M&S hits back at Aldis Cuthbert the Caterpillar cake revival

Marks & Spencer has stepped up its caterpillar rights wrangle with Aldi after the discounter said its Cuthbert cake was returning for charity.

Aldi had stopped selling the cake in February, two months before M&S accused the supermarket of infringing its Colin the Caterpillar trademark.

But now sales of a limited edition version will benefit Teenage Cancer Trust and Macmillan Cancer Support.

M&S said it loved a charity idea, but Aldi should use its own character.

Unveiling the idea on social media, Aldi said: “Let’s raise money for charity, not lawyers.”

M&S replied that a cake based on Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot commercials would be better, adding: “That idea’s on us.”

Last week, M&S lodged an intellectual property claim with the High Court. It said Cuthbert’s similarity with its own Colin cake led consumers to believe they were of the same standard and “rides on the coat-tails” of M&S’s reputation.

The retailer has three trademarks relating to Colin, which it believes means Colin has acquired and retains an enhanced distinctive character.

Rival supermarkets, which all sell caterpillar cakes of their own, remained tight-lipped in the face of the action by M&S, which said it had “not ruled out” pursuing other retailers as well.

M&S said it wanted Aldi to agree not to sell anything similar in the future, but it clearly had not bargained on Aldi’s latest cheeky charity-related move.

“Hey Marks and Spencer we’re taking a stand against caterpillar cruelty. Can Colin and Cuthbert be besties?” said Aldi on social media.

“We’re bringing back a limited edition Cuthbert next month and want to donate all profits to cancer charities including your partners Macmillan Cancer Support and ours Teenage Cancer Trust,” it said, using the Twitter hashtag #caterpillarsforcancer.

Aldi said it was calling on other supermarkets to join it in raising money for cancer charities through the sale of caterpillar cakes.

M&S tweeted back: “Hey @AldiUK we love a charity idea (Colin’s been a BIG fundraiser for years). We just want you to use your own character.

“How about #kevinthecarrotcake ? That idea’s on us… and we promise we won’t do Keith.”

Colin the Caterpillar was launched by M&S about 30 years ago. His appearance has been substantially unchanged since around 2004, except for adaptations for events such as Halloween and Christmas, and related products such as Connie the Caterpillar.

Colin is central to M&S’s partnership with cancer charity Macmillan, and the retailer has created a Colin product for the annual World’s Biggest Coffee Morning fundraising event.

The cake is a sponge with milk chocolate and buttercream, topped with chocolate sweets and a smiling white chocolate face.

M&S was the first retailer to sell a caterpillar cake, but many supermarkets have since created their own similar products.

Other cakes include Waitrose’s Cecil, Sainsbury’s Wiggles, Tesco’s Curly and Asda’s Clyde the Caterpillar.

“Aldi is known to sail close to the wind on creating products which look and/or sound incredibly similar to other brands,” said Gary Assim, an intellectual property specialist at law firm Shoosmiths.

“M&S may find their case against Aldi difficult, since there are other caterpillar cakes on the market. They should have taken a zero-tolerance approach from the start if they felt that Colin and Connie were so important to them.”

Labour: Save Liberty Steel before it goes bust

The government should step in to save Liberty Steel before, not after, it collapses to save thousands of supply chain jobs and millions of pounds, the Labour Party has said.

Liberty Steel and its parent firm GFG Alliance have been in distress since its main financial backer Greensill Capital went bust in early March.

The government has pledged to preserve Liberty Steel in some form.

It said it was “closely monitoring developments” around the firm.

Labour drew parallels between Liberty Steel and British Steel, which collapsed before being bought by Chinese firm Jingye.

The government’s decision to wait until British Steel was insolvent cost the company’s supply chain £500m in unpaid bills, Labour said.

“Labour is calling on ministers to intervene early before liquidation to save workers jobs, terms and conditions, and give customers and suppliers confidence that orders will be fulfilled, bills paid, and domestic steelmaking capacity will be safeguarded,” said shadow minister for business and consumers Lucy Powell.

British Steel was run on government life support by the Official Receiver for five months at an additional cost of £500m to the taxpayer before being sold to Jingye for £50m.

