Something else emerged from yesterday’s Business Questions.
Shadow Leader of the House of Commons Theresa May asked about Equitable Life:
"I note that the Leader of the House announced a statement on Equitable Life in the first week back after Christmas. Last week, the Prime Minister promised to the House a statement on Equitable Life before Christmas. So will the Prime Minister come to the House to explain why his Chancellor is not doing what the Prime Minister promised the House he would do? Given that the Leader of the House, on numerous occasions, told us that the statement would be given in autumn, perhaps she can explain why this is the first time in living history that autumn has extended into January?"
Harriet Harman replied:
"The right hon. Lady mentioned Equitable Life. I acknowledge that we said that the statement would be ready in the autumn, but it is important to note that the issue has its roots in problems that started in the 1980s. In the summer, there was a substantial report from the ombudsman that needed consideration. We are talking about important issues, and if the Treasury needs to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, it should do so. Surely it is more important that the report is properly considered before it is brought to the House than for us to have an artificial timetable. The statement will be made in January."
It was more than moderately cheeky for Ms Harman to describe the Government’s own (abandoned) timetable as "artificial".
Pensions expert Stephen Yeo commented to ConservativeHome:
"The delay is even worse than it seems at first. The Ombudsman’s report took an unprecedented 4 years because the Treasury decided to submit 500 pages of prevarication in ‘evidence’. Although the report was published in July, the Government would have had a draft in their possession for some months prior to then. If so minded they could have responded straight away, but they said they would do so ‘in the Autumn’. Yesterday we learnt that meant January!"
Other Conservative MPs were also far from impressed. Congleton MP Ann Winterton led the charge:
“Now is the winter of our discontent”
because the Prime Minister reneged on a solemn commitment to the House, which was given in the debate on the Queen’s Speech last week, that we would have an Equitable Life statement before Christmas. What are we to say to our constituents, most of whom are elderly and many of whom live on modest means? Indeed, some have already died. When will the Government make a statement to ensure that those people are able to live better in the future, because they have been seriously disadvantaged through no fault of their own?
Ms Harman: No one thinks that this is not a serious issue, and it is because it is a serious and important matter that we wanted to ensure that the Treasury has the time necessary to consider it. On the question of what the hon. Lady should tell her constituents, she should say that the statement will be in January."
Andrew Mackay, who is a senior adviser to David Cameron, weighed in too:
"I am always anxious to give the Leader of the House the benefit of the doubt, so I accept that she was acting in good faith when she told the House in July, when the ombudsman’s report was published, that there would be a statement on Equitable Life in the autumn. I am less able to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt about what he told the House during the debate on the Address:
“There will be a statement before the House rises at Christmas. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that that will be done. There will be a statement”.—[ Official Report, 3 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 38.]
Ms Harman: What was said then was that there was an expectation —[Interruption.] Well, it stands to reason, does it not, that if the statement had been ready, it would have been made, so what was being talked about was a statement that was under preparation? The preparation has taken a bit longer than anticipated, but I think that Members are going way beyond things if they are asserting that there has somehow been some calculation about the timing and that Ministers are not acting in good faith. All we have been trying to do is give a reasonable estimate of when the statement might be ready, and the latest estimate is that we hope it will be ready on the week of the 15th."