Money News: Energy and post watchdogs 'performing feebly', say MPs

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The Independent Online

Two watchdogs set up to advise and protect consumers from bad practice by energy providers and the Royal Mail have been excoriated by MPs for "performing feebly".

Energywatch and Postwatch, both set up in 2000 by the Government, have "failed to find out more about consumer needs and difficulties, especially those of older people and low-income families", said Edward Leigh, chairman of the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (CPA).

He continued: "Neither body knows how effective it is in helping consumers, and it can't help that only a tiny proportion of the public have heard of the two bodies. They need to stop stuttering along and start firing on all cylinders."

Huge numbers of complaints were continuing to pour in, particularly relating to errors in energy bills and post lost by the Royal Mail, a CPA report said.

Although Energywatch and Postwatch have handled more than 300,000 complaints and secured compensation for many consumers who have suffered poor service, their overall achievements were described as "unimpressive". Gas and electricity customers continue to receive late and inaccurate bills, and suppliers have unfairly blocked people from switching to cheaper providers or have adopted aggressive sales tactics to win new customers. Around 14.5 million items of post are misdelivered or lost each year.

A spokesman for Energywatch expressed astonishment at the MPs' verdict and said it did "not recognise the organisation as portrayed".

Postwatch said the number of customer complaints it received was now falling.

Tax haul: Stamp duty and IHT bonanza for Brown

The Government raked in £6.6bn in stamp duty and inheritance tax in the last financial year - £2bn more than in the previous 12 months.

Stamp duty on residential property purchases accounted for the lion's share (£5.5bn) of the tax take, according to a review from the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) and the Chartered Institute of Housing.

These figures were evidence of the "growing financial burden on home ownership created by government policy", said Peter Williams, the CML's deputy director-general.

According to the review, Chancellor Gordon Brown's decision to double the stamp duty threshold from £60,000 to £120,000 before this year's general election is not going to make much difference to UK homebuyers.

The IHT reform "will reduce payments on residential property by only £250m, or 6.5 per cent. And even this modest sum is set to reduce as the number of homes sold for less than £120,000 declines", the authors of the report said.

The rise in house prices between 1995 and 2005, which saw many homes double in value, is largely responsible for filling the Treasury's coffers.

The CML has warned that the introduction in 2007 of Home Information Packs, or sellers' packs, will push up the cost of buying a home by £1,000. Sellers would, it said, pass on the extra cost of obtaining the compulsory report detailing the condition of their property.

Credit cards: Charges soar for late payment on plastic

Credit card providers have put up default charges by as much as 40 per cent in the past three years, a new survey claims.

Customers who make late payments, breach their credit limit or default on payments now face an average charge of more than £22 each time they do so, according to Credit Cards in the UK 2005, a report from financial researcher Defaqto.

The average returned default payment has risen by 37 per cent from October 2002 to £20.93. The average late payment is up by 38 per cent to £22.68, and the credit limit breach by 40 per cent to £22.79.

Concern is growing at the size of these charges compared with the actual cost incurred by lenders when customers default on payments.

"The provider does incur costs and time in dealing with delinquent transactions, and justifiably seeks to pass these on to the errant consumer," said David Black, Defaqto's head of banking. "However, many of these processes are automated and require little human involvement. It's questionable whether fees in the region of £20 plus are justified for relatively minimal effort on the part of the provider."

Credit card charges are already being investigated by the Office of Fair Trading.

Not all providers levy hefty penalties, Defaqto pointed out. Default charges varied from nothing to £25, while charges for late payment and breach of credit limit ranged from £10 to £25.

Holiday promotion: Premium-rate 'prize' costs 17,000 dear

A company that persuaded nearly 17,000 people to call a premium-rate telephone number with promises of a "life-changing" prize has been censured by the Office of Fair Trading. The calls were charged at £1.50 per minute and lasted for up to seven and a half minutes. The total cost was as much as £11.25 for each caller.

Phoenix Media (UK), a Chester-based business trading as Techtron Games, has been stopped from publishing misleading advertisements for premium-rate prize promotions.

It sent out more than 1.7 million promotional letters for a competition. Entrants had to call the number quoted to find out if they had won a prize.

More than 16,700 people responded to the promotion, the OFT said. It considered that the the layout and presentation of the promotional material were misleading, as they gave the impression that the recipient had won a £25,000 cash prize.

In fact, nearly everyone who responded received a "giveaway" holiday voucher whose use was subject to significant restrictions, for what was misleadingly described in the promotion as a "Caribbean cruise".

The mail shot also gave the impression that the voucher was a major prize and that recipients had been luckier than other recipients to have won it. In fact, everyone was a "winner".

"These ads encouraged consumers to make expensive phone calls in the hope of receiving a major cash prize," said John Fingleton, chief executive of the OFT.

If Phoenix breaches the regulator's ruling, it could face penalties for contempt of court.

Interest-free credit: Blow for rate tarts as top 0% deal is pulled

The credit-card deal offering the longest 0 per cent interest period on balance transfers was pulled from the market yesterday, barely three months after its launch.

When it was announced in September, the Platinum card from Capital One gave users interest-free credit on transfers until 1 January 2007 - in effect, 15 months. However, the card provider has now decided to withdraw its offer after a product review, arguing that the deal no longer marks it out in a competitive market.

"This is a sign of the times in the credit-card market," said Andrew Britchford of finance analyst Moneyfacts. "[Accountants] PricewaterhouseCoopers recently revealed that the 0 per cent money is costing the industry over £600m a year."

The rising number of bad debts and defaults on credit cards has also hit lenders and persuaded them to curb the number of 0 per cent balance transfer deals. These have allowed some customers - known as "rate tarts" - to switch their debts between cards without paying any interest.

At the beginning of the year, Moneyfacts found 114 cards offering 0 per cent deals with a term greater than five months; this number has fallen to 91.

Over this same period, the number of cards that levy a fee to transfer a balance from a rival card or personal loan has more than trebled from 12 to 41.

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