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Banks accused of giving misleading investment advice

Santander suspends its face-to-face investment advice service until further notice and launches a strategic review of the division

Santander is facing a fine by the financial regulator after an investigation into six banks and building societies found that one in four customers were being given "poor" and sometimes misleading investment advice.

Hours after the Financial Services Authority (FSA) announced its findings, Santander revealed it had suspended its face-to-face investment advice service until further notice and launched a strategic review of the division – which could put 880 jobs at risk.

The FSA carried out a mystery shopping exercise between March and September last year to look at the quality of the investment advice given by banks and building societies, and found that in a quarter of cases the advice was poor. This meant customers "could be at risk of suffering detriment" as a result of being recommended unsuitable products.

The regulator said it was "disappointed" by the findings, which follow a wave of scandals and regulatory clampdowns involving the mis-selling of products such as payment protection insurance and interest rate swaps, but was "encouraged" by the action taken by the firms involved to put the situation right.

Six unnamed "major firms" in the retail banking sector were examined, and a total of 231 mystery shops took place. The "customers" were seeking an investment for a lump sum.

The FSA said the results showed that in 11% of cases the evidence suggested the adviser gave the customer unsuitable advice, and in a further 15% of cases the bank or building society employee did not gather enough information to make sure their advice was suitable, so it was not possible to assess whether the customer received good or bad advice. The FSA said both of these constituted poor advice.

Often the failure in advice involved the level of risk customers were willing to accept, and their financial circumstances.

In 15% of cases, advisers made "misleading statements" – typically about the potential risks and performance of products.

The FSA has started an enforcement investigation into one of the firms, understood to be Santander, which could result in a financial penalty being imposed.

Santander has now launched a review of its "bancassurance" division, which employs 880 people, the bulk of whom are advisers. One possible option could be the closure of the division, but a spokesman said: "At this time, no colleagues are at risk of redundancy." It will continue to provide advice to existing customers but has "decided for now not to pursue new business until we can find the right model".

Asked whether it was under investigation, Santander issued a statement saying it "will continue to review how it can offer advice to its customers in the future for their benefit and provide access to appropriate investment products. Santander will explore all options, given its heritage, its customer base, and the importance of access to assistance and advice for all UK consumers in protecting their financial well-being"

The regulator said the firms responded in a co-operative way to the findings and agreed to take immediate action. "This includes retraining advisers, making substantial changes to advice processes and controls for new business, and undertaking past business reviews to identify historic poor advice and put this right for customers."

Clive Adamson, director of supervision at the regulator, said: "This review shows that customers are not consistently getting the quality of advice on their investments they should expect when visiting an adviser in a bank or building society.

"Since this review took place, we have introduced new rules on investment advice which have increased the professional standard of the advisers operating in the market, and have removed the potential for advisers to recommend products that pay the largest commission but may not be right for the customer."

A spokesperson for the bank added: "We are considering the findings in the context of the significant actions we took in 2012 to prepare for the post-RDR [retail distribution review] world. We continue to believe it is important to offer customers access to a broad range of financial products which are suitable to their needs and individual situations, and we are working towards that objective."

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