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Byline: STEPHEN WOMACK

For millions of people who want help with savings and investments, thebanks and building societies that line our High Streets are still the firstports of call. But how good is the advice they give? In the past, some of themhave been guilty of cynically selling products they needed to shift rather thaninvestments their clients needed.

With the Northern Rock crisis making savers nervous about their cash, thequality of advice they get from frontline staff has never been more important.

Five years ago, I wanted to invest some Isa money and found a patchy standardof advice and was exposed to some hard selling. Now the Isa, invested withHSBC, has matured and with [pounds sterling]7,500 to reinvest it is a good opportunity to testthe High Street again - without revealing who I work for.

North Street, Rugby, Warwickshire

REGULATIONS have clearly tightened in the past five years and most of theorganisations I visit in the town have no one available for a chat about Isasand investment options. Only one or two staff in each branch are authorisedunder the rules of the Financial Services Authority and their diaries are fullybooked for the day.

I make appointments for later in the week and learn a useful first lesson -book ahead for advice.

The one exception is Hinckley & Rugby. Jeanette Lewis, branch manager,isquicklyoutfrom behind the counter when she sees me browsing and is ready to talk. Butthough I mention maturing Isa several times and tell her how much money I wantto invest, her suggestions are disappointing.

She highlights the society's Special Share One Year Bond, paying 5.75 per centon investments of at least [pounds sterling]5,000. But this is a taxed account, worth 3.45 percent to me as a higher-rate taxpayer.

Jeanette mentions Hinckley & Rugby's mini cash Isa, which pays 5.5 per cent.But she stresses that the maximum I can pay in is [pounds sterling]3,000 and she makes nomention of transferring the existing one.

Verdict: There is little for me here.

The Square, Market Harborough, Leicestershire

THIS appointment, arranged through Halifax's central call centre, starts offbadly. Though I had asked for a session to talk about all types of investments,my meeting is with Sophie George, who thinks I want to open a current accountand is ready with a pile of leaflets.

However, she changes direction quickly to call up details of Halifax's Isarange. The bank has some market-leading deals if you are prepared to lock upthe money for between one and four years. The one-year account, paying atax-free fixed 6.2 per cent, looks good value. Sophie explains the importanceof not cashing in my present plan, which would mean its tax-free status waslost.

Verdict: Good recovery after a poor start. Halifax has some competitive depositoptions and in the current nervous climate a bigger institution might seem amore secure home for my money. But Sophie is not authorised to discuss thewider picture.

The Square, Market Harborough

I AM keen to put another local mutual to the test and the Market Harboroughmain office is just across the square from the Halifax branch. Alistair Fraseris a 'whole of market' adviser, which means we can talk about products from avariety of companies.

Alistair is the first person who asks about other investments and savings and Igive him a rundown on my overall finances.

I say I want an investment where capital is secure. Alistair correctly says aswitch to a deposit-based cash Isa is likely to be the best move unless I amwilling to lock up the money for a further five or six years, in which casethere are stock market-linked options.

But Alistair spots a drawback in transferring my present Isa. He says that onlysome banks and buildings societies - Market Harborough is not one of them - arewilling to accept Tessa-only Isas. …