Cladding: Ministers face rebellion over fire safety costs

More than 30 Tory MPs are urging ministers to change a bill to ensure leaseholders in England will not have to pay for emergency fire safety work.

The government’s Fire Safety Bill – introduced to strengthen regulations following the Grenfell Tower fire – returns to the Commons on Wednesday.

Conservative Stephen McPartland warned owners could face repair costs of up to £50,000 if the bill is not changed.

But No 10 has hinted it is unlikely to accept his amendment.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “We think the package we have come forward with is the right balance and will sort this issue for them and their constituents.”

Following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which killed 72 people, many blocks were found to be unsafe and thousands of flat owners have since faced huge bills to pay for repairs.

Earlier this month the government announced it was putting £3.5bn towards removing unsafe cladding from buildings over 18m high.

This comes on top of a further £1.6bn for cladding removal announced last year.

The government also said owners of flats in lower-rise blocks would be able to access loans to cover repaid work – and that they would not have to pay back more than £50 a month.

However many MPs are worried the government’s Fire Safety Bill does not provide sufficient protection for owners.

Conservatives Mr McPartland and Royston Smith argue that the bill as it stands would allow freeholders to pass on costs to leaseholders.

Writing on his website Mr McPartland also says the £50 repayment cap covers cladding repairs but not other costs such as increased insurance premiums or work to install sprinkler systems.

“Leaseholders are being bankrupted by these costs in all our communities and cannot sell their properties with these debts attached,” he says.

“We cannot abandon leaseholders to the crippling costs of massive insurance premiums, waking watch and remediation of defects which were not deemed unsafe when they bought their property.”

The backbench amendment – tabled by Mr McPartland and Mr Smith – has support from Labour who said the government should “do the right thing”.

Shadow policing and fire minister Sarah Jones said: “This is an opportunity for the government to finally put the public’s safety first and to deliver on the promises it has made to leaseholders.

“Blameless victims of this crisis, who are living in dangerous homes and facing financial ruin, expect nothing less.”

Although the amendment has support from opposition MPs, the government’s large majority – and the fact that only English MPs can vote on the bill – mean it is unlikely to pass.

Women boardroom roles make dramatic jump in five years

Women now make up more than a third of top 350 UK company boards thanks to a “dramatic” shift in appointments.

The number of women on boards rose by 50% from 682 to 1,026 in five years.

The figures were released by the government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review, which was launched in 2016 to encourage UK-listed companies to appoint more senior women.

It said they showed “a dramatic shift in representation at the very highest levels of British business”.

The news was welcomed by campaigners such as the 30% Club, which champions better boardroom representation of women around the world.

Ann Cairns, global chair of the organisation, said: “The Hampton-Alexander Review has played a significant role in bringing about greater gender diversity to the boardrooms of Britain’s biggest companies.”

But she said, progress in female representation at the highest levels remained “fragile and slow”.

The Hampton-Alexander Review’s statement said that FTSE 100, 250 and 350 firms all reached the target of women making up 33% of boards by the end of 2020.

It said that, unlike countries including France which have introduced quotas, the target is voluntary.

Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said: “FTSE companies have made incredible progress in recent years, but we cannot become complacent in building a society where everyone has an opportunity to get on and succeed.

“The UK government’s voluntary, business-led approach to increasing women’s boardroom representation has been hugely successful and will, I hope, serve as a blueprint for countries across the world looking to make business more reflective of society.”

Mary O’Connor, acting senior partner at KPMG UK, said: “It’s hard to believe that as recently as 2011, 43% of the FTSE 350 still had all-male boards. Thankfully the representation of women on boards and in leadership positions has significantly improved in recent years, with this review having played a critical role in realising that.

“Our collective efforts to truly eradicate those barriers and create an inclusive leadership culture doesn’t stop here, this is where it intensifies.”

Oatly looks to raise money in stock market float

Oatly, the plant-based milk company started in Sweden, is planning a stock exchange listing in the United States.

The move comes as the firm has been pushing to expand, amid the booming popularity of alternative milks.

Last year, it raised $200m (£160m), drawing investment from celebrities including Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey and Natalie Portman.

