A row is brewing over the way in which companies "pay" to be included in "best buy" tables, the listings that guide consumers to the most competitive financial products.
Groups that champion consumer interests have been dismayed by a move from the financial-data provider Moneyfacts, long seen as the "gold standard" of best buys, to restrict inclusion in its tables to those companies that pay for additional, separate services.
In the past, when Money-facts compiled the information, product providers weren't charged a penny.
Technically, companies still won't have to pay anything for appearing in its tables. John Woods, Moneyfacts' outgoing chief executive, said the firm wasn't demanding a fee. Instead, as part of its effort to ensure data is accurate, it was restricting inclusion in all its listings to those companies that subscribe to Datascreen, which is used by most banks, building societies and independent financial advisers to monitor the rates on different financial products.
"We would not be happy about including, in a best-buy table, a small organisation we had barely heard of that simply told us it was offering an unbelievably high rate on an account," Mr Woods says. "I don't think that would be in the best interests of the consumer."
However, some building societies are alarmed that Moneyfacts is proposing to charge prices beyond what they believe are reasonable. Among those affected is Kent Reliance, whose mini cash individual savings account is a regular feature in the best-buy tables. Its chief executive, Mike Lazenby, says it has been quoted a £11,000 fee for subscribing to Data-screen and is now being asked to pay for "clicks" through to its website from the Moneyfacts site.
Mr Lazenby adds: "Moneyfacts is asking for £2.50 per click - but that is just for 'views', not conversions to sales.
"We received 5,000 clicks for one of our mortgage products from Moneyfacts but not a single sale. If we had agreed to its proposed charges, it would have been charging us £12,500 for nothing. That sum would have brought our bill for inclusion on the Moneyfacts database to over £20,000, and we have to consider if this sum is worth it because it is members' money we are spending."
He concedes that Kent could lose business if it is no longer included in best-buy tables, and that this is a cause for concern.
Harpenden building society will also be hit. It has a table-topping Tessa-only ISA and a children's savings account that was a winner in Moneyfacts' most recent awards. But the society does not subscribe to Datascreen, and Harpenden's chief executive, Paul Marsden, is dismayed that its products could now be axed from the tables.
"The fee that Moneyfacts wanted to charge us last time they approached us - before this latest turn of events - would have taken up more than half our marketing budget for the year. Now it would probably be a lot more than half."
Mr Marsden and Mr Lazenby both favour regulation of best-buy tables.
The consumer lobby organisation Which?, which takes data from Moneyfacts but also uses its own research to make recommendations of best buys, is refusing to comment on Moneyfacts' terms of business until it has had a chance to review whether the situation has any bearing on its own relationship with the data provider.
Mr Woods stands by the new Moneyfacts charges, citing "commercial realities". Most other professional best-buy tables have a charging structure for inclusion, and have muscled in on territory that once belonged to Moneyfacts.
Financial companies will continue to subscribe to Datascreen, Mr Woods hopes, and pay the appropriate fees to maintain the integrity of the service.
"No one has ever covered absolutely every product in the market," he explains. "We very much want Moneyfacts to still be able to cover as much of the market as is possible - as it has until now."
He adds that the new fee scale represents an "insignificant" increase in charges and that the click-through model of payment is the way forward for both data aggregators and the companies themselves.
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