The FOS has come under serious fire following the recent Dispatches programme, which contained claims that complaints were handled by FOS officials who had been insufficiently trained and had to use internet search engines to find out what the products were.
Treasury Select Committee Chairman Nicky Morgan MP demanded answers from the FOS around key parts of the show.
A letter from FOS chief executive Caroline Wayman has been released (see below) in which she said: “So we can better understand and address the concerns raised by the programme, our non-executive board will be appointing an independent person to carry out a review.”
Chartered Financial Planner Martin Bamford has called for a full inquiry into the allegations and he was backed by ex-Pensions Minister Baroness Ros Altmann.
Ms Wayman insisted, however, that the FOS feels it was not given a fair showing in the Channel 4 programme.
In the letter, she told MPs: “We feel very strongly that the concerns voiced in the programme do not give a fair impression of the Financial Ombudsman Service when seen against the overall breadth and context of our work.
“We’re committed to providing a service to be proud of – and to learning and improving, particularly where we see things which don’t show us at our best.”
Commenting on the correspondence, Mrs Morgan said: “The Dispatches programme raised concerns about the FOS’s decision-making and governance. These have been echoed by correspondence received by the Committee from current and former FOS employees, who have also expressed dismay about poor culture and low morale.
“The FOS is essential in underpinning consumer confidence in the financial services industry, and in redressing the power imbalance between large financial institutions and their customers.
“It is troubling, therefore, that cases may not have been decided correctly. As Ms Wayman says, it’s right that cases be reopened if there is any new evidence that might affect the outcome. That must surely include failures in the FOS’ own processes.
“The independent review must consider the FOS’ approach to decision-making, the assurance process, and the causes of low staff morale. The Committee will want sight of the terms of reference before they are finalised. The review should be demonstrably independent, all findings of the review should be published, and the Committee will expect to take evidence from the reviewer.
“I shall be writing to Ms Wayman in due course to set out in more detail the Committee’s expectations of the review, and the Committee will consider whether further action is required in response to the correspondence it has received.”
The Letter from Caroline Wayman in full:
Thank you for your letter, following up last week’s Channel 4 Dispatches programme about the work of the Financial Ombudsman Service. Now that we have seen the programme and have clarity on the specific concerns raised, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the questions the Committee has asked.
Every day our ombudsmen and casehandlers make difficult judgement calls that affect people’s lives – so it is vital that everyone has confidence and trust in the work we do. We feel very strongly that the concerns voiced in the programme do not give a fair impression of the Financial Ombudsman Service when seen against the overall breadth and context of our work.
We’re committed to providing a service to be proud of – and to learning and improving, particularly where we see things which don’t show us at our best. So we can better understand and address the concerns raised by the programme, our non-executive Board will be appointing an independent person to carry out a review.
While it is important not to pre-empt the conclusions of that review, I am pleased in the meantime to be able to answer the questions you have raised.
- What evidence is there to assure Parliament that the problems identified in the Dispatches programme have not led to poor decision making at the FOS? For example, what are the FOS’ processes to undertake quality control on previous decisions? Does the FOS have the ability to reopen cases that it feels it may not have decided correctly?
Making fair, thoughtful and robust decisions that stand up to public scrutiny is at the heart of everything we do. Good decision making is underpinned by a range of activities – from recruiting people from diverse backgrounds and instilling the right values, to the training we provide and our investment in increasingly sophisticated knowledge management tools. And we do, of course, have a well-established quality assurance framework – from undertaking several thousand checks on cases every month to detailed file review sessions with our executive team and non-executive board.
