Lord Hunt has hit several nails firmly on the head in his review of the Financial Ombudsman Service. His demand that it breaks out of its middle class enclave is a bold one and not to everyone's liking. Similarly, he has ruffled a few institutional feathers by proposing that consistent poor performers should be named and that moves towards publishing more firm specific data should be put in hand. He does his best to limit the shock of such proposals by suggesting that the best performers should be publicly acknowledged through an awards programme.
This all makes alot of sense. Various well-meaning initiatives to improve standards across the financial services sector have failed to have the desired impact because they always take fright at the thought of publishing firm-specific data. The Association of British Insurers' Claims Code was a case in point. It had a solid set of benchmark measures of service quality that everyone in the industry agreed were reasonable - and the more honest accepted were not especially challenging - but mention the possibility that the performance of firms against those standards might be published and you would be left wondering at the ingenuity of some people in thinking up reasons for not doing something so obvious and so beneficial. Lord Hunt addresses many of these points.
The review encourages the FOS to do more to set out its own stall rather than rely so much on firms to promote it: this is an absolute must. Abit more surprising is the suggestion that it might change its name to the Financial Complaints Service. But Lord Hunt is right: "ombudsman" is a very intimidating, very middle class word and if, as its remit extends into areas such as consumer credit, the FOS is to reach the people who buy these products it needs to become accessible to large numbers of people with whom it currently appears to have no relationship.
One area where he suggests more work needs to be done and which I hope doesn't get lost is the compensation limit of £100,000. I can accept that many of the arguments for and against the retention of this limit (set by the original Insurance Ombudsman back in 1982) justify his criticism that they are assertions short on evidence but it really doesn't take much to generate a problem worth £100,000 nowadays and there is a danger that the drift towards taking large cases to court will grow stronger if something isn't done to raise the limit. Indeed, the industry must ask itself what it has to fear from this.
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