SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Getty ImagesBillionaire Patrick Drahi has raised his investment in BT amid growing speculation that the telecoms giant could face a takeover bid.The Israeli-French businessman took his stake from 12% to 18%, prompting an immediate government response that it would intervene if necessary.His company, Altice, said it had no plans to make a full bid, but that could change if circumstances do.Mr Drahi stake-building in BT sparked rumours about other possible bidders.The businessman, who also owns auction house Sotheby’s, first began buying BT shares in June.Altice said in a statement: “Over recent months we have engaged constructively with the board and management of BT and look forward to continuing that dialogue.”We continue to hold them in high regard and remain fully supportive of their strategy, principally to play the pivotal role in delivering the expansion of access to a full fibre broadband network – an investment programme which is so important to both BT and to the UK.”However, his move prompted the government to warn it could intervene if required, with ministers concerned that any pressure on BT to cut costs could affect the ongoing broadband rollout.A spokesman said: “The government notes the latest acquisition of BT shares by Altice. We are monitoring the situation carefully.”The government is committed to levelling up the country through digital infrastructure, and will not hesitate to act if required to protect our critical national telecoms infrastructure.”BT said it noted the purchase, adding that it would “continue to operate the business in the interest of all shareholders and remains focused on the successful execution of its strategy and building on recent performance momentum”.Altice said “it does not intend to make an offer for BT”.Under British takeover rules, that bars Mr Drahi from making such a move for six months.Mr Drahi announced in June that he had bought a 12.1% stake in BT, worth £2.2bn at the time.UK companies ‘perform better’ with overseas ownersGigabit broadband: Internet seen as top homebuyer priorityAfter the Brexit referendum, the pound slumped against the dollar and the euro, and it is still below 2016 levels.This gives foreign firms interested in getting hold of UK firms more buying power than prior to Brexit.Due to low interest rates, debt is very cheap, and before Omicron concerns surfaced, investors were also cheered by a global economic recovery from the Covid pandemic.In the first seven months of 2021, UK takeovers hit a 14-year high.The 175-year-old BT is in the middle of a transformational programme to build a national broadband fibre network, a strategy crucial both to the company and the government, which says it wants to boost regional growth.Online shopping and home working using the internet have increased in importance due to the pandemic, all of which make BT a tempting takeover target.While British governments have in the past welcomed foreign investment and takeovers, any full bid for BT would put ministers in a difficult position due to the company’s role in protecting national security.Any bidder for BT would also have to face competition scrutiny.
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Getty ImagesNew criminal offences and major changes have been proposed in the UK’s landmark Online Safety Bill, which seeks to regulate social media and tech giants.A new parliamentary report calls for adding scams and offences, like sending unwanted sexual images and promoting violence against women and girls.A named senior manager at the tech giants should also be made personally liable in court for failures, it said.Those behind the report said “we need to call time on the Wild West online”.Damian Collins, chairman of the joint committee issuing the report, said: “What’s illegal offline should be regulated online. “For too long, big tech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless…. the era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end.”New offences, more finesThe Online Safety Bill is seen as one of the most far-reaching attempts to date to regulate online content, which could have global implications. The first draft, published in May, put a “duty of care” on large social websites to remove harmful or illegal content and protect children. But it was largely left up to the tech giants themselves to police, with oversight from media regulator Ofcom. Image source, ReutersBut the parliamentary report calls for Ofcom to set much more explicit standards, and have even greater powers to investigate and fine big tech firms.Among the many recommendations made over its 191 pages are:An explicit duty for all pornography sites to make sure children cannot access themScams and fraud – such as fake adverts designed to trick users – should be coveredThe bill should cover not just content, but “the potential harmful impact of algorithms”It should also be expanded to cover paid-for advertising, such as those involving scamsThe report also recommends that a wide range of new criminal offences should be created, based on proposals from the Law Commission, and carried in the bill, including:Promoting or “stirring up” violence against women, or based on gender or disabilityKnowingly distributing seriously harmful misinformationContent “promoting self-harm” should be made illegal”Cyber-flashing” – the sending of unwanted naked images – should be illegalSo should deliberately sending flashing images to those with epilepsy, with the goal of causing a seizureMr Collins said these changes would “bring more offences clearly within the scope of the Online Safety Bill, give Ofcom the power in law to set minimum safety standards for the services they will regulate, and to take enforcement action against companies if they don’t comply”.Prison sentencesAnother major addition is the recommendation that tech firms must appoint a “safety controller” who would be made liable for an offence if there were “repeated and systemic failings”. The idea has recently been pushed by the new Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries – who warned of potential prison sentences for serious offenders, and that the planned two-year grace period would end up being three to six months.Image source, PA MediaBut Ms Dorries’ sweeping powers in the first draft should also be limited, the report says. It argues the draft bill’s definition of “illegal content” is “too dependent on the discretion of the secretary of state”.It was planned that Ms Dorries and her successors would have the power to exempt some services, modify codes of conduct, give “guidance” to Ofcom, and exercise powers on national