected on a manifesto which promised to deliver a budget surplus. Adding a further £2.6 billion would mean that other constituents of mine would have to provide for it. I have explained that difficult concept in person to my impacted constituents, because I believe in being direct when a resolution is unlikely to be arrived at, and I am indebted to them for the manner in which they have responded to my direct approach.
I was elected on the basis that there would indeed be a budget surplus. I think that it would be wrong of me to stand up and try to proclaim—this was mentioned earlier—that £2.6 billion could be found down the back of the sofa. If only it were that easy. I also believe in being direct and straight with my constituents, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am doing so now.
I support the Government in their approach to this difficult issue. Let me end by asking the Minister, on behalf of my constituents, whether the funding of the scheme is indeed final for this term, and whether the use of the Scottish Widows policy benchmark was justifiable.
It is a pleasure to sum up the debate. I warmly thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and those who signed the motion. As has been pointed out, the wide-ranging all-party parliamentary group has 195 members from all parties, which demonstrates the interest hon. Members take in this matter. It was also said in the debate that, in each of our constituencies, there are around about 2,000 Equitable Life policyholders, which shows the scale of the problem we face and why we must take the matter seriously. I am delighted that we are having this debate today.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the outrageous scandal, which is exactly the point. He went on to talk about the perceptions of market risk—markets going up and down—and the promises that were given to Equitable Life policyholders. However, in the main, we are not only talking about promises, because Equitable Life gave guarantees to its policyholders. We ought to reflect on that point, particularly in the light of what he said in the debate about who knew within the company, the regulator and the Government. Ultimately, the Government must stand behind the regulator when there is market failure of the degree that took place with Equitable Life. That is their responsibility.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) spoke at the tail-end of the debate. I say to him that everybody understands that all parties want a balanced budget, but we also have a moral and ethical responsibility to protect the consumer interest. That is what we are talking about today. I ask the Minister to reflect on what was said by the hon. Member for Harrow East and others on looking for those who have pre-1992 annuities and considering what can be done for them.
Two broad themes have been mentioned time and again in the debate: fairness, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) and for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones); and regulatory failure, which goes back to the Government’s ultimate responsibility, and which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach).
The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) made the point about the 2,000 members and the fact that all hon. Members are still getting letters from constituents. Many of my SNP colleagues have had them in the past few weeks.
One of the most important points was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mike Weir) and others. We must have confidence in the financial markets. If we are not going to stand behind the policyholders in this case, that undermines the savings culture that we want. We want people to invest in pensions and know that there is consumer confidence problem. We must tackle that.
I want to put this debate in the context of the good debate we had just a couple of weeks ago on the Financial Conduct Authority. One much-discussed theme was the importance of consumer protection and trust. On the back of scandals such as those involving Equitable Life policyholders, it is clear that many consumers are concerned about whether they can trust the providers of financial services products, whether they can trust the regulatory regime to protect them, and whether the Government will discharge their obligations to protect the consumer interest. The significance of that cannot be overstated.
Given that the regulator was there to protect consumers and that the Government were standing behind the regulator, does my hon. Friend agree that, when that regulator failed to protect the consumer, the Government had a moral obligation to step in and protect policyholders?
I strongly agree. I can hear my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) commenting in the background—he made that same point in the debate, as did the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt). There is unity in the House on wanting a savings culture. We want people to retire with decent pensionable income, but we will create that confidence only if we show that we are prepared to stand behind the Equitable Life consumers. They were let down by the company and the regulator, and the Government have that moral and ethical responsibility to step in. That should not be underestimated.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is partly about building intergenerational confidence? We want people to start saving for pensions in their late 20s and their 30s. They need to have confidence that that money will still be there in a pot in future, and that there is a proper system of regulation. This is about building confidence for those who will save in future, and not just about the Equitable Life policyholders who have been affected in this instance.
