Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Committee on Public Petitions
Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Reports 2018 and 2019: Discussion
The Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman, FSPO, was set up in 2018. The powers of this ombudsman are among the strongest in the world for any specialist ombudsman. We will consider the annual reports of 2018 and 2019, together with other interesting issues that have arisen in more recent times, including: the effectiveness of the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman; the turnover cap of €3 million; tracker mortgages; Covid-19 related issues, including business interruption insurance; risks of consumers due to changes in the financial services market, banks leaving and new services providers entering; pensions reform; and the risks of bitcoin and similar crypto-assets, among other things. I propose that we publish the opening statement of Mr. Ger Deering, Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman, on the committee's website. Is that agreed? Agreed.
On behalf of the committee, I extend a warm welcome to Mr. Ger Deering, Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman and Ms MaryRose McGovern, deputy Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman. I now invite Mr. Deering to make his opening statement.
Mr. Ger Deering:
Good afternoon Chairman and members. I am pleased to have the opportunity together with my deputy ombudsman, Ms MaryRose McGovern, to engage with them today in relation to the work of my office.
The Office of the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman was established on 1 January 2018 under the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Act 2017. It was established on the foot of a merger of the Office of the Financial Services Ombudsman and the Office of the Pensions Ombudsman. We provide a free, independent, impartial, confidential and fair service to resolve complaints through either informal mediation, leading to a potential settlement agreement between the parties, or formal investigation and adjudication, that leads to a legally binding decision.
When any consumer, whether an individual, a small business or an organisation, is unable to resolve a complaint or a dispute with a financial service or a pension provider, they can refer their complaint to us. We deal with complaints informally at first by listening to both parties and engaging with them to facilitate a resolution that is acceptable to both parties. Much of this informal agreement takes place by telephone.
Where these early interventions do not resolve the dispute, we formally investigate the complaint and issue a decision. That decision is legally binding on both parties, subject only to an appeal to the High Court.
The Oireachtas has given me wide-ranging powers to deal with complaints against financial service providers. I can look beyond the contractual terms and consider the fairness and reasonableness of the conduct complained of. I can direct compensation of up to €500,000. I can also direct a provider to rectify the conduct that is the subject of the complaint. There is no limit to the value of the rectification I can direct. This could, for example, involve directing a financial service provider to reinstate a tracker mortgage interest rate and recalculate the mortgage account balance; to admit and assess an insurance claim for payment of benefit; or to reinstate an insurance policy that was wrongfully voided, and correct the record of that policy cancellation. I can publish anonymised decisions and the names of any financial service provider that has had at least three complaints against it upheld, substantially upheld, or partially upheld during a year.
In dealing with complaints against pension providers, I can direct rectification. However, this cannot exceed any actual loss of benefit under the pension scheme concerned. For pension complaints I can publish case studies.
We are aware that certain aspects of our work, in particular the statutory time limits for making a complaint, can be complex for both consumers and providers. If there is a time-limit issue or any other aspect that raises a question of eligibility for our service, we bring these matters to the parties' attention as soon as possible, and we offer guidance, where appropriate.
We inherited 3,178 complaints from our predecessor bodies. In the three years to the end of December 2020, we received a further 16,362 complaints.
We closed a total of 15,205 complaints in those three years. I am happy to report that in 2020, despite the challenges of the pandemic and remote working, we closed 6,193 complaints, which was an increase of 35% on 2019.
Mediation, by telephone and email and through meetings is the first and preferred option for resolving complaints. By engaging with the parties directly, we facilitate them in exploring the possibilities of designing a resolution which they can both agree. Where these early interventions do not resolve the dispute, we use our extensive powers to formally investigate in a fair and impartial manner.
Full details of how we managed complaints in any particular year are set out in our overview of complaints for that year. These documents include an analysis of all complaints made, a review of trends and patterns in the making of complaints and a breakdown of the method by which all complaints were dealt with during that year. These overviews are available on our website for 2018, 2019 and 2020.
The beneficial impact of our office stretches way beyond the complaints with which we deal directly. The mediations and investigations that we conduct produce fair, impartial and beneficial outcomes for the parties directly involved in the complaints with which we deal. However, this is only part of the story. There are many consumers who never make a complaint to my office, but who nevertheless benefit from our interventions and our work. This was particularly evident in 2020, when more than 7,000 consumers received rectification or compensation on foot of a small number of my decisions. This was because some financial service providers applied the directions from a number of my decisions in relation to tracker mortgage complaints to other customers in similar circumstances. This is a practice I particularly welcome. It has been publicly recorded that the value of the redress applied to such consumers exceeded €300 million.
Of those who did bring complaints to my office, I am pleased to report that many had their complaints successfully resolved at various stages throughout the process. For example, in 2020 a total of 1,867 complainants received compensation or redress or both or a settlement through our services. This is an increase of 468 on 2019. During 2020, the total sum of compensation or settlements that complainants benefitted from, through the various stages of our services in mediation, formal investigation and on-the-record offers made by providers, amounted to €6,340,000.This does not include the very significant but unquantifiable benefits, in terms of redress by rectification, also secured by complainants.
Since the Oireachtas provided me with the power to publish my legally binding decisions, I have done so on five occasions. Our online database of decisions now contains more than 1,000 legally binding decisions that have issued since the office was established in January 2018. I believe that the publication of my decisions greatly helps to broaden the awareness of the role of this office and promotes a greater understanding of how we deal with complaints against financial service providers and pension providers.
I have also published five digests of decisions. These digests contain short summaries or case studies of a selection of legally binding decisions. Each of the digests and all published decisions are available on our website.
In March 2020, we began to receive the first complaints arising from the circumstances surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. To date, we have received 784 complaints where the complainant has identified Covid-19 as an element of their complaint, 536 of which have already been concluded, mainly through mediated settlements and the issuing of legally binding decisions.
We implemented measures from the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, in anticipation of additional complaints that would be received. These measures included early identification and analysis of complaints with a Covid-19 element, engagement with complainants at an early stage to provide clarity on the steps required to process complaints quickly, the allocation of temporary resources to clear existing complaints in preparation for a potential surge and executive oversight, on a regular basis, of complaint trends. In the context of the broader consumer landscape, we have had, and continue to have, considerable engagement and information sharing with the Central Bank of Ireland in relation to Covid-19 related complaints.
We prioritised the progression of complaints concerning business interruption insurance claims, in recognition of the importance to policyholders of achieving a swift understanding as to whether they were entitled to benefit under their policy of insurance. This included early engagement with providers to obtain final responses. We also use specialist teams to deal with Covid-related complaints. To date, since March 2020, within the figures previously mentioned, we have received 162 complaints concerning business interruption. I am happy to advise the members that 89 of these business interruption complaints have already been concluded, 24 of which were closed with a legally binding decision. I am also pleased to report that some insurers have accepted our approach to these business interruption complaints, in the same way that providers have accepted decisions on tracker mortgage complaints, and have chosen to apply that approach and directions made in our legally binding decisions to other similar complaints, thereby facilitating a significant number of settlements. This is most welcome.
As the members will be aware, in August 2020 FBD Insurance plc brought a challenge to the High Court seeking to prevent me from progressing the investigation of a business interruption insurance complaint. I want to make clear that I will strenuously oppose any attempt by any financial service provider or pension provider to restrain me in the exercise of my statutory powers to investigate a complaint pursuant to the provisions of the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Act 2017. For that reason, we vigorously opposed this court action and in February 2021, FBD withdrew the challenge and the High Court struck out the proceedings, noting the agreement of FBD to discharge certain legal costs.
Complaints identified as tracker mortgage interest rate-related complaints continue to comprise a considerable element of the work of my office. We inherited more than 600 tracker-related complaints from the Financial Services Ombudsman in January 2018 and we received a further 1,700 tracker mortgage complaints between 2018 and 2020. In addition, a number of tracker mortgage complaint files were reopened.
Since 2018 we have closed more than 1,200 tracker mortgage complaints. Again, these were mainly closed through mediated settlements and the issuing of legally binding decisions, following formal investigation. The tracker mortgage examination directed by the Central Bank of Ireland has resolved a large number of tracker mortgage complaints. For those whose complaints were not resolved through the examination, it is important to understand that my work is an entirely different process which involves the scrutiny and consideration of individual mortgage arrangements to assess the merits of a complaint on the basis of its own individual circumstances. A number of my decisions have resulted in borrowers having tracker mortgage interest rates restored. In addition, as I have already mentioned, some of my decisions in relation to tracker mortgage complaints were applied to other customers, including customers who had not made a complaint to my office, resulting in a benefit to over 7,000 mortgage holders. One bank appealed to the High Court, seeking to strike down a tracker mortgage decision I issued in April 2020. In that decision, in addition to the payment of compensation, I directed the bank to reinstate the complainants’ tracker mortgage interest rate and to arrange for the recalculation of the mortgage account balance to take account of the different rate which should have applied over the relevant period. The High Court delivered its judgment in February 2021. The bank was refused the reliefs it had sought and was unsuccessful in all arguments. Therefore, my legally binding decision stands and the bank is required to implement the steps I had directed.
As we continue to receive tracker mortgage complaints, such complaints will continue to comprise a considerable element of the work of this office for some time to come. We currently have more than 1,200 tracker mortgage complaints on hand. In February 2020, I published a digest of decisions dealing specifically with tracker mortgage decisions. This is available on our website. As with Covid-19 related complaints, we are working in close co-operation with the Central Bank to ensure that any consumers who have been wrongly denied tracker mortgage rates, have them returned in the most efficient and effective way possible.
Our co-operation with the Central Bank stretches beyond specific topics and, more generally, we have been pleased to share our views and unique perspective with the Central Bank, in the context of its project to review the consumer protection code. Our relationship with the Pensions Authority is similarly marked by close co-operation and positive interaction, recognising our individual roles in what is an evolving pension landscape.
The Office of the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman plays a key role in the consumer protection framework of the country. We are committed to fulfilling this role by providing a robust, independent and fair service to resolve disputes. We are committed to constantly improving the quality of our service. During 2020, we achieved considerable improvements in terms of the number of complaints dealt with and in the quality of our service. To their great credit, our staff proved to be agile and committed in responding to the circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Productivity was not only maintained, but indeed was enhanced, in some instances.
We remain committed to playing our part in keeping our staff and customers safe and contributing to the overall aim of suppressing the virus, while at the same time ensuring the provision of a high-quality customer service.
I assure members that together with the deputy ombudsman, my management team and all my staff, I will continue to use the powers the Oireachtas has given me, in an impartial manner, to ensure a fair outcome in respect of complaints made to my office. We will continue to play our part to deliver the broader consumer protection framework.
I thank members and the Chairman for the opportunity to engage with them today. The deputy ombudsman and I are now happy to deal with any questions from the committee.
I thank Mr. Deering for that comprehensive opening statement. I am quite sure there are plenty of questions to keep him busy for the next hour and a half. I will start with a few questions, which I will give to Mr. Deering in blocks of three if he does not mind.
In the 2018 annual report, the FSPO stated that it wanted to "Improve the quality and speed of the management of existing and new complaints". Has it made any strides in achieving this? It also stated that it wants to, "Increase public awareness of the FSPO’s role and simplify how people can access its services". Has progress been made on that? Can Mr. Deering explain the procedures when a complaint is made by the public?
Mr. Ger Deering:
I thank the Chairman for those questions, which I will answer in the order they were asked.
First, we have improved the speed and quality of how we deal with complaints. The theme and objective set out in our first strategic plan, which was from 2018 until this year, was to enhance the customer experience. Having brought in more than 3,000 complaints from the previous bodies, and knowing we were going to receive a significant number of between 4,000 to 5,000 complaints in 2018, we recognised that improving the quality and speed of the service was critical.
A key part of that strategic plan was a workforce plan and the identification of the resources we needed. Over the years since 2018 and to 2021, we have increased the number of staff and we have certainly improved both the quality and speed of dealing with complaints. We acknowledge that we have further to go on that journey. In 2018, for example, we closed 4,443 complaints and in 2019, we closed 4,569. As I mentioned, last year in 2020, we closed 6,139 complaints. That was despite the pandemic and the move to remote working. We dealt with 35% more complaints. Across a range of measures, therefore, we have improved both the quality and speed of the service,
In terms of public awareness, again, I would say the answer is "Yes". I mentioned that the Oireachtas gave me the power to publish my decisions in the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Act 2017. That has been one of the more beneficial changes and is the ultimate in terms of transparency. The decisions are published anonymised. People can see the reasons, however, because those are detailed decisions. The legally binding decisions we make are significant and go into much detail. They first set out the complainant's case and then the provider's case followed by our analysis and the ultimate decision. The fact that more than 1,000 of those are now published on the website has greatly enhanced awareness. The media has given considerable coverage each time we have published them.
In addition to that, I also published a digest of decisions each time I published decisions. We are conscious that the decisions themselves are quite detailed and lengthy. These digests of decisions actually give people a summary, usually one page in length, of what the decision is about, with a link to go and look at the full decision if they are interested.
Our database can be searched by complaint type, product type, year, whether the complaint was upheld or a whole range of fields. All this has brought greater awareness. In addition to that, we have improved our website and intend to do much more in terms of improving it. We have also produced information leaflets to better inform the public.
I apologise; what was the Chairman's third question?
Mr. Ger Deering:
I am sorry; I could not read my own writing. When a complaint comes into our office, the first thing we do is check to see if the complaint is actually complete. Before making a complaint to our office, a person must make a complaint to the provider. People sometimes arrive to us not having done so. We have an explanatory leaflet with three steps that explains to people how to make a complaint to the provider. They need to get a final response from the provider and we can then deal with the complaint at that stage. We first engage with complainants to make sure they have been to their provider and have a final response, and ensure we have whatever we need to progress the complaint.
The complaint then goes to our dispute resolution process, which is a relatively new service we introduced. In fact, it actually resolved almost 3,000 complaints last year and is a highly informal mediation process. The first thing that will happen is a dispute resolution officer will pick up the phone to contact the complainant and try to establish exactly what the complaint is and what the complainant wants to resolve that complaint. Then, the same complaint dispute resolution officer engages with the provider. A kind of shuttle mediation takes place, although sometimes it is in person. Much of this is done on the telephone, however. We have sometimes described this as old-fashioned innovation because there has been a huge move online. We ourselves made a big move online with many of our procedures in 2020. We also acknowledge, however, that we have a cohort of customers who want to talk to somebody. Sometimes, their complaint has evolved because of a lack of communication and because they could not get to talk to the right person. We are, therefore, very conscious of that. We want people to be able to communicate with us in whatever format works for them. For many people, it is actually the telephone. We are obviously using technology as well.
