Brussels drops plan for unisex insurance

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ML Laboratories, the loss-making pharmaceuticals company founded by the now-bankrupt entrepreneur Kevin Leech, is under attack from a group of dissident shareholders led by the company's one-time cheerleader, Colin Blackbourn of Shore Capital, the investment boutique.

ML Laboratories, the loss-making pharmaceuticals company founded by the now-bankrupt entrepreneur Kevin Leech, is under attack from a group of dissident shareholders led by the company's one-time cheerleader, Colin Blackbourn of Shore Capital, the investment boutique.

Mr Blackbourn, known throughout the City as the Black Prince, is demanding ML's chairman and chief executive, Stuart Sim, splits the roles and takes a pay cut. The dissidents are also demanding the spin-off of ML's inhalers business, Innovata Biomed, and the husbanding of the group's remaining cash resources.

An angry exchange of emails has been taking place between Mr Blackbourn, who owns about 4 per cent of the company and says he represents shareholders controlling about 20 per cent, and Mr Sim over strategy. Until recently, Mr Blackbourn has been a tireless cheerleader for the stock, but he is believed to have become disillusioned after a rescue rights issue in January. Although that raised £14m, only 28 per cent of shareholders took up their rights and the shares have slipped below the 22p rights price because of sales by the underwriters who were forced to take on the unwanted shares.

Mr Blackbourn's growing frustration with the company - and concern that its remaining £16m cash pile is spent wisely - promises fireworks if there is no change in management or strategy when ML reports results on 29 June. The issue mirrors a Shore Capital raid on XTL Biopharmaceuticals, an Israeli hepatitis company, last year, when the broker and its clients amassed a 20 per cent stake and forced management to waive their share options and cut back research spending.

AIT back in the black

AIT was the software and services group whose acquisition spree took it through boom to near-bust, and whose previous management are currently defending a legal action from the Financial Services Authority, which accuses them of misleading the market. As for AIT today, it has moved into the black, but its growth prospects are dependent on sales of its Portrait software. The product gives people across an organisation (such as Nationwide and the Metropolitan Police) access to all the organisation's data on individual customers, helping to improve service. Word is AIT will be able to trumpet a couple of new Portrait sales when it reports results tomorrow, including its first significant contract in the insurance sector with an overseas firm.

Air Music mulls deal

It is time to pump up the volume at Air Music & Media, the little group which distributes cut-price CDs and DVDs. You know the sort of thing: back to the Eighties, the Royal Philharmonic does the classical greats, any of a dozen permutations of Frank Sinatra's greatest hits.

The acquisitive company is already on course to post a 60 per cent increase in profits for the financial year just ended. Most recently, it bought the New Sound 2000 budget record label, which has been contributing to earnings since October.

But now it is also tuning up to do a substantial - some would say, transformational - deal. It is looking to buy another low-cost entertainment group, one that will take it into computer games. Most likely it is after a decent back catalogue of classics games for PCs. Even after having doubled its market value to £18m since listing on AIM two years ago, observers think Air Music will find its mysterious new purchase a sizeable deal to swallow. John French, at the helm, has long said the company is of a size and scale that it can manage a bigger deal.

Reed to go private?

Strengthening rumours that the Reed family are planning to take their Reed Health agency nursing business private after three tumultuous years on the stock market.

Spun off from Reed Executive, which the family have since taken off the market, Reed Health has suffered boardroom coups (the family used its 40 per cent shareholding to force out the previous chief executive) and profits warnings in its short life. The stock market has fallen out of love with the sector, because the National Health Service has reorganised to reduce its dependence on expensive private sector labour.

Motion Media

This column warned last month that Motion Media's attempts to drum up City support for its reverse takeover with the German communications company Scotty was drawing a sceptical reception.

To get the required £5m cash-in, the company has had to slash the placing price from 12p to just 4p - a vicious discount to the 12.75p at which shares in the videophones company were suspended.

It also seems that the company might be getting a new broker on board to support Charles Stanley, since little Durlacher has been instrumental in getting the fund raising away.

DS: AIMing higher

Daniel Stewart, the AIM-focused broker and investment adviser, is putting the finishing touches to results that will show it moved into the black after a stonking few months in the run up to its year-end in March.

Trading since has been even better. A mystery buyer snapped up a little under 3 per cent of the Ofex-listed shares last week and word is the company is planning to move up to AIM soon.

By James Daley

The European Commission is set to back down over controversial plans to ban insurers from gender discrimination when setting insurance premiums and annuity rates, following a backlash from the majority of its member states.

At a private meeting to debate the proposals earlier this month, senior representatives from 17 of the 25 member states voted against the controversial measures included in the gender discrimination directive, which is currently passing through the European Parliament.

The proposals, which were first laid down last year, would have banned insurers from offering cheaper motor insurance to women, who are charged lower premiums because they are statistically better drivers.

Premiums for young women between the ages of 17 and 25, for example, are up to £500 a year cheaper in the UK than those for men of a similar age.

The proposals would also have prevented men being offered higher annuity rates because they have shorter life expectancies. The news will come as a great relief to Britain's insurers, who had expressed concerns that the rules would have cost the insurance industry hundreds of millions of pounds, sending premiums soaring.

In the case of annuity rates, insurers said that any benefit women might have received from the elimination of gender discrimination would have been more than offset by the increase in the costs caused by inefficient pricing. Jacqui Smith, the deputy minister for equality and women's issues, who attended the meeting on behalf of the UK, said the Commission would now be unable to pass the insurance proposals without a protest from the majority of its members. She said: "What was clear at the meeting was that there were many other states that also expressed concerns about the prospect of banning actuarial gender calculations from the insurance industry.

"We strongly support the idea of a gender discrimination directive, and we support that it should be applied to financial services in some areas. For instance, there are parts of Europe where a woman has to ask her husband if she wants to take out a loan. Obviously we don't support that. "But we do support a position where you can differentiate between genders if there is up-to-date factual evidence."

A spokeswoman for the Association of British Insurers, the industry's largest trade body, said she welcomed the news. "The effects on consumers of this directive could have been very damaging," she said. "Risk pricing helps insurers provide the best possible and fairest service at the keenest prices. Clearly, the vast majority of member states have been listening to the voice of the industry and we're becoming more hopeful that the commission will take a sensible decision on the directive."