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1 Stop directors made millions

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1stopTHE PEMBROKESHIRE HERALD can reveal that 1 Stop Financial Services directors Timothy Hughes and Andrew Rees obtained massive incomes while mis-selling pensions products to nearly 2,000 customers across the UK.

Mr Hughes’ total declared income received during the period October 2010 to November 2012 was £1,511,846, while Mr Rees benefited to the tune of £1,181,437 at the same time.

After obtaining further information from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the Pembrokeshire Herald is able to expand and clarify its article concerning the activities of Haverfordwest financial advisors Tim Hughes and Andrew Rees, who formerly traded as 1 Stop Financial Services.

The Herald can reveal that, while the pair were cleared of dishonesty by the FCA, elements of the conduct that led to the pair being ordered to pay penalties to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme in the region of £500,000, are capable of being construed as sharp practice.

In particular, the FCA highlights how the pair managed to rake off referral fees for themselves from a separate and unregulated company, EGI, of which they were both directors and shareholders.

Mr Rees and Mr Hughes not only obtained commission as introducers of business but fees from their customers in the region of £3,000 a time.

This receipt of financial benefit created a conflict of interest, as 1 Stop advised customers to transfer their pensions into a SIPP in order to purchase an underlying investment when Mr Rees and Mr Hughes had also a financial interest in facilitating the sale of that investment to the customer (through EGI). However, the pair failed to disclose, manage and mitigate adequately this conflict of interest.

Even when a declaration was placed into customer documentation recording the link between 1 Stop and EGI, it failed to mention the financial interest of Mr Rees or Mr Hughes in EGI.

As a result of their actions, 1,959 of 1 Stop’s customers were at risk of having invested a total of £112,331,229, mostly from pension funds including some final salary schemes, into SIPPs which may not have been suitable for them.

The FCA also found that customers’ wishes to securely invest their pension savings in secure products were ignored and risky investments entered into instead. In the case of one customer who wished to adopt a low-risk strategy, their final salary pension fund was channeled into an unsuitable and very risky investment.

In addition, customers including a joiner, builder and a publican were all certified by Messrs Rees and Hughes as having a high level of understanding of risky “wrapper-type” investments involving complex property transactions. The FCA did not believe the records created by 1 Stop in this regard.
49% of those customers affected were encourage to invest in overseas property developments operated by Harlequin Properties. None of those customers received any advice from 1 Stop on the suitability of that overseas property investment.

The Harlequin group of companies are engaged in the development and distribution of overseas property investments and resorts.

On January 18, 2013, the FCA issued an alert to financial advisers about investments in overseas properties bought through Harlequin Property.  In March, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) announced that it, together with Essex Police, was looking into complaints in relation to the Harlequin group.   Investors who have invested in specific resorts were asked to contact the SFO.

On May 3, 2013 administrators were appointed for Harlequin Properties.

1 Stop customers who invested in risky investments on the advice of Mr Rees and Mr Hughes have been placed at significant risk of potentially losing all of their money.

In light of their personal liability for the negligent and incorrect advice tendered to their customers, Mr Rees and Mr Hughes were both banned from performing any significant influence function in relation to any regulated activity, carried on by any authorised person, exempt person or exempt professional firm.

In both cases, the FCA decided to impose that penalty neither Mr Rees nor Mr Hughes were judged a fit and proper person in terms of competence and capability.

Harlequin Property are the primary agent for Harlequin Hotels and Resorts, who they say create luxury five star resorts in various locations across the Caribbean. Their mission statement is to,
‘deliver excellent long term returns on clients’ investment by selecting property developments in the most desirable locations’.

The Serious Fraud Office told The Herald that: “The SFO, together with Essex Police, continues to investigate the Harlequin group of companies. We are not able to comment on the on-going investigation nor are we able to comment on an individual’s particular investment.”

In 2013 Harlequin were caught up in a mortgage scandal that saw investors in their properties put at risk of losing around £400 million of deposits.

Investors in Harlequin’s various property ventures and hotel resorts were required to pay a deposit of 30% of their property’s price to secure their investment. Where investors needed to take out a mortgage to pay for the remaining 70% of the property purchase, Harlequin offered to provide a loan which the investors could pay back upon completion.

