William Kay: An unpleasant twist to bribe for Equitable's policyholders

The guarantees given to GAR holders have been upheld. But they must now give up those guarantees for a one-off policy uplift averaging 17.5 per cent
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The Independent Online

The miserable prospects facing Equitable Life policyholders for the past 15 months were crystallised this week when Equitable's chairman, the shrewd and resourceful Vanni Treves, unveiled what he brazenly described as "The Way Forward". If this is the way forward, I would rather not start from here.

Mr Treves has stuck to the well-trailed 20 per cent uplift to the funds of holders of guaranteed annuity rates, with an nasty twist. A 2.5 per cent slice of that 20 per cent is being offered to non-GAR holders to bribe them not to sue Equitable "because they were not told when they bought their policies of the potential cost of GARs". That was mis-selling.

So last year's Lords victory has proved to be pyrrhic for the GAR holders. Yes, their guarantees have been upheld. But they must now give up those guarantees for a one-off policy uplift averaging 17.5 per cent. The Financial Service Authority's guiding principles are: maintaining market confidence; promoting public understanding of the financial system; protecting consumers, and fighting financial crime.

The Equitable compromise does not maintain confidence. It confirms what all financial service users have long suspected; that guarantees are worthless.

It promotes understanding of the financial system only in the most cynical sense of underling the point that you cannot trust even the most blue-chip name.

Protecting consumers? Not if you have an Equitable policy. And as for fighting financial crime, I look forward to seeing Equitable's past directors in the dock. But I won't bet my life savings on it .

* The great Data Aggregation Race is on. Next week, the mighty Citibank of the US brings here its internet service, My Accounts. The service gives users access to all their online accounts, investments and other financial holdings on one web page with one password, and it also brings your best "lifestyle" web pages, from travel to shopping. You do not need to be an account holder.

But, by an amazing coincidence, Citibank is being upstaged by moneysupermarket, a UK financial information provider, which offers all of the above, and gives users an instant comparison between their bank account, unit trust or whatever and competitors.

Many others will enter this market including AOL and Yahoo!, dedicated financial websites and your bank. The FSA has decided it is not an area that needs to be regulated because customers volunteer the confidential information needed to access their various accounts.

But the public will want the comfort factor of dealing with a name they know, and preferably one with FSA approval in another area. Simon Nixon, moneysupermarket's 50 per cent owner, accepts this and expects to run aggregation services for some big names.

* The 8 October deadline for employers to offer their workers stakeholder pensions approaches rapidly. Those who fail to meet that cut-off face a fine of up to £50,000, but all signs suggest this will be among the most derided laws in living memory.

All companies employing five or more staff, where there is not already a qualifying workplace pension scheme, have to set up a stakeholder scheme. Employers must select a company to be the provider and inform their employees about the plan.

Last month Virgin Direct, Sir Richard Branson's pensions, investment and life insurance arm, predicted that 50,000 companies could be late. That could be a wild underestimate. Opra, the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority, admitted it does have not the resources to check Britain's 400,000 companies. It is relying on whistleblowers to tell them about firms that don't offer stakeholder pensions.

And who will these whistleblowers be? An Opra spokesman suggested employees and auditors. So it is relying on people to shop their own company, and accountants to shop clients. I don't think so. And anyway, if a small firm is confronted with a £50,000 fine it cannot afford, the proprietor can simply wind it up and start again under another name.

But Opra told me the £50,000 will be levied only on persistent offenders years down the line. Until then, a slap on the wrist will be the standard tariff.

Stakeholder pensions have been a mess from the beginning, most so far being taken out by well-off people seeking a tax haven. And many small employers will just shrug and forget it.

* This is your last weekend for filling in your tax return in time to get the Inland Revenue to do all the calculations for you. It's a bore, it's a drag, but it's time well spent. Do it.

* Tasteless quote of the week: "The best-case scenario for the market is if there is a short, sharp, surgical strike and people feel there has been enough retribution" – Robert Talbut, managing director of investment management at Royal & SunAlliance.

That's that then. Let's kill and maim until we get share prices back up.

William Kay is Personal Finance Editor of 'The Independent'

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