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Is Severn up for a fight with the FSA?

We need an organisation that is going to be forceful. It has to be led by someone who is finally going to stop the IFA being bullied and stomped on by the rest of the industry.

In his first few days in office, Aifa director general David Severn has made the right sort of noises to win the hearts and minds of IFAs.

With promises to implement a three-point action plan to bring clarity, stability and lower costs to IFAs, the former FSA man has pleased even sceptical members with early fighting talk about taking on the regulator.

But IFAs will not be truly won over until these promises are delivered. The crucial test will come as he tries to balance the needs of members through the tough decisions of depolarisation.

It is an issue that financial services public affairs experts Cicero Consulting believe could make or break his reign. Senior associate Nick Cuff says: “The hardest thing about being a director general is managing the varying demands of all your stakeholders, after all, it is them you are supposed to represent.

“Whenever anything happens, there are always going to be those people who feel disaffected and those who feel under-represented. You have to be an excellent communicator to be able to deal with this.

“You also have to be a good lobbyist. This means knowing the right people to speak to, how to get to them and then how to speak to them. It takes fantastic client-handing skills, persuasion and tact.”

There is no doubt that Severn has a difficult job in following Paul Smee who was popular among members and respected by the Treasury and FSA. The payment menu he developed for depolarisation improved what was on the table.

What was Aifa looking for when it started its search for Smee’s successor? Its advertisement for director-general called for a principal policy adviser to develop a portfolio of services for members. He or she would set strategy in the light of regulatory changes, represent the interests of members to regulators, government and Parlia-ment, and have a strong understanding of public policy and regulatory issues in the UK and EU.

With 15 years in regulation – four of those with the FSA – Severn certainly fills all these categories. But his defining moment in the eyes of IFAs has so far been as the architect of depolarisation.

He headed the review of polarisation in 2001 that started with considering lifting restrictions for the sale of stakeholder pensions, Cat-standard Isas and direct-offer financial promotions. The result of the review was an FSA U-turn and the end of polarisation.

Severn was also a key figure in scrapping the defined-payment system in favour of the payment menu. Significantly, he questioned the practicality of multi-ties at an FSA open meeting on polarisation, saying he had doubts over how consumers would benefit if the only result of change was IFAs fleeing the sector to become multi-tied.

Does this give a clue as to how Severn plans to deal with multi-ties within Aifa? He says he is undecided but an indication of his feeling comes from his statement that “independence will always be the gold standard”.

Aifa member Essex IFA PMI director John Stewart thinks that multi-ties should have no place in the association. He says: “It is unworkable. The interests are not aligned and you cannot look after both. I just think that depolarisation will not be good for the clients. They will not have a clue about what is happening.”

York IFA Hallmark managing director David Holbrook realises that taking out multi-ties could pose problems. He says: “I think that Aifa should be for independents but there could be a problem for firms with a multi-tied arm. You would have to let them in and if you are going to let them in, shouldn’t you let everyone in?”It is a difficult balance and, since we do not know what a multi-tie is going to look like, it is a decision you cannot make yet.”

Another crucial issue for Severn to tackle is the treatment of IFAs by the Financial Ombudsman Service. One small IFA tells of how a client refused to pay a 400 fee. The IFA struck a compromise after threatening to sue for the cash. The client paid 300 but then complained to the Fos over bad service. As soon as the complaint was made, the IFA had to pay a 360 case fee.

It is this sort of situation that makes IFAs feel hard done by regulators and Government. They are crying out for someone to punch their weight in the corridors of power.

Stewart says: “We need an organisation that is going to be forceful. It has to be led by someone who is finally going to stop the IFA being bullied and stomped on by the rest of the industry. They have to change things around so that being an IFA is something that people want to do. If I were looking in from the outside, then I do not know why you would want to become an IFA.”

A more pessimistic view comes from the IFA Defence Union, many of whose members handed in their Aifa membership when Severn was appointed. It commended the work of Smee but thinks it is time Aifa took on the FSA.

Spokesman Evan Owen says: “We want some aggression, the FSA are taking the mickey and smiling politely, just as they have since the beginning. Very soon, there will not be enough members to fund Aifa. The providers are giving up on IFAs so they will not fund it either. It will not be called Aifa for very long.”

If Severn thought he was going to have a quiet settling in period, he was mistaken. Members are going to want to see his action plan and are relishing his first tussles with the FSA.

His tough talking against the regulator will win many IFAs over and his action plan could bring more professionalism to the organisation. But it will count for nothing unless he delivers results that they want to see.

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