I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman and am happy to associate myself with his comments. It is about creating that long-term stability in the financial services industry and ensuring that we have the right regulatory regime. We must have the right architecture for both private and public pension provision in this country. I hope all in the House have a shared interest in doing that. That is why the debate is so important, and why the Government must respond in the correct manner. How we deal with the long-running saga of Equitable Life is important in the context of his intervention.
Let us remind ourselves of the background. Equitable Life was a major provider of with-profits pension plans. A minority of policyholders invested in policies that offered a guaranteed annuity rate. That rate was set below the normal historical rates, but towards the end of the 1980s, that “normal” changed. Increasingly, the guaranteed annuity rate was over-generous and ultimately unaffordable to Equitable Life in the long run. In response, Equitable stopped sales and reduced the capital value of the pension pots by reducing discretionary bonuses. Guaranteed annuity rates were thus maintained only because the capital sum was far lower than had been expected.
Ultimately, GAR holders took legal action to stop Equitable from rigging pension payouts and won in the House of Lords in 2000, as my hon. Friend the Member for Angus mentioned in his speech. That judgment increased the financial burden on Equitable by about £1.5 billion, a sum that threatened its solvency. Equitable Life hoped to fill that gap by suspending distributions to policyholders and by selling the business, but it was unable to find a buyer. It ceased all further business and became a closed fund. It also had to reduce policy bonuses, and hence the ongoing pensions of investors. Pensions reductions of up to a third were common. It was a perfect storm.
Policyholders have long tried for compensation. Two ombudsman reports concluded that there had been maladministration and that injustice had been suffered. We should remind ourselves of what was said in the second ombudsman report. The conclusion stated:
“the Government should establish and fund a compensation scheme, with a view to assessing the individual cases of those who have been affected by the events covered in this report and providing appropriate compensation.”
I emphasise “appropriate compensation”.
I want to highlight the case of my constituent, Mary, an ex-machinist, and her husband, an ex-electrician’s mate. They worked all their lives contributing to our society and economy for decades and opted to invest a substantial amount of money in a scheme—an Equitable Life scheme. Due to years of negligence by the company and different Governments, the money was snatched away. Sadly, Mary’s husband passed away last year and she was given only a small amount of compensation. Her husband is not here to see justice being served. Surely we must act for Mary and other Marys across the UK?
I wholly concur with my hon. Friend and her constituent. Other Members have made the point that there is a sense that the Government must act quickly because the policyholders are dying. We have a responsibility to deal with the problem in a timely manner.
I am conscious of time, so I will try to wrap up quickly. The 2008 report also stated that regulation was not implemented properly, meaning
“consistently, fairly, and with proper regard to the interests of those directly affected”.
We understand that that involved previous Governments—the Minister will be pleased to hear that not even I would blame the current Government for this one—but we do have a responsibility to reflect on what has been said and what actions we should take as a consequence.
All the parties involved accepted the ombudsman’s second report and accepted the case for compensation. During the inquiry, EMAG told the ombudsman that it had calculated the loss for those investing after 1990 at £3.2 billion if they remained with Equitable as against £4.6 billion if they had invested elsewhere. The final conclusion from the ombudsman states:
“The government should establish and fund a compensation scheme. The aim of such a scheme would be to put those who have suffered a relative loss back into the position that they would have been in had maladministration not occurred.”
We have all reflected on what the Government did with the £1.5 billion, but it is the issue of fairness that we keep coming back to.
This has already been mentioned, but it is worth stating again that before the 2010 election, the main Equitable Life policyholders’ action group, EMAG, lobbied MPs to seek support for compensation for its members. Perhaps as a result, the 2010 Conservative manifesto included this brief comment:
“We must not let the mis-selling of financial products put people off saving. We will implement the Ombudsman’s recommendation to make fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policy holders, through an independent payment scheme, for their relative loss as a consequence of regulatory failure.”