The firm, which is sold in more than 20 countries, did not say how much money it hoped to raise in the listing.

But over the last 12 months, investors have shown strong appetite for shares of companies making their publicly-traded debuts. Market valuations for firms such as Airbnb, dating app Bumble and food delivery platform Doordash have soared.

Oatly, an early oat milk pioneer, is said to be seeking a value of as much as $10bn, compared to the $2bn value suggested by July’s investment round.

Founded in the 1990s, previous investors include the state-owned China Resources and Verlinvest, a Belgium-based investment firm.

When it launched in the US in 2016, the product was so popular it suffered shortages. It now boasts partnerships with retail giants such as Starbucks and has expanded its products from milk to ice cream and yogurt and is eyeing growth in China.

Researchers have predicted that the market for dairy alternatives could almost double over the next five years, as increased dairy allergies and concerns about dairy’s environmental impact push shoppers to look for plant-based options.

In the US, almond milk is the top seller, but oat passed soy last year to claim the second most popular spot.

Oatly, which reported more than $200m in sales in 2019, has cast itself as a champion of plant-based milks, which it says are better for the planet.

But the firm has been challenged by the traditional dairy industry and faces competition as companies such as PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats and dairy giant HP Hood launch their own brands. New milk alternatives, made from products like peas, have also gained in popularity among consumers.

Gérard Depardieu: Rape investigation into French actor

French actor Gérard Depardieu has been formally placed under investigation over accusations that he raped an actress at his home three years ago.

The woman accuses him of raping and assaulting her in Paris in August 2018.

His lawyer told French news agency AFP that Mr Depardieu “totally dispute[d]” the allegation, and the investigation should not have been made public.

The arts world in France has been shaken by a series of accusations of sexual abuse against leading figures.

Mr Depardieu, 73, is one of the country’s most famous actors, known for films including Jean de Florette, Green Card and Cyrano.

An initial investigation into the rape allegations was dropped in 2019, with prosecutors citing insufficient evidence, but was reopened last summer. Prosecutors formally placed Mr Depardieu under investigation in December 2020.

He is free but under judicial supervision.

The woman’s lawyer, Elodie Tuaillon-Hibon, told AFP she hoped her client’s “private sphere” would be respected as the case unfolded.

Able to combine bearish physicality with emotional delicacy on screen, he has appeared in some 170 films, getting his big break in 1973 with Les Valseuses (Going Places).

He won the best actor award for Cyrano at Cannes in 1990, and was nominated for an Oscar for the same role.

Green Card, an English-language comedy made the same year, brought him further acclaim outside the French-speaking world.

Off-screen, he made headlines in recent years for attacking French tax laws, moving to Belgium in protest.

In 2013, he took Russian citizenship, with his decree of naturalisation signed personally by President Vladimir Putin.

Councils Libor legal action against Barclays bank thrown out

A legal claim against Barclays led by eight councils over bank loans they alleged were affected by the Libor rigging scandal has been thrown out.

The local authorities took out long-term loans with the bank between September 2006 and November 2008.

They had argued the loans were “tainted” by the bank’s representations concerning Libor interest when they were offered.

But a High Court judge concluded they would not be successful at a trial.

Leeds, Greater Manchester, Newcastle, North East Lincolnshire, Nottingham, Oldham, Sheffield and Newham councils launched action to cancel the loans in 2018.

On Monday, Mrs Justice Cockerill struck out the claims, saying they had “no real prospect of success”, following an application by Barclays.

Libor, the London Interbank Offered Rate, is the benchmark interest rate that tracks the cost of borrowing cash.

The judge said it had been “of fundamental importance to global financial markets” as it helps to assess the overall health of the banking sector and is widely used by financial institutions for various purposes, including setting rates for their products.

She said the Libor rigging scandal “erupted” in 2012 when it was discovered that a number of banks were “engaged in manipulating the various Libor benchmarks”.

The banks submitted rates which “served their own purposes” instead of submitting their “genuine assessment of the rate at which they thought they could borrow”, she told the court.

“The scandal led to fines, prosecutions and reforms on both sides of the Atlantic.”

It was “common ground (and public knowledge) that Barclays did in fact engage in Libor manipulation, but that the precise nature and extent of the banks involvement in it is “very much in issue”, the judge added.

