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Archive for September, 2012

Anyone aged over 50 has probably heard of Saga. As the leading specialist insurance provider for the over 50s we have a range of insurance products to meet your needs, its website states. ‘Award winning’ car insurance and special online discounts. Sounds good. The reality is quite different though.

When it came to renewing my mum’s car insurance, Saga quoted over £1200. Granted she’s 85 but the car’s a low-powered family hatchback and she has full no claims. Courtesy of the opera-singing comparison website, I found a slew of cheaper quotes from reputable companies including Liverpool & Victoria, Nationwide, Admiral and the AA. With the same terms, I saved her over £450.

Last week my parents received the renewal notice for their home insurance. Also with Saga, the cost weighed in at a hefty £1020, up some 15 per cent from the previous year. Last year my parents just paid the renewal; this year they gave me the letter.

A trip to a meerkat-infested comparison website resulted in what I expected: quotes around the £250-300 mark with identical cover. But what did surprise me was the quote from Saga itself: £335. The cover was identical aside from ‘garden cover’ on the renewal which my parents don’t need. Remove this and the renewal reduces to £924 – almost £600 more expensive than the website quote. Even I found this difficult to believe so I went onto Saga’s website and double-checked the cover. Identical.

On the email I received with the new quote it states: The above premium includes an introductory and online discount. Fair enough – but £600?? And again, I could move their home insurance to a number of reputable companies including the AA, AXA and Liverpool & Victoria and make even more savings.

I called Saga’s customer services and spoke to John. Honest John. He seemed surprised at the disparity or at least put on an air of surprise. He must field calls like these all the time given my experience. I made him an offer: give my parents their home insurance for free this year to make up for ripping them off last year. He said he’d put the idea to the complaints department who would call me back. Should be sometime today. I won’t hold my breath.

Saga has a nicely designed new leaflet. Apparently, nine out of 10 people:
Rated the adviser they spoke to ‘good’ to ‘excellent.
Felt the adviser was polite and courteous.
Felt they were given enough time and not made to feel rushed.

All commendable comments – but no mention of competitive prices.

On the back of this leaflet there are three quotes:
I was surprised and pleased at how quickly my recent claim on buildings insurance was dealt with over the phone.
I am very satisfied with all the insurance I have with Saga – home, car and pet. I always receive help and clarity over the phone and communications by letter are understandable. I have trust and confidence in your services.
Always nice people to deal with on the phone, very friendly one to one service.

And that’s what customers should feel about any reputable insurance company – but still no mention of competitive cost.

When I turned 50 I also got a quote for my car insurance from Saga and discovered immediately that this company wasn’t competitive. But my experiences with my parents’ insurances go much further than not being competitive. Given the disparity between the online quotes and the renewals it’s almost as if Saga preys on older people. I’d love to see the demographics of its client base.

The renewal letter states the following:
Some people claim they give the lowest home insurance prices. At Saga we guarantee it. We are so confident your policy offers the best value for money that if you receive a lower quote for the same cover as your Saga policy, we’ll beat that price.

Given that Saga’s unique selling point (USP) is that it’s for the over-50s, how many people aged, say, 70+ will use comparison websites or go elsewhere for quotes? Some will; many will simply trust Saga. And that trust appears to be ill founded.

I’m not saying that Saga is the only insurance company that behaves this way. It clearly isn’t. But its USP, reinforced by over 20 years of marketing, is incredibly powerful. The only other company with such a strong USP that comes to mind is Sheilas’ Wheels but even this will have to curb its ‘women only’ stance after the European Court of Justice ruling regarding the EU Gender Directive 2005 and gender pricing in insurance which becomes law in the UK from 21 December 2012.

While comparison websites now provide a level of transparency that the old insurance brokers didn’t, they have also signalled the demise of the latter. At least with a broker you knew what you were getting: someone who, because they wanted to keep your business, had your best interests at heart even if their prices were slightly inflated.

My son has accused me of using my blog as a platform for ranting. This may be partly true but too many people adopt a ‘put up with’ attitude. I can’t and won’t do this. Perhaps having more time on my hands makes me fight injustice more than I used to – and I’m more than happy to pass on the results.

By the way, the number of letters from Barclays regarding my PPI complaints have now risen to 29…

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It’s been a busy week with tutoring and Mad Science but I’ve got a spare 10 minutes so I thought I’d blog about my favourite word: no.

From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always had this thing about saying ‘no’. Doesn’t matter what the question is, without a pause I just answer ‘no’. It’s programmed – it’s my built-in defence mechanism. Don’t think about it, just say ‘no’. Non, nein, na, lo, nahi, nie, neyn. The language is irrelevant.

On a personal level, this causes me no end of trouble. Why? Because I often say ‘no’ when I should say ‘yes’ and then have to find a way of changing this to ‘yes’ without losing face! You try it – it ain’t easy!

