Personal Finance – Is anyone there to listen to you?

Almost every day we are forced to make decisions that will have an to pick the right ombudsman if you are to stand a hope of redress. important bearing on our financial health.

Often we are left disappointed: maybe a relationship with the bank manager goes sour, wrong investment advice is given, or an insurance company refuses to pay up.

Knowing who to complain to becomes vital. There are eight different ombudsmen and arbitration schemes, each spanning a small segment of our financial lives, covering banks and building societies, investments, general insurance, pensions and life cover.

But the multiplicity of agencies which deal with queries can be baffling.

Philip Telford of the Consumers’ Association says: ‘We find people don’t know who they should complain to, especially if they’ve already been through the company’s own complaints procedure.

‘The various schemes also have different rules, and this doesn’t help the consumer.’ Hence plans to merge the eight services and provide a one-stop complaints system. The concept is taking shape under the auspices of the Financial Services Authority, the City’s main regulator.

An FSA spokeswoman concedes the idea is long overdue: ‘How would you feel if something went wrong with your finances and you had to make eight phone calls to find out who deals with your case? We think that by contrast, a single ombudsman scheme will be a vast improvement.’

A board to oversee the entire process has been set up and a single ombudsman selected – Walter Merricks, formerly in charge of the Insurance Ombudsman Bureau. The new scheme is to have a budget of between £15m and £20m.

In the meantime, who is responsible for each area and how do they work?

The Personal Investment Authority Ombudsman Bureau resolves disputes between customers and providers of investment products regulated by the PIA – independent financial advisers, insurance companies, building societies and banks.

Its principal ombudsman is solicitor Anthony Holland. The amount for which the ombudsman can make a binding award is limited to £100,000, or £20,000 per annum for permanent health insurance.

If your complaint is about PEPs or ISAs, or your investments are managed by an adviser and you have experienced poor PEP administration or your instructions were ignored – it is likely that you need to complain to the Investment Ombudsman.

He is responsible for firms which are presently regulated by the Investment Management Organisation (IMRO). In 1997/1998 about 50% of its recommendations were made in favour of complainants.

One of the largest schemes is the Insurance Ombudsman Bureau, set up in 1981, a service provided free to complainants. It is funded by most, but not all, of the nation’s insurance companies and of the general insurance cases investigated, those relating to non-life cover, about one third are found in favour of policyholders. For life cover, decisions are evenly split.

The Building Societies Ombudsman service, provided free to complainants, is funded by the building societies.

All societies are required by parliament to belong to the scheme. About two-thirds of final decisions favour societies, and one third back customers.

If things go sour between you and the bank manager, the Banking Ombudsman’s office is the place to go. The service is free and funded by 111 banks which are members of the scheme. In the year to 30 September last year, marginally more decisions were in favour of customers than banks.

Finally, more than 22 million people are members of occupational pension schemes offered by employers. The Pensions Ombudsman investigates complaints and disputes concerning occupational pensions. Most of the work relates to maladministration, which is defined as ‘bias, neglect, inattention, delay, incompetence, ineptitude, perversity, turpitude or arbitrariness’.

All the ombudsmen are keen to promote themselves as independent of the companies that fund their activities.

Problems remain as many people find cases turned down because they do not understand the parameters under which they are entitled to complain.

Paul Cooper who runs CLAIMS (Compensation from Life Assurance Mediation Services), a private service which advises complainants, says: ‘The PIA Ombudsman Bureau says that it offers an inquisitorial service but – given the size of its caseload – I’m not convinced there’s time to do that very thoroughly. If the complaint is badly put together, the investor risks losing out.’

Anthony Holland, the PIA Ombudsman, says all case workers try and get to the bottom of the complaint: ‘When we get a case, even if the person complaining hasn’t identified the issue – we will hopefully uncover it.’

Nic Cicutti is personal finance editor at the Independent

Useful numbers <

– Banking Ombudsman: 0345 660902

– Building Societies’ Ombudsman: 0171 931 0044

– Insurance Ombudsman: 0845 600 6666

– Investment Ombudsman: 0171 796 3065

– PIA Ombudsman: 0171 712 8700

– Pensions Ombudsman: 0171-834 9144

– CLAIMS: 0181 947 6046

– National Association of Bank Customers: 01291 430009.

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