Hillary Clinton to publish State of Terror novel

Hillary Clinton has written her first novel, a thriller featuring a US government “dangerously out of touch” amid a series of terror attacks.

State of Terror, which follows a novice secretary of state, will be released on 12 October 2021.

Mrs Clinton, a former presidential hopeful, secretary of state and first lady, penned the book in partnership with author Louise Penny.

It explores a world of “high stakes diplomacy and treachery” she said.

The novel’s protagonist has “joined the administration of her rival, a president inaugurated after four years of American leadership that shrank from the world stage”.

It features a series of terrorist attacks which throws the global order into disarray, and the secretary is tasked with assembling a team to “unravel the deadly conspiracy”.

Mrs Clinton served as US secretary of state under the Obama administration for four years from 2009 to 2013, before losing against Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race.

Publishers promise behind-the-scenes drama “informed by details only an insider could know”.

Mrs Clinton, the author of numerous non-fiction works, described writing with Penny as “a dream come true”.

“Now we’re joining our experiences to explore the complex world of high stakes diplomacy and treachery. All is not as it first appears.”

Canadian crime author Penny, known for the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, said it was “an incredible experience to get inside the State Department, inside the White House, inside the mind of the secretary of state as high stake crises explode”.

She added: “Before we started we talked about her time as secretary of state. What was her worst nightmare? State Of Terror is the answer.”

Ms Clinton is not the first in her family to turn her hand to fiction. Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, teamed up with novelist James Patterson for The President Is Missing – a thriller about a president forced to go off-grid for his own safety.

State of Terror will be published jointly in the US by St Martin’s Press and Simon & Schuster and in the UK and rest of the world by Pan Macmillan.

It follows a series of memoirs from Clinton, most recently 2017’s What Happened, also published under Simon & Schuster, that attempted to explain why she failed to become president.

The book sold 300,000 copies in the US in a week.

Facebook and Google too powerful says CMA boss

Tech giants Google and Facebook have too great a share of the UK online advertising market, the boss of the UK’s competition watchdog has said.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) would like regulatory changes to deal with that market dominance, its boss Andrea Coscelli told the BBC.

Google and Facebook have faced criticism from competition and other regulators in the past.

Facebook said it faces “significant competition” online from rival firms.

Google has also been approached for comment by the BBC.

When questioned by the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan, Mr Coscelli said that the two tech giants have a “duopoly” in the UK when it comes to digital advertising, which can often be bad for competition.

Google and Facebook have about an 80% share of the UK’s £14bn digital advertising market, which is “not an ideal situation”, Mr Coscelli said.

“We think it would be good if we got to a situation where others had a bigger share of the market,” he said.

He also described the fact that Google holds about 90% of the UK’s £7.3bn search advertising market as a “problem”.

Facebook currently has a more than 50% share of the £5.5bn display advertising market in the UK, which is too much, Mr Coscelli said.

“When companies have too much economic power, that creates a number of distortions, first for competitors, secondly for consumers, and at some level potentially in terms of the political process as well, in some cases,” he said.

“We, in general terms, like to see markets more competitive, with more players, with more diversity of players, because we think that delivers better outcomes.”

A Facebook spokesman said its platform “gives millions of people and businesses in the UK the opportunity to connect and share.”

He added: “Advertisers can and do freely move their [advertising] spending between TV, radio, print, outdoor and online.

“And in online advertising itself, we face significant competition from the likes of Google, Apple, Snap, Twitter and Amazon, as well as new entrants like TikTok, which keeps us on our toes.”

Mr Coscelli stopped short of saying that Facebook and Google should be broken up.

“Our current proposal is not to break them up, it’s to have pro-competitive regulation to deal with some of the issues, but it would allow the companies to maintain all the current activities that they have,” he said.

The CMA said in December it plans to issue Facebook, Google and the other tech giants a set of rules customised to each firm to rein in “anti-competitive behaviour” and give consumers “more control over how their data used”.

It is set to create a Digital Markets Unit within itself to draw up the rules and govern compliance, although legislation is required which may not be introduced until 2022.

