Watch ministers wriggle to avoid Equitable payouts

If the Government had not tried to squirm out of its responsibilities five years ago, there might have been enough cash to compensate all policy holders
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The Independent Online

Fortunately, I have never seen anyone dragged kicking and screaming. But I had a taste of what it might be like last week watching the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announce that – after delaying as long as possible and seeing a great chunk of policyholders die off – the Government will offer compensation to members of Equitable Life, the insurer that imploded in 1999.

Yvette Cooper finally apologised for the Government's "maladministration" of Equitable, the use of the M word being important as it was the one used by Ann Abraham, the tireless Parliamentary Ombudsman, in her painstaking report on the debacle. And it was this word that gave ministers so little wriggle room.

But the Government will wriggle nonetheless. Take, for instance, Ms Cooper's caveat that compensation will go to the "hardest hit". What does this mean? That only those who lost the most cash will be paid, or that there will be some form of means-testing of compensation? If it's the latter then will only retired policyholders get any cash? Perhaps payouts will be confined to those currently living off benefits. In which case, will the compensation bar the claiming of those benefits?

Another caveat is that compensation will only be made, in that age-old government phrase, "as public finances allow". (If only they had taken such loving care of our money over the past decade.) The truth is we're as broke as we have been since the mid-Seventies, when we had to call in the International Monetary Fund. As a result, I fear Equitable Life members will have to wait and wait, and no doubt some won't live to see their compensation cheque arrive.

If only, instead of squirming out of its responsibilities, the Government had admitted its huge failure in regulating Equitable when that was first made very clear in the 2004 Penrose report; at that stage, the public finances were still up to paying compensation.

Will borrowers be saved?

Big headlines accompanied the Government's latest "mortgage rescue" scheme last week. Help keeping people in their homes has to be welcome; I've seen repossession at close quarters and it's a brutal business that is a trigger for family breakdown. So I can never agree with those who say it helps provide a bottom for the property market and that in all cases homeowners should be left to fend for themselves.

Ministers say the scheme will allow 6,000 "vulnerable" families to stay in their homes. It will do this by getting housing associations to buy shares in these properties. Vulnerable is defined as those homeowners who would have a legal right to be rehoused should they be made homeless. So in effect the Government is shifting a potentially painful responsibility from local authorities to housing associations. It's not a new initiative either: it's been announced before and trailed in 80 boroughs since last year.

What's more, 6,000 is only a fraction of the estimated 75,000 homeowners who face repossession this year. They will have to wait for more details to emerge of the very sketchy scheme announced last December that will apparently see some homeowners having their mortgage arrears underwritten by the Treasury. Consultation is underway as to how this will work and whatever package emerges is likely to need legislation. If you're currently in mortgage arrears, you need to take matters into your own hands and speak to your lender and a debt charity. Don't bet your house on any "rescue" soon.

Savers beware

News that Bank of America has been bailed out and Anglo Irish Bank nationalised by the Dublin government should give pause for thought. There is increasing talk that some of our banks will again have to go cap in hand to the Government as the money markets continue to be gummed up. We're not in the same perilous position as last autumn but savers should remember to keep their deposits within the £50,000 limit guaranteed by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, even if that means not getting the best rate.

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