The government said that its intervention enabled British Steel to continue to trade, customers to receive orders, and key suppliers to maintain their services, safeguarding more than 3,000 jobs in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East.

Regarding Liberty Steel, the government said it “continues to engage closely with the company, the broader UK steel industry and trade unions”.

This is not a straightforward situation. Greensill’s spectacular and rapid disintegration, despite the controversial efforts of former Prime Minister David Cameron to lobby on its behalf, have left a complicated Greensill carcass for administrators to pick through.

Invoices issued by Liberty and GFG, which were bought by Greensill for a discount and then sold on to investors, have left many of them billions out of pocket.

Swiss bank Credit Suisse, whose customers indirectly bought the invoices, have issued claims for billions against companies in the GFG group for repayment.

The question for Labour may be, if you rescue Liberty before it goes bust – are you suggesting the taxpayer should pay off those debts?

The government is also keen not to be seen supporting steel tycoon Sanjeev Gupta, who was once known as the saviour of steel thanks to his rescue of many loss making steel plants across the UK. Mr Gupta bought a £42m house in London before asking the UK government for a £170m taxpayer bailout.

The lobbying efforts of Mr Cameron and the access of his banker boss Lex Greensill to Number 10, government departments and the senior ranks of the civil service has provoked widespread outrage and charges of cronyism.

That will not be uppermost in the minds of 5,000 workers at Liberty and other GFG companies who face a nail-biting wait to see if Mr Gupta can find another financier to replace Greensill – or see the company fall into some form of public ownership.

The government has pledged to preserve the company in some form. For the Labour Party, sooner is better to avoid the collateral damage of an insolvency – but this is a very tangled and potentially expensive web to untangle.

HSBC boss Noel Quinn scraps executive floor at London HQ

Banking giant HSBC has confirmed that top managers in its Canary Wharf HQ have lost their offices and will have to hot-desk on an open-plan floor.

It comes as HSBC pursues plans to shrink its office space by 40% in a post-pandemic shake-up.

Boss Noel Quinn said the whole bank was embracing “hybrid working” and he would no longer come in five days a week.

“My leadership team and I have moved to a fully open-plan floor with no designated desks,” he said on Linkedin.

Up to now, senior managers have been based on the 42nd floor of the building in east London in their own private offices.

But in future, they will be jostling for workspaces two floors down, while their old offices have been transformed into client meeting rooms and other communal spaces.

Mr Quinn told the FT that the old arrangement had been “a waste of real estate”, adding: “Our offices were empty half the time because we were travelling around the world.”

In a separate post on LinkedIn he said that after more than a year working from home, being based in an open plan office would allow him to “reconnect with colleagues and friends [and] be able to speak to them informally”.

He added that most staff at the bank would be able to work part-time from home in future.

“A minority of roles can be done wholly remotely. We estimate, though, that most of our roles could be done in a hybrid way – and that includes myself and the executive team of the bank.”

At the same time, HSBC is pushing ahead with one of the banking industry’s most drastic responses to the pandemic, including cost-cutting plans that will reduce its workforce by about 35,000.

Other firms in the sector have announced plans to embrace hybrid working as employees signal their desire to commute less.

One big UK employer, the Nationwide building society, has indicated that it does not intend to force people to return to the office if they have been successfully able to work from home during the pandemic.

It said about two-thirds of its 18,000 employees had been working from home for the past year.

No new smart motorways without additional safety measures

No more smart motorways without hard shoulders will be able to open without additional safety measures in place, the government has said.

It said any new “all lane running” roads would need radar technology installed first to detect stopped cars.

Smart motorways use technology and other measures to cut congestion, such as opening the hard shoulder.

But there are fears about their safety after fatal accidents involving stationary cars being hit from behind.

In a written statement to Parliament, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that for every hundred million miles driven there were fewer deaths on all-lane motorways than conventional ones.

But he added: “We are determined to do all we can to help drivers feel safer and be safer on our roads – all our roads.”

He said Highways England would now accelerate the introduction of a number of safety measures set out last year.

“Most significantly, radar-based stopped vehicle detection technology will now be installed on all operational all lane running (ALR) motorways by September 2022, six months earlier than planned,” he said.