Silicon Valley firms have recently faced increasing scrutiny from other regulatory bodies around the world.

Before the UK’s exit from the European Union, competition regulation for global or pan-European companies was done through Brussels.

Google has been hit with a number of competition fines by the European Commission over the years, including a €1.49bn (£1.28bn) fine in 2019 for blocking rival online search advertisers.

Facebook is also facing competition action in the United States from federal regulators and more than 45 state prosecutors who are accusing the social media company of taking illegal action to buy up rivals and stifle competition.

Dating apps scam committed by criminal from inside prison

“It’s one of the easiest ways to get money to be honest. If you’ve got a girl and she works and she’s into you, why not ask her to send over money? Lawyers are the best obviously.”

Jamie – not his real name – is in his early 20s .

For the last few years he made money by scamming women, usually those a lot older than him, who were looking for love.

He did this while in prison for an unrelated crime, using an illegal mobile phone he had hidden.

He was recently released and spoke to the BBC’s File on 4 programme.

He says he will not commit the fraud again, and wants to make amends by exposing some of his tactics to serve as a warning to others.

“It was a last resort kind of thing, I just saw how easy it was,” Jamie says.

“The most I ever got from a girl was £10,000… every week she was sending me £100, £200.

“I’ve forgotten her name now, I don’t see it as a relationship, I [saw] it as work.”

He says his accounts were blocked after the victims reported them, but he was never punished for the frauds.

He says people using dating apps should watch out for men contacting them who are a lot younger or “better looking”, who start asking for money, especially if they have never met in person.

Jamie says he picked his targets by looking for those he thought likely to be lonely and lacking attention from others on the apps. His theory was that they would be more willing to “do anything” to avoid risk losing the connection.

And he says he would use his real photographs, confident that his looks would help lure victims in.

“I would go for older women and look for the desperation,” he says.

“Keywords would be like ‘I just want happiness’ or something like that. I’ll act cool at the start and if she talks back then I know she’s interested just from my pictures.

“From then, that’s when I start putting my game on, selling you dreams like ‘I want a kid with you.’

“[I] just say everything that she wants to hear until she’s fallen in love.”

Until he felt that his victim was emotionally attached, Jamie said he wouldn’t tell them he was in prison.

He claims that he often messaged women for months, charming them before revealing the fact.

When he did, he says he lied about the reason he was jailed, telling women it was for driving offences rather than violent crime.

In 2020, there were nearly 7,000 reports of so-called romance fraud.

It cost victims almost £70m last year. And according to trade association UK Finance, there has been a 20% increase in bank transfers relating to romance fraud during the pandemic.

Di Pogson, a 59-year-old widow, gave away her entire life savings of £40,000 to someone she met on a dating app.

It turned out to be a scam. The man she’d fallen for did not really exist.

He was the creation of three fraudsters who preyed on vulnerable women across southern England.

“I always had in the back of my mind that I would never, ever be conned. I was too savvy,” she says.

“But then ‘Kevin’ came along and he was charming. He was interested in me.

“It started off at just under £500 for his vet bills, and the sums gradually went up.

“When I completely ran out of money, he called me all sorts of names, he stopped answering his phone.

“Alarm bells rang and I went to the police.”

She says she felt gullible and stupid.

“I told the children. It was horrible having to tell them I had lost so much money to somebody I had never met.”

PC Bernadette Laurie, a financial abuse safeguarding officer, says many of the cases reported to police last year happened during lockdown, when people felt more lonely than usual.

Victims often discovered they had been fooled, she adds, when the criminals failed to meet up after the restrictions eased.

She recommends following advice by Action Fraud.

These behaviours could signal your prospective partner is not what they claim to be:

One way of checking on photos can be to do a reverse image search via Google Images, Bing Visual Search, TinEye or another similar service.

Twenty-five of the UK’s police forces also provided data in response to a freedom of information request made by File on 4.

This suggested that of the country’s most popular dating apps, Tinder, Plenty of Fish and Grindr were the ones most associated with crime reports between 2018 and 2020.

Over this time, the number of crime reports associated with dating apps rose by 24% to 903 reports last year.

