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Pledges taking too long to clear

Watchdogs rounded on the Office of Fair Trading and the Treasury on Tuesday over the time it is taking their promises to clear.

Consumers claim that initiatives are taking years to move from first cheap but gratifying headline to realisation.

In one particularly severe case, a pledge to improve the speed at which banks process payments looks set to take at least nine years to clear.

It is a scandal. More than 3.5m people have died in the UK since action was first promised, although in fairness most were through illness or old age, and few if any deaths were directly linked to the payments system.

The saga began back in 1998 when the chancellor established a task force to look into the banking sector.

That first report by Don Cruickshank was completed in March 2000. It found many uncompetitive practices in the payment clearing businesses.But the banks make up to £25m a year in interest from the long clearing period, so they were in no hurry to change.

Mr Cruickshank called for a new payments regulator, Paycom, after customers said their payments took too long to clear. Customers such as Bill Jones, who won't be referred to again but who is mentioned here to bring a human face to the problem.

The Cruickshank report was duly considered by the Treasury - for 17 months, although the Paycom plan was rejected after a mere nine.

At this point however, work was transferred to another department, the OFT, where it was lost under vague promises of self-regulation.

After a further two years someone in the Treasury remembered it again and perhaps thought that it was the kind of bank-bashing policy that would play well with voters who had forgotten it had already been announced.

So in the April 2003 budget it was announced again that the Office of Fair Trading would be taking charge of the issue - this time with new powers.

The OFT got its skates on, publishing a report on the extent to which the system had changed by itself since they were asked to do something.

Six more months passed before the Treasury concluded those changes were insufficient and gave the OFT an even more enhanced role underpinned by the threat of legislation.

Well, that seemed to do the trick, because in March 2004, OFT set up a (drum roll) task force with a four-year remit and industry representation. Questionnaires were sent out, responses received and, lummy, an implemention group was even set up.

The breakneck pace continued. The task force met four times a year, and on Tuesday gave banks just two more years to introduce 24-hour clearing of electronic or telephone payments.

Cheques will still take three to five days to clear butnil desperandum; the task force will tackle that next.

The government and OFT last night said the issue should be seen in context and that although progress had been slow in this case, it routinely enacts hundreds of regulations very quickly and with very little consideration.

True blue M&S

It has become a staple of politics to compare the Conservatives with Marks and Spencer - a once-great institution, which lost touch with its customers. Yet what no one has thus far pointed out is that the alarming corollary for that august retailer is that M&S is like the Conservative party.

This puts M&S on a par with an uncool, stuffy outfit, out of step with the modern world, flapping around in search of raison d'être and which people do not admit to liking.

A succession of leadership crises - including one which last week culminated in the current chairman being turned into a lame duck figurehead - has beset the store ever since the toppling of its legendary leader, Sir Richard Greenbury.

A series of new leaders have failed to recapture past glories, while rivals such as Next and Tesco have stolen many of M&S's best ideas.

Shares in the Conservatives have been low since they rejected Kenneth Clarke; M&S shares slumped after the company spurned Philip Green.

Just as the Tories grappled over whether to be the party of low taxes or better public services, the store has seemed unsure whether its key message is value for money or high quality. Michael Howard hacked back his election messages to just five core themes; Stuart Rose pruned the lingerie range. Mr Howard put his faith in high barriers for immigrants; Mr Rose has put his in high-leg knickers, but doubts remain over whether they are the right knickers for success.

There have been some scattered victories. The Tories had Justine Greening in Putney and their first black MP in Windsor; M&S has the Per Una range. But neither should be mistaken for a full recovery. Both still talk of the need to get back to basics.

The parallels are not perfect. No M&S leader has been jailed for perjury and the Conservatives do not sell chicken tikka sandwiches or allow you to return unwanted policies.

More worrying, whereas the Conservatives are one of only two real alternatives and can probably count on getting back sooner or later, M&S faces an array of market-attuned rivals, none of which invaded Iraq or raised taxes.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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