10 years on - a look back, the Justice for Rover Workers and where are we now?
April 8, 2015
So it's 10 years.
In April 2005 the gates were locked at Longbridge for the final time and with it the last British owned major car manufacturer was no more; the largest site closure in the UK for over 20 years and 6,500 workers were made redundant.
5 years prior the Phoenix 4 - a consortium led by John Towers OBE along with Nick Stephenson, Peter Beale and John Edwards bought the company from BMW for £10, in which they got not only company, lock, stock and barrel but also a £450 million dowry. At the end of their 5 year tenure the Phoenix consortium had been remunerated with £42 million whilst the company went into administration with over £1.4 billion worth of debt and the ex-workers with no company redundancy and half a month’s pay packet.
The day after closure, John Towers whilst being interviewed by the BBC announced the set-up of the Longbridge Trust Fund for the ex-workers - where he pledged the assets of the company that he hoped would raise up to £50million. The ex-workers however - are yet to see a penny.
Since then, much has been made of the saga and part of the aim of establishing the Justice for Rover workers group was to establish the facts and to open dialogue with Phoenix.
I created the group back in 2010. Like many others - I was concerned with the lack of progress, it was hard to understand what the hold ups were. I contacted all the interested parties and began to meet with Phoenix to understand what could be done to move things forward. Any findings, comments and those who wanted to offer support were listed on this website.
As I gathered as much data as I could from various sources, it soon became clear that these were very murky waters from all sides. It was hard to see who was sticking up for the workers in all of this - who was on our side?
Take the Government enquiry. It took 4 years to produce, £16 million of tax payers money and resulted in a damning outcome for the Phoenix 4.
The publication of the report was initially delayed - Lord Peter Mandelson felt it justified that the Serious Fraud Office first decide if there was anything for them to look into. In the end, it seemed not. The findings made interesting reading, showing how one director bought a computer cleansing kit to wipe the hard disk of his machine as the investigators were on their way to Longbridge. Other findings ranged from subjects such as the £17million Guernsey trust fund set up for the Phoenix 4 themselves, to one of the directors being accused of giving “inaccurate and misleading information” about the company’s collapse when he appeared before a committee of MPs.
It was later reported how these Directors had been 'struck off' and were no longer able to be Directors of companies. However this isn't really the full truth. They were asked - it wasn't enforced. Given their ages and the money they had in the bank (not to mention their now tarnished reputations) - were they every really going to make a comeback? So in others words - no action was taken.
However - dig deeper and there is more. It's what the Phoenix 4 did and that's the murky water bit I'm getting to right? Wrong. Let's look at why the investigation was commissioned in the first place.
The original inquiry was ordered by Alan Johnson, Lord Mandelson's predecessor at what was then Department of Trade and Industry, in June 2005 after he read another investigation into MG Rover's collapse from the Financial Reporting Review Panel.
According to the Companies Act, Mr Johnson was able to call an inquiry if he felt: a) the company's affairs had been conducted with intent to defraud its creditors or the creditors of any other person; b) the company was formed for any fraudulent or unlawful purpose; c) that people concerned with the company's formation or the management of its affairs had been guilty of fraud, misfeasance or other misconduct towards the company or its members; or d) that the company's members had not been given all the information with respect to its affairs which they might reasonably expect.
That first Financial Report Review Panel report must have been quite damning. This is where it gets interesting. In the days after the enquiry, Patricia Hewitt, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, requested Sir Bryan Nicholson, the then Chairman of the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), to arrange for the FRC to review the accounts of MG Rover and its associated companies for the past five years. The review was carried out by reviewers and case officers of the Financial Reporting Review Panel under the direction of Bill Knight, Chairman of the FRRP, and Ian Brindle, Deputy Chairman. Their report was delivered to the Secretary of State on 26 May 2005. This report led to the commissioning of the enquiry.
The interesting point is despite repeated requests; this report has never been made public.
It has been debated in the Commons for it to be made available but rejected. Why? In addition why were over 30 Freedom of Information Act requests for data/information also rejected? What was being hidden behind all this?
The further I investigated the more I was confused and saddened by the situation.
First off, I read copies of letters (available on this website) from John Towers to Richard Burden MP, then wrote an open letter to John Towers myself to which he replied. I contacted the trust fund trustees and tried to gain the support of as many ex workers as I could.
The Phoenix position at the time was one of anger towards the Labour MP and Government for in their view, not supporting MG Rover in the first place with a requested £120 million bridging loan. This anger was then fuelled further with the revelation that £12.5 million had been made available for the Trust Fund in an account with HBOS - only for the 43% Government owned bank to make a claim on it as part of the winding up orders.
At the time, I wrote to the Business Secretary Vince Cable to see if he could help secure this money. He declined - the Government said this was a commercial matter and it wasn't their place to intervene. Later - all the money went to the bank. Why is it that, the Government are allowed to intervene when the commercial matter is the bank needing a bail out, but it can't intervene when money deemed secured for a community related trust fund is being taken away?
Throughout this period I met many times with Nigel Petrie. Nigel was a non-executive director of Phoenix and acted as a sort of go-between with the Phoenix 4. I was often supported by trustee Carl Chinn who was a great help during the campaign, giving a lot of his time in support. At times we were supported by others such as Richard Burden MP, Eric McDonald also a trustee and Gemma/Andy Cartwright who had campaigned for MG Rover straight after closure. During later meetings, Nigel spoke of the frustrations Phoenix felt with the rejections of the Freedom of Information Act requests which they felt, would have assisted them legally in securing this money for the fund from HBOS.
Once it was clear that this money was going to the bank we met with Nigel again. It was requested that in order for the Phoenix 4 to honour their promise, they contribute personally to the fund. This of course was rejected point blank.
At this moment, the trustees seeing no light at the end of the tunnel threw in the towel and the trust fund was wound up - the £26k in the account for 'future' administration purposes was donated to the Acorn's hospice. Many thought it was all over.
But then came another twist.
All this time over £24 million was lying dormant in the accounts of MG Rover Capital. The Pensions Regulator had ring-fenced the money, in view of a potential claim. At the end of 2014, this claim was withdrawn. Half went to - you guessed it - HBOS, who owned half of the company and the other half was sent towards the Phoenix consortium.
Upon hearing this I contacted Phoenix again, this time sending an open letter to John Towers. I asked if now this 'fresh' money would be made available to the ex-workers - after all, in an earlier letter to me he had said he expected this money to be 'wiped out'.
Throughout Christmas of 2014, the early months of 2015 and even this afternoon - I've been speaking with the Phoenix representatives about my letter. I'm being told they are going to discuss it 'soon' and that they will get back to me. We're waiting. Still waiting. I honestly don't know what they will say but I point out to them again that the workers worked hard at Longbridge during their 5 year ownership and John Towers - you made them a promise. It's never too late to live up to it.