Business

Rural consumers less aware of money complaints process

Natalie Ceeney
Image caption Natalie Ceeney is the chief executive of the Financial Ombudsman Service

People living in rural areas in the UK are less aware of their rights to complain about financial companies than those in towns, an ombudsman has said.

Those in urban areas have greater access to information about banking, insurance and investment complaints, the Financial Ombudsman said.

Rural residents were more likely to be low-paid or in seasonal work.

Complaints include a Lithuanian farm worker who was offered translation by his bank - into Polish.

Access to the internet was highlighted as a key reason why people might not be able to access consumer advice.

Economy

The new chief Financial Ombudsman, Natalie Ceeney, has been in the job for a month.

The free ombudsman service is set up by law to settle complaints between consumers and financial businesses on anything from pawnbroking to mortgages.

As the service prepares an annual review, expected in May, it has highlighted groups who are less aware of what it does.

"People living in rural and more remote areas tend to know less about the ombudsman service - and their right to complain - than people living in urban areas," it said in Ombudsman News.

"The nature of much of the rural economy - traditionally involving low-paid employment, seasonal jobs and less skilled work - can mean disproportionately more people in poverty and unemployment."

Those in the lower income scale were less aware of their rights as consumers, the group added.

Language issues

Lower broadband connection levels in rural areas meant some people had less access to support groups, the ombudsman said.

Image caption Farm workers have been assisted by the ombudsman service

Some workers also had very specific issues, ranging from farmers to those with second homes in the country.

The ombudsman highlights one story of a Lithuanian farm worker with limited understanding of English, who said he was given an unsuitable current account with high charges shortly after arriving in the UK to work as a mushroom picker.

He said he was not offered any choice of bank by the company he worked for, which had presented him with a completed application form to sign.

With the help of a community worker, he discovered that the bank had a basic current account that would have been more suitable.

The bank told the ombudsman that it had "made every effort" to assist the worker - who had declined the offer of speaking to a Polish member of staff at a nearby branch.

"We pointed out that this was not surprising given that [the worker] spoke Lithuanian, not Polish," the ombudsman said.

The ombudsman ordered the bank to refund charges and interest, and pay the farm worker £150 for the "distress and inconvenience" caused.

Criticism

Earlier in the week, the UK's biggest High Street banks were severely criticised by the main City regulator for the poor way they deal with their customers' complaints.

The Financial Services Authority said five of the banks, who are unnamed, had agreed to make big improvements, but two were facing further investigation.

Eric Leenders of the British Bankers' Association (BBA) admitted that the industry needed to improve.

"Clearly more needs to be done - that is why the BBA is working with the industry to bring all banks up to the standards of the best," he said.

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