Savers are left baffled by incomprehensible literature, the salespeople who contact them make astonishing claims for their products - and, when a claim is made or a policy has to be abandoned, there is always some clause there to penalise or deny people their rights. Things ought to be ripe for change.
Yet a Plain English Campaign (PEC) initiative to flag up honesty in sales literature, launched a year ago, has found few takers in the personal finance industry. In order to win their company's literature a Plain English Campaign honesty mark, top executives must sign a declaration that "What we say is what the public gets".
So far, only one financial services company has been brave enough to do this - and then for only a single document.
That company is Colonial Financial Services. It carries the honesty mark on the Colonial Investment Bond's key features document, which customers receive as part of the sales process.
A large Irish financial institution will announce plans to include the mark on the customer brochures and policy documents for a range of five new life insurance policies in May or June. But so far there have been no other takers among insurance and investment firms.
The honesty mark adds a halo to the PEC's existing "Crystal Mark". The declaration must be signed by the company's managing director, company secretary and lawyer or draftsman.
PEC director, Chrissie Maher, says the idea of the honesty mark is to show customers that nothing important has been left out of the document or buried in the small print. "We tested it in 15 cities and the whole market said, 'Yes, that would be fabulous'," she says. "We then threw it into the arena and had no takers whatsoever. I wasn't surprised."
The Irish group - which asked not to be named ahead of the new range's official launch - will give the honesty mark its biggest boost yet from the financial services industry. A spokeswoman for the group says: "It's saying there's no hidden extras, and no small print - what you see is what you get. At the end of the day, people just want honesty."
Ms Maher says: "The Irish are galloping ahead of the English at the moment. A lot of the big companies have fallen at the fourth or fifth hurdle, because the lawyers wouldn't sign it. That tells me a lot about mortgages, pensions and life insurance companies - what are they hiding?"
The declaration which companies must sign also gives the PEC the right to withdraw the mark at any time, and the company agrees that it will protect the PEC from "any harm or liability" suffered as a result of the mark being wrongly used.
Helen Crossfield, head of public affairs at Colonial Mutual, says signing a document like this requires a real commitment. "We had to go through some hoops to make sure we were recognising the risks," she says. "It wasn't something that we signed willy-nilly. I think it changes the way that we write and the way that we present it.
"There are a lot of companies that put a lot of stuff in small print, all squashed at the bottom. A financial services document is an ideal document in which to hide information, because it's so complex."
Ms Crossfield hopes that all the company's documents for customers will eventually carry the honesty mark. This may give the company a commercial edge under the Government's proposals to "kitemark" products which are easy to understand, she adds.
A lot of rhubarb...
At the end of this month Plain English Campaign's director, Chrissie Maher, will be lecturing in Brussels as part of the European Commission's Fight the Fog programme.
No doubt Europe will continue to provide British consumers with plenty of impenetrable prose. But there is plenty of home-grown gobbledegook, too.
Richard Hunter, managing director of London independent financial advisers Holden Meehan, picks a section from a local council's employee pension scheme booklet as his own favourite example. It reads:
"The calculation of the death grant is slightly different if the employee was in receipt of a pension as a result of a frozen benefit coming into payment or if he retires in the income tax year he would have attained state retirement age and had less than two years reckonable and qualifying service."
Mr Hunter says: "I find it quite annoying that normal people, who are not involved in this sort of stuff, have to make their way through massive sentences like that."
If it's massive sentences you're after, a recent resolution from a Scottish Amicable Investment Managers' AGM takes some beating. This runs to a punctuation- free 174 words, and holds the 1997 Silver Rhubarb award. The Rhubarbs are given each year by the Plain Language Commission, another clarity watchdog.
The resolution reads:
"That in substitution for any existing power under section 95 of the Companies Act 1985 (as amended and from time to time in force) ('the Act'), but without prejudice to the exercise of any such power prior to the date hereof, the Directors be and are hereby empowered pursuant to section 95 of the Act, to allot equity securities (as defined in section 94(2) of the Act) for cash pursuant to the authority contained in the Special Resolution dated 3rd April 1995 given in accordance with section 80 of the Act as if section 89(1) of the Act did not apply to any such allotment even if shares are allotted for cash at a price below the relevant net asset value per share provided that this power shall expire on 20th September 1998, save that the Company may before such expiry make an offer or agreement which would or might require equity securities to be allotted in pursuance of such offer or agreement as if the power conferred hereby had not expired."Reuse content