VICTORIA BISCHOFF: New legislation should force firms to play fair

Firms forced to play fair: New rules should spell an end to rip-off fees and could even cut call wait times, says VICTORIA BISCHOFF

Have you heard of the City watchdog’s Consumer Duty? I’d wager probably not.

But, as dull as it sounds, it’s well worth bearing this crucial new legislation in mind the next time you feel you’ve been treated unfairly by a financial firm.

Over the next year, all companies regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) — so, banks, insurers and investment firms — will be required to implement a higher set of standards to better protect their customers.

New regulations: Over the coming year, all companies regulated by the FCA will be required to implement a higher set of standards in an effort to better protect customers

In unusually clear language, the FCA has decreed that businesses must start putting your needs first so you can make better financial decisions. But what does this mean in practice?

Well, an end to rip-off fees and charges for one. Companies will also be required to make it as easy to switch or cancel products as it was to secure them in the first place, and must ensure their terms and conditions are crystal-clear.

Best of all, it must be quick and easy for customers to get in touch — so no unreasonable call-wait times. 

As Money Mail has highlighted repeatedly, businesses across the board are causing people a huge amount of stress by failing to pick up the phone.

The hope is that these proposals will help put the watchdog on the front foot, instead of leaving it to tackle problems after they arise.

Sheldon Mills, executive director of consumers and competition at the FCA, told Money Mail: ‘If financial services firms are getting these things right in the first place and putting customers at the heart of everything they do, the poor practices we’ve seen across the industry — such as charging high prices for unarranged overdrafts or paying more for being a loyal customer — shouldn’t happen.’

Given the regulator’s own data shows that only around a third of people think financial firms are honest and transparent, these new rules cannot come soon enough.

Companies have a year to start adhering to the beefed-up standards. But they would do well to move swiftly, because it is clear the FCA means business.

As always, for consumer protection legislation to work it has to be policed and enforced, so the FCA will need to be prepared to issue hefty fines to firms that continue to let down customers.

Sparking joy

Last week, I asked Money Mail readers to let me know if they’ve ever got their M&S shopping for free after scanning their Sparks card. And what a reaction! You must be a lucky lot.

Many said they were delighted to discover they wouldn’t have to pay a penny after hauling overflowing baskets to the checkout. 

The biggest victories I spotted were for around £100 worth of goods. One reader from Northampton said he has won twice!

But I was slightly amused to discover that several of you had experienced what I’ve always suspected might happen if I ever won the Sparks card lottery.

As Denise, from Kingswood, writes: ‘I got my shopping for free at Hull M&S — all £3.50 of it. Oh how I wish I had bought more!’

Another reader, Amanda, says she scooped a win worth £6 after popping into the Waterlooville branch — shortly after spending three times as much at another store. While Roger tells me his friend won after popping in for one item . . . which cost £1.49.

But at least it proves it can happen. I’ll be scanning my Sparks card with more fervour in future.

Berry barmy

While on the topic of shopping, last week I was alerted to the fact that Waitrose’s ‘imperfect’ strawberries can actually be dearer than its ‘perfect’ ones.

The idea is that by buying wonky fruit and veg you help stores reduce waste — and in return are rewarded with a bargain.

Yet one reader, who, in a delightful coincidence, has the surname Berry, claims Waitrose’s imperfect strawberries cost £5.90 per kilo compared with £5 per kilo for its normal range. As she puts it: ‘When I buy an imperfect dress I expect a discount not a surcharge!’

Waitrose tells me the price discrepancy occurred because its regular strawberries were on a promotion, which has now ended.

But something to watch out for.