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27 Jan 2009 : Column 44WH—continued

27 Jan 2009 : Column 45WH

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Angela Eagle): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hands: The hon. Lady will have her chance to respond, but I want to get on, because I have limited time available.

Many Members have compared the situation with aspects of the current financial trouble and the speed at which the Government have acted on some facets of the present crisis. Several policyholders have contrasted the Government’s prompt action to protect savers in the Icelandic banks with their almost glacial progress on Equitable Life. If the Government can act quickly on the current financial crisis, when the right course of action is frequently unclear and controversial, surely they can act quickly to rectify the tragic situation of Equitable Life, where the problem that we need to address is all too clear. We agree that there is no quick calculation to determine how much compensation should be paid, and we further agree with the ombudsman that the condition of public finances is relevant when determining how much should be paid; at the same time, however, the financial condition of those wronged has worsened.

Susan Kramer: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge, however, that the full compensation, as calculated by EMAG and others, would be somewhere to the right-hand side of a decimal point in the financial rescue plans, so the issue of public finances scarcely has a bearing in this circumstance?

Mr. Hands: The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, but one problem for all of us is that we are operating in a complete vacuum as regards the amounts involved—the individual amounts, the relative amounts and so on. Until we have some information, it will be difficult to know where the decimal point might fall.

Angela Eagle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hands: I shall carry on, because there is only limited time left.

We agree that there is no quick calculation; at the same time, however, the financial condition will have worsened. Above all, the Government must act quickly. Some 30,000 policyholders have already died, many more will do so before justice is done, and further delays will be inexcusable. It is difficult to quantify the losses, but it is even more difficult to understand why so little progress has been made in trying to get the process even started. Time is running out, and most policyholders do not have the option of returning to the workplace. Every one of us has had letters from constituents, outlining how much they have suffered and still suffer in real life.

The ombudsman described the delay in addressing the issues as “iniquitous and unfair”, and every step of the way, the Government have sought to block, frustrate and delay the fight for justice. Does the Exchequer Secretary recognise, therefore, that what appears to be a new decade of delay is entirely the Government’s fault? In her reply, will she tell us how Sir John will keep the House abreast of his progress? Will his interim reports be made available to Parliament? The Chief Secretary to the Treasury tore up the ombudsman’s proposed
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timetable, but no alternative appears to have been proposed. When will Sir John make his first interim report, and will the Treasury ask him to produce an outline timetable?

On the compensation scheme, it is time for the Exchequer Secretary to explain what is meant by those who have suffered “disproportionately”, whom the Chief Secretary has mentioned on various occasions. Will the Exchequer Secretary explain whether she has rejected the Public Administration Committee’s conclusion that it would not be appropriate to compensate only policyholders and annuitants who have experienced financial hardship?

One concern raised in the House during the Chief Secretary’s statement was the status in any payment scheme of those who died before justice was done. More than 30,000 policyholders have already died, and it is vital that there is clarity about how their widows or widowers will be treated in the scheme. Re-reading Hansard, I noted that it appeared that the Chief Secretary had not really thought about that, so has the Exchequer Secretary had time to consider all the ramifications?

In a previous debate on the subject last November, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) set out three things that the Government needed to do: admit responsibility, issue an apology and create the payment scheme. The first two have been done, but the crucial and most difficult third step must now be taken with absolute urgency. If the Government fail to do that, we will do it when we are in government.

12.19 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Angela Eagle): If I had not already been aware of the degree of worry about these issues before attending and listening to the debate, I certainly would be after the speeches we have heard. Those who said that many policyholders who experienced losses might be in difficulties are right.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing a debate on the subject. I give hon. Members an assurance that I will take all the questions asked back with me but I will do my best to provide answers this morning. I think that hon. Members of whatever party understand that the lack of clarity about individual circumstances and losses has to be considered. That is why Sir John Chadwick has been asked to do his work.

In the circumstances, it is only natural that the Government’s response to the ombudsman’s report should generate such interest. Reflecting the extent of her remit, the parliamentary ombudsman’s second investigation of the regulation of Equitable Life’s with-profits fund under the Insurance Companies Act 1982 regime, which has now been superseded by more modern forms of regulation, looked exclusively at the role of the prudential regulator and the Government Actuary’s Department. It would not have been permissible for her to have considered the actions of Equitable Life, or any other party in the private sector.

The substantial report published by the ombudsman in July 2008 was the culmination of a four-year investigation, as has been said this morning. The factual and technical complexity of the issues investigated by the ombudsman, which contributed to the length of her investigation, are the reasons why it has been necessary for the Government to take time to consider that report. Indeed, the Government would rightly have been criticised had they not considered the report carefully before giving their response.

