This is the third plan & budget that I have presented on behalf of the Financial Ombudsman Service, and, since my term of office as chairman ends shortly, it is also my last.
Back in 1999, there were those who said it was likely to prove a daunting challenge for the board and staff of the new organisation to maintain service to our users at a time when complaint volumes were rocketing, while simultaneously merging six bodies and relocating to new premises. Indeed it was a challenge. However, we were able to put in place a new infrastructure capable of meeting the demands that might be placed on it. The scale of those demands can now be seen. In 1999/2000 the six previous schemes dealt with 25,000 cases, while in this plan & budget we anticipate receiving 55,000 new complaints.
Despite an ever-rising workload, the board has set challenging efficiency targets - higher productivity, faster turnaround and lower unit costs - while never losing sight of our essential purpose, to offer consumers and the financial services industry a fair, professional, and independent means of resolving disputes. In financial terms, as this plan & budget demonstrates, we have succeeded in reducing our unit costs well below the levels we inherited. There can be little doubt that had the Financial Ombudsman Service not come into being, the industry would by now be shouldering a far higher cost burden.
Since our prime objective is to resolve complaints quickly and fairly, we do not measure our success by the scale or quantity of our awards. But the value transferred annually from firms to consumers, following our intervention, must run into millions of pounds. Were it not for the fact that consumers have cost-free access to our service, little of this transfer would be happening. Firms' financial balances would be unjustifiably stronger, while those of individual consumers would be commensurately, and wrongly, weaker.
We derive equal satisfaction from those cases, far higher in number, where we are able to assure consumers that they have not been unfairly treated and that their complaints have no foundation. The industry rightly pays for the public reassurance this gives - that wrongs can be righted, but only where justified.
This statutory ombudsman service is a unique institution, not only in the UK but in the world. I am proud to have been associated with its early years, and I commend this plan & budget to our users and to all those interested in our work.
Andreas Whittam Smith