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Founded in 1762, the Equitable Life Assurance Society (Equitable) is the UK’s oldest insurer. In 1913 it started to sell pensions policies.

A large proportion of its business was with-profits pension policies, which were first sold in the late 1950s. Under these policies, money from policyholders was pooled and invested. Regular bonus payments would then be made to increase the size of the policy. The size of the bonus would depend on factors like investment performance and the insurer’s expenses.

On retirement people would typically buy an annuity using the total sum under their policy with Equitable, along with anything else in their pension pot. The insurer would look at the size of the pension pot along with other factors like a person’s health, and then offer an amount they would be willing to pay as an annual income in exchange for receiving the pension pot.

Another factor determining the amount annuities would pay out was the state of the annuities market at the time someone wanted to buy a policy.  Matters like interest rates, the return on government bonds (which might be used to support annuities) and the level of competition between providers could influence the payout.

To help people concerned about this uncertainty, a significant minority of Equitable’s with-profits pension policies were written with an additional option: guaranteed annuity rates (GARs). GARs guaranteed a minimum annuity rate to policyholders when they eventually came to buy an annuity, regardless of the state of the market at the time.

Equitable and other providers that sold GAR policies expected their investment returns to continue to be high, and therefore annuity rates to stay high – but they were wrong. Increasing life expectancies and lower returns on government bonds meant that annuity rates in the market went down.

Equitable stopped offering GARs in the 1980s, having sold around 90,000 of these types of policies. Eventually the cost for Equitable of maintaining these policies became too high and it went to court in 1999, seeking a declaration that it could reduce the bonus paid on policies with a GAR. Equitable succeeded at the High Court but lost in the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. The loss cost Equitable an estimated £1.5 billion (others argued it was considerably more).

To fund the loss, Equitable’s managers tried to restructure and sell the business, but could not find a buyer. It therefore closed to new business on 8 December 2000. Hundreds of thousands of existing policyholders had the value of their policies cut, meaning they would receive significantly less money than expected. Many withdrew their money to recover what they could, incurring significant losses.

Numerous investigations then took place focusing on various aspects of what went wrong, often placing blame on some combination of mismanagement and regulatory failings. These include reports:

  • by the regulator, the Financial Services Authority (the Baird report) in 2001;
  • by the Faculty and Institute of Actuaries on behalf of the actuarial profession (the Corley Committee) in 2001;
  • by judge Lord Penrose (commissioned by the Government, and reporting in 2004); and
  • two reports by the Parliamentary Ombudsmen (one in 2003 and one in 2008);
  • by a committee of the European Parliament (in 2007);
  • by the Public Administration Committee (in 2009); and
  • by judge Sir John Chadwick, on various technical issues and the path to proceeding to a resolution (which gave its final recommendations in 2010).

The Coalition Government then passed the Equitable Life (Payments) Act 2010, establishing a £1.5 billion compensation scheme for affected policyholders. This was significantly less than the £4 – £5 billion which was requested by the Equitable Members Action Group (EMAG), which was set up to campaign for compensation for policyholders. The Government estimated total losses at £4.1 billion.

The compensation scheme amount of £1.5 billion covers around a third of the total amount claimed. EMAG claims that because the Government agreed to completely cover the losses of those who were already receiving annuities, the vast majority of those affected received only 22% of the money they had lost. The Government has repeated on numerous occasions since the compensation scheme closed at the end of 2015 that it does not intend to make any further payments.

Existing policyholders have since had their policies transferred to another company, but EMAG continues to campaign for additional compensation for past losses and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Justice for Equitable Life Policyholders currently lists 282 MPs as members on the EMAG website.

Specifically, the motion for debate on Thursday 21 January concerns “errors in payments made” rather than the size of the payments under the compensation scheme. EMAG claims that:

There is serious doubt over the accuracy and reliability of the methodology used by the Treasury to calculate what’s owed. EMAG has uncovered several cases involving policyholders who were significantly under-compensated for their losses due to errors in the Treasury’s calculations. Of 160 upheld complaints about inaccuracies in the Treasury’s methodology, only eight received recalculations. In all eight cases, recalculations resulted in increased payments made to the policyholder. In one case losses were calculated as £17 when they were in fact £8,661. EMAG is calling for an inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee into the accuracy of the calculation of individuals’ losses.

In representations to the Backbench Business Committee in October 2019, seeking to secure this debate, Bob Blackman said:

We have put in applications and had debates in the past about the scandal and the scam, but this application is about the transparency of payments to victims. The fact is that individuals who have been receiving payments of compensation seem to differ in the amount of money that they have been allocated. We have never been able to get to the bottom of how this allocation has taken place. The Government claim that there are no errors in the allocation of funds, but there are clear discrepancies between individuals who have exactly the self-same investments and rights to compensation but have been paid different sums of money.

Our suggestion—our request—is for a 90-minute debate. We do not need to debate it for a lengthy period, but we need a debate in order to encourage the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to establish a Joint Committee to look into the accuracy—or more likely inaccuracy—of the payments that have been made to the victims of the scam.

The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier, sent a letter in March 2020 to the Treasury raising concern about errors in the allocation of compensation. The response from the Treasury, received in July 2020, said that no errors in the compensation scheme methodology have been found. It noted that a challenge mechanism was available as part of the scheme but it has now been wound down.

An article in The Times dated 1 December 2020 written by Bob Blackman and David Davis said the Treasury “has not been fully transparent about its methodology and calculations” in administering the compensation scheme, arguing that there are “serious questions about the accuracy of the payments made to date”. They said there were “victims in every constituency”.

Further reading

Equitable Life Assurance Society: Compensation, WPQ, 14 January 2021

Ten years on, we must right the wrongs of Equitable Life scandal, The Times, 1 December 2020

Letter from Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary HMT, to Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee, July 2020 

Equitable Life, HC Debate, 31 January 2019

Equitable Life Payment Scheme: final report, HMT, 2016

Recent Parliamentary material on the Equitable Life payment scheme

Previous Library Briefings on Equitable Life

Compensation for Equitable Life policyholders, Briefing, 2017

Equitable Life: further compensation debate, Briefing, 2016

Equitable Life: compensation scheme, Briefing, 2015

Equitable Life: Penrose and beyond, Briefing, 2011

Equitable Life (Payments) Bill [Bill 62 of 2010-11], Briefing, 2010

Equitable Life: pre-Penrose, Briefing, 2004 [Intranet link]

Equitable Life: Parliamentary Ombudsman Report, Briefing, 2003 [Intranet link]

Equitable Life: Baird Report,  Briefing, 2001 [Intranet link]

Websites

Equitable Life Payment Scheme – Government website

Equitable Members Action Group


Documents to download

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