Julian Knight: Finally, OFT to rein in debt management firms

Put the words "debt" and "free" into a search engine and you will come up with no fewer than 60,000 results most of which are are fee chargers. But from next year the debt management industry is going to find it a lot harder to suggest that its services are free in any respect.

This week the Office of Fair Trading will launch a three-month consultation on guidelines for the multibillion-pound debt management industry. Having closed down a host of cowboy firms, the OFT is moving to impose standards on the rest.

I expect it to insist on stricter training and tighter controls of cold calling. In addition, fees are likely to be made clearer and disclosed at an earlier stage. And a lot of the misleading marketing will go.

The shake-up of the industry won't end there. I've been told that more firms are likely to be warned soon that they risk losing their credit licence – in effect, put out of business – if they don't up their game and stop fleecing the public. There are still plenty that need to be run out of town.

There are signs that the industry is realising that things have to change. One of the two industry bodies, the Debt Resolution Forum, has begun a staff qualification that involves 210 hours of study and has a 70 per cent pass rate, which is akin to other basic qualifications in the financial services. Some firms are also telling clients there is truly free advice available at the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service.

This week's OFT report represents another staging post in the fight for fairer debt advice. It has been a slow process and thousands of consumers have suffered at the hands of unscrupulous fly-by-night firms that have signed them up to overly tight individual voluntary arrangements and pocketed massive fees. Let's hope that when the OFT is eventually dissolved, momentum isn't lost.

Playground bullies

Never mind the banks trying to be above society – what about the energy companies? The big six providers operate a cartel, moving prices up as soon as their costs rise, but taking ages to lower them when costs drop. What's more, the Continental parent companies act as wholesalers to their UK operations, therefore dictating costs.

For energy firms, the UK plays the part of Treasure Island; just witness Scottish Power's massive price rises last week. As for switching supplier, tariffs are so complex, that many think it's not worthwhile shopping around.

The problem is the regulator, Ofgem, and its weak-kneed political masters. A few years ago, it did a bit of sabre-rattling over prices being raised too quickly; then what? The big six carried on as before. They are like playground bullies who managed to stare down teacher once and now think they're in charge. They probably are.

So what to do? We can't renationalise the industry, as it would be costly and potentially illegal, but this government, unlike the last, has to stand behind Ofgem's new inquiry. We need competition, not a cartel. Don't let the bullies, which are sending millions into fuel poverty, get away with it.

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