Nic Cicutti: What is Apfa’s vision for financial advice?

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If there is one thing guaranteed to give my age away, it is my recollection of what it was like to be a trade union member in the 1970s.

In most workplaces back then, unions rarely had to justify their worth by pointing to things they achieved on behalf of their members, although they often did deliver better pay and working conditions.

And if we felt the union or its representatives were rubbish we might heap scorn on the grey-faced full-time official who turned up at our meetings, sucking on a mint as he told us to be more “realistic” in our demands.

But it never occurred to us to leave, because we believed in the core need to have someone stand up for us when things got tough. And as ineffective as unions sometimes were, the alternative seemed much, much worse.

Things are different today. Many collective groups, including trade associations, are weaker than they used to be. Joining and staying is frequently an individual rather than a collective choice, based as often as not on a precise calculation of what that organisation can do for you. And if the cost seems greater than the benefit, well forget it.

Which is why I was not too surprised by Money Marketing editor Natalie Holt’s editorial the other week, when she reflected on Apfa’s recent history and then sought to respond to the argument about why people should belong to their trade body.

“Some firms question what Apfa has ever achieved for them, or argue that any benefit of membership is intangible and hard to quantify,” Natalie wrote.

“To give some concrete examples, Apfa delivered a total of £6m in annual cost savings to advisers by fighting to cut the cost of Pension Wise and the Money Advice Service. It did this with a turnover of just under £800,000. That seems to be a pretty clear value for money assessment right there.”

I have a lot of sympathy with this point of view. I have read the detailed four-page submission by Apfa to the FCA’s consultation on regulated fees and levies for 2015/16. It is a good, clear and credible response.

This is the kind of nitty-gritty work that organisations like Apfa carry out every day on behalf of their members: position papers, responses, putting forward arguments that you hope will sway those with the real power to make decisions that affect your work category’s interests.

Having performed such tasks at a fairly menial level in the distant past I can understand both how important such work is and also how unrecognised it so often is. Lobbying and careful argument is generally the main way of influencing events.

So if you argue for something and, occasionally, the regulator appears to shift slightly from its original position, it is entirely natural to see it as a triumph for the carefully-crafted case you advanced.

The problem with such a view, sadly, is it also leads you to grandstand and claim victories for yourself and your organisation, where they actually belong to a far wider collection of individuals and groups.

To give an example from a few years ago, I remember criticising the FSA’s former Consumer Panel in the pages of Money Marketing for being “a toothless body which has managed to achieve almost nothing… since it was formed.”

No sooner had I done so than the panel’s then vice chairman Dianne Hayter, an archetypal “professional consumerist” whom I had also singled out for a bit of a mauling, wrote in to defend her organisation – and to claim all sorts of astonishing triumphs on its behalf.

For instance, the “successful campaign” to make sure the FSA investigated self-certified mortgages. Or the Consumer Panel’s “major success” in persuading the Treasury that home reversion schemes needed to be regulated.

Presumably everyone else who campaigned on these issues, such as Which? and trade bodies like the Council of Mortgage Lenders, plus scores of articles written by journalists had nothing to do with it.

As I wrote at the time: “It reminds me of the cartoon I saw once of a pharaoh, standing on a pyramid and looking down on the assembled masses whose decades-long, back-breaking labour led to this wonderful structure being erected. He tells them: ‘I built this pyramid – oh, and you lot helped.’”

That is why to suggest that Apfa is solely or even mostly responsible for a reduction in advisers’ contributions to the overall cost of Pension Wise or the MAS does a disservice to the many other individuals, organisations and publications, including Money Marketing itself, where powerful arguments have been raised against the way this financial burden was being imposed.

The issue of whether you belong to a trade union or a professional association, it has always seemed to me, is as much to do with whether you believe in its message as in the effectiveness of its lobbying. This is all the more the case if, as we all know deep down, Afpa is so sorely underfunded.

For Afpa to retain existing members and recruit new ones it needs to make a compelling case that does not include grandiose claims about its own abilities but a compelling vision of financial advice in the 21st century. We are still waiting to know what that vision might be.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk