Which! to lose super-complainant status?
Our good friends over at Which! are complaining sorts and as we reported last year, they successfully applied for super-complainant status with the FCA, which was approved in December. But now the consumer organisation’s super status could be in jeopardy, after accusations of bias within the Which! empire.
While disappointingly not requiring a costume, super-complainant status with the FCA is still A Good Thing and grants the four bodies that have so far been approved (The Consumer Council Northern Ireland, Citizens Advice, the Federation of Small Businesses, and, of course, Which!) greater welly when taking complaints to the FCA. Once presented, the FCA is bound by statute to investigate the (super) complaints and to give a response within 90 days. The conditions of this are that the complainant must believe there are features of a financial services market that have damaged or could damage the interests of consumers.
However, Robert Sinclair, chief executive of the Association of Mortgage Intermediaries has now challenged the awarding of Which!’s super-complainant status as he claims there is a conflict of interest inherent in complaints that Which! may make. The conflict of interest, in Mr Sinclair’s opinion, comes from the fact that Which! is funded by various commercial ventures and cannot be trusted to make complaints without bias. Commercial ventures that generate an income under the Which! umbrella include Which! Mortgage Advisers, Annuity Advisers and Trusted Traders.
Mr Sinclair said, “It was an escalating concern over recent times around the extension of Which!’s commercial activities, its market research capacity, whether there was sufficient separation of different interests. I have no issue at all with Which! having an excellent relationship with the regulator, it’s about not having commercial activities that get in the way of this, and being more specific about the fact it may be conflicted.”
According to the Treasury’s own material, “super-complainants are better placed to judge whether markets for financial services in the UK are failing consumers, who individually may lack sufficient information to judge this.” However, this challenge highlights the fact that some sections of the industry believe that Which! is unable to make impartial challenges. Money talks, as they say.
A Treasury spokesperson said, in answer to the challenge: “The consumer association had to prove that its trading arm, Which! Financial Services, did not control the operations of the part of the organisation seeking super-complaints status.” So that’s OK then?
But whether they are ultimately forced to hang up their lycra and mask or not, it is unlikely this challenge will stop Which! complaining. Which! has been making super-complaints in non-financial services areas for more than 10 years, and this challenge only relates specifically to financial services complaints. There’s still time for them to get a cape and utility belt on a best-buy fridge.