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Business Comment

Mark Leftly: MPs dig for the truth and prepare for a crackdown on mining companies

Westminster Outlook

For platinum miners, South Africa remains a dangerous place. In August 2012, 34 workers were shot dead by police at Lonmin’s Marikana mine, north of Johannesburg, following a wildcat strike.

A few weeks ago, members of Parliament’s Business Select Committee, on a fact-finding mission to the country, were instructed by the Foreign Office that sites belonging to Lonmin and Anglo American should still be considered off-limits. They were told violence and tensions remain, particularly ahead of the country’s May general election, while a strike that has reduced the world’s platinum output by 40 per cent is into its tenth week.

The committee, led by chairman Adrian Bailey, is in the midst of quietly investigating extractive industries – miners, oil and gas producers – and wanted to find what is happening on the ground in one of the sector’s most important but troubled markets.  Although mine visits were restricted, what the MPs discovered on this trip could have an enormous impact on the mining groups that are now such regulars at the top of the FTSE 100, such as Glencore, BHP Billiton, and Rio Tinto.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange asks companies to produce a social responsibility index. This measures what the exchange describes as the “three pillars of the triple bottom line” – environmental, economic and social sustainability.

This is particularly pertinent for mining groups due to the inherent dangers of working far underground and the energy-burning nature of the industry.

Some members of the committee are minded to introduce something similar specifically for mining and oil and gas groups on the FTSE 100. However, they want to avoid this becoming a “tick-box” exercise, overseen by savvy communications gurus, so the idea would be for the index to be mandatory rather than voluntary.

That the mining sector – which has been so badly scarred by corporate governance and financial scandals at Bumi and Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation in recent years – has caught the attention of a powerful group of politicians who can cover any aspect of business it sees fit is instructive.

Of course, it does not follow that a select committee recommendation becomes a law or regulation, but the conclusions will be noted by lawmakers and regulators.

This inquiry has been run fairly quietly thus far, but miners should be under no illusions that they are about to face huge regulatory upheavals in the wake of the sector’s many recent scandals.

Wait for the bombshell news on the big nuclear clean-up

 Late on Monday morning, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will reveal which of four consortiums has been selected to clean up nine sites that hosted Magnox reactors. These were the first generation of British nuclear reactors, dating back to the 1950s, and are now all but obsolete.

What’s remarkable is how little media attention this competition has attracted. Detoxifying nuclear sites is, after all, one of the most delicate, complicated jobs in industry, while the overall contract is worth around £7bn over 14 years.

The official line is that no-one can possibly know which consortium has been selected because the process has been run so tightly.

But leaks, even nuclear ones, are hard to suppress and the smart money is on the incumbent, private equity-owned Energy Solutions retaining the contract. The Salt Lake City-based group is backed up this time by Bechtel, the mighty US engineering behemoth that has tried to run everything this side of the pond from major rail infrastructure, like High Speed Two, to great swathes of the Ministry of Defence. 

In December 2012 we reported the outcry as Bechtel was allowed to bid for the Magnox contract, given allegations about the group’s work on US nuclear sites. This included a leaked memo from Department of Energy director Gary Brunson, who accused Bechtel of 34 failings at one plant and claimed it was “not competent to complete” its clean-up role.

If the NDA does go for Bechtel, expect this contract to finally hit the headlines, as union leaders and environmental campaigners start spitting blood.

Don’t trust Farage and his Euro woe over the Quo

 Unbelievably, Nick Clegg let Nigel Farage get away with this absurd lie in their tamely-contested, televised confrontation over the EU this week: “This debate is between a tired status quo defending a crumbling EU that frankly isn’t working any more, and a fresh approach that says, ‘let’s not be governed by their institutions’.”

As Mr Farage is surely aware, the Quo are far from tired: they are still rockin’ all over the world, from Wolverhampton Civic Hall to Ijsselhallen, arguably the premier conference centre in the Zwolle municipality of the Netherlands.

Fronted by Catford caterwauler Francis Rossi, the soft rock yet hard-hitting band have even secured a crafty commercial tie-up with Wychwood Brewery. “Two legends collide”, Wychwood tells us, to create Piledriver, a 4.3 per cent ale with a label that features a gorilla brandishing a Status Quo missile – presumably used to defend the “crumbling EU”.

Mr Farage is well-known for his fondness for a pint, so if we can’t trust him on the beer-brewing Status Quo, how on earth can we believe him on Europe?