Janet Street-Porter: Hampers, hypocrisy and our greedy MPs

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yesterday a Harrods Christmas catalogue plopped through my letterbox, followed by one from John Lewis. But for around 150,000 people in Britain, Christmas this year is going to be a miserable affair. They certainly won't be interested in mail-order decorations or opulent boxes of bath oils. The crash of the Farepak Christmas hamper club company has brought financial hardship to those who can least afford it.

You might think that the government would feel charitably inclined towards members of the public who plan their expenditure ahead and try to avoid credit card debit by putting away a small amount of money every week in order to give themselves a treat at Christmas.

Doesn't that sound like sensible financial thinking, or to use one of our Chancellor's favourite words, prudence? Farepak's customers saved for vouchers and Christmas hampers, but when the company went belly-up on 13 October no one was talking about these people getting any of their savings - which range from £500 to thousands - back. Instead, as usual, the the bosses of the companies involved are not being held accountable.

The men who have come in for plenty of criticism in the media, and in parliament are William Rollason, Farepak's chief executive, and Sir Clive Thompson, chairman of their parent company European Home Retail. Ironically, Sir Clive was knighted for "services to industry" but he was unable to come to the phone to talk about his latest little hiccup. The crash came about when the high street bank HBOS withdrew support for European Home Retail, whose shares were suspended in mid-August. Farepak's cash has vanished into the coffers of EHR.

It is not HBOS's fault that small people have lost thousands of pounds of their hard-earned wages, but they must bear a moral responsibility as Farepak's crash is a direct result of the failure of EHR. Labour MP Frank Field has been extremely articulate on the radio, demanding that HBOS, as the group's bankers, (who make billions of pounds of profit each year) should make a very large contribution to repaying the £40m owing to Farepak's customers. If they do not, then it would seem a good idea for all of us to boycott this bank because they clearly have no idea of public relations or customer service.

Now the Government has set up a fighting fund to try to help Farepak customers - but it has not offered to contribute money from public funds. Other traders such as Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Morrisons, as well as the Park Group (another Christmas Hamper firm) have offered cash, while John Lewis and Sainsbury have offered 25% off any vouchers. These sums of £150,000 and £250,000 and so on are pathetically small contributions from companies who will make more than this in profit in half a day's trading over the festive season.

Gordon Brown might have gone on GMTV to denounce the situation as "outrageous" but what is scandalous is that there wasn't legislation in place to protect the small investors and insufficient guidelines about the running of Christmas savings clubs.

In short, the small savers have been treated like mugs, while Sir Clive Thompson is sitting in a £2m house in Sevenoaks, looking forward to a pension said to be worth £14m.

The Trade minister asks us to dig into our packets and help Farepak's customers, and beseeches fellow MP's to donate a day's salary to the Farepak Fund. This is the same bunch of parliamentarians who voted themselves a another £10,000 allowance the other week, a decision supported by Jack Straw as a way to "improve engagement with the public and improve democracy".

They can add this to the average sum most MP's claim of around £134,000 a year each. That's a lot of hampers, turkeys and glass balls, isn't it?

When I was Gest's guest...

I can hardly wait for the sight of Liza Minnelli's ex-husband David Gest exchanging survival tips and cooking up the dried beans around the 'I'm a Celebrity' campfire in the Australian rainforest next week. I met Mr Gest in the very different surroundings of the ballroom of the Dorchester hotel, at an extraordinary party Liza threw to celebrate her husband's 50th. I had never met this exotic couple before, and neither had most of the (predominately female) guest list, an eclectic mix ranging from Petula Clark and Ruby Wax to Ms Dynamite, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. But, what the hell, it was a top night, the champagne flowed, and the cabaret (Liza sang), was great. JSP was snapped embracing a weird little man with dark glasses who you'll be seeing a lot more of in coming weeks.

* As EU negotiations to limit our working hours to 48 in a week have stumbled, is it any surprise that a quarter of the FTSE 100 companies have no female directors? The number of women holding non-executive directorships has fallen, as has the number of women holding FTSE directorships. Only 18 women hold senior boardroom positions in FTSE100 companies - a shocking result. Some of the companies who have no women on the board are our largest retailers - Associated British Food, RHM, and Scottish and Newcastle. Unilever have just one female, a non-executive director. Surely there is a case for positive discrimination, and using the law to enforce a minimum quota of women on the boards of companies?

Comments