Money News: 'TrustMark' to separate the craftsmen from the chancers

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The Independent Online

Rogue builders and dodgy tradesmen are to be weeded out by a new government-backed "quality" scheme.

TrustMark, a badge put together by the Trading Standards Institute, consumer group Which? and Consumer Direct, an online and telephone government advice service, will try to clamp down on the shoddy repairs and rip-off work that cost people around £1.5bn a year, according to the Office of Fair Trading.

Over 110,000 complaints are made to Trading Standards every year about poor-quality craftsmanship, and now the Government wants to create an emblem that can easily be identified by consumers.

"The huge range of accreditations and trade associations can be baffling," said Ian Livsey, chairman of the new scheme. "This is a single logo to look out for, whatever work needs doing." It should "engender trust as it's backed by government-endorsed standards".

The benefits are a clear complaints channel for consumers if things go wrong; the checking of businesses' trading records, finances and technical skills; and the meeting of health and safety standards.

So far, 25 trade associations have publicly backed the scheme and 10 have already signed up, including the National Federation of Roofing Contractors and the Glass and Glazing Federation. These organisations will be able to hand out the TrustMark logo to members that pass muster.

The Government wants to attract 14,000 building and home improvements firms to the scheme by the summer. For a list of approved firms, go to www.trustmark.org.uk.

House prices: Bricks and mortar back on track

House prices grew by 1.4 per cent in January - the fastest monthly rate in a year and a half, according to Nationwide building society.

This was the most robust level of growth since July 2004, when the rate hit 1.9 per cent, it added. However, annual house price inflation was running at more than 20 per cent then. Today, the figure is 4.4 per cent, said Fionnuala Earley, Nationwide's group economist. "The [1.4 per cent] is a significant rise and confirms the strengthening trend we've seen since October."

It left the average price of a UK house at £158,478.

The increase could be attributed to "pent-up demand" following last August's quarter-point cut in the base rate to 4.5 per cent, as well as to consumer confidence that the housing market won't crash.

"The continued pick-up in mortgage approvals suggests the market will get stronger over the next few months," said Ms Earley.

These signs may dampen expectations of a rate cut by the Bank of England next week, analysts said. But with retail figures suggesting that consumers have yet to recover their appetite for spending, many experts still foresee a rate cut in the first half of 2006.

With-profit funds: Bonus misery at Standard Life

Hundreds of thousands of Standard Life policyholders have suffered a cut in their annual bonuses.

The insurer - set to float on the stock market this year - has reduced the rate on three of its four with-profits pension funds from 2.5 to 2 per cent, and on two of its four with-profits endowments from 2 to 1.5 per cent.

Other with-profits funds have had their rates held at last year's level, ranging from 2 to 4 per cent. However, payouts on maturing with-profits policies have plunged by a fifth.

A 25-year, £50-a-month savings endowment policy maturing last week was worth £41,806; a year ago, it would have paid out £51,220.

For mortgage endowments, it's a similar story: last week, a 25-year, £50-a-month policy paid out £40,459. A year ago, it would have been £49,511.

The decision has come despite rising stock markets during the past year. Standard Life has missed out on much of this as many of its funds are invested in lower-risk bonds because of regulatory solvency rules.

Tax credits: Disputes are dragging on

The Treasury is still failing to meet its own target of resolving tax credit overpayment disputes within one month.

The admission was made last week by Paymaster General Dawn Primarolo (pictured below) at a hearing of the Treasury Select Committee investigating the controversial government tax policy.

It is now taking an average of five weeks to sort out complaints from consumers, she said, but some cases are taking a lot longer because of problems with computer systems.

Since their introduction in 2003, tax credits have been riddled with problems including online fraud, computer errors and overpayments made by mistake to families. The subsequent efforts by the taxman to get these excess payments back led to hardship for many.

In the 2003-04 tax year, nearly two million people received too much in the way of tax credits, according to a recent report from the National Audit Office.

As the taxman then tried to recover this money, families - particularly those on low incomes who had already spent the payout - found themselves struggling to cope financially.

Ms Primarolo said tax credits were helping children, and pointed to the reforms that are being introduced on 13 February. These include an extension of payments to people who are in financial difficulties due to claims of overpayment, and a test project to put tax credit staff in Citizens Advice bureaux.

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