Sam Dunn: Zap! Pow! Superheroes of the select committee

Bouquets instead of brickbats for our politicians might sound a little unnatural but it's impossible to overstate the importance of these six MPs who, with eight others, were appointed last week as either re-elected or new members of the Treasury Select Committee.

These men and women will play a critical role in holding to account some of the biggest and ugliest beasts in the financial services jungle.

Thanks to its energetic chairman, Mr McFall, the committee has earned a reputation as an attack dog - dragging many complacent and avaricious financial services companies before it.

In the course of probing into the often dubious practices of banks and investment companies, it has morphed into a de facto consumer champion.

In the past three years, it has sparred with banks over their product charges, scrutinised the companies involved in the endowment-mortgage and split-cap-investment-trust debacles, and grilled operators who levy fees for using cash machines.

Its memorable scalps include Matt Barrett, the former chief executive and now chairman of Barclays bank, who admitted he had told his own children not to use credit cards because they were too expensive.

Sir Howard Davies, a former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, was accused by the committee of being "asleep on the job" during the split cap inquiry.

Most recently, the MPs' interrogation of independent cashpoint machine operators exposed the fact that some had voted clandestinely to try to block attempts to make ATM charges more transparent. The Government's response to this particular inquiry is due this week.

Unfairly, critics of the select committee accuse it of grandstanding and, more seriously, claim that its members can fail to grasp the full details of complex financial affairs. On both counts, this criticism is unwarranted.

The committee's spotlighting of whichever financial controversy is under investigation has done much to raise public awareness. And, far from not having done their homework, its members have regularly displayed an eye for financial detail that has clearly thrown their quarry off guard.

Their powers, though, are limited. As a scrutinising body, the committee can only make recommendations - usually in the form of reports - to the Government in the hope that it will then act.

But as a forum for forcing financial companies to disclose their inner workings, the committee is invaluable.

MPs return in October from their summer recess, which begins this week, and committee members must prepare to battle on. Their targets have yet to be fixed but a full inquiry into payment protection insurance sold with loans and credit cards would be a cracking start. Roll on, the winter months.

s.dunn@independent.co.uk

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