Kate Hughes: Cash-strapped Brits stay on the straight and narrow

Fears of a growing 'compensation culture' are unfounded as households seek extra, legal cash

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The Independent Online

You would expect that the longer the economic lull continues, the looser our financial morals would become. We start claiming on the insurance for fictitious photography equipment, the crack in the pavement quickly becomes an opportunity to claim for compensation and the really unscrupulous among us may suddenly develop crippling whiplash after setting up the merest kiss with the bumper in front.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and integrity goes out the window. Little old ladies and taxi drivers start lamenting the erosion of our collective decorum, the stiff upper lip and this island nation's inherent sense of fairness. We're all going to the dogs.

Actually, no. We're not.

Despite record levels of complaints, Natalie Ceeney, the chief executive and chief ombudsman for the Financial Ombudsman Service, the UK's financial services complaints referee, argues that this belief that we're somehow in the midst of a compensation frenzy is completely groundless.

"Alongside concerns about the banks' sales approach and incentives, I've noticed more talk of 'fraudulent claims' – with some reports that people are claiming for policies they never actually had. All this fuels the argument that society's in the grip of 'compensation culture' – and that this culture is growing in financial services.

"I'm not seeing anything that suggests that consumers are more likely to make a speculative claim now than in the past."

The ombudsman actually upheld slightly more complaints last year than the year before, she notes.

"Despite having and using it's right to throw out frivolous or questionable claims, the FOS is upholding roughly the same proportion as we always have."

So what's fueling all this? The answer lies partly with financial businesses themselves, Ceeney believes. "Faced with considerable evidence of bad practice – and hefty costs to put it right – it's tempting to deflect some of the responsibility back onto the consumer. Add to this the ever-present advertising by claims management companies – which bolsters the idea that people will willingly 'have a go' – and the picture is complete.

"As long as we're still getting those text messages telling us to claim money back from the PPI policy we've never even heard of, this idea that we're in the grip of compensation culture is unlikely to go away."

Despite the excuse, albeit unfounded, that everyone else is doing it, we're largely holding it together without reverting to fraud. Not only that, we appear to be increasingly helping ourselves. All of a sudden we've discovered things like the tax-free benefits of renting out the spare room. The number of people taking in lodgers has doubled this year to almost one million, and homeowners are using the extra cash to pay off mortgages, household bills and personal debt in these income squeezing times, says LV=.

Meanwhile, 60 per cent of holidaymakers are strategically timing their bookings in search of better value for money, ABTA reckons. Hell, most people I know can now calculate the cheapest baked beans by weight in their sleep - including the BOGOF offers I might add. It's a wonder to behold.

So why do we do nothing when we get hit by three massive energy price hikes from npower, SSE and British Gas, adding between 6 and 9 per cent to our already breathtakingly high average bills just as winter gets started?

The difference between the cheapest and most expensive fuel tariffs on the market today is £300, according to uSwitch.com, that's a quarter of the average annual bill. And yet six in every 10 households have never switched their supplier, according to Ofgem, the energy watchdog.

This upward spiral is not going to go away, so forget the 2p difference on four tins of Heinz, find a decent fixed-price dual fuel deal, switch stuff off at the wall and get your hands on all the freebie energy monitors and cut price insulation deals you can.

With perfect timing, Big Energy Saving Week runs from 22-27 October. For more information about saving on your fuel bills go to: bigenergysavingweek.org.uk.

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