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The missing link on Opra&#39s website

Opra&#39s determination to prevent access to independent financial advice through its website has baffled and angered IFAs.

The move has left IFAs puzzled for a variety of reasons, not least because it appears to fly in the face of making access to stakeholder as easy as possible.

It is estimated that 80 per cent of corporate pension business comes through the IFA channel, which would seem to make it appropriate to include a generic link to independent advice, via IFA Promotion, on the Opra website.

Even the DSS saw the sense in this and, following some diplomatic persuasion from IFAP, conceded it ought to include a link on its own website, having initially omitted it.

Clerical Medical pensions strategy manager Nigel Stammers says: “It is ridiculous the IFAP website is not on the Opra site.”

But Opra is defiant. It says a Government department should not be seen to be endorsing one way of buying stakeholder rather than another.

Yet, arguably, publishing the websites and phone numbers of providers on the stakeholder register tilts the field in favour of the direct channel.

Opra appears to have a hackneyed image of IFAs as smooth operators who will prey on vulnerable and uneducated employers in the new pension world. If it sticks to its guns, IFAs will not be given the chance to prove they are not the sharks the regulator seems to believe they are.

Opra believes paying an expert for guidance through the stakeholder mire is an “unnecessary fee” and the last thing it wants is for its website to be used by IFAs to help in this endeavour.

Its refusal to publicise independent advice has also created frustrations for IFA-only providers, such as Scottish Life, which have had to turn away employers keen to set up stakeholder because they do not have a direct operation.

Opra communications manager Nick Edmans says: “It is not like we have a vendetta against IFAs but, while I understand why they might feel a bit threatened by this situation, they must understand we simply offer a register of stakeholder schemes. Users of the site are really only a few clicks away from access to IFA advice if they go to product providers&#39 websites.”

IFAP chief executive David Elms has told Money Marketing that Opra said it did not want to create the impression that stakeholder needs advice. But Elms says the IFAP link has generated considerable traffic from employers through the DSS site, even though it is at the end of a number of links on the pension part of the site entitled “Getting help”.

Elms wants to know why, if the DSS includes a link on its website, Opra refuses to do so.

The DSS also includes a link to the LIA. This seems a commendable approach, recognising that those using the site can expect they may need help, regardless of what channel it comes from.

Torquil Clark pensions development manager Tom McPhail says: “It is all very well Opra saying it will not offer access to IFAs through its website but, in the same way that consumers are in danger of receiving potentially confusing information from the DSS, Pensions Advisory Scheme, the FSA and Alistair Darling talking directly to the public about stakeholder, as well as the Inland Revenue, so are employers. They might also be in danger of information overload.

“Employers who do not ask an expert to filter this information for them may be left with an uneasy feeling they may not have done their best for their employees or their business.”

Along with the Treasury&#39s refusal to acknowledge the need for advice, the fact that Opra will not add a link to the the IFAP site appears to obstruct the Government&#39s central desire to get as many employers as possible to set up stakeholder schemes for their employees.

McPhail says: “What concern is it to Opra whether employers pay a fee for advice? It would seem to over-step its remit and encroach on the FSA&#39s responsibilities.”

Opra&#39s message appears confused at best and unnecessarily obstructive at worse. For example, Allied Dunbar&#39s stakeholder plan includes a separate monthly advice fee but it is unlikely the regulator would put a warning sign on the advice element of this directly-sold pension.

While Opra argues that Government departments should not be recommending one course of action over another, its unwillingness to provide employers with evenly balanced access to stakeholder appears to be going against its own argument and tacitly favouring the direct channel.

Aifa director-general Paul Smee says Opra mistakenly thinks if you sidestep IFAs you circumvent advice.

My Money Adviser managing director Ann-Marie Martyn says: “IFAP is right to raise the issue. It seems to me that Opra is speaking from a position of not understanding the market. If it would prefer that employers went direct, then it should include the LIA&#39s number on the site as well as IFAP&#39s to give employers the opportunity to go direct or independent when getting advice.”

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