Unauthorised redundancy payments made by the state-owned company managing the HS2 rail project were a “shocking waste of taxpayers’ money”, MPs have said.
The Public Accounts Committee said the firm overseeing construction of a high-speed rail line offered staff terms “well in excess” of authorised levels.
The MPs blamed “weak internal processes” at HS2 for overpayments to 94 people totalling £1.76m.
An HS2 spokesperson acknowledged “a serious error” had been made.
The company made the payments in 2016-17 after shedding 94 staff in a move from London to Birmingham.
A combination of compulsory and voluntary redundancy schemes were offered on enhanced terms, resulting in a total bill of £2.76m, despite instructions from the Department of Transport that they should be at statutory rates, which would have incurred payments of £1m, MPs on the committee said.
The MPs’ report says that HS2’s chief executive at the time, Simon Kirby, had an email from the government telling him that he wasn’t allowed to offer staff larger, enhanced redundancy payments when the firm relocated.
But it says Mr Kirby didn’t pass that email on to anyone else.
However, Mr Kirby – who now works at Rolls Royce – said in a statement that he had not been responsible for the decision to approve more generous severance packages.
“I did not approve the payments at issue and deny any allegation of wrongdoing,” he said.
“I left HS2 in December last year and the decision to make senior managers redundant, and under what terms, was not made until after I left.”
MPs concluded a lack of basic financial controls at HS2 Ltd heightened the risk of fraud and financial errors, a situation it said was exacerbated by high rates of staff turnover.
“The unauthorised schemes were able to proceed because weak internal processes at HS2 Ltd prevented key decision-making and scrutiny bodies from receiving accurate information,” the committee said.
The HS2 rail link being built between London, Manchester and Leeds, via Birmingham has already proved controversial for its impact on communities in the path of the new line, over its environmental impact and for its £55.7bn price tag.
And he told the Scottish Parliament that those earning above that figure would only pay a “proportionate amount more” than they currently do.
His figures showed that 55% of Scottish taxpayers will pay less compared to south of the border under the new system – with 45% of people paying more.
Someone in Scotland earning £150,000 will pay £1,774 more than if they lived elsewhere in the UK, with someone earning £40,000 paying £140 more.
Accountancy body ICAS calculated that, of the 2.2 million basic rate taxpayers in Scotland, 1.4 million will be marginally better off than those in the rest of the UK whereas the remaining 800,000 will have a slightly increased tax bill.
All 346,000 higher and 20,000 additional rate taxpayers will pay more.
Mr Mackay also outlined how lifting the public-sector pay cap would allow for a 3% pay rise for public sector workers earning less than £30,000, and a 2% rise for those earning more than that – with a cap of £1,600 for those earning £80,000 or more.
And he pledged a further £600m to provide superfast broadband to all premises in Scotland by 2021.
New Income Tax rates
New intermediate tax rate from £24,001 to £44,273
19p Starter rate from £11,850 to £13,850
20p Basic rate from £13,851 to £24,000
41p Higher rate from £44,274 to £150,000
46p Additional rate from £150,000
The Scottish government was given powers over income tax rates and bands last year, with the new rates being paid by anyone who lives in Scotland.
Mr Mackay had faced warnings from business leaders and the Scottish Conservatives ahead of his budget statement that Scotland could not afford to be associated with higher taxation than the rest of the UK.
But others – including Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens – had urged him to go further.
Comparison to 2017-18
Impact relative to rUK
The finance secretary insisted the changes – which he said would raise an additional £164m – were necessary to “mitigate UK budget cuts, protect our NHS and other public services, support our economy and tackle inequality in our society.”
He said the tax reforms would make “Scotland’s income tax system even fairer and more progressive”.
And he said a bigger increase in the top rate of tax for those earning more than £150,000 – which some opposition parties had called for – would actually reduce revenue as high earners would find ways to avoid paying it.
What else did Mr Mackay announce?
Among the other measures in the budget were:
Full relief from LBTT – the Scottish equivalent of stamp duty – on up to £175,000 for first time home buyers
Funding to reduce the attainment gap in Scottish schools increased from £170m to £179m
An increase in health funding of more than £400m – double the amount needed for NHS spending to keep pace with inflation
£243m towards the expansion of free nursery education and childcare
Local government resource budget will be protected in cash terms with the capital budget increased in real terms “resulting in a total increase in local authority core funding of £94m”
Private schools will no longer be eligible for charitable relief from business rates, but universities and council arm’s length bodies will be.
Analysis by Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland political editor
Income tax. Public spending. Employment. Pay. The NHS. Schools. Indisputably, serious stuff.
But there was more than a touch of mischief about Derek Mackay’s demeanour as he got to the tax bits of his budget.
Normally, he exudes gravitas, solemnity even. But he could not help playing to the gallery with a declaratory grin when he insisted that, for most people, Scotland would now be the lowest taxed part of the UK.
Said gallery – led enthusiastically by Mr Mackay’s predecessor, John Swinney – applauded loudly.
The reason for this glee? Politically, the claim is a direct and precise retort to Conservative attacks that Scotland is taxed more highly.
But, of course, when the dust dies down, the Tories will return to that attack.
Scottish Conservative finance spokesman Murdo Fraser branded the creation of a new basic rate the “Nat tax”.
He accused the SNP of breaking a 2016 manifesto promise pledging not to increase the basic rate of income tax for those on low or middle incomes, and claimed the real reason was that Scottish economic growth is lagging behind the UK.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said the Scottish government’s tax and spending plans had “tinkered round the edges” instead of implementing radical change and delivering a genuine alternative to “Tory austerity”.
Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie said he was “delighted that the argument for a more progressive tax structure appears to have won the day”, but said Mr Mackay should have gone further.
And Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the budget was a “missed opportunity” and “does not do enough to meet the long term needs in the economy”.
Elsewhere, the Federation of Small Businesses said a majority of its members were against income tax rises, and that the Scottish government was steering the country into “uncharted economic waters”.
The Scottish Chambers of Commerce welcomed much of the budget as being positive for business, but repeated its concerns about “Scotland’s new status as the highest-taxed part of the UK.”
And local government body Cosla said councils would continue to face “really difficult times” in the future, despite the “more measured approach” by the Scottish government.
Most of the stranded passengers are in Majorca. Austrian authorities are now trying to get them transferred to other flights.
On Wednesday the German carrier Lufthansa scrapped plans to buy Niki.
Earlier, the European Commission had expressed “deep competition concerns” about a possible Lufthansa purchase of 81 Air Berlin and Niki jets. It said that would limit choice for air travellers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Loss-making Air Berlin turned insolvent in August, after its biggest shareholder, Etihad Airways, withdrew financial support.
According to Der Standard, about 40,000 people are booked to fly home on Niki during the next two weeks.
The airline was planning to operate at least 145 flights per week during the winter holiday season, from Austria, Switzerland and Germany.
The assets of Air Berlin, Germany’s second largest airline, are being sold off.
The European Commission has approved EasyJet’s purchase of some Air Berlin assets, ruling that there is no breach of EU competition policy. They include slots at Berlin Tegel airport and at some destination airports, as well as some aircraft equipment.
Some 22 million people had submitted comments ahead of the decision and opinion polls showed 83% of Americans opposed the changes.
Opponents say they could have a major impact on how Americans access the internet.
The rules had prevented major telecoms firms like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon from blocking or slowing access to certain websites or apps.
The internet service providers have promised that nothing will change with the rules gone and insist the web will be more free with less government regulation.
Mr Pai said: “What is the FCC doing today? Quite simply we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence.
“The sky is not falling. Consumers will remain protected and the internet will continue to thrive.”
Mr Pai has called the internet the “greatest free-market innovation in history” and mocked “heavy-handed government regulation” for not being helpful to the web’s growth.
And White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters: “The administration supports the FCC’s efforts and at the same time the White House certainly has and always will support a free and fair internet.”
Entertainment companies and tech giants like Google, Facebook, Spotify and Netflix had been among those who pressured the FCC to leave the rules in place.
Netflix tweeted that it was “disappointed” with the decision to “gut protections that ushered in an unprecedented era of innovation, creativity and civic engagement”.