It has been said today that the Government could not go beyond the £1.5 billion because of the financial circumstances at the time. Let us take this opportunity today to right that wrong and to plug some of that gap. I appeal to the Government to listen to all the points that have been made across the Chamber today and to do the right thing for the policyholders of Equitable Life.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this important debate today and on the articulate way in which he described the events that many of our constituents have faced. He touched on many of the issues that I will highlight in my speech. And of course it is always a pleasure to stand opposite the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds).
I would also like to thank the various Members who have spoken today. I will not go through them one by one as I know we are pushed for time, but there were several emotional contributions that I would like to highlight. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) told the story of the lady in her constituency who lost £40,000 and got only £12,000 back. The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said that she had noticed a decline in the number of constituents visiting her to discuss this issue and that, sadly, it was because many of them had either passed away or given up hope.
The fate of Equitable Life and those who invested in it has been debated in this House for more than 15 years by Members on both sides. I commend the work of the Equitable Members Action Group, which I will call EMAG for the sake of expediency. I would also like to thank the many Members of this House who have campaigned tirelessly on behalf of their constituents to ensure that this issue is not kicked into the long grass. It is difficult not to sympathise with the anguish and worry that many of those investors have experienced. Many have seen their nest eggs disintegrate, and they feel cheated. Over the years, it has become clear that, despite all the efforts to review the issue, there is no one universally agreed strategy to compensate them. It has therefore been difficult to establish a course of action that will truly put the matter to bed.
Along with many other Members, I appreciate the action that the Government have taken to compensate those who were disproportionately affected by this sorry affair. However, as we have heard today, concerns remain about the management and assessment of compensation payments. More than 90% of Conservative Members in the last Parliament signed the following pledge:
“I pledge to the voters of this constituency that if I am elected to Parliament at the next general election, I will support and vote for proper compensation for the 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.”
The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury signed that pledge to provide proper compensation for those affected by the events at Equitable Life. It would be helpful to ascertain whether the Minister feels that the pledge has been fully met today.
The assessment of compensation payments—and the amount allocated by the Government—is not a simple matter. At the time of the second ombudsman’s report, EMAG estimated the losses incurred by policyholders investing after 1990 at £3.2 billion if they remained with Equitable Life and at £4.6 billion if they had invested elsewhere. In comparison, the 2010 Chadwick report assessed the loss at £500 million on the basis of assessing maladministration. There is therefore a clear difference between the principles used to calculate the EMAG estimates and those used to calculate the Chadwick estimates. All those figures are of course different from the £1.5 billion and the subsequent £500 million top-up offered by the Government. EMAG states that, according to its own calculations, the outstanding figure is between £2.6 billion and £2.8 billion.
I should also like to address the administration of the scheme generally. The National Audit Office reported in 2013 that the scheme had faced a number of administrative issues. The NAO appreciated, as do I, that the task of setting up the scheme was a difficult challenge. It was a complex operation undertaken in quite a short period of time. However, it noted that the scheme had significant issues with tracing the identity of some policyholders, as the data provided by Equitable Life were out of date. Following the publication of the findings, the Public Accounts Committee undertook its own report into the administration of the scheme and concluded that the Treasury had
“not used all information available to trace as many policyholders as possible”.
In April 2013, the NAO reported that only 35% of payments had been made and the PAC quoted that the Treasury estimated that it may not trace 17% to 20% of policyholders. As of 30 December 2015, the scheme had issued payments to 915,453 policyholders, representing 88% of those eligible—only a slight improvement since the PAC’s critical findings. Given that the scheme closed for new claims on 31 December 2015, will the Minister tell us how many of the remaining 12% of eligible policyholders were found? At the time, it was also recommended that the Treasury and National Savings and Investments would
“work with the Equitable Members’ Action Group to explore options for utilising data to contact policyholders who have not yet received payment”.
Will the Minister confirm, therefore, that the recommendations of the PAC with regard to that were acted on and that all reasonable steps were taken to contact eligible policyholders?
