C onsumers' Association principal policy adviser Mick McAteer is not known for holding his tongue about anything. He has talked the Treasury select committee's ears off about what he believes is widespread misselling in financial services.
McAteer has been fighting the corner for consumers who have been missold products for more than 10 years. His next big worry is protection products following a huge increase in sales in the last 18 months. “I think we are seeing problems already for consumers who have bought the wrong protection products. My concern is the increasing use of commission-driven sales. What we are seeing is widespread misselling.”
He says the CA is looking at the protection market to ensure there is not a repeat of the personal pension debacle. “I would rather everyone works together to make sure this market takes off in a good way rather than in a detrimental way for consumers. It would be no good for consumers and ultimately for the industry if it is hit by another sort of scandal or crisis.”
Compiling a report on the personal pension market was one of the first things that McAteer completed at the CA and he says he can see similarities between the way that market evolved and the growth of protection business.
“We published a report that we thought really exposed the appalling value of most personal pensions and we think that led to stakeholder pensions being introduced and costs coming down. We are very proud of that and we think it is one of the biggest changes that we have ever helped bring about.”
McAteer started work as a builder in Northern Ireland after finishing school. He moved to London to work at various fund management companies so he learnt how the investment business works from the inside before joining the CA.
He returns to Derry four or five times a year and has set up a Social Investment Exchange with his brother which works with charities and third-sector organisations. In London, he has been heavily involved in setting up a credit union project in Hackney which is being expanded across the borough.
When not in the pub or playing pool, McAteer spends his leisure time reading. If he had to name some favourites, he lists The Decameron (a medieval Italian classic by Bocaccio along the lines of the Canterbury Tales), Great Heavyweight Champions, Henry Cooper and Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane.
Back at the CA, another hot topic is corporate governance. McAteer believes the consumer point of view is always missed by company directors. He says tackling the issue is as simple as identifying which people are in positions of power and making sure there are checks and balances to prevent them abusing those positions. “I think all the stuff about pension and endowment misselling or unfair contracts or front-ended charges are manifestations of the lack of governance in the running of our financial institutions and that is the thing that has got to change.”
He dismisses the FSA's efforts to improve the problem as wide of the mark. “All the stuff the FSA has done on depolarisation has just missed the point completely because polarisation itself did not cause all the detriments, it was caused by this lack of governance and by commission imbalance.”
McAteer has never been your average IFA's favourite person but he is keen for the CA to work more closely with advisers to help it find out which companies are working for customers and which are not. Although the CA would prefer companies to work with it to raise standards, he makes no bones about saying that, if they don't, the CA will come after them with all the campaign tools it has at its disposal.
He says: “I cannot think of a single chief exec who has resigned as a result of a major financial scandal. I can think of ones who have gone because of misleading shareholders but I have never seen a director who has actually taken responsibility for allowing something detrimental to happen on their watch.”
He is adamant that Legal & General's challenge against the FSA's fine for endowment misselling is ill-judged. He fears the life office might win on a technicality, which would be extremely damaging for the FSA's reputation. “If they won, it would send a signal to consumers that here we have it again, these big guys using their financial clout to protect their shareholders. I wish they were as conscientious about protecting consumers.”
One of the next big projects for the CA is a public debate on the nature and purpose of insurance, which McAteer says has come about because of the genetics and gender debate.
He feels it will become increasingly important to find out whether society is willing to accept the individual nature of insurance and, if it does, to find out what needs to be done to ensure that people who might be disadvantaged are not overly penalised.
“I think there is a massive debate looming. We will start off with conferences and seminars. We have not come down either way but think it is too important an issue to be left to the industry to decide.”
Although he enjoys campaigning, McAteer admits that one of the downsides of joining a consumer organisation has been the lack of corporate freebies. Even if he wanted to, he could not accept tickets to Old Trafford.
Despite an ardent love of Manchester United, he lives within shouting distance of Highbury, which he says has been particularly trying in the last few months. But being the confrontational type, he supports United loudly in local pubs.
He is quite happy to take on the opposition and says: “If you do not believe in what you stand for, then what is the point?” Born: 1962, Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
Lives: Newington Green, North London, with his wife and seven-year-old son who is an Arsenal supporter.
Education: St Collins College, Derry.
Career: Arrived in London in 1986, worked on building sites and in Biddy Mulligan's pub in Kilburn High Road. Joined Henderson Investment Management at end of 1986 as assistant technical support manager working in quantitative analysis and performance measurement. 1989 moved to Framlington Group to set up research unit supporting investment decision process. Moved back to Derry to work for an SME funding agency from 1992. 1994 joined Consumers' Association as a writer and researcher for Which?
Career ambition: “There are plenty of challenges left at the CA. The world is changing for consumers and we are entering a new era of uncertainty. Financial institutions will play an even bigger role in people's lives if current trends continue so we are needed more than ever.”
Likes: Pool, football, Irish pubs
Dislikes: Poetry and golf. “I absolutely hate golf, the culture and the hold it has this country. It is boring.”