The Pensions Regulator: The most unwanted job in the government

Hidden husband and wife conflict of interest revealed for winning candidate

Last week almost unreported MPs on the Commons Work and Pensions Committee approved the appointment of a new chair of the Pensions Regulator. It went to Sarah Smart -already the interim chair.

Nothing particularly newsworthy in that. But the report from MPs went on to disclose the dearth of interest in this important job and expose until now a hitherto hidden serious conflict of interest that affects the entire board of the Pensions Regulator.

The regulation of private pensions in the private sector affects tens of millions of people. As the report says:

Its main responsibilities include:
a) Ensuring that employers put their staff into a pension scheme (known as
automatic enrolment) and pay money into the scheme;
b) Protecting people’s savings in workplace pension schemes;
c) Improving the way that workplace pension schemes are run;
d) Ensuring that employers balance the needs of their pension scheme with growing
their business;
e) Reducing the risk of pension schemes ending up in the Pension Protection Fund,
a statutory fund which protects members of defined benefit pension schemes if
their scheme becomes insolvent.

Pension scams

It also pays a role in keeping an eye on pension scams and firms going bust leaving people without proper pensions. The MPs say they have previously been concerned about its role in some high profile cases involving defined benefit schemes whose sponsoring employer had become insolvent. ” We ourselves have expressed concern this year about
TPR’s capacity—working alongside other regulators—to tackle pension scams effectively.” These cases include tax exile Sir Philip Green’s treatment of the British Home Stores Pension Fund and the British Steel pension fund.

Therefore it is rather shocking to discover that this £75,000 a year part time job for the public face of the Pensions Regulator attracted just eight applicants – and that was after extending the application period. Three were not worth interviewing. Of the remaining five who were interviewed – three were thought to be inappropriate for the job. This left the choice of just two people – Sarah Smart and another.

Indeed so low were the number of applications that the Department for Work and Pensions can’t provide a breakdown of the gender, disability and ethnicity of the applicants – for fear that it will end up disclosing who applied.

Fraser Smart -chief executive of BA Pensions – conflict of interest with his wife’s new appointment Pic credit: Twitter

But worse was to follow. Sarah Smart’s application for the job disclosed that her husband Fraser Smart was chief executive of British Airways Pensions and chair of British Airways Pension Investment Management Ltd – the body responsible for investing the money of thousands of employees of the airline. The BA Pension scheme is one of the bodies Sarah Smart is supposed to supervise- an obvious conflict of interest with her husband as chief executive of a blue chip company pension scheme.

She has promised that her husband will resign his job before September and not take any other job involving managing a pension scheme.

It was then discovered that NONE of the members of the board of The Pensions Regulator have to declare whether their partners or close relatives run company pension schemes – which has forced a review of the code of conduct of the regulator.

Guy Opperman, pensions minister couldn’t even be bothered to meet Sarah Smart before he recommended her for the job Pic credit: Twitter

Ministerial interest in the running of the Pension Regulator is virtually non existent. Guy Opperman, the pensions minister, couldn’t be bothered even to meet the new chair before he appointed her. As the MPs say in their report:

“We were surprised to hear that Mrs Smart had not met the Pensions Minister before being chosen for this role. We urge them to arrange a meeting at the earliest possible opportunity.”

The MPs also fired a warning shot about the conflict of interest: “We are conscious, however, that—given wider economic uncertainty—her spouse’s situation may change. In that event, we would urge TPR, the Pensions Minister and Mrs Smart herself to consider whether she can remain in her role.”

Pension mis-selling: Lorry driver’s victory against private pension firm in landmark court decision

Royal Courts of Justice Pic Credit; Wikipedia

In 2012 Lorry Driver Russell Adams was down on his luck. His bank, the HSBC, had decided to call in his £170,000 mortgage on his £380,000 home. Desperate to raise money he thought of cashing in his frozen £52,000 private pension from Friends Life. He spotted an ad “‘release some cash from your pension” and was directed to CLP Brokers.

A friendly man called Ben Shepherd, told him “I could transfer it into a pension that would perform better and allow me to invest in better investments. I did not know much, if anything, about pension investment at the time and trusted what CLP told me.”

Since the transaction was going to be handled by a reputable private pension management provider then called Carey Pensions UK ( now Options UK Personal Pensions) he was reassured.

He was directed to invest in Store First, a Blackburn based storage facility, that made its money letting out what are known as store pods to people.

Mr Adams told the court that Ben was very keen on this because it was property and he made it sound safe and good for me. He then took out an execution only SIPP with Carey to include his investment. Ben was on commission for putting business that way.

What he didn’t know that CLP, based in Spain, was not authorised by UK law to give any financial advice. It was run by Terence Wright and Lesley Wright. Although Carey was unaware of this until May 2012, the Financial Conduct Authority had posted a warning notice in respect of Mr Wright in 2010. The notice warned that Mr Wright was not authorised under Financial Services and Markets Act to carry on a regulated activity in the United Kingdom, explaining that it believed that he “may be targeting UK customers via the firm Cash In Your Pension”.