There are two ways in which a complaint can be resolved in dispute resolution. Many complaints are resolved when the provider actually makes an offer and an agreement is drawn up between the parties. It is entirely a matter for the complainant and the provider as to whether they want to come to an arrangement and make an agreement. If they do, then that agreement is the basis of the settlement and the complaint closes.
In some instances, it is closed on the basis of clarification, whereby the complainant receives and accepts an explanation for whatever the conduct was and understands better what happened. The complaint closes on that basis, with the ability to reopen it if something new comes to light.
If the complaint is not resolved at that level or at this stage of the dispute resolution service, it then moves on to our formal investigation service. The first thing that happens is that an investigation officer will examine the file and prepare what is called a summary of complaint, which is issued to the provider. It summarises the complaint and sets out a series of questions for the provider to answer and a schedule of evidence the provider must produce. If they are not already on the file, this includes, for example, things like terms and conditions, all the communications, correspondence, records and recordings of telephone calls and so forth. Very interestingly, at that stage, sometimes the providers actually come back with an offer, which the complainants are happy to accept. Indeed, I believe more than €1 million actually changed hands last year at that particular stage of the process.
If that does not happen then we progress with the investigation, which involves an exchange of documentation. Coming back to the Chairman's earlier point about the speed of how we deal with complaints, we can see as we get into the process that a complaint handled in mediation will be resolved much quicker, usually within three months. When it moves on to the investigation stage, it is a much more formal process. The provider has the right to respond to the summary of complaint and the complainant then is entitled to make a submission in response to that. We are, therefore, very much in the hands of the parties as regards how long it will take in a formal investigation because the submissions will go over and back. In terms of fair procedures, we must allow the parties to make the submissions and provide whatever evidence they want.
When that process ends, we issue what is called a preliminary decision, which is, in a sense, in most cases, on the same lines and very similar to the legally binding decision. We introduced this recently. Before we did so, the first that complainants or the provider knew what the ombudsman was thinking was when they got a legally binding decision. As the decisions are legally binding and only appealable to the High Court, we felt it would be good if people had an opportunity to comment on the preliminary decision before that step. The preliminary decision, therefore, sets out the proposed decision but allows the parties to make certain further submissions on points of law or points of fact.
If there are no further submissions, the legally binding decision issues on the same terms as the preliminary decision. If there are submissions, they are considered and a legally binding decision issues on the basis of all the evidence. There are different stages along the process until it reaches its conclusion.
I have several more questions, after which I will bring in other members. Will Mr. Deering explain the difference between the role of the Central Bank and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, and that of the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman? Will he comment on resources and staff availability? He pointed out that despite the impacts of the pandemic, his office has increased the number of complaints closed by 35% to 6,193. His efforts and those of his staff in this regard are to be commended.
Mr. Deering also indicated that he inherited 3,000 complaints in 2018 and there has been an additional workload following on from the tracker mortgage issue. He noted that while his office received 492 tracker cases during the year, it closed 582 cases. That still leaves 1,200 cases on hand at the end of the year. This indicates that while the office is making progress, there is a difficulty in getting through the build-up of cases. A response that my colleague, Deputy Doherty, received to a parliamentary question earlier this year detailed that more than 4,600 complaints to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman remained unresolved, with some 2,865 of them having been submitted more than 12 months ago. How many complaints in total are on the ombudsman's books at this time?
Finally, does the office have the resources and specialist staffing Mr. Deering feels are needed to get on top of its workload?
Mr. Ger Deering:
I thank the Chairman. The question on the difference between the role of the Central Bank and the CCPC and that of my office is a very good one because there is often confusion in this regard. The simplest way I can describe it is that the Central Bank, as regulator, has overall responsibility for how financial services providers conduct themselves in terms of setting regulations and enforcing those regulations, whereas we deal with individual complaints and individual complainants. How the tracker mortgage issue was handled is a good example of that. In fact, I believe it was handled very well here compared with how we have seen some neighbouring countries handle such situations. More than 40,000 people have got tracker mortgages back as a consequence of the tracker mortgage examination directed by the Central Bank. From the figures we are talking about here today, we can see how long it would have taken us to get through those individual complaints. What the Central Bank was able to do was deal with what it described as cohorts of customers. Within those cohorts, there could be individual customers who may have a different set of circumstances and a particular contract, piece of correspondence or telephone call that did not apply to the other cohort of people but did apply to them individually.
We look and that is why it takes considerable resources for us to get through the number of complaints we deal with. Once a complaint goes into a formal investigation, all of the correspondence must be examined. We see individual complaints arriving in numbers of boxes of files and we have to go through years of information. Particularly with tracker mortgage cases, we are going back, in some instances, to 2008 or 2006 and dealing with files and records of that vintage. There is a lot of work involved in dealing with individual files. That is the basic difference in terms of our role but the key point is that we co-operate very well with the Central Bank and the CCPC. Similar to the Central Bank, the CCPC has an overall role in terms of competition. The kind of things we do in terms of co-operation would be where we see an individual complaint and we have a concern that it might be a systemic issue or one that might apply to other customers, we will draw that to the attention of the Central Bank. Likewise, if we find something we think is particularly egregious, we will bring it to the attention of the Central Bank. The key difference is that the latter has an overall responsibility, while we can only deal with complaints we receive from individuals. We have no power to do anything off our own bat. That is as it should be. The role of an ombudsman is to react and respond to complaints.
The Chairman is correct in saying that we got an increase in resources. Certainly, we increased the number of complaints we deal with. We currently have 4,750 complaints on hand, which is down from the larger numbers that were previously there. It is very difficult ever to have enough resources but we must acknowledge that we got an increase in resources and we are grateful for it. The Chairman rightly points out that with things like Covid-related complaints and tracker mortgage complaints, which are quite complex, all the resources we have certainly are fully deployed. We look at drawing down external resources if and when we can.
In regard to the age of the complaints on hand, we have complaints that are older than we would like and that have been with us for longer than we would like. However, it is important to point out that a considerable number of the complaints that are with us longer have complex histories. Sometimes, those complaints were closed but, due to a change in legislation to extend the time limits, for example, they were reopened. The strict limits laid down in the legislation mean that if somebody wants to reopen a complaint, we allow it to be done because the person might otherwise lose the ability to progress the complaint on the basis that it is out of time. The downside of that for us as an organisation is that it makes those complaints look very old. There is sometimes a complaint that looks like it is six, seven or eight years old but, in fact , it may well have been closed five, six or seven years and then reopened a year or two ago. Such complaints keep the same complaint reference. We acknowledge that issue, however, and we are working hard to increase the speed of dealing with those complaints. It will always be the case that the speediest resolution of complaints is through dispute resolution and mediation. Ms McGovern will probably talk more about this point later but there have been decisions of the courts recently, particularly the Supreme Court, that make it very clear that quasi-judicial bodies like us are, in some sense, administering justice and must be very careful about having fair procedures and how they carry out those procedures. It takes time to get that right.
I hope I have answered the Chairman's questions. We are conscious that the tracker mortgage cases keep coming in and we are working hard to keep ahead of them. I should point out as well that we are dealing with those complaints in the order in which we receive them, which means we must deal first with the older complaints before getting to the ones that have come in more recently. It is important that I manage expectations in this regard. While I have upheld complaints and directed that people be put back on tracker mortgages, and customers have benefited from that, there are some unrealistic expectations in this regard. There are some people who feel they should have got a tracker mortgage simply because they would have liked to have one or they knew someone who got one. It is important to point out that there must be a basis on which a person has an entitlement to a tracker mortgage. Once a complaint is made, we will investigate it fully to establish whether the complainant has that right.
