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Last Updated: Friday, 23 January, 2004, 15:49 GMT
Fraud Office examines Equitable
Equitable Life logo
Equitable life came to the brink of collapse in 2000
The Treasury has referred the Penrose report into troubled insurer Equitable Life to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

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

Lord Penrose has also submitted a copy of his report, which is expected to be published shortly, to the SFO.

Equitable Life was brought to the brink of collapse in 2000 due to financial guarantees it could not keep, and policyholders have had savings cut.

The SFO will now determine whether issues raised warrant a full investigation, a process which could take a number of months.

I am quite horrified, we suspected a cover up but we didn't realise that it merited being referred to the Serious Fraud Office
Liz Kwantas, Equitable Life Members Help Group

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

The world's oldest mutual life insurer was brought to the brink of bankruptcy and had to cut the pensions and retirement savers of its policyholders to stay afloat.

Apportioning blame

Lord Penrose was asked in 2001 by the Treasury to investigate the history of the Equitable and find out who was to blame.

The report has been with Treasury officials since before Christmas.

In October BBC News Online learned that the Treasury would not guarantee that the full report would see the light of day.

Ruth Kelly, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, announced that she was referring the report to the SFO in a note to John McFall, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee.

"I am writing to inform you that Lord Penrose has also made his report available to the Serious Fraud Office, and having studied the contents of the report the Treasury has asked the Serious Fraud Office to consider a number of issues raised in the report," Ms Kelly wrote.

Groups representing Equitable members have greeted the news of the SFO referral with alarm.

"I am quite horrified, we suspected a cover up but we didn't realise that it merited being referred to the Serious Fraud Office," Liz Kwantas of the Equitable Life Members Help Group told BBC News Online.

"It is so worrying, it marks Equitable out as the British Enron or Parmalat," she added.

In response, a spokesperson for Equitable Life, which has not seen the Penrose report, said that the current board of the life insurer had found "no evidence of fraud".




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