For a decade now I have been the general secretary of EMAG, the Equitable Members’ Action Group, a campaigning group for those who lost out because of maladministration and regulatory failure at the once venerable insurance firm Equitable Life. Our pursuit of justice for Equitable Life policyholders started in the summer of 2000. Shortly after, Vince Cable took up the cause and together we walked to Downing Street to deliver a protest letter to Gordon Brown on 6th August, 2001. It was the start of my personal politicisation and I became a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Camden in 2006. I’m still there!
Over the decade the Lib Dems fought Equitable policyholders’ just cause and kept the issue alive. In the last year of the last Parliament Vince sponsored an early day motion about Equitable. It was the single most successful EDM of its session with support from 351 MPs. The Lib Dems can be proud of that decade of driving the opposition to Labour on Equitable Life. I was proud of my party.
At last year’s general election the vast majority of the party’s candidates signed EMAG’s pledge to provide fair compensation. In something of a familiar tale it went pear shaped after the election. Essentially, resolution was agreed and trusted to Tory minister Mark Hoban and the Treasury to sort and pay out “swift, fair and transparent compensation.” A year on, it is none of those things. In particular, there has been a ghastly injustice perpetrated against 10,000 of the very oldest and frailest surviving “with-profits” annuitants – who are being unfairly excluded from any compensation whatsoever.
Sadly many Lib Dem MPs were inadvertently party to this. When the Equitable Life (Payments) Bill was debated in the Commons last November a cross-party group of MPs – Stephen Lloyd, Fabian Hamilton and Bob Blackman – tabled an amendment to add these people back into the scheme on the same terms, at a likely extra cost of about £150 million. Unfortunately, when the division bell went, 43 Lib Dem MPs voted against this humane amendment. I believe they were under the false impression that they were voting positively to enable payment of compensation – but that was not the case.
Right now I find myself embarrassed that my party appears to have abdicated interest in Equitable Life since the Chancellor’s autumn statement in the mistaken belief the problem has been “sorted”. It has not. EMAG’s campaigning continues and there is still the opportunity for the Lib Dems to regain the moral high ground.
My local party in Camden has submitted a policy motion for debate in the Birmingham conference. It calls on the Lib Dems in Parliament to right this injustice by including the 10,000 in the compensation scheme. The Federal Conference Committee will decide if the motion will be heard by conference on Saturday 9th July. I ask them to recognise the political importance of this issue and allow conference its say. We should make achieving fair compensation something we Lib Dems can be proud of. I hope I can count on your support.
Paul Braithwaite is a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Cantelowes ward, London Borough of Camden.