The NAO and the PAC also found that some policyholders were dissatisfied with the responses to their queries and complaints. They included policyholders receiving duplicate requests for the same information and generic responses in relation to specific queries. Will the Minister outline what steps were taken to ensure that customer service has improved since the reports and that it will remain at an adequate level for those policyholders who are still in receipt of annuity payments from the scheme?
The next concern I wish to raise with the Minister is the amount of money it has cost to administer the payment scheme. National Savings and Investments, an executive agency of the Treasury, was tasked with operating the scheme. It originally outsourced to Siemens, whose contract was then bought by Atos. The PAC expressed concern in 2013 that the Treasury was not achieving value for money in the contract with Atos to deliver the scheme. The contract was based on time and materials, and it is argued that there was a vast amount of waste of taxpayers’ money as a result. The total budget for administering the scheme was set at £57 million. In 2013, National Savings and Investments estimated that the cost would go £4 million over budget. Will the Minister confirm whether the payment scheme was delivered on budget, and, if not, by how much it overspent?
Finally, the PAC recommended that the Treasury undertake a lessons-learned exercise, as it felt the failures of previous Government compensation schemes had not been addressed when setting up the Equitable Life payment scheme. The Government accepted that recommendation and confirmed that they would produce two reports: one in November 2013; and a final report, to be shared with the PAC, the NAO and the Major Projects Authority in early 2016. Will the Minister take this opportunity to update the House on the progress of the second lessons-learned report?
On the subject of lessons learned, it is, above all, incumbent on us to ensure that future such scandals do not take place. Will the Minister tell us, therefore, what measures the Government have put in place to stop this happening again? In particular, pension fund providers and their fund managers continue to resist calls for transparency of costs and performance, so are the Government taking any steps to ensure that they inform pension scheme members of the true costs of investing? What plans do the Government have to review the governance arrangements for pension funds? Will he confirm that governance committees are currently without a fiduciary duty to their members in contract-based pensions and have they given any consideration to changing that?
It is clear that that although some progress has been made to address the anguish and loss caused by this matter, a number of questions remain. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
This is an extremely important subject, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate and bringing it to the Floor of the House today. His tireless work and that of other colleagues has been of great importance to many of our constituents. There are many human stories, and we have heard a number of them today from colleagues across the House. I am grateful to have the opportunity both to set out what this Government have done to address this long-standing issue and to set the record straight on some of the background.
Equitable Life has been a very sorry tale, and we all share sympathy for those affected by it. As the motion notes, this Government have taken action to resolve the long-standing issue, which is something that previous Governments failed to do, as noted by my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones).
Although Equitable Life remains a going concern and continues to trade, its problems in the 1990s and at the turn of the century caused a great many of its policyholders to suffer financial and emotional distress. Many different factors contributed to the losses suffered by policyholders. The ombudsman’s 2008 report established the part played by the then Government.
When we came to government, we committed to implement the ombudsman’s recommendation that the Government should make payments to Equitable Life policyholders in recognition of the part that was played by the Government at the time. We took swift action, introducing the Equitable Life (Payments) Bill in 2010, with payments starting to be made to policyholders in June 2011, six months after the Bill received Royal Assent.
My hon. Friend knows that the thrust of this afternoon’s debate is a request for additional money to be made available on top of the money that has already been earmarked for compensation to Equitable Life policyholders. Will the Government be able to find additional money?
I will have to disappoint my hon. Friend, because the public finances remain in a very difficult state. Although the economy and our public finances have improved compared with where they were, money is still extremely tight.
We established a set of rules for the payments, based on the Government’s full acceptance of the parliamentary ombudsman’s findings. The scheme was based on the assumption that all policyholders considered the incorrect regulatory returns when making their investment and would have decided not to invest in Equitable Life had those returns been correct. Obviously, those are quite conservative assumptions. The Government used the ombudsman’s findings to calculate the resulting individual loss by assessing the Equitable Life returns against those of comparator companies. That led to an assessment of the loss from Government maladministration of £4.1 billion.
