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Equitable Members Action Group

Equitable Members Action Group Limited, a company limited by guarantee, number 5471535 registered in the UK

Documents: 06/03/2003 - Report by an EMAG representative - At the proceedings of the Public Affairs Select Committee's questioning of the P O (Ann Abraham)

6 March '03 - Report by an EMAG representative at the proceedings of the Public Affairs Select Committee's questioning of the P O (Ann Abraham):

Ann Abraham kicked off by saying a few words about her role and intentions,which was to create a "modern", "flexible", "accessible" and "responsive" service. She wants to shift the focus of the reform agenda from ideas about institutional structures to the practicalities of how ombudsmen can workmore closely together and promote "effective complaint handling". She wants some clarification of legislation in so far as her ability to come to informal resolutions to complaints.

Her overall approach is to level the field between the state vs the individual to ensure a balanced approach. She stressed her consumerist Citizens Advice Bureaux
background. Like her predecessor she believes access to information is still not satisfactory, as is the length of time taken by Government departments for responses.

With the preamble out of the way, the Committee then moved on to Equitable Life.

Ian Liddell-Grainger (Con)

He kicked off by saying that lots of constituents were contacting him - it was reaching a crescendo and the current situation was embarrassing and not very acceptable. He asked the PO why only one case out of the 185 [SIC the correct number is 280] had been taken up.

The PO argued the Office always took such an approach in cases where many complainants. She said it was about using the Office's resources in the most effective way. She anticipates that the results of the test case will be able to be used for the other cases. She confirmed that her timetable is to report in June.

Ian Liddell-Grainger said that a lot of people were extremely angry. MPSwere not getting what they need. Cynics would say that the PO was hiding behind Penrose. He asked why the PO was not taking up pre-'99 cases.

The PO said the decision was that of her predecessor, but that when she came to review the matter soon after her appointment she took the view that the investigation was well underway, and any extension of the scope of the inquiry would delay things considerably. So, given concerns about the length of time it was taking to conclude the test case, she took the view to carry on with the one case.

When Liddell-Grainger put it to her that a lot of people with pre-'99 cases effectively had no recourse through their MPs to the PO at the moment, and that she should consider a report on pre'99 cases soon after publication of the test case in June, the PO said her predecessor had decided to wait for Penrose before deciding further action, and that she takes a similar view.

She emphasised that she had reached no final conclusions on the matter, and that she would need to take a view about what the PO Office could usefully do post-Penrose.

When it was put to her that a finding of regulatory failure would open up a huge can of worms re. Treasury and FSA she emphasised she wouldn't compromise her findings in such circumstances.

Annette Brooke MP (LibDem)

She put it to her that the letter Penrose had written to the Treasury Select Committee suggested that there was maladministration prior to 1999. The PO said she did not see the letter in the same way and did not think it warranted her changing the scope of the current inquiry.

The PO also gave an undertaking to the Committee that her inquiry was on target to be published in June and any delay would not be because of Penrose.

Annette Brooke then asked why the test case had taken so long. The PO argued that there was a huge amount of documentation, witness interviews etc. It was sheer volume and detail. Brooke then made the point that people want to be sure that there is independence, and that the PO's brief is maladministration and finding liability.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Con)

He then came in, again making the point that there were many outraged constituents who are policyholders and annuitants, and that if there is a report in June it would be 20 months since the start of the inquiry. He again asked why it took so long for just one case to be looked into.

The PO replied that the time take was that so future cases would take less time - as was the case with the report into long term care, the conclusions should be applied to similar complainants' cases.

They had undertaken a very extensive investigation into the prudential regulation of ELAS in the relevant period. She made clear that soon after she arrived in post she set out a timetable for the inquiry and that, when the report appears, people may understand more why it has taken as long as it has.

In answer to further questioning by Chapman the PO revealed that she does not expect to get a copy of the Penrose report before it is published and that she has met
Penrose to clarify the remit of his inquiry.

Chapman also asked why her predecessor had not acted on the Treasury Committee's report into ELAS which concluded there was a prima facie case that maladministration had taken place. The PO did not know why.

Chairman of the Committee

In answer to a question from the chairman the PO confirmed again that she had not closed her mind to looking pre-'99. The chairman ended by saying that people look to the PO as she is the only person who has some redress role.

The PO ended by saying that she had the power to recommend, but not order, redress.

The Committee then moved on to other things. About 45 minutes were spent on Equitable Life. The PO was unflappable, but the questioning was measured and not aggressive or emotive. However, she was left under no illusion about the concern of MPs regarding the matter, and that they are under pressure and look to her to deliver.