“Highways England has also made a commitment that no ALR motorways will open without radar technology to spot stopped vehicles, enable lanes to be closed where necessary and get help to drivers quickly.”

Other measures include upgrading cameras so motorists ignoring closed lanes indicated by red X signs can be caught and prosecuted, and putting more signs up about distances to emergency refuge areas.

The RAC’s head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes, said the motoring organisation was “concerned that drivers will still need to wait up to 18 months before all cameras are enforcing red X lane closed signs”.

He said: “Enforcement is vital in getting all drivers to obey these signs as anyone who disregards them is at a much greater risk of being in collision with a stranded vehicle.”

Smart motorways, which use technology to maintain the flow of traffic and give information on overhead displays, have existed in England since 2002.

The “all lane running” versions – which involves opening the hard shoulder permanently to drivers – began in 2014.

But a coroner in Sheffield found in January that such roads “present an ongoing risk of future deaths” after two people were killed when a lorry ploughed into their vehicles while they were stationary on the M1 in South Yorkshire.

Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason Mercer died in the accident in June 2019, and who now campaigns against smart motorways, said: “It’s all compromises. Nothing is new. Nothing short of giving back the hard shoulder in every single instance will be acceptable.”

She said she was sitting in a coffee shop with her husband Jason just before he was killed.

“We were sat chatting. At 8 o’clock he got up to leave, kissed me goodbye, told me he loved me, and apparently he was dead by 8:15,” she said.

Her husband and another motorist, Alexandru Murgeanu, had stopped after a minor collision.

She said over the past few months support for her campaign had grown exponentially.

“I just don’t understand why they [the government] are digging in against accepting public opinion… People are starting to get really angry about being ignored.”

In 2019, 15 people were killed on “all lane running” and “dynamic hard shoulder” motorways. This is four more deaths than in 2018.

The number of people being killed on motorways without hard shoulders increased each year from 2015 to 2019, and totalled 39 deaths.

By contrast, on so-called “controlled motorways” – a type of smart motorway which have variable speed limits and a hard shoulder – there were 24 deaths in that period.

On conventional motorways, which cover more of the UK than smart motorways, there were 368 fatalities from 2015 to 2019.

The Highways England report found that crashes between moving and stationary vehicles were more likely on such motorways.

But collisions between two or more moving vehicles – which is how more people die – were less likely due to speed regulation.

The Commons’ Transport Select Committee has launched an inquiry into smart motorways, with chairman and Tory MP Huw Merriman warning there are “genuine worries” about the roads.

And the AA and RAC have raised concerns that vehicles that break down on sections of road with no hard shoulder face greater dangers than before.

Reacting to the Department for Transport’s update, AA president Edmund King said: “It is encouraging that progress has been made on our demands to make ‘smart’ motorways safer. The objective should be to create the safest roads we can.

“The number one improvement advocated by the AA and our members is to increase the number of emergency refuge areas (ERAs) and retrofit them to older schemes to ensure they are placed at approximately 0.75 miles apart.

“More ERAs, together with improving the accuracy of stopped vehicle detection radar, should be the urgent priorities.”

There are plans for about 800 miles of smart motorway in the UK by 2025 – up from just under 500 miles currently.

At the moment parts of the smart motorway network are not monitored by radar technology, but by human observation from watch centres.

It’s the nightmare scenario. Breaking down on a motorway, without a hard shoulder to take refuge on, and with cars and lorries whizzing past inches away.

The government says smart motorways are safer than conventional ones. And it points out that hard shoulders themselves are far from safe. People get killed waiting there, too.

Many motorists will find all this hard to accept, especially when they see other drivers ignoring speed limits or lane closures when incidents occur.

But the government needs to convince them. It’s cheaper to have smart motorways than bigger roads.

That’s why it says it’s going all out to improve safety on roads it claims are already very safe. It wants to reassure people.

The question is, will critics be persuaded?

Major property fund to unlock investors money

A major £2bn UK commercial property fund that has been suspended since December 2019 – locking in investors’ money – will resume trading next month.

Investment firm M&G said investors would be able to access its property portfolio fund again from 10 May.

