Has the cost of advice gone too far?

With the onset of the Retail Distribution Review (RDR), consumers with insufficient funds to pay for advice should be able to benefit from a new service set up to help people make the most of their money via free, unbiased advice.

A benefaction of government, the Money Advice Service (MAS) took its present form last year, having transmuted from the Consumer Financial Education Body, which was regarded as a world-class organisation.

The MAS is currently supposed to be taking responsibility for developing consumer financial education, raising public understanding and knowledge of financial matters and the ability of people to manage their own financial affairs.

Alongside that, its brief includes the coordination and provision of debt advice.

Paid for by a statutory levy on the financial services industry, MAS should by now be offering a sough after UK-wide service online, via telephone and through a network of money advisers.

However, this is far from the case. Possibly the first mistake in the establishment of the MAS was the appointment by the Financial Services Authority of Tony Hobman, as Chief Executive.

Mr Hobman's pedigree is impressive, a previous CEO of the Pensions Regulator, he has held a number of senior appointments within financial services, including at Barclays Bank, ProShare, the Money Channel and the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority.

However, in his current post he is heading an organisation widely considered unfit for purpose while sitting out a six months’ notice period, having resigned in July when his generous remuneration package was called into question.

The MAS budget for 2011/12 stands at £45.7 million - £350,000 of which is Mr Hobman's salary. Mr Hobman’s and indeed MAS's performance has so far been singularly lacklustre, perhaps unsurprisingly given that staff numbers have been halved under Mr Hobman's tenure.

For the uninitiated, a visit to the organisation's website will explain all.

According to Nic Cicutti, writing in Money Marketing earlier this year, MAS statistics suggest the service is having no quantifiable impact on consumer behaviour and a trawl around its website "…felt like such a desperate chore".

Mr Cicutti sums up his concerns by saying that the MAS lacks "soul".

The Treasury Select Committee, which probably has less esoteric concerns, has at least managed to launch an inquiry into the MAS and has quizzed Mr Hobman twice.

In June, Labour MP George Mudie suggested the service was “scrambling around” to find a purpose, which is hard to understand, given the scale of the MAS budget and the need for the advice it should be providing once RDR finally arrives.

Following a reconvening of the Treasury Committee in September, the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) took centre stage, criticising the “colossal” marketing spend of the MAS, which the CAB claims has been at the expense of front line services.

A case could surely be made for the CAB to take over the remit of the MAS and I, for one, am proposing that a Royal Commission be set up investigate its failings and consider other options.

We urgently need an honest assessment of the situation facing the less well off in need of financial advice, following the implementation of the RDR. Any attempts to stick plasters over the cracks of the MAS’s failings are likely to leave Britons on lower incomes seriously disadvantaged.

As the UK proudly stages the Paralympics and challenges discrimination and prejudice for those with disability, it seems to me that Britons on the minimum wage are a sadly neglected disadvantaged group regarding their post-RDR prospects, so I am not going to end this month's Lead Taker with my usual humorous quip.

Rather I am saying that we still live in a democracy, so if you feel as strongly as I do about this, pay a visit to your MP.

And don't dilly-dally because the MAS board is currently conducting a review of the future role and remuneration of the chief executive with the intention of identifying a successor to Mr Hobman by the autumn.

What a fabulous opportunity for more blunders on the part of the MAS and FSA, wasted budgets and disregard of the plight of the less well off post-RDR.