Profile: The complaints commissioner on regulating the regulators

Antony Townsend, Financial Services Complaints Commissioner photographed at their offices in the City of London

For his first job in financial services, Antony Townsend has certainly gone in at the top: regulating the regulator. He  took over the role of complaints commissioner last May, tasked with independently reviewing complaints about the actions of the FCA, the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Bank of England.

And while he has not previously worked in financial services, Townsend has a wealth of experience in regulating professions and assessing complaints.

He began his career as a civil servant in the Home Office, working in criminal justice policy roles, including a stint dealing with complaints from prisoners.

He says: “At one of the prisons there was an objection from the prison governor about the number of complaints I was upholding.

“The view was that complaints shouldn’t be upheld when they are from prisoners, but luckily my manager told the governor I was doing my job.”

Townsend has since headed the General Dental Council and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

He says he was drawn to the role of commissioner due to a career-long interest in the relationship between state or regulatory organisations and individuals.

“Throughout my career I have been struck by how easy it is for organisations to inadvertently cause a lot of misery.

“What regulators do can have a pretty grim effect on individuals, even when they are acting properly.”

Townsend says his role requires a delicate “balancing act” between holding the regulator to account and allowing it to do its job.

“The regulator has to be given a pretty wide set of discretions to do its job.

“You cannot have it paralysed by the fear that every decision will be reviewed and potentially overturned. But there needs to be checks from someone who is removed from the process, otherwise the work of a regulator can tip into something which feels oppressive.”

He says the impact of the regulator’s actions on an individual or firm is one factor he takes into account when making decisions.

“In one sense I do have to take emotions out of it, but taking account of impact is important. In the course of enforcement action, for example, a regulator might have to do some quite nasty things, but it has a duty to do it in a way that limits the collateral damage as far as possible.”

The majority of the complaints received by the Office of the Complaints Commissioner relate to the FCA and the FSA.

It made 38 formal decisions in 2014/15, and in three of these overturned the regulator’s decision. It criticised the regulator in a further six cases.

Townsend says: “In the vast majority of cases we uphold the FCA’s decisions as the regulator generally does a good job with complaints.

“We get some misconceived complaints, such as those from people saying ‘I don’t like what happened in the RDR.’ To which our polite answer is you might not like it, but that was the policy, it was properly formulated, and there is nothing to be done.

“There are others where the complainant simply won’t accept the decision of the regulator and we have to look at whether it was a reasonable decision or not.

“And then there are the complex cases which take up all our time.”

The commissioner has the right to access all of the regulator’s papers in relation to a case, which Townsend says is “absolutely critical” to his job.

He says: “Technically all I can do is recommend, but if the regulators don’t accept my recommendations they have to state why publicly which is a bit embarrassing for them, so that is very rare.

“I make a combination of formal decisions and more general commentary on the way the system is working. In the worst case last year, some really sloppy work had been done in terms of an investigation and supervision, and then there had been a failure to acknowledge how bad the work was. I was commenting both on the original regulatory failure and the follow-up.”

Townsend says there is a reluctance among all regulators to admit errors.

He says: “The FCA often apologises and offers modest recompense without my intervention.

“But particularly in high-stakes cases, it is difficult to admit error. On at least one occasion last year, the regulator made a partial apology and I said it should have been much fuller and much more honest about what had gone wrong.

“Part of my role is to act as an incentive to the FCA to be as open as possible.”

Townsend says the complaints he receives from advisers generally fall into three categories: what he terms “bureaucratic foul-ups”; improper or uncaring behaviour from the FCA; and unclear regulatory guidance.

“We have had a few cases where advisers have wanted clear-cut guidance on whether or not a particular action was justifiable, that is effectively not within our remit because it is the policy of the FCA and just about every regulator in the country to not give ‘safe harbour’ guidance.”

Townsend says while he has to keep a certain distance to maintain his independence, he also aims to work with the regulator to improve its transparency and relationship with firms.

“Part of the role is enabling outsiders to see what is going on. To do that I have to be independent without being stand-offish.”

Five questions

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?

Recruit a team who are not in your image.

What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the past year?

My guess is the rapid changes to pensions – but time will tell.

What keeps you awake at night?

Radio 4 Extra (I’ve learned to worry during the day).

If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…

Question the sanity of those who had allowed me to do it. It’s an incredibly tough job.

Any advice for new advisers?

Think about the underlying purpose of the myriad regulations which you are having to grapple with. Ethical standards are often the best guide to a dilemma.

CV

2014-present: Financial Services Complaints Commissioner

2014-present: Chair of the regulatory board of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants

2014-present: Board member, Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care

2013-present: Chair of the UK and Ireland regulatory board of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors

2006-2014: Chief executive, Solicitors Regulation Authority

2001-2006: Chief executive, General Dental Council

1990-2001: Director of education and standards, General Medical Council

1980-1990: Policy roles criminal justice and policy, Home Office