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Most driving tests go ahead despite examiners’ strike

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Car in a driving testImage copyrightGetty Images

Driving examiners in England, Wales and Scotland are beginning a 48-hour strike the day a new driving test is launched.

The Public and Commercial Service (PCS) union has warned thousands of tests could be cancelled.

The union says the new test means examiners will have to work longer, harder and for no extra pay.

The chief executive of the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), Gareth Llewellyn, said the union was “trying to undermine” the new test.

He said it showed a “shameful disregard for both road safety and learner drivers who have worked so hard”.

The DVSA said the new test offered a more realistic assessment of driving skills.

What’s new about the new test?

There are four main changes:

  • The independent driving part of the test will increase from 10 minutes to 20
  • During the independent driving part of the test, most candidates will be asked to follow directions from a sat nav
  • The reverse around a corner and turn-in-the-road (three-point turn) manoeuvres will no longer be tested. These will be replaced by either parallel parking at the side of the road, parking in a bay, or pulling up on the right-hand side of the road, reversing for two car lengths and rejoining the traffic
  • Candidates will have to answer two vehicle safety questions while driving

Flexible working

The PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said his union had tried to negotiate: “No one takes strike action lightly and we acknowledge the disruption to the driving tests for learner drivers keen to pass their test.”

But Lesley Young, the chief examiner of the DVSA, said there would be little disruption: “Most examiners are not in the union and those that are working today will take out a number of tests and we expect the disruption to be minimal.”

PCS union members voted by 84% in favour of striking, on a 70% turnout.

The union said examiners, who are employed by the DVSA, were being told to work harder as the tests come into force.

It said the tests were being accompanied by a “flexible working” regime, which gives managers the ability to deploy driving test examiners anywhere they choose without notice.

The PCS says this could mean staff working six days a week, but only being paid for five.

The DVSA said this was “simply not true”, adding that it had recruited more than 320 extra driving examiners in the past year.

The new test itself is also a bone of contention for the PCS.

It will add a test of sat nav use. The PCS questioned the safety of this, saying “incidents occurred on driving lessons which have been conducted to the new testing arrangements”.


Were you due to have your test today or tomorrow? Are you learning to drive or are you a driving instructor? Tell us your story at haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk.

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Future of UK care firm hangs in the balance

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Four Seasons, which cares for 17,000 elderly and vulnerable residents in 343 care homes across the country, faces having to make an interest payment on Friday next week to bondholders.

It could be tipped into administration if it fails to do so.

The company’s owner, the private equity firm Terra Firma, has now offered to hand over the business – which has debts of £525m – to the bondholders with immediate effect.

It said: “We believe this outcome will deliver much-needed certainty for patients and employees of the Four Seasons group.”

But it is far from clear whether the bondholders, led by the hedge fund H/2 Capital Partners, will agree to this.

The two sides have been in dispute over the ownership of 24 additional care homes that are not part of Four Seasons and which are subject to a separate legal battle.

Terra Firma insisted that, as part of the deal, it would require assurances from H/2 Capital Partners and other bondholders that “they will protect” these 24 homes.

H/2, which has said it is ready to take over Four Seasons and which has lined up the crossbench peer Baroness Ford to become chairman, is insisting it has the right to seize the additional homes.

If Four Seasons fails to make its bond repayment, the Care Quality Commission is likely to step in, potentially preventing Four Seasons from admitting any new residents to its homes.

The crisis at Four Seasons, which was bought by Terra Firma in 2012 for £825m and which employs 26,000 people, highlights the precarious state of Britain’s care home industry.

::Care homes sector faces probe into unfair practices

The sector already had a poor image among many investors following the collapse in 2011 of Southern Cross, which with 30,000 care home residents was then the UK’s largest operator in the field.

The entire sector has been hit by a number of factors, most notably cuts to council funding.

As most care home residents are funded by their local authorities, this has put pressure on care home revenues, just at a time when most are facing cost increases due to demands for higher care quality and the introduction of the National Living Wage.