I thank Mr. Deering and Ms McGovern for their attendance today. I have a number of questions for them and, like the Chairman, I will ask a few together and then go back and forth with the witnesses.
In terms of the number of complaints, whether relating to tracker mortgages, financial services, insurance or whatever else, has the ombudsman's office seen an increase or decrease within each of the categories it deals with? Mr. Deering pointed out regarding older cases that they retain the same reference number and there is sometimes a hiatus between the time of the last action on the case and the point at which a new complaint is submitted or new information comes to the fore. How many of those historical cases, as I will call them, does the ombudsman's office currently have on its books?
Mr. Ger Deering:
In terms of the increase, there was a very significant increase in complaints to the financial ombudsman quite a number of years ago on foot of the collapse of the economy. However, if we take that spike out, there has been a steady growth in recent years.
On the Deputy's question on whether complaints are made in particular areas, it changes. When the office was initially established, it received more complaints in the area of insurance but that has changed and we now receive more complaints in the area of banking. An issue like the tracker mortgage scandal had an impact on the number of banking complaints received. Last year, the vast majority of Covid-related complaints were receive were actually insurance related.
I do not have the historical data in front of me, but we can furnish the members with the data on the number of complaints going back over the years.
I must compliment the office on its website. I have heard that the website will be updated even further but in fairness, it seems quite comprehensive at first glance. In terms of the decisions of the office, how many have been appealed? I note that institutions and complainants can go to the High Court if they are not happy with a decision. Does Mr. Deering know how many of those decisions have been appealed?
Ms MaryRose McGovern:
Mr. Deering is correct to state that typically, appeals tend to come in at a rate of around 1%. I believe that currently, there are about ten or 11 live appeals. I would be happy to confirm the exact figure to the Deputy in writing. I can confirm that in the past six months or so, we have only received one appeal, whereas in previous years they have tended to arrive in a pattern. Like buses, sometimes there might be nothing for a number of months and then a few may arrive at the same time.
In respect of the number of appeals that are open, there is at least one that is a number of years old and has made its way to the Court of Appeal. It arose from a complainant whose complaint was not upheld. We have been waiting since 2012 for that appeal to be heard. There have been some difficulties with it.
In terms of providers and complainants, our live appeals currently are very much weighted towards providers. They seem to be the focus of challenges to us currently. A very small number - one or two - of appeals have come from complainants who are disappointed with the outcome and who have sought to challenge that in the High Court.
That would make sense, given the year that we have had and the issues that the office is dealing with.
I wish to turn to the decisions database of the office. I think it is most useful for people to see the office's deliberations on previous appeals and complaints. Does that deter people or does it give them confidence to make a complaint? No two cases are the same. What benefit does the office see in having the decisions database readily available for prospective complainants?
Ms MaryRose McGovern:
The publication of those 1,000+ decisions puts members of the public in a position to decide themselves whether their own individual circumstances warrant a complaint being made. When one gets into the finer detail of why decisions turn a certain way, it provides an understanding. Therefore, our goal is to share our approach to complaints in order that people can make a decision individually. When one becomes familiar with the search facility, it is quite possible to see how two different outcomes may arise in cases where the fundamental circumstances appear to be the same but in respect of the precise details of communications or a particular clause in a contract, the outcome may turn out to be very different. Therefore, we believe that our role is to share the information with the public.
That is very helpful.
I have number of other questions. I will ask one more and then my colleague, Deputy Buckley, wants to contribute.
In respect of the European financial ombudsman, how closely does the office work with that ombudsman? I presume that it works with the ombudsman on a regular basis. Can Mr. Deering outline to the committee how that relationship works? If a complaint is made here, there will not be collaboration unless, I presume, the complaint concerns a pan-European institution or something similar. I ask Mr. Deering to outline how that process works.
I may ask some other questions after Deputy Buckley has made his contribution.
Mr. Ger Deering:
The EU has a network in place called FIN-NET. I am on the executive committee of that network. It plays a very important role. It is not often understood that we regularly receive complaints from other countries such as Cyprus, Malaysia and all over the world in cases in which the financial service provider concerned is regulated in Ireland. This occurs where a provider based in Ireland sells a product to a person resident elsewhere. There are certain complications. It depends on the law of the country that pertains to the contract. Issues such as that have to be dealt with.
That network facilitates us to refer complaints. Some of our colleagues refer complaints to us and we refer complaints to them. The EU is very conscious of the fact that if it wants to enable the sale of products across the EU, there has to be a complaint mechanism. There has to be a method by which one can follow up with a complaint in the event of the purchase of a product in another state.
Interestingly, I feel that the powers that the Oireachtas has given the office of the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman here are very strong in comparison to some of our colleagues. That is something that we note when we meet our colleagues at EU level.
I thank the witnesses for attending today. In fairness, their responses have been very in-depth and thorough in respect of the tracker mortgage scandal. I must commend the office on that, because it is what it is about. Deputy Devlin mentioned the office's website. The publication of the decisions of those 1,000+ cases shows that the office is working and is going in the right direction. It is working on behalf of people. The publication of decisions is also a sign of confidence within the office. These meetings are exceptionally important. We need to get more of this into the public domain in order that people become aware of the work that is done by the office but also can trust the office.
I will move on because the witnesses have covered the tracker mortgage issue exceptionally well. As for the current situation in Ireland, some of the banks are withdrawing from the market. Would it be a cause for concern for the office were we to lose a few of our banks?
A few people have raised the issue of personal contract plan, PCP, car financing with me. Some have queried whether it could be dodgy. I ask the witnesses to outline their concerns on the issue.
Much of the younger generation, because of bad publicity in the press on banks and what has happened over the years, are moving towards cryptocurrencies and apps such as Revolut and N26. I ask the witnesses to comment on that issue.
Another issue that was raised at a recent committee meeting concerns asylum seekers who cannot open a bank account because they do not have identification, proof of address or a personal public service number, PPSN, and so on. Do the witnesses have concerns or opinions on that issue to enable us to get a broader picture? The issues discussed at these committee meetings tend to overlap.
I thank the witnesses for their time.
Mr. Ger Deering:
I will respond first and then I will hand over to my colleague. I thank the Deputy for his comments. I absolutely agree with the Deputy that the publication of decisions brings confidence. The fact that the decisions are available and people can look at them and form their own view is the ultimate accountability mechanism.
On the Deputy's latter point in relation to asylum seekers and refugees not being able to open bank accounts, we have been consulted on that issue. While we do not play a role in making decisions in these policy areas, when an issue arises, we will deal with an individual complaint.
I am glad to note that to my understanding, there has been some movement within the past few weeks on that. I gather, through work by the Department of Justice, that it has found a way to allow people to open an account without necessarily having to have a utility bill, which is a problem if a person does not have his or her own home or place to have a utility bill in.
We are coming to the end of our first three-year strategic plan and are putting together our next strategic plan. Some of issues referred to include some of the bricks-and-mortar banks moving out and the move to online banking, which will bring huge challenges for all of us, particularly for us. I might hand over to the deputy ombudsman to talk about some of the research and work we have been doing in that area and what we are looking at there and anticipating.