The fund had been hit by the effects of Brexit uncertainty and troubles in the retail sector, and was suspended after investors consistently took money out.

M&G apologised for the “inconvenience” the suspension caused.

“The decision to suspend was taken to protect the interests of all of our investors, enabling the fund manager to sell assets in an orderly fashion,” said Laurence Mumford, who chairs the fund’s authorised corporate director, M&G Securities Limited.

“We believe this has preserved value for customers, while also maintaining the integrity and future prospects of the fund.”

The M&G Property Portfolio had invested in 91 UK commercial properties, including shopping centres and other retail, industrial and office buildings, on behalf of UK investors.

The same fund was suspended in July 2016 for four months following the UK’s EU referendum when money flooded out of such funds.

During the latest suspension, 38 properties have been sold or exchanged for nearly £1bn, the fund’s managers said.

This created a secure enough position for investors to withdraw their investments, should they wish to, or remain invested in the fund, M&G said.

Some management charges are being reduced until the end of the year.

Ryan Hughes, from investment platform AJ Bell, said investors had been “left in limbo”.

“News that the M&G Property fund will finally resume dealing after nearly 18 months suspended will no doubt be welcomed by the many investors who have been unable to access their money for such a long period,” he said.

“While this reopening is welcome, we shouldn’t forget that the outcome of the Financial Conduct Authority’s consultation into the appropriateness of property in an open ended structure is still outstanding.”

Is Alibabas fate a warning to Chinas tech giants?

It’s been a tough week for Chinese tech firms.

Over the weekend, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s e-commerce giant Alibaba was fined $2.8bn (£2bn) by Chinese regulators, who said it had abused its market position for years.

Then on Monday, Chinese digital payments firm Ant Group – an affiliate of Alibaba – announced a drastic restructuring plan with regulators forcing it to act more like a bank than a tech firm.

And on Tuesday, 34 companies, the who’s who of China’s tech world, were summoned by officials and warned: let Alibaba be a lesson to you.

They’ve been given one month to “self-reflect” and comply with China’s new rules for platform companies.

Alibaba is the grandfather of China’s tech industry. It dominates the marketplace there with over 800 million users in China alone.

That is why it was a wake-up call for others in the tech sector when the firm was fined and officially reprimanded.

The investigation into Alibaba determined that it had abused its market position for years by restricting merchants from doing business or running promotions on rival platforms. The fine amounts to about 4% of the company’s 2019 domestic revenue.

Industry players tell me “everyone is tense”. The big firms are worried they’re next.

Companies like Tencent, JD.com, Meituan, Bytedance and Pinduoduo are all looking at Alibaba’s experience, and trying to avoid crossing any red lines set by Beijing.

On the face of it, Alibaba’s fine is about increased regulation in the sprawling Chinese tech sector, and for many it is a good sign that the market has matured.

“If you read the laws, Chinese regulators are trying to be more forward looking and think ahead, in an attempt to regulate an industry that is moving so fast,” says Rui Ma, a China tech analyst and co-host of the podcast Tech Buzz China.

“They are including the use of algorithms, not just market share. They are trying to understand the platform economy and trying to be in line with what more developed economies are doing.”

But the moves are also seen as political.

They are an indication that under President Xi Jinping, nothing can be bigger or more powerful in the lives of ordinary Chinese people than the Communist Party.

These companies have created an alternative virtual world for Chinese people, and have a huge hold over their lives. You can’t get through a day without accessing one of these apps in China.

But that same influence over the lives of Chinese people puts them in direct competition with the Chinese Communist Party.

Sources in China’s financial circles tell me they suspect it “irked a lot of the top leadership in Beijing” when the godfather of Chinese tech Jack Ma made a speech dismissing the traditional banking sector last year.

The speech led to state media criticising Mr Ma’s businesses Alibaba and Ant Group. Then Mr Ma and his team were summoned by regulators and the much-anticipated share market launch of Ant was suspended.

Observers tell me what Mr Ma said at that symposium has cost him dearly.

It is clear both Ant and Alibaba are keen to draw a line under these events.