This is only a partial data set. Eighteen forces, including some of the country’s biggest like the Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester Police, PSNI, and Police Scotland, did not provide data, meaning the actual crime numbers are likely to be significantly higher.

The File on 4 documentary The Dangers of Dating Apps will be broadcast at 20:00 on Radio 4, Tuesday 23 February and then be available on BBC Sounds

Manchester Arena attack: Senior officers may not have read new terror plan

A new counter-terrorism plan was issued 10 days before the Manchester Arena attack but it may not have been read by senior officers, an inquiry has heard.

Insp Simon Lear from Greater Manchester Police (GMP) was charged with coming up with the plan issued on 12 May 2017.

He told the the attack inquiry it was a “distinct possibility” officers had not seen it as it was marked as “Draft”.

The chairman also ruled that medical reports for a friend of the Manchester Arena bomber can now be disclosed.

Twenty-two people were killed and hundreds more injured when Salman Abedi detonated a bomb at the end of an Ariana Grande concert on 22 May 2017.

Following attacks on the Bataclan Theatre and Stade de France in Paris, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) reviewed 15 police forces about their plans to deal with marauding terrorist firearms attack (MTFA).

Inspectors told GMP the force’s plans for Operation Plato were deficient but this was never passed on to Mr Lear.

Five months later, Mr Lear was ordered by his boss Supt Leor Giladi to carry out an “urgent review” of the plan and given a month to do so.

A key weakness of the original plan, identified by inspectors, and apparently common knowledge in the force, was the position of the force duty officer (FDO).

This is the senior officer in charge at HQ at the time of any terror attack, the inquiry heard.

It had already been pointed out that the officer would have so many substantial tasks to carry out in the early stages of a terror attack that he would be quickly overburdened and the police response compromised.

Although the inspectors had pointed out the weakness, it was not until five months after their debrief that Mr Lear was told by his boss that GMP needed a new plan for an MTFA.

Yet in the revised plan, drawn up by Mr Lear’s colleague Sgt David Whittle, rather than reducing the workload of the FDO, it made no mention of the officer in such a position needing to delegate tasks and requiring help.

The new plan was approved and distributed on May 12 but, due to a “clerical error”, Mr Lear said it was emailed out to FDOs and commanders marked as “Draft”.

The inquiry also heard how Mr Lear, who had 20 years’ experience, left the unit responsible for counter-terrorism planning in Greater Manchester because it was so under-resourced it was making him ill.

Mr Lear recalled how the department had already suffered job cuts when he took over in 2014 and he did not believe the unit was properly resourced.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the inquiry Sir John Saunders has ruled that medical reports for a convicted terrorist organiser can be disclosed to the core participants with irrelevant personal information redacted.

Abdalraouf Abdallah, who was visited by the arena bomber in prison in the months before the attack, is refusing to give evidence to the inquiry.

The families of those who died wanted to know the medical reasons why Abdallah cannot be forced to give evidence.

In his ruling, Mr Saunders said it was “essential that the fitness of Abdallah is subject to detailed forensic examination”.

The inquiry continues.

Spotify: Price rise could push users into piracy

Raising the price of music streaming services could lead to a rise in piracy, MPs have been told.

The music industry has been keen to increase prices for some time, saying it could help artists earn more money.

But Spotify told MPs it was wary of tweaking its monthly £9.99 subscription fee, which hasn’t changed in a decade.

If music becomes “unaffordable to consumers”, warned chief legal officer Horacio Gutierrez, it could end up “pushing them back into online piracy”.

Gutierrez was giving evidence to a digital, culture, media and sport select committee inquiry into the economics of streaming.

It was set up last year to investigate whether musicians are being paid fairly by services like Spotify, Amazon Music and Apple Music.

All three appeared before MPs on Tuesday, but much of the talk was about one of their rivals – YouTube.

Apple Music’s Elena Segal said it was difficult for streaming services to compete with the music available on Google’s video-streaming site.

“Competing with free is very difficult,” she said. “It’s challenging to compete on an un-level playing field.

“They don’t necessarily have licenses for all the music that they use, and they don’t need to,” she said, referring to the “safe harbour” laws that protect YouTube from legal claims when users upload copyrighted material.

“Even when they do have licenses, the amount they pay… is less.”

