James Daley: Brown set to be blamed and shamed
Saturday 12 July 2008
Yet another of Gordon Brown's chickens will be coming home to roost next week, when the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, publishes a new, damning report that will lay the blame for the collapse of Equitable Life firmly at the feet of the Government.
In her conclusion, she will call on Mr Brown and Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, to stump up something approaching £4bn in compensation for the thousands of customers who lost out, and accuse the Department of Trade & Industry, the Government's Actuary Department, the Treasury and the Financial Services Authority of maladministration. If Mr Brown still has any credibility left when it comes to financial regulation, next week should just about finish him off.
In fairness to the current administration, the troubles at Equitable began well before the Tony and Gordon show came to Downing Street. In the early 1990s, it was the Conservative government which presided over the regime that let Equitable make generous guarantees to its customers, without having to keep the financial capital to back those promises.
But it was Brown's Treasury that was responsible for the insurer's regulation in the two years leading up to its collapse in December 2000, and who also failed to take appropriate action to mitigate consumers' losses after the event. More to the point, it is Mr Brown who will be seated at the head of Government when the report is published next week.
So what happens now? In any respectable democracy, you would hope that the Government would listen to the conclusions of its own independent regulator, apologise, and then get to work on finding the money as soon as possible for those who have lost out. Sadly, however, humility has never been Mr Brown's strong suit.
More likely, we will see an arrogant rejection of the Ombudsman's findings and an attempt to kick the report into the long grass – just as we saw with the Ombudsman's report into the occupational pensions scandal two years ago, where 125,000 people lost some or all of their company pension savings. That report was not so very different from this one. Once again, the Ombudsman found the Government guilty of maladministration, and once again, it recommended compensation.
However, there was one crucial difference. Back then, such a damning report by the Ombudsman, followed by such a swift brush-off by the Government, was pretty much unprecedented. In the months that followed, angry select committees criticised the Government for brushing aside the conclusions of such an important public body, while a judicial review of the Ombudsman's report upheld her conclusions and eventually brought enough pressure to bear on the Government that it was forced to meet the demands of the pensioners.
This time round, all of that is fresh in the memory, and politicians are in no mood to let Mr Brown hijack the workings of democracy yet again.
Furthermore, having seen how her occupational pensions report was treated, the Ombudsman has ensured that her new report is bulletproof – tough enough to stand up to any judge if the Government tries to play the same funny games as it did last time, two years ago.
So, in answer to my question – what happens now? – I'm really not sure. What I hope happens, however, is that MPs from all parties have the resolve to ensure justice is done. Although £4bn sounds like a lot of money at a time when the Government is already presiding over a £7.5bn black hole in its books, it is not so much when broken down on an annual basis.
Some 30,000 of those affected by the Equitable crisis have died over the past eight years. Many of them were forced to live out their last few years on meagre pensions. Fifteen more die every day. If Mr Brown refuses to step up and act responsibly this week, he must be forced to.
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