Published: 16 March 2022
Location: London, UK
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is visiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates today, despite both countries’ records on human rights coming under renewed scrutiny. In a statement issued before his departure, Johnson justified the visits saying: “The UK is building an international coalition to deal with the new reality we face. The world must wean itself off Russian hydrocarbons and starve Putin’s addiction to oil and gas. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are key international partners in that effort. We will work with them to ensure regional security, support the humanitarian relief effort, and stabilise global energy markets for the longer term.” However, there is particular controversy over his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh as it comes just four days after the mass execution of 81 people in the kingdom, and amid ongoing international outrage about the Prince’s alleged role in the brutal assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Johnson will also visit the UAE’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said “going cap in hand from dictator to dictator is not an energy strategy”.
The government has issued further sanctions against Russia and Belarus. Measures include:
- Denying Russia and Belarus access to Most Favoured Nation tariff for hundreds of their exports, depriving both nations key benefits of World Trade Organisation membership
- Adding an additional 35% tariff on vodka and other products on an initial list of goods worth £900 million in export income
- Banning the exports of luxury goods to Russia alongside G7 allies.
Two shareholders of top private Russian lender Alfa-Bank have resigned, leaving five minority shareholders each with a non-controlling interest, Reuters reports. Alfa-Bank said German Khan and Alexey Kuzmichev, who held respective stakes of 21% and 16.3%, had resigned. The bank's co-founder and largest shareholder Mikhail Fridman was one of several business figures sanctioned by the European Union and Britain over Russia's actions in Ukraine. Fridman holds a 32.9% stake, while his business partner Petr Aven, who was also sanctioned, holds 12.4% of the bank. Both men vowed to contest the EU sanctions imposed on them, which Fridman described as "groundless and unfair".
FTSE 250 car dealership operator Inchcape said it was offloading its Russian business - which accounted for around 10% of group sales last year - after the invasion of Ukraine made it "untenable" to operate in the country. Inchcape's business in Russia is a retail-only operation which contributed £750m of revenue in 2021, a sum Inchcape says it now stands to lose.
The Church of England (CofE) is putting pressure on TotalEnergies over its decision not to cut business ties with Russia in the wake of its Ukraine invasion. In a joint letter to TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne, the CofE’s Pension Board and the Church Commissioners for England noted the company was at odds with the actions taken by many of its peers and that they would reconsider their shareholding in the French energy giant unless the firm urgently reviewed its decision. TotalEnergies has condemned Russia's aggression but has not followed BP and Shell in withdrawing from Russia. The extent of the cofE’s shareholding in TotalEnergies is not clear, the BBC says.
Germany is planning to bring mothballed coal power stations back in to use to help wean the country off Russian gas. The Telegraph says that one of Europe’s largest energy companies, RWE, yesterday said it was reviewing which plants could be brought back online and stood ready to fire them up should they be needed. RWE added: “It is up to the German government to decide if these units will need to operate on a temporary basis and to what extent they should be used to reduce gas consumption." Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government is scrambling to reduce German dependence on the Kremlin’s oil and gas; Germany currently relies on Russia for two thirds of its natural gas imports.
More than 21,500 Airbnb hosts have offered their homes to refugees. The holiday home rental firm said roughly 14,000 hosts across Europe and 4,000 in the US had offered their homes to refugees via Airbnb’s charitable arm, Airbnb.org, which has also raised more than $36.7 million (£28.14m) in donations to relief efforts in Ukraine from Airbnb and its founders, individual donors and Airbnb employees.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram says Ukrainians can no longer demand Putin’s death on its platforms. Previously, despite its hate speech rules, Meta's controversial moderation policy, allowed calls for the death of Vladimir Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Russia subsequently opened a criminal case against the social media firm calling it an “extremist organisation” and banned Instagram in the country. The main Facebook app had been already banned. However, in a post on the company’s internal platform on Sunday that was seen by Reuters, Meta global affairs President Nick Clegg wrote: “We also do not permit calls to assassinate a head of state ... So, in order to remove any ambiguity about our stance, we are further narrowing our guidance to make explicit that we are not allowing calls for the death of a head of state on our platforms”.
Meanwhile, Meta has been fined 17 million euros for breaching EU privacy rules. The fine, imposed by the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC), follows an investigation into a series of 12 data breach notifications received by the watchdog between June and December 2018. The DPC has found that Meta failed to put in place “appropriate technical and organisational measures which would enable it to readily demonstrate the security measures that it implemented in practice to protect EU users’ data”. The Irish Data Protection Commission is the social network’s lead regulator in Europe, the Evening Standard says.
Meta has also announced it has joined Stop Scams UK in a bid to protect consumers from online fraudsters.