Worse was to come. Store First was a dud – it hardly made a penny and Mr Adam’s investment was worthless.

So Mr Adams went to court. At the first hearing the judge found for the private pensions industry and exonerated Carey Pensions for any liability of managing an investment run by a guy barred from trading in the UK.

But last Thursday the Court of Appeal overturned much of the ruling saying Mr Adams was entitled to his money back plus compensation and furthermore Carey Pensions now Options UK Personal Pensions – could not escape liability by trying to blame Mr Adams for his own misfortune. The pension firm tried to appeal to the Supreme Court but were blocked by the judges.

Lady Justice Andrews: Pic credit: judiciary.com

The judgement has widespread implications. For a start some 580 other people had been advised to invest in the firm Store First and could claim their money back. The ruling also has wider implications in that your friendly private pension provider may well have to stop recommending you high risk investments by unregulated – or to be more frank- dodgy providers or risk the fate of Carey Pensions.

The judges in my view took the right decision. They said anymore with only £50,000 to invest is not a sophisticated investor and should be better protected than someone with a £1m to invest.

” Fresh opportunities for unscrupulous entities to target the gullible” -judge

Perhaps the comment from Lady Justice Andrews sums this up the best:

“As the unhappy history of the transfers of small personal pensions into SIPPs holding high risk investments related in that judgment illustrates, the liberalisation of the pension regime in 2006 brought with it fresh opportunities for unscrupulous entities to target the gullible, the greedy or the desperate.

“There is nothing to prevent a regulated SIPP provider such as Carey from accepting instructions from clients recommended to it by an unregulated person, and from doing so on an “execution only” basis. But the basis on which they contract with their clients will only go so far to protect them from liability. If they accept business from the likes of CLP, they run the risk of being exposed to liability under s.27 of the FSMA.”

The full case is here. There is also a report in the Financial Times here.

A toxic indictment of the bungled nuclear decommissioning mess that cost taxpayers millions

Steve Holliday: A damning report Pic Credit: Twitter

Report recommends a root and branch review of the National Decommissioning Authority

You have a right as a citizen to be kept safe from any dangerous pollution from the ageing 12 closed Magnox nuclear reactors and research stations in the UK. You would expect the organisation protecting us to hand out properly thought out contracts to do the job. The failure by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to organise a £6.6 billion contract to clean up properly cost taxpayers £97.5 million when rival companies who lost out successfully sued the agency forcing them to settle with them.

This month completely unnoticed by the national press Steve Holliday, the former chief executive of the National Grid, published a damning report on how the agency failed to do its job and the failure of its supervising body, the UKGI, to supervise it and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to keep tabs on what was going on.

So frightened were former senior executives of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority(NDA) of his inquiry report that they rushed to the High Court to try and get a judicial review to stop him ruining their reputations. They failed but delayed the report.

For the record they were John Clarke. the former NDA chief executive; Stephen Henwood, the former chairman; Robert Higgins, the former head of legal services; Mr Graeme Rankin, former head of competition and Mr Sean Balmer, former commercial director, He has spared their blushes by not naming them personally in his report.

Steve Holliday had in his remit the power to recommend disciplinary action against them for their failings. But he chose not to do so instead blaming the culture of isolation in the nuclear industry in general and the running of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in particular.

NDA failed to keep a grip

In broad terms the NDA failed to keep a grip on what has happening after they awarded the contract to the Texas company Cavendish Fluor Partnerships before it ended up in the courts where it was successfully challenged by rivals Energy Solutions and Bechtel. The original contract was changed so much and cost so much more – latest estimate is up to £8.9 billion that the companies who lost out were able to sue.

So imbued were the senior staff at the NDA with how clever they were in organising procurement contracts that they missed warning signs and worse didn’t inform the NDA board what was really going on until it was too late. The UKGI is revealed to have a conflicting role – both supervising it and sympathetically helping it sort out problems. He rightly suggests that it should be stripped of its day to day supervision.

The report says : “There appears to have been a culture that sought to self-justify, and which was inward looking. In particular: the NDA had a belief in its own skills and intellectual ability, and did not recognise or seriously contemplate that it may have any weaknesses, when contracting and managing external advisers, it had a propensity to limit their role, and did not appear to welcome strong challenge; and it failed to take sufficient steps to bring in people from other industries with different skills and experience, and to learn lessons from them.”

Damning conclusions picked up by a whistleblower

His criticism of the culture of the NDA has been picked up by Alison McDermott, a whistleblower taking the NDA and Sellafield to an employment tribunal, and may be quoted in her case expected later this year. The BBC recently did an exposure on bullying and harassment at Sellafield. The link to the story is here.

He recommends a root and branch review of the NDA by the business ministry- which has now handed the contract back in house – changing its structure and bringing in people from outside the nuclear industry and putting a top flight lawyer on the board.

