The independent action group for current and ex Equitable Life policyholders, funded by contributions.

Equitable Members Action Group

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

Media Stories: 27/12/2008 - Telegraph’s Ian Cowie reflects hope for the Government’s statement

Justice delayed is justice denied for EquitableLife victims.

Ian Cowie, Saturday’s Daily Telegraph
27th December, 2008

Another year ends with hundreds of thousands of victims of the Equirtable Life scandal still waiting for justice but there may be good news at last early next month.

I will not bore regular readers with a lengthy resume of how Britain’s oldest mutual insurer was brought to its knees by a combination of actuarial arrogance and regulatory incompetence. This was an over-promised fund which City authorities allowed to continue trading for many years – even after it tried to wriggle out of paying policyholders what it had promised them.

It is a decade since this newspaper first reported Equitable’s refusal to honour guaranteed annuity rates it had sold to some of its 1.5m savers and eight years next month since I wrote in these pages about why I was taking my money out.

Since then, this without-profits fund has cut bonuses and imposed exit penalties, while policyholder numbers have plunged to 500,000.

But 2008 added tantilising insult to injury when the Government broke a series of promises. After Ann Abraham, the Parliamentary Ombudsman reported in July on “a decade of regulatory failure” and called for compensation to be paid, Kitty Ussher, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, said she needed time to think before responding “in the autumn”.

Three months later, Chancellor Alistair Darling was pressed to pipe up but stuck to the same line, telling the House of Commons on October 8: “The Government will report on Equitable Life shortly.”

Similar flannel followed in the House of Lords and elsewhere until Harriet Harman, Leader of the House of Commons responded to questioning about when the Government’s response would be forthcoming by tartly declaring: “Autumn has not finished yet.”

When I was called to give evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee on the damage this scandal has done to confidence in savings, a senior MP indicated that they were fed up with this policy of postponement and would not allow “autumn” to be stretched beyond the end of November.

By the time of the debate on the Queen’s Speech on December 3, even Prime Minister Gordon Brown seemed to be ashamed of the apparently endless delay. He promised to respond to the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s report “before the House rises for Christmas.”

Now even that deadline has been missed, with Ms Harman postponing an announcement until after MPs return from yet another holiday – ooops, perhaps I should say “recess” – on January 12.

As pointed out here several times over the years, justice delayed is justice denied when you are talking about the savings of older people. About 30,000 Equitable Life policyholders have died since the House of Lords effectively closed this racket down.

No wonder 7,399 readers of The Daily Telegraph signed our petition, calling on the Government to implement the Ombudsman’s recommendations, which we delivered to Downing Street earlier this month. Now the indefatigable Paul Braithwaite of Equitable Members’ Action Group claims he smells victory.

He told me: “Remember there were 10 times as many people affected by Equitable as there were in the company pensions that failed and, since then, the Government has bailed out Northern Rock among other banks – including those in Iceland.

“If they were going to let us down again, we think they would have slipped out an announcement just before Christmas.

The feedback we are getting from Labour backbenchers is that Equitable could become an election issue, particularly in marginal constituencies with a majority of less than 5,000. So a favourble outcome for us would keep the Government’s options open for a spring or summer election.”

After so many false dawns, that may sound like the triumph of hope over experience. But let’s hope he is right – even if it is all for the wrong reasons.