Firstly, I must point out that the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman (FSPO) is independent in the performance of his statutory functions. I have no role in the day to day workings of the office or in the decisions which he takes.
As the Deputy will be aware the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Act 2017 which commenced on 1 January 2018 established the Office of the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman.
One of the main roles of the Ombudsman is to investigate, mediate and adjudicate complaints about the conduct of financial or pension service providers. The FSPO was established to provide an alternative to the Courts for consumers who have unresolved disputes with a financial or pension service provider and all investigations by the Ombudsman are free of charge to the consumer. Subject only to an appeal to the High Court, a finding of the Ombudsman in respect of a complaint is legally binding on all parties
The FSPO has advised me that the office has an important role in redressing the balance of power between the individual consumer and provider. The FSPO does this by making its service as informal and accessible as possible. It mediates between the parties and where necessary it investigates and issues legally binding decisions. The Ombudsman has the power to direct a financial service provider to pay compensation of up to €500,000 to a complainant. He can also direct that a financial service provider rectify the conduct that is the subject of the complaint. There is no limit to the value of rectification he can direct.
The FSPO’s Strategic Plan 2018-2021 aims to ensure it operates in a way that contributes to promoting the best interests of consumers and actual or potential beneficiaries of financial or pension services in the efficient and effective handling of complaints. The FSPO inherited 3,178 complaints from its predecessor bodies and received 5,692 complaints in 2018. It closed 4,443 complaints in 2018 leaving a balance of 4,427 complaints on hand at the end of 2018. Such high volumes of complaints cause the FSPO to be unable to process complaints as quickly as it would wish to.
The FSPO’s Strategic Plan recognised the increasing number of complaints and anticipates a further increase in the coming years. The overall objective of this Plan is to ensure that the organisation can deal efficiently with this increase and to enhance the experience of its customers by delivering its services faster and better. In order to deliver the objectives in its Strategic Plan the FSPO submitted a Workforce Plan to my Department and I approved the recruitment of an additional 35 staff earlier this year.
The FSPO has been proactively recruiting to fill these posts. However, similar to many public sector bodies, the current buoyant job market is making it difficult for the office to retain staff. This is mainly because the FSPO’s highly trained staff are much sought after in both the public and private sector. The FSPO inherited 53 staff from its predecessor bodies in January 2018. However, despite recruiting and appointing additional 42 staff since then, it currently has 59 staff.
The Ombudsman has further informed me that additional staff will be joining it before the end of the year and that he will continue to recruit and train quality people to assist it to deliver on its mandate. The FSPO will continue to provide the most effective and efficient service possible in spite of the staff losses within the office.