More disappointment ensues from an organisation that supposedly prides itself on transparency and openness
How do you deal with responses from regulators and other official bodies to your queries? Do you find yourself becoming livid with anger at their dismissive tone, yet end up letting it go because – let’s face it – their behaviour is par for the course?
A few weeks ago, I was in just that kind of situation myself when making contact with the Financial Ombudsman Service for an article I was writing.
It all started, ironically enough, when a family contacted me regarding a piece in Money Marketing almost three years ago about the shoddy treatment of my own insurance claim by Ageas, the large multinational personal and commercial lines provider.
The couple, a GP and a dentist, were in a very similar situation to mine. Their house burned down in October 2016. Sixteen months later, they were still living in rented accommodation, unable to start the rebuild of their home because Ageas was refusing to settle their claim.
When they first took out buildings cover for the property they had just bought in April 2016, they used an industry standard online calculator to arrive at a rebuild cost. Yet it took Ageas until June 2017 before it arrived at its own wild overestimate, which it then increased even further in January.
In consequence, Ageas argued the family was massively under-insured and it would apply “averaging” to the claim, which meant it offered barely two thirds of even a realistic rebuild estimate.
Ageas declined repeated requests to explain how it had arrived at these figures until only last month. The company’s response to the Ombudsman then justified its estimate by cutting and pasting an entry from a totally different, far more expensive property on the Rightmove website into its letter.
It was in September 2017 that the family decided to complain to the FOS about the way Ageas had handled their case. Yet when they called me more than four months later, there had been almost no movement on their claim.
Meanwhile, The Guardian agreed to publish this as a story. As part of my research into the piece, I contacted the FOS. Among the issues I hoped it would comment on was that of whether it was acceptable for it to take more than four months to appoint an adjudicator/case worker into a complaint.
This matters. The couple’s insurance policy allows a sum of up to 20 per cent of the rebuild cost to be used to meet accommodation fees before they have to start paying rent themselves. Any unnecessary delay in Ageas’ own internal processes, or the FOS reaching a conclusion, could leave them out of pocket.
Based on previous experience of similar cases, I also asked how long the FOS might expect to take before a final ruling is made? In other words, how long should the adjudication process last?
A further issue I needed help with was whether there is any ruling the FOS could point me to where the issue of a Building Cost Information Service calculator being used had been adjudicated on – there are many, many thousands of adjudications published on the FOS website, with only a rudimentary search function available.
Also, how does an adjudicator arrive at findings in cases where a complaint could potentially affect both the broker and the insurer? This was an issue because the family had only recently begun to understand that it might need to involve both parties. Would it not have made sense for the FOS person to whom they initially spoke in September to have advised them of this potential fact?
My underlying reason for asking these questions, which I sent over in a lengthy email, was to help clarify for readers some of the underlying issues that affect any investigation by the FOS into a complaint brought by a consumer. I had hoped for the opportunity to speak to an expert who could guide me through the issues.
Instead, having specifically asked for written permission from the policyholders so she could discuss their case with me, the Ombudsman’s so-called policy and communication manager then told me it could not comment on personal details. The rest of her banal 148-word statement barely answered to any of the other questions I had asked.
Usually, when a mouthpiece comes up with this kind of pathetic non-response, one would typically shrug one’s shoulders and work a few words from their answer into the piece. It becomes a game, in which we end up colluding with the arrogance of a few PR people who seem to feel that we are imposing on their precious time.
Frankly, that is not good enough, certainly not for PR spokespeople in an organisation that supposedly prides itself on transparency and openness – two key preconditions for public confidence in a body whose costs, no matter the tenuous funding arrangements, are ultimately borne by consumers through the fees and other charges we pay.
In my case, I have formally complained higher up the FOS echelons and received a verbal apology for what happened. Time will tell whether the complaint will lead to a change in attitude on the media team’s part. Either way, it is time for us to tell these so-called public servants that enough is enough.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org