David Prosser: Happy days - if you're in the in-crowd

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The Independent Online

It is not often that consumers can look back on a year and honestly feel they have enjoyed the upper hand over Britain's financial services industry. But I am delighted to say that 2006 has been such a year - at least for some.

In the world of long-term savings and insurance, endowment providers have finally been forced to cough up large sums to compensate millions of borrowers mis-sold the policies. Elsewhere, the Government has this week announced that greedy insurance companies will be excluded from the running of the new National Pension Savings Scheme.

But it is the big banks that have really been hit for six this year. First, in the spring, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) told them they could no longer legally charge penalty fees of £30 or more when customers missed credit card payments or exceeded their limits. At a stroke, this racket, which earns the largest providers hundreds of millions of pounds a year, was wiped out.

Since then, the banks have been on the run. Thousands of people have anticipated a ruling expected next year from the OFT on similar penalty charges on bank accounts. They've filed compensation claims with the banks and won refunds of bank charges.

Despite these successes, we must keep the pressure on during 2007. We are waiting for two crucial announcements from the OFT. First, it must tell us whether, as everyone expects, banks are no more entitled to charge penalty fees on current accounts than on credit cards. Second, the OFT is due to announce what it intends to do about payment protection insurance.

The PPI scandal is the biggest challenge remaining for regulators in the financial services industry. For years, leading lenders have been racking up huge profits by advertising very cheap loans and then selling the insurance alongside them. The cover is almost always hugely overpriced and is very often completely unsuitabl.

If the OFT can come up with a way of successfully cracking down on PPI, it could be the final nail in the coffin of bad banking . The banks might have to raise charges in other areas in order to recoup their costs, but at least they'd have to be honest about it.

I said it had been a good year for some. While we should celebrate all these successes, there is a group in society that still needs much more help. The number of people excluded from mainstream financial services grows by the day.

The first problem is the amount of personal debt with which so many people are struggling. This has led to a proliferation of companies selling debt management plans, often with little explanation of how borrowers' finances will be adversely affected for years to come.

A more fundamental issue is the increasing number of people with whom established companies do not wish to do business. Barclaycard, Britain's biggest credit card company, now turns down six in 10 applications for credit.

Financial exclusion is a breeding ground in which the unscrupulous can flourish. From loan sharks to savings schemes targeted at low-income customers - think Farepak - people are at risk. Add in the collapse in Post Office numbers - the Government announced just this week that a fifth of the already depleted network will close - and there's a clear picture emerging.

It's one of a divided society in which relatively well-off consumers are increasingly confident about asserting their rights, while a very large group of less affluent people are falling further behind.

Save & Spend will be back on 6 January.

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