At work it’s even worse. While creative services manager at Jewish Care I would frequently say ‘no’ to people regarding work matters. But that wasn’t my in-built ‘no’ voice. I’d weighed up the situation in a second and knew that what they were asking for just wasn’t feasible. My manager explained that it came across as though I wasn’t giving much thought to the request. She asked to take more time before delivering the ‘no’ verdict and to dress it up with a more positive response: Why don’t you say ‘Let me think about it and come back to you in a day or so’. This so went against the grain but I tried. I really tried. I just hated the idea of coming across as someone who couldn’t make a decision.

My designer, Mark, was the antithesis of this. He would always say ‘yes’ and then think about how he could achieve a result. I would usually say ‘no’ – and then think about how I could achieve the result. The difference? In reality, none but everyone went away smiling after a conversation with him and frowning after one with me!

The realisation of this forced me to make changes to my automatic response. Some days I’d set myself the challenge of not using the ‘n’ word at all. Not once. On occasion I actually succeeded but got to the end of the day feeling seriously frustrated. I wanted to run down the street screaming ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’ at the top of my voice – a bit like my son who, when aged six or so, came running down the garden path from school with his best friend shouting ‘f**k’, ‘f**k’,’f**k’. Can’t remember how I handled that one…

It is said that you most dislike about others what you dislike about yourself. CS Lewis said: There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others. For me, the person who always says ‘no’ is my mother, something that frustrates and angers me regularly. Karma? Quite possibly…

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As previously noted, redundancy means more time on your hands. What better way to spend it than chasing a bank for mis-sold PPI payments? After my experience, it would have been less painful having a butcher removing my teeth without anaesthetic…

I’m a squirrel. I keep absolutely everything! So about five months ago I searched the loft for all the loans paperwork from the 1980s and 90s. I remember taking out numerous loans for recording studio equipment and found the agreements for six of them. Total: around £20k. Each of them had premiums for life, accident and sickness insurance cover. A quick check confirmed that this is indeed PPI – premium protection insurance.

When the endowment assurance scandal broke some years ago, I avoided jumping on that bandwagon. I have a degree in actuarial science and could not truthfully claim that I didn’t realise the risks involved. But PPI is different. When I took out these loans (between 1985 and 1993), there wasn’t an option of insurance cover or not – it was part and parcel of the loan. There was no choice.

I downloaded the standard questionnaire, filled in six of them, scanned the credit agreements I had and posted them off to the dedicated Barclays PPI address in six envelopes, each by recorded delivery to prove receipt. Job done. I didn’t have long to wait before the first envelope was thrust through my letterbox.

Dear Sir,

Thank you for your letter, etc

We have completed our investigation and can confirm that PPI was not included on your loan. As we have been unable to establish that you had a PPI policy from us, your complaint has not been upheld.

You have the right to pursue your complaint through the Financial Ombudsman Service, etc

Still being rather naive where this whole PPI thing was concerned, I passed this first case onto the Ombudsman. Suffice to say, they’re still looking into it almost five months later.

What of the other five letters? I waited until early July and then decided to follow them up. Had Barclays received them? I checked the Royal Mail’s website with the recorded delivery numbers to find they were still out for delivery – six weeks later! In fact, they still are to this day! Why? As Barclays get so many of these letters, they sign for a sackful of them. The recorded delivery status is totally irrelevant.

And so started the numerous phone calls to Barclays. At first I was told that none of my letters had been received. But they’d responded to one of them so how could this be? I was told to email the info. The emails bounced. I was told to give them to my local branch to be sent internally. They never got to their intended target.

After remonstrating with the PPI helpdesk, I found out that when they received my six letters they scanned the questionnaires and the credit agreements and put them all into one electronic folder. With one reference number.

Here’s the stats from the past four months:
Number of letters received from Barclays: 21
Number of telephone calls to Barclays: 20
Time on the phone: over 13 hours
Different reference numbers: 10 (for six claims??)

I’ve had the five outstanding claims put into ‘correct’ electronic folders at Barclays on two occasions now. Begs the question: how can the claims handlers sort this out if they don’t have the relevant paperwork. Or that’s what I thought until I received the 18th and 19th letters yesterday. I looked at the reasons for the rejections and saw the comments about “policy number.” So I called the PPI helpdesk for the umpteenth time. This is part of the conversation with Michael:

Can you confirm that the credit agreements you have on file for me show the relevant PPI?
I’ll check with my supervisor

Five minutes later

No, as they don’t include insurance for unemployment.

I asked him to double-check this. While he was away, I called the Ombudsman’s helpdesk which confirmed that the precise benefits don’t affect PPI status. On telling Michael this, he again checked with his supervisor. Surprise, surprise, he changed his tune.

But your claims will still be rejected as you don’t have the insurance policy number, he explained.

A second call to the Ombudsman confirmed that Barclays doesn’t need a policy number. A copy of my credit agreement with them is sufficient. But while searching, I did indeed find a policy number for one of the claims. I quoted the number to Michael.

Sorry but we don’t recognise that policy number.
But it’s with Barclays Insurance Services Company Limited, dated December 1985, I explained.
That’s not from Barclays’ underwriters, he replied

OK, just call me confused from Barnet. This just doesn’t make sense – aside from Barclays doing everything it can to avoid paying out. And the final comment?