I am worried that since there was so little publicity about this report whether the ministry will have the incentive to do anything about it. If it doesn’t we could see more waste of taxpayers’ money and we need changes for our safety in cleaning up some of the most toxic sites in the country.

Four years ago Sir Amyas Morse, then comptroller and auditor general , said “The NDA’s fundamental failures in the Magnox contract procurement raise serious questions about its understanding of procurement regulations; its ability to manage large, complex procurements; and why the errors detected by the High Court judgement were not identified earlier.”

We now need the National Audit Office and MPs on the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to keep an eye on this. He also has wider recommendations for the rest of Whitehall when it hands out big contracts.

Bradwell Nuclear Power Station; Being decommissioned under this contract

Previous Stories https://davidhencke.com/2017/10/26/nuclear-decommissioning-how-whitehall-turned-toxic-waste-into-a-dirty-mess/

https://davidhencke.com/2020/12/11/the-latest-toxic-progress-on-the-great-nuclear-decommissioning-mess/

How the genteel retiree world of centenarians was shattered by the ruthless modern model of social care capitalism

Mary Fielding Home, Highgate Pic credit: Mary Feilding Guild

This spring a group of very elderly, sharp minded and bright people will be evicted from a care home where they hoped they would end their lives by a ruthless capitalist who epitomises the new privatised world of social care providers.

The home is unusual in many respects. It caters for bright academics and authors and is a living community of a university of the third age – the oldest is 104 and still going strong. It also occupies a site on the borders of Highgate and Hampstead in London with a book value of £3.8m -a tempting find for any developer.

The group have been placed in this position by the failure of the unique trust, the Mary Feilding Guild, a charity set up in 1962 but dating back to 1882, to make ends meet. The combination of Covid 19, the closure of one of its properties on the site, not being in a position to take new residents, and the need for major modernisation all contributed. The value of the charity’s investments fell from £1.8m to £824,142 in one year.

So the trustees decided to sell it as a ” going concern ” with the aim of finding someone who would keep the residents there and have the funds to improve and modernise the home. Enter Mr Mitesh Kumar Dhanak or Mr Mitesh Girharlal Dhanak as he now prefers to be called. He offered to buy it as a going concern.

Mitesh Dhanak Pic credit: Precious Homes

Within five days of owning it for as yet undisclosed sum he decided to evict everyone by the end of May, declare the staff redundant, demolish the entire home and put a planning application for a new home to Haringey Council.

Mr Dhanak, 63 next month, is not a trained social care or health specialist. He is an accountant with a degree from Sheffield University. He set up his first business Precious Homes in 1994.

His views on the sector were outlined at a Care Conversation webinar on 14 October last year: ” “In terms of the KPIs ( Key Performance Indicators )that funds would look at, it’s property backed, it’s resilient cashflow, it’s government backed – it ticks all the right boxes.” He added later: “Unfortunately, the British press loves the horror stories. It’s about lobbying the government and making sure that our voice is heard and our contribution is recognised. It’s incumbent on all of us to try to do that.”

Now Mr Dhanak has created a complex group of interlocking companies – holding according to Companies House – 27 appointments. All of them are virtually one man bands – himself and a secretary and nobody else – making it difficult to follow his story.

They embrace a small number of care homes for adult care plus the elderly with Alzheimer’s Disease and a property company with investments from Neasden in North London to Barnsley and St Albans. He also got into an enormous tussle with Revenue and Customs when he moved some homes tax free into his pension based in Guernsey- but after a bitter battle he proved the tax people had made an error in law and he won.

The services he provides are rated Good by the Care Quality Commission and he has ploughed money from bank loans into providing a good standard. He also is a trustee of the Cheltenham Playhouse.

The centre of his operations are Precious Homes at Magic House close to Palmers Green. Each each company follows a similar pattern. They are £100 off the shelf companies and within days of him either setting them up or taking over from another operator their assets are mortgaged to the banks – his favourite ones being Coutts and Clydesdale Bank.

His latest £100 company which took over the Mary Feilding Guild home ,Highgate Care is a good example. He has already mortgaged the site to one of his own companies Precious Homes. But this time he has decided to go to a tax haven to get a second mortgage from the Waymade Capital, a Jersey based company run by brothers Vijay and Bhikhu Patel.

The company also has interests in health care, pharmaceuticals, and property and the brothers, both Kenya Asians, originally made their money by setting up a chain of pharmacies which they sold on to Boots. Vijay was awarded an OBE in 2019 under very controversial circumstances. An investigation by the Times revealed he had rebranded generic drugs and overcharged the NHS. This was not picked up by the committee awarding him the honour.

It wrote “Atnahs, a company he co-founded, acquired the rights to old medicines and increased prices by up to 2,500 per cent, costing the NHS at least £80 million. A packet of antidepressants rose from £5.71 to £154 and an insomnia drug soared from £12.10 to £138.” The company now has a financial interest in the Highgate home.

No answers to questions on finance or the price he paid

Mr Dhanak declined to answer through his communications agency any questions about the financing of his ventures or the price he paid for the property.

