Mark Leftly: Does the Irish government feel no shame?

The Bank of Ireland must back down right now on taking pensioners' bonds
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The Independent Online

A message to the Irish government: back off, behave yourself and stop trying to raid the savings of the elderly in the UK. And do it before a skint but seriously ballsy septuagenarian gives you a deservedly good hiding in court.

More than 2,000 pensioners who invested the crumbs of their savings in bonds, known as "pibs", issued by the old Bristol & West building society face an act of corporate thievery virtually unparalleled in even these economically tumultuous times.

Every year, these pibs-holders get cheques that pay out a generous 13.375 per cent on the face value of whatever they hold. Typically, pibs were bought by the soon-to-be and just retired who tried to make their few thousand pounds of savings stretch to help them in their dotage.

With that level of payout there are obviously risks, such as if the building society went bust the pibs-holders would be way down the pecking order of creditors for getting their cash back.

But Bristol & West didn't go under; it was sold to the Bank of Ireland (BOI) in 1996. Now that institution is in trouble and the state has become a one-third shareholder.

The Irish government is forcing through a ¤2.6bn financial restructuring, which includes raising capital through a rights issue, as it tries to restore one of its big four banks back to financial health. Fair enough.

But as part of this horribly termed "liability management exercise", the BOI has put pibs-holders in a classic prisoner's dilemma: they can agree to get 20p in the pound in exchange for the pibs that they own, but should they vote "no" and the "yes" camp wins, they will get a penny for every £1,000. By sticking to their principles, these pensioners risk being ruined as others, understandably, seek to salvage what little they can.

A tiny minority will hold enough pibs to be entitled to exchange them for equity worth 40 per cent of their value. No need to feel sorry for most of these guys, as they are typically savvy investors who have recently bought pibs for perhaps less than 30 per cent of their face value. They will make a profit from the deal. It's the rest of those on the pibs register that are getting screwed over here. Many of them might not even know where their ownership certificates are, as the pibs date back to the 1990s. Hundreds will be frail and certainly won't have financial advisers to help them out.

Next week, Albert Kempster, a 73-year-old who scours the shelves of Tesco late at night to pick up near out-of-date bargain food, risks what little he has left to be the test case challenging the legality of BOI's plans. The bank's lawyers have reserved the right to chase after Mr Kempster for legal costs, which could be half a million quid, should he lose the case.

This is a clear prevention of access to justice, while the BOI does itself no public relations favours by trying to frighten an old man out of fighting for what he believes is right. The good news is that Mr Kempster's resolve has been woefully underestimated and he is willing to risk what he calls his "meagre assets" by challenging the BOI in court next week.

Mr Kempster's legal team have written time and again to the Financial Services Authority (FSA) to review the BOI's conduct over the pibs, which are subject to English jurisdiction. The FSA – including its boss, Hector Sants, who has most certainly received the emails – has proved once more what an utterly inept, toothless organisation it is by neither making any public comment on the matter nor even politely responding to the lawyers.

The "What we do" section of the FSA website states: "We are the independent body that regulates the financial services industry in the UK. We have been given a wide range of rule-making, investigatory and enforcement powers in order to meet our four statutory objectives."

On the first sentence, where's the regulation in this situation? On the second, why isn't the FSA using these almighty powers that it claims to possess? The FSA's conduct here is unacceptable. Those four statutory objectives, by the way, are to maintain market confidence, foster financial stability, protect the consumer and reduce financial crime. The FSA has again failed on the first three of these, and while the legality or otherwise of the BOI's plans has yet to be proven in court, this situation absolutely stinks to high heaven.

This is just another reason why few will mourn the passing of the utterly cowardly FSA when it is abolished next year. The only pity is that the Prudential Regulatory Authority has to achieve only extremely little to overshadow its pathetic predecessor.

What makes the BOI's arrogant refusal to back down over the pibs even more ludicrous is that they represent but a minor fraction of this restructuring: just £75m. Should the pibs-holders be left out of the process, there will be no difference to the impact on the bank, while keeping them in will wreck more than 2,000 lives, forgetting their families. Without meaning to sound too misty-eyed, we get only one chance at this life and no one should attempt to ruin what precious few years these elderly ladies and gentlemen have left.

If the FSA is cowardly, then the BOI and its government masters are doubly so, for they seem to believe that backing down would make them look weak. Quite the opposite: admitting that they are wrong and leaving alone these poor people, who are already struggling, would be the brave and morally right thing to do.

Should the BOI and Irish government come to their senses and realise there is no shame in admitting error if it is rectified, they would deserve praise. If not, they deserve the public thrashing that I sincerely hope Mr Kempster gives them next week.

Off the grid: Williams shifts into hi-tech imaging and supercars

When people talk about the Williams Formula One team, I have childhood memories of Nigel Mansell and his awesome moustache taking on racing legends such as Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

Having watched a boffin called Dave nearly match the lap time of current driver Pastor Maldonado at a hi-tech simulator in Williams' Oxfordshire HQ, I'll have to block out that sepia-tinged image. This simulator offers near-perfect representations of F1's tracks, as well as clever imaging that replicates drivers' vital peripheral vision.

Not doing so well on the track, with no constructor titles since the 1990s, Williams is branching out to bolster its racing revenues. Chief executive Alex Burns tells me this simulator is being commercialised and the firm is in talks with emergency services to develop versions to train their drivers. Williams also recently announced it will help Jaguar build its hybrid supercar.

Shares have fallen since Williams listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in March, with investors perhaps concerned that only one of its drivers, veteran Rubens Barrichello, has scored points so far this season. But with shares going for under 20p a pop, I'd suggest that Williams might well be worth a punt as it becomes much more than just a racing team.

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