security grounds – which the committee says should be variously restricted, removed, or subject to oversight.Cyber-flashing likely to be made illegal – DorriesThe unlikely rise of Nadine DorriesAnd while many of the changes were welcomed by child protection advocates including the NSPCC, others remain concerned about potential free speech issues.’Remains worrying’The draft bill and this report both lay out exemptions for journalism, public interest, and free speech.But think tank the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) said the report “fails to alleviate the gigantic threats posed by the draft Online Safety Bill to freedom of speech, privacy and innovation”.The report recommends removing a controversial section dealing with “legal but harmful” content for adults, which critics had feared could lead to unintended widespread censorship.Image source, PA Media”The replacement – defining a series of ‘reasonable foreseeable risks’ – remains worrying,” said ASI’s research head Matthew Lesh. “It would still mean speech being less free online compared to offline.”The report also did not make any moves to ban the use of end-to-end encryption, which has been criticised by some politicians and child safety advocates as enabling criminal activity.Facebook encryption ‘must not cause children harm’Children ‘at risk’ from encrypted message appsMet: Tech giants make it harder to stop terroristsInstead, it recommends that the use of encryption should be a “risk factor” included in risk assessments the tech companies must complete under the bill.But the Internet Society, a non-profit organisation which campaigns for an open internet, said the committee “has been too eager to ignore” the risks of any move to undermine encryption.”The findings released today are, sadly, a reflection of a public debate largely framed in misleading and emotive terms of child safety,” the group said in a statement.”As a consequence, we see a bill that will result in more complex, less secure systems for online safety, exposing our lives to greater risk from criminals and hostile governments.”The government now has two months to respond to the committee on this report, and the bill is expected to reach Parliament – the next stage of becoming law – early next year.
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Getty ImagesFood industry representatives have warned that the UK is facing a “worsening food supply chain crisis” without sufficient help from the government.The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has called for the government to commit to keeping the country’s self sufficiency in food production at 60%. The NFU has convened a summit of organisations to discuss the issues on Tuesday.Staff shortages will also be discussed. A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “The government acted quickly to tackle the challenges to our supply chains”.Half of families £110 a year worse off since 2019Christmas dinner costs rise as inflation bitesFamily spending predicted to rise £1,700 a yearThe rising cost of living, spiking energy prices and worker shortages have all combined to increase the pressures on the food industry throughout the pandemic. Businesses have struggled to recruit workers, partly due to the pandemic, but this is also compounded by Brexit, according to the leading international agency the The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.”Britain’s farmers are world-leaders in producing climate-friendly food and, over the past 18 months, have been working hard to keep shelves and fridges full despite many being impacted by severe supply chain issues,” said NFU president Minette Batters. “Government has tried to paper over the cracks with short-term fixes, but if we want to avoid this crisis continuing, long-term solutions are urgently needed to ensure a resilient supply chain,” she added. Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium also urged the government to give a “clear strategy” for solving labour shortage issues and a “coherent food policy” to maintain UK production. The Defra spokesperson pointed out that the government had expanded the number of visas available under the agricultural Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme to 30,000. Pig sector still in ‘meltdown’But Dr Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, said: “The UK pig sector is still in meltdown as worker shortages continue to impact our ability to process the number of pigs we already have on farms.”Labour shortages in abattoirs meant adult pigs were not being killed fast enough during October. Farmers had to kill healthy livestock as mature pigs continued to “back up” on farms.Image source, Getty ImagesThe industry blames the shortage of people to slaughter pigs in abattoirs on factors including the pandemic and Britain’s exit from the European Union.”The entire food supply chain and government must pull together and resolve the backlog now or we will have no independent pig producers left,” Dr Davies added. Bob Carnell, chief executive of ABP UK (Anglo Beef Processors), agreed that more help was needed to attract and retain more skilled workers from the UK and abroad in order to “ensure a level playing field for quality British meat when compared to imports”. Focus on local supply chainsChief executive of the National Sheep Association Phil Stocker also supported the call for the government to commit to maintaining that 60% of the UK’s food supply is self-sufficient. Mr Stocker said the sheep industry had not been as badly impacted as other sectors, thanks to it having more diversity in its supply chain, with a high proportion of about 45,000 small family farm businesses. While he said that some of the sheep industry’s meat processors were not operating at the same efficiency as a result of staff shortages, he said a reliance on smaller family farms meant that the sector was more resilient. “Our domestic supply chains are the most environmentally friendly and secure way of ensuring food security so we need to focus on keeping it local,” he added. The calls come after recent analysis by the independent economic consultancy Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) projected that the UK’s inflation rate would rise to 4.6% by Christmas, mainly due to higher fuel and energy prices.Compared with December 2020, the CEBR said a UK family of two adults and two children is predicted to spend £33.60 more per week, due to inflation, adding up to £1,700 per year. Alongside labour shortages, supply chain problems affecting the availability of many goods have increased prices, while demand for oil and gas has pushed up energy prices worldwide too.