He did provide an explanation for his change of mind. “The team held meetings within days of completion as there was no desire to mislead residents or staff once a decision was made. Within five days, nearly 40% of the residents have already found potential new homes and we are confident that this trend will continue with the support of the Highgate House team.”

“Since the sale was agreed, the new owner in consultation with professional advisors reviewed the existing model and considered a number of options, including operating the home in its current format and concluded that regrettably it would not be possible to continue to provide care in the same way.  The home has been financially unsustainable for a significant period of time and the Mary Feilding Guild trustees would be aware that a new owner would have to make significant changes.”

owner intends to demolish property, says trust

The trust have also issued a statement: “We now understand that the new owner intends to demolish the existing property and build a completely new home on the site. Four days after completing the sale the purchaser announced a three-month notice period to the staff and residents after which the home will remain empty.

“However, it will take at least seven months to produce a detailed design, obtain planning permission, and commence construction. During this time the home could have been kept open for existing residents, and staff, rather than force them to move, and making staff redundant. The elderly residents will now be forced to seek alternative accommodation during the COVID restrictions, therefore severely limiting their choice.

Please don’t evict them by the end of May

” We are appealing to the new owner to reconsider this wholly unnecessary decision to shut the home immediately. We believe that it is not unreasonable to delay the closure procedure, to one month, before a start on site is possible. This would allow residents and staff reasonable time to consider their options, and by this time the pandemic should have eased.”

The lessons from this saga are two fold. The trust’s lawyers appears to me to have been very naive in not demanding guarantees for their residents in writing. And Mr Dhanak’s business strategy depends of an ever rising property market and ever bigger sums of money being available to local authorities for social care. If there is a major hiccup in either or both of these – the banks are going to demand their money back pretty sharpish and lot of vulnerable people are going to be evicted.

In the meantime Mr Dhanak can retire to his beautiful home in Hampstead Garden Suburb purchased for £2.5 million with a Clydesdale Bank mortgage, according to the land registry,. Here’s a nice picture of it.

Brexit: How Parliament abdicated its role to scrutinise the biggest change in UK life for 50 years

Parliament: Abdicating scrutiny

The most potent slogan of the Vote Leave campaign was the promise that Brexit meant that the country could ” take back control” and Parliament would be sovereign and we will be governed by our own laws.

Today Parliament abdicated its role to take back control of scrutinising the Brexit deal by kowtowing to a manipulative government which left little time to examine the Treaty before it had to come into effect.

Boris Johnson opening the debate with Rishi Sunak looking on Pic Credit: @UK Parliament _jessica Taylor

A huge bill which will change Britain’s relationship with our nearest neighbours, end the freedom of British people to work and study in Europe, and introduce a raft of bureaucratic red tape to do business with Europe while avoiding tariffs and quotas, will be debated in just half a day. The bill will have no clause by clause examination because there will be no time in the Commons to do this. It will be just rubber stamped. And MPs will have just four minutes – later reduced to three – each to comment.

Keir Starmer backing the “thin deal rather than no deal” with Opposition chief whip Nick Brown

Similarly the House of Lords will not have time to scrutinise the bill either and though 145 peers have said they want to comment the new bill – they have precisely three minutes each to do so. The House of Lords Constitution Committee will scrutinise the detail of the bill after it has become law – even though the government does not want this to happen. The government in its explanatory memorandum says the bill is not suitable for pre legislation scrutiny. But Baroness Taylor, who chairs the Lords Constitution Committee, points out that the means the government uses to implement the treaty are subject to scrutiny – and she indicated that many of the Commission powers had been transferred to ministers not Parliament.

Ian Blackford, Scottish National Party leader, who opposed the deal and whose party voted against of it.

By midnight tonight the Royal Assent will be given. As the Hansard Society says: “Parliament’s role around the end of the Brexit transition and conclusion of the EU future relationship treaty is a constitutional failure to properly scrutinise the executive and the law.”

It rightly says the proceedings amount to a farce. Compare it with the European Parliament – which Brexiteers say amount to bureaucratic dictators. They declined to rush through a debate approving the deal until they could properly consider it. Instead they rely on a temporary agreement to allow trade to continue and will set aside much more time to debate it than the UK Parliament. They have two months to do this.

The reason why this is important is if there are defects in the legislation that will show up later and end up discrediting the issue even for Brexiteers. Much better to get the legislation right – and Parliamentary scrutiny is the best way to do this. Particularly as the deal runs to 1200 pages and you have to check the bill with the Treaty and refer to other legislation. We have now thrown away that chance.

In a way this is a microcosm of the way Boris Johnson and his Cabinet colleagues want to govern this country. They do not want scrutiny and want “to take back control” for themselves and not for Parliament or the people. They want to use Parliament and the people for their own agenda. Today was a bad day for Parliament and democracy.