Moreover, many care home operators were already stretched financially, due to high levels of debts.

Around one in three care home operators are thought to be at risk of insolvency and around one in seven are ‘zombie’ companies that can only service their debt but stand no chance of ever repaying it.

And most care home residents are among those needing the costliest type of care.

As the row over care funding during the general election highlighted earlier this year, patients with cancer are treated free of charge by the NHS.

Patients with dementia often have to pay for care and, with local authority funding under pressure, councils are being obliged to raise the entry qualifications for residential care.

All this comes at a time when the Care Quality Commission is demanding higher standards.

It has found that a third of Britain’s care homes are in need of improvement.

Meanwhile, the ageing population means demand for residential care is rising, just as constraints on capacity start to bite.

Hundreds of care homes have closed during the past two years due to a combination of higher costs and increased funding pressures.

Only last week, the Competition and Markets Authority published the findings of a year-long market study in which it identified a funding shortfall of £1bn a year across the UK, which it blamed on councils paying fees for the residents they fund that were below the costs incurred by care homes.

So, whatever happens at Four Seasons, this is unlikely to be the last crisis facing the care home sector.

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UK government mulls Bitcoin regulation

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Bitcoin stickerImage copyrightGetty Images

Anti-money laundering regulations should be updated to include Bitcoin and other virtual currencies, the UK Treasury has said.

The Metropolitan Police says criminals are using crypto-currency cash machines to launder money in London.

The government’s aim is part of a broader update to the EU rules which are under negotiation.

The update, revealed in Parliament last month, would mean that traders would no longer be able to operate anonymously.

‘Self-police’

Bitcoin expert Dr Garrick Hileman, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, said that in jurisdictions such as New York, crypto-currency is already subject to tighter regulation.

“I think these announcements have a powerful signalling effect and put the industry on notice that the ‘cop on the beat’ is concerned and watching crypto-currencies more closely now,” he said of the Treasury news.

“This in turn will motivate companies to more effectively self-police bad actors.”

At a press briefing, Scotland Yard warned about the currencies’ popularity among criminals.

“Organised criminal groups have been early adopters of crypto-currencies to evade traditional money laundering checks and statutory regulations,” said Det Supt Nick Stevens, from the Serious and Organised Crime Command.

“Criminals have also used crypto-currencies to purchase illegal commodities on dark market sites with anonymity.”

A Treasury spokesman said that there were already “clear tax rules” for legitimate crypto-currency users.

“We also intend to update regulation to bring virtual currency exchange platforms into anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing regulation,” he added.

Bitcoin billionaires

The value of Bitcoin has continued to climb after reaching a landmark value of $10,000 (£7,400) and at the time of writing was trading at more than $11,200.

Bank of England deputy governor Sir Jon Cunliffe has advised people to “do their homework” before investing.

“People need to be clear this is not an official currency. No central bank stands behind it, no government stands behind it,” he told the BBC last week.

US twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are reported to have become the world’s first Bitcoin billionaires, having invested $11m in the currency in 2013.

That stake would now be worth $1.01bn, according to The Times.

The brothers settled a legal dispute with Facebook in 2011 after claiming that Mark Zuckerberg stole their idea for a social network.

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MPs call for probe over SSE-npower merger plan

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The tie-up, agreed last month, will see the household supply businesses operated by SSE and npower join forces – reducing the industry’s dominant “big six” to a “big five”.

Now the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee has written to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to call for an investigation.

Rachel Reeves, chair of the committee, said: “The energy market isn’t working for consumers.

“The proposed merger between SSE and npower risks damaging the development of a more competitive energy market, reducing consumer choice, and threatening to be a bad deal for consumers.

“The CMA needs to look at the potential impacts of this merger and launch a full investigation if there is any risk to competition within the energy market.”

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Video:November: Can Big Six merger be good for customers?