Ms MaryRose McGovern:
The Deputy mentioned the digital banking platforms used by younger members of society. It is important to understand that the organisations making those services available do not require a banking licence and tend to operate under e-money licences. It needs to be understood by the users of those services that right now, they cannot go to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman with a complaint because of the manner in which those firms are structured. They do not have a physical presence here and they are not regulated by the Central Bank. They are not subject to conduct of business rules for technical reasons but that is because the payment services regulations provide a protection that is over and above what the conduct of business rules would offer. Anybody wishing to make a complaint, however, would need to go to the competent authority of the member state that issued the licence for those entities.
It is fair to say that it is in the public arena that at least one of those digital banking platforms has applied for authorisation in this jurisdiction. If that authorisation becomes real, customers of those digital platforms will be entitled to make a complaint to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman.
From the point of view of the Central Bank, it is probably or may be a concern that anybody holding an account with one of these entities can, in a matter of seconds, go from cash to crypto. The Deputy referred to crypto. It is important to understand that there is no specific regulatory regime in Ireland in terms of cryptocurrencies. There is an argument that some elements of the e-money regulations or the payment services directive may play a part in cryptocurrencies but right now, they are not specifically regulated, so one is moving out of that consumer space into a non-consumer space. It is a cause of concern. Certainly in the past week or so, the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK has written to 300 firms warning them that they are failing to give appropriate warning to their customers about the risks of signing up to those services. It is probably important to understand that cryptocurrencies are not necessarily for the average consumer. They are very volatile. Even in the past week or so, the Deputy may have heard of the Musk effect where Tesla has indicated an unwillingness to accept cryptocurrencies in exchange for - I will not say "buy" because I am not sure if that is the correct verb - for the acquisition of a vehicle. This had the immediate effect of reducing the value of Bitcoin by 30%. These are volatile assets. It is a very dynamic and emerging landscape but right now, although the European Commission is looking at developing a regulation for markets in crypto-assets, it is not there yet. It is only in its very early stages and what consumer protections it will offer remains to be seen.
Ms MaryRose McGovern:
It is fair to say that the solution may not be too far off because Banking and Payments Federation Ireland is working with the pillar banks to develop an instant payment app that will provide an alternative for customers, who do not want to be bothered with IBANs. They want to text money. This is in accordance with the perspective of the European Commission, which, in accordance with its digital action plan, wants to see a pan-European payment app so that if you are in Spain and I am in France, I can whizz you some money by way of a text. That is the direction in which we are going. From our interactions with Banking and Payments Federation Ireland, I believe there will be some news in terms of the progress on that later in the year.
What is Ms McGovern's opinion on the issue relating to PCPs? Some of the major banks are bailing out of this country and leaving people behind without any certainty regarding what is happening with their mortgages. Will this be a worry in the future?
Ms MaryRose McGovern:
We would love to see a greater amount of competition because competition is ultimately good for the consumer. Obviously, we do not have a role to play in terms of the decisions of banks as to whether to stay in this country. That is really a matter for the Central Bank. I can happily say that we are not aware, as yet, of a concerning trend of complaints arising from PCP arrangements.
I thank the witnesses for joining us. Arising from the previous question about PCPs, do the witnesses envisage any particular difficulty with PCPs in the transition to electric vehicles? One thing we know about PCPs is that they can be a very suitable product for people if they are planning to stay with the same type of car or the same manufacturer for a long period of time but a significant change is coming in how we do private motoring in this country. Do the witnesses envisage a requirement for regulatory change and Government action?
My next question concerns the provision of financial services in rural and geographically remote areas. Over the past number of years in my constituency, I have seen not just the removal of traditional banking services from small towns but the removal of things as basic as ATM machines from towns. For example, a town like Ballybunnion, which has quite a strong tourist population in the summer months, was faced with the prospect of not having an ATM, apart from an in-store ATM in the supermarket. Have the witnesses come across any complaints from the public regarding what is an acceptable level of service, in terms of geographic location, from financial services such as banks?
Mr. Ger Deering:
It is important to point out that our legislation empowers us to deal with the conduct of a financial services provider. Taking the Deputy's questions in reverse order, if a bank withdraws a service, for example, leaving a country, providing fewer services or withdrawing services, that is not something we can deal with. If there is any conduct relating to an individual complainant during the process of a bank leaving the country or folding up shop such as the sale of a loan and ensuring that the same terms and conditions apply to that loan as it moves on, those are areas where we can look at the individual customer and if he or she has a complaint relating to any conduct such as the closure of a bank, we can look into it. However, the provision of services is not something we can look at.
Regarding PCPs, as my colleague noted, it is not something we have seen a lot of. As for whether the change to electric vehicles will make a difference, it is difficult for us to know at this stage until we start to see a trend in complaints. Again, we are the canary in the coal mine.
We often see the trends first because we see the complaints coming in from individuals. If we do see those sorts of trends, we bring them to the attention of the policymakers or regulators, if we think that needs to happen.
Returning to the provision of rural services, does Mr. Deering think the remit of his office needs to be broadened so to ensure it can cover that particular area? It is something I envisage becoming more of a problem for customers in the future as banks tighten their footprints on the ground. Mr. Deering is saying that if customers approach his office, there is not anything it can do, as it is outside its remit.
Mr. Ger Deering:
We have a very broad remit, as has been mentioned a few times already. We see our remit as dealing with individual conduct. We do not interfere with the commercial discretion of financial service providers. It would be a bridge too far for us to get into that space. It is not something for which we would seek extra powers. Our powers are quite broad as they are, which is about conduct as it affects individuals. To return to our earlier conversation, it is not for me to comment on the actions of a bank in terms of competition or otherwise, but with the current banks and pillar financial service providers which we deal with, we know where they are based. They have bricks and mortar in this country, we can contact them, we have meetings with them and we have occasion to contact the CEO if we are not happy with the response the office is receiving from them. The whole thing is moving, however, to organisations which are competing with these existing banks and which may not be in the country at all. It will be very different for everybody. I do not believe it would be helpful if our remit was to extend in some way to forcing financial service providers to provide a particular type of service or provide a service in a particular area. That would be us interfering with commercial discretion and would undermine the work that we currently do. We have to keep that independence in terms of our role.
On mortgages and people who are looking to clear them early, is enough information available to customers on the rules and penalties that apply? Could the banks do more to ensure that customers know where they stand? Is Mr. Deering satisfied that there is consistency across the board in how customers are treated if they attempt to clear mortgages early?
Mr. Ger Deering:
The key thing in that instance, as with everything we deal with, is around communication. If somebody ended up with a difficulty in that particular area and made a complaint to us, we would look at the information that was provided. Was the customer clearly informed at the time when, say, they went into a fixed rate that they are now having difficulty with? The consumer protection code provides certain levels of information that is supposed to be provided to people. The CCPC and the Central Bank have done a lot of work on switching codes and trying to encourage consumers to make themselves aware. Unfortunately, there are two sides to this. Very often the information is given to consumers and they do not necessarily always absorb it or they want to do a particular thing at a particular time. We say it is absolutely incumbent and essential for a financial service provider to give consumers all the information in a very clear way but equally, the consumer needs to take that on board and consider, when they make these decisions, what the best course of action is for themselves. I appreciate that is not a level playing field when it comes to the knowledge that the consumers have but it is critical that the information is provided in a clear and simple fashion to people.
