"The Standards shape a great deal about what we all do, the products, the consumer protection, and what we can and can’t do in relation to advice and everything else."
You can always rely on advisers not to shy away from what might be construed as the toughest questions, or indeed not to feel like they are standing on attention when they want to understand exactly what is happening in our sector.
That was certainly the case at one of our recent ‘Breakfast with Stuart’ meetings which is open to all later life stakeholders but is ostensibly a forum for advisers to share best practice, to hear from experts in the field, to seek solutions from both provider and peer group, and essentially to chew the later life lending fat.
The question raised focused on the Equity Release Council’s Standards Board and whether it was still fit for purpose? Now, the reason why this question caused a frisson of awkwardness is that I have just been elected to the Board to represent advisers and on the call we also had Sue Read – who attends every week – and is the Risk, Policy and Compliance Manager at the Council.
As I say, advisers tend to not be backward in coming forward or worried about bruising any egos in the room – nor should they.
It is of course a very interesting question and one that should be asked regularly because the Council’s Standards play a very important role in the sector and have done for many, many years – since the establishment of SHIP in fact – and it is the Standards Board that shapes and reshapes those Standards and is the body charged with ensuring they are ‘fit for purpose’.
Where I believe we can answer the question in the affirmative is that those Standards have not stood still. Of course, the fundamentals that are the bedrock of them have not changed – the no negative equity guarantee, the further guarantee of tenure for the client, the honesty and transparency that is an essential part of the adviser interaction with the client.
It’s been absolutely critical to the growth of our sector that these have remained in place – and continue to do so – because they provide a huge degree of certainty and confidence to consumers around their responsibilities within the transaction, but also help in busting a number of myths which unfortunately still persist, particularly in terms of customers worrying that they will end up owing more than they borrowed, or that they will somehow be ‘turfed’ out of their home at the drop of the hat, or their offspring will somehow be saddled with future debt because of their decisions now.
But, to my mind, the ongoing strength of the Standards lies not just in those core fundamentals but in the fact that the Standards Board exists, that it is made up of practitioners and stakeholders from right across the sector, that all voices are represented, and that it reviews those Standards constantly in order to keep on testing them and, as our questioner asked, to ensure they are always ‘fit for purpose’.
That constant scrutiny gives the Standards a robustness which would otherwise not exist and it was part of my agreeing to join the Board that I would be representing advisers’ views (not those of Air) and I would be raising concerns from the profession whenever they were presented to me. In that respect having the weekly Breakfast meeting has been a real positive because every Friday we run through a whole host of issues that feed into the work of the Board.
That work, as mentioned, does not stop and it aims to develop Standards which keep up with the times and are relevant to the experience of advisers and consumers today. As Sue highlighted at our meeting, the Standards will undergo a number of tweaks soon, and following those there will be regular half-yearly updates which should hopefully provide further certainty as any changes will be confined to those two times a year. That process change will begin in early 2022.
Overall, therefore, even if it might have seemed a slightly uncomfortable question, it’s an important one that needed to be asked. After all, as mentioned, the Standards shape a great deal about what we all do, the products, the consumer protection, and what we can and can’t do in relation to advice and everything else.
I hope advisers feel they have a strong advocate in having me on the Board, and they should certainly never stop asking those questions. They are absolutely necessary and will keep this sector relevant and always focused on the needs of its customers.