Letters: Mis-selling scandals

New ethics needed to end mis-selling scandals
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For the true significance of the payment protection insurance mis-selling scandal I think we need to look wider than David Prosser's article (30 September).

PPI is just the latest of a series of mis-selling scandals perpetrated by the retail financial services industry on its customers. In recent memory we have had the mis-selling of pensions, of endowments, of "precipice" bonds, of split-capital investment trusts and of mortgages.

"Household name" institutions (banks, life companies etc), with reputations at stake, have been involved. Ever more onerous regulation has failed to stamp it out. The roots of the problem are continuing inadequate professional and ethical standards among some of those running, and working in, financial services businesses.

Selling retail financial products is not the same as selling baked beans. The implications for customers are often not evident for many years and can be life-changing. Also, many customers are sadly ignorant about the issues involved. This context calls for professional behaviour of the highest order. Instead, too often, we see poorly informed customers being exploited by badly trained, financially incentivised salesmen masquerading as "advisers" of various kinds.

We must demand changed behaviour, not just in the "casino banking" arena, but also in the more prosaic world of retail financial services. The change needs to start from the top. When are the boards of the retail financial services industry finally going to grasp this issue properly?

George Galazka

London SW19

Spending cuts fall on the poorest

This has been a sad week in politics, with the two main parties seemingly competing to cut the incomes of some of the poorest. In a time of economic crisis, who should bear the brunt of spending cuts? Those who already struggle to make ends meet, or those who have done well from a decade of economic growth? Sadly, it appears politicians have chosen the former.

On Sunday, the Conservatives announced that they would cut the incomes of half a million of some of the poorest people – those currently on Incapacity Benefit – by 30 per cent. Encouraging people to take work is a laudable goal. But in the midst of a recession, with jobs scarce, where is the sense in cutting the incomes of those who are least likely to be able to find work?

Not to be outdone, on Monday, the Government slipped out its own latest policy: cutting the benefits for people fleeing persecution from £42 per week to just £35 a week – £5 per day. Asylum-seekers aren't even afforded the option of finding work – they are legally barred from doing so.

Just imagine the headlines if any politician announced a policy to cut the incomes of middle Englanders by 30 per cent. Yet cutting the incomes of the poorest raises barely a whimper. As the general election looms ever closer, let those of us who care about Britain's "forgotten millions" stand up and be counted. In times of recession, it is our common duty to protect the poorest and most vulnerable – not to increase their hardship. It is time for us to speak out.

Niall Cooper

National Coordinator, Church Action on Poverty, Manchester

There has never been an election in my lifetime when opposition parties have not promised to conjure money from nothing by cutting red tape. Obviously we can trust Kenneth Clarke to succeed where decades of politicians have failed because he is going to set up a committee to monitor its removal.

Let's set the risk-takers free; give them their entrepreneurial heads. And why not start with the bankers? Such a clever, reliable bunch of chaps – I bet they could pull us out of recession if we would just cut away all the red tape hampering their flair and acumen.

Politicians who pass endless, badly conceived, poorly written laws blithely ignore the mountain of bureaucratic resources required for their implementation. A politician offering to cut red tape is like a turkey offering to organise a New Year's party – never done it; never been around long enough to go to one; and what's a New Year anyway?

Keith Farman

St Albans, Hertfordshire

Complex issues over energy price

You are right to put energy on the front page (7 October). As the cold sets in, everyone is concerned about their energy bills. However, you produce a distorted and inaccurate picture. Britain has one of the world's most competitive energy markets. The regulator Ofgem has carried out numerous probes and concluded that the market is working well. Every week, some 100,000 people take advantage of the competitive marketplace to switch supplier.

It is easy to look at wholesale energy prices today and ask why retail prices have not automatically dropped further. But much of the gas and electricity being used this winter was not bought cheaply. Suppliers buy up to two years in advance to ensure they have enough energy to keep the lights on and to protect consumers from a volatile market. In 2008, wholesale prices rose by 200 per cent, but the average energy bill rose by just a fraction of that.

With Britain's own oil and gas supplies dwindling, we are now competing in a tough international market for energy that is in huge demand from the likes of China and India. And the cost of the energy itself accounts for just 60 per cent of the average bill. Costs of distributing and transporting it are rising dramatically, as are the costs of investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency. In addition, the big six energy companies are spending £375m over three years to help pensioners and other potentially vulnerable customers pay their bills.

All this comes at a time when our power generation infrastructure is ageing. Energy companies will need to invest £100bn on new power plants in the next decade. We welcome any campaign to raise the profile of these complex issues. It is easy to call for instant prices cuts. Tackling the complex long-term energy issues this country faces is far harder.

Garry Felgate

Chief executive, Energy Retail Association

David Porter

Chief executive, Association of Electricity Producers

London SW1

Costs and benefits of school tax break

You report (6 October) the survey conducted for the University and College Union about the £100m tax breaks afforded to independent charitable schools. UCU argues that these schools should have charitable status removed and the money spent on university education. If only life were that simple.