The latest toxic progress on the great nuclear decommissioning mess

The now decommissioned Bradwell nuclear power station – the first one to be safeguarded

Full report on the scandal still not published as top officials try to avoid blame for the fiasco

Just over two years ago this site carried a blog post with Byline Times on one of the biggest and most incompetent contracts ever made in Whitehall by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.(NDA) The £6.2 billion contract to the Texas company Cavendish Fluor Partnerships ended up in the courts where it was successfully challenged by rivals Energy Solutions including Bechtel who won £97m compensation on the grounds that the contract had been awarded illegally.

The contract was to clean up and make safe 10 ageing Magnox nuclear power stations and two research facilities at enormous cost to the taxpayer. It is part of a long term decommissioning programme which will eventually cost the taxpayer a staggering £132 billion and not be finally completed until 2140 long after anybody reading this ( and me) will have died.

At the time Sir Amyas Morse, then comptroller and auditor general , said “The NDA’s fundamental failures in the Magnox contract procurement raise serious questions about its understanding of procurement regulations; its ability to manage large, complex procurements; and why the errors detected by the High Court judgement were not identified earlier.”

Not a pretty picture

Now two years on the National Audit Office and MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have looked at what has happened. And the saga is continuing with not altogether a pretty picture. And the final report was held up by legal action from the NDA’s former senior management team.

The result of the first court case meant that the NDA shortened the contract and it finished last year.

The cost of doing this was to ratchet up another £20 million bill for the taxpayer to avoid yet more litigation this time from the contractor. This took the extra cost to the taxpayer to £140m.

Then the cost of the whole project of decommissioning the power stations has gone up yet again. From an estimated £6.2 billion to anything from £6.9 billion to £8.7 billion. The reason is that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority don’t know the real state of all the sites. And it is obvious that there is a huge amount asbestos on the sites are a major problems.

And they haven’t been very good at making sure the contractor did a good good job. One defective performance notice on Bradwell nuclear power station had to be issued three times before it was correct- and then it was too late as it came during the month the contract finished. In the end the contractor agreed a post contract payment cutting £2.98 million from its bill. Bradwell was the first to move to a ” care and maintenance ” contract in 2018.

Management has been strengthened since the fiasco with new people brought in. New state companies have been set up to deal with decommissioning. But we won’t know the complete story of the debacle until the final report from Steve Holliday, the former head of the national grid, reveals what happened and who is to blame.

He has issued a bland interim report but publication of the final report was hit by yet more legal action.

Inquiry chief insists he will investigate top management and ministers

Mr Holliday concludes in his interim report: “

“I will further investigate whether the actions of individuals within the NDA , and those of government officials and ministers, were consistent with the standards expected of them, including relevant codes of conduct.
“I will continue to investigate whether decision makers (individuals, including government officials and ministers or boards) had the necessary information to make those decisions and, if not, why not. This will cover decision making at all stages of the matters covered by the terms of reference, including the procurement, the litigation and the matters leading to the termination for convenience.”

This led to five officials – John Clarke. the former NDA chief executive; Stephen Henwood, the former chairman; Robert Higgins, the former head of legal services; Mr Graeme Rankin, former head of competition and Mr Sean Balmer, former commercial director, to go to court to seek a judicial review into Mr Holliday’s inquiry.

Each had been notified they could be subject to criticism by Mr Holliday and were alarmed it could affect their reputations and livelihoods.

They claimed they had all had their human rights breached by Mr Holliday unlawfully delegating work and criticisms of them to his staff; hadn’t disclosed all the material to them and prevented them from sharing information while making representations to him.

Judicial review dismissed

On Christmas Eve last year the judge Mr Justice Murray dismissed the ” arguable” case over the delegation of work and all the other grounds. It was pointed out that there are 2.5 million documents in the case and Mr Holliday could hardly be expected to read every one.

The result is that we still have no final report nearly a year after the court decision suggesting that wrangling is still continuing. As MPs on the public accounts committee point out :”Implementing the recommendations of the Holliday inquiry into the Magnox contract and the Department’s ‘Tailored Review’ of the role of the NDA will be critical and the publication of these reports cannot come soon enough.”

How on earth could the Bank of England lose track of £50 billion of our money?

Specimen £20 note – where have they all gone? Pic credit: James Oxley Bank of England

Bizarre story about the missing money

Today a report from MPs revealed the extraordinary fact that the Bank of England doesn’t know where £50 billion of its bank notes are.

It also revealed that since the Covid 19 lockdown the number of notes issued by the Bank of England is at an all time record. Yet this is at time when contactless payments by credit and debit cards are also at an all time high and many shops do not want to accept any cash at all.

Already a year before the Covid 19 led to lockdowns and smashed the economy some 7.4 million people – mainly in the 18-34 year age group were estimated to have virtually stopped using cash altogether.

So what is happening? We both can’t have a growing number of people no longer using cash yet record numbers of banks notes in circulation. There is something strange going on and the Bank of England seems remarkably complacent about it.

As Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, which produced the report says:

” £50 billion of sterling notes – or about three quarters of this precious and dwindling supply – is stashed somewhere but the Bank of England doesn’t know where, who by or what for – and doesn’t seem very curious. It needs to be more concerned about where the missing £50 billion is. Depending where it is and what it’s being used for, that amount of money could have material implications for public policy and the public purse.  The Bank needs to get a better handle on the national currency it controls.”

There is some curious speculation in the report. They wonder whether the people who traditionally like payments in cash – window cleaners, gardeners, the odd job man or woman are salting away the money. Or is it because – as I have reported before – that Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, is offering such appalling interest rates for savers – that they are keeping the cash under the mattress?

Are criminals sorting away the cash?

Or is it something darker like criminals using the cash for nefarious purposes -or has the money been salted away in tax havens or are the Russians or Chinese siphoning off the cash hoping the British economy implodes?

The MPs are demanding the Bank of England investigates so we should have an answer early next year.

The same report also highlighted quite a different problem – that people in poor and rural areas have difficulty accessing this huge amount of cash in the system.

In September, the National Audit Office said that the Treasury, Bank of England, Royal Mint, the Financial Conduct Authority and Payments Systems Regulator need to coordinate more effectively so that people have access to cash.

But the number of cash machines are declining and the Post Office is not open all hours. so people can’t always access cash.

The Royal Mint is losing money striking coins as well.

The report said: “The Mint’s UK coin production has reduced by 65% over the last ten years, from about 1.1 billion coins made in 2010–11 to 383 million in 2019–20. This reflects the overall fall in production demand over the period, although production volumes increased in some years, for example between 2012 and 2016 with the issue of new 5p, 10p and £1 coins replacing stock already in circulation.”

Mass dumping of coins

It revealed that people have also been dumping coins in massive amounts. The report said:

“A Mint-run exercise to recall the old £1 coin, as an increasing counterfeit risk, led to an unexpectedly huge return of coins of all denominations as households and businesses emptied their stocks of coins. This led to a large increase in coin stocks and a consequent reduction in the number of coins that needed to be produced.”

But there still is some demand for coins.

The report said: “It now expects the Treasury to ask it to manufacture new 2p coins in the next 6 months and more £2 coins within the next 3 years. Nevertheless, the Mint expects the increase in demand to be temporary, and that the long-term impact of the pandemic will be to exacerbate the decline in coin use.”

Meanwhile it has lost millions of pounds for the last three years in minting new coins as it coins as it costs more than their face value to produce them.

The scary chaotic privatised Covid-19 national survey and me

The ONS survey promises they could not fulfill

Inside story of how the government can’t even organise a Covid- 19 survey let alone sort out the pandemic

Much has been said of the government’s expensive muddle and mishandling of the Covid -19 pandemic where millions if not billions of taxpayer’s cash has gone down the drain. Contracts have gone to the Vote Leave chumocracy, apps have failed, people have unnecessarily died in care homes and it has been bonanza time for private firms.

What has been missed is that while all this is happening the Department for Health through the Office for National Statistics and Oxford University have undertaken a randomised survey of 220,000 people to find out about the spread of Covid -19.

This is not just a once off questionnaire but those taking part in each household can opt to participate for a year. For the first month they are swabbed once a week and then monthly. The aim is to provide the government with a detailed picture of the pandemic’s progress and once approved the effectiveness of any new vaccines.

The scheme has been branded with trustworthy names – who would object to helping researchers at Oxford University or the Office for National Statistics.

Private company bonanza

But in fact the work is yet another bonanza for private companies and labs just like test and trace. What could possibly go wrong?

Well it did and this blog is my personal experience and my wife Margaret’s experience.

It started with a package being posted through our front door.

We were invited to ring a free number to sign up. Then within a week you would have an appointment. A pleasant socially distanced study worker would turn up, take your details, show you how to administer your own swab and send it off to a lab. You would get the result – if positive – within 24 to 72 hours from Public Health England. If it was negative you wouldn’t hear. You would also be eventually paid £50 in vouchers for the first visit and £25 for subsequent visits.

Sounds a doddle. It wasn’t.

First try and ring up and get an answer. I got through on the sixth attempt. And it is not to Oxford University but to IQVIA, an American multinational based in Durham, North Carolina, not Durham, England, with an income of $11.11 billion – effectively a health care data mining company. They have set up offices in the UK and guess what they are under staffed – hence the difficulty in getting through.

I was told to expect a call from NatCen, a private social research company, based in London that were in charge of appointments.

Rhe survey organisation must have been going wrong – they sent out this standardised apology to me and plenty of others.

A week went by, two, three, then a month and nothing. Finally there was a knock on the door and a genial man called Kirk asked me who I was.

” We have been trying to ring you for weeks and couldn’t get you. We got someone else who was already on the programme”, he told me

The reason was simple. The mobile number they had for me was not remotely like mine – they had put in someone else’s in their records

The came the swab – straightforward. We were told if we heard nothing after 48 hours we would be in the clear.

Then SIX days later we took a call from Hertfordshire County Council. It was for my wife – we are both in our 70s – she was Covid 19 positive . She had to self isolate for another four days. I was negative but had to self isolate for another seven.

