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Farepak

Volume 537: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2011

Although I am happy to have secured this debate, I am extremely unhappy that I felt compelled to apply for it. I had hoped that justice would have been done by now, and that Farepak customers and agents would have received at least some of their money back. However, five years from Farepak’s collapse, customers have not received a penny of the compensation due to them, and have not seen justice done. Those responsible have not been held to account. To add insult to injury, on the fifth anniversary of Farepak’s collapse, we have learned that not only has none of the £5.53 million compensation been paid, but the administrators, BDO, have admitted that the cost to date of winding up the company comes in at £8.2 million, which is far more than the compensation owed.

Is it worth reminding people that the company knew when it took money from people that it was not able to provide the goods and services required, and that the people it defrauded could least afford to lose that money?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He makes an incredibly valid point. The people involved had modest incomes, and could least afford to lose that money. They ended up paying twice for Christmas, or borrowing money. The whole matter was a scandal, and we are still no clearer about when it will be resolved. Farepak victims were ripped off twice: once when the company collapsed, and secondly by an establishment that has not protected them.

The history of Farepak’s collapse is well documented, and has been the subject of debates in the House, often initiated by Anne Snelgrove, the former Member for Swindon South, whom I applaud for her unstinting work in standing up for Farepak customers and employees. As this is only a half-hour debate, I will not rehearse the history, except to say that Farepak went bust on 13 October 2006, and the result was that the Christmas savings of around 120,000 people, in total about £38 million, were apparently lost. The money seemed to have been siphoned off to help to combat the debts of the parent company, European Home Retail but as my hon. Friend said, Farepak continued to collect money even when it knew that it had problems.

My inspiration for the debate is my constituent Deborah Harvey, who was a Farepak agent. The word tenacious does not come anywhere near doing her justice. Deb was an agent in Alway in Newport, and encouraged eight friends to spread the cost of Christmas by saving with Farepak with her. Like many agents, she was not motivated by self-interest; she was driven by wanting to see justice for the friends who saved with her because they knew her. They are owed a total of £2,100, and if they ever recoup any money, they will probably receive just £315.

My constituent, Jean McLardy, has given me a Farepak customer payment card that belonged to her mother, who has passed away. It looks identical to those of credit union savings schemes, and it is clear that the people who put money away every week thought it was in a savings club.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She made her incredibly valuable point very well. She has done sterling work on the Farepak issue over the years, and I commend her for that.

My Farepak savers in Alway will probably receive a total of about £315. I acknowledge the organisers of the unfairpak website who keep the campaign going and are a source of information for Farepak victims in a sometimes unclear process.

Where are we, five years on? Have the directors of Farepak been brought to book? No. The Government, through the Insolvency Service, have finally applied to the courts to disqualify Sir Clive Thompson and eight other directors associated with the collapse of Farepak. Does the Minister not believe that the length of time that the directors have had to appeal while still holding office is incredible when innocent victims wait and wait? Perhaps he will tell us how long the Government expect the case to last? As a Farepak agent told me the other day, if she had stolen something, she would have to pay for what she had done wrong, and it would not take five years.

Let us be honest. If someone broke into a house and stole such an amount of money, they would find themselves in prison. They would be jailed, never mind paying compensation, or justice. They would find themselves in prison, and that is where they should be.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which was well made. Many victims have called for Sir Clive Thompson to have his knighthood removed if he loses the case, and perhaps the Minister will also address that point.

A survey posted on Twitter and the Farepak victims committee Facebook page reveals what Farepak victims think: 95% of the respondents thought that the liquidators had taken too long, and should have finished by now; 79% did not think that there are enough regulations to protect consumers from anything like the Farepak collapse happening again and 95% thought that all Christmas savings schemes should be tightly regulated. Many Farepak customers are upset about how the administrators, BDO, have handled the liquidation process. BDO struck an agreement with some of the ex-directors of Farepak to pay a total of £4 million in compensation, which is about 15p per pound owed. Not only are Farepak victims angry, as they should be, at receiving only 15p in the pound, they find it deeply unfair that as part of the deal the directors accept no liability for Farepak going bust. Will the Minister say whether that is common practice?

I am aware that some agents and customers received some money back in 2009 under a court order. That was a repayment to customers who had made payments as the company collapsed and which Farepak tried to put into trust accounts. Customers received some compensation from a response fund just after the company went bust, but as yet no customer has received any money via the administrators. BDO will argue that the reason is that it is still chasing, and that it is standard practice for administrators not to pay out any dividend until all avenues have been exhausted. However, as widely reported in the news last month, BDO has so far cost in excess of £8.2 million, which includes, for example, £50,000 for public relations work. That is an eye-watering sum, especially when BDO has managed to obtain only £5.5 million back for the victims. So far, the process hardly seems fair.