Charitable schools currently pay over £200m in VAT. If they ceased to be charities they could recover that VAT, more than wiping out the benefit of the current tax breaks. Moreover charitable schools give over £200m per year in means-tested financial support to disadvantaged children. That would also be put at risk.

English law does not allow a charity to stop being a charity unless all its assets are disposed of. If we went down that road many schools would be forced to close and their children educated by the state, at huge cost to the taxpayer (up to £4bn per year for all independent school children).

There are difficult choices to be made on tax and expenditure as we struggle with budget deficits and the national debt. These decisions need to be made on an informed basis. Doing what UCU want would cost taxpayers, not save them money.

David Lyscom

Chief Executive, Independent Schools Council, London WC2

I wouldn't like to be taught history by Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference ("Head attacks 'medieval' threat to private schools", 6 October).

Though "medieval" is a familiar pejorative for every kind of modern abuse, his claim that Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries is an example of medieval confiscation would really have historians reaching for the executioner's axe. It's precisely the monasteries' characteristically medieval mix of local jurisdiction and exceptionalism that the centralising Tudor state attempted to sweep away.

As Mr Grant's own school, St Albans, was re-established in 1549 following the dissolution of the local abbey, it is a particularly unfortunate comparison for him to make.

Dr Nicholas Perkins

St Hugh's College, Oxford

Public access to top libraries

The changes to access to public libraries are to be welcomed (The Big Question, 29 September), but there is still an important issue to be addressed. The old Nett Book Agreement ruled that no new books could be sold at less than cover price, but libraries could get a concessionary discount of 10 per cent. A little-known and rigidly applied condition of this was public access to the book stock.

When the big booksellers killed off the agreement, many universities and institutions introduced very limited access and/or heavy charges for the public, severely affecting independent research. This can be redressed now only by Government making public access a condition of public funding. Don't hold your breath.

Ron Shuttleworth


Christopher Hawtree (letter, 3 October) has a point. Libraries and their function have changed in recent years and not always for the better.

However, despite the perceived shift in focus we are still committed to providing a wide selection of quality books for all our users. We do, though, have to spread the jam pretty thin in order to cover the wide array of needs and tastes of our large customer base (that is, everyone). If we do not have a book in stock we can order one via a nationwide scheme. Libraries are and continue to be a force for the good.

John Moore

Team Librarian, Youth

Northamptonshire Central Library, Northampton

British help for a dangerous regime

Mark Donne's excellent piece (Comment, 1 October) doesn't mention that Colombia is also one of the most dangerous places on earth for journalists. My colleagues in that country who criticise the regime are routinely threatened, forced into exile or even killed.

Perhaps the most worrying element of UK involvement is the stream of contradictory messages from the Foreign Office, at times a point-blank refusal to admit we are supplying military assistance to Colombia, at others claiming that the assistance is all for noble causes. Assistance is being provided to Colombian security forces with little regard for whether those people are involved in human rights atrocities.

It is time for David Miliband to come clean about what the UK is really doing in Colombia. His denials and evasiveness do nothing to allay our concerns.

Jeremy Dear

General Secretary, National Union of Journalists, London WC1


No intimidation

No sane person will disagree with Derek Watts' thesis ("Uphold the right not to be intimated by feral thugs", letter, 6 October). There is just one question: how do we do it?

Jim Hawkins

Douglas, Isle of Man

Palestine history

Donald Macintyre reports on teaching Gaza children about the Holocaust (5 October). Is it not even more important to teach Israeli children about the Naqba, about why there are Palestinian refugee camps, about the Palestinian villages destroyed by Zionists, about the peaceful co-existence of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Palestine before the advent of the Zionists; about why the consumption of water by the illegal settlers in the West Bank is about 10 times that of the local population?

John Trapp

Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire

Never enough troops

Another beleaguered Labour Defence Secretary is being berated for insufficient soldiers and inadequate supplies. If Blair had had twice as many soldiers and helicopters at his disposal he would have deployed twice as many soldiers and helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the cry now would still have been for "more soldiers and more helicopters". A sobering thought, I suggest, for those campaigning for greater funding and expansion of our military capability.

Andy Turney

Winfrith Newburgh, Dorset

Science baffled

Having struggled through the theories of some 18 leading psychologists ("The one thing I can't figure out", 5 September), most of whom were at a loss to explain something or other, I think it could be the "-ology" bit, which means knowledge, that is confounding them.

Roy Askew

Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Short answer

Andrew Lee-Hart should not worry about a newsletter from his son's school entitled "School Disco's" (letter, 6 October). Apostrophes can indicate omission as well as possession, and one was used here correctly (though many might consider pedantically) to show that this was an abbreviation of "School Discotheques".

David Burton

Wellington, Telford