William Kay: The doors open on a far worse mis-selling scandal

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The Independent Online

The clattering train that is Her Majesty's Treasury is trundling remorselessly towards its still unspecified date with depolarisation next year, but it should slam on the brakes in the wake of this week's The Money Programme, on BBC TV. Reporters, posing as mortgage applicants, were encouraged by staff at Bank of Scotland and Birmingham Midshires to claim inflated incomes to qualify for larger mortgages.

This confirmed findings by a recent ING Direct survey showing many bank advisers and sales staff were ignorant or corrupt or both. The evidence of widespread misbehaviour bodes ill for depolarisation, under which banks will be able to sell all investment products, not just their own. Asset management companies fear risk to their reputations, with dimwits amid the many honourable and responsible bank salespeople.

Depolarisation will guarantee mis-selling. Lloyds TSB's staff cannot be trusted to sell its own products, never mind that of others, and HBOS, owner of the chains exposed on The Money Programme, is apparently no better. Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland/NatWest and HSBC can still insist their hands are clean, but it is most unlikely every one of their thousands of sales employees will cope. I hope Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, will embed safeguards to ensure people are not robbed blind. Again.

* Under his day-job guise as chief executive of the Share Centre, the Church commissioner, Gavin Oldham, is launching one of the more idiosyncratic ethical funds, which distinguishes between products it deems "harmful in themselves" and those whose harm arises only when they are abused.

So Mr Oldham's policy committee has ruled out armaments, improperly controlled, environmentally degrading products, tobacco, pornography, and so-called "non-essential" products such as animals-tested cosmetics and cleaning agents. But alcohol and gambling are fine as long as their producers or retailers do not encourage abuse.

It seems to me that moderate smoking can be beneficial, and to say pornography is automatically harmful is arguable. But, to each their own.

Details of the Ethical Fund on 0800 800 008 or www.share.com.

* While I was being dazzled at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, this week by the stylish production of the Cole Porter shipboard musical Anything Goes, I couldn't help noticing the resemblance between the character Elisha Whitney and that renowned City matinée idol, Matt Barrett. Whitney is a Wall Street tycoon and Mr Barrett runs Barclays Bank, but the wavy hair, the luxuriant moustache, the twinkle in the eye were uncannily similar.

And, like Mr Barrett, throughout the whole show Whitney didn't once borrow on his credit card.

Although it was never the cleverest move for a bank chief to decry debt the way Mr Barrett did, this week's Bank of England figures on consumer debt shows he is, as so often, right on the money. Last month, Britain put £1bn more on credit cards, and an extra £8bn into mortgages, almost ensuring my rate rise forecast will be fulfilled sooner rather than later.


William Kay is Personal Finance Editor of 'The Independent'

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