Since 1986, when the Financial Services Act came into being, personal finance has been closely regulated in the UK. This is beneficial to consumers, of course, but the multiple layers of rules and the number of regulatory bodies make complaining hard for all but the most determined. The Government realises this, and plans are being made to streamline the process, with one "super-regulator", the Financial Services Authority (FSA). The watchdogs themselves are becoming more approachable, and some are making good use of the internet as a way to explain who does what, and what to do if you have a complaint about a financial services company.
Set against commercial websites, the financial regulators' offerings are dry and factual, but informative. Using them is much quickerthan the telephone or writing. The site of the new FSA super-watchdog is clearly designed, with a comprehensive guide to the regulatory changes, which will probably only interest finance professionals.
More useful to the consumer are the guidelines on using the Web to buy personal finance products (next week's column will look specifically at internet fraud). The FSA gives sound advice: its site warns that "deals which look too good to be true usually are". It also offers a series of essays on problem financial products - a fact sheet on pension mis- selling, for example - and "Investor Alerts" highlighting dubious deals the FSA knows about.
It encourages browsers to call the FSA to check whether a firm is listed on its central register (and so is an authorised investment company), before buying its products. This is a genuinely useful safeguard, but it would be better still if regulated firms were listed on the Web.
The Bank of England does exactly that, with its list of authorised "deposit takers". This shows every bank, building society or savings institution allowed to take our cash under the 1987 Banking Act. Any that are not listed but take deposits are breaking the law. The Bank's website has a mass of general information about its history, role, and even about banknotes. It, too, has advice and information for consumers: "Money in the Bank" explains what happens to customers' savings if a bank fails. The Bank also gives links to other regulators and brief descriptions of their remits. It is also possible to e-mail the Bank from the site.
Advice on investment features heavily on the web sites from Imro, which regulates managed investments, and the Securities and Futures Authority, which governs stockbrokers. SFA has guides on complaints and arbitration, and extensive information on the Investor Compensation Scheme.
But even if there is little the regulators can do to spice up the content of their sites, they could make them far more interactive and, therefore, more useful. At present, only one main watchdog, the office of the Banking Ombudsman, lets people complain on line. There is no reason why the others could not do so too.
As well as information about the organisation, the Ombudsman's full complaints procedure is on the website. There is little the Ombudsman can do about banks' often labyrinthine systems for handling customer complaints, other than offer advice. But once the complaint is "deadlocked" - the customer and bank cannot agree - the Ombudsman can step in. This is where the website comes into its own. The OBO has put the form itself on its site - just fill in the details, e-mail it off, and wait for the reply.
The fact that few regulators and financial services organisations are following this lead could be because they think that if complaining is easier, more of us will do so. They may well be right.
q E-mail us about any interesting financial websites, or any suspicious financial dealings on the Net, at stephen.pritchard @dial.pipex.com
Contacts: Bank of England, www.bankofengland.co.uk; FSA, www.sib.co.uk; Imro, www.imro.co.uk; office of the Banking Ombudsman, www.obo.org.uk; SFA, www.sfa.org.ukReuse content