A safety net with too many holes

You take out insurance policies in case something goes wrong. But what do you do if what goes wrong is that you never really had an insurance policy in the first place? Paul Slade investigates

IF YOU take out an insurance policy and something goes wrong, it can be of comfort to know that there are various ways of obtaining redress, but unfortunately these are not always easy or affordable.

At times, a dispute may force the intervention of the Insurance Ombudsman, an industry-funded but independent scheme. If you have a complaint about a broker, it can be made to the Insurance Brokers Registration Council (IBRC), a watchdog which currently regulates its members' conduct - though possibly not for much longer.

But what happens if the insurer or the intermediary selling the policy are not part of any complaints system? One pensioner's dispute with Swinton Group, the nationwide firm of intermediaries, has shown how easily some firms can dodge the industry's arbitration.

Mr Maling discovered last July that the Sheffield house he thought he had insured through Swinton was not covered after all. This left him with repair bills of pounds 2,500 and no insurance to pay them. The row revolves round a December 1997 letter from Swinton asking Mr Maling to contact the company immediately. Mr Maling never received that letter, and so never discovered his policy had been cancelled.

Because Swinton had accepted and retained his premium payment, Mr Maling had no reason to think the insurance had not remained in force.

Mr Maling believes Swinton should have made more effort to tell him of the true situation, and has been trying to get some redress from the company ever since (see box). Despite admitting to a string of "unsatisfactory features" in how the case was handled, Swinton so far has offered Mr Maling no more than an ex gratia payment of pounds 100 which he would get only if he agreed to drop his complaint.

"This is altogether wrong," Mr Maling insists. "Swinton should be stopped from being able to do this sort of thing."

None of the insurance industry's three most established arbitration procedures seem able to help resolve this dispute, because Swinton refuses to join the voluntary bodies which run them. These schemes aim to provide a cheap and impartial ruling in cases which insurers and customers cannot settle between themselves.

But Swinton has chosen not to join either the Insurance Ombudsman Bureau (IOB) or the back-up Personal Insurance Arbitration Service. Swinton is not a registered insurance broker, which rules out the IBRC scheme as well. The IOB scheme has been open to intermediaries like Swinton since last year. But few have joined so far, and the ombudsman is powerless against those who choose to stay out.

IOB spokesman Michael Lovegrove says: "Swinton are not members of the bureau, and not subject to the ombudsman's jurisdiction. Can the ombudsman make Swinton pay for a failure? No, he can't."

Swinton director June Price says IOB membership is "something we are looking at for the future".

Neither the Association of British Insurers nor the Financial Services Authority, which covers the industry, seem able to help Mr Maling either.

Swinton is subject to the ABI code of practice. But ABI spokeswoman Suzanne Moore says the code would probably not apply in this case because, strictly speaking, Mr Maling's complaint is not a matter of sales practice.

An FSA spokesman says: "If you're not going to call yourself a broker, but operate as an intermediary, that is not regulated. It is not a responsibility of the FSA."

If Mr Maling wants to take his complaint any further, Mr Price says, he will have to go to court.

"We have professional indemnity insurance for any professional negligence, so the normal recourse would be via a solicitor," she says.

But Mr Maling says this is an option he cannot afford.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

John Maling's problems with Swinton started in July 1998, when he rang the company and asked about renewing the buildings cover on his Sheffield house.

Much to his surprise, Swinton told him cover on the house had been cancelled months earlier.

Maling had, by then, moved from Sheffield to Luton, and had rented out the house to tenants referred to him by Sheffield Council's housing department.

He had given Swinton a cheque to pay for the insurance in July 1997. What he did not know was that Norman Insurance - the company whose policy he he thought he held - had since decided not to cover the house.

Swinton says it wrote to Mr Maling's Luton address on 30 December, 1997, sending the letter by recorded delivery. But Swinton cannot produce a recorded delivery slip to prove this.

By December 1997, Mr Maling had moved again, arranging for the Post Office to forward letters to his third address. But he never received Swinton's letter. The letter was returned to Swinton on 9 January, 1998, marked "not called for". Swinton made no further effort to contact Mr Maling, or to return his premium until after Mr Maling's July 1998 phone call. When Mr Maling went to check on the Sheffield house, he found the tenants had vanished, leaving him with repairs estimated at pounds 2,500 and no insurance to cover them.

Had he known the Norman Insurance policy was invalid, Mr Maling claims, he could have bought insurance elsewhere.

David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and an old friend of Mr Maling's, took up the issue.

On 5 October, 1998, Swinton's John Morley wrote to Mr Blunkett admitting: "There are some unsatisfactory features: (a) it is difficult to see why Norman didn't simply reject the risk as soon as it was aware of potential DSS referrals: (b) we have destroyed the evidence of the recorded delivery letter, (c) we did not give notice of cancellation and (d) we did not return the premium."

Swinton has now refunded Mr Maling's premium, but has included no interest to cover the 12 months while it held the cheque. Following The Independent's enquiries, Swinton and Norman Insurance have offered to arrange a face- to-face meeting with Mr Maling to discuss his case further.

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