Weekly Money: Round-up of the personal finance stories you may have missed 23-27 February

 

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The Independent Online

The stories we noticed this week: 100,000 to die through fuel poverty; MPs support equitable victims; debtors being unfairly hassled: vulnerable consumer let down by finance firms; pension freedoms warnings; new tax break for married couples.

27 February

The Department for Work and Pensions has been slammed after a series of cock-ups left an elderly pensioner £26,000 worse off.

The Pensions Service – part of the DWP - failed to send a computerised prompt to her local council that would have automatically triggered a housing benefit claim she was entitled to.

It only looked properly at the complaint after the woman died aged 90 and then compounded its earlier errors by refusing to compensate the family.

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Julie Mellor said: "An elderly woman and her family were let down because of service failure and poor complaint handling.

"Our investigation upheld the complaint and recommended that both the Department for Work and Pensions and the Independent Case Examiner apologise to the family and to pay her family the £26,514 plus interest she was owed."

***

The NHS could be landed with a £22bn bill as cold homes kill 100,000 vulnerable people over the next 15 years, a charity warns today.

National Energy Action reckons at least 30,000 vulnerable people have perished prematurely over this Parliament due to an inability to adequately heat their homes, and Treasury energy taxes will mean many more will die in the next decade and a half unless the next government takes positive action.

That’s because millions of low-income and vulnerable households are either in significant personal debt or are in fuel poverty and have to ration their heating. As well as causing acute personal suffering, in its Manifesto for Warmth published today the charity says fuel poverty also reduces economic activity within deprived areas and leaves the NHS currently bearing a yearly burden of approximately £1.5bn treating cold-related illnesses every winter.

***

MPs yesterday called for Equitable Life policyholders to be paid the £2.8bn balance owed to them by the government.

A debate in the Commons led to all-party support of a motion calling on the government to ensure full compensation to victims during the lifetime of the next Parliament.

Hundreds of thousands of policies were hit when the mutual insurer almost collapsed at the turn of the century, brought to its knees by a misguided promise of guaranteed annuities, which it had no realistic chance of fulfilling. The House of Lords ruled that Equitable must honour the guarantee but it could not afford to do so and was forced to close its doors to new business in 2001.

Policyholders facing a decade-long battle to win compensation. In 2012 a scheme began paying out, but only offered around a quarter of their losses.

EMAG spokesman Paul Weir said: "The current government is playing roulette with up to 5 million votes if they don't do the right thing. Do they really want this hanging round their necks for another 5 years? We are not going away."

***

Pensions Minister Steve Webb has told people to "stay in bed" rather than take advantage of the new pension freedoms on 6 April. He said there is no rush for people aged 55 and over – who will be able to take all their cash out of their pension pot on that date – to make a quick decision about their retirement savings.

Mr Webb was responding to warnings from insurers that there were still crucial details missing about the major reforms, which were announced in last year’s Budget.

* * *

Britannia is returning to our coins. The patriotic emblem of Great Britain has been missing from our money since she was replaced by the 'Royal shield of arms design' on the 50p in 2008. But the Royal Mint has announced today that a new depiction of Britannia will appear on £2 coins alongside the new coinage portrait of the Queen. The new Britannia £2 coins will begin to enter circulation at some stage during 2015.

* * *

Do you use Twitter? You’ll soon be able to use the social network to pay friends or firms, or receive payments from others. To do so you’ll need to sign up to Barclay’s Pingit service – which is free to all, whether customers of the bank or otherwise – and then link your Twitter handle to the service.

Then from 10 March you’ll be able to make and receive secure instant payments ofup to £1,500. The service will be available on both Apple and android phones. To download the app go to barclays.co.uk/pingit

* * *

It’s getting harder than ever for people to climb onto the property ladder. First-time buyer deposits have soared 15 per cent in a year to almost £30,000, warns Your Move.

26 February

Debtors are being unfairly hassled by companies they owe money despite setting up a repayment agreement that freezes or cancels debts.

Debt relief orders allow low-income people without assets to cancel some debts and postpone others such as magistrate court fines and rent. But Citizens Advice warns that creditors are ignoring the orders and collecting debts causing "additional financial hardship". In some cases landlords have even threatened possession action for non-payment.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said creditors must respect the orders. "A debt relief order is a last resort for people in serious money worries," she said. "It offers people a chance to get back on their feet and move towards a financially secure future."

* * *

With pension freedom day just six weeks away, insurers have warned that it is still waiting for crucial details from the government about how the new system will work.

From 6 April, people aged 55 and over will be able to choose what to do with the cash in their pension pot rather than being forced to buy an annuity. Pension firms have been criticised for not answering customer questions about options but the industry put the blame firmly on the Department for Work and Pensions.

