Independent Insurance Collapsed Four Years Ago and Fraud Investigators Moved in, but What's Happened since Then?

The Evening Standard (London, England), February 4, 2005 | Go to article overview

Independent Insurance Collapsed Four Years Ago and Fraud Investigators Moved in, but What's Happened since Then?


Byline: JIM ARMITAGE

IN FOUR months, Britain's insurance company bosses will be receiving the annual letter they despise, the one demanding they cough up their share of the compensation for policyholders who lost out from the spectacular collapse of Independent Insurance in 2001.

All insurers who operate in the UK have to contribute to the claims run up on the accounts of their fallen comrades. They acknowledge the Financial Services Compensation Scheme provides crucial protection for consumers. But they still hate writing the cheque. Especially for the sake of what one executive calls that "vainglorious upstart", Independent.

Since Independent went bust, insurers have shelled out [pounds sterling]240 million over its legacy of claims. It is the biggest call the industry has ever made. This year, the FSCS will be billing insurers [pounds sterling]95 million - most of which is again earmarked for Independent.

Be in no doubt it is you and I, the insurance buying public, who shoulder the cost. Insurers may absorb some of it by chopping overheads elsewhere. But you can bet our premiums bear the brunt.

Thanks to the work of the FSCS, the most vulnerable policyholders have been seen right. But there are still plenty of victims. FSCS funds pay out on claims drawn on compulsory insurance classes - such as employers' liability.

But thousands of others who took out insurance with Independent are not covered. They wait in line with the other creditors.

There are also the shareholders. An army of private investors saw large chunks of their savings collapse to nothing. Pension funds lost tens of millions as the company's value went from [pounds sterling]1 billion to zero in six months.

Then there are the 2000 staff. As well as losing their jobs, 300 lost on average [pounds sterling]3000 each from the company share-save scheme. What is most galling is that nobody has told the victims what happened. Nobody has been blamed for the massive hole in claims reserves that caused it.

Was it false accounting? The Financial Services Authority clearly thought so - that was why it handed over files to the Serious Fraud Office.

"We were not getting satisfactory answers to the questions we were asking," says one FSA source. The company's regulatory returns did not marry with what the business was doing - the number of policies, reserves and reinsurance contracts.

SFO officials quickly moved into Independent's offices to dig up evidence of financial misdoings.

But, nearly four years down the line, and still nothing from the SFO.

Nobody accused. Nobody cleared.

Michael Bright, the charismatic, some say bullying, former chief executive blamed by many for the collapse, still has a [pounds sterling]1.25 million converted oast house in rural Kent but lives with his wife at his Spanish villa.

Confusingly, Moore Stephens, administrator of the bankrupt's estate, told the Standard last year Bright's wife had bought his half of The Oasts, rasing cash for creditors.

But Land Registry records say it remains jointly-owned. FPD Savills says it hopes to have a buyer soon.

By all accounts, former chairman, Garth Ramsay, prefers to spend his time at leisure in south-west France's scenic Gers region.

Admittedly, the case is complex -

"potentially Maxwellian" is how one forensic accountant described it. SFO sources say this is why the investigation needs "detailed preparation".

But talk about preparation. One source says the SFO took years even to interview some directors, let alone formulate charges against them. …

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Independent Insurance Collapsed Four Years Ago and Fraud Investigators Moved in, but What's Happened since Then?
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