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Watchdog ticks off building societies

Accounts marketed as offering "top" or "best" rates bestow a special responsibility on building societies to inform savers when those rates become less competitive, the Building Society Ombudsman said last week. Societies should notify savers individually when such accounts cease to pay rates of interest "consistent with their names".

In his latest annual report, the Ombudsman, Brian Murphy, said that, despite societies' emphasis on how consumer-oriented they are, complaints and enquiries to his office rose by 27 per cent to 13,213 in the year to the end of March. Those requiring full investigation almost doubled to more than 2,000.

Mr Murphy put the increase down to complaints about eligibility for windfalls from societies being taken over or becoming banks and the greater complications of mortgage products. Notwithstanding his specific point about "best" accounts, the Ombudsman said that societies are generally getting better at such things as informing savers of interest rates. He also noted a significant decline in complaints about "obsolete" accounts - old accounts paying poor rates.

On windfalls, the Ombudsman said so far he has only been able to deal with complaints about the takeover of the Cheltenham & Gloucester by Lloyds Bank. Complaints that the society had encouraged savers to switch accounts and therefore lose their windfall entitlement were rejected, as were complaints about small-balance accounts being closed by the society in the run-up to the windfall announcement. In the latter case, savers had failed to respond to letters from the society warning them of the impending closure.

Mortgage-related complaints have increased steadily in recent years - and the Ombudsman's largest award last year for pounds 52,350 was for the writing- off of a mortgage shortfall.

Mr Murphy thinks societies are still not always making sufficiently clear the penalties that are the inevitable flipside of the heavily discounted and incentivised loan deals on offer.

The Ombudsman also held out some hope for borrowers disenchanted with societies not giving immediate credit for overpayments and part repayments of mortgages. Most societies calculate interest for the forthcoming year on the capital balance outstanding at the start of that year, so interim overpayments and repayments may not save you interest until the next annual review. But for mortgages taken out since June 1995 - when a European Union directive on unfair contracts came into force - the Ombudsman may take the view that "annual capitalisation" is not on.

o Office of the Building Societies Ombudsman, Millbank Tower, Millbank, London, SW1P 4XS (0171-931 0044).