The decision is now likely to face legal challenges.
New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman has promised to lead a multi-state lawsuit. He said the vote was “a blow to New York consumers and to everyone who cares about a free and open internet.”
The fear amongst opponents is that service providers, increasingly becoming content providers themselves as well, could prioritise access to their own brands.
We’re disappointed in the decision to gut #NetNeutrality protections that ushered in an unprecedented era of innovation, creativity & civic engagement. This is the beginning of a longer legal battle. Netflix stands w/ innovators, large & small, to oppose this misguided FCC order.
Sky News has learnt that Richard Buxton, the chief executive of Old Mutual Global Investors (OMGI), is on the brink of a deal to buy a £25bn chunk of the company.
The management buyout will be backed by TA Associates, a private equity firm which enjoyed success as a shareholder in Jupiter, according to a banking source.
An announcement could come as soon as Friday, although it is more likely next week, the source added.
If completed, the deal would follow an intense bidding war which in recent weeks has included serious interest from Macquarie, the Australian financial services group.
Old Mutual, the FTSE-100 Anglo-South African financial services group, has been holding talks about a sale of the unit headed by Mr Buxton since the autumn.
Sky News revealed in September that the star fund manager was trying to assemble a buyout of its £25bn single-strategy operations, prompting confirmation from Old Mutual that it was “assessing, together with OMGI management, internal and external structures” for the business.
The prospective sale of OMGI’s funds arm will not include the multi-asset unit which manages about £11bn.
If a private equity deal does take place, it would leave Mr Buxton in charge of one of the City’s most influential independent fund management businesses.
He joined OMGI in 2013 and then became chief executive of the division two years later.
Old Mutual is now being split into four parts by chief executive Bruce Hemphill.
They are: South African lender Nedbank; a US-based asset management business in which Old Mutual’s stake will be sold down to 6% later this year; Old Mutual Wealth, which is the unit in which OMGI sits; and Old Mutual Emerging Markets.
Mr Hemphill, the group’s chief executive, is a rarity among big company bosses in pursuing a strategy which will lead to him effectively losing his job once the break-up is complete.
He has enjoyed the support of investors for the move, however, as he seeks to unlock the valuation discount typically suffered by conglomerates.
“I don’t think it was particularly badly managed or poorly put together, there was just no sense in the structure,” Mr Hemphill told The Times recently.
Established in Cape Town in 1845, Old Mutual has endured speculation for years about its corporate structure.
Mr Buxton’s move to lead a buyout of OMGI’s third-party business has attracted attention given his prominence in the City.
He is one of a small band of star managers whose influence grants him rarefied access to company boardrooms.
It is unclear what the business he will lead will be called, since Old Mutual’s name will only remain attached to its South African operations.
If the sale does take place, it will be the latest in a string of significant deals in the asset management industry this year.
The biggest was the £11bn merger of Aberdeen Asset Management and Standard Life to form Standard Life Aberdeen, which completed during the summer.
Hermes Fund Managers, which is owned by the BT Pension Scheme, is also exploring a sale.
The executive co-chairman of Fox spoke at length about the $52.4bn deal(£39bn) – seen as the biggest shake-up in Hollywood since the 1930s.
He told Ian King it was the right move at the right time though he was particularly sad to sell Sky – the owner of Sky News – assuming the takeover by Fox, which is continuing, is eventually given the go ahead.
The deal confirmed on Thursday will bring together the 20th Century Fox film studio behind hits such as Avatar, X-Men and Ice Age together with Disney’s film assets, which include Pixar, Marvel and the Star Wars maker LucasFilm.
The pair are respectively the fourth and second biggest movie studios in Hollywood and the deal means the ‘big six’ that have dominated Tinseltown for nearly a century will become a big five instead.
When asked how harmful allegations about sexual harassment at Fox News had been for the business, Mr Murdoch dismissed them as “nonsense”.
He said: ‘It’s all nonsense. There was a problem with our chief executive,over the year, isolated incidents.
“As soon as we investigated he was out of the place in hours – well three or four days. And there has been nothing else since then.
“That was largely political because we are conservative. The liberals are going down the drain. NBC is in deep trouble.
