Sam Dunn: Consumer champion swaps big punches for kid gloves

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The Independent Online

The stakes couldn't be higher. "It's in the national economic interest," warns Peter Vicary-Smith, the group's chief executive. "We should grasp with both hands the opportunity to encourage people back to the financial products market."

There is a whiff of fervour to this. In what it hopes will be a rather different relationship with banks, lenders, insurers and brokers, its "Time for a change: restoring and maintaining consumer confidence in the financial services industry" consultation will look at a number of radical ideas.

Convincing companies to turn their backs on a culture of commission-based selling is one; cajoling them to regularly publish a list of how customers' grievances are handled another.

Which? would also like them to set up consumer councils and, in every company annual report, publish a section devoted to how they treat customers.

"Consumer confidence and trust in this industry have been severely damaged," Mr Vicary-Smith said. "Regaining it has to be the number one priority for the industry".

After woe piled on woe by the industry's practitioners - take your pick of mis-selling scandals from personal pensions, endowments or high income bonds - this is no half-baked appeal.

Which? has already held plenty of talks with the industry, and is only embarking on this "partnership" because of welcoming noises.

If all goes well, it will publish its new manifesto in spring 2006, but I don't think it will be smelling of roses by then.

I wish Which? well, but I fear it faces a Herculean task: to clean up the financial services industry is to clean the Augean stables.

At least it will have public support - something that regularly eludes lenders and insurers, judging by the postbag sent to The Independent on Sunday's Money desk. But that might not be enough.

To overhaul the commission culture, the lifeblood of the industry, would require intensive surgery - in effect, dismembering the industry's body and sewing it back in an entirely different shape.

The industry's growth - stock market success and staff salaries - depends on this invidious prop, which rewards volume rather than customer care and quality of advice.

And the bottom line - keeping shareholders happy - sets the industry against Which?'s fair winds. Although banks and lenders love to recite the "we lend responsibly" mantra, it's a disingenuous claim: more money is to be made when customers struggle.

Take credit cards: people who miss the odd repayment and incur a fee, or who only pay the monthly minimum and rack up whopping interest charges, are far more profitable than those who clear their debts and behave responsibly.

Nobody wants bad debts - not least the banks - but wayward customer behaviour still rewards the industry disproportionately.

Making friends with your enemies is a cunning tactic that, if confidences are genuinely won, could be good for consumers.

As a pugilist, Which? has long punched above its weight, regularly exposing bad practice, deception and downright shoddy treatment of customers. Let's hope its new partnership doesn't leave it pulling punches.

s.dunn@independent.co.uk

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