MPs seek quick end as Maxwell fees rise

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ACCOUNTANTS and lawyers working on Robert Maxwell's collapsed media empire have run up fees of more than pounds 34m and are expected eventually to be paid nearly pounds 100m, it emerged yesterday.

The level of professional fees was disclosed as the House of Commons Social Security Committee called on the Government to bring an end to lawyers' wrangling over the money that remains from the Maxwell pension funds. The dispute over the ownership of the pounds 150m remaining in the so- called common investment fund (CIF) has left pensioners anxious about the continued payment of their pensions.

Most of the costs have been incurred by Arthur Andersen ( pounds 14.4m) and Price Waterhouse ( pounds 15m), respectively the administrators to the Maxwell private companies and Maxwell Communication Corporation.

The committee's report suggests enlisting Sir John Cuckney, the special adviser to the Government's Maxwell pensions unit, to mediate between those claiming ownership and 'to knock a few heads together'. The alternative would be an 'inordinately expensive (and) time-consuming' battle in the courts.

Frank Field MP, the committee's chairman, said the ownership dispute should be settled within six months. 'Our patience, like the pensioners', is fast running out,' he said.

The recommendations did not go far enough to satisfy the Maxwell Pensioners Action Group, which insists compensation is the only answer. Ken Trench, its chairman, said allocation of the CIF and the return of funds held by banks would still leave more than pounds 200m missing

The MPs' report is strongly critical of apparently 'fanciful' claims to property made by Peter Phillips of Buchler Phillips, the receiver to Robert Maxwell's estate. The MPs said that pursuit of such claims was a grave misuse of creditors' funds. Mr Phillips did not wish to comment on the report yesterday.

Sir John, described by Mr Field as 'the one success story' of the Maxwell affair, seems likely to leave the job of arbitration to Sir Peter Webster, a retired High Court judge. Sir John is believed to feel this role would be inappropriate for him because of his position as adviser to Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security.

Mr Field said the committee was unwilling to see the Government add to the pounds 2.5m 'drip-feed' that is supporting payments to pensioners of the MCC scheme. He said: 'If it's increased, all that will happen is that the accountants and the lawyers will take even longer to come to a conclusion.'

David Shaw, the Conservative MP for Dover, said the committee found it 'enormously frustrating . . . that the brain power that has so far cost pounds 34m of fees and expenses and might well approach pounds 100m . . . cannot find a solution, a year after Maxwell jumped overboard, to the problems of the CIF'.

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