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Wednesday 21 November 2012

The Lowest Common Denominator

Joesph II of Austria apparently had the temerity to complain to Mozart that his masterpiece, The Marriage Of Figaro, contained, “too many notes”.

A new report by the consumer organisation, Which?  maintains that based on its research, the standard terms and conditions which the major UK banks use for the their customer accounts contain, “too many words.”

The t&cs are apparently too long, take too long to read and are poorly understood by those that do try and read them.  Which?  Chief Executive Peter Vicary-Smith says,  “It is completely unrealistic for banks to expect their customers to plough through 30,000 words of financial jargon and small print.

“Banks,” says Vicary-Smith, ” should drastically reduce the length of their terms and conditions, so that their customers are not put off from reading them in the first place.”

Nobody is ever likely to mistake bank account t&cs with the craft and beauty of the genius of Mozart, but I still think that Which? has got this one completely wrong. The premise of its beef that consumers should all be able to readily understand everything they buy is utter rubbish.

Buying a cheap pen or a packet of crisps is an uncomplicated transaction. You can buy them as many of us do everyday, in any newsagent for under a £1. But there are equally a great many things which are far more complex, which many of us will struggle to understand but which are no less essential for us to buy. Next time you have to upload some new antivirus software on your computer or upgrade Microsoft office, you will have to click a box before the software installs accepting the terms and conditions of sale. Does anyone ever read them. Would it do you any good if you did? You can’t have the software unless you accept the t&cs and if you can’t design software yourself, you’re pretty much stuck without it. Or forget t&Cs for a moment. Suppose you’re unlucky enough to need a heart operation in hospital. Are you going to forgo having the operation because on a detailed level, you cannot understand what exactly the surgeon will be doing to put you right?

I am not an apologist for the banks. Their t&cs are tedious and dull, but they cover stuff like overdraft terms, interest, when payments in and out are credited – matters which consumers don’t necessarily understand at a business level, but which they nevertheless expect to have. What is more, a lot of what is printed will be compulsory to include: legislation forces on banks the need for much of what is in the t&cs, and no doubt Which? would be amongst those at the front of the queue to complain to the courts if the t&cs were legally deficient.

We all enjoy the benefits of living in a complex world. Often that entails relying on other people who have expertise in areas which we ourselves do not possess. It is unrealistic to think that we should reject complexity if it cannot always be expressed in terms comprehensible to all.

Bruce Jones

MH Corporate

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