Despite the constraints facing the public purse, the 2010 spending review announced that up to £1.5 billion would be made available for payment to eligible policyholders. Out of that sum, following consultation, we decided to pay the with-profits, or trapped, annuitants in full. As a result, this group of policyholders will receive an annual payment for life, and the actuarial assessment of those payments is that the Government will be making payments to this group well into the next decade and probably beyond.
The total cost of those payments is assessed to be around £625 million—though that is dependent on how long policyholders live. Importantly, the £100 million contingency fund, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East referred, is an accounting provision to provide a safety net in case the annuitants live longer than the central forecast. The remaining £775 million of available funding was distributed pro-rata to other policyholders on the advice of an independent commission, and that resulted in a figure of 22.4 pence in the pound of their relative loss.
Of course I know that that was deeply disappointing to many, but these were difficult decisions that were taken in the light of the position of the public finances. As I said just now in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), public finances remain in a very difficult position, and we have to take decisions in the interests of overall fairness to all taxpayers.
With the Government preparing to usher in the successor to the Trident nuclear weapon system, which is estimated to cost £167 billion, I call into question the Cabinet’s priorities. If the Government can find money for that, they can find money to pay Equitable Life policyholders.
The hon. Lady’s definition of “on that very point” has a degree of elastic in it.
The motion notes that the ombudsman recommended in her report that policyholders should be put back in the position that they would have been in, had Government maladministration not occurred. What the ombudsman went on to say just after this recommendation, however, is that it was appropriate also to take into account the impact on the public purse when considering the funding of payments.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I must make progress. I know there is another debate to follow and I am time-limited.
The ombudsman has written to the all-party parliamentary group on the funding and said that the Government’s decisions on affordability and eligibility cannot be said to be incompatible with her report.
As announced in the summer Budget, and following more than four years of operation, the scheme closed to new claims on 31 December. As part of that closure, we did find a way to double the payments received by investors who had previously received the 22.4% of their losses, but who were also in receipt of pension credit. These further payments started just before Christmas and will be completed shortly.
There have been many representations regarding the group of policyholders known as the pre-92 annuitants. Although they were not included in the payment scheme for well-established reasons that have been debated in this House, the Government recognised that they were not receiving the income they expected from their annuities. Although that is not due to Government maladministration, in late 2013, those policyholders received a payment of £5,000, or £10,000 for those in receipt of pension credit.
The Government have also received representations about the fact that, as the economy improves, further funding should be made available to the payment scheme. The improvements our economy has made since 2010 are greatly to be welcomed and show that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working, but the plan is not complete and we have some way to go to fully restore the public finances. Based on latest outturn data, the deficit was £89.1 billion last year. That is why we have no plans to reopen the payment scheme after more than four years of operation. So apart from the ongoing payments to annuitants, which will continue for many years to come, our focus now is to complete the orderly wind-down of the scheme by summer this year.
We do not yet know what the final picture will be, but we expect that by the summer, close to 950,000 policyholders will have been paid around £1.1 billion by the scheme. That is a considerable achievement, given the issues that the payment scheme faced in tracing policyholders, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), who speaks for the Opposition, and exceeds the expectations set out in the National Audit Office report of 2013, to which she referred.
I will respond briefly to a couple of points made during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East asked for a progress report on payments. As I said, we will know the final position on that by the summer and a report will then be published. We do not yet know the final position on the cash figures, but we expect the difference at the end to be lower than the £39 million that my hon. Friend referred to. The £100 million that I mentioned earlier, the contingency on the actuarial projections, is in a different category.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) asked for clarity, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne in an intervention, on whether more money would be forthcoming. I wish I could say that was the case, but because of the condition of the public finances, that is not possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle also asked about the Scottish Widows benchmark. This is a complicated issue, but the core concept in the scheme was the concept of relative loss, which has to take a view of the investment’s performance, compared with similar investments available elsewhere. The Scottish Widows fund that he referred to was not available to invest in, I understand, before 1995, whereas the Prudential investment was.
