When Equitable Life is no more – and it won’t be long before the death bell tolls – there will be a belter of a book to be written about all the shenanigans that have taken place at the mutual.
Although the savings institution goes back more than 250 years, it is the last 20 years that are the most entertaining and lurid.
Over this period, customers’ savings have been pillaged, policyholder has been pitted against policyholder, greed and incompetence have shone in the boardroom (nothing new there, ed) and there have been love affairs at the highest level (a certain former chief executive falling in ravenous love with a secretary half his age).
Throw in Pussy Galore (disgruntled policyholder and distinguished actress Honor Blackman) and a monumental battle for justice and you have the makings of a thriller. Patrick Marber could even turn the book into a racy screenplay fit for the National Theatre (I’ve met his delightful mother so I might have a word in her shell-like).
Looking back, there is no doubt that Equitable Life represents one of the darkest episodes in the recent history of Britain’s financial services industry.
In their droves, like lambs to the slaughter, hundreds of thousands of upstanding people – judges, lawyers, doctors and yes lots of journalists – were hoodwinked into buying Equitable policies. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
‘It’s an Equitable Life, Henry’, trilled the adverts. It was all so compelling. No commission paid to greedy financial advisers and ALL your money securely invested to ensure a future retirement without financial worry. Nirvana.
The media were kept sweet. In my early days as a rookie financial journalist on a trade magazine, when I knew no better, I would be lunched by a sleazy Equitable PR man in a City members’ club where the dress code for waitresses was minimalist. He would lick his lips as he gnawed his way through his leg of lamb – while waxing lyrical on the virtues of cuddly, customer-focused Equitable (just married, much in love and a vegetarian, I would stare down at the table cloth and nod occasionally).
When I became a little more savvy and started to question the Equitable model (in the early 1990s), the lunches came to an abrupt end. In their place came angry letters from Equitable’s solicitors, threatening to tear me from limb to limb unless I desisted from attacking the friendly society.
As we all now know, Equitable was a major accident waiting to happen, a situation aggravated by light-touch (non-existent) regulation from an array of useless government departments.
When it finally imploded in 2000, the consequences for customers were awful. Their policies were savaged in order to save the institution from oblivion.
Although more than £1 billion of compensation has since come their way (thanks to some sustained superb campaigning from Equitable Members Action Group), you will not meet many policyholders (former or current) who believe they have been dealt a fair hand. They feel they have been fobbed off. The fact that more than 200 upstanding Members of Parliament continue to support the quest for proper financial justice (they belong to an all-party parliamentary group set up to fight on the issue) suggests that these million or so people have a robust case.
Sadly, despite the continued magnificence of EMAG, they will probably go to their graves feeling this way. George Osborne believes he has been more than accommodating, especially in such tough financial times.
Amazingly, Equitable Life the business still trundles on. Boardroom greed is no more and office affairs among the executives – I am reliably told – are over, helped by the fact that the institution is much slimmed down and in less need of sassy administrative assistants plucked from high society.
Indeed, under the wise and low key stewardship of Chris Wiscarson, Equitable has become the business it should always have been – ferociously cost-conscious and determined to give long-standing customers (500,000 of them) as fair a deal as possible. Yet, shut to new customers, it is in run off and will eventually disappear into the ether. Indeed, Wiscarson is positively encouraging the society’s dismemberment by offering most policyholders an attractive 35 per cent ‘capital distribution’ – a form of bonus – to quit.
A week on Monday, Equitable will hold its 2016 annual general meeting in London, close to Regent’s Park. Members who fancy a day out (free tea and biscuits will be available) could always combine it with a trip to the nearby ZSL London Zoo.
If I were a retired policyholder, within striking distance of London and in possession of a free travel pass, I would rock up. I would then accept the bonus (before it gets cut), take the money, enjoy the rest of my life and wait for Marber to stage his Equitable play: It’s an Equitable Life Henry – Not.
As for more compensation, Leicester City did win the Premier League.
Jeff Prestridge is the Personal Finance Editor of The Mail on Sunday