MONEY makes money, they say — and that’s certainly true of this section of The Sunday Times. This year Money has won five payments for readers worth at least £20,000 each as well as one worth almost £200,000 — and that’s not to mention the countless smaller “gestures of goodwill” and compensation.
In June, Jill Insley, who writes our Question of Money column, celebrated her first year with us by revealing she had recovered about £630,000 for readers — that’s £52,500 a month.
As we approach the new year, it is a good time to reflect on our biggest wins in 2015, and they are not just financial ones. We take pride in forcing firms to reassess how they operate where we feel they have failed you and consumers generally.
Our efforts have been recognised by the industry, with Money sweeping up four prizes at the prestigious Headlinemoney awards in May, the Oscars of the personal finance industry, followed by the top two honours at the Santander media awards in November, the equivalent of the Baftas.
Here we highlight some of our successes in 2015.
Jill Insley ended the year on a high having recovered a staggering £199,905 for one reader this month after getting to the bottom of a nine-year battle with Axa to repair subsidence damage. The company paid up only after her column, Question of Money, highlighted the inappropriate alternative accommodation offered to the family, which included the reader’s younger brother, who has cerebral palsy, while the repairs were carried out.
But perhaps the most poignant win was in May, when we told the heartbreaking story of a reader trying to prevent his son from frittering away compensation he had received after being hit by a taxi.
While his son’s bank, Cater Allen (owned by Santander), agreed to allow withdrawals only when both the reader and his son agreed, it failed to honour the pledge. This resulted in all the money being withdrawn without the father’s knowledge. The son, who suffered from depression, committed suicide at the age of 35.
Cater Allen admitted mistakes, apologised and paid the reader £51,900. Insley wrote: “In 27 years of writing about personal finance, this is the most upsetting example I have seen of a bank failing its customers.”
Earlier in May, Insley secured a £39,000 payment from the insurer Phoenix Life after it refused a payout for a terminally ill reader who had 12 months to live. Despite both verbal and written assurances that payments would be honoured once a terminal illness was diagnosed, this was not stipulated in the insurer’s terms and conditions. Unsurprisingly, the insurer insisted on following its terms and conditions — until Insley stepped in.
Play fair on age
Our campaign for a fairer deal for older customers was launched in October 2014, and our relentless fight, spearheaded by Anna Mikhailova, helped to kick-start industry reforms this year.
In March, Ros Altmann, who became the pensions minister and a peer two months later, supported the campaign, accusing mortgage lenders that refused to offer deals to older customers of demonstrating “real ageism”.
The following month we revealed HSBC had become the first bank to be criticised by the Financial Ombudsman Service for denying a mortgage to a couple in their forties because they were too old.
It all came to a head last month when the Building Societies Association told Money it had ordered all its members to review their mortgage policies on older people. Market Harborough building society became the first to raise the maximum age by which a mortgage must be paid off, lifting its limit from 80 to 85. Dudley building society follows today (see below).
Our reports about insurers automatically renewing policies at inflated prices struck a chord with many readers. In July, Insley helped one whose mother had been mistakenly charged by Halifax for a 99- bedroom property for years. The reader realised the premium was excessive only after spotting the renewal letter at his mother’s house quoting £1,239. He found he could get cover for just £200 by switching. Our intervention resulted in a £3,386 refund.
The following month, we reported many more cases of insurers charging significantly more than people needed to pay on auto-renewal.
This month the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) announced plans to force insurers to include the previous year’s premium on renewal quotes so customers can see how much more they are being charged. It hopes this will encourage more to switch. However, it is disappointing that the rules will not come into force for months. The FCA is seeking feedback on the proposals until March.
In June, our Personal Account columnist, Ian Cowie, urged the government to change the generous tax breaks for buy-to-let landlords, who can claim up to 45% tax relief on mortgage interest payments.
He argued this was an unfair perk, especially given the difficulties faced by first-time buyers. At the time, he wrote: “What about the unintended impact that this generosity [towards landlords] is having on younger people, who are increasingly being priced out of home ownership?”
Unsurprisingly, there was a mixed response from Money readers, some of whom are landlords. Many warned that rents would have to rise if the tax relief was changed, thereby penalising the young.
But George Osborne clearly reads Cowie’s column. The following month, the chancellor announced that tax relief on buy-to-let mortgages would be cut to 20% from April 2020. In last month’s autumn statement, a three percentage point stamp duty premium was announced for buy-to-let properties and second homes, which comes into force on April 1.
The internet was abuzz, and readers incensed, after we revealed in February that Amazon Prime, which offers home entertainment and online shopping, was charging consumers up to £79 a year for a service many did not realise they had signed up to.
Giles Coren, the Times columnist, tweeted that he had found out only after reading about it in Money, saying: “You bastards @amazon! I can’t believe you’ve been screwing me for £79 a year for Prime! I had no idea. Only found out from @ST_Money.”
In March, the Advertising Standards Authority banned Amazon’s “misleading” adverts for its 30-day free trial for Prime. It said the retail giant did not make it clear charges would apply if the customer did not cancel after the trial period.
Fraud has been a big theme for Money amid growing evidence that financial institutions are failing to keep up with scammers. Refunds were paid in cases where we pointed out delays in bank staff acting on reports of fraud.
In February Terry Lawson, head of fraud at the Royal Bank of Scotland, said some retraining was required after Money revealed bank staff mistakenly thought fraud teams worked only Monday to Friday, from 9am-5pm. This meant that if customers reported fraud on a Friday, staff would not act until after the weekend.
There was a big reader response in April after we revealed the National Trust did not automatically apply the 25% membership discount available to anyone aged 60 or over; only those who asked for it received it. The charity said it had since “reviewed” its website to make this discount clearer.