With last week's publication of its paper on the future of financial advice, the National Consumer Council announced its re-entry into the debate about an industry that it has left alone for the last three years.
Leading the charge back into financial services is director Anna Bradley, who is looking to re-establish the NCC as a major contributor to future thinking about savings policy.
The NCC's first foray has not been met with much applause from IFAs, as the paper welcomed the scrapping of polarisation and the introduction of the defined-payment system for remunerating advisers.
Despite these controversial views, Bradley insists it is the FSA's greener proposals for extending advice to lower-earners which concern her most.
She wants to see the creation of different types of financial adviser depending on the circumstances of the individual and rejects the FSA's notion of a “second-class” financial adviser.
The NCC is calling on the Government to establish a taskforce to look at ways of funding financial advice for those who do not currently have access to it. Possible solutions inc-lude an industry levy or even public funding but Bradley will not say what option she favours at this point.
She is happy to leave comment on polarisation to other bodies such as the Consumers' Association and the Financial Services Consumer Panel. Why then did the NCC's paper mention polarisation at all?
Bradley has an extensive consumer background, ranging across the spectrum of issues, but readily admits her experience in financial services does not run deep.
She began her career at the Consumers' Association in the early 1980s, working as a journalist for Which? magazine.In 1988, she became deputy research director at the CA and took responsibility for financial services.
After five years in the post, she left the CA to take the reins of the UK's biggest drug charity, the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence – now DrugScope. But she found her way back to fighting for consumers as director of the NCC in 1999 and has just begun her second three-year term in the position.
“I like to know what we are doing in terms of first principles on financial services. I am very interested in financial services and have watched closely as our position has been developed.”
Bradley counts among the organisation's achievements the creation of the Financial Services Consumer Panel which came into being in 2000. “We lobbied very hard for the creation and implementation of the consumer panel which would ensure that the FSA has a consumer presence,” she says.
It was the establishment of the panel which led to the NCC decision to withdraw from the financial services market shortly after. Bradley insists, however, that the decision to re-enter the market is no reflection on the panel. “We feel positive about the panel and our re-entry does not represent in any way a failing on their part.”
Besides the NCC's contribution to the debate about the future of delivering financial advice, there are two other areas Bradley says the body will focus on.
One is the concept of risk – how much of it consumers should be exposed to, how much they should be responsible for as opposed to the industry. This idea goes right across all industries but obviously has a strong relevance to financial services.
She says: “We should not be looking to avoid all degrees of risk, people want to be able make choices. But they must be aware of what risks they are getting involved in. Too often, they invest in products unaware of the risk level and then come back years later to discover they have suffered as a result.”
Bradley points to the problems surrounding endowment mortgages and pension misselling as examples.
The other is broader, looking at what type of financial market consumers will want in the future. A fundamental review of the development of the market is necessary, Bradley says, instead of the “day-by-day” attitude the Government has at the moment.
The primary difference between the NCC and CA, Bradley believes, is that the CA provides information to consumers about products and services available while the NCC concentrates on policy decisions. Then there is the matter of funding.
The CA receives its money from the proceeds of Which?magazine and has charitable status. The NCC gets 80 per cent of its money from the Department of Trade and Industry and the rest from a list of “friends” – effectively companies which give it money.
The “friends” in financial services include such companies as Prudential, Barclays, Northern Rock, Fidelity, Provident Financial, Aegon, Direct Line and the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Bradley says they receive no special favours but does concede that the NCC often discusses various proposals with their “friends”.
When she is not fighting for a better world for consumers, Bradley leads a quieter life, catching up on reading and spending time with her two children. “If you have a challenging full-time job and a family what more do you want?” she says.
Lives: Colchester, Essex
Born: London, July 29, 1957
Education: Degree in philosophy from Warwick University, MBA from Warwick University
Career to date: Editor with publisher Marshall Cavendish, joined the Consumers' Association as journalist on Which? magazine, became deputy director of research with the CA, then director of the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence. Moved on to become director of the NCC, currently in second three-year term
Career ambition: “I've never had one, I'll be here for some time and then who knows?”
Life ambition: “To make a significant difference for a group of people in all the things I've done.”
Likes: To see things happen fast
Dislikes: Wasted talent
Peers say: “Anna is very effective and a very thoughtful consumer campaigner. She is capable of bringing to bear quite a lot of intellectual force to consumer issues and campaigning.”