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Monday's Business and Politics round-up

19 Feb 2018

Person reading the news on their smartphone on a trainGood morning,

Time is running out to spend your old £10 notes, as the 1 March deadline is approaching. In 10 days time shops, post offices and local banks will no longer be legally required to accept the old notes.

However, if you end up finding an old paper tenner in your jacket pocket you haven’t worn for a while after the deadline, there’s no need for frustration – you will be able to exchange it indefinitely by posting it to the Bank of England or visiting the Bank in person in the City of London.

Have a great week ahead!

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University challenge

Prime Minister Theresa May will today launch an independent review into how university debts could be reduced, with some key considerations including the freezing or cutting of £9,250 fees and lowering of interest rates. Speaking in Derbyshire, Mrs May will say that the review, which is expected to be completed within a year, will also aim to rebalance education away from universities towards vocational study.

The underlining focus of the review is expected to be on making it easier for students to undertake courses that will prepare them for the world of work rather than those designed to be purely academic. One of the ideas that may be considered will be reducing fees for social science and arts courses, which cost less to provide than those in the areas of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

However, there have been arguments that prices of undertaking study in STEM areas, in which there is currently a growing skills shortages in the country, should in fact be lowered to encourage more individuals to take them on. “Many companies that have Stem degrees skills shortages will wonder whether it’s the right thing to make those degrees more expensive,” commented former Education Secretary Justine Greening.

Meanwhile, speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, the Education Secretary Damian Hinds called for different degree courses to be charged differently, saying that ministers had not expected the majority of universities to charge the maximum amount when the fees were raised to £9,000.

Mr Hinds said that tuition fees should reflect the degree's "value to our society as a whole and to our economy for the future." He added that there needs to be more variety in the way university education is delivered, such as two year intensive courses, sandwich courses that include a year’s of experience in the workplace and lower fees for students who choose to stay at home and commute to university.

The Labour party has called to abolish university tuition fees and to provide funding for post-secondary education from government budgets.

Carillion miles away 

The Work and Pensions and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committees published new evidence into Carillion collapse investigation, which reveals that Carillion investors were fleeing the company last year as the prospect of its collapse was becoming evident.

Kiltearn Partners, one of Carillion’s largest shareholders, considered suing the company and said in a letter to MPs that it believes “there are clear grounds for an investigation in whether Carillion’s management knew, or should have known about a major hole in its finances earlier than July 2017.” Kiltearn, which at one stage held 10% of the construction firm’s shares, began selling them in August last year.

Meanwhile, investment firm Standard Life Aberdeen, said in a separate letter that it began removing investment from Carillion as early as December 2015 amid concerns about financial management and corporate governance.

Carillion directors have been questioned twice by MPs, however Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee Frank Field said there is “disconnect” between what they said and the information from the company’s shareholders. “On one hand the Carillion directors told us all was sunny until a bolt of Qatari lightning hit them out of the blue… On the other hand, investors were fleeing for the hills and it appears those who looked closest ran fastest,” said Mr Field.

Rachel Reeves, Chair of the Business Committee, added that evidence from investors shows that “Carillion’s annual reports were worthless as a guide to the true financial health of the company.”

KPMG, Carillion’s former auditor that took £20m in fees from the company over 10 years, will be questioned by MPs on Thursday and will have to “explain why they signed-off on accounts which appeared to bear so little relation to reality.” 

The dark ages

Many employers still live in “dark ages” when it comes to recruiting women, a study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found. Their survey has revealed that over a third of private sector employers in the UK think it is acceptable to ask female job candidates about their plans for children, despite the fact that this practice has been illegal since 1975.

A poll of 1,106 business leaders also found that 59% agreed that a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process. Meanwhile, 44% said women should have to work in an organisation for a year until deciding to have children. Half of employers also agreed that resentment towards female workers who are pregnant or on maternity leave was not uncommon.

“It’s clear that many employers need more support to better understand the basics of discrimination law and the rights of pregnant women and new mothers,” said EHRC, a body that works to enforce laws that protect people’s rights.

Calls for the government to do more to protect pregnant workers and new mothers in the workplace have been renewed in recent years, after the business department and EHRC found that discrimination because of pregnancy increased between 2005 and 2015

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