Love is all you need (and a credit card)

Join the Sirius dating agency! 10,000 members nationwide! Vetted for slobs and shirkers! Struck off by the regulators!
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The Independent Culture
A couple gaze lovingly into each other's eyes, surrounded by buttercups and the remains of a picnic. They look as if they belong on a knitting pattern, the very picture of safe sex. It's not surprising they look so perfect: they are posing for an advert for Club Sirius, the dating agency for "the single, well-educated and articulate professional". Margaret Cook, ex-wife of the Foreign Secretary, is just one of the 10,000 Sirius members who found love by filling out a six-page questionnaire that asks everything from languages spoken and degrees taken to your mobile phone number.

Club Sirius, however, has fallen out of love with the Association of British Introduction Agencies, which this week expelled it from membership.

The divorce proceedings seem likely to be splendidly acrimonious. The ABIA, which represents 30 of the largest agencies in the UK, claims that it has received an unprecedented number of complaints about the agency. Club Sirius has hit back, saying that the industry watchdog's actions smack of sour grapes over the agency's phenomenal success. Certainly Sirius is one of the biggest agencies in the UK, having built up a large membership in just five years of trading. "No, Sirius is the biggest," argues Andrew Wayland, the agency's PR spokesman. Bigger than Dateline, which claims 20,000 members? "Ah, that depends whether you're talking about active or former members."

The UK dating industry is worth pounds 50m, but establishing hard facts in this world of romantic promises and hype can be extremely difficult.

"We have had a record number of complaints about Sirius; we've been swamped," says Lynn Davies, chairman of the ABIA. Over a five-year period, the ABIA received just 50 complaints about its other member agencies. In the last six months, it claims to have received 70 complaints about Sirius. "The complaints we have logged about the agency are in a different league to what we are used to dealing with," says Ms Davies. "OK, people do complain, but it's usually not serious. For instance, a member may meet someone and go out with them. Then, when they fall out of love, they'll ring up and demand a refund."

Charges against Sirius have tended to reflect a breakdown in communication between the agency and disgruntled lonely hearts. "They keep updating the membership package to include costly new features. If you want to find a date, you now have to call a premium rate phone line that costs 60p a minute - or search the Internet, which not everyone has access to."

The use of expensive phone lines must, you feel, be a comfort to Chris Matthews, the entrepreneur who founded Sirius, since he is also chairman of Telinco, a company that runs premium-rate phone lines.

Another charge is poor security. One teacher at a large comprehensive school became very distressed when she realised that all her personal details were posted on the Sirius website, despite the fact that she had specifically requested them to be withheld. "Had one of my pupils accessed that information, my job would have been unbearable," she said in a letter to the ABIA. A week after she complained to the agency, she accessed the Internet at a friend's house and to her dismay found her details were still there.

"I felt manipulated and penalised," she wrote. She also complained that the system suddenly changed so that she had to pay pounds 5 to get additional partner profiles, and that the "free" magazine was suddenly going to cost pounds 30.

A doctor also complained to the ABIA, specifically about Internet access, claiming that he could use the Net only in his busy consulting rooms, which he found embarrassing. Meanwhile one middle-aged woman became very alarmed after her personal phone number was given out to male members without her consent - and even after she complained about it, nothing was done.

Still more people complained that they were billed by the agency, even though they hadn't joined it. "It's in the Sirius contract that if you phone up and request an interview with one of their representatives and then you decide to cancel, you are liable to pay 30 per cent of the membership fee - that's pounds 120," says Ms Davies. "The first thing they do when you ring up is ask for your credit card details."

Sirius's managing director, Conrad Morris, is not impressed by such complaints. "We don't do that any more - we stopped that in March," he says indignantly; but he does admit that the practice once went on.

"We are very angry with the ABIA and we think that they have breached their own code by issuing a statement about us without telling us, or giving us any right of appeal."

The ABIA's action appears all the more surprising because last month Club Sirius became the first agency in the country to be awarded a British Standards Institute kitemark for excellence of management and service.

"I've rung the BSI and asked them what they're playing at," says Ms Davies. "They didn't consult us, or we'd have told them about the complaints. They told me that they had given the award for the Club Sirius manual. If that's how they give out awards, then it makes a mockery of the whole thing."

Ms Davies claims that Club Sirius has repeatedly failed to respond to her letters and phone calls, and to their members' complaints. "Now they have the BSI award, they think they don't need us." But not everyone agrees that membership of the ABIA is necessary or even desirable.

Steve Groves runs Perfect Partners, a London-based agency with several hundred members. "We don't see any benefit in being a member [of ABIA]. It's run by people who want to know all your trade secrets and client information. We don't want to give that away to our competitors." Ironically, another reason why he didn't join was ABIA's failure to provide adequate information about the organisation. "It was also really expensive. They wanted us to pay pounds 10 to get an application form and a further pounds 220 to join. It also took them three weeks to send us a standard letter."

Conrad Morris of Sirius says he is not losing any sleep over the ABIA, either. "This isn't going to affect us greatly. We're the only one with the BSI award. And anyway the ABIA represents only a tiny minority of dating agencies. Also, it is run by those people who already run their own agencies, so it's not independent."

Club Sirius says it is now looking at setting up a rival industry body, better to represent members' interests. Meanwhile it is left to the ABIA to try to find dream dates for the backlog of dissatisfied lonely hearts who have fallen out of love with Club Sirius.

"It's the members I feel for," says Lynn Davies. "At the end of the day it's not the dating agency industry that suffers, it's vulnerable people looking for love."