Under the deal, SSE and Innogy – the German owner of npower – will demerge their UK supply operations which will then join forces to create a new London-listed company.

The tie-up would consolidate SSE’s position as the country’s second-largest supplier of household energy behind Centrica-owned British Gas, with a combined base of more than 11 million customers and combined sales of £11bn.

A deal on such a scale is already likely have attracted the attention of the CMA, which will have to weigh up any competition concerns and whether to proceed to a full-blown investigation.

The BEIS committee said it would mean almost half the domestic energy market share would be held by British Gas and the new company.

In her letter to the CMA, Ms Reeves called for regulators to “undertake a full investigation if there is any risk of a lessening of competition within the sector”.

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Video:November: What’s behind Big Six firms’ merger plans?

An SSE spokesman said the merger would in fact “improve competition by offering customers a completely new model combining the resources of established players with the agility and innovation of an independent supplier” and offering better value.

“This is, naturally, subject to the appropriate regulatory approvals and we will engage openly with the CMA, the BEIS Select Committee and any other interested parties as the process goes on.”

Innogy said: “Npower and SSE are currently in contact with the CMA and will notify the transaction formally to the CMA once these preliminary discussions are complete.

“The transaction will create a new, strong and independent British retail energy supplier, which will provide a better deal for consumers and help deliver the government’s plans for more competition in the market.”

The CMA said it would investigate all mergers that meet the legal criteria.

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Pizza Hut sorry for Sun on Sunday offer

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The fast food franchise used its delivery account on Twitter to say sorry “for any offence caused” by its partnership with The Sun.

It had received thousands of comments in response to its promotion of the offer, which began in The Sun on Sunday.

We apologise for any offence caused as a result of this partnership. The aim of this offer was simply to give our customers the chance to enjoy a free pizza to share with their family and friends.

— Pizza Hut DeliveryUK (@pizzahutdeliver) December 2, 2017

Pizza Hut UK said on Saturday evening: “The aim of this offer was simply to give our customers the chance to enjoy a free pizza to share with their family and friends.”

The incident was similar in nature to a promotional campaign in the Daily Mail last month that also fell foul of social media users.

The stationary firm Paperchase said it would not run any further offers with the newspaper, which blamed internet trolls for the backlash against the offer of free Christmas wrapping paper.

Want to collect a free #Pizza? Grab a copy of tomorrow’s @TheSun to find out how pic.twitter.com/li2OjLUF5H

— Pizza Hut DeliveryUK (@pizzahutdeliver) December 2, 2017

A campaign group called Stop Funding Hate was involved in both instances.

However, The Sun sought to play down Pizza Hut’s decision – suggesting this was not a ‘Paperchase moment’ for the paper.

A spokesman said: “The promotion is running until Thursday as originally planned.”

Sky News was awaiting a statement from Pizza Hut.

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End of mega-cheap personal loans?

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Woman with credit cardImage copyrightGetty Images

Strikingly cheap high-value loans and long 0% credit card balance transfer deals could be coming to an end, an expert has suggested.

Andrew Hagger, an analyst at financial consultancy Moneycomms, said that sub-3% interest loans of more than £10,000 were now very rare.

The length of credit card 0% balance transfer deals was also shortening.

Concerns have been raised that an era of cheap loans has led many young people to rely too much on credit.

The City regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, and the Bank of England have expressed worries about young people getting used to credit during a period of low interest rates to pay for basic living costs. This could expose them to financial difficulty when rates rise.

Mr Hagger said the latest “best-buy” tables signalled a shift away from the deals available in recent years.

He said it was more expensive to borrow larger sums, and the longest 0% balance transfer periods on credit cards had fallen from 43 months at the start of the year to 38 months now, with some falling at a faster rate.

“I suspect that the sub-3% personal loan may soon become a thing of the past and I doubt we will ever see the record 43-month 0% balance transfer term breached again,” he said.

A balance transfer effectively allows a borrower to use a new credit card to pay off debt on another credit card. Failing to meet a repayment deadline can leave people in a serious spiral of debt, charities warn.