The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles asked whether the Treasury had taken all reasonable steps to trace policyholders. There was national advertising and various other tracing methods, including through the Department for Work and Pensions, and also a data list that came from EMAG with members’ details to help trace them. In terms of the spend on administering the scheme, our forecast outturn is within about 3% of the original budget.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) alluded to the contrast with savers in the Icelandic banks. Of course, that was a very different situation, where ex gratia payments were made to UK depositors in those banks. That was done as a result of a decision by the previous Government to guarantee all qualifying deposits when there was a danger of not having financial stability in the UK. However, the Financial Services Compensation Scheme was loaned the money to facilitate those payments, in the expectation that the money paid to UK depositors would come back from those banks eventually.
A number of hon. Members have raised the issue of general confidence in financial institutions and encouragement to save. That is very important to the Government, who have helped more than 5 million people to save for retirement for the first time, or to save more, through automatic enrolment. Individuals now also have the freedom to access their pension from the age of 55 if they wish.
The Government have also acted strongly on reforming financial regulation to ensure that it is fit for purpose in future. The Financial Services Act 2012 dismantled the failed tripartite system and created a new architecture and approach for financial regulation. I am confident that our actions have provided a robust framework for the authorities to work within.
I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and other colleagues for securing the debate, which has given us another opportunity to discuss these important issues. I also recognise the hard work the all-party group has done.
I appreciate that many policyholders are not receiving the income they expected, but by paying more than £1 billion to more than 900,000 policyholders, we have taken action to resolve the Government’s part in the Equitable Life issue. We have been able to pay in full the losses of the most trapped policyholders and to double the payments to vulnerable non-annuitant policyholders, as well as providing a one-off payment to the pre-1992 annuitants, who, though unaffected by the maladministration, were recognised by the Government to be suffering as a result of their declining annuity income. In doing that, we have balanced the needs of policyholders against the need to reduce the deficit and repair the public finances.
I thank hon. Members and all three Front-Bench speakers for the constructive and fair way in which the debate has been conducted. Almost 2% of the population have been affected by this scandal, and we have a duty to ensure that they are given full compensation for the loss they have suffered.
I thank the Minister for laying out his argument, and I thank those who have contributed on the personal views of different constituents. I listened carefully to the Minister, and the Treasury accepts that the compensation bill for Equitable Life policyholders is £4.1 billion. Of that, £1.5 billion has been paid out, which leaves a balance of £2.6 billion.
The Minister rightly said that compensation payments will be made well into the next decade for those who have suffered loss. It therefore seems reasonable to me and, I think, to Members across the House—the Chancellor will no doubt be listening to this—that as the economy recovers, our long-term economic plan comes to fruition and we reach a position where the budget is in balance, those who have saved for their retirement are given full and proper compensation.
As the economy recovers, therefore, the Government can top up the scheme if they choose to, and I urge the Chancellor to pledge to do that in his Budget speech on 16 March. As we reform pensions in other ways, we can then send out the signal to young—and not so young—people that it is right to save for the future and for retirement and that if such a scandal were ever to happen again, the Government would step in to protect the retirement incomes of those who do the right thing and save for their old age.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House congratulates the Government on providing a scheme to compensate victims of the Equitable Life scandal; welcomes the Government’s acceptance of the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s findings in full; notes that the Parliamentary Ombudsman recommended that policyholders should be put back in the position they would have been in had maladministration not occurred; further notes that most victims have only received partial compensation compared to the confirmed losses and that the compensation scheme is now closed to new applicants; and calls on the Government to ensure that the entire existing budget allocated for compensation to date is paid to eligible policyholders and to make a further commitment to provide full compensation for relative losses to all victims of this scandal.
Order. Before we come on to the next debate, I inform Members that I am going to raise the speech limit on Back-Bench contributions to seven minutes, in order that they are aware that they have a little more time than is shown on the annunciator.