I had an unusual experience as the old century ended. I made an insurance claim which was paid in full without quibble by an insurance company .

Admittedly, it was only the cost of my suitcase and its contents, stolen from my Blackpool hotel during the Conservative Party conference. But in December they paid up -£958.

All of which was in marked contrast to the disspiriting stories backbench MPs had to tell in one of the centurys last Commons debates (I am determined not to use the over-worked word millennium any more), stories which will - I fear - be only too familiar to some readers.

It all started with Clive Efford, the former London taxi-driver who became Labour MP for Eltham at his second attempt in 1997, forcing Virginia s husband, Peter Bottomley , to find a new seat at Worthing West.

He reported that people who had taken out what is known as permanent health insurance to protect their income against the risk of chronic illness are finding it hard to obtain the benefits to which they are entitled.

Long-term disability insurance may be a more familiar term, and the sort of illnesses Mr Efford and other MPs, Tory and Lib Dem, described included lupus, angina (this in a North Sea diver), asthma, osteoporosis and that elusive modern scourge, ME.

What they had in common was that all sorts of firms which should know better refused to pay out - even when state benefits for permanent invalidity (deductible from private ones, incidentally) had been conceded.

At the top of the target list in Westminster Hall (the mini-chamber MPs now use for debates of this kind) was a US firm called UNUM, a self-styled market leader which put up a very hard fight against claims made by Mrs Doreen Buckland of Eltham and all the considerable medical advice she could muster .

There is evidence that UNUM adopts such hard nose techniques in the US, too, MPs were told. That did not stop Peter Lilley using its expertise when trying to cut down on fast- burgeoning disability payments via the revised all-work test for claimants. It is a cash-saving strategy which has, incidentally, largely failed under both governments.

UNUM, of course, is precisely the sort of private-sector-substitute business which Mr Lilley tried to encourage, as do his Tory successors.

It is not the only case. More startling in its way was that of David Little, introduced by Anthony W right, Labour MP for Great Yarmouth. He took out such insurance with his employers, Allied Dunbar , 10 years before he was diagnosed with ME.

The firm paid some replacement income, Mr Little (now 53) being entitled to it until he is 60.

But he is not getting it, having been told his malady is psychological in nature. As with other ME claimants, he was told to get psychotherapy .

Divorce, penury and homelessness loom.

Video-surveillance is not unknown.

You and I can both see problems here. ME is a tricky medical issue, though, personally , I have no doubt that persistent debilitating viral ailments of this kind do afflict some people for years. Insurance firms do have the right to question the legitimacy of claims , MPs agreed. But the manner and persistence of their doing so, cutting deals behind peoples backs and colluding with employers (who are often the policy-holder) outraged them.

How many cases? Four thousand on 3 million policies, some support groups suggest. Not many perhaps, but enough to cause real injustice and undermine the insurance option which will, I suspect, loom larger in our 21st century lives. Claimants can go to the personal investment ombudsman, but only with the policy-holder s backing, which is not always given. The alternative is the courts, rarely an option for sick and fast-impoverishing people keen to avoid stress.

The new Financial Services Authority regulates this corner of the insurance market, though its practices are governed by an Association of British Insurers code, which is voluntary . Will the government s new Financial Services and Markets Bill help much? A bit, though listening to Melanie Johnson, the new economic secretary to the Treasury , was not 1999s most inspiring rhetorical moment. Labour made a lot of capital out of the botched Tory pensions scandal. But that was then. A happy new year to you.