You get to work and find you're at school

To encourage us to save, the authorities are inviting commercial firms into offices to give us financial education and advice. Can we trust the teachers? asks Sam Dunn
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The Independent Online

The Financial Services Authority (FSA), the City regulator, believes so. It is rolling out six pilot tests in a national financial-advice scheme.

At Quartet, a tiny packaging firm in South Yorkshire, the man from MBNA has already introduced himself to the eight staff and explained his role.

After early confusion - it emerged that not one Quartet employee wanted to know how to buy a house - staff will now learn about debt and borrowing later this month.

On a bigger scale, at the Oxford offices of gas company Centrica, advisers from the HBOS banking group have given a 45-minute talk to nearly 300 staff about saving, borrowing and insurance. Over the next few weeks, they plan further seminars as well as a chance for 15-minute "one-on-one" sessions to deal with particular concerns.

In both these cases, the self-styled "educators" must stick to stringent FSA rules. That means absolutely no company product spiel or specific financial advice; branding is banished too.

"These seminars are all about raising financial literacy - educating and informing consumers with generic advice," says Fay Goddard, director of policy at the Association of Financial Advisers and a member of the FSA's Financial Capability (Fincap) group.

Fincap, a body created to assess the state of the nation's financial health and then find a way to improve it, is at the heart of this grand project.

The diagnosis for our health is not good. There is a £57bn gap between what we need for a comfortable retirement and what we're actually saving - and that problem has been exacerbated by a lack of confidence in the finance industry following scandals such as the mis-selling of endowment mortgages and high-income bonds.

So the FSA and Fincap are examining how to reach the millions failing to set enough money aside for retirement and encourage them to be more savvy with their personal finances.

So far, seven teams have been set up to scrutinise different "points of entry" for financial advice and education. These include schools, the family, young adults and the workplace, the last of which has been singled out for special attention by the FSA's chairman. Callum McCarthy said earlier this year that "people have confidence in their employers in a way they don't ... in government". Great difficulties lie ahead, though.

Workplace-based generic advice may prove helpful but the cost of educators must be considered. And staff time spent on their finances comes at the cost of their work.

"There will be some hurdles - particularly to get employers to buy in to the idea," says Ms Goddard. "It's a question of resources and what benefits a company might get from it."

While large companies might be able to absorb the cost and staffing pressures, that won't necessarily be the case across the board. "It's hard with smaller firms," says Harper Wright, the MBNA man who's been advising staff at Quartet. "If you're a roofing firm or scaffolder, you've got more pressing issues."

Four other companies, including Scottish Power and Stagecoach, are taking part in the FSA pilot, with reports due back in the autumn. Once these have been studied, it is hoped that the scheme can be rolled out across the country next year. However, given that the long-term implications of financial advice and education in the workplace have not yet been fully assessed, that timescale looks ambitious.

The main area of concern is whether unbiased advice will always be given by financial services companies. And this looms large in the minds of members of Fincap.

"You have a concentrated workforce with plenty of similar people and financial needs in the same place," says Ms Goddard.

So making sure that this arrangement is used for its proper end - as part of a national financial-literacy drive, rather than as a lucrative stalking ground for financial companies to sell their products - is essential.

Mr McCarthy is also keenly aware of this danger. He has warned that groups of employees clustered together translates into "marketing concentrations" that would be commercially attractive.

"We need to find a way to facilitate the addressing of the needs of small investors and savers.

"The workplace, properly controlled and regulated, is a means of achieving this."

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