When it comes to buying financial services, unions usually have the muscle to ensure firms offer a fair deal. Susannah Kirkman reports
Teaching unions these days are more likely to win members through the financial services they offer than through their skill in pay negotiations. But serious complaints against two companies offering teachers cut-price deals on financial products highlight the need for safeguards.
Colonial Mutual, the official financial services provider for members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, is the first of the companies causing concern. It is facing an investigation after alleggations that it broke industry rules by allowing unsupervised trainees to sell products such as Free Standing Additional Voluntary Contributions (FSAVCs) to pension schemes, although there is no evidence of malpractice.
And Waring Marshall, a firm of independent financial advisers approved by the Ministry of Defence to sell services to forces' teachers overseas, is being taken to court by the NASUWT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. The unions say Waring Marshall is delaying compensation for members who were allegedly missold personal pensions.
So what assurance can teachers have that they will not be sold inappropriate products?
Paul MacClachlan, NASUWT finance officer, says: "We can stand behind the member if there is a problem, taking up any grievance with the company. " He says members made only 12 complaints against Colonial in 1996, and most were resolved satisfactorily.
He believes the union's long-standing links with companies such as Endsleigh, Boncaster and Orion, which offer teachers cut-price household and motor insurance, have stood the test of time.
The NASUWT has been linked with Colonial for 75 years. The company pays the union commission of around Pounds 200,000 a year.
The National Union of Teachers also favours well-established links with financial companies, although all endorsements are reviewed every five years. The union originally set up Teachers' Assurance, which offers competitive insurance rates, as a providential society to provide pensions for teachers. The Teachers' Building Society, which offers a year's free membership of the NUT with its mortgages, is another off-shoot.
Arthur Jarman, NUT head of membership and communications, says: "The union focuses on a company's standing and reliability, not on rock-bottom prices. "
The union is looking for financial groups that will show special understanding of teachers' needs. The TBS, for instance, will offer mortgages to supply teachers and those on short-term contracts, while Frizzell and Commercial Union will include cover for business use in motor polices.
When the NUT is considering a new endorsement, two important factors are the financial strength of a company and its system for dealing with complaints.
Mr Jarman says: "There will always be complaints, but the company needs a sympathetic ear and a determination to solve any problems." Union endorsement represents big business to companies, which don't want to lose the recommendation.
Before the NUT issues an endorsement, it will scrutinise a company's track record with other charities or trade unions. It also meets regularly with all the companies it recommends to discuss their procedures and practices.
Controlling advertising in union magazines is another way of monitoring the influence of companies that want teachers' business. In the NUT's magazine, The Teacher, no company that is not officially endorsed can hint at a special arrangement for NUT members, while the NASUWT and the ATL magazines refuse to accept advertisements from non-endorsed companies.
The ATL is cautious on endorsement. Commercial Union and Frizzell are the only companies it recommends. Endorsements are reviewed every three months, and regular meetings are held with Commercial Union and Frizzell. Customer service from endorsed companies and other union services is constantly monitored.
The strongest selling-point of the ATL's links with financial services companies is the speed with which claims and complaints are dealt with, according to Richard Margrave, a spokesman for the union.
Ultimately, whatever controls a union puts in place, they can never be infallible, says Mr Jarman of the NUT. "The main safeguard has to be your confidence and trust in the company concerned. If you are let down, all safeguards will go to the wall."
Special offers for union members
* Holiday service from Thomas Cook Direct. Five per cent discount on all bookings - insurance available but not compulsory.
* Household insurance from Endsleigh. 17.5 per cent discount on premiums, 22.5 per cent for retired members.
* Countdown Card - 5 to 12 per cent discount on a variety of goods and services, including holidays.
* Life assurance - union members can save up to 5 per cent on the cost of life assurance policies taken out with Commercial Union.
* Home insurance - 10 per cent discount through Frizzell, which also offers loans at reduced interest.
* Most popular union services are the Travel Club, with reduced rates for insurance, the legal helpline and the 24-hour stress helpline.