“‘There are really bad cases and people should be moved aside. There are other things – which probably amount to a bit of flirting.”
The 86-year-old added that he did not believe those allegations had affected investor sentiment towards his businesses.
Included in the Disney sale are Fox’s prized US cable networks, including FX and the National Geographic Channel, as well as international pay television assets including Star TV in India.
Fox has been trying to buy full control of Sky for the last year and the proposed £18.5bn takeover, which was launched just over a year ago, is currently being scrutinised by the Competition and Markets Authority.
Fox said it expected that deal to be completed by the end of June next year.
Disney would then eventually own the whole of Sky.
Other assets included in the deal are Fox’s 30% stake in Hulu, the US streaming service, in which Disney is also a shareholder.
The deal is expected to take a year to complete and will be subject to approval by competition regulators both in the United States and in the EU.
The latter is seen as less likely to have a problem with the takeover but the US, where the US Justice Department has been seeking to block the $85.4bn takeover of Time Warner by the telecoms giant AT&T, may be more difficult.
The combined business will make films that account for two in every five cinema tickets sold in the US – which may raise some concerns among regulators.
Under the terms of the deal, Disney will also take on some $13.7bn worth of debt from 21st Century Fox, making the total deal worth $66.1bn.
Announcing the deal, Bob Iger, the chairman and chief executive of Disney, said: “The acquisition of this stellar collection of businesses from 21st Century Fox reflects the increasing consumer demand for a rich diversity of entertainment experiences that are more compelling, accessible and convenient than ever before.
“We’re honoured and grateful Rupert Murdoch has entrusted us with the future of businesses he spent a lifetime building and we’re excited about this extraordinary opportunity to significantly increase our portfolio of well-loved franchises and branded content to greatly enhance our growing direct-to-consumer offerings.
“The deal will also substantially expand our international reach, allowing us to offer world-class storytelling and innovative platform distribution platforms to more consumers in key markets around the world.”
Mr Iger, who was due to step down as Disney boss in July 2019, will now continue in the role until the end of 2021.
Mr Murdoch described how the deal evolved following a discussion over a few glasses of wine with Mr Iger, who he described as a friend.
“He rang me back a couple of weeks later and said ‘look let’s (have) this conversation a bit more’.”
Under the terms of the transaction, which will be entirely in shares, investors in Fox will receive 0.2745 shares in Disney for each 21st Century Fox share they currently own.
Shareholders in 21st Century Fox will own 25% of the enlarged Disney once the deal completes.
The remaining assets owned by 21st Century Fox include Fox News, America’s most-watched cable news channel; Fox Business, America’s most-watched business television channel; Fox Sports – which has the rights to broadcast the next football World Cup in the US – and a number of local television stations in the US.
The malware spotted by cybersecurity firm FireEye is one of the few examples of hacking tools designed to cause real-world harm rather than steal money or data.
It was found by FireEye’s Mandiant team responding to an alert from an industrial customer after a compromise had been detected on its computers.
The malware was designed to manipulate the systems which provide emergency shutdown to prevent physical damage being caused if industrial processes go wrong.
FireEye stated that this was not evidence that such an attack was imminent as attackers often penetrate systems to retain the capability to launch such attacks in the future, without the intention of doing so.
The malicious software specifically targeted the customer’s Safety Instrumented Systems, autonomous controls that independently monitor industrial processes.
By manipulating what the safety systems would go into alert over, the malware’s impact could have extended to “human safety, the environment, or damage to equipment” according to FireEye.
Although rare, malware has been used to cause physical damage before. In 2010, the US and Israel deployed the Stuxnet virus to destroy a number of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.
Stuxnet reportedly destroyed up to 1,000 centrifuges at the Iranian uranium enrichment facility in Natanz.
Another hacking tool called Industroyer, believed to have been sponsored by the Russian state, was identified targeting the Ukrainian power grid in 2016.
FireEye said it has “not connected this activity to any actor we currently track” regarding Triton, however it assessed “with moderate confidence” that it was developed by “a nation state”.
