William Kay: What we really need protection from is the confusion about the guardians

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The Independent Online

Is it possible to have too much consumer protection? Could we reach a stage when the custodians are getting in each other's way in their efforts to protect us? I raise these questions because the Geneva-based International Organisation for Standardisation, which sets world quality standards for industry, is, turning its attention to financial services.

The IOS is planning an international kitemark for financial advisers to guarantee a minimum standard of competence as a first step towards preventing mis-selling scandals. The scheme will be operated in Britain by the British Standards Institute, which already promotes kitemarks for dustbins and other products. No one could be more delighted than me at the prospect of properly trained financial advisers, but this comes very close to duplicating the Financial Service Authority's responsibility for authorising advisers. The examinations necessary for advisers to qualify for the kitemark will be set by the new Financial Services Sector Skills Council (FSSC), an offshoot of the Department for Education and Skills, which was part of the FSA.

So let's get this straight. The FSA sets the legal requirement for someone to trade as an adviser, and the new qualification will be an optional extra offered by a separate body which, like the FSA, is an arm of government. This seems a recipe for confusion.

The FSSC wants to have the early part of its courses offered through schools and colleges. The initial exams regime for advisers and planners, intended to be up and running by the middle of 2004, will be similar to an A-level. But if financial advisers are to be kept up to the mark, given the rapid changes in the sector, shouldn't they be re-examined every five years or so? An advisers' A-level is a valuable move towards a general personal finance A-level, which other groups are trying to introduce, and can only help teachers to become more familiar with the subject. Out of this typically British muddle may come real advances in financial education.

You can take the Halifax out of Yorkshire, but you can't take Yorkshire out of the Halifax. This week the mortgage bank trumpeted that 2003 has been the Year of the North for house sales, with a rapid increase in the number of million-pound properties sold in the region during the past 18 months. While million-pound sales have slowed in the fat-cat South, the North has prospered. In Yorkshire and Humberside, sales of such properties jumped 250 per cent, and in the Midlands by 183 per cent.

But these numbers sound less impressive when we learn that 250 rise meant seven million-pound properties were sold instead of two, and the 183 per cent increase was an improvement from six to 17.

The imbalance between the North and South is more vividly demonstrated by nearly half of the entire country's sales of top-end properties being concentrated on just three adjoining London boroughs: Camden, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. So the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, can hoist stamp duty land tax on the million-pounders without losing a shedload of votes. It won't raise much revenue either.

Now that it is three years since Bradford & Bingley surrendered its mutual status to become a plc, the company is advertising that it is about to sell any of its shares that have not been claimed by its former members, those who were savers or borrowers under the mutual regime. Anyone who thinks they may be entitled to shares should get in touch within the next three months. After that, for the next nine years claimants will receive cash to an equivalent value, with accumulated dividends.

But the advertisements are curiously silent on the question of what is to happen to the proceeds of those shares that are sold and not subject to a subsequent claim. Other former building societies are known to have set up charities to handle the relatively small sums involved. Maybe this was an oversight in the B&B ads. In this season of Christmas cheer, it would be nice to think so.


William Kay is Personal Finance Editor of 'The Independent'

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