View from City Road: MPs should stick to the bigger Maxwell issues

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The Commons Social Security committee's report on Buchler Phillips' handling of the receivership of the Maxwell personal estate is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The committee complains that in his evidence Peter Phillips, the receiver, 'placed too great an emphasis on the likely gross size and value of the personal estate and was therefore misleading'.

The MPs were led to believe that the personal estate and three small private company liquidations could realise as much as pounds 8.75m, a sizeable part of which would be for Maxwell pensioners.

In fact only pounds 5.3m was recovered. All but pounds 1.2m of that was claimed by other Maxwell administrators.

Furthermore, fees to Buchler Phillips and its lawyers Nabarro Nathanson are pounds 980,000, leaving a surplus of about pounds 200,000 - which may be entirely eaten up by a preferential tax claim from the Inland Revenue. That is certainly a bad state of affairs.

But the MPs, no strangers to self publicity, also complain that the evidence to the committee was 'designed to make the task of acting as a receiver appear more significant than it actually was, which in turn enabled Buchler Phillips to maximise its fee income and garner more publicity opportunities'.

They reckon the best way out is to take the case away from the court-appointed Buchler Phillips and put the private estate into bankruptcy - not a particularly clever solution, since interest on the funds retrieved would go to the Government not the pensioners.

Mr Phillips called the report of the committee, which is chaired by the Labour MP Frank Field, an 'outrageous abuse of the parliamentary system' and he has written to the Speaker to complain.

He has also asked the Insolvency Practitioners Association, his professional body, to investigate his handling of the case.

What does this all add up to? At worst, Peter Phillips was over-optimistic about the amount of money he was likely to get back for the pensioners, he charged rather a lot for his work - marginally more per hour that the other firms involved in the Maxwell case - and he made a meal out of his dealings with the committee.

Receivers, administrators and liquidators are expensive, sometimes overcharge and eat up a large share of the funds they recover.

The banks that appoint many of them have become restive, and encouraged by the Bank of England are setting up new control mechanisms to police and if necessary curb the fees that are charged.

If he is an optimist and a well paid one at that, Mr Phillips is hardly alone in his profession.

Now the committee has found a new area to explore, it says it will continue its inquiries on the sale of the Oxford United Football Club, which once belonged to Robert Maxwell. If it persists in these obsessions, the committee will seriously undermine its credibility on wider pensions issues.

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