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Getty ImagesThe government has agreed to foot the bill for the compensation of former Post Office workers who were falsely convicted of theft in the long-running Horizon saga.The Post Office has said they are unable to cover the payments for the exonerated individuals. As the Post Office’s only shareholder, the government has now agreed to pay, as first reported by Sky News.Details are set to be announced in Parliament as early as Tuesday.After that, discussions about final settlement figures can begin with the individuals involved. The Department for Business said that the impact on postmasters’ lives and livelihoods “cannot be overstated”.Post Office scandal: ‘It’s been a strange 15 years’Why were hundreds of sub-postmasters prosecuted?Postmasters in IT scandal to get up to £100,000Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses – an average of one a week – based on information from a recently-installed computer system called Horizon.Some went to prison following convictions for false accounting and theft, many were financially ruined and have described being shunned by their communities. But it was the software at fault, containing “bugs, errors and defects” according to the High Court judgement which quashed many of the convictions.Some died before campaigners won the legal battle to have their cases reconsidered. The government’s bill keeps growing as more elements of this scandal emerge. Despite having spent millions on their own legal costs pursuing sub-postmasters through the courts, the Post Office has essentially said it can’t afford to pay for any of the clear-up. As the sole shareholder, it’s up to the government to settle up. They had already agreed to pay the costs of the scheme that refunds the money that branch managers put in to cover the holes that the IT was incorrectly showing. That bill will run into the millions and cash advances are now being paid to some of those people.Now the government has agreed to fund whatever financial settlements are reached with those who were wrongly convicted in court.Money can never cover the loss of livelihoods, family relationships and the loss of freedom for some of those convicted, but it’s likely some will see settlements worth multimillions.After decades of overlooking reports of problems at the Post Office, the government is now having to use the deep-pockets of the taxpayer to make amends.A spokesperson from the Department for Business said that the government was “committed to seeing these longstanding Horizon issues resolved” and that it would provide financial support as well as interim compensation payments for those workers with overturned convictions. “We are also learning what went wrong through the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, and ensuring something like this cannot happen again,” they added.The Post Office declined to comment when asked by BBC News.But in a speech in April, its chief executive Nick Read admitted that: “We have to accept that it is the Post Office that caused what for some has been very deep pain.”Absent the possibility of turning the clock back, compensation appropriate to that pain must follow.”He also urged the government to ensure funding is paid to those former Post Officer workers quickly and efficiently.A scheme, backed by the government, had already been set up to arrange financial redress and compensation for those affected. As of June, about 400 payments had been made to those affected.’It’s been a strange 15 years’A former Post Office worker who waited 15 years for justice celebrated having his conviction overturned in November with “a nice cup of tea”.Anthony Gant, of Newtown in Powys, was wrongly convicted of false accounting back in 2007, when software showed his branch to be short of more than £14,550.He was one of six more former Post Office workers to have their criminal convictions overturned at Southwark Crown Court last month.”It has been a very strange 15 years,” Mr Gant told the BBC. He was left in utter disbelief when the sums stopped adding up each week.”I thought it was a mistake. I was making good the losses myself, topping it up. I was drawing out money on credit cards, but in the end I had no funds to keep doing it,” Mr Gant explained. “I buried my head in the sand.”Read more about his story here.