In an investor call this week, Alibaba’s executive vice-chairman Joe Tsai said: “From a regulatory standpoint….in our case we have experienced the scrutiny and we’re happy to get the matter behind us.”

He added: “I think on a going forward basis, globally the trend is that regulators will be more keen to look at some of the areas that you could have unfair competition.”

Chinese tech firms were born and grew up in an environment with little or no regulation.

The sector operated a bit like the Wild West, with a “build it and they will come” philosophy.

And for a long time the government actively encouraged that.

“China has had national schemes to promote entrepreneurship and innovation,” Angela Zhang, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong tells me.

She is an expert on Chinese law and is the author of a recent book called Chinese Antitrust Exceptionalism.

“In the past regulators were a bit more lax in their approach. They used alternative regulatory tools which were more lenient to the tech firms.”

But that regulatory landscape is changing as China tries to rein in these firms.

Prof Zhang says that while Beijing is keen to rein in the sector – it won’t want to kill off the economy’s golden goose.

“In Chinese there is a phrase, killing the chicken to scare the monkeys,” she says. “Alibaba will be used as an example, as a lesson for other tech firms to learn from.

“If you put yourself in the shoes of the Chinese leadership, they definitely want economic prosperity. Growth is a major priority of the government. Alibaba’s experience will ensure the others fall in line.”

Rui Ma agrees, and says the rules will help to foster more innovation for smaller companies in China who up till now have been squeezed out by the big players.

“Local venture capitalists I’ve spoken to are generally supportive of these regulations,” she says. “They think there’s more opportunities to find younger, newer companies that never stood a chance before.”

Tesco fined £7.56m for selling out-of-date food in Birmingham

Tesco has been fined £7.56m for selling out-of-date food at three stores in Birmingham.

Offending items were found at two Tesco Express stores, in the city centre and Bournville, and a Tesco Metro in Bristol Road South.

The fine was handed down after Tesco Stores Ltd admitted 22 breaches of the Food Safety and Hygiene Regulations, which happened between 2016 and 2017.

Tesco said it took “immediate action” to rectify problems.

The grocery company was given the penalty at Birmingham Magistrates’ Court on Monday and further ordered to pay prosecution costs of £95,500, the city council said.

The prosecution by its environmental health department came after complaints were received by the local authority about food being sold past its use-by date, triggering an investigation.

Food inspectors visited three of the company’s city food retail premises. The Tesco Metro in Bristol Road South has since been re-branded under Tesco’s discount chain, Jack’s.

Date-checking for the firm is now externally approved by Hertfordshire County Council because the company’s Welwyn Garden City head office is located in that local authority’s area.

A Tesco spokesman said: “We’re disappointed that a small number of out-of-date products were found on sale in three stores in 2016/17.

“The safety of our customers is always our priority and these incidents are not representative of the high standards of safety and quality we expect in Tesco stores.

“We took immediate action to address this at the time and we want to reassure our customers that we have robust procedures in place to make sure that this doesn’t happen.”

The grocery company was also ordered to pay a £170 victim surcharge.

Bank of England to consider digital money plan

The Bank of England and the Treasury have announced they are setting up a taskforce to explore the possibility of a central bank digital currency.

The aim is to look at the risks and opportunities involved in creating a new kind of digital money.

Issued by the Bank for use by households and businesses, it would exist alongside cash and bank deposits, rather than replacing them.

No decision has been taken on whether to have such a currency in the UK.

However, the government and the Bank want to “engage widely with stakeholders” on the benefits and practicalities of doing so.

The taskforce will be jointly led by the Bank’s deputy governor for financial stability, Sir Jon Cunliffe, and the Treasury’s director general of financial services, Katharine Braddick.

The Bank has previously said it is interested in a central bank digital currency (CBDC) because “this is a period of significant change in money and payments”.

The use of cash in financial transactions has been steadily declining in recent years, while debit card payments have been on the rise. Use of credit cards and direct debits have also been increasing.

The Bank also sees having its own digital currency as a way of “avoiding the risks of new forms of private money creation”, including crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin.

“If a CBDC were to be introduced, it would be denominated in pounds sterling, just like banknotes, so £10 of CBDC would always be worth the same as a £10 note,” the Bank said.

