Building societies 'dodge complaints': Small print baffles unhappy customers

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Building societies and banks are failing to disclose details of customer complaints schemes, arguing that they only 'encourage' people to complain, according to a survey published today.

Among the worst offenders are the Woolwich and the Alliance and Leicester, two of the five largest societies. Nearly 500 branches of banks and building societies were surveyed.

Neither the banks nor the societies are doing enough to pub licise their schemes, it found, but the societies are the worst culprits, with fewer than a quarter displaying customer service leaflets and nearly two-thirds unable to give customers a leaflet on their ombudsman. Some societies may be in breach of the Code of Banking Practice.

The survey is reported in the Consumer Policy Review, published by the Consumers' Association, which criticises the building societies' performance as unsatisfactory.

A relatively high number of societies refused to give any information at all. In other cases details of complaints schemes were presented in 'microscopic print' or in the least noticeable position in the branch.

The authors, who include Cosmo Graham, Professor of Law at Hull University, argue that publicity about the ombudsman schemes is crucial because awareness of them is low: a survey by the Office of Fair Trading in 1991 found that fewer than a quarter of respondents were aware of their existence.

The survey found that the Halifax and Leeds Permanent provided most publicity, the Woolwich and the Alliance and Leicester the least, with the Nationwide coming about midway. Among the banks, Midland and NatWest performed best and the smaller banks worst.

It is argued that publicity encourages complaints, the authors say, adding: 'This is to look at the problem from the wrong perspective: publicity does not create complaints - they arise when the service provided does not match the consumer's expectation. Publicity simply encourages customers to voice their complaints.'

The Building Society Ombudsman said yesterday the issue was causing concern but no action had yet been taken.