FCA Fines Standard Life Nearly £31 Million over Annuities Sales

UK regulator says incentives to sell annuities led to conflict of interest.

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has fined Standard Life Assurance Limited (SLAL) just under £30.8 million ($38.3 million) for failures related to non-advised sales of annuities.

According to the FCA’s final notice, SLAL failed to put in place adequate controls to monitor the quality of the calls between its handlers and non-advised customers. At the same time, SLAL offered its front-line staff large financial incentives to sell annuities, which encouraged them to place their own financial interests ahead of their customers.

The FCA said this led to a significant risk that SLAL’s call handlers would fail to provide customers with the information they needed to choose an annuity appropriate to their circumstances.

“A customer requires accurate information when choosing an annuity, because it is a complex financial product,” said the FCA in a statement. “This is especially so for non-advised sales, where the customer selects the annuity based on factual information and does not receive financial advice.”

The FCA said companies are required by law to explain to customers that they may get a better rate if they shop around on the open market.  It said firms need to provide “clear, fair, and not misleading information about enhanced annuities” to help the customer make an informed decision.

The notice said SLAL used high-level call guidelines which gave call handlers significant discretion about how they communicated with customers. This meant that the firm failed to provide some customers with appropriate information about enhanced annuities, including the option to shop around.

SLAL’s call handlers had the opportunity to receive significant bonuses and rewards if they met or exceeded sales targets, according to the notice. It said that nearly 22% of call handlers received more than 100% of their basic salary in bonus payments, which indicated a strong risk that call handlers had a conflict of interest.

“Standard Life Assurance Limited’s controls needed to place fairness to customers at their heart,” Mark Steward, the FCA’s executive director of enforcement and market oversight, said in a statement. “Here, the financial incentives available to staff for selling non-advised annuities by telephone created conflicts which led to unfair outcomes for some customers. Firms must have controls in place to ensure they are prioritising fairness to customers.”

The FCA said SLAL voluntarily agreed to conduct a past business review to identify and pay redress to customers who were likely to have suffered, or did suffer, loss as a result of its failures. It said that as of May 31, SLAL had paid approximately £25.3 million to more than 15,000 customers.

SLAL did not dispute the FCA’s findings, and the company’s agreement to accept the FCA’s findings meant it qualified for a 30% discount. Otherwise, the FCA would have imposed a financial penalty of nearly £44 million.

SLAL, which was formerly a subsidiary of Standard Life Aberdeen, was acquired in 2018 by Phoenix Group.

“While this is an historic issue and one we were aware of when we acquired Standard Life Assurance Limited, we would like to apologize to affected customers, all of whom we have already been in contact with as part of the program of customer redress,” Susan McInnes, CEO of Standard Life Assurance Limited and Phoenix Group director, said in a statement. “Our remediation program for affected customers is progressing well and we expect it to be completed by the end of the year.”

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