More clarity in return to work guidance would help firms avoid liability | Nils Pratley

A combination of “mixed messages” and “rather obvious statements” was the Institute of Directors’ summary of the government’s return to work guidance for businesses. You can see what it means. Statements do not come much more obvious than the official Whitehall-endorsed definition of a face covering as “something which safely covers your mouth and nose”.

The mixed messages are more serious. Face coverings are no longer required by law but the government, in its guidance for office, factories and labs, says it “expects and recommends” that people continue to wear them “in crowded, enclosed spaces”. It lists a series of actions companies could “consider”, such as putting up signs.

The government cannot be expected to lay out precise guidelines for every workplace in the land, of course – common sense has do some of the work. But the vague nature of the instruction to “consider” various precautions contrasts starkly with the heavy warning, emphasised in bold, that failure to put in place “sufficient control measures” may be considered a breach of health and safety law.

Therein lies the IoD’s real worry, probably shared by thousands of small businesses. How do employers stay on the right side of the law and ensure that their insurance policies are still valid? Just to add to the confusion, the document has landed less than a week before “freedom day”, leaving little time to work on those “suitable and sufficient” risk assessments.

Companies will get on with it, and good practices will emerge. Return to workplaces will happen anyway. One cannot say, though, that these woolly guidelines will speed up the process.

Doorstep lender gets the better of the FCA

The Financial Conduct Authority is jolly angry. Provident Financial’s “scheme of arrangement” to compensate customers of its doorstep lending business is backed by only £50m of the company’s money. A pot of such limited size, says the regulator, means punters who may have been mistreated could be “offered significantly less than the full amount of redress they are owed”.

What’s more, the FCA thinks the Provvy, which still makes decent money from its profitable Vanquis credit card and Moneybarn car finance operations, could dig deeper. “The reason that the group is not contributing more is that it has made a commercial judgment not to increase the funding because it could not justify that to its investors,” says the regulator. The £50m sum is “a potentially arbitrary figure”.

So what’s the FCA going to do about it? Nothing. It will not go to court to oppose the scheme, which is what it did with another sub-prime lender, Amigo, a business with the novel model of getting a borrower’s friends or family to guarantee loans.

The difference, apparently, is that Provident is giving up on doorstep lending after more than 140 years and would simply pull the plug on the operation if the scheme fails. As the FCA’s letter puts it, creditors “are left with a ‘take it or leave it’ choice between a very low recovery under the scheme or a lower recovery (if any) in an insolvency”.

To put it mildly, the position is unsatisfactory. Provident can’t be legally forced into coughing up more, and its board won’t be shamed into doing so. The FCA’s stance is probably the only pragmatic one, but it could spare us the performance and get to the point: the rules are a mess.

Upper Crust boss should not be toasted for speedy exit

Simon Smith is off “to pursue a new opportunity at a private equity-backed business”, which presumably means an opportunity to earn more than he’s been getting as chief executive of SSP, the operator of Upper Crust and a few other food and drink outlets seen at train stations and in airports.

SSP has had a horrible year as previously semi-captive customers evaporated. Smith had to take a pay cut in sympathy with furloughed staff, so perhaps it’s not surprising he wants out.

But come on, he’s been in charge only since May 2019 and still got £720,000 last year, so he probably wasn’t surviving on baguettes. Successful chief executives of £2bn FTSE 250 companies – and nobody’s grumbling about how Smith stabilised the show in the pandemic – are meant to hang around for more than two years and a bit.

The obligation is not obviously not contractual, but a little loyalty is expected, especially when a company is not yet out of the storm. Trade at SSP is still running at only 42% of 2019 levels. The “pursuing an opportunity” blather, incidentally, was the company’s, rather than Smith’s. He himself offered shareholders no explanation for checking out early. A poor way to sign off.

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