Sam Dunn: The case of the missing Equitable evidence

Policyholders have been left waiting in the dark

In April, staff working on the inquiry led by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, into the near-collapse of the insurer Equitable Life were busy cross-checking a mountain of data.

They were supposed to be in the final stages of a mammoth investigation that had been going on since early 2004, and would determine whether thousands of individual investors should receive compensation. But, sifting through detailed comments made by the Treasury, the Government Actuary's Department and the Financial Services Authority, the investigators had started to realise that all was not as it should be.

It soon emerged that evidence of apparent "potential relevance", pertaining to all three bodies, had not been disclosed to the Ombudsman. Later on, it became clear that this evidence was in fact "extensive and might be critical to some of the central issues under investigation".

Ms Abraham last week sent a letter to MPs explaining the delay in publishing her report (see News, page 21). In it, she revealed that the missing evidence "included some material that we did not know existed - as well as other material of a type that we had asked to see in October 2004 and which we had understood had been disclosed in full at that time".

Now it will take at least another six months before any conclusion is published.

Well, sock me sideways.

Here's another report into alleged maladministration on the part of the Government and public bodies that has cost thousands of savers a substantial part of their retirement income, and guess what? Obfuscation and administrative delays abound while policyholders are left waiting in the dark.

Don't forget that this is the second delay this year. In February, Ms Abraham said she needed more time on account of the complexity and volume of the material she had to deal with.

This latest setback does not instil confidence that the Government or any regulatory body has been a particularly willing partner in this inquiry.

The Ombudsman must, at some point, draw a conclusion as to whether policyholders were treated unfairly because of maladministration by the public bodies responsible for the regulation of Equitable.

If a finger of blame is pointed, the guilty body could face a hefty bill for compensation.

Ms Abraham says she has seen nothing to suggest that the latest obstacle is "anything other than the result of a misunderstanding".

But when it comes to the Parliamentary Ombudsman and any inquiry involving the Government, I tend to fear the worst. The last time she published a pensions report - into the collapse of final salary schemes - and found evidence of official maladministration, Ms Abraham received a brush-off that is now being challenged in the High Court.

I hope not, but it may happen again over Equitable.

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