The woman didn’t seem to know why we had been tested together, didn’t know about the national survey, and then told my wife not to have another swab in case it was a false positive.

This was scary because my wife did not have ONE SYMPTOM, no temperature, no cough, nothing. But we had to quickly cancel a hospital outpatient appointment for that day and cancel a visit due the next day from a physiotherapist.

The advice from Herts County Council was contradicted the next day by another study worker pointed out that the survey required people who were positive to take another test. He was puzzled that she – given we are part of the vulnerable group susceptible to Covid 19 – had no symptoms. He could not explain why we had been contacted by Herts County Council and not Public Health England.

Even after we got the invalidated result they still sent us the wrong result ( Note they spelt our surname wrong

After scary days of waiting to see if anything developed we had another call from IQVIA. It was to tell us that Lighthouse Laboratories – the privatised mega lab consortium – set up by  Medicines Discovery Catapult Ltd and UK Biocentre Ltd- who tested the swab had got it wrong. She was not positive and the test had been invalidated because the lab had used the wrong compounds to test it.

Nor were we the only ones – an entire batch – was wrong. Imagine the distress this would cause.It wasn’t the first time either. The Independent reported in September that tens of thousands of people had been cleared of Covid- 19 by the same labs when they were positive.

We now await our promised vouchers. I see they are provided by Sodexo – a private company which I remember was responsible for the hopeless failed privatisation of the probation service. They also provide child care vouchers. I wonder what they can to do to muck things up. I can’t wait.

Top international experts join the People’s Tribunal campaign to end discrimination against women and girls

Aim is to write the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women [CEDAW] into UK domestic law.

Meghan Campbell: Pic credit Birmingham University

Nearly 40 years ago Margaret Thatcher signed the UK up to the UN convention to end all discrmination against women but successive Tory, Labour and coalition governments have never passed the convention in British law.

Now in an age when the Boris Johnson led Tory government is trying to renege on international law agreements during European Union negotiations and opt out of parts of the European Convention on Human Rights it will face the wrath of women and girls who feel they have been treated as second class citizens for too long in the UK.

The movement has grown out of the far too long campaign by BackTo60 to get women born in the 1950s compensation for the loss of their pensions from the age of 60 which will be decided at a Court of Appeal hearing on Tuesday on grounds of discrimination.

The issue of inequality under CEDAW was an issue in the court case – but because it is not part of British domestic law – it is difficult issue to argue.

Now it looks like with real support from international figures and human rights lawyers that the Conservative government is going to face a campaign that will make the BackTo60 fight look like a sideshow.

It will begin with the setting up of a People’s Tribunal under John Cooper QC and renowned human rights lawyer who was Chair of the International Steering Committee and Prosecutor at the Iran Tribunal in The Hague and is named by The Times as one of the top 100 lawyers in the country.

Andrew Byrnes Pic Credit: Oxford University Law Faculty

Now he is joined by three international experts. One is Andrew Byrnes, Professor of Law of Law at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, where he served as Chair of the Australian Human Rights Centre from 2005 to 2017.

He is an expert on both People’s Tribunals and CEDAW . With Gabrielle Simm (a senior law lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney) he recently published the edited collection Peoples’ tribunals and international law (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and forthcoming publications includes chapters on the work of the UN Committee on the Discrimination against Women and the UN Committee against Torture, as well as the protection of economic and social rights through the parliamentary process.

He also was involved in the drafting of the CEDAW Optional Protocol, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and is working with the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions in current UN discussions about a possible new convention on the human rights of older persons. 

The second international expert who will join the advocacy team is Meghan Campbell, an Associate Professor at the University of Birmingham and Deputy Director of the Oxford Human Rights Hub. Her monograph, Women, Poverty, Equality: The Role of CEDAW (Hart 2018) was shortlisted for the Socio-Legal Scholars Association-Early Career Research Prize. The bookoffers an interpretation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to demonstrate how equality and non-discrimination can address the harms of gender-based poverty.

Professor Christine Chinkin Pic credit Twitter

The third international expert is Professor Christine Chinkin CMG FBA is Professorial Research Fellow in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, where she leads three major projects: ‘A Feminist International Law of Peace and Security’ funded by the AHRC, ‘Gendered Peace’ funded by the ERC and the UKRI GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub. Professor Chinkin was Director of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security from 2015-2018.

 She co-edited the book ‘The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: A Commentary’ and authored the chapter on violence against women and girls. She was scientific advisor to the Council of Europe Committee that drafted the Convention on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the ‘Istanbul Convention’), the most far-reaching international treaty aimed at tackling violence against women and domestic violence.

Hannah Wilson Pic credit: Women’s Link

She will be joined by Hannah Wilson who works for Women’s Link Worldwide, an international human rights organisation which seeks to use the power of the law to promote social change which advances the rights of women and girls, particularly those facing multiple inequalities. She is based in Madrid and has recently raised issues about the poor conditions of workers harvesting strawberries in Huelva Spain who are mainly women and women’ rights in Rwanda.

