Focus: Robinson and the seeds of fortune

The Paymaster-General's financial affairs are far from clear. He has prospered with companies once linked to Robert Maxwell
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When he came to write his editorial in the New Statesman last week, Ian Hargreaves had a problem.

He knew that, as editor of the leftish weekly owned by Geoffrey Robinson, the beleaguered Paymaster-General, he was expected to make some sort of comment. To say nothing risked ridicule but so would praising his proprietor for being the beneficiary of a trust in an offshore tax haven when Mr Robinson's boss, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had long raged against the use of such trusts.

Ever since an Independent on Sunday investigation two weeks ago had forced Mr Robinson to admit he and his family owned a trust in Guernsey, he had been hounded by the press, a gleeful Opposition and even some within his own party, but Mr Hargreaves's boss had not broken any law, nor transgressed any parliamentary rule. Mr Hargreaves believed that Mr Robinson's plight was the result of a breakdown in communication, and that is what he wrote: "The Government exhibits an unhealthy tendency to want to conduct exchanges on its own terms ... The result is that ministers with nothing to hide look furtive, and a government which proclaims a new openness reeks of imperiousness. It is in this echoing void between sermon and action that the charge of hypocrisy takes root. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is a government let down by its supposedly legendary skills in presentation."

Mr Brown's spokesman had greeted the original story with customary scorn, claiming, wrongly, that all Mr Robinson's shares were held in a blind trust, and the Government's undoubtedly macho approach contributed to Mr Robinson's predicament. The trustees of Orion, the Guernsey trust, have still not been identified. It has yet to be stated what shares, if any, Orion holds, apart from those in TransTec, a Midlands company which was chaired by Mr Robinson until he was appointed a minister. In fact, he has said virtually nothing illuminating about his business affairs since the row began. They remain shrouded in darkness.

TAKE the New Statesman. It is owned by New Statesman Limited. When a reader buys a copy, revenue from the pounds 1.90 cover price goes to New Statesman Limited. That is straightforward enough, except that Mr Hargreaves and the senior staff of the magazine who joined after Mr Robinson took it over are employed and paid by Stenbell, Mr Robinson's private company. One magazine, two companies. Not so simple.

The explanation offered by Mr Robinson's confidantes is that when he bought the magazine its finances were in a mess. To smooth the transition and to pay for high-calibre staff such as Hargreaves, Mr Robinson decided to put their salaries and some of the costs on a different pay-roll. The chosen vehicle was Stenbell, his private company.

Stenbell publishes only abbreviated accounts, as it is entitled to do. Those accounts disclose that Stenbell charges New Statesman Limited for the services of Mr Hargreaves, other senior staff and other expenses. The latest accounts show a charge of pounds 511,522.

Under the heading "going concern", Stenbell states that it had a deficit of assets over liabilities of pounds 240,800. So, while Mr Robinson is a discretionary beneficiary of a pounds 12.75m offshore trust, his private company on which he pays tax onshore is not in great shape. However, it gets funds from somewhere, since the note goes on: "The continued trading of the company is dependent upon the continued support of its principal creditor, The Geoffrey Robinson Personal Settlement." No indication is given as to what this settlement is or where it can be found. One man, Geoffrey Robinson, and two entities, himself and The Geoffrey Robinson Personal Settlement. Not so simple.

NOW TAKE the case of Joska Bourgeois. She is the glamorous blonde who is said to have made her fortune by importing Jaguar cars into her native Belgium and left a slice of her wealth to Mr Robinson. Closer examination shows she made her fortune long after she ceased to have anything to do with Jaguar.

She lost that franchise after the company was swallowed by British Leyland in the 1970s. The redoubtable Ms Bourgeois then went to Japan and acquired the Toyota franchise for Belgium. According to Dan van den Berghe, sales manager for Jaguar in Belgium, by 1979, when she sold her business to Inchcape, the British company, she was nearing 70 and had built a mini- empire embracing the Toyota and Daihatsu car franchises in Belgium and the dealership for Bridgestone tyres of Japan. Mr Robinson, who had befriended her during her Jaguar period, appears to have been her only mainstay, acting as adviser and confidante.

She left Belgium and went to Geneva, where she died in 1994. She was undoubtedly rich. She owned, through one of her companies, mysteriously named Parc Plein Soleil A, numbers 18 to 36 Chemin de Pommier. That is an apartment block now valued at pounds 20m. The letter A in the company name implies there may well be a B and a C, but what they might be is a mystery.

In the phone book, Mme Bourgeois gave three numbers: her apartment, private fax and business. The name of her business sounded odd for a car dealer, Etudes Techniques et Economiques SA. The company was not registered in Switzerland. A company by that name still exists in Geneva: it owns property all over the city and has as its main address the high-security compound of John Latsis, the secretive shipping billionaire. Nothing adds up.

