Mining union's unlikely commercial ally: Steve Boggan traces the rise and demise of a family-run haulage firm that made its money running coal convoys during the pits strike

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a feeling of disgust among many trades unionists when, in 1989, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers chose a family of strike-breaking hauliers as bedfellows for their first commercial venture.

The Meeks family, which owned National Plant and Transport plc, had made its money in 1984 by running huge convoys carrying imported coal from Port Talbot to the British Steel furnaces at Llanwern, South Wales. On some days during the bitter pit strike, columns of up to 110 vehicles, owned or sub-contracted by Eric Meeks, would run the gauntlet of furious strikers, held at bay by legions of police officers.

Within two years of the strike ending, Mr Meeks's company, E & J Meeks Ltd, was sold to a Swedish company for pounds 4.5m, but links with British Coal remained strong. So when, in 1988, British Coal took its first steps along the path of privatisation by selling its plant and transport operations in Nottinghamshire, the Meeks family made a bid of about pounds 9m for 300 vehicles and 604 pieces of plant.

National Plant and Transport (NPT) was born and the family's links with British Coal were strengthened. Business was brisk and three subsidiaries sprang up.

Then came the jewel in the crown, certainly the company with the most potential. Robin Meeks, 38, one of Eric's sons, negotiated the formation of Mining Skills Ltd with the UDM in April 1989. Union officials had been concerned that private contractors would move into the mining labour market as privatisation gathered pace, leaving its members out in the cold. They decided to move in first, charging a fee for providing trained labour - primarily UDM members who had been made redundant.

Using the name Kiterange Ltd, the UDM bought a pounds 20,000 stake in Mining Skills, amounting to 49 per cent of the shareholding.

'It was a very small investment but it made us a hell of a lot of money,' Mick Stevens, UDM general secretary for Nottinghamshire, said. 'We had 1 per cent involvement in running the company but 50 per cent of the profits. In the first year alone, we made more than four times our investment, allowing us to provide a whole range of benefits for our members.'

The UDM was expecting a pounds 500,000 payout from its partnership with the Meeks family this year, but officials say that will now be lost. UDM sources also say that money from Mining Skills' bank accounts was moved around the group without the union's knowledge.

The Independent has established that administrators appointed by the High Court to salvage the remnants of the group have been told that a secret Mining Skills bank account may have been used to receive money from British Coal, which should have been passed on to a subsidiary of Lloyds Bank. Sources close to NPT say at least pounds 1m passed through the account.

Confidential Invoice Discounting, the Lloyds subsidiary, had been factoring for Mining Skills, a common commercial arrangement whereby Confidential bought debts owing to the company for about 80 per cent of their value. Mining Skills benefited because it received the cash immediately, and Confidential kept the other 20 per cent when the debt was paid.

Under the arrangement, Confidential had the right to audit Mining Skills' bank statements at any time to ensure that all the debts it had bought from the company were handed over as soon as invoices were paid. In almost all cases, the customer was British Coal.

But sources within the NPT group said: 'Confidential's people were shown one bank account, but money was coming into a second account that we did not tell them about. At least pounds 1m went through there that should have gone to the factoring company.'

Inquiries also revealed that administrators have been given copies of allegedly fake invoices made out for services which British Coal says were never provided. It is understood the factoring company paid Mining Skills as part of its arrangement, but British Coal says the debts did not exist. Confidential Invoice Discounting lost about pounds 4m.

Confidential confirmed yesterday that, after the collapse, it presented invoices to a customer - believed to be British Coal - for goods and services that British Coal says were never provided. Another factoring company, RoyScot Factors, part of the Royal Bank of Scotland, claims it, too, is owed money. NPT sources say they have no evidence to suggest that Eric Meeks or David Meeks, 47, NPT's former managing director, knew of the transactions.

Since the group collapsed in February, the court-appointed administrators, Andrew Menzies and Ken Jones of Robson Rhodes, have launched proceedings against Robin Meeks and Ashe & Goodwin, of which he was a director, for pounds 6.5m damages, alleging breaches of his duties as a director for allowing unauthorised payments to companies outside the group.

These included the unauthorised movement of pounds 3.89m and pounds 1.86m to the Martingale Corporation in Panama, a trust company which the Independent has linked to Robin Meeks. It is understood that inquiries have also been carried out in Switzerland. The pounds 1.86m relates to shares given to NPT by Barcom plc, a mining plant company, as part of a pounds 13.7m buy-out of NPT's plant division in May 1992. The Barcom shares were transferred to the Martingale Corporation as a dividend, which, according to a report to creditors, 'would have been unlawful'. The shares have since been returned and Martingale has been released from the legal action.

David Meeks has been questioned at length by the administrators, who agreed to free him from legal action after he undertook to repay pounds 100,000 'secured by a bill of sale over a yacht with a value comfortably in excess of his financial commitment . . .'.

Eric Meeks was taken to task over a farmhouse in Bilsthorpe, Nottinghamshire, bought by NPT but transferred to Force Nine Ltd, a Guernsey-registered company owned by him and his wife, June. The administrators have attempted to recover pounds 151,000 from Calmcraft Ltd, an insolvent company jointly owned by Robin Meeks. Company records show its only asset is a Cessna light aircraft bought for pounds 238,561 and now worth pounds 148,000.

According to the administrators' report to creditors, David Meeks, who lives in Newstead Abbey Park, Nottinghamshire, said he played no part in NPT plc after June 1992. 'It was David Meeks' view that Robin Meeks had been responsible for all of the relevant transactions which were being investigated . . .' the report says. 'David Meeks' view confirmed the administrators' provisional conclusion as to responsibility for various questionable acts of both a civil and criminal nature.' All three members of the family declined to comment.

Mining Skills has now been re- formed as Mining Skills (Midlands) Ltd, with the UDM owning 50 per cent and former managers the other half. NPT plc has reformed as NPT Transport (1993) Ltd after a management buy-out. It has no connections with the Meeks family.

(Photograph omitted)