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Profile: Tony Boorman on judging complaints and the human side of the FOS

Tony Boorman says he has never had a career plan, quipping that “nobody goes to university wanting to be an ombudsman”.

But the Financial Ombudsman Service interim chief executive believes his Oxford University degree in PPE has nonetheless held him in good stead for his current role.

“The combination of politics and philosophy against an economic background is appropriate for this job,” he says. “They are all disciplines of analytical thought and careful analysis of the facts.”

Boorman started his career in the energy sector, with several years at providers before joining the electricity and gas market regulator Ofgem.

He says he fell into the sector but enjoyed its variety. “It covers everything from the safety of kettles to deciding where to build nuclear power stations,” he says.

At Ofgem, Boorman focused on the regulator’s competition agenda, overseeing a project to liberalise the retail electricity market and end the monopoly of regional providers.

He says: “Ofgem is an economic regulator, primarily concerned with competition and pricing issues rather than conduct, so it is as different from the FCA as a regulator could be. A lot of the work I did was about deregulation. I have always believed that light-touch regulation is the best approach.”

After 10 years at the regulator and looking for a change, he joined what was then the Insurance Ombudsman Bureau in 2000. It was the first voluntary ombudsman scheme in the UK, set up in 1981.

In 2001 the bureau joined with seven other schemes to form the FOS as a result of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, to settle disputes between consumers and businesses providing financial services. Joining the FOS as one of three principal ombudsmen, Boorman initially focused on health and insurance complaints, which he says is the area of complaints he finds most interesting.

“Health insurance complaints are accessible as human stories,” he says. “To do this job you have to be interested in the human condition and what motivates people.

“Our case handling is always at its best when it is firmly set in that context, but that sometimes gets forgotten about the ombudsman, particularly because of its connection with regulation.”

Boorman concedes it can be difficult to determine the exact circumstances of a complaint, particularly when faced with two contradictory testimonies.

“That is part of the judgment call and sometimes you really cannot be confident about what happened,” he says. “But what you can do is understand the circumstances
of the parties at the time.”

He says it is pointless for the FOS to ask consumers about their attitude to risk.

“Most consumers do not understand that question,” he explains. “Our approach is a simple one: to consider the circumstances of the time, and whether the advice was appropriate for those circumstances.”

Boorman says in the past, however, the FOS did ask consumers that question.

He says: “My favourite ever answer to that was: ‘I liked an occasional flutter on the horses’.

“That is a great bit of testimony and it tells me far more than a series of tick boxes ever could. It creates a picture of this man and his circumstances, which can give
a sense of how well he would understand the terms and conditions of a financial product.”

Boorman argues that claims management firms can interfere with getting to the heart of complaints, saying: “They take the voice of the customer out of the process.”

He says he was pleased to see the Ministry of Justice warning claims firms last month that they are causing delays by unnecessarily chasing the FOS for updates on payment protection insurance complaints.

He says: “Everyone, including claims firms, knows we have had a torrent of PPI cases. Claims managers hold themselves out to be professional claims handlers and that should include understanding how the ombudsman works.”

Advisers are likely to share Boorman’s misgivings about claims firms but many also hold concerns about the FOS itself. A recent Apfa survey found a third of advisers who have had a complaint referred to the ombudsman said it did not take their evidence into account. But Boorman says the ombudsman’s statistics tell a different story.

He says: “The reality is that we uphold about 50 per cent of complaints in favour of the consumer and about 50 per cent in favour of firms. The number of complaints we receive about advisers is also very small.”

Of the 512,167 complaints the FOS received in 2013/14, just 0.5 per cent of complaints were about advisers.

Boorman says: “Advisers are small businesses and are passionately committed to what they do.

“I was brought up in a small business – my parents were pharmacists – so I understand that they take these things very personally. It is their business, their advice, and here we are receiving a complaint years later and saying it was not up to standards of the time.”

He adds: “Will people feel we haven’t taken account of everything they have to say? Inevitably, in those circumstances, quite often.”

