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Society watchdog, where's your bite?

If there were a league table of popular financial companies, it might be expected that building societies - by which I really mean converting societies - would be at the top this year.

That is unless you are someone who feels aggrieved about being left out of a windfall or who has just noticed the dismal interest rate earned by your savings. My guess is these have been two of the most widespread gripes among building society customers recently. In fact it is not inconceivable that the numbers in these two groups could form an army not far short of those receiving windfalls.

Which is why last week I was looking forward to the Building Societies Ombudsman letting loose some thunder in his report on complaints to his office over the past year. The ombudsman is one of a band of individuals across the world of finance who offer consumers a free source of arbitration in their disputes with companies. Every year thousands of consumers benefit to the tune of many thousands of pounds from their rulings, which are normally binding on companies and have led to a range of improvements in customer service and complaints handling. At best the ombuds-men are consumer champions.

Sure enough, the Building Societies Ombudsman reported that thousands of gripes from people excluded from windfalls had helped take the total number of complaints received by his office to a record level in the past year. Not a few of the disputes involved people who said they had been wrongly advised by society branch staff that they could shift their savings without affecting their eligibility to windfalls - a worrying claim inevitably difficult to prove.

So what did the ombudsman have to say? In effect "nothing to do with me, guv" - most of the windfall complaints do not fall within his jurisdiction. Similarly on dismal interest rates: customers have a responsibility to review their own accounts. The ombudsman says he cannot rule on complaints relating to membership rights of societies - which, by and large, are what dictate windfalls. Potentially the ombudsman's remit may be widened under the new Building Societies Act, but this wouldn't come in until at least the end of the year - by which time the present bunch of conversions will be complete.

From next month there should be more openness from societies on interest rate changes, thanks to a new Banking Code of Practice, with the possibility that some societies (and banks) might start to write to individuals whenever rates change. But that, again, will not help people who have unfairly lost out during conversions. For them, the small claims court is the only option.

My tip for the Budget? Expect very little that is concrete on personal taxation, but plenty of initiatives and reviews. And if there is action in any of the personal areas, it will be phased rather than immediate. I should also add that I have a poor record in predicting Budgets.