Today I publish the outcome of my independent review into the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS), in which I call on the FOS to be much more open and transparent. It must also improve its outreach activities and go back to basics, refocusing on its founding principles of speed, informality and independence.

I should now like to see the FOS evolve into an authentic “one-stop shop” for individuals with legitimate complaints against financial services firms, along the lines well established in local government and elsewhere. As matters stand, I believe the FOS still looks too much like a middle-class service, for middle-class people. To become truly accessible, the FOS must endeavour to change this perception.

The Report runs to over 34,000 words and contains 73 conclusions and recommendations. I hope it builds successfully both upon the much excellent work that the FOS is already doing and also upon the very robust foundations laid by the previous independent review, undertaken by Professor Elaine Kempson and her colleagues from the Personal Finance Research Centre at Bristol University.

I believe the FOS Board is to be congratulated for commissioning such reviews and, in this particular instance, for giving me so clear a focus on issues of accessibility and transparency, the vital importance of which became increasingly apparent as my work progressed. Throughout this process, my presumption has been in favour of making much more information publicly available, enhancing transparency wherever possible and making the FOS itself more approachable and accessible.

If my conclusions are accepted and my recommendations implemented, I believe the demographic profile of those using the FOS should, must and will broaden, as the organisation thinks not only in terms of its traditional areas of activity – dealing with matters such as mortgages, insurance and pensions products – but also in terms of the problems that typically afflict our less affluent citizens.

Difficulties with debt management are only likely to increase in scale and numbers as the current economic difficulties mount. In many instances the sums of money involved will be on the low side by FOS standards, but the human misery attendant upon them can be devastating. Accessibility is no abstract concept.

My principal recommendations are as follows:

  • *  FOS should make a significant, and properly targeted and evaluated, increase in investment in communication.
  • * The FOS should commission a more “user-friendly”, readily understood and enticing trading or brand name (or names) to convey its activities to the public more effectively, whilst also clearly retaining its role and legal identity as an ombudsman service. The “Financial Complaints Service” may be an appropriate starting point.
    *  The FOS should provide a phone line service between 8am and 8pm on weekdays and on Saturday mornings; ensure that out-of-hours callers can leave their details by means of voicemail or text, requesting a call back; and offer a freephone service, at least for initial enquiries and complaints.
  • * The FOS should develop and pilot a “case adviser” system, to ensure that vulnerable consumers feel confident about using the FOS dispute resolution service.
  • * The FOS should identify how best to “fast track” complaints on consumer credit, which, although of relatively low value, are often of pressing urgency to complainants; take every opportunity to remind firms that the first expression of dissatisfaction by a customer marks the start of the initial 8-week complaint period; and press regulators to shorten the 8-week deadline for companies to resolve simpler debt- and credit-linked complaints
  • *The FOS should develop regular, independently-edited selections of anonymised case reports and a new interactive “FOSBOOK” system, to provide comprehensive data on its approach to families of cases and to facilitate regular, informal two-way feedback.
  • * As a first step, the FOS should publish more in the way of anonymised, benchmarked data, alongside a new award scheme to identify and reward best practice, matched by a “wooden spoon” for the worst performers. It should also work with the FSA to ensure that more robust, company-specific data is made available for complaints handling within all parts of the system.
  • *There should be no case fees chargeable to complainants.
  • * There is no need for an external appeals process.
  • *The recent reconstitution of the FOS Board presents an excellent opportunity to reinvigorate and extend the role it plays. I sincerely hope the FOS takes full advantage of the talent it has at its disposal.

I believe these recommendations, in combination with all the others in my Report, will bring about a true openness revolution at the Financial Ombudsman Service, to the considerable benefit of everyone within it, and also everyone who has occasion to deal with it. The FOS has a great opportunity to build upon its already considerable achievements, building an even better model for the future. I hope it will demonstrate the necessary leadership and ambition to seize that opportunity with enthusiasm.