Segal added that the mere fact of YouTube’s existence prevented other streaming services from raising their prices.

Another factor, she explained, was that the same songs are available on almost every music streaming service, unlike Netflix and Disney Plus, which can lure customers in with original films and TV shows.

“Those things do make it challenging to just put prices up in a vacuum… because people can just opt to go to free or to another service that will have the same music,” she said.

However, both Amazon and Spotify conceded they would not end their free, ad-supported services if YouTube was to disappear.

It is not the first time that the DCMS inquiry has heard accusations against YouTube.

The company was accused of “making an absolute fortune from other people’s work” by committee chair Julian Knight MP, after being told that YouTube paid UK record labels £35m in 2020, about half what they earned from selling vinyl records.

By contrast, Spotify said they generated £474m for the UK music industry last year.

However, Katherine Oyama, director of government affairs and public policy at YouTube said the company’s payments were “absolutely on a par” with Spotify and other streaming platforms.

Earlier this month, she told MPs YouTube had paid $3 billion (£2.1billion) to the global music industry in 2019.

Pressed on the BPI’s claims, Oyama said record labels were pointing fingers at YouTube “to alleviate hard questions about their own industry”. She also called for more “transparency” on how the money paid to the industry was divided up before going to artists and songwriters.

Earlier sessions of the inquiry saw testimony from Chic’s Nile Rodgers and members of Radiohead and Elbow, as well as executives from all three major labels.

Elbow frontman Guy Garvey said the way artists are paid for audio streams was “threatening the future of music”.

“That sounds very dramatic,” he told MPs, “but if musicians can’t afford to pay the rent… we haven’t got tomorrow’s music in place.”

By contrast, Universal Music UK’s chairman and chief executive, David Joseph, told the inquiry that artists were “very happy with the investment, very happy with advances” they currently received.

He was interrupted by SNP MP John Nicolson, who said: “I think you’re living in cloud cuckoo land here if you really believe that.”

Much of the discussion has centred around whether artists receive a fair share of the £1bn generated in the UK when their music is played online.

At Tuesday’s session, all three streaming companies said they were willing to investigate new ways of distributing money.

One such suggestion is the user-centric payment system where, if you only listen to Dua Lipa, your entire subscription fee would go directly to her.

Under the current system, all the money earned by streaming services is pooled before being distributed according to market share – so if Dua accounts for 1% of all streams on Spotify, she and her label receive 1% of the money.

“We would definitely be open to looking for alternative models and considering them,” said Spotify’s Horacio Gutierrez. Paul Firth of Amazon Music agreed, saying, “we should take a look at a number of these approaches” to see whether they really benefit the artist.

Segal, however, cautioned that a new approach would need to be agreed by everyone who supplies music to the streaming services before it could be implemented.

At present, Spotify is believed to pay between £0.002 and £0.0038 per stream, while Apple Music pays about £0.0059. YouTube pays the least – about £0.00052 (or 0.05 pence) per stream.

All of that money goes to rights-holders, a blanket term that covers everything from massive record companies to artists who release their own music. The cash is then divided up between everyone involved in making the record.

Often, the recording artist will only receive about 13% of the revenue, with labels and publishers keeping the rest. Songwriters and studio musicians receive even less.

Independent labels tend to make more equitable deals, with some offering a 50/50 split of the profits. Artists who self-release their music stand to receive more – but may find it hard to compete with the promotion and marketing a major label can supply.

Tuesday’s hearing was the last session before MPs write their report on the streaming economy.

It featured a brief cameo for The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who recently signed a lucrative deal to produce and host podcasts for Spotify.

“Can Harry and Megan save the music business?” asked conservative MP Steve Brine.

“That seems a little bit premature,” laughed Gutierrez, who conceded that the duke and duchess had been signed because they were good “box office”.

“At the end of the day, it goes back to attention economics,” he said.

“The product is valued on the bas[is] of how many users it can attract, how many streams it will attract, which in turn determines how many advertisers are willing to advertise on the podcast.

“There is a market that is emerging for talent in that regard”.

However, the couple’s podcast won’t generate any additional revenues for musicians on Spotify, unless they play licensed music within the show itself.