I thank the witnesses, it has been interesting to listen to them. The beauty of going last is that many of the questions I wanted to ask have been asked already. Others have raised the banks that decide to leave the country, for whatever reason. Why do the witnesses think Ireland seems to be so uncompetitive or undesirable a place for so many of these institutions to do business, whether it is insurers or banks? Is it over-regulation, or whatever?
My second question is on Covid-related cases. The FBD case was already mentioned. I have been following that case and a number of publicans in the greater Cork area have a particular interest in it and were party to the case when it was taken some months ago. At what stage is that case, in terms of the ombudsman's adjudication? I suppose the witnesses must be very mindful of what they can or cannot say to us.
I have encountered cases in which people have alleged to me that they were refused mortgage protection by their banks because they tested positive for Covid during the pandemic. Has the ombudsman dealt with any cases where mortgage protection has been denied in that context?
Ms MaryRose McGovern:
On the last question, right from the outset in March 2020, we kept a very close eye on complaints where the complainants themselves identified Covid-19 as an element within the complaint and we very specifically tagged them so that we could see the trends that were emerging very quickly in order that we could hop on them, as it were. The trends we saw from the outset were in the area of travel insurance. I will return to the topic of business interruption insurance, on which the Deputy has touched. We have not seen a surge of complaints on the banking side. I am personally not aware of complaints to any large degree concerning Covid tests impacting on a person's ability to secure services. On the Covid-related complaints that we have seen, and where we have seen significant elements emerging on the travel side, we have seen huge levels of engagement in the informal dispute resolution process that the ombudsman mentioned, which is our starting position. We really do want to see financial service providers and their customers engage in a positive way in order that they can themselves design a solution with which they will both be happy, rather than having a solution imposed on them.
We did not see the same level of engagement on business interruption insurance at the outset, although that is beginning to improve. The Deputy mentioned litigation commenced by FBD in the summer of 2020. That was what we considered to be an unprecedented challenge to the work of this office, whereby the insurer sought to have us down tools on the investigation of a number of complaints. To clarify, this was not a request that we keep going for the moment but hold our horses towards the end because some clarity was coming from the court; it was a specific challenge to the entitlement of this organisation to use the powers given to it under the Act to provide an alternative avenue of redress to a small business, including a publican, to come to this organisation to seek redress instead of going to court. The argument put forward by the insurer was that because these issues were being litigated, the FSPO no longer had jurisdiction. It was a very specific challenge that it was not a matter of discretion, the FSPO had no jurisdiction. We considered that to be an unprecedented challenge. Even if one compared it to the position taken by the banks, had a similar position been taken on the tracker mortgage situation, it would have been a significant hurdle to the work of the office.
While we certainly are aware that there has been plenty of litigation surrounding tracker mortgages, the two processes have been in a position to run parallel paths, as it were. Certainly, this office has no interest in trespassing on the jurisdiction of the courts but the Oireachtas has given this office the powers to provide that alternative avenue of redress to individuals and small organisations that come within the definition of consumer.
We vehemently opposed that challenge to our entitlement to proceed with the investigation of a publican's complaint. I am happy to state that that challenge to the court was withdrawn in February 2021. The ombudsman touched on it in his opening statement. The insurer agreed to pay certain costs in order to bring the matter to an end. In the meantime, we had reached an accommodation in the interests of both parties that we would continue to work on those particular complaints but we would hold the issue of a preliminary decision until such time as the courts had delivered judgment in that test case with the four pubs that FBD was involved in. I am happy to confirm that the complaints that were impacted by that litigation have been progressing and they are coming to a conclusion soon.
Overall, on the business interruption complaint side, as the ombudsman mentioned, we have put in place specialist teams. We prioritised those complaints from the outset because we took the view that it was really important for policyholders to understand whether or not they were covered, and if they were not covered, to get that information quickly so that they could use that information to make the appropriate decision. We recognise that some businesses might be teetering in a space where they were not entirely sure as to whether they should continue to struggle on, as it were, in anticipation of getting policy benefits. From the outset, we prioritised the progress of those investigations and we were in a position to issue our first preliminary decision on a business interruption complaint in November 2020. As the ombudsman mentioned, both parties have an opportunity after a preliminary decision has been issued to make further submissions. The process on that particular complaint file continued for quite some time and has only more recently become a legally-binding decision. We have a small number of legally-binding decisions issued. We have 24 legally-binding decisions issued on business interruption complaints but we are pleased to see that where those complaints have been upheld, certain providers have adopted a positive approach to dealing with their policyholders who have other complaints and they have applied the approach that this office has taken in terms of those claims and the policy benefits payable and they have applied them across to their other customers. We are also very much aware that the Central Bank has written to insurers to direct them to write to their customers who have not yet made a claim to point out that this is the outcome and that it is believed that they are covered if they wish to make a claim. I do not know if that covers all of the Deputy's questions.
Mr. Ger Deering:
In terms of the Deputy's question about the banks leaving and why we think that is the case, in honesty, we do not really know. It is not an area that we have particular expertise in. It is more of a regulatory issue than for us. We, as I say, only deal with the individual complaints and we would not be privy to that information as to why they are leaving. As the deputy ombudsman has said, we regret any move. We would like to see as much competition as possible in the country.
I thank Mr. Deering. I suppose I was asking more in hope than expectation.
In relation to what Deputy Devlin requested earlier in terms of a breakdown of the number of cases and how they are broken down and categorised, if they are sending information to us could I also add any cases that they have in relation to State bodies, be it local authorities or whatever, or semi-State bodies, be it Irish Water, Ervia or whatever the case may be? Could we get some indication of the number of cases that they might have in relation to State or semi-State bodies?
I have a few other questions. I refer to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman's strategic plan from 2018 to 2021. Mr. Deering might outline some of the key achievements that his office has secured over that period. Equally, in terms of the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman's outstanding goals from that plan, will they be incorporated into the new plan and is that under way? Mr. Deering might outline to the committee how that is going.
Mr. Ger Deering:
As I mentioned, the strategic plan from 2018 set its target as improving and enhancing the customer experience. That was a recognition that it was taking longer than we had wanted for complaints to be dealt with. Over the period of the three years, we have put in place specific key performance indicators, KPIs, to measure our performance in that area. In 2019, as part of that process, we set a KPI of closing 6,000 complaints in 2020. In March last year, as we saw all of our staff depart the office with a laptop under their arms, and we sent them a mobile phone afterwards, we worried that that KPI would not be achieved. I am proud to say that the staff really rallied to the cause and we did actually achieve it.
How we have improved the service and what we laid out clearly in that strategic plan is that we would put in place measurable KPIs and regular measurement by that, by the senior management, as well as by the council. There is the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Council and it is responsible for oversight of the operation of the office and the efficiency and the effectiveness of the office. We went to the council in 2018 seeking additional resources to deal with some of the complaints that we knew we were taking too long to deal with. The council gave us the additional resources but looked for what I would call challenging KPIs, as it was entitled and should do. We came back with the challenging KPIs and we have actually managed to deliver on those. There is no doubt but that the service is better and faster than it was.
To answer the Deputy's question on the next strategic plan, we will ramp up in the next strategic plan and evolve further. We hold others to account in the context of the quality of the service they provide to their customers and we are conscious that we, too, must provide a good service to our customers. While I believe the vast majority of our customers get an excellent and fast service, we want everybody to benefit from that service.