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I repeat that the Government accept that maladministration occurred in some areas, and that in some cases—although not all—we believe that it may have led to injustice for policyholders. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary apologised for that on behalf of the public bodies and successive Governments who were responsible for the regulation of Equitable Life between 1990 and 2001. We also accept that some policyholders may have suffered a disproportionate impact.

We have looked in detail at the ombudsman’s central recommendation for a compensation scheme. I have heard suggestions that the Government are at fault in not accepting the recommendation that we should establish and fund a compensation scheme. Such a scheme would have the aim of restoring Equitable Life policyholders who suffered a relative loss—a loss that policyholders would not otherwise have suffered had they invested or saved somewhere other than Equitable Life—to the position in which they would have been if the maladministration the ombudsman found had not occurred. I attempted to ask the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) what the Opposition’s policy on that is, but he would not give way.

I want to deal with some of the many issues and questions that have arisen.

Mr. Tyrie: Is the Minister prepared to tell us clearly whether it is the Government’s view that people should be put back in the position that they would have been in if maladministration had not taken place?

Angela Eagle: Those are precisely the issues and calculations that we have asked Sir John Chadwick to consider in detail. Those who actually listened to my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary’s statement will have heard her say that we have asked that Sir John be given access to the detailed policy information held by Equitable Life, so that he can examine—as those who have seen his terms of reference will have seen—the balance of loss as it is measured between maladministration and the behaviour and activities of the society itself. He will then be able to form a view.

Various hon. Members have said that 90 per cent. of Equitable Life members will not be repaid. I believe that calculation appeared on the EMAG website. However, I reassure Members that it is only with access to Equitable’s data that we can assess which classes of policyholder will receive payment under the scheme. That is precisely why we have appointed Sir John Chadwick to review the data, so that figure must have been plucked from the air. It is certainly not one that the Government would recognise at this stage of the work.

Alan Duncan: The House will be slightly, if not totally, dismayed at the apparent lack of sympathy or sense of justice in what the Minister is saying this morning. We all understand that exact figures may be difficult to
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calculate. Given that the Government are about to assume responsibility for the pension payments of all the Post Office workers, can she not set up a scheme quickly that, in the interim, at least allows a measure of responsibility for the pensions of Equitable Life policyholders?

Angela Eagle: I shall try to deal with some of the issues about interim payments and other payments that have been raised by hon. Members during the debate. As my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary said on the Floor of the House during her statement, we will consider the idea of interim payments, but we would not want such a scheme to hold up the swift delivery of the main scheme—[Hon. Members: “Swift?”] I am talking about going forward from where we are now.

About 11 days ago, we had a statement in the House in which the Government apologised and said that they would set up an approach to enable those who have suffered disproportionate loss to receive ex gratia payments. Hon. Members have asked for a timetable for that. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary said in her response to the statement that we wished the process to be as swift as possible, but the ombudsman herself said it would take up to two and a half years. We have not made that kind of assessment. We want Sir John to make progress as quickly as possible so that we can expedite the ex gratia payments.

Opposition Members must recognise—as the ombudsman did—that these are complex areas. There was no costing in the ombudsman’s report or any idea—apart from the scheme taking two and a half years—about how such payments can be made in practice. We are attempting to deliver an ex gratia payment scheme as quickly as possible. We have asked Sir John to give us his advice as quickly as possible on how that can be done. Clearly, delivering such a scheme must be as simple as possible. The ombudsman recognised that there is a tension between a simple and quick scheme and consideration of the kinds of losses that relevant policyholders have suffered due simply to maladministration. Such issues must be separated out, as hon. Members have recognised, from the losses that would have occurred because of market movement or because of the behaviour of the society, to which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred, and which was so criticised in the Penrose report.

The hon. Member for Northavon was the first of many to ask how Parliament would be kept informed of Sir John’s work. We hope that he will give us interim reports. We want the information to be shared as it is generated. As his work reveals the nature and extent of the practical issues before us, we will put in place a parallel system to ensure that delivery is as quick as possible. We do not want to wait until he reports—

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. We now move to the next debate. Will Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly?

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Dying Well Strategy

12.30 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Through you, Mr. Gale, may I thank Mr. Speaker for choosing today’s debate? I am particularly pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who I know wishes to catch your eye.

It is a particular pleasure to open this debate, because I come to praise the Government. That may not last all day, with the Welfare Reform Bill to be debated in the main Chamber later, but certainly in relation to the dying well strategy, my praise is without limits for the way in which the Government have not only raised the issue and tried to give it a public profile, but begun a conversation with those of us in the wider community who have a particular interest in it. Full marks to the Government there and full marks to them for holding the line against those who believe that an appropriate way for people to end their lives is to meet up with some form of death squad. The Government have resisted those easy, beguiling solutions, which again is cause for praise. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who has, over a long period, taken an interest in the issue and approaches it with the sensitivity that it deserves. Today, I come to praise Caesar, rather than to undertake any other activity.

