Financial services industry: People power has them on the run

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The Independent Online

Should we be worried that complaints to the Financial Ombudsman Service reached another record high last year? The FOS's annual report, published earlier this week, said it opened 112,923 new cases last year, a 2 per cent increase on 2005, itself a record year for complaints.

To put those numbers into context, back in 2001, the FOS received 31,000 complaints, less than a quarter of the current level.

Such numbers are a terrible indictment of the financial services industry - our leading banks, insurance companies and mortgage lenders. But there is a way to put a positive spin on these figures. It is that thousands of us have got much better at making a fuss when we're not happy with the way we've been treated. People are getting much better at standing up for their rights.

Regulators and the media deserve credit for this shift in attitude. They have campaigned to make consumers more aware of their right to complain, particularly on endowment-backed mortgages, which continue to dominate the FOS's workload, and this has succeeded.

The biggest congratulations, however, should go to those who have made complaints. No longer are people prepared to accept the poor value and shoddy treatment they get.

People power is making itself heard elsewhere, too. Ofgem, the energy regulator, says 900,000 homeowners moved gas or electricity provider in March alone. In most cases, it was a price hike that persuaded people to move.

That response should give energy firms food for thought. All gas and energy suppliers have raised prices over the past year, to counter rising wholesale costs, but if you know your customers will go elsewhere, it's a powerful reason not to put up bills by any more than necessary.

So how do customers keep the pressure on? Well, it's important to go on complaining if you're unhappy - and taking your business elsewhere if necessary.

But we also need continued support from regulators. And for that reason, a quietly worded but significant notice published by the Financial Services Authority this week is hugely welcome.

Three weeks ago in this column, I attacked Alliance & Leicester for closing the bank accounts of customers who had taken legal action against it over unfair penalty charges. Now, the FSA says it has referred this matter to the Banking Code Standards Board.

The watchdog says that in cases where it has jurisdiction, "we would not expect any regulated firm to discriminate against a customer who makes a complaint". In other words, it wouldn't put up with this sort of behaviour.

The A&L case comes under the remit of the board that supervises the Banking Code, but the FSA has told this body that this is "an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the Code in ensuring fair and reasonable outcomes to such disputes".

The lesson is that people power is having an impact - and that many firms do not like it. From today on, with regulators' support, we can all help to continue turning the screw.

n n n Research published this weekend says two-thirds of Britons are oblivious to the European Health Insurance Card, which replaced the E111 form on 1 January. I'm guilty too. Two weeks ago, in a Save & Spend article on cutting the cost of travel, I suggested people always took an E111 form on their travels. Oops.

To clarify, the document you need now is the new card, which is available from the Post Office. The card is free of charge, but entitles you to free or reduced-cost essential medical treatment in all EU countries, as well as Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

One final point: unlike the E111, which covered the whole family, every family member must hold their own card.

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