Huw Evans, director general of the Association of British Insurers, warned yesterday: "It is impossible to stand here six weeks before 6 April and say the Government is ready."

* * *

Which bank has the best customer service? FirstDirect, according to users of MoneySavingExpert. They’ve voted the online bank the best in every poll since 2008. Barclays was named worst current account provider with RBS and HSBC in the bottom three.

25 February

Just over half of people still pay a fixed price for their water bill but with prices set to drop on average in April, it could be worth considering a meter. As a rule of thumb if there are more bedrooms in your home than occupants you might benefit from a water meter, the Consumer Council for Water reckons.

You should be able to have a trial period of at least a year during which you can switch back to your old fixed charges if you want to. Start by checking out the water meter calculator at ccwater.org.uk to see if switching could save you money.

* * *

Nationwide is inviting secondary schools across the country to take part in The Big Money Movie Pitch, a competition giving 11 to 14 year olds a chance to pitch a short film idea about managing money.

The winning pitch will be made into a film by industry professionals and premiered at Vue Westfield London in July at an exclusive red-carpet event. The film will also be used to educate other young people on managing their money .

Schools can sign up at nationwideeducation.co.uk/moviepitch, and have until 30 April to submit their entries.

* * *

Loyalty products sold as exclusive deals to existing account holders are not as good as they seem. "Not one of them beats the best rate equivalent," warns Sylvia Waycot of Moneyfacts. "In all cases, taking a loyalty account from a national or online provider will lose you money."

24 February

There are "problems at every stage" in the way financial companies deal with vulnerable consumers, the City Watchdog warned today.

The Financial Conduct Authority said services, products and systems are "not designed to meet non-standard needs of those who don't fit into a set mould".

It warned that vulnerable consumers risk withdrawing from the mainstream market, which could lead to their "problems to spiral if their needs are not met".

"We all know somebody in a vulnerable situation and we can expect the number of people who find themselves in those circumstances to grow over the coming years," warned Martin Wheatley, chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority.

He said the industry needs to start thinking about solutions to these challenges. "Whether it is accessing funds or securing a repayment holiday, we will work collaboratively with firms to identify what inclusive policies could look like and how best we can create the right outcomes for those consumers,” he said. “It’s a challenge for regulators and firms alike."

***

Low income households are suffering twice as much fuel poverty, a report published today reveals. Instead of being able to benefit from the best online deals, the poorest are forced into paying sometimes hundreds more on energy every year because they use pre-payment energy meters.

The report from debt charity Christians Against Poverty reveals that before getting help with their energy bills, two thirds of those on pre-pay meters couldn’t afford to heat their home, while a third couldn’t afford to cook food.

"We consistently find a direct correlation between desperate situations and those on pre-payment meters," said CAP chief executive Matt Barlow. "It is neither just or fair that those with lower socio-economic means face greater charges for their energy."

The charity says it’s time the poor stopped having to pay more. It wants everyone to pay the same, regardless of the payment method they use.

Nationally, 3.7m households have an electricity pre-payment meter and 2.5m households have a gas pre-payment meter.

* * *

Energy companies have reminded customers to check and close accounts with their old supplier when they decide to switch. They warn that millions of customers have forgotten to submit final meter readings and close their accounts which can leave unclaimed credit balances behind which energy companies cannot trace and re-credit.

Lawrence Slade, chief executive of Energy UK, said: "Around 3 million people have unclaimed credit balances. If you have switched or moved house, please contact your old supplier to see how much energy credit you might be owed."

23 February

There are now just six weeks until new pension freedoms come into force. From 6 April, those aged 55 and over will be able to choose what to do with their pension pot.

They’ll be able to take the whole lot in one go, take smaller sums when needed or take quarter tax-free and a regular taxable income from the rest. But confusion reigns among consumers about their options.

Research published today by True Potential suggests that just 1 in 20 will buy an annuity – yet more than two in five say they want a consistent income in retirement, which is exactly what an annuity provides.

The ambiguity suggests continuing confusion about the new rules. "Many thousands of people on the brink of retirement now find themselves with new options that they are either not aware of or do not fully understand," warned David Harrison of True Potential. "There is a high possibility of making the wrong decision and regretting it later."

The Government is developing a website to help people make the right decision. You can find it at pensionwise.gov.uk

* * *

Married couples can now register for a new tax break which will help them save up to £212 a year on their tax bill. Couples can register their interest to receive it at gov.uk/marriageallowance.

* * *

Nectar cardholders can now get a free coffee at a Caffè Nero. In exchange for 350 points, you can download an instant eVoucher from nectar.com/caffenero to claim a hot drink of your choice.

You’ll need to show the barista your eVoucher code to claim your drink, but you’ll also be able to collect a stamp on your Caffè Nero card.

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