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ombudsman news

issue 66

December 2007 / January 2008

not a rock in sight

Wherever I go at the moment, I find I'm greeted with a degree of sympathy - as people inquire about the avalanche of consumer complaints that they assume must have fallen on top of the ombudsman service as part of the Northern Rock affair.

In fact, we have experienced no such avalanche. The people we saw on TV and in the newspapers - waiting in patient, orderly fashion to withdraw their money from local branches - have not been forming similar queues to complain to us about problems or delays in accessing their savings. And we've received relatively few enquiries from consumers worried about the safety of their bank and building society accounts more generally.

So while commentators have talked about the blow that the Northern Rock crisis has caused to consumer confidence in financial services, this isn't something we have seen any particular evidence of at the ombudsman service.

But perhaps the number of consumers who did (or didn't) come to the ombudsman isn't the best indicator of how the Northern Rock affair affected consumer confidence. Instead, what's interesting is the number of consumers who responded to the news by immediately taking matters directly into their own hands.

It's a salutary lesson that the short, sharp shock of a bank in crisis appears to have done more to focus some consumers' interest in the management of their own finances than any number of educational campaigns and money-awareness initiatives.

In response to the news about Northern Rock, people whose entire life savings had languished for years in low-interest current accounts - people too inexperienced, too uninformed, or perhaps just too busy or bored, to shop around for a better rate or better account - were suddenly making decisions and taking control of their finances in the most dramatic and empowered way.

So if we're looking for a silver lining to the grey cloud of Northern Rock, this demonstration of consumer engagement might just point to a world where the active involvement of well-informed customers could help create a more effective market in financial services. And in the longer run, that could mean fewer complaints to the ombudsman. We'll see.

Walter Merricks
chief ombudsman

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ombudsman news issue 66 [PDF format]

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.

The illustrative case studies are based broadly on real-life cases, but are not precedents. Individual cases are decided on their own facts.