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UK house prices continued their ascent in April ahead of the stamp duty holiday deadline. Business, Media…

   NEWS / 11 May 2021

Published: 11 May 2021

By Suzanne Evans, Director, Political Insight


The pound surged back to over $1.40 yesterday, its highest level since late February, after the Conservative party made significant gains across England in the most recent elections. Sterling was up 0.87% against the dollar at $1.4112 in afternoon trade, and 0.86% ahead against the euro at €1.1603, recovering from sharp losses suffered last week. The Tories won control of 63 local councils in the election, 13 more than they had before, while Labour lost eight it controlled previously.
 
UK house prices continued their ascent in April ahead of the stamp duty holiday deadline, gaining 1.4% compared with March and 8.2% compared with April last year. The jump is the highest annual growth rate in five years. The average house price in the UK in April was £258,204.
 
Workers employed across the £37bn NHS test-and-trace service are being paid through networks of opaque small companies that experts fear could be defrauding the Treasury via a notorious tax scheme, according to The Guardian. The newspaper investigated after sources working at Covid-19 call centres, testing sites, mobile testing units and laboratories raised concerns about their payslips and employment terms. Headed by the Conservative peer Dido Harding, NHS test and trace has become one of the biggest sources of new jobs during the pandemic, with a workforce of 50,000. The Guardian alleges that some contractors are using a scheme involving a complex chain of mini umbrella companies - often fronted by directors in the Philippines – that allow employers to dodge their national insurance contributions.
 
PM Boris Johnson has confirmed that there will be further lockdown easing in England from 17 May. The 'rule of six' will apply indoors; groups of up to 30 people can meet outdoors; pubs and restaurants can open indoors; and cinemas, theatres, concert halls & sports stadiums can open.
 
Chancellor Rishi Sunak declared in his budget that eight new English freeports would be a “transformational” benefit from Brexit, but it has now emerged that post-Brexit trade agreements included clauses that will prevent businesses reaping the benefits of the tax-efficient zones if they export to a list of 23 countries. Freeports are special trade zones that do not function under the same tax rules as the rest of a nation: a company can import products into a freeport without having to pay the UK tax rate and process the item in the UK before selling it on, at which point it incurs standard taxes. According to research by the Labour party, Britain’s exports of goods to the 23 countries concerned were worth £35.56bn in 2019, almost 10% of the UK’s total global goods exports that year.
 
The government is said to be preparing to sell up to around £1bn of NatWest Group shares, some 5% of the bank, Sky News has reported. The broadcaster says several institutional investors have been approached about a potential placing of shares in the company, whose retail holdings include NatWest, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Ulster Bank. The placing would see the state's stake reduced to 55%, the lowest holding since it bailed out the then RBS Group in 2008. The placing would mean another huge loss for the Treasury: it paid around 500p per share for the bank in the midst of the 2008 banking crisis; at close yesterday shares in NatWest Group were down 1.47% at 196.90p.
 
According to the latest figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC), along with KPMG, total shop sales in Britain increased by 7.3% across the month of April, compared to the same month in 2019, as restrictions eased for non-essential stores under Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown. This was above the 3-month average growth of 6%, Yahoo Finance UK reports.  Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC said, however, that sales growth was “fragile”, and high streets still had “a long way to go on the path to recovery”.
 
The UK’s largest shoe store has opened in the Westfields shopping centre in London's White City.  Shoeaholics is selling more than 20,000 pairs of shoes and has what the brand calls the "most diverse collection of shoe brands" available. Shoeaholics was established in 2014 by Kurt Geiger, originally as an online only business. It notched more than £25m in sales last year.
 
FTSE 250 firm Provident Financial says it will place its troubled home-credit business into run-off or consider a sale, putting 2,100 jobs at risk.  A £74.9m loss at the home-credit business sent Provident Financial to a £113.5m pretax loss for the year to the end of December from a £119m profit a year earlier. The firm was founded in 1880 when Joshua Widdilove, an insurance agent, spotted that families were struggling to pay for basic items such as furniture and clothes. He lent them money and employed agents to collect the debt in small weekly instalments. In recent years the home credit business has caused Provident problems: a botched overhaul attracted an investigation by the Financial Conduct Authority and customer complaints have soared, threatening the business with collapse.
 
Royal Mail says it will trial the use of drones to deliver health and safety equipment, COVID-19 testing kits and other items to the Isles of Scilly, Sky News reports. It will be the first time an out-of-sight autonomous scheduled drone flight has been used between the UK mainland and an island, the company said. 

Banking giant HSBC plans Zoom-free Friday afternoons for some UK staff in an effort to tackle stress caused by working from home during the pandemic. The trial programme follows similar plans announced by other firms to boost well-being among employees. It applies to its commercial banking unit, which covers current accounts, loans, mortgages and credit cards.
 
A report from the US-based think-tank the Institute for Policy Studies has found that S&P 500 companies with the lowest-paid workers increased the average pay of their CEOs by 29% in 2020, despite cutting workers’ pay by 2%.  The report says the firms boosted CEO pay by changing the rules for assessing executive performance during the COVID-19 pandemic by lowering performance targets, giving retention bonuses and swapping out stock awards linked to financial results with time-based share grants. The firms, which include Coca-Cola Co, cruise ship operator Carnival Corp and fast-food corporation Yum Brands Inc, reduced median worker pay by 2% to $28,187 on average in 2020 compared to 2019, and increased median compensation for their CEOs by 29% to $15.3 million. More companies are facing shareholder backlash against their CEO pay this year than last, Reuters has reported.


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