Julian Knight: Where is the advice for those who need it most but can afford it least?

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The Independent Online

Financial advice is a subject that hardly sets the pulse racing. But with family finances pushed to breaking point, excessive personal debt and a paltry savings level, access to free or low-cost good quality advice has never been more crucial. Sadly, the UK financial advice industry isn't up to scratch. The truth is that the less money you have, the narrower and lower quality your advice options.

Those at the top of the income scale can afford private banking, advisory stockbrokers and fee-based independent financial advisers (IFAs), some charging up to £150 an hour. Although there are duds, the best financial advice minds tend to work in this market as they can earn more and have more client cash to play with.

In the middle income bracket, few people can afford a fee-based IFA. More often than not they rely on advisers who are directly employed or "tied" to a particular bank or insurer. This type of advice prompts the obvious question who is the adviser really working for, their employer or the client? Successive mis-selling scandals, where advisers have put their own and their employer's interest first, have provided a clear answer.

Alternatively, people can see an IFA who is earning commission paid on the products they recommend. Again there are serious pitfalls. While at university, many moons ago, I worked briefly as an office dogsbody at a large but now defunct IFA firm. One of the jobs I was given was to write the sales made by the firm's IFAs into a ledger, Bob Cratchit style. Strangely, the IFAs kept recommending the same accounts and investments to all their clients regardless of their age, income or marital status.

Only later did I come to understand that there was no way a single account or investment was right for everyone. The common denominator, though, was the big fat commissions earned on the sale of these products. I know the industry has moved on and the advice is better scrutinised these days, but whenever I hear an IFA defend commission and suggest it doesn't compromise their recommendation I think back to that ledger and its litany of potential mis-selling.

In reality, as often in life, it is people on low incomes who get the worst deal. IFAs and financial advisers aren't interested in them as they can't be turned into a profit. They can join credit unions and if they get into difficulty they can turn to Citizens Advice, but generally the advice cupboard is bare.

Tomorrow, this state of affairs may begin to change. A government review will be published, the work of Otto Thoresen, chief executive of the insurer Aegon, looking at the idea of a national financial advice service. But this could cost up to £80m a year and the sticking point, as ever, is who is going to pay? The two candidates are the government and the financial services industry. I can't imagine either being chuffed to pick up the tab. So what we may see is Mr Thoresen recommending cheaper local trials of face-to-face advice or even a web-based service, to make a convincing case that a bigger nationwide roll-out is worth paying for. Let's hope, though, that the money is found to make it happen.

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