Boorman took the helm at the ombudsman when chief executive Natalie Ceeney stepped down in November. The organisation is still recruiting for a permanent replacement. Looking ahead, he says the biggest challenge for the FOS is the need to modernise.

“We have been diverted by mortgage endowments and PPI into a series of firefighting exercises,” he explains. We still rely a lot on paper communications and we need to respond to technological changes or risk becoming a service which is no longer relevant for customers.”

Five questions

What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Think deeply. Explain simply.  

What’s keeping you awake at night?
My wife, my kids, but more recently my bladder.

What has been the most significant impact on financial advice in the past year?
It’s tempting to say pension liberalisation. But I think in the real world it has and will continue to be our ever-growing reliance on the online world.

If I was put in charge of the FCA for a day I would…
Hand the job back straightaway to Martin and John. What the sector and its customers need is calm, consistent and effective regulation, not day-to-day changes.

Any advice for new advisers?
Keep the needs of your clients to the fore. You can’t build a successful business without clients that respect you for consistently professional advice.

CV

2000-present:  Principal ombudsman, then deputy chief executive, then interim chief executive, Financial Ombudsman Service

1990-2000:  Director, then deputy director general, Ofgem (formerly the Office of Electricity Regulation)

1985-1989:  Director, Electricity Consumers Council

1983-1985:  Policy manager, Central Electricity Generating Board

1981-1983:  Team manager, Southern Electricity

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Comments

There are 10 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Derek Bradley ceo Panacea Adviser 22nd July 2014 at 3:37 pm

    It is good to see the human side. It will be interesting to see if he has stamped his mark on the FOS in his short tenure at the top. Our current survey of adviser FOS attitudes should help in that regard, we are comparing our 2011 survey results that were frankly awful, to July 2014.

    Nice FOS, bad FOS, couldn’t care about them FOS. Do let us know what you think by pasting this link into your browser http://bit.ly/1tvaBjO and let us know.

    The results will be sent toTony Boorman and Martin Wheatley at the FCA, as I suspect like 2011, they too will have a very interesting story to tell that we hope both will take some positives from.

    And to Tessa too.

  2. “The Financial Ombudsman Service interim chief executive believes his Oxford University degree in PPE has nonetheless held him in good stead for his current role.”

    The degree of choice for the quangocrat stands him in good stead as head of a quango? Well I never.

    I didn’t bother reading the rest but this stood out ““My favourite ever answer [to a question about attitude to risk] was: ‘I liked an occasional flutter on the horses’. That is a great bit of testimony and it tells me far more than a series of tick boxes ever could. ” Seriously? That answer could indicate anything from a pathological gambling addict to Mrs Miggins doing a £1 sweepstake on the Grand National once a year. And if he had done a proper economics course rather than PPE, he would have known that someone’s ATR when gambling is virtually irrelevant to their ATR when investing. People have different risk profiles for different parts of their life – the same man may invest in the stockmarket, play the Lottery and take out home insurance even though these imply three different, and in the case of insurance, contradictory risk profiles.

    Advisers who doubt that the FOS really understands investment risk will not be reassured from this utter nonsense from the top of the tree.

  3. He says: “My favourite ever answer to that was: ‘I liked an occasional flutter on the horses’.

    Can you imagine what the FOS would say if an adviser used that as justification for an high risk investment!

  4. A friend of mine doesn’t drink because his mother was an alcoholic.
    I don’t gamble (my great grandmother pawned my grandfathers Sunday best to pay her gambling addiction)
    Islam makes Gambling and alcohol Haram .
    None of the above tells the clients attitude to risk, but their ethical or religious stance.
    Based on his lack of understanding or risk and now his misunderstanding or philosophy and ethics, he might need to resit his degree and perhaps do some FS qualifications too.

  5. Inspired by Mr Boorman I’ve just devised a new risk profiling system that asks clients to identify their attitude to risk in everyday terms they will understand. Hopefully he will give his approval and we can all start rolling it out, maybe as part of this simplified advice thing the F-pack are so keen on.