The Bank of England (BoE) is set to hike UK interest rates for a third time in a row tomorrow in an attempt to stem rising inflation. Economists expect the bank’s Monetary Policy Committee to lift rates by 25 basis points to 0.75%. Another 0.25 percentage point rise is also forecast in May, taking rates to 1%.
MPs have been told that the Government did not provide data to banks to help them prevent billions of pounds of fraudulent Covid loans. Hannah Bernard, the head of business banking at Barclays, said her bank had asked HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for up-to-date figures on the turnover of borrowers before handing out bounce-back loans in 2020, but had been told it was not available. Instead, the bank had to ask the business what its turnover was, and hope it told the truth. “The scheme necessitated a lot of self-attestation, particularly the businesses’ turnover,” she told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. “Ideally we would have wanted an HMRC data feed so we could have checked the turnover they were stating…We made the suggestion, it wasn’t available.” Bernard added that of the 7.5% of loans that the Government estimates might have been taken out fraudulently, a vast majority would have been due to self-attestation of turnover. Barclays’ data currently shows around 1.5% of fraud in the scheme, but she said this could rise.
The number of people taking out a debt relief order (DRO) in England and Wales last month was 61% higher than a year earlier, according to Insolvency Service figures. DROs are a formal type of personal insolvency aimed at people with unmanageable debts of below £30,000, The Independent says. There were also, on average, 6,384 individual voluntary arrangements(IVAs) registered per month in the three-month period ending February 2022. Some 588 bankruptcies were also registered. Christina Fitzgerald, vice president of insolvency and restructuring trade body R3, said: “It’s clear that the economic issues of the last two years are starting to take their toll on people’s financial health”.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has fined five companies a total of £405,000 for making over 750,000 predatory and unwanted marketing calls targeting the elderly. The UK’s data watchdog found the firms had bought marketing data lists from third parties, having asked specifically for personal information about people aged 60 and over who were homeowners with landline numbers. The investigation was launched following complaints from the public and organisations including Action Fraud, Trading Standards, the consumer group Which? and the call blocker provider trueCall.Complainants said many of the people receiving the calls were vulnerable, with some suffering with dementia. The companies concerned – who all broke the law by making calls to people registered with the Telephone Preference Service - are Domestic Support, Home Sure Solutions, Seaview Brokers, UK Appliance Cover, and UK Platinum Home Care Services, who received the largest fine of £110,000.
Fuel retailers have been urged to pass on falling wholesale costs as the latest rise in forecourt prices pushed the bill for filling up a typical family car with petrol above £90. Figures from data firm Experian Catalist showed the average price for a litre of petrol at UK forecourts on Monday was 163.7p with diesel at 173.7p, both new records. However, the wholesale price of fuel has been dropping and on global markets, the Brent crude oil benchmark slid below $100 a barrel briefly yesterday. RAC fuel spokesman Simon Williams said: "It's now vital that the biggest retailers who buy fuel most often start to reflect these reductions at the pumps to give drivers a much-needed break from the pain of constantly rising prices."
HSBC has announced the closure of 69 branches across its UK banking network. The move, part of the bank’s “transformation” into how branches operate within individual communities, puts 400 jobs at risk. Under 50% of the bank’s UK customers now actively use its branch network, with the average footfall declining over 50% since 2017, HSBC says.
National Grid has announced the sale of its entire 50% stake in the St William Homes joint venture to Berkeley Group for £412.5m in cash. The two companies have also entered into a series of sale and purchase agreements for several additional sites owned by National Grid which are expected to complete over the period to 2025, for a total of around £270m.
Retail chain Wilko has apologised for "some miscommunication" in which it told staff they could continue to work if they tested positive for Covid. In a memo, reported by The Mirror, the company said staff with the virus could continue to work in stores if they felt well enough to. Wilko confirmed the memo was sent out and the firm has since made a U-turn.
British Airways has become the first major airline to get rid of masks on flights. They will only be mandatory when a destination has its own ‘restrictions and legal requirements’. Mask mandates have also been scrapped at Heathrow airport.
Online grocer Ocado is to partner with Auchan Retail to develop its online business in Poland using the Ocado Smart Platform. A customer fulfilment centre will initially serve the Warsaw region from 2024, with additional centres set to be announced in the future.
Italian aerospace and defence giant Leonardo is set to invest more than £400 million developing and upgrading its UK electronics business as part of a wider £1.3 billion-plus five-year investment programme.
Amazon has gained unconditional EU antitrust approval for its proposed $8.5 billion acquisition of US movie studio MGM to help it to compete with streaming rivals Netflix and Disney+. The European Commission said the deal would not pose competition concerns in Europe, confirming a Reuters story on March 9.
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