Absolutely. I thank Mr. Deering for that. I congratulate the ombudsman and all the staff in the office or, as the case may be, working remotely for that. That is a phenomenal number of cases. For all to be dealt with remotely, credit where credit is due on that. I look forward to seeing the new strategic plan for Mr. Deering's role.
I have a similar question to some colleagues who spoke earlier. With the pending exit of other financial institutions including Ulster Bank, KBC and, more recently, Provident, going back to my earlier question in terms of the historical cases, what would happen in the scenario where somebody has raised an issue or maybe something comes to light but the entity has in theory left this jurisdiction? If it were a British entity, that would probably complicate matters further.
In terms of Brexit, since it is probably on our lips in this question, has the impact brought any new financial regulatory issues to the ombudsman's door, given that some firms may have relocated their head offices, be it here in Ireland or in other European jurisdictions?
Mr. Ger Deering:
In terms of dealing with complaints from providers that are about to leave or leaving, once the conduct happened when that provider was regulated in this jurisdiction, we will continue to deal with that complaint.
We have dealt with this scenario before where providers have left. Even some of the tracker mortgage complaints we are dealing with relate to providers that were in the market previously but which were regulated at the time the conduct complained of happened. We do not see that as being a problem. We believe we will be able to deal with those complaints.
Brexit is a very complex issue for us in several ways. The Deputy is correct, new providers have come in and been regulated here but he will recall that I mentioned FIN-NET, the network of European financial service ombudsmen. We still communicate with the Financial Ombudsman Service, FOS, in the UK, but it is not under the umbrella of EU regulations, obviously. There are situations, as I mentioned, where a contract might be governed by a different law. In that instance, we would require the provider and the complainant to agree to have their complaint dealt with by this office under Irish law. We cannot say it is definitely Brexit-related but more recently a financial service provider which, in the past would have agreed to have that complaint dealt with under Irish law, refused to do so and that created a problem. I am not sure if it is Brexit-related but it certainly creates a problem for their customers who then were unable to have their complaint dealt with by this office.
This week, I raised a question regarding the number of Irish customers seeking to have mortgages from institutions in other EU member states with the Department of Finance. I presume that would go to FIN-NET if a contract was signed with a German or Spanish bank, for example. Do the witnesses know how frequently people in Ireland draw down mortgages through other European financial institutions?
Ms McGovern responded to a question asked by Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan on mortgage protection. I am the chair of the Oireachtas all-party committee on diabetes. We have evidence that some people with diabetes have been denied mortgage protection because of their condition. Has the office received many complaints in that regard or is it a relatively new phenomenon?
Ms MaryRose McGovern:
I cannot say we have seen a trend of complaints along those lines but a complaint of that nature, where somebody is complaining that they have been wrongfully refused a service is a complaint which comes within the jurisdiction of this office. If we receive a complaint of that nature, we well be in a position to investigate what has gone on and see the process around it and look behind all the details.
On referrals to other members of FIN-NET, we only see what we refer onwards or what is referred to us. There may be people who go directly to the appropriate ombudsman entity in Europe without needing the guidance that this office can offer. Our website has a piece on FIN-NET and a call may never be necessary because the person needing the information may secure it from the website. I am not sure we can give the Deputy much by way of specific details on that.
I appreciate that the witnesses would not have it to hand but when they correspond with the committee on the question about number of different cases over the past six years, they might also include the number of cases which the office has referred to colleagues in FIN-NET, please. I thank Mr. Deering and Ms McGovern for their time today, I really appreciate it.
I have some questions myself. Insurance is an issue that the FSPO has dealt with in recent years. It is something that has been under considerable scrutiny in the House too. I appreciate it is early days but has there been any noticeable decrease in the number of complaints on increases in premium rates since the new insurance regulations on personal injury pay-outs were introduced in April? These were in third place in all insurance complaints before that.
Has the office's experience of dealing with many complaints about insurance given the witnesses any insight into the practice of dual pricing in the insurance industry?
Will the witnesses comment on the wording of insurance policies? Have the issues in this area been addressed by the insurance companies?
Mr. Ger Deering:
I will take the Chairman's final question on the wording of insurance policies. This is another case where there is an advantage in putting our decisions on the website. We regularly draw the attention of insurance companies to the need for clarity and clear communication when people take out an insurance policy. We believe that some of the changes in the legislation will help that but we have been upholding decisions for some time where insurance companies do not ask a clear question. For some strange reason, insurance companies have a habit of asking double negatives. One sometimes see questions that say "you, or any member of your family, have not had a claim in the last three years", or "you, or any member of your family, have not had a conviction". I will not go through the exercise here now, but when you start to ask people what the correct answer is to that, whether they have had a claim or conviction, there is a debate over whether the answer should be "Yes" or "No". One should not have to debate or consider the question. If an insurance company wants to know if a person has had a claim, it behoves it to ask the question "have you had a claim in the last three years?", not to make a statement "you or any member of your family have not had a claim" and expect the person to confirm or deny that statement. We are very strong on pointing out to insurance companies that if they consider a question or piece of information important enough to not only refuse a claim but sometimes even to void a policy on the basis of an incorrect answer, then they really must ask that question correctly, clearly and in a way that makes it easy for the person proposing for a policy to understand the question. It is an area in which we continue to see complaints.
I have pointed out numerous times to insurers in particular, and it is in my annual reports, that it is a very serious matter to cancel a person's insurance policy because in this country, if you have had an insurance policy cancelled, you will forever be asked a question on your next insurance, "have you ever had a policy cancelled". In some instances, it can become almost impossible to take out insurance. You could find yourself with a home that you cannot insure because of a dispute over how you answered a question in the past. Equally, of course it is the responsibility of a person seeking to take out an insurance policy to answer the question correctly. If the question is "have you had a claim in the last three years" and you have, then the answer must be "Yes", provided the question is asked in a clear manner.
On insurance premiums, we do not deal directly with increases in premiums ------
Ms MaryRose McGovern:
I might come in here. We are very conscious of the work the Central Bank is doing on differential pricing. It is doing a deep dive into the processes within organisations and the reasons behind that. We have made a number of submissions to the Central Bank in the context of its work to review the consumer protection code in order to share our perspective on certain aspects. Within those communications, we have suggested that the use of data analytics to calculate a premium is something that should be regulated. It is obviously a matter for the Central Bank, as the regulator, to determine whether such a practice should be prohibited or whether it is permitted. Similarly, if a loyalty penalty percentage is in place for customers who want to stay with a certain insurance provider, then perhaps there should be a limit on what that percentage should be and that should be communicated in a way that is clear in order that people can make an informed decision.
Going to back to the Chairman's question, we are very conscious when we see a complaint about premium rates that there are certain limits. On the whole issue of commercial discretion and the European regulations regarding the calculation of premiums, there is a limit to what this organisation can do. Nevertheless, when we see a complaint of that nature, we look to the detail that a complainant can make available to us in order to examine whether there are aspects of differential pricing behind the complaint about a premium increase or whether it is simply that the customer in question had an accident and his or her premium went up. One of the key pieces of information is that every complaint is individual and will turn on its own set of circumstances.
If the Chairman would like details of the numbers of complaints received relating to premium increases, the best we could do would be to confirm that in writing. We could provide numbers for the past couple of years and that would give the Chair more specific information.
