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Hutton dressed as lamb

By the time you read this column, the public administration select committee will have published its report into the Government’s refusal to offer proper compensation to125,000 people who have lost most of their pensions following the wind-up of their occupational schemes.

Ros Altmann, who has campaigned on the victims’ behalf, suggested in Money Marketing last week that the committee would condemn the continued resistance by the Treasury and Department for Work & Pensions to offer full redress to people who innocently believed Government assurances that their occupational pensions were safe. She was 100 per cent right. I spent much of last week talking to MPs close to the select committee and they all confirmed the “verdict” to me privately.

Before publishing its report, the select committee summoned many of the key players to its sessions to explain their position. One set of documents that I found particularly instructive was the evidence given a month ago by Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton.

Asked by committee chairman Tony Wright MP to explain why it was that “the Government repudiated uniquely an ombudsman report in the way that it has”, Hutton told members that this was certainly not true.

In the Barlow Clowes’ case of the late 1980s, where an ombudsman’s report had found against the Government over elderly investors who had lost their life savings, Hutton claimed that the then secretary of state had made it clear that “the Government do not accept the Parliamentary Commissioner’s main findings. Nor are the Government legally liable.”

Hutton then claimed that, as with Barlow Clowes, in this case too the Government was offering help to those affected through its Financial Assistance Scheme. Yet as Wright tartly reminded him, compensation in the Barlow Clowes case was paid “in the light of all the circumstances of this particular case and out of respect for the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner” because it recognised that the status of the office was in question in terms of the Government response.

Moreover, in the case of Barlow Clowes, the Government compensated savers in full to the tune of 156m. But of the 125,000 occupational pension savers who lost a large slice of their future income, only 40,000 will receive help from the FAS and, even then, most will receive only a fraction of what they might have been entitled to.

Hutton also appeared oblivious to the reasons previously given by the Government for its refusal to compensate victims of the Equitable Life collapse. After the publication of the Penrose report into Equitable in 2004, Treasury minister Ruth Kelly told MPs that this was because, unlike Barlow Clowes, the life insurer was still trading.

Even more important, she felt “in the case of Barlow Clowes, there was a finding of maladministration” while in Equitable Life’s case “there has been no such finding”.

If these were both such key tests, why was it that when Ombudsman Ann Abraham did find there was evidence of maladministration over the occupational pension debacle – and where most of the companies concerned went into receivership – the Government still refused to compensate its victims?

Equally shabby was Hutton’s response to questions over Government briefings in the hours and days after the ombudsman’s report was published, in which it was claimed that the compensation bill might reach 15bn if her recommendations were accepted.

He simultaneously claimed that this 15bn was the real figure because it was expressed in “cash terms” over the 50 or 60-year period that redress might have to be paid, then attempted to gloss over the fact that his officials had only managed to come up with a “net present value” of 3bn – a more genuine method of assessing the real costs – two months later.

However, let no one doubt Hutton’s ability to ask tough questions of officials in his department.

Asked by fellow Labour MP Gordon Prentice who had come up with the higher figure, Hutton claimed: “The estimates were made by officials in the Department for Work & Pensions and based on proper actuarial advice”.

Prentice could barely contain himself. He said: “It was just the officials in the department giving you a bit of paper saying: ‘Mr Hutton, it is 15bn’ and you said: ‘Fair enough.'”

Hutton’s inquisitive mettle shone through. He replied: “They told me what the professional advice of officials was and I accepted the professional advice of my officials, yes.”

It would be easy to dismiss Hutton as a complete nincompoop. The reality is he is the hapless mouthpiece of a shameless Government which relies on brainless vote fodder to deny 125,000 decent ordinary people a fraction of the pensions that MPs themselves enjoy.

Neither he nor this Government are long for this world.

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