Career civil servant Natalie Ceeney has not received a warm welcome from the industry since taking the helm at the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) last year, facing criticism over her lack of financial services experience, a judicial review and the banks threatening to push the ombudsman into bankruptcy.
But as chief ombudsman and FOS chief executive, she does not seem bowed by a turbulent first year in which a record 206,000 complaints were handled. Ceeney (pictured) plans to cut 10% from the organisation’s budget while reshaping the 10-year-old ombudsman service to cope better with the volatile nature of its case load.
Payment protection insurance (PPI) is the big issue for the FOS: around 51% of the complaints it handles stem from the controversial form of loan insurance sold by a handful of banks and insurers. In March, the FOS warned it faced bankruptcy if banks refused to pay out PPI claims. The banks subsequently lost a legal challenge over PPI and could have to pay out as much as £10 billion.
‘We are working very closely with big banks to get complaints moving,’ Ceeney said. ‘The Financial Services Authority (FSA) does take poor complaints handling seriously. We also publish data that shows complaints volume... which I do believe influences firms and can drive behaviour. To me, complaints handling is a good insight into how well firms treat their customers.’
Ceeney is a good advertisement for the impartiality of the ombudsman, avoiding easy shots against the banks and instead stressing the majority of financial services firms have never faced a claim.
‘I see where it goes wrong... our jurisdiction covers more than 200,000 firms and we only receive complaints about 1,000 of them. Most IFAs do not have any complaints with us at all. I would not want the whole industry to be tainted by the performance of the few.’
Improving resolution times
The FOS’s case load has grown, with firms and consumers digging in their heels over claims, but has still been able to speed up the time taken to resolve complaints.
‘Almost half the people who complained last year had their cases resolved in three months, which I am pleased with. We are trying to make ourselves easier to use,’ said Ceeney.
The role of the FOS may be inconsequential to advisers dealing with the retail distribution review and Financial Services Compensation Scheme levies, but it still faces trenchant criticism over the consistency of its decisions and the qualifications of its staff from some quarters.
’You have to look at the collective wisdom of the organisation, not the individual adjudicator,’ said Ceeney. ‘People often wrongly compare us to financial advisers and ask why we are not similarly qualified. The key reason is that we are not giving advice.’
Ceeney may not have financial qualifications, but can boast that she took her A-levels at 16 and earned a first-class degree in mathematics and political science from Newham College, Cambridge, before embarking on a varied public service career.
She is keen to dispatch erroneous reports that she worked for the Labour party. ‘That is a myth that I keep seeing coming up. I was president of Labour Students, but a year of politics put me off from ever being involved in it again,’ she said. ‘There is something about me that seems attracted to quirky job titles.’
Natalie Ceeney CV
- 2010-present Financial Ombudsman Service, chief ombudsman and chief executive
- 2005-10 National Archives, keeper of the public records and chief executive
- 2001-05 British Library, director of operations and services
- 1998-2001 McKinsey, strategy consultant
- 1996-98 Great Ormond Street Hospital, manager
- 1994-96 Hertfordshire Health Agency, manager
- 1992-94 Northwick Park Hospital, NHS manager