Billionaire Tory donor’s firm claimed millions in furlough cash – after making £75m profit

Exclusive: Labour MP labels Wren Kitchens’ use of the scheme ‘immoral’

Simon Murphy
Chief reporter
Friday 03 December 2021 20:18
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<p>Wren Kitchens’ owner Malcolm Healey’s personal donations to Boris Johnson’s Tory party top £2.3m since 2017 </p>

Wren Kitchens’ owner Malcolm Healey’s personal donations to Boris Johnson’s Tory party top £2.3m since 2017

A billionaire Tory donor’s firm continued to claim millions of pounds’ worth of taxpayer-funded furlough money after recording a £75.3m profit, The Independent can reveal.

Malcolm Healey’s company, Wren Kitchens, used public funds to help bankroll its staff costs during the Covid pandemic even though it banked tens of millions of pounds’ worth of pre-tax profits in its 2020 accounts.

It came as Healey personally donated £500,000 to Boris Johnson’s party in December 2020, meaning he has given the Tories over £2.3m since 2017, according to Electoral Commission records.

An analysis earlier this year found Healey – who resides in a 12,000-acre estate and has been described as a reclusive figure – had been the largest individual donor to the Conservatives since Johnson entered Downing Street.

Kitchens tycoon Healey’s firm received £15.5m in 2020 via the government’s job retention scheme, set up to help struggling businesses pay staff during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to its latest accounts.

But rather than feeling the pinch during the pandemic, the kitchen manufacturer saw its pre-tax profit climb to £75.3m in the 12 months to the end of December 2020, up from £65.1m the previous year.

There is no suggestion Healey’s firm has broken any rules but a Labour MP said the use of the scheme went against “the whole spirit” of it, labelling it “immoral”.

Many companies which claimed furlough money during the pandemic either stopped doing so when they endured the crisis better than expected, or paid funds back. Instead of handing furlough money back to the taxpayer, Wren Kitchens continued to claim from the public purse in 2021, receiving more than £3m in furlough payments, according to an analysis of HMRC data by The Independent.

Labour MP Rushanara Ali, a member of the influential Treasury Committee, told The Independent: “This goes against the whole spirit of the furlough scheme. It is unjust and immoral for a billionaire Tory donor’s firm to take taxpayers’ money to pay staff when their business is not in need, at a time when millions were struggling and continue to struggle to make ends meet.

“Support should only go to those employers who needed it. Many companies returned funds back to the Treasury after weathering the crisis better than expected, which was the right thing to do.”

For each of the three months between January and March, Wren Kitchens Ltd claimed between £1,000,001 and £2.5m, as well as between £250,001 and £500,000 in April. During this period, the scheme paid 80 per cent of a furloughed employee’s wages up to a cap of £2,500 a month. The company did not make any claims between May and August.

The figures are detailed in data published by HMRC on the scheme, which ended on 30 September after being set up by chancellor Rishi Sunak in March 2020 at the outset of the pandemic.

It means the firm has claimed at least £3.2m of furlough cash since the turn of the year – although the figure could be much higher as the HMRC data is only provided in bands.

Wren Kitchens’ accounts also show that the firm paid directors a total of £1.5m in 2020, with the highest paid receiving £186,636. The figures emerged in its latest Companies House accounts, which were published on 25 June.

The firm, which manufactures and supplies fitted kitchens, faced criticism from the Unite union – which has members at the company – at the outset of the pandemic in March last year for laying off hundreds of staff.

At the time, Wren said it had “anticipated that there would be a reduction in economic activity due to the coronavirus and had identified team members who were under-performing and taken steps to reduce its headcount accordingly”.

Of the furlough details, Unite regional officer Mike Wilkinson said: "The gall of Wren Kitchens is totally unsurprising. The rot set in with Wren when they rushed to get rid of showroom staff at the first whiff of lockdown.”

He added: “It should come as no surprise that Wren, under the guidance of the owner Malcolm Healey, would seize the opportunity to use taxpayers’ money to subsidise his already huge fortune.”

Wren Kitchens is a subsidiary of The West Retail Group Ltd, whose ultimate controlling party is Malcolm Healey.

Malcolm and his brother, Eddie, who died in August, were listed as being worth £2.2bn when they were jointly ranked 75th in the latest Sunday Times Rich List – a £200m increase in wealth from the previous year. Malcolm Healey lives on the Warter Priory estate, near York, which he purchased for £48m in 1998.

Wren Kitchens did not respond to requests for comment.

A Treasury spokesman said: “Furlough provided a lifeline to more than a million businesses across the UK and protected nearly 12 million jobs – with businesses passing all the money they received from the scheme on to employees .

“We won’t apologise for doing everything we could during this unprecedented economic shock to support eligible businesses; as a result of our action the economy is growing, more employees are on payrolls than ever before and unemployment has fallen for nine months in a row.”

The Conservative Party did not respond to a request for comment.

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