However, investors were then asked to find around £157,150 each to pay for the properties without the aid of Harlequin’s ‘value guaranteed mortgage’.

Gareth Fatchett, partner at Regulatory Legal speaking in New Model Advisor, said, “Only 2% or respondents could complete without a mortgage, which means 98% of people will go into breach of contract, and Harlequin is saying if they don’t complete their payment they’ll lose their deposit. Advisers should have known from the outset there was not a mortgage available. I’d go so far as to say we’ve seen no evidence of a mortgage relating to a Harlequin property. I suspect the 10% or 15% commissions may have made advisers not check. It’s a huge mis-selling [scandal]. Advisers knew the people they were taking into these contracts couldn’t afford to complete, so therefore the mortgage was by far the most vital thing.”

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Business

Welsh Government releases additional £100M business support

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The latest phase of the Welsh Government’s Economic Resilience Fund has benefited from the release of a further £100million from ministers within 72 hours of launch, due to a massive demand.

More than 6,000 grant applications from small and medium sized businesses and social enterprises were received within 24 hours of the launch on Friday – an unprecedented response, revealing the scale of the challenges facing Welsh businesses.

The Fund aims to complement and fill the gaps left by UK Government schemes such as the Job Retention Scheme, with grants of up to £10,000 for micro-enterprises and up to £100,000 for SMEs and a light touch appraisal system designed to get money to businesses with the minimum of delay – as well as a new loan fund administered by the Development Bank of Wales.

Less than three weeks since the First Minister announced the intention to create the Fund, the Welsh Government has released a further £100 million, taking the grant fund to £300 million. This will supplement this latest phase of support, providing non-repayable grants to microbusinesses, SMEs and those large businesses of critical, social or economic importance to Wales.

The Fund has been warmly received by trade union and business organisations, with the Institute of Directors calling it ‘very welcome news for business owners and managers who are desperate for all the help they can get at this difficult time’. The South and Mid Wales Chambers of Commerce has called ‘the rapid response to date’ of the Welsh Government in supporting the economy of Wales ‘impressive’. The Wales TUC welcomed ‘additional funding to address the gaps’.

Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales Ken Skates said:  “We knew that even with the help offered by initiative such as the Job Retention Scheme, there was a massive need for quick access to grant funding if Welsh businesses were to survive this unprecedented economic shock. Whilst in order to make the scheme quick and simple we needed to take tough decisions over eligibility – like requiring businesses to be registered for VAT as a way of having to check on their trading history – it is clear from the level of response received that the Economic Resilience Fund is plugging a gap in UK Government support and providing much needed financial reassurance to many businesses at this challenging time. We will continue to review support and consider how we can develop it over the coming days.

“The rate of applications has been massive and unprecedented. This is the second time in a matter of weeks that access to Welsh Government funds aimed at easing cash flow pressures for Welsh business have quickly reached capacity, and we have responded with pace to release a further £100m into this phase of the fund.

“In these difficult and demanding economic times we have worked hard to free up resources to create such a large Fund despite the huge demands on our budget, and to strike a balance between supporting as many enterprises as possible and making a meaningful contribution to each one’s survival, as well as asking each recipient to sign up to the principles of the economic contract.

“Though we applaud much of what the UK Government has done, there is an urgent need to see more of the promised lending guaranteed by the UK Government getting to the front line. The UK Government must continue to support and press the high street banks to be much more responsive to the needs of our businesses at this difficult time.”

Finance Minister Rebecca Evans said: “The Economic Resilience Fund is part of more than £2bn of support that we have made available to help businesses and charities during these incredibly difficult times.

“We know that support for business is crucially important but whilst we are doing everything we can in Wales to plug any gaps and provide the best possible financial support to businesses, it is clear there are further steps that the UK Government needs to urgently take.”

The Economic Resilience offers financial support to help businesses, charities and social enterprises deal with the coronavirus crisis and will be vital in helping organisations manage cash flow pressures. It is a unique additional funding stream for Wales and was designed to address gaps not currently met by schemes already announced by the UK Government, Welsh Government and Development Bank of Wales.

The first stage of the Fund saw the £100 million Development Bank of Wales’ loan scheme fully subscribed in little more than a week. Applications are currently being processed and some businesses have already received funding. It is anticipated that the Development Bank will have processed all applications received within the month.

