William Kay: Blair silent over the need for financial education

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The Independent Online

While it is heartening to see John Tiner, the Financial Service Authority's chief executive, making further strides in improving financial literacy, the silence on the subject from one particular corner is a disgrace.

Although Tony Blair was originally given the keys to 10 Downing Street on the basis of a call for "education, education, education", he has remained largely silent on the urgent need for action on financial education.

The ludicrous amount of time the Treasury has spent on the Sandler report on stakeholder products could have been better devoted to devising courses to bring children and adults up to speed on personal finance.

Then they would have the knowledge as well as the confidence to make accurate judgements about saving, investing and borrowing and we wouldn't be facing the contortions necessary to evolve allegedly foolproof products supposed to be sold on no more than a 1 per cent charge to ensure no one is ripped off. This is putting the cart before the horse with a vengeance.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, is a powerful man who has the ear and sympathy of Mr Blair. He is among the few Cabinet ministers who can squeeze more money out of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor.

And, as Alan Hughes at First Direct has astutely pointed out, financial education will actually benefit the financial services industry, stimulating demand for the right products and consigning to the dustbin such fripperies as ridiculously complicated, protected savings schemes born of a naïve desire for a risk-free ride on the stock market.

But this isn't just about money. The educational establishment has long mistrusted money and all it stands for. That resistance is breaking down, but there is a massive task to train teachers to teach personal finance.

Imaginatively taught, money fascinates children because of the power and goodies it brings. Talk to them about probability theory and they glaze over: tell them about horse-race odds and you have a rapt audience. Oh, but I forgot. Betting is another work of the Devil, not to be spoken about in the 21st century.

It's official: mortgages make you sick and they're about to make you sicker. Sainsbury's Bank claimed this week that mortgages have made 6.34 million people ill. This includes 4.4 million who admitted to being "anxious and worried". If that counts as being ill, plenty of us are permanently unwell.

What's more, a further 3.9 million people said their mortgage made them feel stressed. So it should. Taking on a debt equal to three or four times your annual income is enough to put anyone under the weather. It makes walking out on your job particularly rash, so you have to take more stick. And those carefree holidays in the Caribbean may have to be replaced by a more modest sojourn in Bournemouth. It's called growing up.

Lucy Hunter, Sainbury's mortgages manager, thinks the answer is more flexible mortgages, which Sainsbury's is promoting.

She said: "Much stress and worry could be removed by taking a mortgage that offers the ability to take a payment holiday." But after that happy spell is over, the rolled-up interest makes the debt even bigger, creating even more stress.

No wonder the insurer Axa has found one in three people cite financial issues as the major cause of arguments. And the stress of running a mortgage pales into insignificance against the discovery that two million people in relationships have a total of £480m secretly stashed, either against an emergency or to fund an illicit romance. Sounds to me as if such folk don't have enough stress and are energetically looking for more.

They should have their supplies of stress increased soon if Mervyn King, the Bank of England's Governor, has anything to do about it.

He reasonably pointed out this week that interest rates are low, have been low for a while and, how shall we put this, it cannot last. Mr King said his Monetary Policy Committee have kept rates low to stimulate the economy but this stimulation has got to the point where there is little spare capacity left in the economy. So if demand grows, the strain will have to be taken by higher inflation, which the MPC is in business to control.

Dearer debt will mean a sharp revision of many individuals' spending plans. And it could have major implications for the future of the stock market's still buoyant recovery. After this year's party mood, next year could be tricky for investors.


William Kay is Personal Finance Editor of 'The Independent'

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