Consumer group calls for investigation into ISAs

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Consumer Focus has warned that cash ISAs are depriving savers of A?3 billion in interest each year.

The consumer group has made a complaint to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and is calling for an investigation into Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs).

ISAs, which were launched a decade ago by then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and were introduced to encourage Brits to save without having to pay money to the tax man.

The accounts have been growing in popularity over the last decade and according to a recent report by the Halifax, the number of accounts opened in the nine years to March 2009 surged by 53%.

Furthermore, in the last 18 months or so, many have turned to ISAs in the current low interest rate environment and last October, the total ISA allowance for people born on or before 5 April 1960 increased from A?7,200 to A?10,200.

For everyone else, the limit will rise from 6 April 2010.

However, despite the popularity of ISAs, Consumer Focus said ISA providers are tempting consumers with headline-grabbing rates but after the first year, they are cutting the rate.

As a result, the consumer group said savers are missing out on billions of pounds of interest, primarily because it is difficult to transfer to another provider due to “poor and bureaucratic processes”.

Research by the group found that in more than 30% of cases, it took over five weeks for people to transfer their accounts, with only one in 10 transfers completed in less than a fortnight.

Mike O’Connor, chief executive of Consumer Focus, comments: “Cash ISAs are designed to encourage long-term saving, but many people find their rates slashed to next to nothing after a relatively short time.

“Providers are using consumer inertia and confusion to drop ISA rates faster than on other accounts. The way providers inform customers about their accounts makes it difficult to get the best deal,” added Mr Oa��Connor.

As a result of the complaint, the OFT will be required to provide a response within the next 90 days.

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  1. British Bankers’ Association here. The Consumer Focus report is just badly researched polemic – it’s bank-bashing rather than serious analysis or identification of problems. There are issues to be addressed in the cash ISA market, and we are working with the FSA and the tax authorities on them, but Consumer Focus does not seem to be aware of any of this.

    Consumer Focus has chosen to launch its super complaint without any discussions with the banking sector. It even issued its report under embargo to the press before we had any opportunity to defend our industry. If we had been given the chance, we could have explained the work we are already doing with the regulator to help ISA customers.

    From May, customers will be given advanced notification of any material reduction in the interest rate on a cash ISA, plus advance notice of the end of any bonus or introductory rate. Consumer Focus erroneously refers to the Banking Code rules on this issue, but these were superseded by Financial Services Authority rules last November.

    The Consumer Focus ‘investigation’ is also misleading, since it was actually just an online poll of just over 400 http://www.moneysavingexpert.com users rather than a statistically valid survey of a random sample of people (which is what the Office of Fair Trading would expect in a super complaint).

    Interest rates in general are low, but banks still want to offer competitive rates and attract new customers. From time to time they will launch new accounts with different features which might include higher interest rates or fixed interest for a set period. We would always encourage customers to shop around for the best deals.

    At the moment, banks provide all customers who have more than £500 in their account with an annual summary of all their accounts and interest available – and they provide all customers with their current interest at any time through bank branches, their website, or on the telephone. Plus, as Consumer Focus does point out, all the information is also available on the FSA’s Money Made Clear website.

    And banks are obliged to follow the FSA’s rules on providing a prompt and efficient service to customers wishing to switch their cash ISA. The industry introduced best practice guidelines for cash ISA transfers in 2008 and these clearly set out the out timescales for action to be taken by the old ISA manager and the new one. Providers will aim not just to meet them but to better them as much as possible.

    There are a number of elements to the transfer process. Information needs to be matched up between the new ISA manager and the old to meet ISA criteria. HMRC rules require transfers to be completed within 30 days for the old manager to respond to the new manager’s request, and the vast majority of transfers are meeting these.

    The new ISA manager must credit the transfer proceeds to the customer’s new ISA account within five business days of receiving the funds. Interest typically starts accruing 2 days after this date. Typically, proceeds are credited and interest starts to be paid more quickly than this.