FEAR OF FINANCE

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The Independent Online
We are all living in the consumer age. How many times have we heard this mantra chanted at us in the past few years?

The image we are continually fed is one where it is no longer our work, or our wider relationship with the body politic that empowers us, but the spending limit on our credit cards.

Financial behemoths, including banks and building societies, estate agents, pension providers and assorted fund managers are all supposedly in awe of us.

If we don't like the way we are treated, we can take our custom elsewhere. Armed with a wealth of information, we are becoming discerning consumers, sifting the dross and choosing the best deals. We spend, therefore we are strong.

Leaving aside the obvious point that if you have no money, you have no power, there are a number of other problems with this theory.

Let's be honest: how many of us feel really confident about all the palaver involved in buying a house? Choosing the right pension? Finding a safe haven for our hard-earned savings? Juggling with the best way of paying off our debts? My guess is very few.

The Council of Mortgage Lenders issued a consultation document this week over a code of conduct it proposes to have in place by the end of the year.

The draft CML code talks about borrowers having all the mortgage options explained to them, including - although it skates around the issue - giving advice on the most suitable ones.

Yet, as the Consumers' Association points out, there is no legally binding obligation on lenders to give best advice. Nor are there any plans to force estate agents and brokers who arrange the loans to sign up to the code of conduct.

One is left with the distinct impression that despite the pieties, nothing much is likely to change.

And what of estate agents? This week also saw the publication of the estate agents' Ombudsman's annual report. The scheme dealt with 229 complaints and found in favour of the consumer in just 79 cases. Now it may well be that this indicates the very high standard of service given by estate agents. Somehow, I find this hard to swallow.

Actually, the Ombudsman, David Quayle, is quite revealing. He complains that a vast number of potential members are refusing to join his scheme; there is no progress towards minimum qualifications for estate agents; nor are there moves to reform present house-selling procedures that cause so much uncertainty.

One is left with the inescapable conclusion that many of these people are either unable or unwilling to reform themselves.

Yes, there is a minority of people who make informed decisions and choose wisely. As for the rest of us, I suspect that our "boycott power" is much more of a negative thing.

Because we don't trust the self-styled gurus and the slick sales people, we do without their services. The result is similar to so-called consumer power, in that the spivs lose out. So do the reputable practitioners, as the recent collapse in personal pension sales vividly demonstrates. Until they are seriously prepared to reform the way they run their businesses, the unofficial boycott will continue. It isn't a sign of strength on our part though, but weakness.

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