The Sketch: When Parliament turns its guns on a man, life isn't so equitable

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The Independent Online

It's not too late to get interested in this. The thing's been four years coming and it'll be four years going. It's full of material for those who like to consider the efficacy of regulation, the ethical superiority of government to the market, and whether Parliament has any gumption any more. Equitable Life. I'm only just catching up with it. In front of the Public Administration Committee, the Parliamentary Ombudsman started out with all guns blazing, albeit in that muffled-muzzle way that public officials have. Nonetheless, it was possible to discern her acrid discontent.

Anne Abraham's report on the failure of the £30bn insurance company with its 1.5m policyholders has been rubbished by the Government. She had found 10 cases of maladministration, five of which led to injustice, and were therefore worthy of redress.

That's an expensive conclusion,so the Government reworked her evidence, made up some of its own, inserted a proposal to means-test compensation, and made any payment at the discretion of ministers. But perhaps not confident that this would muddy the waters enough, they've appointed an Appeal Court judge to advise, at his leisure, on who should be paid what.

His recommendations will then be passed on to be ignored by ministers (no doubt in a different government). It's a ministerial master class.

The Equitable Action Group gave us the chance to see one Colin Salter in action, a man on whose face was written a saga of worry, duty, care and disappointment. He showed us how cleverly the conditions of compensation had been constructed. The only cases of a) maladministration leading to b) injustice with c) real money attached to them stem from 1999 and the combination excludes 90 per cent of policy holders.

Bang. There it is. Or isn't. Mr Salter's harshest words were for Judge Chadwick, "the Treasury's hired hand" who was "giving a judicial veneer to what is a back-street process". He said: "What sort of court is it that the accused appoints the judge... to hear its appeal in private and to report at a time and place of its own choosing?"

David Heyes MP made the most depressing observation. He'd been urged to "stand up against the Chadwick process". He said there was nothing more that Parliament could do about Equitable Life. There had been a statement by a minister. There had been a debate in Westminster Hall. Instead, he advised the action group to exert itself some more (they've been hacking at this coal-face for many years already).

As one of the group said: "She's your parliament, and you must stand up for her." Ah, yes. The impossible dream. Parliament first!

And finally, perhaps the most pessimistic thought about the thickets of feckless regulation in the City: "A right without a remedy isn't a right at all. It's just a statement of honourable intent."

Or, words, words, words.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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