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MPs&#39 swords miss their targets

The much anticipated Parliamentary inquiry into the Equitable Life debacle was finally held last week and the media turned out in force to rub their hands in glee at the downfall of one of the UK&#39s oldest life offices.

The event was so popular that the hearing had to be moved from the small chamber in Westminster Palace where the Treasury select committee usually holds its meetings to across the street at the new and very grand Portcullis House, lavishly built at taxpayers&#39 expense.

Perhaps Equitable has turned over a new leaf, for standing at the queue stretching down the hall was incoming chairman Vanni Treves. He was doing the rounds, making an effort to shake the hands and conspiratorially whisper a few words of encouragement to anyone who looked remotely like a policyholder.

Certainly, the old powers at Equitable would have been too high and mighty to stoop to shaking the hands of a customer.

The doors were finally flung open by the matronly security officer and the masses piled in.

The journalists representing national newspapers showed no mercy as they fought like old ladies at a jumble sale to get the best seats. There may have even been one or two casualties although the bodies were quickly taken away before anybody noticed.

FSA chairman Sir Howard Davies sauntered in, with his entourage of men in dark suits following close behind. Sir Howard had his arm in a sling and the rumour immediately flew around the room that he was trying to score sympathy points.

Committee chairman Labour MP Giles Radice thanked the Equitable representatives, chief executive Chris Headdon, present chairman John Sclater and deputy chairman Peter Martin, for their time. It is not like they are doing any business these days so it was not clear what all the fuss was about.

Things started heating up when Labour MP David Kidney was handed the reins. He fired a few salvoes in Headdon&#39s direction, demanding to know if it was unique for Equitable not to retain any reserves as most other life offices do?

Tory Michael Fallon accused Martin of gambling on an interpretation of the law when the House of Lords&#39 hearing was approaching.

Labour firebrand Jim Cousins then took control. He was alternately calm and aggravated, rational and angry as he called the Equitable management glib and deceptive.

Fallon jumped back in with the well timed remark that Equitable had blamed the Law Lords, the press and now the policyholders for the debacle that had occurred.

The MPs had clearly been sharpening their swords before the hearing and took full advantage of what is likely to be their only opportunity to take Equitable Life&#39s management to task.

But they did not fare so well against Davies and his cohorts from the FSA, managing director Michael Foot and director of insurance Martin Roberts. This is mainly because Davies would not let his colleagues get a word in edgeways.

It was so blatant that at one point Cousins accused Davies of blocking him from talking to Roberts, who just for the record was head of insurance at the DTI in the early 1990s and head of insurance at the Treasury in the late 1990s before taking up his current position.

Throughout the three-anda-half-hour hearing, one or two of the audience were seen to nod off. When it finally came to a merciful halt, most of of the weary spectators were left wondering why nothing before 1998 was touched upon.

If, after all, this was to be the only public inquiry into the events leading up to Equitable closing its doors to new business last year, then surely all those events had to be examined, not just those more fresh in peoples&#39 minds?


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