“CBDC is sometimes thought of as equivalent to a digital banknote, although in some respects it may have as much in common with a bank deposit.

“Any CBDC would be introduced alongside – rather than replacing – cash and bank deposits.”

Enter Britcoin. The Bank of England has been pontificating about digital currencies for some time. Now it and the Treasury will seriously look into establishing an alternative digital currency to be used by households and businesses. The flotation of Coinbase and the stellar performance this year of various crypto-assets such as Bitcoin and Ethereum is the backdrop.

It would basically be a digital version of sterling, backed by the Bank of England, that could change the payments system, the plumbing of the financial system. It would not be a Bitcoin-style speculative asset with wild fluctuations in value. But there will be limited appeal for the fans of crypto, who invest precisely because of their scepticism about central banks.

Instead, the revolutionary thing here could be the direct relationship that ordinary citizens might have with the central bank, which cannot go bust. It could yield simple, direct means of stimulating the economy and even applying negative rates. Central banks would in theory know when and where every e-cash transaction occurred. China is already ahead in its digital yuan experiments. Part of the rationale is to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of financial innovation.

Most of the world’s central banks are looking into the possibility of creating such a currency, but the only one already in existence is China’s digital yuan, which is currently undergoing public testing.

Among the objectives of the UK taskforce is monitoring international developments, “to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of global innovation”.

The Bank also announced the creation of a CDBC engagement forum and a technology forum, as well as a CBDC unit within the Bank itself, overseen by Sir Jon.

No timetable was announced for the taskforce’s operations.

London Capital and Finance: Treasury expects £120m compensation bill

The government is expecting to pay £120m to bondholders of the failed investment scheme London Capital and Finance (LCF).

LCF collapsed into administration in January 2019, leaving millions of pounds in losses for investors.

The government’s compensation is expected to be paid to about 8,800 people who have not qualified for other payouts.

The City regulator was heavily criticised for its role in the saga.

An independent report published in December said the Financial Conduct Authority failed to “effectively supervise and regulate” LCF.

Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey, who was running the FCA during that period, apologised to those who lost life savings.

Some 11,625 people invested a total of £237m with LCF before it collapsed.

Now the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, John Glen, has announced a scheme which would help the investors in LCF who did not qualify for help from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

Investors will be given back 80% of the money that they lost when LCF went into administration, capped at £68,000.

The amount they are allowed to take will be reduced if they have been given interest payouts from LCF or money from the company’s administrators.

The Treasury said the money would be paid “within six months of securing the necessary primary legislation, which it will bring forward as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

Car insurance sees biggest price drop in six years

British motorists are facing the biggest drop in car insurance costs in almost six years, a price comparison website has found.

Confused.com says the average cost of car insurance has fallen by £87 in 12 months due to lower risk of accidents.

This comes as average mileage dropped by 43% during the pandemic as driving habits changed.

The cost of insurance for men fell by £91, a 14% fall year-on-year, while female drivers are saving £82.

Confused.com’s latest Car Insurance Price Index, in partnership with global insurance broker Willis Towers Watson, tracked six million insurance quotes during the first quarter of 2021.

The data showed motorists in the UK can now expect to pay an average of £538 on car insurance for the next year.

Yet if you’ve received your car insurance renewal in the last three months, you might have seen your insurance premium go up by an average of £45 – an amount derived from the insurance quotes tracked.

The price comparison site says this shows motorists are likely to pay more if they opt to stick with their current insurer.

Consumer group Which? says that while it is good news that prices are coming down, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are guaranteed to get a price reduction on your car insurance quote.

“The reduction in premiums is clearly a reflection in quite a radical change in driver behaviour, and people being on the road less as a result of the pandemic, but in order for consumers to get the best deal on their car insurance, they should spend time on price comparison sites,” said Which?’s head of money Gareth Shaw.

He added that the quote an insurer gives you depends on a set of personalised circumstances, including the type of car you drive, where you live, your driving history, your no-claims bonuses, the technology that might be in your car, the age of your car, or even your relationship status.

“It might be an option but it really depends on where you are in your contract and whether it’s cost effective to switch,” said Mr Shaw.