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Democracy in motion

There are few occasions when an organisation consults its members with a completely open mind.

Just look at the way the LIA and Sofa merged last year to form the Personal Finance Society. The powers-that-be on either side never seriously believed that the members might rebel against the idea. Nor did they.

That said, I recall speaking to a very nervous official from one of the bodies, partway through the merger debate, when some former LIA members’ comments were threatening to disrupt the amalgamation. “If they don’t keep their mouths shut, we could lose this vote,” he muttered, as though astonished at the thought that democracy could deliver any outcome other than the one he and his colleagues expected.

It is in this context that I am approaching the consultation process embarked on by Aifa over whether it should open its doors to multi-ties. Two weeks ago, it published a document outlining eight options for members to vote on. Most are based on the premise that to prevent multi- ties from being members is commercial suicide.

Backing up the claim is the suggestion that, unless Aifa votes to admit multi-ties, membership fees will have to rise by up to 30 per cent. If anything is guaranteed to get an IFA’s tick in the appropriate box on any ballot paper, it is the suggestion that he or she will have to fork out larger sums of money unless the vote goes the right way.

Moreover, in a situation where Aifa’s biggest paymasters – the networks and big regional and national IFAs – are busy setting up their own multi-tie operations, to expect them to accept that representation will apply solely to one constituent element within those companies seems a tad unrealistic.

Having said the consult- ation is almost certainly a foregone conclusion does not mean the issues should not be debated, nor that the outcome should be different to what it is likely to be. There are several reasons why Aifa members should broadly acc- ept the concept of an organisation that includes independent advisers and multi-ties within its ranks.

Money is not one of them. The real reason for admitting multi-ties is that, although some Aifa members forget, the role of their trade body is not to promote independent advice but to represent their viewpoint to the FSA, Treasury and other official bodies.

Sure, some issues will affect IFAs more than multi-ties and vice versa. But whereas, in the past, there might have been situations where it was in IFAs’ interests to argue for a different regulatory outcome between themselves and sales- people, this is less likely today.

The question then arises – which option to go for. Let’s assume options one and two – remaining IFA-only or recruiting only whole-of-market commission-earning advisers – are non-starters. Assume too, that option eight is unlikely to materialise, if only for lack of imagination as to what “alternative” proposals there might be.

Options three, four, five and six attempt to set limits on who is admitted into membership. If you do that, you will only end up excluding a category on what will turn out to be spurious grounds. That’s why my vote would be for option seven – one body, with separate categories for firms that do not meet the definition of independence.

I am reasonably certain this is the option Chris Cummings and Aifa’s board want members to back. Of course, I could be wrong. This could be an example of genuinely democratic consultation.

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