Alan Lakey: Data protection working against consumers

Blind adherence to rules is never an attractive character facet, yet with many individuals we are prepared to forgive such behaviour. However, when mindless obedience emanates from those institutions with which we daily transact business, a line has to be drawn.

My bluster is directed primarily at those whose devotion to the rigours of the Data Protection Act makes them a menace to advisers and clients alike and causes a reduction in the business we transact.

I am all for the privacy of personal data and would feel outrage if my private information were broadcast willy-nilly by any organisation but, like regulation, there has to be an acceptable balance and some institutions have shown the ability to find an appropriate path.

As an example, Coventry Building Society asks advisers for two digits of their individual reference number and thereby short-cuts what could otherwise descend into a tortuous process.

Others maintain the pretence that by asking seven or eight standard questions they are providing fitting proof of their DPA responsibilities.

Several examples of recent behaviour serve to highlight how this mindset encroaches on common sense. I recently telephoned Nationwide to enquire about the progress of a mortgage application. Seven or eight DPA questions were answered and the Nationwide lady, having been unable to answer my question, promised to phone back. She promptly did this but then refused to impart the information unless I subjected myself to the very same identical inquisition. Is this sensible? Is this in line with DPA requirements or is it some form of gold-plating designed to irrefutably demonstrate observance with the act? This lady had telephoned my office, I had answered providing my name and had then thanked her for coming back so speedily and additionally confirmed the clients’ names without invitation.

The also accepted that we had just spoken, so blind obedience overcomes common sense yet again.

In common with many firms, we use a standard agency transfer form which enables us to obtain information from institutions. The wording is precise and non-ambiguous, it confirms that the named client wishes us to take over as their agent and that the authority is to remain in force until the client informs them to the contrary. It is intended to avoid foolish and time-consuming correspondence.

Every financial services company accepts this authority and matters generally run smoothly until one or other institution tiring of such efficiency decides to disrupt the process. Enter Aviva, a company hitherto considered as sensible. A recent pension valuation enquiry was rebuffed with the advice that the client authority letters enjoy a finite life, in this instance, 12 months.

There is no requirement in the DPA for this and it provokes a number of disturbing questions. Is Aviva conversant with the requirements of the DPA or is it labouring under the misapprehension that clients only stay with their advisers for a year or so? Could it be readying itself for an assault on advisers’ clients after the RDR? Or could it be that some tick-box zealot has been carried away with the power devolved by the DPA and is creating chaos by his actions?

I could recount many additional instances all of which confirms that an Act of Parliament specifically designed to protect the privacy of individuals is being used to the disadvantage of those very same individuals. Rationality and balance please make a comeback.

Alan Lakey is partner at Highclere Financial Services