Money talks, but too often it's gibberish

Chrissie Maher, founder of the Plain English Campaign, gives a personal view on the problems of financial product literature

Financial information is in a mess and some drastic steps need to be taken to put it right.

Oeics, Peps, Dow Jones, Nikkei - these are just a few of the financial terms and acronyms that fill me with terror but which I am forced to consider when making investments. Then add in concepts such as "front-end loaded" and "allocation rates". Is it any wonder consumers cannot decide? This is jargon that bewitches, bothers and bewilders me and thousands of others.

The legacy of the pension mis-selling scandal of the 1980s is still with us. It has left many people living their final years in poverty. Unscrupulous sales staff were responsible for much of this tragedy. But they would have found it harder to hoodwink people if information had been in clear language.

John Denham, the Minister for Pensions, wants to tackle these problems. He has invited the Plain English Campaign to join his review to help "build a sustainable consensus for the long term future of pensions". We think the biggest single step forward in pensions reform would be to get everything written clearly.

Take a look at this and judge for yourselves. Allied Dunbar - Personal Life Plan: "In relation to the first slice (which is established on the commencement date), the total contribution payable each month multiplied by 12 if contributions are payable monthly or if contributions are payable annually, the total contribution payable on the commencement date; and thereafter." Or this, with a Co-operative Bank guaranteed investment bond: "These terms and conditions shall be subject to and construed in accordance with English law."

How can people be expected to know what all this means? It is a wonder they don't just throw up their hands in horror and resort to stuffing their money under the mattress.

So how can the trust of the public be won back? Some companies offering financial products are already working with us to win back that trust.

National Westminster Life Assurance, Pearl Assurance and Sun Life Assurance are among those rewriting their literature and many have earned our Crystal Mark for clarity.

But the problem goes deeper than this. Public trust in the market is at an all-time low. Our Crystal Mark will help people to understand what they are being asked to buy. However, while they may be able to understand what is written, a big part of the problem is what is not written.

Hence our Honesty Crystal Mark. This will tell the public that any documents bearing this seal are not only crystal clear, but also "honest" as nothing is hidden, omitted or understated. In other words, what the customer sees is what the customer gets.

Launched in June this year, the Honesty Crystal Mark has had only one taker, and that was not a financial firm. We did not expect companies to be queuing down the street but we expected a better response than this. Consumers might well draw their own conclusions.

q Contact: Plain English Campaign, PO Box 3, New Mills, High Peak, SK22 4QP; phone 01663 744409; web site address: www.plainenglish.co.uk.

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