Image caption Debt levels are a particular focus following festive spending

Figures published by the Bank of England last week showed that unsecured borrowing through loans, overdrafts and credit cards was still growing at 9.6% a year, but that this rate had slowed slightly during the summer.

In October, research for BBC News showed young people in particular were concerned about the amount of debt they are carrying and their ability to repay that debt

This was echoed by the head of the FCA, Andrew Bailey, who said: “There is a pronounced build up of indebtedness amongst the younger age group.”

He said consumers, and institutions that lend to them, should be aware that interest rates may rise in the future and that credit should be “affordable”.

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Toys R Us to shut ‘at least’ 26 UK stores

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Toys R UsImage copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Toys R Us has 106 stores in the UK

Toys R Us has confirmed plans to shut “at least” 26 of its stores in the UK, putting up to 800 jobs at risk.

The toy chain said the closures would start in spring next year and that there would be “no disruption for customers” over Christmas and New Year.

Managing director Steve Knights said the chain’s “warehouse style stores”, which it opened in the 1980s and 1990s, had become “too big and expensive to run in the current retail environment”.

Toys R Us has 106 stores in the UK.

‘Difficult decision’

It currently employs 3,200 people and said it would, where possible, aim to redeploy staff affected by the shop closures.

Toys R US said online shopping would be unaffected by the plans and that there would be no changes to its returns policies or gift cards across the festive period.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption The UK business is understood to have made a loss for seven out of the past eight years

Mr Knights said the closures had been “a difficult decision” but said the company needed to take “strong and decisive action” to try and turn around the business.

The UK business is understood to have made a loss for seven out of the past eight years of trading.

‘Viable business model’

Mr Knights said the firm had instigated a company voluntary arrangement (CVA), which enables a company to agree a plan to pay the money it owes while continuing to trade.

The CVA proposal will be voted on by creditors on 21 December.

“If approved by the creditors, the CVA plan would substantially reduce the UK company’s rental obligations and allow the business to move to a new, viable business model,” Mr Knights added.

Toys R Us in the UK is owned by its US namesake, but run as a separate financial entity.

The US chain filed for bankruptcy protection in the US and Canada in September, but a spokesman for the retailer said the two events were not connected.

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Nationwide banking ‘back’ after IT failure

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The building society said it was sorry for “any inconvenience” as customers took to social media to vent their frustrations at the failure.

The lender first acknowledged a “technical issue” early on Monday morning but was unable to give further details on what had caused the outage.

Sorry, Internet Banking & the Banking app are currently unavailable. We’re working to get them back up and running ASAP. You can get updates or register for a text message when things are back to normal here: https://t.co/Rz7WFLPXJP

— Nationwide UK (@AskNationwide) December 4, 2017

It announced after 11am that its systems were “back to normal” after a flurry of complaints via Twitter.

One user said: “It’s happening every week, a new problem. Their internet service is absolutely shocking! I have no accounts when I log in.”

Had to leave shopping in Asda due to @AskNationwide‘s systems being down once again. Deja Vu from the week before. Absolute joke. #nationwide

— Shane (@shanethegooner) December 4, 2017

Others pointed to anger about being pointed towards a Nationwide branch for help at a time when the sector is under fire for closing high street operations because of a customer shift towards online and mobile banking.

RBS, which has suffered some of the most high-profile outages since the financial crisis, announced on Friday it was closing 259 more NatWest and RBS branches.

Lloyds and Yorkshire Building Society had also confirmed branch cuts earlier in the week.

Anyone else having problems with #Nationwide banking ? Card spat back at me at the ATM can’t get online or app !!! Hung up on twice !!! Terrible #nationwide#ineedmycash

— Zo (@jonezoe) December 4, 2017

British banks have been hit by regular IT outages – often on payday.

Customers of HSBC, NatWest, RBS, Lloyds and Halifax have been affected by glitches during this year.