I understand that there is a possibility that ex-customers could receive less than 15p in the pound. If the administrators fail to recoup any more money from ongoing operations, they will take their costs from the moneys already recouped. I accept that the ongoing actions, if successful, could result in ex-customers receiving more money, but either way the administrators will accrue more and more costs, making customers even more resentful.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does she agree that some of the practices that she describes are at best ethically questionable and, looking at them more strategically in terms of how victims have been affected, downright wrong?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I agree that the matter is downright wrong, and I hope that the Government will act.

I would like the Minister to say whether he believes that the insolvency process is fit for purpose in dealing with the aftermath of cases such as Farepak. Should there not be a limit on how much administrators can demand—perhaps a percentage of the total amount accrued? I have spoken to Farepak victims and agents, and the process is incomprehensible from the outside. Victims need to know what is going on, and why it is taking so long.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady secured this debate and that she raised the point about transparency, because there are real concerns about creditors’ representation, and precisely what is going on with BDO. There is a dearth of information, and it is not good enough to rely on civil proceedings as a cloak to prevent victims from being told what is going on.

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Although my constituent has been incredibly tenacious, from her point of view it has been very difficult to get any information out of the administrators, apart from messages posted on the website.

The average amount of time taken for a liquidation process to finish is about two and a half years, so we can completely understand the sheer anger, frustration and, frankly, scepticism of the ex-customers of Farepak over the administrator BDO and its motives. Could this ever happen again? Following the collapse of Farepak, the Christmas Prepayment Association was set up. On the face of it, the guidelines issued by the CPA seem to remedy many of the issues that arose. However, the association has a major flaw: it is self-regulating. Conceivably, a Christmas hamper company could be set up tomorrow and not be required to follow the CPA guidelines. This is surely not acceptable, given what has happened.

The hon. Lady has come to the fundamental point. Five years ago, a loophole was identified. Because of the nature of the business, unbeknown to all the clients and customers who took part in it, it is not in law a financial service. Why is that loophole still there five long years on?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He goes precisely to the crux of the issue: self-regulation is simply not acceptable. We need statutory guidance. We must compel companies to protect their customers’ money. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will do that? If not, can he explain the reasons why, especially as just today we have seen that banks are to be compelled to display prominent signs telling customers that their savings are protected up to £85,000. What should we do in this case?

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems highlighted is that the victims have been treated as unsecured creditors, so they are right at the bottom of the pile? The Office of Fair Trading report, which was published in December 2006 after Farepak collapsed, highlighted the problems with prepayments for funerals, holidays and mail order, but this case goes way beyond that. Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity to look at the scale of the problem?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. There are a whole range of prepayment schemes. She mentioned prepayment for funerals, which is a huge issue that I shall address later.

Farepak customers were on modest incomes, and in October 2006 their Christmas was destroyed. All their carefully saved money disappeared overnight. These are people who did the right thing. They planned how they were going to pay for Christmas, they worked hard all year round, they made their monthly payments and Christmas was going to be sorted. They are predominantly women managing household finances to provide for their families. They were doing what we ask people to do. When Farepak went bust, Christmas was ruined for many. They were on modest incomes and could not get money out of the bank to cover the loss.

The Government owe it to Farepak victims to do the right thing. Farepak is a special case and the Government should step in and help. We did it for Equitable Life victims; quite rightly, the Government are stepping in to the tune of £500 million for them this year. Farepak victims are owed around £38 million. In the same way as we did with the banks, we should send the right signal to savers on modest incomes that their money is safe in the event of bankruptcy.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing the debate. It is important that people are very careful about putting their money in schemes of this kind after the experience of Farepak. Before putting in their money, they should look for firm guarantees such as the banks must now have. Money is precious when it is from a hard-earned small income.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Obviously, that is where the CPA and self-regulation come in. Many of the Farepak victims that I have spoken to saved with friends because they trusted them. We must address the whole issue in the industry.

Despite all that has happened to her and her friends, the priority of my constituent, Mrs Deborah Harvey, is to ensure that the situation never happens again. On behalf of her and many others, I say to the Minister that Farepak victims want justice, adequate compensation, enhanced regulation for all firms engaged in prepayment schemes, and key figures in Farepak to be held accountable for what they did. That is how we shall ensure that decent people doing the right thing never again lose out in that way.

