Cicutti: Money Advice Service misses the point

Many years ago, shortly after I began free-lancing as a personal finance journalist, I received a call from a business which specialised in creating lesson plans for teachers. It had been asked to create a set of six lessons for pupils on the subject of money advice and they wanted to know if I would give them a hand. I leapt at the chance.

There followed several of the most intense weeks I have ever experienced. What I had never realised is that devising a lesson plan is a highly involved process that requires planning almost every aspect of a 40-minute lesson in enormous detail, from the specific issues that are to be discussed down to the number of seconds to be spent on it.

Teachers not only have to be psychologists, knowing when to give their pupils easy wins or when to challenge them intellectually, they also need to be entertainers, able to engage and titillate with little gobbets of interesting inform-ation, visionaries with the skill to motivate and carry a classroom and planners who leave nothing to chance.

Each part of the lessons we created was carefully considered and scripted to ensure nothing was left to chance, from handouts to the seemingly casual questions designed to get a response from a class of teenagers. And each subsequent lesson built on the knowledge imparted during the previous one.

The experience left me with a heightened sense of respect for teachers and what they do as well as awe at the prep-aration required to deliver just one lesson successfully.

More important, it gave me a glimmer of understanding of the enormous challenge involved in providing generic money “advice” to one of the key constituencies everyone talks about targeting. In this case, it was schoolkids but the lesson of how careful you have to be when planning your intervention in a given area and how realistic you should be in terms of the outcomes of such an intervention have stayed with me for the past decade.

This is why, when I look at the efforts of the Money Advice Service over the past year, that I am baffled as to what it thinks it has achieved. The MAS was launched to enormous fanfare and with a budget of almost £44m in the current financial year.

At the time, I questioned the way in which this money was being used, querying the use of the term “free financial advice”, which implied the MAS was delivering something other than its original remit, which was clearly meant to be educational.

Moreover, its use of the term “money advice” clashed with long-running and highly-respected services with the same name in Wales, Scotland and Northern Island, where the focus remains much more on advice related to dealing with debt problems.

Over the past few weeks, it has become evident that the MAS is in a hole and it is getting deeper. Here is an organisation with a massive budget, about which it is refusing to give details because it claims not to be required to by the Freedom of Information Act, and up to three- quarters of its 150 staff are potentially at risk of redundancy.

Millions of pounds have been spent to set up and promote the MAS online healthcheck. Yet, according to Money Marketing, just 280,000 people have visited the healthcheck part of the site since its launch in April, which works out at more than £6 per person and that is not including the cost of marketing .

Nor are we being told whether these visitors completed the online healthcheck and what conc-lusions they have drawn.

A few months ago, MAS chairman Gerard Lemos was reported in Money Marketing to be telling the Association of British Insurers’ annual conference the target market his organisation was trying to reach was totally different to the one that IFAs currently deal with.

Lemos said: “About half the UK population would benefit from free advice and that is the advice gap we are aiming to fill. It seems to me inconceiv-able that independent financial advisers can reach that market after the retail distribution review.”

I disputed his comments at the time, arguing that the absence of almost any information on bread-and-butter issues such as debt management showed the MAS website was, perhaps inadvertently, not aimed at vulnerable consumers but existing customers of IFAs.

This view was inadvertently confirmed recently by Treasury financial secretary Mark Hoban, who told an audience in London that “many average and above-average earners do not seek financial advice but the MAS financial healthcheck service should highlight their need for regulated advice.”

In other words, this service is aimed at the much higher-end, IFA-facing consumer.

While all this money is being spent on a target market that has always been well provided with financial information, tens of millions of people – including schoolchildren – continue in near total ignorance of money issues.

Is this the best the MAS can do? If it is, what a dreadful waste of money.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at