“The targeting of critical infrastructure as well as the attacker’s persistence, lack of any clear monetary goal and the technical resources necessary to create the attack framework suggest a well-resourced nation state actor,” the researchers said.
“The targeting of critical infrastructure to disrupt, degrade, or destroy systems is consistent with numerous attack and reconnaissance activities carried out globally by Russian, Iranian, North Korean, US, and Israeli nation state actors.
In a blog post, Mr Hunt suggested attackers could redirect visitors trying to access NatWest’s online banking service, from the official address nwolb.com to something visually similar such as nuuolb.com.
Shortly afterwards, NatWest registered the nuuolb.com web address. But Mr Hunt, who has previously testified before US Congress on matters of cyber-security, said the bank had missed the point.
“We’re seeing ‘Not secure’ next to the address bar,” he said. “I would opine that ‘Not secure’ is not what you want to see on your bank.”
A spokesman for RBS, which owns NatWest, told the BBC: “We take the security of our services extremely seriously. While we do not currently enforce HTTPS on some of our websites, we are working towards upgrading this in the next 48 hours.
“Our online banking channel is secured with HTTPS.”
Security researchers found several other major banks did not use HTTPS on their homepages.
First Direct told the BBC: “This functionality is something we’re currently reviewing.”
Lloyds Banking Group said the websites for Lloyds and Halifax did typically use HTTPS, but also “allowed HTTP access” if people typed in the web address manually.
“We are in the final stages of correcting this and expect it to be resolved this week,” a spokesman told the BBC.
Tesco Bank has not responded to the BBC’s request for comment.
What’s the problem?
Online banking websites use HTTPS connections to help keep customer data private.
When a website uses HTTPS (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure), any information sent between your device and the website is encrypted, so it cannot be read if it is intercepted.
However, security researchers found several banks did not use HTTPS on the rest of their websites, including the homepage on which visitors land.
NatWest originally tweeted that it did not use HTTPS on its homepage because it only contained “general information”.
But the researchers suggested that without HTTPS an attacker could theoretically modify elements of a bank’s website. They could send victims to a fake online banking site and steal their information.
“The homepage is insecure so you can’t trust anything on it,” said Mr Hunt.
“This is a banking website. No excuses,” added Stephen Kellett, from security firm Software Verify. “All pages, whether performing transactions, the homepage, the about page, the whole lot, they should all be secure. Why? Because they all launch the login page.”
How credible is the threat?
“There are various ways this can be exploited, to lure the client on to a phishing website,” said Dr Mark Manulis, from the Surrey Centre for Cyber-security.
A phishing page is designed to look like a legitimate website to trick people into handing over personal information.
“It’s possible to spoof the website and create a fake login button. Phishing attacks for a long time have been a major threat and can be quite sophisticated. This makes such attacks easier.”
The European Central Bank (ECB) has lifted its economic growth forecasts as growth across the eurozone picks up.
It now expects the eurozone’s economy to grow 2.4% this year, ahead of its previous guidance of 2.2%.
The bank also kept its main interest rate at zero and confirmed its asset purchase programme would drop from €60bn to €30bn a month in January.
ECB president Mario Draghi said: “We are certainly more confident today than we were two months ago.”
Pressure on the ECB to tighten policy has been growing as the eurozone economy has gathered strength.
The bank also raised its GDP growth forecast for next year to 2.3% from 1.8%, and for 2019 to 1.9% from 1.7%.
The ECB slightly lifted its inflation expectation for next year but its guidance remains below its target of close to, but below, 2%.
Mr Draghi said: “Domestic price pressures remain muted overall and have yet to show convincing signs of a sustained upward trend.”
Claus Vistesen, chief eurozone economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said: “The ECB is much more optimistic on the economy, but not on inflation.
“We think growth will slow slightly next year, but that inflation will continue to edge higher. Even if the take the ECB by its word, however, a 0.5 percentage point upgrade to the 2018 GDP outlook with only a small bump in the inflation forecast increases the risk that the central bank will err on the side of complacency.”
The revival in the eurozone’s fortunes was underlined by a closely-watched survey published earlier on Thursday, which indicated that businesses in the 19-nation bloc have been enjoying strong growth this month.