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Department for Business, Innovation and Skills accused of retrospectively rewriting rules of loan scheme
The government is facing the threat of a judicial review into its handling of an investigation into Barclays’ involvement in a state-backed loan scheme.
An investigation into a loan made by the bank in 2006 under the small firms loan guarantee scheme was extended last month by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills after an intervention by Michael Fallon, a business minister.
However, questions have been raised about the latest examination of evidence by the auditors RSM Tenon on behalf of the department. The loan was made to a company owned by Yorkshire businessman Jeffrey Morris who has alleged Barclays did not comply with eligibility rules imposed by the loan guarantee scheme.
“The new report makes no sense to me,” Morris said. “It is selective in the information it relies upon, it is inconsistent with itself and the evidence, it rewrites the scheme rules and it is inconclusive. The only way I can get justice for myself and the taxpayer is to seek a judicial review. I have spoken to my lawyers who believe there is a case for a much wider and fully independent judicial enquiry.”
The scheme for startup businesses, which guaranteed banks a return if their investment defaulted, has cost the taxpayer at least £200m in compensating banks. The Guardian reported on the loan in September, prompting the department to commission RSM Tenon. Papers seen by the Guardian show, allegedly, that Barclays sought collateral for the deal and gave the loan to a long-established business – actions that contravened the scheme’s terms. Morris defaulted on the loan in 2006, but Barclays reclaimed most of the balance owed – £91,667 – from the taxpayer.
Morris argues that an internal email sent by Barclays in May 2006 shows the bank had arranged a loan under the guarantee scheme for his business, Diamond Shape, even though he still had available collateral. Under the terms of the scheme, a loan could be guaranteed by the government only if the borrower had exhausted all other forms of collateral.
The new investigation examined a key email from Barclays, discussing a meeting with Morris, which indicates that the bank sought collateral for the loan. Referring to the department’s former guise as the Department for Trade and Industry, it says: “Looking for NewCo SFLG of £200k asap – this has been sanctioned by DTI. We advised we would need to see at least either share charge or property charge in place prior to drawdown.”
This suggests Barclays was seeking further collateral before making the money available to Morris, in direct contravention of the scheme’s rules. However, the new RSM Tenon report makes no mention of this part of the email. Instead, it focuses on the shares and property Morris was offering to Barclays as additional collateral. The reports admits that Mr Morris had further collateral available at the time the loan was made.
The new RSM Tenon report also appears to suggest that although the bank was seeking further personal collateral from Morris, this did not breach the key rule that any such loan could be made only when all other personal collateral had been exhausted. Barclays has said that the crucial email does not relate to Diamond Shape and had no relevance to the SFLG application.
Referring to the email, the report says: “The extent to which he was being asked to support the borrowing … personally does not, in itself, invalidate the making of an SFLG loan.” The department could not explain how this apparent retrospective rewriting of the scheme’s rules was justified. A department spokesperson said: “The department is satisfied that all relevant and necessary evidence from the loan application process, from all parties, has been properly considered.”
Barclays said: “Barclays co-operated fully with the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and RSM Tenon during their thorough audit of the loan made to Diamond Shape Limited by Barclays in 2006. Weare pleased to acknowledge the findings of the final report which found that ‘the loan and business appear to meet the eligibility criteria of the scheme at the time’. Barclays remains committed to lending and will utilise government schemes, where appropriate, to help make funds available to our customers and clients.”
RSM Tenon declined to comment.
Telecoms watchdog Ofcom has published data showing the theoretical maximum – £5bn – the chancellor could have received, rather than the £2.3bn actual total
George Osborne’s takings from the 4G mobile spectrum sale were nearly £3bn lighter than the top prices bid by operators.
In a flourish similar to the classic Bullseye gameshow, in which the host showed losing contestants a car or luxury holiday with the catchphrase “and here’s what you could have won”, telecoms watchdog Ofcom has published data showing the theoretical maximum the Treasury could have raised.
The figures show that the highest bids for 4G spectrum, which will be used for faster mobile internet services, came to £5.2bn.
The total dwarfs the £2.3bn that will actually be paid into the public purse and tops the £3.5bn the chancellor had budgeted for in his autumn statement.
However, Ofcom says the maximum bids were only theoretical. This is because the auction used a second price rule, in which winners only pay a little more than the sum offered by the second highest bidder. This supposedly made the auction harder to rig.
Insiders and analysts countered that with different rules the amount would have been closer to Osborne’s original estimate. “Ofcom over-engineered the auction and it neither raised the amount that the government was looking for nor did it ensure that spectrum found its way into the hands of everybody who wanted it,” said a source at one bidder.
The format is not unusual, with Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark all having used it for their spectrum sales. One element that unarguably kept prices low was Ofcom’s decision to set aside spectrum for Three, the smallest network, which only paid the reserve price for its slice of airwaves.
Ofcom also imposed caps on the amount of more valuable low-frequency bands that Vodafone and O2 were allowed to buy, because they already owned significant amounts before the auction.
“We are entirely comfortable with the rules that we put in place on the caps and the reserved spectrum to ensure that there is effective competition in future to the benefit of UK consumers and businesses,” said Ofcom.
Vodafone, which emerged with more airwaves than other bidders having spent £790m, submitted a £2bn maximum bid, while Telefónica, owner of the O2 brand, was prepared to pay up to £1.2bn.
Daniel Gleeson, telecoms analyst at research firm IHS, said the Treasury’s loss should be the consumers’ gain because winners would have enough spare change to invest in masts and equipment.
“The second price rule decreases the amount for the Treasury but operators also have an extra £2bn or £3bn to spend on building out the networks,” said Gleeson. “The 3G auction worked out well for the Treasury in 2001 but it meant the operators were very slow in rolling out the networks because they burned so much cash. Ofcom wanted to be sure that didn’t happen this time.”
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