Even by the standards of the peculiar atmosphere that has descended on the Commons, it is fair to say that MPs on all sides reacted with incredulity when Yvette Cooper found a further, “deeply disappointing” way to delay justice for Equitable Life policy-holders.
I have sought to harness this sense of genuine disbelief and injustice among colleagues by establishing an All-Party Group on Equitable Life. Our aim is simple: to block all Government attempts to lose this issue in the thick rough. We already have 100 Members.
There is insufficient space here to run through the full timeline of delays and dead ends that policyholders have been put through. The Government needs no reminding that these poor people have pursued justice at the highest levels, from the House of Lords, to the European Parliament and through our own Parliamentary Ombudsman. Yet the Government could not be shamed into belated action, even following a finding by the Public Administration Select Committee that Ministers’ actions have been “shabby, constitutionally dubious and procedurally improper”.
The Prime Minister promised me in the House that we would have a proper statement from the Treasury at some point last year. Mr Brown’s word proved nothing more than a further stalling tactic. Parliament did not get its statement. This year, Alistair Darling eventually caved in to pressure and asked his number two, Ms Cooper, to make a statement. Incredibly, the statement rejected the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s central recommendation that payment should be made to policyholders to reflect the relative loss resulting from maladministration, subject to the state of public finances.
A retired judge, Sir John Chadwick, has been appointed to oversee the establishment of a means-tested payment scheme. This is despite the fact that the Ombudsman, quite rightly, made no mention of means testing. In a highly unusual move, she published a further report condemning Ms Cooper’s statement. It is worth repeating the Ombudsman’s words: “The Government’s response to my report was deeply disappointing. It provided insufficient support for the rejection of my findings of maladministration and injustice.”
We would not want such a distinguished legal luminary as Sir John to be wrongly accused of assisting the Government in taking Equitable Life off the agenda until after the election. My All-Party Group will be inviting Sir John to appear before us to give us an assurance that he has not embarked on a sinecure of white washes.
We will seek advice from the Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, on how to expedite justice before more policyholders die. We will call on Ministers to appear before us as this growing cross-party group of MPs tries to force the Government to take action now.
There is no time to waste. My first meeting, this Monday, is with the chief executive of Equitable Life, Charles Thomson.
Like the other players in this saga, I shall be asking him to help us get justice now. It is time Ms Cooper recognised that justice deliberately delayed is justice denied.