Yesterday the government was in a hurry to get rid of all remaining business, so it can govern for 82 days without a Parliament to answer. In the process it can lead many to ask the reasaonable question, why can’t our MPs do their main job until well into October? The government used its majority to ensure the Commons had too little time yesterday to deal with the outstanding items, and to send us away for a long time.
Before we went the Speaker wisely granted an Urgent Question on the topic of Equitable Life. It has been the only sign of urgency around an issue where the government has dithered and delayed for all too long. The urgency was to follow up a government promise of a Statement on what compensation it was proposing before the summer recess.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave a pathetic performance. He told us again that the government accepts many of the Ombudsman’s findings of maladministration by the regulators, yet it refuses to offer compensation. Instead he suggested some ex gratia payments to those who have lost out most.
Several of us asked for a deadline for the development of the scheme and for the payments under it. I also asked for some idea of how much would be paid on what basis to the losers. The Minister would not answer any of these basic and simple points.
This most profiligate and spendthrift of governments does at times combine being mean with a dogged determination to do the wrong thing. In the week of the helicopter shortage we witnessed that same lethal combination yesterday over the Equitable Life victims. Even Labour MPs looked astonished at the government’s insouciance, and told the Minister to get on with it.
When I was the Minister in charge of financial regulation, I inherited the Barlow Clowes mess. The findings of the Ombudsman in that case were clear – the regulators had failed. I did not hesitate. We compensated the victims at taxpayers expense, even though the last thing I wanted to do was to increase public spending for the sake of it. I felt we had to, as people had relied on regualtion and it had let them down. It is equally clear in the case of Equitable Life. What is the point of all this regulation, if when it goes wrong the government just walks away?
Yesterday it looked as if the government is happy for more delay, so more people will die who have lost money in this disaster. They looked like a government waiting for an election. I would love to be proved wrong, but I predicted they will not make a single payment before we go to the polls. The Minister did not protest at this. It felt as if the idea of ex gratia payments is just to get them through the Parliamentary embarrassment, and it did not even succeed in doing that very well.