It is a great pleasure to be able to respond to this debate, Mr Weir, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for bringing the matter to our attention. It is a matter of profound concern to the people involved. I think I reflect the Government’s perspective in adding my view that this was completely unacceptable. Many vulnerable people were associated with it and it has taken far too long to sort out. The steps taken to try to resolve it were far slower than both the people detrimentally affected and any reasonable observer might have anticipated, so I am extremely sympathetic to the case that the hon. Lady has made and to the circumstances of the people who were so badly affected. It is understandable that questions of the kind that she has posed are raised when so many people are affected. The insolvency is particularly sad, coming around a savings scheme—a club, if you like—that was tied to Christmas, as we now approach Christmas some years later. This is a poignant subject, and the emotions evident in the contributions made so far reflect the character of the matter with which we are dealing.

Does the Minister accept that what makes the situation even worse—it is bad enough that it is Christmas and so on—is that the agents who were taking the money week after week were taking it from friends? The responsibility and the guilt that they feel, because they have let down their friends, are enormous.

Yes, that is true. It is a good point. The hon. Gentleman made that point in an earlier intervention in a different form, and he is right. We think of the victims as the people whose money was contributed and lost, but the wider effect of the kind he described is also very sad, because people were acting in good faith, unaware of the likely consequences of the role that they played until it was too late to do anything about it. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the communal effect that it had on communities that are often tight-knit and where trust matters. This is a poignant matter that understandably stimulates heartfelt sentiments. I will try to deal factually with the circumstances, but it is hard to do that in the context, about which we feel deeply.

The matter started before we came to office, but it is not a partisan matter. Governments need to express a view and take appropriate action. The case began under the previous Government and, of course, because it has not yet been satisfactorily drawn to a conclusion in terms of the money received by the people concerned, it continues under this Government. However, neither Government could have intervened in the conduct of a particular insolvency, as that remains subject, as hon. Members will know, to the overall supervision of the court. Nevertheless, I can give some background as to where the Government stand at the moment.

On the issue that was raised about the directors, concern was rightly expressed about their position and their living up to their responsibilities. They are the people who controlled the company. The investigation that took place was complex. As the hon. Member for Newport East mentioned, it resulted in an application by the Business Secretary, in the High Court of Justice on 26 January this year, for disqualification orders to be made against the directors. It was made in the public interest on the ground that the conduct of each director makes him or her unfit to be concerned in the management of a company. It is, of course, a legal application. None the less, the fact that we made it reflects the Government’s view that this is a matter of profound concern. The individuals must be held responsible. As a result, opportunities to serve in a similar or indeed any business capacity should be limited. To say more about that at this stage would probably be improper, but the message that I have broadcast makes clear my views and those of the Government.

Does the Minister have any idea how long the process will take, and will he address the issue of the knighthood if the person in question is found guilty?

That is a fair question, but since the matter is now part of a legal process it is difficult for me to give a definitive answer. It would not, however, be unreasonable for my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), who is the Minister responsible for such matters, to respond directly to the hon. Lady, and I will ask him to do just that. I am not the Minister responsible for this particular matter, although I am happy to act as a conduit to the person who is. On such occasions when I am standing in for a Minister, it is my habit to make it clear to them that they have a responsibility to hon. Members and to the Chamber. I am more than happy to pass on the fact that I would like my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton, in so far as he can, to answer that question.

In the spirit of that constructive approach, may I ask the Minister the question posited by the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) about the criminal aspect of this case? Was a proper investigation ever carried out by the Serious Fraud Office or the Crown Prosecution Service into allegations of fraudulent trading? It certainly seems to me, and to many others, that that should have been looked into at the time. If it was not looked into, why was that?

I will try to deal in my remarks with some of the actions that were taken, and if I do not cover that point I will come back to my hon. Friend on the matter. I would like to make some progress to describe what actions have been taken, although I am mindful of that intervention and do not seek to avoid it. I will try to deal with it during my remarks, but if I cannot, I will subsequently reply to my hon. Friend directly.

It is great that the Minister has shown such sympathy for the victims of this injustice. Such schemes take place up and down the valleys in south Wales, and many members of my family have participated in them in the past. I would like to press the Minister on the matter of alleged fraud. Will he let us know what he is going to say on the matter sooner rather than later, so that we can quiz him further? People are very angry.

When I have made some progress, if I have not satisfactorily covered that matter I give a commitment that either I or the Minister responsible will respond properly and as far as we can within the legal constraints that I have set out. I am aware of the hon. Members who have participated in this debate, and of those who have a particular interest in the area. I am not avoiding the issue; it is a fair question and I will ensure that it gets a fair answer from the Government. I am not in the business of avoiding difficult subjects, particularly ones such as this that unite the whole House in its view of what is and is not appropriate.