    Like Tuuuuubes, it has one question and one question only:

    Q1: Which of these statements best describes your attitude to risk? (Tick one box)

    A: “I like an occasional flutter on the horses”
    B: “I play the Lottery twice a week and the occasional scratchcard”
    C: “I inherited some Invesco Perpetual funds from my grandad which have always done OK”
    D: “I don’t really understand the stockmarket, I just want a better return than cash”
    E: “I used to play online poker before I got married”
    F: “I want to invest for the long term but I’d rather make money than lose money”

    If the client answers A, that means they’re high medium risk.
    If the client answers B, that means they’re high medium risk.
    If the client answers C, that means they’re high medium risk.
    If the client answers D, that means they’re high medium risk.
    If the client answers E, that means they’re high medium risk.
    If the client answers F, that means they’re high medium risk.

    If the client refuses to tick just one box or attempts to discuss the nature of the questionnaire, he is clearly a sophisticated investor, and you should try and flog him some Cape Verde carbon credits for his SIPP.

    If you’ve got some shares in Distribution Technology may I kindly suggest selling them now before the Boorman-Klauß System takes over the market.

  6. I am afraid I don’t agree with the FOS- a customer cannot understand their attitude to risk hey?? This makes a mockery of everything industry has been trying to do in terms of determining the ATR of a customer and of a customers ability to make discerning decisions for themselves. It also means that if you have never invested before then the FOS will always find in the consumer favour if we try and utilise any form of risk-based investments for longer term savings as they are always considered inexperienced. I did see this start to happen when FOS dealt with mortgage endowment complaints- there are always advisors who can do this poorly but FOS must accept that many customers are capable of playing dumb when being coached by an ambulance chaser, just as there are some excellent advisors out there who can use common sense and sophisticated tools to identify ATR and matching portfolios and strangely enough many customers who now much better informed and can grasp financial matters if explained properly. There must be some consideration for what an advisor has added to the customers understanding of their actions and not just an across the board assessment that someone is a plumber and never invested in equities so could not possibly of understood what he was doing. I completely get the other side of the coin where we as advisors have sold bright shiny things that were genuinely inappropriate. Sorry for rant but I have dealt with over 20000 complaints on both sides of this line and this standard approach from FOS just doesn’t cut it in my eyes- also sadly some of the less experienced adjudicators really struggle with individual decisions- maybe it would be a good idea if every ombudsman and adjudicator came to watch some advisors and customers in action. PS- we think we have the answer- we record every advice process- if the adjudicator can’t figure it out from that then I may give up!!

  7. I am still waiting for an answer on why an ajudicator recently said he thought it was appropriate to let an investor go in and out of the market depending on how nervous he feels.

  8. @Jane, we record everything too. WHICH IS WHY THE ONLY COMPLAINT WE HAD WAS VIA A SOLICITOR AND WAS DROPPED BY HIM LIKE A HOT POTATO AFTER HE HEARD THE RECORDINGS.. It is called FRAUD.

  9. Interesting article on PPE degrees at http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/sep/23/ppe-passport-power-degree-oxford

    You have to admire the quote at the end of the article:

    “we all have to bullshit like mad at times to cover up our ignorance. And we by and large get away with it. So we carry on bullshitting once we leave Oxford and most of us are still getting away with it.”

  10. E L Wisty (an only twin) 23rd July 2014 at 10:10 am

    Tony Boorman comes across as intelligent, erudite and amiable. Just the type of chap to go down the pub with. However, they say that both Joseph Stalin and Idi Amin were nice company.

    So, he isn’t your typical apparatchik, and he admits that complaints against advisers are negligible. However, this is still the same organisation that helped the regulator stitch up the advisory community, by not protesting when the FSA used its statutory powers to fetter the FOS’s ability to award compensation against Capita. This was an unparalleled abuse of power, but we didn’t hear a peep from the Ombudsman.

    However, in the interests of fairness, I would comment that my firm has received a number of historical complaints recently, which have been refuted and referred the Ombudsman. In every case, I have found the FOS’ staff to be courteous, professional and understanding. Of course, I may be a little bias in this opinion; as they have found in our favour and have dismissed the complaints.

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