James Walker: Gold standard can make all ombudsmen equal

Martin Lewis has prepared a report on the issue in collaboration with the government. Picture: Cate Gillon/Getty
Martin Lewis has prepared a report on the issue in collaboration with the government. Picture: Cate Gillon/Getty
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If you’ve made a complaint but you’re still not happy, where do you turn when things go wrong? The answer’s simple – an ombudsman.

Ombudsmen (and women) are best thought of as experts in their various fields and are a bit like judges. When you make a complaint to them, they don’t just look at the legal stuff, they are able to look at what’s fair and reasonable. If an ombudsman agrees with your case they have lots of ways to make things right, including telling businesses to pay compensation.

We love ombudsmen at Resolver. They’re free, fair and fabulous. But when it comes to using different ones, there can be some frustrations, both for me and for people using them.

Martin Lewis and the team at MoneySavingExpert recently released a report written in partnership with the government that took a look at all of the existing ombudsmen. It’s a really interesting read and I agree with all its key points – and with one in particular.

Not all ombudsmen are created equal. For example, Ombudsman Services and the Financial Ombudsman – who can look at money matters, energy, communications and more – have sweeping powers and are a real force for good, helping millions of people. But other schemes don’t have the same powers, which means that businesses in some sectors aren’t being held to account properly when they get things wrong.

One of the big problems with having a different kind of service with varying rules for every business sector (from parking to pensions) is it can be really confusing if the rules between schemes are contradictory. Many people have suggested that having a bad experience with one ombudsman scheme means they are less likely to use any ombudsman. That really worries me – unresolved complaints leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

Ombudsmen are important for lots of reasons. Knowing we’ve got somewhere to turn if something goes wrong actually helps us have more faith in certain industries. In many ways, ombudsmen are our safety net – we aren’t guaranteed to get what we want, but we should get a fair hearing.

Even though having a free way to get a complaint resolved is great, it’s really important to revisit the powers these schemes have and ask, “Can we do this better?”

At the moment, if you make a complaint the business usually has eight weeks to resolve the matter (some have much longer periods). The report correctly points out that with modern technology, eight weeks is far too long for most complaints. Why not radically reduce that time? I also believe it’s really important to publish as much as possible about the complaints ombudsmen receive, so we can all see what firms are getting right – and wrong.

It’s clear that every industry needs an ombudsman. Each ombudsman should have the same powers and should be able to make firms cough up compensation where it’s appropriate.

It’s not a big stretch to introduce this “gold standard” for ombudsmen everywhere. And in just the same way that I’ve worked hard to make the process of making a complaint simple and the same for everything, it’s time to focus on what happens if you want to take things further. Bring on the mega ombudsmen. The nation needs you.

James Walker is the founder of online complaint-resolution service Resolver.co.uk