You can always go to the Ombudsman.

Yes, I know.

The worst bit? I cannot speak to the claims handlers, their supervisors or any managers associated with PPI. There are no telephone numbers or email addresses. All you get are the buffers, the people put in the way to stop you.

Today after letters 20 and 21 I went to see my local bank manager. When the Southgate branch closed some years ago, my accounts were transferred to the Whetstone branch. As I explained the situation, he first looked at me as though I was a bad smell under his nose and then started looking around at other conversations. When I brought his attention back to me, I was told that there was nothing he could do. No surprise there.

What now? All five cases have been re-opened so I’ll await the inevitable rejection letters and then argue some more. I’ll chase up the Ombudsman on the sixth case and see where that leads. Including interest, I’m chasing the best part of £15k which is increasing at about £100 per month.

The new boss of Barclays, Antony Jenkins, has said that he will be quick and bold in making reforms at the bank. He said the bank will move to stop activities that have hurt its reputation in the past. How about starting with my mis-sold PPIs?

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So David Cameron wants to ‘relax’ planning laws to allow people to build larger extensions on houses in order to kickstart the building industry. But has he actually been to a regional planning meeting? I had the misfortune of doing so yesterday.

My parents have lived in the same house since 1948. It’s a semi and a few years ago, their neighbour died. The house now belongs to the daughter who has been trying to sell but without success. So she’s decided to get planning permission for two large extensions, one at the rear, which affects my parents, and the other over the garage, which affects the other neighbours. I met up with the other affected neighbour and we agreed that she would concentrate on the garage extension while I would put my efforts into the rear one.

As someone who’s spent over 25 years researching and reviewing products, the idea of looking into my parents’ rights held no fears. But what I discovered here is mind-blowing.

Most house extensions don’t require planning permission if they are less than three metres deep (which is about to change to six or eight metres). Because the neighbour doesn’t want to do the actual building (she just wants the piece of paper that grants her permission in order to make it easier to sell the house), the extension is 3.3 metres deep. The problem I have with it is that it’s right up to the boundary fence and around four metres high. The effect of this on my parents’ modest garden would be horrendous.

Any window that has received over 20 years of unobstructed daylight automatically earns itself a Right of Light. There is a test to see whether an extension will affect this. Called the 45 degree rule, it usually involves drawing a line from the mid-point of the sill of a window which is potentially affected by a neighbour’s extension, at an angle of 45 degree towards the extension. If the proposed extension crosses that line it is unlikely to be acceptable. Definitely the case here.

In July I emailed my objections to the planning committee. Last Saturday I received a letter giving me just three days notice of an extraordinary regional planning committee meeting. For ‘extraordinary’ read ‘we have a bloody great backlog and need to clear it’. As someone objecting to the extension, I was allowed to speak for two minutes. Great! Right of Light, proximity to boundary – I could have a field day. Then I read the small print. And re-read it. Twice. Planning committees don’t take Right of Light and boundary issues into consideration. That’s the domain of the county courts. So what could I object to?

I went through the borough’s LDF (Local Development Framework):
• BD1 point 7: “Not prejudice the amenity of neighbouring occupiers by unreasonably restricting sunlight, daylight or privacy to their properties.” Certainly would. Tick.
• BD5 point 2: “They do not dominate the existing building in terms of size, scale or height.” Twenty square metre footprint, four metres high, extending the house by a third. Tick.
• BD4 point 1: Reduction of amenity space below the acceptable. Tick.

Then I looked at the borough’s Householder Design Guide SPD (Supplementary Planning Document).
• Section B2.6: “The side extension should generally be set back at least 1m from the side
boundary.” Not the case here. Tick.
• Section B3.4: “Avoid blocking natural light and outlook to habitable rooms in
neighbouring properties.” Tick

And so it went on. Overbearing nature of a four metre high brick wall: tick. Overshadowing in the mornings. Tick.

I put together my two-minute speech, turned up at the meeting and waited. Six councillors and the assistant head of development management took their seats. The other affected neighbour spoke, quoting a whole host of infringements. I did the same.

One councillor made it clear that civil issues such as Right of Light and boundaries could not affect the committee’s decision. Strike one. The guy from development management added that the documents I had quoted from were for guidance only. Strike two. I had to speak up.

Madame chairman. May I speak?
If you must.
What is the point of having policies and guidelines if you have no intention of following them?

Total silence all around. Strike three.

One councillor rejected it and another abstained; the other four voted in favour. Passed.

Outside, I explained to the daughter that this was just the beginning. I’d already spoken with her architects and was told that no account had been taken of proximity to boundaries or Right of Light issues as they do not affect planning consent. In effect, her architects and the planning committee had pushed all of us towards the civil courts: injunctions and other expensive options were next on the agenda.

We’ve agreed to talk and see if there’s an amicable solution first. For everyone’s sake, I hope so.

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