Darren Cooke has changed the world in the past two years. By leading the campaign to ban pensions cold-calling, the Red Circle Financial Planning boss not only forced through legislative change to the benefit of savers – he also helped put the issue of scam prevention on the political and regulatory map.
We have since seen a huge and welcome push from both the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and Pensions Regulator to raise awareness of the dangers of scams through the ScamSmart initiative.
A hard-hitting pension fraud campaign – featuring an extremely effective TV advert – saw visits to the official ScamSmart website increase more than five-fold. I don’t believe any of this would have happened without Darren’s initiative and the widespread press attention that followed.
Echelon Wealthcare managing director Alastair Rush has been similarly successful in drawing attention to the problems facing members of the British Steel Pension Scheme.
Once again it was an adviser with his ear to the ground, in combination with the press, who was able not only to drive the issue up the agenda but also coordinate practical help for scheme members.
As a direct result of Darren and Alastair’s interventions many people have been saved from making terrible financial mistakes. Furthermore, by working with the media they have been able to publicise vital warnings and information to an audience of millions.
I spoke to a financial services veteran about all this at the back end of 2018, and he told me he no longer bothers reporting dodgy goings on in financial services to the regulatory authorities.
“Even when they take notice it can take years for them to do anything,” he said. “If I want the government or the regulator to take an issue seriously, I speak to the press.”
I would never advocate this approach but I understand where he was coming from. For a number of reasons, not least the sheer scale of the landscape it regulates and the volume of information it has to digest on a daily basis, the FCA can sometimes appear slow to react to events.
But whether it’s scams, pension transfers, the failure of London Capital & Finance (for which the FCA itself is now under investigation) or even Neil Woodford’s decision to list some of his unquoted holdings on the Guernsey stock exchange, the evidence is mounting that communicating with the press is a very effective way to bring about action.
There remain major structural problems which would benefit from greater campaigning pressure. I for one will continue urging HMRC to re-think its policy of overtaxing pension freedoms withdrawals, while others – most notably Now:Pensions and former pensions minister Ros Altmann – are lobbying for a solution to the automatic enrolment Net Pay scandal.
Advisers are in a uniquely privileged position when it comes to dealing with and understanding the often complex problems consumers face. The financial press, meanwhile, have the clout to press for reform in the best interests of their readers and highlight injustices.
As far as consumers are concerned, the more the two professions can work together, the better.
Tom Selby is senior analyst at AJ Bell