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, ReutersUK households have remained “resilient” despite the end of the furlough scheme and other Covid support measures, the Bank of England has said.But uncertainty over health risks and the economic outlook remains, said its latest Financial Stability Report.Covid could still have “a greater impact” on the economy, especially in light of new variants, it said.The report comes three days before Bank policymakers announce their next decision on interest rates.The cost of living rose by 4.2% in October, its highest rate in almost 10 years.This surge in inflation, which tracks the cost of living over time, has led analysts to predict an increase in interest rates from their current record low of 0.1%. But doubts have recently set in because of the spread of the Omicron variant.Image source, Getty Images”The UK and global economies have continued to recover from the effects of the pandemic. But uncertainty over risks to public health and the economic outlook remains,” said the Bank.”For example, there are near-term pressures on supply and inflation, and there could be a greater impact from Covid on activity, especially given uncertainties about whether new variants of the virus reduce vaccine efficacy.”The Bank of England’s financial stability committee said the risks to the financial system had returned to their levels before the pandemic began. “Major UK banks are strong enough to keep supporting households and businesses, even in severe scenarios,” the Bank said.Interest rate rise hangs in balance amid OmicronUK prices soar at fastest rate for almost 10 yearsBank of England sorry for rising cost of livingIt is consulting on lifting emergency measures introduced to give banks more room for manoeuvre at the start of last year. Banks will now once again have to build up an extra buffer of capital to guard against future shocks, worth 1% of all their loans (known as a counter-cyclical capital buffer). That will rise to 2% next year.The Bank is also consulting on loosening affordability limits on mortgages. It is examining whether to drop a requirement that lenders should test whether borrowers could still afford repayments if interest rates rose by 3% above the standard variable rate.It added in its report that getting funds together for a deposit is still the most significant barrier to home-ownership.
SharecloseShare pageCopy linkAbout sharingImage source, Getty ImagesNatWest has been fined £265m after admitting it failed to prevent money-laundering of nearly £400m by one firm.A gold trading business suspected of money-laundering deposited £700,000 in cash into one NatWest branch in black bin bags, a court heard on Monday.A criminal gang deposited huge sums of cash across about 50 branches, prosecutors for the UK’s financial watchdog said.NatWest said it deeply regrets failing to monitor the customer properly.It is the first time a financial institution has faced criminal prosecution by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) under anti-money laundering laws in the UK.The fine would have been much higher, but it was reduced because the bank had pleaded guilty, the judge said at the sentencing hearing.Image source, ReutersNatWest, which is part of the Royal Bank of Scotland group, pleaded guilty to three offences under UK money-laundering regulations in October.The bank’s chief executive Alison Rose said: “NatWest takes its responsibility to prevent and detect financial crime extremely seriously. “We deeply regret that we failed to adequately monitor one of our customers between 2012 and 2016 for the purpose of preventing money-laundering.”She added that while the case had come to an end, the bank would continue to invest in fighting financial crime.Lack of reportingBradford jewellers Fowler Oldfield’s predicted annual turnover when taken on as a client by NatWest was £15m. But it deposited about £365m over five years, including £264m in cash.The company, which was shut down following a police raid in 2016, was initially marked as “high-risk”, but that was downgraded in December 2013.The FCA’s lawyer Clare Montgomery said there “was a rapid escalation in the amount of cash” being deposited from November 2013, with figures reaching up to £1.8m a day. By 2014, Fowler Oldfield was NatWest’s “single most lucrative” client in the Bradford area. Southall received about £42m in cash between January 2015 and March 2016, for example, but no report was made that it was suspicious.That is despite lawyers saying earlier on Monday that one person in Walsall arrived at a branch with so much cash, packed in bin-liners, that they broke and the money had to be repacked.Image source, Getty ImagesMs Montgomery added that the cash did not even fit in the branch’s floor-to-ceiling safes.NatWest did not properly look into numerous warnings generated by its systems, the FCA lawyer said earlier on Monday.One rule designed to flag suspicious activity was disabled by the bank because it created too many alerts, “so the bank decided it should be deactivated”, Ms Montgomery added, while NatWest also recorded cash deposits by Fowler Oldfield as cheques between 2008 and March 2017.The National Crime Agency also raised concerns at one point because of the high number of Scottish banknotes being deposited in England, the court heard.And a NatWest cash centre in north-eastern England raised queries about Scottish banknotes, saying that they had a “musty smell”, suggesting they might have been stored rather than in normal circulation.New 159 fraud hotline launched to counter threatNatWest sets aside £3.2bn to cover bad loansThe state-backed bank was “in no way complicit in the money-laundering which took place”, the judge said at Southwark Crown Court on Monday.But they added: “Without the bank’s failings, the money could not have been laundered.”Sara George, partner at Sidley and a former prosecutor for the Financial Services Authority, told the BBC that it was clear there were failings at every level.”It’s hard to imagine a much more clear indication of criminal proceeds than black bin-liners of money. It’s extraordinary,” she said.She added that the “landmark” case showed that the UK’s financial watchdog was “committed to using a fuller spread of its enforcement powers” to stop money-laundering, which she described as “anything but a victimless crime”.