MONEY TALK: The Skipton keeps the punters guessing

THE SKIPTON building society, a hot tip to be the next society to pay a windfall, appeared to fuel speculation last week about its future, more by what it didn't say than what it did.

Last week it announced its half-yearly financial results. Among the endangered species that are the remaining societies, such announcements are almost always accompanied by platitudes about how mutuality really is in the best interests of customers - although none of these customer-friendly mutuals really dares to ask their customers for their views, of course.

The Skipton, by contrast, was intriguingly unforthcoming. Chief executive John Goodfellow appeared to deliberately avoid committing the society to remaining a mutual when he said: "We shall continue to be a highly efficient organisation [my italics] delivering products which are attractive in the marketplace."

The society denies anything should be read into such comments and says it continues to think it can do a better job as a mutual. But this is not the first time the Skipton has appeared less than wholehearted in its stance. The society is not thought to be averse to takeover approaches that would maintain its branch network, brand and jobs.

If you want to take a punt on the Skipton, its minimum opening balance is now pounds 2,000, and a further restriction is that unless you put in at least pounds 5,000 you will have to accompany your investment with a pounds 25 donation to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. This is a nice idea for which the Skipton should be applauded, and which has already raised pounds 200,000 for the charity. Indeed, the question is why more of the so-called die-hard mutuals don't do this, rather than the farce of effectively excluding small savers - their traditional customers - with high opening balances, or simply turning people away.

INTERNET developments seem to happen at such a pace that any claim of a "world first" might not appear to count for much.

Eagle Star last week claimed to be breaking new ground with the launch of a service for buying motor insurance "on the Net". It does everything bar issue the certificate - everything being the application form, the quote and the paying - instantly and 24 hours a day. The old-fashioned need to send out a certificate is the inevitable fly in the cyberspace ointment because drivers - for now at least - need to carry tangible proof of insurance when they are driving.

But whatever the appeal to Internet nerds, the service also seems worthy of wider attention because of its potentially lower premiums than buying over the phone - in particular, 15 per cent cheaper than Eagle Star Direct's standard telephone rates.

The Internet has huge potential for the world of finance both in terms of offering cheap (or free) ready access to information - whether share prices or savings rates - as well as the prospect of lower prices because of the lower distribution costs for companies.

However, just as with computer banking and even some "direct" telephone sellers, consumers should not automatically assume that savings will be passed on, or that they will end up with a bargain just because a company offers a discount for using a new medium. Indeed, PC banking services normally involve extra costs, despite the claims by the banks that they want to wean people away from branches in order to cut costs.

Eagle Star says it was already cheap over the phone, and that in many cases its Internet prices will be among the cheapest around.

Maybe. But motor insurers are also known for targeting different sorts of drivers, so consumers should pick up the phone or surf the Net for other insurers as well, including those not quoting discounts. Who knows, even the old high street insurance broker might produce a better quote in some cases.