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Consuming passions

Shortly before David Severn stepped down as Aifa director-general, I met him for a quick chat, during which he told me what he thought the trade body’s priorities should be in the coming year.

It might have been the fact that it was very early in the morning, but the minute he began to talk about Europe, I started to yawn.

I know the role of the EU is increasingly important in dri- ving regulation and product design, which is why I unusually find myself totally out of sympathy with demands for an EU-wide consumer panel, voiced by Which? last week.

According to reports, the aim of this panel would be to “hold financial services firms and regulators to account. The proposed consumer panel would have sweeping powers and position itself as the EU equivalent to the UK’s Financial Services Consumer Panel.”

Please, not that. It isn’t just the thought of a bunch of sweaty politicians in Brussels or Strasbourg being given the run-around by wily Spanish or French life company executives, self-important Germans or bland, blame-free ABI apparatchiks. It is also the comparison with the Financial Services Consumer Panel that makes me blanch.

If there is one toothless body which has managed to achieve almost nothing in the six years since it was formed, it is the Financial Services Consumer Panel.

Consisting largely of pro- fessional do-gooders – with the bizarre exception of the superb investigative journalist Tony Hetherington – it sits and talks. And writes. And talks. And publishes reports. And talks. And bar some issues of relatively minor importance, it is comprehensively ignored by the FSA and Treasury.

The panel’s comments occasionally manage some topical relevance but often simply scrape the barrel. Its latest report, published last week, is a case in point.

We were told that consumers “are confused about the services they get from advisers.” Almost a third thought that their “independent financial adviser” was only able to advise on a restricted range of companies’ products. Meanwhile, 20 per cent of those who had used an IFA did not know if or how they had paid them.

Astonishingly, the panel admits that this research was carried out by pollsters BRMB in November 2004. In other words, it took almost nine months to tell us that “customers value the idea of independent advice”.

Meanwhile, some 62 per cent thought they had had “very good advice from an adviser who covered the whole of the market” compared with “20 per cent of those who had used advisers tied to one company.”

Now, flattering though it may be for many IFAs to be told that they are generally doing a good job by two-thirds of people who come into contact with them, I think it can safely be said that this is, actually, a statement of the obvious.

Why do members of the panel even bother with this kind of rubbish? Could it be the money?

According to the annual report, a member who puts in at least 45 days a year, the equivalent of about one day a week, excluding holidays, gets paid 15,700. If you work 25 days a week, you pick up 9,000. Not bad, but hardly a vast amount, so it can’t be the main reason.

The only viable explanation is that, as with so many of the FSA’s consumer-facing initiatives, there is a confluence bet- ween what I would describe as regulatory tokenism and the full-time consumerist status of many panel members. Space does not permit me to go into the CVs of every board member, so let’s take one member, Dianne Hayter. as an example.

In addition to her job at the FSA on a vice-chairman’s salary of 17,500, she is a board member of the National Consumer Council, for which she picked up 13,000 last year, and was until 2004 on the board of the National Patient Safety Agency. A malfunction on the NPSDA website does not allow me to tell you how much she earned there but let’s assume it was between 5,000 and 10,000, last year’s total.

Her career to date appears to have been based on a combination of Fabian-style volunteerism, political activism of the most bureaucratic kind and moderately well-remunerated professional consumerism.

Let me be clear, I chose Dianne Hayter’s name not out of any sense of malice but because I have spoken to her before. A trawl through other members’ backgrounds would almost certainly reveal identikit CVs.

The sad fact is that the consumer panel, in its current form, is toothless. It is ignored by just about everyone, including most journalists and certainly by the FSA, for which it acts as a convenient, if occasionally disrespectful poodle. Creating a new European version of this body would be to perpetuate failure but on a wider, transnational scale.

Its ineffectiveness reminds me of the day a well-off Labour member was asked to give food for the hampers we were putting together to feed striking miners’ families over Christmas 1984. My contact opened a kitchen cupboard, rummaged around and proudly handed me a single tin of foie gras.


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