Money News: Shoppers to be compensated in store-card cover crackdown

Tens of thousands of shoppers could be in line for compensation after GE Capital Bank, the company behind the high-street store cards offered by retailers such as Debenhams and Topshop, was fined £610,000 for failing to sell payment protection insurance (PPI) properly.

The Financial Services Authority (FSA) ruled last week that GECB neither treated customers fairly nor had "adequate systems and controls" to sell PPI, which is designed to cover loan repayments in the event of illness, unemployment or accident.

Training of staff who sold PPI was inadequate, said the City regulator, and many customers had not received full information about their policy before signing up.

The card company says it is now taking steps to tighten procedures and is getting in touch with customers to pay compensation where appropriate.

GECB, which provides card services for names including Miss Selfridge, B&Q and Asda, usually offers PPI at the till when customers are applying for a store card. But critics, including the charity Citizens Advice, have long voiced concerns about the low claims ratios on PPI policies (which often exclude the self-employed, for example), and the high commission rates paid to sales staff.

The FSA found that, at any one time, 300,000 retail assistants employed in stores are permitted to sell insurance on behalf of GECB. In 2005 alone, 850,000 PPI policies were sold on its behalf.

"Millions of people take out store cards every year," said Margaret Cole, the FSA's director of enforcement. "They need to know that PPI is almost always optional and should consider whether they need it before signing up."

She stressed that the FSA would continue to monitor the situation.

"We are determined to see significantly better practice in PPI sales and will crack down where firms fail to treat their customers fairly."

The FSA says that by the end of the year it will have investigated more than 200 firms selling PPI. It has already issued four fines, including those for brokers Regency and Loans.co.uk.

Housing: Repossessions up by 65% last year

The number of home repossessions climbed by two-thirds last year to 17,000, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML).

A rise from 10,310 in 2005 means that one in every 690 mortgage holders was unable to keep up with repayments and had their home repossessed.

However, the rate of increase slowed sharply in the second half of the year to 8,860, compared with 8,140 in the first half. This resulted in a figure that was lower than the previous forecasts of 18,000.

The CML said the rise was mostly down to lenders' readiness to give home loans to people with poor credit records, among whom arrears and possession rates are higher. It expects repossessions to rise again this year and next - to 19,000 in 2007 and 20,000 in 2008.

The CML said the most vulnerable borrowers were those on variable rates of interest, but warned that if interest rates rose further, this would expose a much wider spectrum of borrowers to possible difficulties.

The housing charity Shelter said its advisers had seen mortgage arrears and repossession problems more than double in the past two years - and that it had received more than 70,000 hits on its website about repossession.

"The massive rise of 65 per cent in mortgage repossessions means more ordinary hard-working families face the nightmare of becoming homeless," said spokesman Adam Sampson. "Spiralling house prices, created by a desperate shortage of housing, are forcing more families to overstretch themselves to get on the property ladder."

He urged mortgage providers to be more responsible - particularly when lending large sums of money to vulnerable people on low incomes.

Pensions: Campaigners go to the High Court

Workers campaigning for compensation over the loss of their pensions when their employers collapsed will this week meet the Government in the High Court.

The Pensions Action Group (PAG) is using a judicial review to challenge the Government's rejection of recommendations by both the Parliamentary Ombudsman and a Commons select committee that up to 125,000 workers should receive compensation. Last year the Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, accused the Government of maladministration over the issue.

The PAG, led by the economist and pensions guru Ros Altmann, says ministers should accept the Ombudsman's findings. The group is now fighting for compensation.

But the Government has repeatedly maintained that the workers' loss is not its fault. In the event of winning the case, It has threatened to pursue the claimants for all its defence costs; usually it agrees to cap these at a low level. The Government's legal bill is expected to be around £125,000, which could bankrupt PAG claimants.

The group said that while this was a "very frightening prospect", they felt they had no choice but to go ahead with the case "to try to force ministers to accept their responsibilities for this injustice".

The case will be heard in the High Court on Wednesday and Thursday, and the PAG is set to hold a demonstration in Parliament Square on Wednesday.

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