To ensure that money reaches businesses as quickly as possible more than 120 additional Welsh Government and Business Wales staff have been diverted onto processing applications and supporting businesses and organisations in this latest stage of the Fund.

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Business

Smarter working for a smarter workforce

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THE WAY an organisation responds to challenges is testament to its values, its planning and its employees.

Covid-19 has gathered pace which has been unprecedented – and is a situation that the majority of us could never have anticipated.

Facing this pandemic and being prepared has been a challenge for all tiers of Government – but Pembrokeshire County Council’s capability to reposition its workforce is thanks to embracing the Smarter Working approach.

Our investment in technology has enabled the organisation to have more than 750 staff working flexibly to keep vital services running.

Introduced in the summer of 2018, the Smarter Working project is about harnessing the potential of flexible working in a strategic way, to deliver benefits both for employees and the business.

It is well-recognised that the principles of Smarter Working acknowledge that technology and flexible working patterns are changing the way we work for the better.

Councillor Neil Prior, the Council’s Cabinet Member for Transformation and IT said: “The Council’s employees understand that we are in a fast-changing communication and technology world.

“Culture and behaviour change has enabled us as an organisation to benefit from the advances in IT and an improved flexible use of our estate.

“I’d like to thank the IT team who have been working incredibly hard to support our Business Continuity planning. The investment we have made in technology over the last couple of years has meant that we’ve been able to see a greater number of staff work from home, which is exactly in line with the Government’s advice to ‘work from home where possible’.

“I would also like to thank staff who have adjusted their working patterns and are going over and above in their efforts to prepare our County to respond in the best possible way to the current situation.”

The world of work is changing, and people no longer need be tied to a desk. Pembrokeshire County Council can now work smarter, in a way that saves money, time and improves productivity.

As part of the Council’s approach to smarter working and refining the estate – two key changes were implemented.

The conversion of Haverfordia House – which previously accommodated staff – into a reablement centre also enabled the Council to list the Cherry Grove building in Haverfordwest as surplus to requirements, ensuring cost avoidance over the next 10 years stretching into millions of pounds.

Regarding the response specifically to Covid-19 – the stats are impressive. They include:

  • 95 per-cent of IT department working remotely
  • Skype – average unique users logged in: 1,200
  • almost 14,000 one-to-one skype sessions – this equates to more than 1,200 conferences and in excess of 60,000 audio and video minutes used
  • figures showcase the Council’s ability to enable its staff to work flexibly and keep vital services running
  • Community Hub has received more than 700 calls
  • the Council’s Cabinet is continuing to meet via videoconferencing.

Councillor Prior added: “We take pride in the relationships that we are building with our communities – and I am extremely proud of the work that has gone into the planning and the commitment shown by the Council’s staff.

“Pembrokeshire County Council has a history of positive relationships with our colleagues within health, third sector agencies and emergency services – and we are all working together to support each other through this challenging time.”

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Business

Covid 19 grants for small businesses

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COUNCILLOR PAUL MILLER, the Authority’s Cabinet Member for Economy, Tourism, Leisure and Culture, has announced that applications for business support grants can be made from today (March 27, 2020).

Access to the online application form can be found on the Council’s Business webpage via the following link:
https://www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/business-advice-and-support

You can email other business enquiries about the impacts of Covid 19 via the following email address: covid19businesssupport@pembrokeshire.gov.uk
Councillor Miller said: “The team have been working flat out to get this scheme up and running as we know just how important this support is to business right now.
“Government has promised the cash will be with us by the 1st April and the second it is, we’ll be distributing that support to our businesses.”

The following grants are available to small businesses to support the costs associated with the impact of Covid 19 on their businesses as follows:
• small business grant funding of £10,000 for all business in receipt of small business rate relief or rural rate relief
• grant funding of £25,000 for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses with property with a rateable value between £15,000 and £51,000
Councillor Miller added: “I know our local businesses are doing all they can to sustain jobs and livelihoods. Our job is to get assistance to them as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“While our application form wasn’t the first to go live – we were hoping not to need an application at all – we have developed an automated system which will allow us to begin making payments, into businesses bank accounts, the minute funds arrive from Government.”

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