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The right message

Equitable policyholders must work together to get more media coverage.

News that the Parliamentary Ombudsman has had to put back publication of her report into Equitable Life is good news for policyholders, even if it does mean yet more delay.

Now, what they need to do if they want to get compensation, is to take a leaf out of the book of the Pensions Action Group.

The report, which looks at whether Government maladministration was in part to blame for the demise of Equitable Life, has now been delayed for a second time in a year, following a 500-page list of objections from the Treasury. This can only mean that the Treasury doesn’t like what Ann Abraham is recommending in terms of compensation.

In her letter to MPs, Abraham points out that the Government has had her office’s report since January, yet only filed its objections in the days before she had promised to publish – the end of May. Now she has had to put back publication because she wants, correctly, to go thro-ugh the objections with a fine-tooth comb to ensure her case is robust.

The delay in the Treasury responding has all the hallmarks of a Government foot-dragging exercise, adding another five months to the process that has already seen off two other reviews in the last six years.

Lord Penrose’s two-year review took campaigners’ eyes off the big picture for a while without any potential for a recommendation for compensation and the recent European Parliament committee finding of maladministration, while adding to the political embarrassment, similarly impotent.

It is telling that the European Parliament finding against the UK Government received little coverage in the national newspapers. The impotence of the inquiry probably shoved the issue down the news agenda but it is still a big issue for the 800,000 policyholders who have lost out. But for policyholders wanting compensation, the issue of media coverage is a crucial one.

Now the Parliamentary Ombudsman seems to be on side, it seems that a rec-ommendation of compensation will be made. Having taken so long to get to this stage, it seems hard to imagine what new evidence the Treasury is going to be able to dredge up to change her mind.

Yet without clamour for compensation in the media, the Treasury will find it easy to ignore Abraham’s report. But although it still denies liability on the case championed by the Pensions Action Group, it has made some concessions to the 125,000 pensioners who lost some of their retirement savings when their employers went bust.

One should never expect the Government to acknowledge culpability in any event. But that does not mean that compensation cannot be made. Just look at the Barlow Clowes affair, where again no acknowledgement of guilt was made, yet something approaching full compensation was paid out. With the prospect of a second Parliamentary finding against the Government in a year, Equitable policyholders need to make sure they get their voices heard if they want to achieve anything.

Ros Altmann’s tireless work for the Pensions Action Group has contributed massively to the amount of compensation that has been received. And whenever I see a story illustrated by the naked pensioners holding that ‘Stripped of our pensions’ banner outside Parliament, I always reflect that whoever thought up the idea has had a role in achieving compensation. Just think how memorable an image that is in the public’s mind.

Equitable policyholders are a different kettle of fish and I doubt that Ros has any appetite for taking on their cause. They also have a problem in that they are perceived as all wealthy enough to be able to afford to take a 30 per cent hit on the chin.

As a group, policyholders need to sort their media message out if this hard and valuable work that has been done on their behalf by their representative organisations is not to go to waste.

Their battle for compensation will only be half won through the Parliamentary Ombudsman. If they want to achieve compensation, an significant battle needs to be played out in the newspapers, on the radio and TV.

John Greenwood is editor of Corporate Adviser.

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