Financial ombudsman

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On July 13th last I wrote about the many excuses given by the Financial Services Ombudsman, Joe Meade, to avoid identifying the greedy vultures that infest the Irish financial sector. Joe added one more excuse today on RTEs News at One (5th item).

The latest case involved an 86 year old farmer. The man had just sold his farm for €1.4 million and was advised by his bank to invest in two long term insurance bonds. The capital was guaranteed provided they were kept in for four and six years.

The man died seven months later by which time the bonds had dropped by €50,000. Joe told the bank that it was inappropriate to sell these bonds and directed that the €50,000 be refunded.

Hilariously, Joe appealed to the banks to look into their hearts and review all accounts to see if they are appropriate.

When asked why he won’t name the low life bank, Joe said he didn’t have legal coverage.

Let’s remind ourselves of the extensive legal powers that Joe does have. He has the power of entry and seizure, he can require employees to provide information under oath, he can enter premises and demand documents and the High Court is the only external party that can overturn his decisions – but yet, according to Joe, he doesn’t have the simple legal power to name the vultures. The obvious question is – Was this a deliberate omission when the legislation was being drawn up?

Bizarrely, Joe justified his stance by reference to a recent High Court decision that went against him on a matter completely unrelated to the ripping off of the elderly.

So what hope does Joe offer the many vulnerable customers out there that his office is allegedly protecting?

Well, he wants to start a public debate on the matter. Just think about that suggestion, a public debate on whether the financial vultures that prey on the elderly should be named and shamed.

Joe then suggests that perhaps the Minister for Finance and the Dail could pass legislation on the matter. Let’s see; public debate and then action by a Government minister and the Dail, give it about ten maybe fifteen years. Meanwhile, the greedy vultures continue to enjoy the great benefits of state protection.

The reality is that, from a consumer point of view, the Financial Services Ombudsman is a useless organisation. It operates on the same basis as the equally useless Financial Regulator.

When the financial vultures are caught picking over the bones of a customer’s account they are merely required to pay back their ill gotten gains. No police, no fines, no names.

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When Joe Meade was the Data Protection Commissioner he repeatedly threatened the Government with High Court action for using an ‘invalid’ ministerial direction to unconstitutionally store citizens’ phone, fax and mobile call data for three years.

Somehow, Joe never got around to actually taking the State to court. Eventually the Government gave him the job of Financial Services Ombudsman.

In his new job, Joe retained his macho image. He was described as a man of steel, a man to be feared, a man who wouldn’t allow anybody tell him how to run his show (Irish Times, 8th April 2005).

In one report he’s quoted as saying,

“I intend to name and shame institutions which don’t co-operate with my office on serious issues, particularly where they relate to customer complaints which should have been rectified by the institution before coming to my attention.”

Unfortunately, Joe talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to protecting the interests of consumers. He steadfastly refuses to name the rogues, chancers and fraudsters who operate with virtual impunity in the Irish financial sector and so exposes consumers to potentially serious financial loss.

Here are some of the excuses and contradictions that Joe has made in recent years regarding the naming and shaming of these ruthless chancers.

Irish Times, 8th April 2005.

It’s not my intention to shame anybody.

Irish Times, 17th May 2005.

Considers naming organisations in his annual report as an important part of his function.

RTE 16TH January 2007 (2nd item). Asked to name a particular institution that had taken advantage of an old lady

In due course I may name that institution…the main thing is that compensation has been awarded…I work at the moment on a very non legal basis…If I name every complainant or every institution I may not get the same cooperation…I’ve referred the matter to the Financial Regulator.

Irish Times, 9th February 2006. Joe was planning to name a building society for over charging a customer but decided against it when the society said it was prepared to legally challenge the matter. He referred the matter to the Financial Regulator.

Irish Independent, 30th January 2007.

A spokesperson defended Joe’s secrecy policy.

“He has concerns about naming institutions alone as complainants may also have to be named in line with natural justice. This could deter complainants from coming forward with legitimate complaints”

Probably realising that this statement was a gross insult to the intelligence of consumers the spokesperson descended into (more comfortable) bureaucratic speak.

“His over-riding concern as ombudsman is to ensure that the integrity of the Financial Services Ombudsman scheme is manifest to everyone, be it a complainant, a financial service provider, the Financial Regulator, the international financial community, the media, the general public or our legislators.”

RTE News at One, 3rd July 2007 (2nd item).

On being asked why he doesn’t name names.

I’m constantly reviewing this area…I want to have legal protection where I name…complainants might be put off…I refer cases to the Financial Regulator.

There are two principal themes running through Joe’s excuses. Firstly, he keeps suggesting that if he only had the legal power he would protect the consumer but the facts completely contradict his pleas of powerlessness.

On the 8th April 2005 we are told that he has power of entry and seizure, that the High Court is the only external party that can overturn his decisions.

On 17th May 2005 we are told that he has extensive legal powers.

On the 4th August 2006 we learn that he can require employees to provide information under oath, enter premises and demand the production of documents.

Secondly, he keeps telling us that he refers cases to the Financial Regulator, passing the buck as it were. This is a clever strategy because the Financial Regulator is even more secretive than Joe’s outfit.

Under legislation (S.33AK of the Central Bank Act, 1942, as amended by the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act, 2003) the greedy vultures that infest the Irish financial sector enjoy almost total protection.

Neither is the regulator shy about using this handy piece of legislation to send consumers packing when they have the cheek to ask for the names of dodgy financial operators. Joe, of course, must be well aware of this brick wall for consumers.

No matter what excuses Joe comes up with, no matter what law the Financial Regulator hides behind, the stark reality remains that consumers are put at serious risk of being ripped off for so long as these two organisations refuse to name names.

The Financial Services Ombudsman became operational in 2005, on April 1st – An entirely appropriate date.

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