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Fit to be tied

Presumably we are well past the need for me to offer any thoughts on the recent Budget. That’s partly because, by the time you read this, more than a week will have elapsed but mainly because, from year to year, my feelings on the subject – my post-Budget rapport, if you will – remain unchanged.

The standout point from each statement from Alastair Darling may become ever more mundane – the steady reversal of pension simplification, boiler allowances, an assault on everything, well, every flagon the West Country holds dear – but the end result will always be the same. The sum total of human happiness will be that little bit less than it was before he opened his mouth.

Having stared at that sentence for the last quarter of an hour, I have almost lost the will to type – which you may, quite reasonably, feel would be no bad thing. However, I have used those 15 minutes wisely and pulled myself together – this column is going to perk up and it is going to do so by first considering the dangers faced by my television.

I love my TV. Budgetary statements and the recent Test series in Bangladesh aside, it has brought me countless hours of joy and yet, every day, it runs the risk of ending up with my foot through it. The list of potential catalysts for such drastic action is not a short one but, somewhere near the top, lies the advertisement that purports to illustrate the approachability and general jolliness of NatWest’s so-called MoneySense so-called advisers.

Approachable, jolly and of course unbiased since the Advertising Standards Agency last year decided to take no further action after receiving just 16 complaints from members of the public about the bank’s claims to offer an in no way biased review of customers’ finances.

Of course, I note that one of those 16 complaints was from Robert Sinclair – a director of not only the Association of Independent Financial Advisers but also the Association of Mortgage Intermediaries and the Association of Finance Brokers to boot – neatly illustrating how one man’s freedom fighter can be another man’s unbiased adviser.

So – approachable, jolly, unbiased and now, more generically under the umbrella term of ’banks and building societies’, just not terribly great at providing financial advice. If you’re like Mr Silver, you might now be shouting, “Tell us something we don’t know.” But then, if you’re like me, you’ll never tire of having your prejudices confirmed.

And confirmed by Which?, no less, who in November and December last year despatched researchers posing as retired savers to seek financial advice from the UK’s high-street banks and building societies.

Of the 37 branches of Abbey, Alliance & Leicester, Barclays, Bradford & Bingley, Britannia/Co-operative Bank, Halifax/Bank of Scotland, HSBC, Lloyds TSB, Nationwide and NatWest visited, the researchers found just four gave what Which? describes as “good advice”.

The rest failed – often for recommending inappropriate products without properly explaining the risks or because “they couldn’t even get the basics of good advice right”. “To add insult to injury, the banks bailed out with taxpayers’ money – Lloyds TSB and Halifax – were no better than the rest,” sighs Which? – but then, did it seriously believe they would be?

On the off chance some of you happen to be wondering what constitutes “good advice” in the eyes of the alpha dog of consumer champions, the banks’ advisers were expected to disclose their status as tied advisers and make it clear whose products they could recommend, carry out a thorough factfind and establish the researcher’s attitude to investment risk.

They also had to discuss the researcher’s current tax status and the tax position of the products recommended, fully explain the products being recommended, including all of the risks, and explain all associated fees and charges.

All things, no doubt, you do as a matter of course though, if not, that RDR-induced sale of your business presumably can’t happen quickly enough. Still, either way – the prospect of a few quid in retirement or the confirmation of one’s suspicions about tied advisers – surely the sum of human happiness must have taken a small step forward. For now.

Julian Marr is editorial director of marketing-hub.co.uk

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