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Page last updated at 14:12 GMT, Saturday, 12 April 2008 15:12 UK

Ombudsman 'is too middle class'

By Paul Lewis
BBC Radio 4's Money Box

Chief Financial Ombudsman, Walter Merricks
Walter Merricks leads the Financial Ombudsman Service

The Financial Ombudsman should make its service more available to everyone.

At the moment it is a "middle-class service for middle-class people", according to Lord Hunt of Wirrall after a six-month study.

He also called for more transparency and suggested telling the public which companies were best at treating customers fairly.

The chief ombudsman, Walter Merricks, said the proposals were interesting but they could take years to implement.

'Secret' service

Lord Hunt told Money Box on Radio 4:

"It is a very well kept secret.

"We want it to be open for business all the time virtually - at the moment it is a nine to five service.

"I am concerned about more vulnerable people and whether they believe they can access the service."

He also thought the name "Ombudsman" might put people off.

"There is a tradition of having ombudsmen across the world and we have a number here.

"But I am not too sure everyone understands what it means and some sort of branded service under the name "consumer complaints" or something of that sort might reach more effectively to more people."

We are interested in the name change
Chief financial ombudsman Walter Merricks

Chief financial ombudsman Walter Merricks accepted many of the recommendations.

"It is a really interesting set of proposals but it is the industry that is going to have to pay for this.

"We shall have to cost up the recommendations and see what they come to."

What price transparency?

At the moment the Ombudsman deals with more than 670,000 cases a year and costs nearly 60 million, paid for by a levy on the financial services industry.

Lord Hunt believes the industry would pay more.

"If the service provided the facilities we urge, they would be prepared to pay more.

"We did get that from the better players and one of the things we recommend is that the public should know who are the best providers, the best at treating customers fairly."

Walter Merricks was keen to make more information available.

"Transparency is something we want to embrace.

"There is undoubtedly a need to move towards a more transparent era and put more in the public domain, not just our rating of firms but our experience with firms."

He added, "We are interested in the name change - we have launched an online survey to see what people think about the word "ombudsman".

There are recommendations that would not cost much, but I suspect it will be later in the year when we can start implementing them."

BBC Radio 4's Money Box was broadcast on Saturday, 12 April 2008 at 1204 BST.

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