ombudsman news gives general information on the position at the date of publication. It is not a definitive statement of the law, our approach or our procedure.
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A small team from the ombudsman service recently spent a week in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, meeting some of our most geographically-distant customers. Working in partnership with a number of front-line consumer advice agencies, we ran a series of informal "complaints clinics" for local residents, as well as organising training sessions for community and advice workers.
The tour formed part of our ongoing commitment to carrying out a wide range of activities across the UK, aimed at sharing our experience and knowledge with the outside world. This includes undertaking outreach work with different local communities – raising awareness of our role among those less likely to use – or be aware of – the ombudsman service.
We targeted the Scottish Highlands and Islands because we receive proportionately fewer complaints from consumers based there than we do from consumers in the rest of Scotland. We were also aware that the Scottish Highlands and Islands has a higher than average proportion of older residents – and consumer research consistently shows that awareness of the ombudsman service among consumers aged 65 and over is significantly lower than among those in most other age groups.
Intensive preparation in the weeks leading up to the tour enabled us to make the most of our limited time in the area – and ensured that we generated plenty of advance publicity for our programme of events. Establishing partnerships with local organisations formed a key part of our strategy and we are grateful for the enthusiastic support and practical assistance we received from Citizens Advice Scotland, Trading Standards in Scotland, Money Advice Scotland, Consumer Direct Scotland, the Highlands Council, Argyll and Bute Council, and Orkney Council. As well as helping to publicise our events, these organisations provided us with free venues for the complaints clinics and training days – and handled the booking of appointments for consumers wanting to attend our clinics.
Set up in the main centres of population – Inverness, Kirkwall, Oban and Stornoway – the clinics offered a free 15-minute appointment to anyone who needed help sorting out a problem with their bank, insurance company or finance firm.
Advertising our forthcoming visit was quite a challenge, given that the local population is spread sparsely over a relatively large area. As well as getting prominent coverage in the local and regional press – and on local radio stations – we enlisted the help of local MPs, schools, libraries, doctors’ surgeries, rural post offices, churches and faith groups in distributing our publicity materials. We designed a special set of posters and leaflets for use on the boats plying the key ferry routes between the mainland and the islands. We also expanded the information available in Gaelic on our website.
It quickly became clear that all the effort that had gone into spreading the word about our visit had paid off. We had to squeeze in a few extra slots at all our clinics, so as not to disappoint anyone by turning them away. At each of the venues we met a wide range of consumers – some of whom had travelled a considerable distance to see us. The issues they raised with us ranged from a query about the appropriateness of advice to put life savings in an investment bond to a dispute over the quality of repairs arranged by an insurer on a storm-damaged farmhouse.
In tandem with the complaints clinics, we provided complaints-handling training sessions for consumer advisers in Oban and Inverness. We also ran training sessions in dispute-resolution to community and advice workers based in a variety of locations from Skye to Kirkwall.
A trading standards officer who attended one of the sessions later told us:
Everyone who attended the event found it worthwhile. As well as providing a greater insight into the ombudsman’s role, it has given us confidence about the types of cases we can refer to the Ombudsman in future.
In the months following the initiative, we have noticed a three-fold increase in the number of people accessing the information we provide on our website in the Gaelic language. And recent consumer research shows that Scotland now has a higher unprompted level of awareness of the ombudsman service than any other area of the UK.
Following the success of our Highlands and Islands tour, we are planning a similar initiative in Wales in the early part of 2010.