Liberty Steel: MPs call for investigation into ‘red flags’on November 4, 2021 at 11:55 pm

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Report says there are lessons to be learned for a strategically vital but crisis-hit industry.

Steel factory worker

Image source, Getty Images

MPs have called for investigations into the owners of Liberty Steel and boss Sanjeev Gupta in a bid to avert another crisis in the industry.

Auditors that signed off the accounts at Liberty’s parent GFG Alliance should also face questions, MPs on the business committee say in a report.

The committee highlights “red flags” and “systemic risks” that should have alerted authorities to the problems.

The steel industry is too important to lurch from “crisis to crisis”, say MPs.

Mr Gupta’s GFG Alliance, one of the UK’s biggest industrial groups, was forced into an urgent financial restructuring when its key lender, Greensill Capital, collapsed.

Greensill made money through supply chain finance – making loans to companies that are waiting for invoices to be paid by their customers. When the invoices were paid, the cash would be there to pay investors back, with interest.

But the report by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee says the use of such finance and the way Mr Gupta structured his businesses was questionable, concluding:

  • Ministers should reflect on the systemic risks to the UK steel industry posed by such unusual corporate structures as those used by GFG Alliance
  • Mr Gupta put senior members of his staff in an “unacceptable position” by not giving them the required access to information or decision-making powers needed to perform their roles
  • The regulatory authorities should undertake an investigation into King & King, the auditors of a number of GFG Alliance businesses
  • The Insolvency Service should consider whether Mr Gupta has breached his fiduciary duties as a company director.

Darren Jones, chairman of the committee, said the steel industry was too important strategically to be left to the mercy of such things as international competition, high risk finance, and volatile energy prices.

It was time for a Steel Sector Deal to ensure the industry’s resilience, with better use of public procurement to support UK steel and help towards transitioning to a low-carbon future.

Sanjeev Gupta

Image source, Getty Images

But the GFG affair had exposed the sector’s vulnerabilities, Mr Jones said.

“The evidence we heard during our inquiry has highlighted serious problems with high-risk financial practices, weaknesses in audit, and about inadequate accountability and corporate governance arrangements within GFG Alliance,” Mr Jones said.

He added: “Sanjeev Gupta must urgently fix these problems if he is to be seen as a fit and proper owner of steel companies in the UK.”

MPs also questioned the suitability of a small audit firm like King & King to handle GFG’s accounts.

The report said it was “utterly unconvincing” that King & King had the “capacity, expertise, or resources to audit the accounts of multiple large GFG Alliance and Liberty Steel UK companies representing over £2.5bn of revenue”.

A spokesperson for GFG said the company “takes note of the findings of the select committee. We will review and reflect upon its conclusions”.

However, since the committee took evidence GFG had embarked a restructuring and refinancing that included injecting £50m to restart the Rotherham and Stockbridge operations, the statement said. In addition, GFG said the company had drawn up a strategy to help decarbonise the steel industry.

However, the spokesperson said GFG was “disappointed that the report fails to recognise the significant role Sanjeev Gupta and Liberty Steel has played in saving and safeguarding thousands of UK jobs which otherwise would have been lost”.

“Mr Gupta has consistently met his obligations as a director of a private company, and… has led GFG’s global restructuring since Greensill’s collapse.”

The statement added: “Since 2019 the group has been on a journey to improve governance and transparency.”

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said it was already taking action to ensure better corporate governance.

A spokesperson said: “The government has published plans to require higher standards of transparency and oversight in UK business, which will strengthen further the UK’s system of audit and corporate governance.

“The Insolvency Service has the powers to investigate the conduct of directors where the company has gone through a formal insolvency process. Where there is evidence of misconduct and it is in the public interest, the Insolvency Service can formally launch disqualification proceedings.”

And on the wider issue of support for the steel industry, the spokesperson added: “We are determined to secure a competitive future for the UK steel industry and in recent years have provided it with extensive support, including more than £600m to help with the costs of energy and to protect jobs.

“We recognise the critical role the steel industry plays in all areas of the UK and in our economy and will carefully consider the report’s recommendations.”

The BBC has asked King & King for comment.

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