More broadly, our case-handling process itself provides for a series of checks and balances. As a first step, our casehandlers listen to both sides, carefully weigh up the facts and evidence, and suggest a fair way forward. If we think the consumer has been treated unfairly, then we will tell the business to put things right. But if either side disagrees with this initial view, then they have the right to ask for everything to be reviewed afresh by an ombudsman who will make the final decision. This is essentially the “appeal” stage of our process. Appointments to the panel of ombudsmen are made by our Board under paragraphs 4 and 5 of schedule 17 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. A decision made by an ombudsman is the final stage of our process. If it is accepted by the consumer, then it is legally binding on both sides, and the business is required to comply with the ombudsman’s decision.
As a body established under statute, as an alternative to the courts, providing finality in dispute resolution is an important principle for the ombudsman service. The circumstances in which we can reconsider a complaint are extremely limited. We may, however, consider the matter afresh if material new evidence subsequently becomes available which the ombudsman considers likely to affect the outcome. And as a public body, our decision-making is of course subject to judicial review – which means our decisions come under scrutiny by the courts.
- The programme suggested there was a reluctance to issue public decisions for fear of creating a precedent. Does the FOS recognise that reluctance and—if not—how does the FOS explain the evidence provided in the programme?
We publish all decisions made by our ombudsmen on our website – in line both with our legal obligations and our commitment to sharing our approach and insight. We have published more than 150,000 individual decisions and we actively encourage our stakeholders to understand our reasoning and learn from them. A decision from an ombudsman does not create a formal precedent in the legal sense. We always consider the individual circumstances of a complaint. But the DISP rules set by the FCA do require financial businesses to take ombudsman decisions into account in their complaint handling.
We are committed to sharing the insight that we get from handling hundreds of thousands of complaints about financial businesses every year – with businesses, consumer groups and policy makers – to promote fairness in financial services. For example, we use our quarterly publication ombudsman news, to highlight examples of our approach. Our next edition will be about insurance pricing which is an area where we have seen an increasing number of complaints. And we hold outreach events across the UK to help advice services, MP constituency offices and small businesses (including independent financial advisers) to get a greater understanding of the work that we do and how we can help to resolve complaints about financial matters.
The programme looked at a situation involving writing off debt, so I thought it might be helpful to set out our general approach in this area. We have the power to make different kinds of awards that help put things right for a consumer, including telling a financial business to write off a debt if that is the fair thing to do in the circumstances of the individual case. It’s not something we do routinely – more often, we tell a lender to remove the interest and fees applied to a loan so the debtor pays back only the money they borrowed. But we will tell a lender to write off all or part of a debt where it is fair and reasonable to do so in all the circumstances of the case. I have included (as appendix A) a published decision from June 2017 where we required a business to write off a consumer’s debt in full, remove arrear markers from their credit file and pay £100 in compensation because it could have done more to act positively and sympathetically. In issue 81 of ombudsman news we published a case study where we required a debt collecting business to refund part of a debt that had already been repaid by a consumer because the business had not acted fairly (as appendix B).
- The programme suggested that there is a potential bias to decide in favour of a bank, since that led to an easier path to closing a case. Does the FOS recognise that potential bias, and if so, how does it combat it?
In any dispute resolution mechanism there is always a risk of potential bias, one way or the other. This is why the independence and impartiality of the ombudsman service is central to everything we do – from setting clear and balanced strategic objectives and managing potential conflicts of interests, through to how we recruit and train our people and the quality assurance framework described earlier.
Uphold rates are often cited as a proxy for bias, but the picture is, of course, more complex. Depending on the nature of the product, the business involved and when and how things happened, our published uphold rates range from around 10% to 90%. They also reflect the quality of complaint handling by businesses and claims management companies. An area which has had a high uphold rate in favour of consumers over the years is PPI, reflecting evidence of mass mis-selling. Since 2010, when we started to see significant volumes of PPI complaints, we have found against banks in around two thirds of cases.
- Provide full details on the seemingly forgotten cases and unopened correspondence described in the programme.
