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PIA set to fine firm of financial advisers pounds 600,000

The Personal Investment Authority, the financial regulator, is set to underline its determination to resolve the pensions mis-selling review by levying a record fine of around pounds 600,000 against a firm of financial advisers. But as Nic Cicutti, Personal Finance Editor, reports, the PIA's stance is under attack amid claims that the watchdog has ducked from taking on the big offenders.

The PIA's disciplinary committee is understood to be in the final stages of agreeing the details of a pounds 600,000 fine against Financial Options, a network of independent financial advisers. An announcement is expected in the next few weeks.

It is believed pounds 400,000 of that fine will relate to failures on the part of the network to meet deadlines set in connection with the pension mis- selling review. The remaining pounds 200,000 is thought to be in connection with other compliance failures, identified in a visit by PIA inspectors to the company's Manchester headquarters more than a year ago. These were judged not to have been rectified in an inspection earlier this year.

A spokeswoman for the regulator yesterday refused to comment on the looming fine. Financial Options said it did not wish to "give credence to rumours".

But Garry Heath, chief executive of the IFA Association, the advisers' trade body, said: "There is inequity in the way this question is being dealt with. Big companies are only being named and shamed, giving the impression that it is only the smaller players who are the worst offenders."

Financial Options, founded in 1990 by two advisers, Brian Blake and Ron Leith, is the UK's third-largest IFA network, with more than 600 financial advisers.

The company offers to sort out compliance problems for its members in return for a slice of their commission income, which reached about pounds 15m last year. The privately owned company's turnover in the first half of this year, including other business ventures, was pounds 12.2m.

The PIA fine will be the fifth large penalty arising from the pensions review since the summer. It follows a pounds 50,000 levy on Berkeley, a Coventry- based firm of IFAs; pounds 425,000 against DBS Financial Management, a stock market-quoted network of advisers; and pounds 140,000 against M&E, another IFA network. To date, the only fine against an insurer is pounds 450,000 against Friends Provident last month.

Action by the regulator against those judged to be failing in the speed with which the pensions review is being carried out comes amid mounting criticism by Helen Liddell, the Treasury Minister, of many of the bigger insurers' delays in compensating victims of the pension transfer scandal.

More than 600,000 policies switched from occupational schemes to private pensions between the late 1980s and early 1990s have been identified by companies as being in need of urgent review. It is believed that at least half will require compensation because the advice to opt out of company schemes was wrong. Up to 400,000 people are waiting for compensation more than four years after the problem was identified.

Mrs Liddell threatened on Tuesday to prevent the worst-offending pension providers from offering stakeholder pensions and individual savings accounts and to bar individual company directors from working within the industry.

The minister hopes to use new provisions, set to come in force next year, whereby the PIA will use newly launched individual registration procedures to weed out errant directors.