Bright energetic women

In addition the People’s Tribunal have recruited a number of new bright energetic women legal associates as volunteers who are starting out in their careers after graduating. They include Isabelle Ehiorobo, a Law graduate from the University of Sussex; Shauna Lyttle who read history at King’s College London and is now completing a graduate LLB and Natalie Payne a recent LLB graduate from the University of Warwick, ( my former university) beginning a postgraduate study in Human Rights Law in 2020.

When the tribunal gets going it will be on a much broader canvas than the BackTo60 campaign. It will raise issues about poor working conditions, poverty, job discrimination, domestic abuse as well as pension discrimination among many others. It should prove a catalyst making discrimination against women a mainstream issue. It will also be a big fight with the government to get legislation on the agenda.

In the meantime the group has a spanking new website which can be reached here. The campaign is just beginning.

From hero to zero and fighting back: How celeb chef Mark Hix revived his fish restaurant in Lyme Regis

Celebrity chef Mark Hix

The hospitality industry has suffered huge damage because of the Covid 19 pandemic. Not only are chains like Pizza Express , Frankie and Benny’s closing branches but even more up market venues like the Ledbury in Notting Hill.

One of the latter hit was a number of London restaurants run by Mark Hix, a celebrity chef, author, and owned jointly by the Reading based WHS Restaurant Investments where he had a 25 per cent share.

Without his agreement the company went into administration closing its four restaurants in London and one restaurant and town house in Lyme Regis.

The administrator’s report says that even before the Covid 19 crisis ” the business has struggled to maintain sales… with revenue declining in 2018 and 2019 as a result of sector-wide pressure across the casual dining market”.

But instead of accepting this huge setback by just taking early retirement at 57, Mark Hix went back to his roots in Dorset, bought a fish truck and started selling local fish at a local farm shop. The man who was an chef director at Caprice Holdings ( sadly the Caprice is now closed) before he had his own restaurants is now back on home turf.

A table overlooking the sea. Pic credit: Matt Austin

He has managed to buy back the lease from Deloitte’s, the administrators, of his first restaurant in Lyme Regis and is working almost non stop to revive the business with some of his signature dishes. Extraordinarily Deloitte’s won’t allow him to use his name in the title of the restaurant, The Oyster and Fish House, and according to an article in the Telegraph Magazine wanted £11,000 for it.

He is a great example of someone who has refused to take Covid 19 lying down and with luck should benefit from the staycation boom in the UK as people flock to the seaside.

There is a curious bizarre local issue about the place he has got back – none of which, I might say, is anything to do with him. Some 60 years ago the land next to the restaurant including a nearby house, reputed to be summer home of the Cadbury family – the famous chocolate manufacturers – collapsed into the sea. This led to Lyme Regis Borough Council ( as it was then) compulsorily purchasing the land.

What didn’t fall into the sea was the gardener’s home Cliff Cottage and the land surrounding it. This included an old garage on the site.

According to Marilyn Bolton, an ex councillor in the past and his present landlord, an informal agreement was made with the then town clerk on the boundary between the new council owned land and her property. This was strongly contradicted by Stan Williams, the deputy mayor, who said there was no agreement allowing her to encroach on council land.

And it is certain this was never legally clarified. Land registry records show that Mark Hix’s restaurant ( the garage was demolished and a new restaurant built) straddle her property and council owned land – enough for it to be legally codified in a lease agreement in 2013. So he has two landlords.

The view of Lyme from the balcony of the restaurant

To make life even more complicated it also straddles a right of way Stile Lane which according to Dorset Council has never been rerouted or extinguished.

Dorset Council said in a statement: “We can confirm that Footpath W2/12 from Pound Street to Marine Parade in Lyme Regis is obstructed by a number of buildings and landscaping works carried out over many years to re-profile the area following landslips and the creation of Langmoor Gardens.”

“The Highway Authority has powers to enforce an obstruction of the public’s right of free passage over a public highway, but there is an alternative route, which is safer and more commodious for the public. Therefore, this is a considered to be a low priority for already stretched public funds.

” When planning permission was granted to extend the building that is currently obstructing the footpath, this did not give permission to obstruct the footpath. The applicant was advised to apply to divert the footpath by legal order and that this order must be confirmed before work commenced. We do not believe that West Dorset District Council received such an application.”

60 year old row over footpath and land encroachment

None of this would matter at a jot – if it wasn’t becoming a live issue after an elderly resident complained about it to the mayor of Lyme Regis, Brian Larcombe, and the deputy mayor, Stan Williams. They are now investigating this and seek explanations.

It appears that secrecy surrounding property and boundary deals by successive town clerks going back years has come back to bite them by not being open about what was going on.

In the meantime if you want to savour a good meal and are holidaying in Lyme I suggest you dine there and enjoy modern British cuisine. You will be helping a very determined man get his business back on track – in defiance of the bean counters and the bureaucrats who seem to have rather messed up.