In the short time that we have available for this important debate, let me make some progress so that I can deal with some of the points raised. I want to set out the steps that we have taken to avoid such things happening in the future. As the hon. Member for Newport East said, the main companies in the hamper industry, through the Christmas Prepayment Association, introduced new safeguards for consumers’ money in the form of independently controlled, ring-fenced trust accounts. I know that the hon. Lady is doubtful about the self-regulation of the industry, but however imperfect, those safeguards represent significant progress for an industry that has, quite frankly, faced something of a shake-out following the Farepak affair. Relatively few businesses are now involved in that industry, and their coming together in the way that I have described represents significant progress.

There are various other Christmas saving accounts, such as clubs run by supermarkets, large retailers, local shops, social clubs, pubs and workplaces, and risks are always associated with any business of that kind. They are bigger and certainly more widespread than the principal companies that most of us know about. Local schemes exist throughout the country, and have done so throughout my lifetime if not considerably before. I remember my mother being part of a small, local Christmas saving club when I was a child, and it is hard to regulate every such arrangement. None the less, the Office of Fair Trading has produced a leaflet entitled “Save Xmas”—I am sorry it is not “Save Christmas”—which is a quick guide to paying for Christmas. The leaflet lists various schemes and indicates whether there is any protection should they go bust. It is important that people who put their money into such schemes know where they stand at the outset, because that has not always been the case in the past.

The Money Advice Service provides advice on its website about what protection is offered for various ways of saving money, and in addition, the Office of Fair Trading’s consumer codes approval scheme, which aims to safeguard consumer interests and raise standards in markets, lists the protection of prepayments as one of its criteria. The OFT has approved 10 codes so far, and we are currently consulting on how consumer codes will operate in future, in light of proposals for institutional reform for those bodies that are currently responsible for consumer and competition policy. Those measures should help savers to avoid losing prepaid moneys in future.

On the issue of insolvency, it is clearly a matter of regret that more money is not available for distribution, and I understand the concerns mentioned by the hon. Member for Newport East, and others, about the expenses incurred in dealing with liquidation—I think she described the figure as “eye watering,” and I do not disagree. Farepak is clearly no ordinary insolvency because it is so complex. It was complex from the start and involved an exceptionally large number of customers and agents—more than 116,000—and the identities of many of those were initially unknown. Considerable work was therefore involved in identifying creditors and substantiating their claims.

The creditors’ committee, which represents those who have lost money, has received regular detailed reports on the progress of the liquidation and approved the actions of the liquidators. I understand that the liquidators have undertaken various investigations in order to increase asset realisations, including action that resulted in £4 million being recovered from the directors of the company. I also understand that the liquidators are currently working to bring proceedings against third parties, with the intention of increasing the pot of money available to creditors. Given the nature of such an action, the liquidators say that it is not possible to determine when moneys will be paid to creditors. As a result of this debate, however, I will make further inquiries, and ask the Minister responsible to report back to hon. Members about the anticipated time scale, in so far as he reasonably can.

The liquidators point out that the work they have undertaken over the years has resulted in the possible amount payable to creditors increasing from 5p to 15p in the pound. I accept that 15p may not be perceived as sufficient, but as the hon. Lady knows, it has substantially increased from the original estimate. The liquidators have also stressed that the creditors’ committee can, at any time, instruct them to stop their activities and pay creditors from the funds already secured. They have also indicated that due to the sheer number of creditors, the process of paying a dividend will be very expensive. They therefore want to ensure that as far as possible, all money that can be recovered is received before a payment to creditors is made. The aim is to get the amount returned per pound to the highest possible level before we start the process of paying the creditors. Otherwise, we will add to the administrative costs associated with the process, and the balance between what that costs and the benefit people receive will be even further out of kilter.

I do, however, believe that the figure of £8.2 million, in contrast with the current dividend prospect of £5.5 million, causes considerable concern. I know that the hon. Lady shares my concern about the level of fees, and she will know that the Government have considered the issue and what should be done in the future. I hope that what I have said today will provide some assurance that I, and other Ministers, believe that we cannot leave the situation as it is in terms of how such matters are handled.

In April 2010 new provisions came into force for insolvencies commencing after that date, giving creditors additional powers to obtain information about the fees and expenses charged by insolvency practitioners. The percentage of creditors required to bring a challenge in court was reduced from 25% to 10%, and the issue of fees charged by insolvency practitioners was considered by the OFT in a report published in June 2010.

Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton, the Minister with responsibility for issues of insolvency, issued a consultation on a set of proposed reforms to the regulation of insolvency practitioners, including how practitioners deal with complaints. Our aim is to ensure transparency and accountability and to improve confidence in the insolvency process.

This has been a useful discussion on an important subject. I have had little time to sum up the debate, but I take this issue seriously, just as the Government take seriously the whole business of dealing with insolvency. We will take steps to ensure that the process is fair, reasonable and timely, and I will ask my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton to come back to Members on any specific points that I have not had the chance to cover, and make the position clear.