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Last Updated: Monday, 8 March, 2004, 13:26 GMT
Q&A: Penrose Inquiry
Lord Penrose
Lord Penrose is investigating the history of Equitable Life
The long-awaited inquiry headed by Lord Penrose into the collapse of Equitable Life is due to report soon.

What was Lord Penrose asked to find out?

In short, how Equitable Life, the world's oldest mutual life assurer, came to the brink of bankruptcy and left more than a million policyholders with reduced retirement savings.

The Equitable made financial promises to a large group of its own policyholders that it could not afford to honour.

Lord Penrose was asked in 2001 by the Treasury to investigate the history of the Equitable, and to find out who was to blame, what lessons could be learned and whether there was a failure by the regulatory authorities.

At the time, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Ruth Kelly, said it was "in the public interest to have a wider, independent review".

Why has it taken more than two years for Penrose to report?

Penrose had to examine witnesses and documentation dating way back to the 1960s, when the Equitable started to offer a guaranteed annuity to the public.

The problem for Equitable was that, for many years, it guaranteed the size of the annuity at the time that policyholders started saving.

Since the guarantees were given the investment climate has changed and the Equitable could no longer afford to meet its obligations.

It was the commitment to pay a guaranteed annuity which sent the finances of the Equitable into a tailspin back in 1999.

Evidence from some witnesses was not taken for up to eighteen months after Penrose started.

In addition, last month, Ms Kelly announced that she had passed on a copy of the Penrose report to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

Some groups of policyholders have called on the Equitable to sue the UK government for failing in its regulatory duty

The SFO said it will be conducting a "preliminary examination" into issues raised by the report.

Lord Penrose's job has been made doubly difficult by the fact that the Equitable scandal, while being a nightmare for policyholders, has become a field day for lawyers.

Why have the lawyers got involved?

The Equitable board, elected in the aftermath of the crisis, has filed law suits against former directors and the auditors Ernst & Young. They are claiming billions of pounds for negligence and mismanagement.

Last year BBC News revealed that some important evidence requested by Lord Penrose had been refused by witnesses' lawyers - because it affected legal proceedings against the witnesses.

Some groups of policyholders have called on the Equitable to sue the UK government for failing in its regulatory duty to stop the assurer getting into trouble.

Could Penrose give the policyholders the ammunition they need?

Certainly some policyholders hope that Penrose will point the finger at the government. But don't forget this is a Treasury inspired inquiry and they can choose to simply not publish some parts.

To enquire into the circumstances leading to the current situation of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, taking account of relevant life market background;
To identify any lessons to be learnt for the conduct, administration and regulation of life assurance business;
Give a report thereon to Treasury Ministers

Last October, the Treasury told BBC News Online that they would publish Penrose in full "if possible" but refused to confirm that any possible criticism of its handling of the scandal would see the light of day.

In response, Liz Kwantes of the Equitable Life Members Help Group told BBC News Online: "I am beginning to wonder if the Treasury is engaged in a 'Yes Minister'-style cover up over Penrose."

Groups representing Equitable Life policyholders do not have a great deal of faith in inquiries - particularly after a report by the Parliamentary Ombudsman cleared the City watchdog, the Financial Services Authority (FSA), of accusations that it failed to carry out its role during the period leading up to the collapse of Equitable Life.

Will a line be drawn under the Equitable scandal after the publication of Penrose?

Don't bet on it. Lord Penrose is not the first and is likely not to be the last person to scrutinise the Equitable scandal.

The Treasury Select Committee has held its fire on the matter until the publication of Penrose.

Whatever Penrose concludes, the Equitable scandal is set to run and run.

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