Shocking programme on equity release

I was under the impression it was safe to let my kids watch telly, at least until the 9pm watershed, without them coming across anything too undesirable.

So when we sat down to watch Comic Relief’s recent Friday night telethon my only worry was that they might be upset by the tragic images of starving and dying African children.

But I quickly turned into Disgusted of Stockwell when a well meaning ‘how we spend your money’ slot on perverts grooming kids for sex on the internet was served up at 7.30pm. My youngsters, eagerly awaiting the celebrity X Factor final, were confused and worried by the film – and I was furious.

So I can understand how equity release providers must have felt last week when they sat down to watch ITV’s Tonight with Trevor McDonald.

Some must have been expecting a balanced discussion about the merits or otherwise of equity release in the present market climate where many older people are rich in assets but poor in cash, and the products that allow them to tap into the money locked in their properties have more safeguards than ever before.

For those providers, the sight of financial guru Martin Lewis warning that equity release is a major mis-selling scandal in waiting must have been as shocking as my kids’ unexpected encounter with internet porn. To be fair to the programme – Trevor’s not Comic Relief – it promised an investigation into the “shocking legacy of the 1980s and 1990s home income plans and shared appreciation mortgages”. It didn’t promise to be fair or balanced. Case studies explained how people almost lost their homes because of old-style equity release deals before Lewis made his prediction of a scandal to come.

Jon King, chief executive of Safe Home Income Plans, says that “it made good TV but the programme was not as balanced as I would have liked. Modern equity release products bear no resemblance to the products described in the programme, many of which date back to the 1980s”.

And Dean Mirfin, business development director at Key Retirement Solutions, agrees.

He says: “The equity release market has changed significantly over the past 10 years, to a place that is unrecognisable from that discussed on Tonight with Trevor McDonald.”

Shock tactics are often the only way to get people to pay attention to dangers. And if one child escapes a horrible experience because of Comic Relief’s inappropriately-timed film, then my annoyance is a small price to pay. Equally, equity release providers have to accept that if TV warnings make consumers more aware of potential problems with equity release, that’s a good result too.