I would appreciate that. I have a couple more questions about the attitude of the banks and the insurance companies, before Deputy Buckley comes in. From dealing with the banks on the tracker mortgage issue and insurance companies on the interruption clause and premiums, can the witnesses tell us whether there has there been any reform in the attitudes of the banks and insurance companies across the whole sector? What level of resistance, if any, do the witnesses encounter when engaging with them? I ask that to get an idea of whether there has been any institutional reform within the sectors.
The ombudsman stated a number of tracker mortgage complaint files have been reopened. Can he explain what has led to that?
A person has written to the committee to state that the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman will not accept a complaint about a bank account that has two names on it unless both people concerned sign the complaint. Is that correct? Can our guests comment on that?
Mr. Ger Deering:
I will take the Chairman's last point first. Cases in which two people are joint owners of a bank account or insurance policy can be very difficult for the people concerned, the financial service provider and ourselves. The difficulty we have is that if somebody has an entitlement to a bank account, we must get their permission in order to deal with a complaint. I mentioned earlier the significant amount of evidence we have to collect in order to decide a complain. That evidence can include bank statements and a lot of sensitive information that we obviously protect carefully. We must have the consent of both parties to that account in order for that information to be submitted to this office.
It is important to stress that both parties to the bank account have equal rights and we have to respect and honour those rights. We absolutely acknowledge and engage with people in this scenario. We understand the difficulties and sensitivities that surround these issues. However, it would not be possible for us to progress a complaint unless all of the owners of, and signatories and partners to, the bank account or insurance policy want this office to deal with the complaint. If somebody does not want us to deal with a complaint and they are an owner of or have a part share in an account, we cannot deal with the complaint. We are conscious of the stress and difficulty that can create for the other person. We will work with the individual signatory and sometimes he or she manages to get the other person to agree to the progression of the complaint. Individual signatories can progress the complaint as long as they have the permission of the other joint owner of the account or insurance policy.
The Chairman also asked a more general question about whether attitudes and culture have changed. There is no doubt but that we have seen some change. In the past, financial service providers did not engage at all in mediation. We introduced the mediation a number of years ago and I am pleased to say, as I mentioned, that almost 3,000 complaints were resolved through mediation last year. That means the provider willingly came to the table and listened to its own customer. We constantly point out to financial service providers that the people with whom we are dealing are their customers. We are trying to resolve a complaint that a financial service provider's customer has with it. It is important that the bank or insurance company engages and listens to its customer. The mediation has been successful and represents a sea change in attitudes and culture. Has it gone far enough? Not quite yet. Do we meet resistance? We absolutely do. We have already outlined that cases sometimes go right up to the High Court. We respect providers' right to appeal a decision to the High Court but the fact that we are appealed to the High Court shows there is resistance. If anybody looks at some of our decisions, they will see significant post-preliminary decision submissions. Those can be received from either party but it is certainly the case that some of the providers push back strongly against the preliminary decision and will make strong legal and other arguments as to why a complaint should not be upheld. That is their entitlement but there are times when perhaps a different approach would be more helpful. I called this out in the overview of last year.
The Chairman mentioned tracker mortgage complaints. Where a complaint comes to this office and the complainant has been returned to their tracker mortgage but their dispute or complaint is about the amount of compensation they have received, we see, in some instances, banks going back into the argument as to whether the customer was entitled to a tracker mortgage or not. That horse has bolted and that argument is over. We are not dealing with that any more. Those customers have been put onto the tracker mortgages to which they are entitled. The discussion and consideration should now be around what was the detriment to that person. I would like to see banks engage in more consideration of people's individual circumstances. I explained earlier the ways in which the Central Bank deals with different cohorts of people. As a part of that, those customers affected by the tracker mortgage issue received compensation that, in the vast majority of cases, was adequate. However, within that cohort, there may be somebody for whom the loss of money over seven, eight or nine years had a profound impact because of his or her personal circumstances. It is not always about the amount of money involved. It is not necessarily the case that because one person lost more money than another that he or she is worse off. It depends on the particular circumstances of the person in question. I would like to see some of the banks pay more attention to the impact that their conduct had on the individuals when they are looking at complaints, rather than taking a sort of blanket approach whereby the banks say they have been through the examination and given the customer compensation, assess the complaints as too remote, conclude the customer did not suffer any inconvenience and is therefore not entitled to more compensation. I would rather the banks looked at the impact of their conduct on an individual, given his or her particular circumstances, because that is how we look at a complaint.
It is unusual to find a lending institution that has feelings or empathy. Mr. Deering is spot on. There are implications around marriage break-ups and I am aware of suicides within families. These issues are detrimental and it is not all about hard cash. It is about making bricks and mortar a home and an environment in which a family can grow.
When I was listening to the contributions, I thought of the pension implications for people on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, or the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, or whatever. Some of those people may not be getting their jobs back but have paid into a pension scheme. What will happen to somebody who is due to retire in the next couple of weeks? I think of an old saying to the effect that one should not worry about what is going to happen tomorrow but should plan about how to deal with it. Have our guests seen anything that would suggest that the pensions of people who have been on those payments for a 12- or 15-month period will be affected in the future? Will redundancy payments be affected? Those workers have obviously not earned the same amount during the period of time they were on the pandemic payment than they otherwise would have. Has anything been said about that? Will a mechanism be put in place? I assume that many people are going to lose their jobs and may be well be told that they are not entitled to X, Y or Z funding because they have not paid into a fund for the past 15 months. I would like to hear our guests' opinions on that.
Ms MaryRose McGovern:
Perhaps I will take that question. It is fair to say that in an occupational pension scheme, any benefit to which a member is entitled on retirement will be governed by the rules of that scheme. It is a matter for the trustees to calculate the benefits based on the payments in. In the absence of a specific requirement or obligation on trustees to take into account a period during which payments are not made, it would appear that someone in that position may well be impacted.
A complaint of that nature is something that will come within the jurisdiction of this office and we would be in a position to investigate such a complaint. It is fair to say that any entitlement pursuant to a pension scheme will be governed by the rules of that scheme whether they are based on historical documents or whether there have been deeds of amendment to those documents more recently. The trustees must take into account all those rules taken together when calculating or doing their sums, as it were.
Mr. Ger Deering:
We again thank the committee for this opportunity. The question at the start was about the level of awareness and what we have done in terms of our strategic plan. We are grateful for an opportunity such as this to promote the work of the office. Our current strategic plan is very much about building the groundwork, laying solid foundations and getting our services in order. The committee will hear more from us in our next strategic plan about communicating better and communicating what we do. It is not simply a matter of what we do, because we are conscious that we need to communicate more about how we do what we do so that people will have a greater understanding of how our office operates. We are grateful for the opportunity to explain our processes.
On behalf of the committee, I thank Mr. Deering and Ms McGovern for their attendance and for giving us an insight into what they do. I hope that at some time down the line, they can come before the committee in person. The amount of work that they take undertake across society is clear. I would like to have them before the committee next time rather than virtually. I hope we can meet again. Take care, stay safe over the summer and enjoy it. I hope the weather will start picking up. We have Deputy Buckley working on it. He is fairly good at getting stuff done.
Next on the agenda was to be election of Vice Chairman. At the private meeting earlier, people informed us that they would not be around. It was agreed that it would be put off until the public meeting next month. We will put it back on the agenda for then. Is that agreed? Agreed. Does anyone wish to make a final comment before the meeting closes?
I have one final comment. That was an excellent session. We should commend the work of everyone involved on this committee and in the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman. I look forward to working with them. It was a wealth of information. Well done to all involved.