The initiative that the Government are attempting to build on is clearly strengthened in Parliament by the fact that we have the all-party dying well group. That group is led admirably by Lady Finlay and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin). My interest in the issue and in initiating the dying well group, along with my colleagues, was prompted by the death of my mother just after the last general election. As the Government have said on a number of occasions, this is not a topic that we normally talk about, so death steals up unexpectedly and takes us unawares. What happened with my mother reinforced to me a number of lessons, which I want to lay out for the Minister’s consideration because they have wider significance.

My mother was blessed for the last five years of her life in that she was looked after by the Little Sisters of the Poor. There are only two establishments that I have ever attended in which I would be happy to die; most of the others fill me with foreboding. The Little Sisters of the Poor is one of those establishments and I would consider myself fortunate if, at the end of my days, I were able to gain admittance to it.

However, in the last week of her life, my mother was in hospital and was treated there by a doctor of considerable skills. He diagnosed that the drugs that she had been on for four years were ones that were meant for four weeks and that they had solidified her lungs, hence the difficulty in combating the lung disease that finally killed her. However, that doctor, who, just by listening to my mother’s chest, began an analysis that led to an understanding of the cause of that death, was totally unprepared to allow her to die in the way that she wished. Indeed, when I told the doctor that my mother wanted to go home to the Little Sisters, he said, “You can’t move her. She’s dying.” I said, “But she’d be really happy to die at home” and he said, “No, no. She’d die
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on the way home.” I said, “Don’t you realise how happy she would be even to die on the way home? That, to her, would be a success, even though you regard it as a failure.” He said, “No, to move her out of her bed risks her death.” I said, “But why can’t we just borrow your bed. As we can get on to the moon, surely there are ambulances we could hire that could take her and the bed back to the Little Sisters. Maybe she would die in the ambulance, but as I say, that would be an enormous success.” I was asked, “What written agreement do you have with her on how she wishes to end her days?” I said, “We have discussed the matter with the Little Sisters, and they know perfectly well what my mother wishes.” He said, “But it’s not written down?” I said, “No, it is not written down.” Of course, he was worried that if things turned out as we all knew they would, legal action could be taken.

On one of their regular visits, some of the nuns from Little Sisters spoke to the doctor about allowing my mother to return home. He asked whether they knew about people dying and whether they would be prepared for it. The nuns told him that they specialised in helping people come to the end of their lives successfully and happily and that, to them, dying was part of living well. That doctor, so talented, did not know about the Little Sisters, an organisation that is brilliant in looking after people towards the end of their days. That suggests that the Government have set themselves a gigantic job in trying to change not only the attitudes of lay people, as death takes us by the hand, but of those who are professionally trained to help us in the last stages of life.

The figures speak for themselves. Most wish to die at home; but most die in hospital. To have your last conversation—you have to have that last conversation—in a public ward in a well-run hospital and in front of other people, some of whom are thoughtlessly watching their televisions, is not good for the person who is dying nor for those with them. My mother was in a four-bed ward. The old lady opposite her, who knew the score, took off her hearing aid so that she could not hear what we were saying. I am sorry to say that the other two, the younger members of that establishment, did not have those good manners or that sensitivity.

I wish to put four questions to the Minister. First, what steps are the Government taking to try to give effect to people’s wish to die where they want? Secondly, I again ask the Government to share their ideas on the next steps in having a conversation not only with the professionals but with us lay people, who also will die at some stage? Just as the Victorians specialised in talking about death but would not talk about all sorts of other phobias, so we have rid ourselves of the other phobias but find it difficult to talk about dying. How do the Government hope to break through that barrier?

Thirdly, given that in important areas the Government sometimes ring-fence funds, what plans do they have in this respect? I do not want to develop that line, because I know that if my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is able to catch your eye, Mr. Gale, she will want to say more about that. Fourthly and lastly, the Government, like no previous Government, attach considerable importance to this part of our lives. My hon. Friend has a private Member’s Bill going through the House. To what extent might the Government give protection and fair passage to that Bill, so that it gets on to the statute book?

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I end as I began, by praising the Government. When the record of our Administration is written up, I fear that it will not be the huge increases in public expenditure and the fantastic targets that the Government have set that will occupy the history books: I think it will be those changes that begin significantly to change the quality of our lives and the culture in which we live. It is those areas that cost the taxpayer nothing but bring a huge amount of happiness and encourage the verities to which most of us subscribe and which increase happiness and faithfulness—I think of the Government’s reform of civil partnerships—that will merit considerable note in the history books. I also believe that the Government have tried to break through the nation’s phobia—the fear of talking about last things—thus ensuring that our last wishes can be given better effect.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to open the debate, and I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing it. I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute and, having spoken for 10 minutes, as I said I would, I shall now sit down.

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