Demand for our assistance in resolving disputes continues to grow. Following on from a 44% rise in demand in 2002/03, we experienced a 57% increase in the number of complaints reaching us this year. This increase was driven largely by waves of publicity about mortgage endowment mis-selling, split capital investment trusts and so-called ‘precipice bonds’.
Coping with this level of demand has been a major challenge, which we have met by - among other measures - carrying out a major exercise to recruit and train over two hundred new staff during the course of the year - as well as identifying new, more effective ways of managing the increasing workload. But in addition to ensuring that the organisation has the right level of resources to meet its more immediate commitments, the board has focused on developing our ability to predict future demand, as far as this is possible, so that we can plan capacity accordingly. This involves working closely with the industry to garner intelligence on likely complaint trends. Increased dialogue with firms about their own caseloads, and about the number of complaints likely to come to us, also gives us greater opportunity to work together with the industry, helping firms to resolve disputes at the earliest possible stage.
Despite the huge growth in our workload, our performance measures reveal, generally, a positive picture. We are meeting the majority of our timeliness commitments and registering an 80% overall customer satisfaction rating. But we are not complacent. Any organisation facing such rapid growth needs to be constantly vigilant, so that quality does not suffer and standards remain high. Our internal processes keep the quality of our work under review and show us where steps may be necessary to improve matters. As a result of these processes, for example, we identified - and made provision to deal with - an isolated batch of cases that we considered unacceptable according to our quality standards. In January 2004, we commissioned a formal review led by Professor Elaine Kempson from Bristol University. The review involves examining the organisation’s infrastructure, to ensure that our values - to be independent, balanced and competent in the service we provide, and to act with integrity - are supported and re-enforced by the systems we use, and are embedded in the people we employ.
It is important for us to understand how our stakeholders see us and to respond to their concerns. We regularly undertake formal surveys to seek the views of complainants, of industry groups and of our staff. But this year, in addition, we set up a system to facilitate regular reporting to the board on a range of issues arising from both formal and informal contact with stakeholders across industry and consumer groups. The management team are committed to responding to - and following through - the issues raised, and this annual review provides some examples of how this initiative is working.
This year the Financial Secretary to HM Treasury, Ruth Kelly, launched a review of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. In response, we have been working with the Financial Services Authority (FSA) to review aspects of the relationship between the FSA and the ombudsman service in dealing with cases that have wider implications. To ensure that the public consultation to which this review will lead really does listen to stakeholder concerns, an independent oversight panel was set up, chaired by Colin Harris, Chairman of the Mortgage Code Compliance Board. Membership of the panel reflects a balance of industry and consumer views. The consultation will be an important part of our work in 2004/05.
The coming year will present us with new challenges, including the widening of our jurisdiction to cover mortgage and insurance brokers, when these sectors come into the FSA’s regulatory remit. It is also possible that we shall be asked to take on a range of consumer credit complaints.
As we gear up to handle these future challenges, it may be timely to remind ourselves - and our stakeholders - of our fundamental purpose. We are not a regulator. Nor are we a consumer champion or a trade body. Our task is to resolve fairly - from a completely independent stance - disputes between consumers and financial services companies. It is a task that is always likely to be complicated and demanding. We intend to carry it out successfully by sticking firmly to our values.
Sue Slipman OBE