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Consumer goods

I do not know what was behind Nic Cicutti’s intemperate article on the Financial Services Consumer Panel in general and on me in particular (Money Marketing, July 28), especially as its level of inaccuracy was more Private Eye than Money Marketing.

Far from having spent my time on “political activism of the most bureaucratic kind”, I have set up a cancer charity (which has saved lives) and Alcohol Concern (which has helped many thousands of problem drinkers).

I have also worked for a major medical research charity, written a history book and even toiled as a journalist. But all that is boring and only testimony to the inaccuracies which occur in the main part of the piece, which was not about me but about the consumer panel on which I serve.

Despite the industry claiming that the panel has too much influence, the author alleges that we have changed nothing, achieved nothing and left consumers to the whim of the market.

Many journalists fail to distinguish between rhetoric and action, a trap Mr Cicutti falls into by measuring column inches rather than real change. So we had better look at the evidence.

Let us start with the FSA annual report, in which John Tiner highlights progress on Financial Promotions, where the team increased from eight to 34. It was the consumer panel which lobbied endlessly for this, as we know how products are unfairly targeted at unsuspecting customers – one win to us.

The FSA also addressed venture capital trusts, as we urged – number two.

We stressed the dangers of self-cert mortgages and successfully campaigned for the FSA to follow this up – number three.

Finally, we persuaded the FSA to undertake mystery shopping, including on equity release, a major concern of ours, producing very disappointing revelations about their missale – numbers four and five.

We argued that the Sandler research on supposedly low-risk products be rerun, leading to the exclusion of a smoothed investment product from the range – I think that makes six or seven if the retention of suitability for sales of Sandler is included.

It was also the panel which early on pressed the Treasury to regulate home reversion – a major success. More recently, the Strachen report on enforcement noted that: “The Financial Services Consumer Panel argued – and we agree – that the process needs to be fair not only to those who are subject to it but must also take proper account of the interests of those consumers who have suffered detriment as a result of misconduct by regulated firms and individuals” – eight and nine.

We have, of course, sometimes failed to convince the FSA. It allowed “independent” to be used for general insurance brokers in a completely different way than for independent financial advisers. Bad for consumers and bad for IFAs.

Similarly, we disagreed with allowing interim authorised insurance companies to continue in business, leaving consumers without access to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme should things go wrong – and in contravention of the FSA’s normal mantra to: “Check your company is authorised.”

We have also failed to get the FSA to bring forward key facts for investment products. But so, of course, has every journalist.

Where do we still plan to influence the FSA? One major area is over the provision of generic financial advice, which is needed by an enormous swathe of consumers. The well-off can purchase it. Those in debt have Money Advice agencies and CABs. But for the mass market, it is hard to find disinterested, professional, free or moderately priced assistance.

One other area where we have pointed out that the FSA lags behind is in recognising the diversity of consumers. Unlike the Financial Ombuds- man Service, neither the FSA’s website nor its publications are in other languages.

So, there is much still to do and many more representations to be made on behalf of consumers. What, then, was behind last week’s attack on our work?

The thought which keeps going through my mind is that a weakened or undermined consumer panel would have less influence with the FSA and the Treasury. Is that what Mr Cicutti really wants?

For myself, luckily, it is a case of sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. But for the panel (which Mr Cicutti could apply to join and thus improve), an objective appraisal of our record is essential for future successes on behalf of consumers.

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