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Cicutti: Money Advice Service misses the point

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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 nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk

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Readers' comments (10)

  • As an informed contributor, it took you how long to work that one out? So now you have had an epiphany moment, what are you going to do with this new found knowledge? Bask in complementary comments, or actually do something with it?

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  • Couple of observations:

    1. Nic, you are absolutely right on the amount of work teachers do. I'm not on a crusade, although my wife is a school secretary and my elder daughter is a teacher do give me significant insight to the work within schools. What I hadn't realised until recently, how tailored lessons are.Much of this is down to how to deliver education to students of varying ability within the same class. Therefore, this is what you've probably experienced in developing a meaningful synopsis as the audience is not all at the same level, and it's no different with the adult population.

    As to Money Advice, it's not really advice is it? It's more about information so that people can start increasing their awareness and knowledge on financial issues. However, who vets the information? You can drive a coach and horses through the Equity Release material, it is so eroneous, and doesn't help our industry one iota!

    Phil

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  • IFA's pay towards the funding of the MAS, so we are effectively funding a competitor in the advice market! I made these points to AIFA a few years back but they thought MAS was a jolly good idea and it would help IFA's!

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  • Whether you like, loathe or ignore the MAS one thing is abundantly clear - the message they have been giving out is confused and nothing turns off a consumers potential interest than confusion (or the perception of confusion, as the FSA might say).

    There is nothing wrong with an organisation dedicated to consumer financial education but not by taxing the industry.

    Nobody seems to have pointed out the convenience of the regulator shedding its consumer education obligation. It has rid itself of a fiendishly difficult task whilst still allowing it to drain the industry to fund the beastly thing.

    An echo of the Blair administration which invented the FSA and enabled to operate without accountability thereby creating the ideal quango - one where failure is kept at a distance and success is enjoyed by all parties.

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  • The new 'bums on sofas' service is being provided by A4E on behalf of MAS. Yes, people on the ground, travelling, going to homes and businesses, being paid a salary, exempt from authorisation, if some IFAs haven't believed in a conspiracy to replace them then they must be related to the Ostrich family.

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  • As I have repeated until I am blue in the face with the sheer frustration of trying to bring common sense into this industry, the purpose of the RDR and its delinquent child MAS is to demean and destroy the traditional, locally based IFA to pass the major distribution channel for financial products over to the banks, direct providers and tied agents, which in fact infuture under FCA rules will be much easier to control.

    Those pesky irritating "Independents" need to be removed from the financial services industry altogether.

    Nic, you have not had an epiphany moment, you have just woken up to the fact that if the IFA sector goes pear shaped, then the need for financial commentary by journalists in the MM is going to reduce and many journalists will have nowhere to put their views and no one to read them.

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  • Ah ! At last, a journalist who is waking up to the reality of how our money is wasted, how unaccountable these organisations are and that the upshot of all these changes is to reduce and demean the work of IFAs to an irrelevance in the financial sector as not many ordinary consumers on average wages will be able to afford to take advice after 2012.

    It doesn't matter about whether we need higher qualifications, ban commission, force clients to pay fees for advice, what is going to happen if we do not step back from the brink of a disasterous and totally unnecessary change to our sector, is that the level of retail investment business will fall, thus putting less money into the capital markets via the big pension funds, life offices and investment managers, thus harming and probably killing off our economic recovery.

    If the Governor of the BofE is worried, we all should be !

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  • What really annoys me is that despite the section of the MAS website mentioning the potentially valuable services of IFA's being, in the context of the whole, very small ~ at a rough guess, barely 5% of it ~ IFA's have been forced to foot the entire cost of the service.

    This appears to be yet another example of the FSA's "just charge the IFA sector for it all, there's nothing they'll be able to do about it" mentality.

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  • Anyone who ever thought that the new 'search economy' would inevitably mean a rush to the MAS should have been locked up by now. Aside from the monstrous waste of money, initiated by our dear departed one eyed friend and obediently proposed by the man who now runs the ABI, what I find most striking is that the web site is so utterly dismal. Any IFA who thinks it is a threat should pack in now before being found out.

    MAS is a dismal failure, but I'll lay odds that it will survive. If Mark Hoban had any cojones, he would insist on it being killed off here and now, with the Government picking up the redundancy tab, not the industry.

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  • It appears to me - and I am a very simple man, that the only important decision a consumer, a customer - call them what you like (I prefer the term client) makes is "WHO DO I/WE TRUST.

    Relationships is what this industry is all about.

    You can bend over,drop your trousers (or lift your skirt) and show all the qualifications you like. But if you talk out of the same area you have just exposed then you will fail.

    If all IFA's, Product providers, lenders, Investment houses refused to be regulated tomorrow then this would end all this madness and come Monday the world would be a better place.

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