There have been periods when we have been receiving very large quantities of cases – up to 14,000 new PPI cases a week. This unprecedented volume has understandably caused significant pressures. And two external events in particular (a 2011 legal challenge by the British Bankers’ Association to the Financial Services Authority’s guidance and the ombudsman service’s approach, and the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment in the case of Plevin v Paragon Personal Finance), have at times affected our ability to progress cases. This meant that there have been times when consumers have waited longer than we would have wanted for answers to their complaints.
But the length of time that people have had to wait for answers has been coming down. In 2016/17, 83% of complaints other than PPI were resolved within three months and 96% of complaints were resolved within six months. This compares to 66% and 86% respectively in 2015/16. And FCA rules and guidance on Plevin affected PPI cases are now in force so we’ve been able to make progress in providing fair answers to those complaints.
In terms of how we process incoming correspondence, all our incoming post is scanned and saved electronically – for PPI this been the case since 2012. As well as day to day management oversight of cases being worked by case handlers in our teams, we undertake routine checks to make sure all cases are progressing as expected. Where we find any discrepancies we make contact with a customer to explain what has happened and ensure their complaint is put back on track. And we prioritise cases based on individual circumstances and where a consumer’s need for an early answer is greatest.
So we just don’t recognise these specific claims. But as with all the issues arising from the programme, we will ask for the independent review to clarify the precise concerns raised and for it to consider them.
- A comment on the training and specialism of staff at the FOS, specifically addressing the allegations that under ‘qualified’ staff are being given responsibility for making decisions on cases for which they have inadequate training experience.
For our people to be effective, they need the ability to get to the heart of the problem, weigh up often conflicting evidence, apply their judgement and explain their reasons for doing so. These qualities need to be underpinned by ongoing training and support, and access to technical information, including legal advice.
On joining the service, all new case handlers take part in a comprehensive training programme – including a session with me as chief ombudsman to talk about the role of the ombudsman service and the values of independence, impartiality and fairness that are at the heart of what we do. This involves six months in our training academy where the training includes aspects of the law and regulation which are relevant to our work. It also covers product-specific knowledge, evidence gathering skills, how we work and the standards we require.
We continue to develop new ways of sharing knowledge across the organisation, including very extensive internal online guidance. This is supported by specialist ‘practice groups’, led by our senior ombudsmen responsible for spotting emerging trends, sharing knowledge, and ensuring our approach remains relevant and fair. And ultimately, the quality control checks referred to above provide us with feedback about how this is working and help us to find out if there are any areas where colleagues need additional support. The diverse professional backgrounds of all our ombudsmen are published on our website so that people can have confidence in the breadth of their knowledge, skills and experience.
- What is the scale—in terms of the number of people— of those affected by alleged errors or improper handling of cases?
I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to respond to this part of the programme, which included the claim that there were 500,000 PPI complaints that needed to be looked at again.
The 500,000 figure given in the programme appears to represent essentially every PPI complaint that hasn’t been upheld (since 2010/11 we have upheld 923,656 in total, and not upheld 495,877). We are required by law to look at the individual circumstances of each complaint and it is not the case that every PPI product was inappropriate for every consumer – reflected in the complaints-led approach to PPI redress route taken by the regulator.
The arguments that have been used to support the claim in the programme have been previously advanced by a claims management company – supported by the PPI consultant appearing in the programme. We have responded to these arguments in full and on a number of occasions, including by issuing a detailed decision which I have included as appendix C.
- Please respond to the allegation that the FOS ‘stage managed’ Rushanara Ali MP’s visit to your offices in 2015.
We were very disappointed with the suggestion that we misled Rushanara Ali MP on her visit to the service in 2015. We are satisfied that, although of course we wanted to make a good impression, our preparations for the visit were entirely proper and there was no attempt to mislead her in any way. I have offered to meet with her in person to provide further reassurance.
I hope you will find my response helpful and we will, of course, keep the Committee updated with progress of the independent review. If we can help with any additional information in the meantime, then please do not hesitate to let me know.
Chief Ombudsman and Chief Executive