TAKE the case of Robert Maxwell, who was the other major influence on Mr Robinson's business career. When Mr Robinson deployed his lawyers last week, it was the same firm that once served numerous writs on behalf of Mr Maxwell. Of course, nobody suggests that Mr Robinson has inherited any of the crooked media mogul's attributes. He did, however, have numerous ties to Mr Maxwell; according to Tom Bower, his unauthorised biographer, Mr Robinson offered to give evidence in defence of his sons Kevin and Ian.

As well he might, for Mr Robinson worked for many Maxwell-related companies and owes some of his estimated pounds 30m fortune to businesses once in that empire.

TransTec, the publicly quoted company in which Mr Robinson has an interest in 30 million shares - either in his onshore blind trust or the offshore Orion Trust - has six subsidiaries which were once owned by Maxwell entities. Company records show that Mr Robinson went to work for Mr Maxwell in July 1987. The MP for Coventry North West became a director of Central & Sheerwood, a struggling engineering concern, shortly after it was bought by Mr Maxwell. Kevin Maxwell was a fellow director. Mr Robinson was given "operational responsibility" for the company's engineering businesses, which included two other Maxwell vehicles, A L Dunn and Coventry Apex.

Mr Robinson was juggling with three jobs: representing his constituents, assisting Mr Maxwell through Central & Sheerwood and running his own private engineering company, Transfer Technology.

Mr Robinson had started Transfer Technology in 1981, and it was a success. In 1990, for example, it made profits of pounds 515,000, largely from machinery exports. But that was small beer compared to the riches Mr Maxwell made available to him. In the kind of jiggery-pokery that became his hallmark, Mr Maxwell reshuffled one part of his empire, a number of engineering businesses called Hollis. In 1988, Hollis was sold to its management in a pounds 115m deal.

But Mr Maxwell maintained an interest in the bought-out group and installed Mr Robinson as non-executive chairman. Christopher Colbeck, one of the managers, says of Mr Robinson: "He took us to the Commons for meals, and that was about it."

But the bought-out group, with Mr Robinson at the helm, did not prosper. It lost money and at one stage its auditors, Coopers & Lybrand, qualified its accounts. The group sold off subsidiaries to repay Bankers Trust, which had financed the buy-out. Then, in January 1990, Mr Maxwell reversed the process. For pounds 1, he took the group and its debts off the managers' hands.

Despite this failure, Mr Robinson retained the confidence of Mr Maxwell. In April 1991, six months before he fell off his yacht and drowned, Mr Maxwell's Central & Sheerwood bought Transfer Technology, Mr Robinson's company, for pounds 1m in cash and 3.5 million shares, worth around pounds 5.25m. Mr Robinson was left owning around a quarter of Central & Sheerwood.

Mr Maxwell then sold the old Hollis subsidiaries to Central & Sheerwood. Mr Maxwell ended up with 27 per cent of this new group which was renamed TransTec, and when he sold that TransTec shareholding on, Mr Robinson became its largest individual shareholder. The combination of his business, Transfer Technology plus the Maxwell engineering businesses, persuaded the City to drive up TransTec's share price. By the summer of 1992, Mr Robinson's stake had almost tripled in value to pounds 15.3m.

Such was the potential for conflicts of interest during Mr Maxwell's deal-making frenzy - for example, Mr Robinson was on the board of both the buyer and of two of the companies being bought - only one director was considered to be sufficiently independent to recommend the deals to outside shareholders. That was Richard Rimington, an accountant who joined the Central & Sheerwood board in 1987. When Mr Robinson stepped down as chairman of TransTec on becoming a minister this year, who was it who succeeded him? None other than Mr Rimington, some two weeks short of his 77th birthday.

There is little in Mr Robinson's record to show any instinctive genius for making money - certainly not on the scale that would let him lead the lifestyle of which he is so fond. (The Independent on Sunday became interested because his lifestyle did not seem commensurate with a pounds 30m paper-stake in an engineering company). What the record does show is a history of being in the right place at the right time, of skilfully avoiding conflicts of interest. Mr Rimington is chairman of TransTec, Mr Robinson is not. Mr Rimington is 77, Mr Robinson is the biggest shareholder. Who is in charge? On paper there is no doubt. It is Mr Rimington.

Ian Hargreaves headed his New Statesman editorial "Rhetoric and Reality". He wrote: "Rhetoric and reality is the context in which the Robinson affair should be judged." The rhetoric we know about; there is still a good deal of doubt about the reality.

Additional reporting by Patrick Martin and Martin Tomkinson.

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