YOUR MONEY: PIA looks after its own

Personal finance
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The Independent Online
IN THIS column a few weeks ago, I wrote how some personal pension providers were hoodwinking clients into believing the charges on their products were lower than they really are.

This is done by imposing heavy fees on a pension at the outset and tapering them off, or even adding a "loyalty" bonus after 10 or 15 years of its life.

Companies know it is unlikely that any but the tiniest minority of policyholders will keep their pensions going for long enough to earn this mythical bonus.

In passing, I also argued it was highly unlikely that the insurers' toothless watchdog, the Personal Investment Authority, would act to halt the scandal.

The PIA has failed to ensure compensation is paid to the hundreds of thousands of people mis-sold personal pensions in the past decade. So why should it move to end this fresh problem, I asked rhetorically.

How wrong I was. Faced with a leaked document in our sister paper the Independent last week, showing the extent to which companies have failed to offer redress to their clients, the PIA has finally moved into gear.

Not, however, to put the fear of God into firms flouting its deadlines. No, the PIA has instead announced that it will hold an inquiry into the source of the leaked document.

As we await the appearance of a team of PIA inquisitors in our offices, it is refreshing to note how speedily the watchdog can move - if only when the interests of the companies it is supposed to oversee are threatened.

AM I ALONE in feeling uneasy about the Alliance & Leicester's decision to hand out a flat-rate number of shares to its members when it floats next year?

It seems eminently sensible: one member, one vote, one share allocation, and all that. Everyone gets their pounds 1,000 with no favouritism shown to the better off. A highly populist strategy, given that the vast majority of the society's members have less than pounds 2,000 in their savings accounts.

However, the decision flies in the face of established practice at every other society that has been taken over or announced plans to abandon mutuality. In all other cases, the amount you have in your account plays a part in determining how much cash or how many shares you stand to receive.

The Alliance & Leicester always refused to say how it would distribute its shares. However, more than one reader has called to say they expected the society to follow the others.

Not all my callers had pounds 60,000 in their account, as one reader does. Some had far less saved up. But all left their money parked in accounts that offered less than they might have received elsewhere because they expected the Alliance & Leicester to reward their loyalty.

The society claims savers are already rewarded by receiving higher interest rates, but so do all other banks and building societies.

It argues that hints were given that the shares handout would be on a flat-rate basis. Perhaps, but there is a vast difference between a hint and a well-flagged statement.

The society denies the system it is adopting rewards last-minute "carpetbaggers". But I know many people who will gain the same from a few months' membership as loyal customers of several decades' standing.

It may be a practical, populist and - ultimately - unstoppable proposal that members will vote on in the next few weeks. But that doesn't make it fair.

q Steve Lodge is on holiday.