TPO Governance: An interview with Gillian Fleming
What is the DSC? The Ombudsman refers cases to the DSC in the event of a serious breach of the Codes of Practice or where a firm fails to pay an award. Other referrals can come from TPO’s Membership Compliance Unit or, sometimes, from the media, regulators and professional bodies.
What does your role involve? As Chair of the DSC, I help maintain confidence in the property profession and in the Ombudsman. Surveys tell us the industry doesn’t have a great reputation. The actions of sales and letting agents are currently under the spotlight and subject to greater political and public scrutiny. Consumers and agents need to know that, when an agent acts unfairly and does not put it right, there may be action against them.
What attracted you to the role? I’ve spent the past 25 years in a variety of senior roles responsible for resolving disputes against a wide range of public and private sector organisations.
I began my career in Citizens Advice, before working for the Local Government Ombudsman and within the NHS. More recently I was a Non-executive director of a Foundation Trust Hospital responsible for good service provision. My time as a lead Ombudsman with Ombudsman Services enabled me see the issues faced by consumers and property professionals first hand. And I have a good deal of regulatory experience.
That broad base of experience meant that when I saw the role advertised, as clichéd as it may sound, I felt I could offer something useful.
What kinds of cases are you seeing? Firstly, we see relatively few. But they are mainly lettings cases and, while many letting agents have been following TPO’s Codes voluntarily for years, mandatory redress was only required a few years ago. So some agents might be unfamiliar with the Ombudsman powers and process - and the consequences of not addressing a dispute and complying with the scheme’s Codes.
There are some agents who seem to think a complaint might ‘go away’ even when a case is referred to TPO and take no part in the investigation. That is simply not the case. Not replying to the Ombudsman will not prevent the investigation being concluded. In fact, in many instances, this leaves the Ombudsman little choice but to proceed on the information provided by the consumer. Should the Ombudsman then decide the agent has acted unfairly, the agent will be instructed to pay a suitable award. Failing to pay the award means the case has to be referred to the DSC and we have the powers to recommend that TPO expel or suspend a firm.
Nor will leaving membership of the scheme make the issue go away: the three approved redress schemes have agreed an agent cannot join another redress scheme when there is an award outstanding. Sales and letting agents are legally obliged to be registered with an approved redress scheme. If a firm is expelled for failing to pay an award, they are reported to Trading Standards and if found to be trading illegally the firm risks having to pay a fine of up to &5,000.
What advice would you offer agents? Do make sure you engage with the Ombudsman and make sure you have your say. Let the Ombudsman know if you need a bit more time to get together your information – and do keep written records of all your calls, emails, client instructions and actions. The Ombudsman process is designed to get the best information for making a fair decision.
And agents should be proud of their TPO membership – following the scheme’s Codes shows your commitment to doing a good job and offering the best service standards. The Codes provide transparency for agents and consumers, setting out clearly the complex requirements facing agents, and are a bench mark for service delivery. And the DSC scheme is there to ensure standards amongst members are maintained.
Gillian Fleming was appointed Chair of TPO’s Disciplinary & Standards Committee (DSC) on 1 November 2016.
More information about the DSC can be found below: