This is my first annual review as chair of the Financial Ombudsman Service. I took over from the first chairman, Andreas Whittam Smith, during the last few weeks of the year - so this annual review reflects the achievements of his last year as chairman.
Andreas steered the Financial Ombudsman Service during our set-up phase - bringing together the different organisational cultures of the six previous complaints-handling schemes into a single organisation. He rightly anticipated that we would need to meet very substantial levels of demand and he ensured that we were well prepared. During the year, the service has successfully managed a 44% annual increase in complaint levels (following a 38% increase in the previous year). The service has responded by creating new and flexible ways of working to cope with this growth in external demand, striving continually to improve performance.
During the year we also said farewell to Richard Thomas who left the board to become the Information Commissioner. We are grateful to both Richard and Andreas for their invaluable contribution to the establishment of the Financial Ombudsman Service.
The retail financial services industry is likely to go through some significant changes over the next few years. Alongside these changes, the scope of our service is also growing. In April 2003 we opened our ‘voluntary’ jurisdiction to mortgage and insurance brokers - as part of our preparations for covering these sectors on a statutory basis in 2004/05.
These changes will bring tough new challenges for the ombudsman service. Like all responsible public bodies, we will listen to our stakeholders and take note of their expectations of us, seeking to be open and transparent about reasons for ombudsman decisions. We will retain our even-handed approach to settling disputes between the industry and its customers and strive to give access to all who need our assistance.
Looking ahead, the job for me and the board is to give strategic support to the management team so that - building on the sound foundations already established - the ombudsman service can continue to anticipate and respond to external changes and meet the many demands that lie ahead of us.
Sue Slipman OBE