Emma Lewell-Buck – 2021 Speech on Equitable Life

The speech made by Emma Lewell-Buck, the Labour MP for South Shields, in the House of Commons on 21 January 2021.

It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I know that he, alongside the Equitable Members Action Group, the APPG, of which I am a member, and others, has campaigned extensively on this issue for several years. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate.

This scandal will affect most, if not all, constituencies represented in this place. It has been, and continues to be, a long battle for justice and recompense for those affected. Many of the victims are now elderly and exhausted from this 20-year campaign. Some of them have sadly passed away. Many of them are former key workers—people whom we in the Opposition have always known are the backbone of our country: nurses, teachers, civil servants, factory and shop workers. They are hard-working people such as my constituent, Mr John Petty.

Mr Petty is 84 years old and a pharmacist. He was sold an Equitable Life pension plan. At the time, he felt it was a decent and reputable firm. After a career working 70-plus hours most weeks, he sold his pharmacy in 1996, looking forward to a happy retirement with his wife. However, soon after, without warning and through no fault of his own, he lost a considerable amount of his pension. At 59 years of age, he had to go back to work. Mr Petty now has to budget every year, as living costs continue to rise but his pension does not. He said: “This whole saga has been disturbing, to put it mildly.” He is not alone. There are nearly 900,000 people still waiting for their losses to be recovered in full.

I acknowledge that in 2010, the then Government accepted the parliamentary ombudsman’s findings in full —that, between 1992 and 2000, Government Departments and regulators were responsible for maladministration, and that victims should be returned to the position that they would have been in had that maladministration not taken place. The ombudsman also found that victims had lost £4.1 billion. However, having accepted the findings in full, the Government then failed to give adequate compensation, offering only £1.5 billion. That is the crux of today’s debate. All victims should be repaid in full, and there needs to be some transparency regarding how the Treasury calculated its payments.

I say politely to the Minister that, at a time when trust in the Government is low, the stubbornness displayed repeatedly by the Treasury in constantly dismissing requests makes it appear either to have a lack of care or to have something to hide. I and others simply cannot understand why, if the methodology used was sound and robust, it cannot be shared. Either way, it is not a good look for the Government. We call today for the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to establish a joint inquiry into the accuracy of the payments made to victims. Surely, if that would lead to a discovery that the methodology was flawed, it would save the Minister and the Government some embarrassment if they just showed transparency now.

We are not asking for much, but our asks would make an immeasurable difference to the victims. This is about fairness, transparency and trust. People who paid into their pensions in good faith should not be treated in this way. Those who are currently saving for their future need to know that their money is safe and that the Government will intervene if it is not. Just last year, the Chancellor said:

“We care very much about pensioners and making sure they have security and that’s indeed our policy.”

The Minister has an opportunity today to prove that those were not just empty words and that pensioners really are a priority. I sincerely hope he takes that opportunity.