News: Ad rules broken as lenders put their best rates forward

Regulator proposes shake-up of 0870 and 0871 phone services; house prices slip again; uproar over 'lifeboats' for pensioners in failed schemes

A nationwide review of 2,700 adverts - mainly for personal loans, car finance and in-store credit - by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) found that regulations had been breached in 68 per cent of specialist car magazines and more than 60 per cent of regional newspapers.

Last October, the Consumer Credit (Advertisements) Regulations came into force to ensure that credit ads were fair, transparent and not misleading.

In many cases, however, the OFT found a problem involving the annual percentage rate.

Under the new rules, the only APR that can be used as a headline figure in ads is the rate for which at least two-thirds of a lender's customers are eligible. But the OFT reported instances where this either wasn't displayed; was swamped by the other, more attractive rates on show; wasn't prominent enough; or wasn't displayed next to payments and charges.

"For consumers, who must have clear information on the costs of loans, this is very unsatisfactory," said Sir John Vickers, chairman of the OFT. "We are working with businesses to drive up compliance, and will take enforcement action where necessary."

The OFT's punishments can range from fines to a prison sentence.

Their number's up

Expensive phone calls to 0870 and 0871 numbers could soon be cut off after telecoms regulator Ofcom proposed sweeping reforms to protect consumers.

Widespread use of these numbers - usually call centre helplines for banks and government bodies - has led to concern about a lack of clarity in their pricing and marketing.

Calls to 0870 numbers can cost as much as 8p a minute, and the charges can mount when customers are kept holding for an operator to become free.

In a consultation paper, Ofcom has called for an end to what it describes as "revenue sharing" with 0870 numbers, where businesses and the phone companies divvy up the call cost between them.

Instead, to cut prices, the OFT says all 0870 calls should be switched to the normal financial model for the industry, where the cost of a call is based on geographical location.

With 0871 numbers, the watchdog has suggested they be reclassified as premium rate and regulated by Icstis, the regulator for premium-rate services.

Ofcom is also reviewing other widely used numbers, although it will protect the pricing of 0845 numbers for at least two years. Five million users of pay-as-you-go internet dial-up services rely on 0845 for access to the web, said the regulator.

The numbers also proved good value for low-income users with a landline package such as BT's Light User scheme: calls to 0845 were cheaper than those on normal national rates.

Property dented

House prices fell by 0.2 per cent for the second month in a row in September, according to figures from Nationwide building society.

The average price now is £156,517, it said, leaving annual house inflation at just 1.8 per cent - its lowest rate since 1996.

"Since the end of 2004, the data has been mixed, with several months of small falls and rises," said Fionnuala Earley, group economist at Nationwide.

However, the long-term trend showed that growth had "stalled" and that historically high prices suggested a housing market "bubble", she added.

"But experience so far shows no evidence of an imminent crash. Instead, the housing market has remained fairly robust and buyers have shown renewed interest."

Pensions protests

Tony Blair hinted at an overhaul of the basic state pension during last week's Labour Party conference in Brighton.

But the Prime Minister's promise of a "proper", reformed state pension and a "simple, easy way to save" was overshadowed by rows over the Government's pensions "lifeboat" and protests about a lack of protection for pensioners in failed retirement schemes.

The Pension Protection Fund (PPF) is a new safety net, funded by companies, that aims to pay pensions to workers whose employers' final salary schemes have been wound up. But businesses have expressed dismay at the prospect of the PPF becoming responsible for the liabilities of Turner & Newall (T&N), the failed engineering firm - whose scheme had 40,000 members. If T&N's liabilities were to fall into the PPF, it could well be that businesses would have to provide more funding.

Other failed company schemes lay behind a protest by a group of naked pensioners on Brighton beach. They were complaining about a shortage of compensation from the Financial Assistance Scheme, newly set up to help workers let down by their employers.

Despite Mr Blair's words, much rests on proposals from Adair Turner's Pensions Commission on solving Britain's long-term savings crisis. These are due to be published on 30 November.

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