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ombudsman news

issue 74

December 2008/January 2009

the single-issue issue

This month the total count of complaints about payment protection insurance (PPI) that we have received since January 2008 reached over 25,000, while complaints about credit-card charges came to almost 10,000. These are now our two largest categories of complaints - together out-numbering the 30,000 complaints we received last year about the single issue of bank charges.

So it looks as if responding to large-scale surges in complaints driven by "single-issue" consumer campaigns (usually led by the media and harnessed by the power of the internet), is now becoming a regular feature of our workload.

Traditionally, of course, the ombudsman's role was seen as dealing with individual disputes relating to one-off issues. The ombudsman's office was regarded as a kind of craftsman's workshop - not a factory for mass-production. So some eyebrows may be raised at the idea of the ombudsman service now handling a workload involving thousands of similar complaints, all involving the same financial product or problem.

But while some may question whether handling such surges of "single-issue" complaints is proper work for the ombudsman, there is little consensus on what the answer might be for these disputes. Of course, the ideal solution would be for all financial businesses to treat their customers fairly (and to put things right when they go wrong) - either because businesses recognise this is the right thing to do, or because of effective regulatory scrutiny.

Where this does not happen, and a single issue arises that directly affects very large numbers of consumers, it would surely best be resolved collectively - rather than relying on individual consumers each having to make their own separate complaint. If there has been widespread consumer detriment, widespread redress is needed.

But as things stand, the ombudsman service may continue to be faced with mass surges of these single-issue complaints - which we will have no option but to deal with. The actions we necessarily have to take, in order to address the complaints, may result in our being accused of acting as a surrogate regulator - but that may be inescapable.

We can and do liaise with regulators, of course - both informally, and officially through the "wider implications" process. But consumers rightly expect to have their complaints resolved, one way or another.

We need to ensure that none of this distracts us from our central purpose of underpinning confidence in financial services for the benefit of consumers and the financial services industry - a function needed now more than ever.

Walter Merricks
chief ombudsman

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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.