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Fox ‘resumes sale talks’ with Walt Disney

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Rupert MurdochImage copyrightGetty Images

Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox is reported to have resumed talks with Walt Disney over a sale of “most” of its business, including its Sky stake.

Talks between the two companies were believed to have ended last month.

But according to reports, including the Wall Street Journal – in which the Murdoch family has a large stake, the talks have now resumed.

Negotiations are said to include Fox’s movie and cable networks and international divisions, including Sky.

The rest of the group, which includes Fox News Channel, Fox broadcast network and its sports rights, are not believed to be up for sale.

Fox is currently in the process of trying to buy the rest of Sky that it does not already own. At the moment, it holds a 39% stake in the satellite broadcaster, but wants full control.

Regulators are scrutinising this deal due to worries over the level of influence it would give media companies controlled by the Murdoch family within the UK media landscape, as well as concerns over 21st Century Fox’s commitment to broadcasting standards.

Media analyst Claire Enders, founder of Enders Analysis, said the reported interest of Disney in Fox was “very credible”.

Ms Enders said for a “huge conglomerate” like Disney, a deal focused on consolidation would be “very sensible”, and allow it to save hundreds of millions of dollars though “combined efficiencies”.

But she said the talks would not be able to progress significantly ahead of a critical auction of UK Premier League rights early next year, which would potentially affect Sky’s valuation.

Image caption How 21st Century Fox fits into the Murdoch empire

A Disney deal is not expected to prevent Fox’s pursuit of the rest of Sky’s shares.

The takeover discussions come against the backdrop of upheaval in the media industry, as viewers turn increasingly towards online video, and away from subscriptions for pay-TV.

This shift is reportedly what has fuelled Disney’s approach; combining Disney’s extensive entertainment offering with Fox’s, might be a way to counter the growing threat from Amazon and Netflix.

US cable group Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, and telecoms operator Verizon are also reported to have expressed interest in Fox’s entertainment assets.

Analysts say changing consumer habits have also prompted media and entertainment executives to explore more consolidation of content creation and distribution functions.

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Jobs at risk as Toys R Us plans to shut 26 stores

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The company, which has been loss-making for several years amid a string of pressures from expensive, largely out-of-town shop premises to strong competition, said there would be no changes over the crucial festive season.

But it said that during next year it would move to “transform” the business and bolster profitability by instigating a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) with creditors.

Its update followed an exclusive story by Sky News last week that an announcement was imminent.

The toy chain, whose parent company filed for bankruptcy protection in the US in September, currently employs 3,200 in the UK and operates 84 stores.

Toys R Us said it aimed to begin closing UK stores from the spring and it would look to redeploy staff to its smaller, “more interactive” stores though redundancies were likely.

Toys R Us employs 64,000 staff worldwide
Image:Toys R Us warehouse-style premises in the UK are understood to be the main drag on profitability

The company’s UK managing director, Steve Knights, said: “All of our stores across the UK remain open for business as normal through Christmas and well into the New Year.

“Customers can also continue to shop online and there will be no changes to our returns policies or gift cards across this period.

“Like many UK retailers in today’s market environment, we need to transform our business so that we have a platform that can better meet customers’ evolving needs.

“The decision to propose this CVA was a difficult one, but we (are) determined it is the best path forward to make essential changes to the business.”

Toys R Us said the CVA would involve not only comprehensive operational changes but also financial restructuring.

Commenting on the impact on staff, Mr Knights added: “We recognise this process will affect many of our team members and their families, so we are committed to keeping all of our staff informed throughout this process.

“Our teams will continue to play a key role in turning our business around.”

Dave Brandon, the group chairman and chief executive, said the announcement affected its UK operations only.

He said: “As we continued to work through the financial restructuring process, we made the decision to take action to put our UK operation on stronger financial footing.

“Through the CVA process, we hope to receive authorisation to restructure our UK lease obligations so that we will be better able to invest in our UK business and further improve the customer experience.

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