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Harriett Baldwin responds in Adjournment debate

25th January 2016

Harriett Baldwin responds to an adjournment debate on Strathclyde Mining Group pensions and the Financial Ombudsman Service. (Photo: Parliamentlive.tv)

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): Despite my Scottish grandmother, I will not be able to quote Burns quite as beautifully as the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) did tonight—[Interruption.] But I did have the haggis in the Tea Room. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She has expressed powerfully the issues surrounding the Strathclyde Mining Group pensions and the Financial Ombudsman Service.

As Economic Secretary, my key priority is to ensure that financial services firms are on the side of people who work hard, do the right thing and get on in life. Financial services should be there to help them achieve their aspirations at every stage of their lives, whether that is saving for their first home, taking out a mortgage, buying a car or, as in this case, saving and investing for their retirement. It is only by displaying and upholding the highest standards of behaviour that the financial services industry can regain the public trust it lost following the financial crisis.

I am therefore very sorry to hear about the problems that the hon. Lady’s constituents have been facing in this case. Understandably, given the importance we all attach to having savings to provide for our retirement, her constituents are very concerned about the issue. I would like to reassure her, and all other Members, that the Financial Ombudsman Service also takes the matter extremely seriously.

As the hon. Lady has set out, a number of Anderson Mining Group employees have raised concerns that they were not made aware in 1995 and 1996 that a transfer to a buy-out scheme could result in a loss of benefits, and that the advice provided used an assumed retirement age of 65, whereas benefits could have been taken from their occupational pension schemes at age 60. They have therefore complained to the Financial Ombudsman Service about the financial advice they received from Godwins Ltd between 1995 and 1996 to transfer their occupational pension schemes into buy-out policies. I understand that in many of these cases, but not all—she mentioned 50%— the ombudsman found in favour of the complainants.

I know that both the hon. Lady and her predecessor have been in contact with the Financial Ombudsman Service to ask it to re-examine some of the complaints that were not upheld. We all recognise that it is of the utmost importance that people are given suitable advice about their retirement savings and that, when things go wrong, they have access to a swift and low-cost means of redress. It is important to recognise that since these events occurred in the 1990s the Government have made changes to introduce a tough new financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, to protect consumers and promote competition. We took that action because we were not prepared to tolerate the level of consumer detriment we have witnessed in the past.

The hon. Lady will understand that I am unable to comment on specific circumstances relating to the individual cases she has raised today, but I am able to explain the Financial Ombudsman Service model and what she can do when she is not happy with the outcome of that model. The model includes what routes there are to complain about the level of service in dealing with a complaint, as well as the further routes that may be available for seeking redress. The Financial Ombudsman Service was set up by Parliament in 2000—its duties were enshrined in law under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000—to provide a proportionate, prompt and informal means of resolving disputes between a consumer and a financial service firm. It plays a valuable role in providing consumers with a swift and effective means of resolving disputes, and some of the hon. Lady’s constituents have benefited from that service.

Importantly, once the consumer accepts an ombudsman’s final decision, that decision becomes binding on the firm. As I have said, the Financial Ombudsman Service was specifically designed to provide a swift and relatively low-cost alternative to the courts, which is provided free of charge to consumers. There are many stages in its determination process, providing both parties the opportunities to make further representations before the complaint reaches the final stage of an ombudsman’s decision.

Adding another level of appeal would make the process costlier and lengthier, which could deter consumers from using the service and would generate additional costs for firms. However, it is possible for parties to challenge the way in which an ombudsman has reached a decision by means of judicial review. It is also possible for them to take complaints about the level of service provided to the independent assessor. When a consumer does not accept the ombudsman’s decision, that consumer's right to pursue redress through the courts remains unaffected.

The individuals who are affected in this particular case have concerns that need to be addressed. I shall be meeting the chief executive of the Financial Ombudsman Service later this week, and I will ask her to write to the hon. Lady responding to the concerns that she has rightly expressed this evening.

Let me thank the hon. Lady again for raising these issues, and stress that both the Government and the Financial Ombudsman Service understand their importance to her constituents.

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