The Money Advice Service (MAS) is to roll out a peer review scheme to assess the performance of debt advisors in organisations across the UK, and make suggestions for their development.
While MAS will fully fund the peer review scheme, it is currently commissioning an organisation to administer it, as well as recruiting a pool of advisers to carry out peer reviews. The organisation that wins the bid is likely to be a large professional services firm, since the work will require considerable audit experience, though MAS is also understood to be discussing the opportunity with umbrella organisations in the world of debt advice.
“The challenge is that it needs more than standard auditors to deliver” says Caroline Siarkiewicz, head of UK debt advice at MAS. “We need people with money advice training, qualifications and expertise – so the organisation that delivers will have to recruit a whole raft of money advisers.”
Another challenge for the contracted organisation will be to ensure that assessors coming out of money advice roles stay up to date with best practice in the field – one solution may be for them to time-share between their existing roles and auditing.
The Scheme will initially be rolled out to organisations directly funded by the Service in England and Wales, and then rolled out more widely across the sector. At first, this means the scheme will be active across Citizens Advice, Toynbee Hall in London, Talking Money in Bristol, East Midlands Money Advice, and the Greater Merseyside Money Advice Partnership.
Three line whip
Its creation fulfils the third element of a campaign to raise the quality of UK debt advice. The first of those elements has been the creation of a framework detailing what any organisation delivering advice needs to have in place with regards to functions such as finance and governance, while the second focuses on making sure those organisations have the right staff, as well as the necessary training and qualifications to deliver advice to the right standard.
Building on these other elements, the peer review system provides a way for the results of these operations and staffing improvements to be audited.
“It plays to our statutory responsibility” explains Siarkiewicz. “Our body is meant to ensure consistency and quality, and the peer review system reinforces the fact debt advice is a profession rather than just a matter of casually helping people out. After all, debt advice is a regulated activity under the FCA, and as such if anyone is giving it they must be regulated, and meet exacting standards.”
When asked what will back up the findings of the peer review system, Siarkiewicz explains: “organisations will have to hold an accredited quality standard, upheld with regular audits – if they lose that standard, they will lose funding. Equally though, if we discover good practice we can spread it to other organisations.”
Widening the net
Siarkiewicz says MAS-funded advice has reached 237,500 people in the last year, with an increase expected to 390,000 in the next twelve months. While these customers will all be affected by the peer review system, the plan is to ensure that the scheme eventually extends to reach the estimated 1.5 million people in the UK needing debt advice each year.
Other debt advice providers have already vouched for it – the Debt Advice Forum was used as a stakeholder group during the development of the scheme, while StepChange Debt Charity has been involved alongside other charitable groups in consulting on how it will work.
While it may seem natural for charities to adopt the peer review scheme, MAS intends for it to be taken up by fee-charging organisations as well.
Siarkiewicz comments “Our responsibility is sectorwide and so affects fee-charging organisations. We are very much open to working with fee-charging advice providers, and have had some encouraging responses from that sector suggesting likelihood of take-up.”