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Lord Joffe

W hen Lord Joel Joffe rises in the House of Lords to propose legislation

calling for policyholders to get seats on insurance company boards, he will

be continuing a fight he began nearly a decade ago.

For much of the time, Joffe, who was a founding director of Allied Dunbar,

says he has been campaigning for fair treatment of consumers by the

insurance industry. His latest attempt comes in the form of an amendment to

the Financial Services and Markets Bill, the legislation which underpins

the FSA.

Joffe has secured pledges of support from members of all parties in the

house, including the crucial cross-benchers.

But, as he readily concedes: “Oral support doesn&#39t necessarily mean they

will vote for you on the day.”

But he believes he has precedent on his side because pension funds are

obliged to reserve one-third of the seats on their boards for members

elected by members of the pension scheme.

Joffe would like to see at least that proportion in life offices. He says:

“Fifty per cent would be better but I think 30 per cent achieves

transparency over issues raised.”

In 1990, Joffe resigned from Allied Dunbar, the life office he founded

with colleagues Sir Mark Weinberg and Sir Sydney Lipworth in 1970. He then

refused an invitation to join a new venture started by Weinberg, J

Rothschild Assurance, because he saw it as a conflict of interest to

continue working in an industry that he was publicly criticising.

Instead, he wrote a lengthy submission to the Office of Fair Trading on

what he saw as the “appalling treatment of consumers that existed in the

industry”.

He made the decision to go public with his complaints after making no

progress with informal lobbying.

Ironically, the story went public only after Joffe made some

off-the-record comments to a reporter on a national newspaper. When a story

appeared in the paper the next day, the campaign was launched.

“At that stage, it was very easy for the industry to say when a journalist

criticised them, well what does a journalist know? But I had 30 years

experience in the ind- ustry, so it was difficult for them to ignore me.”

Facing adversity is nothing new for Joffe. When asked to list his proudest

accomplishments, he cites defending Nelson Mandela in court in South Africa

in the midst of the apartheid era.

He was one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in that period when

it was virtually impossible to disobey the authoritarian regime. He lost

the Mandela case and then went on to defend the individuals who replaced

him. They were jailed too.

Explaining his decision to practise what many would regard as a perilous

branch of law, Joffe says: “I didn&#39t go into law with the specific

intention of practising human rights law but I naturally gravitated towards

it. I wasn&#39t interested in commercial law.”

I t was at this point in 1965 that the apartheid government decided that

Joffe was getting to be too much of a thorn in their side. They sent the

police around and summarily relieved him of his South African passport.

He and his wife, Vannetta. were planning to emigrate anyway, having

decided that South Africa was no place to raise their young children. The

government&#39s actions hastened their decision and narrowed their choices as

to where they could move to.

Australia, their ideal destination, would not take them without passports

so they fell back on their second choice and came to the UK.

Arriving in Britain, Joffe realised his South African legal credentials

were not valid here. Despite his desire to continue practising human rights

law, he was confronted with the reality that he had a family and decided to

abandon his legal career.

He joined the young life office Abbey Life, formed by Weinberg two years

earlier.

Joffe&#39s colleagues have nothing but praise for him. Mike Wilson, another

life-long business partner and friend, has worked with Joffe, Weinberg and

Lipworth since the early days at Abbey Life. Now, chief executive of J

Rothschild Assurance, Wilson says: “He is the most compassionate man that I

have ever met. He pricked our collective conscience to the fact that, as a

company, we should help out those who are less fortunate.”

Joffe is renowned for his work with charitable groups. He speaks proudly

of his work with Oxfam, which he has worked with for 18 years and now

chairs. “I am very pleased with Oxfam. It is probably the largest

development agency in Europe,” he says.

Whatever he has done, Joel Joffe has never forgotten his commitment to

help those less fortunate. This is his motivation for the amendment he will

speak on in the Lords in two weeks time.

“I think we have made a useful contribution to a much higher standard of

transparency in the industry. But there is still more to be accomplished,”

he says.

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