Why is it with things of this magnitude, that the review which inevitably follows, takes so long to come to the boil? First the French authorities, and then the British investigate it, and now 121 months later, we finally get to a formal inquest.
You could be easily forgiven thinking that the passing of time was seen as a key factor in diminishing the public’s interest in the proceedings. We’ve had the 10th anniversary, we’ve endured the concert, and the two princes asking for the "book to be closed". Today, at the inquest, less than 25% of the public seats were taken. That wouldn’t have been the case 5 year ago. So perhaps, for most people, excluding Mr Al Fayed, the thing is starting to fade a tad into history. And perhaps, that is what “they” wanted all along. You can’t help but wonder if the huge delay is simply Plan A from the Establishment.
But you see this almost as a trademark in all the big political set-pieces. Put some time and distance between the event, and the time when the report is issued or the court case finally gets heard. People have died, emigrated, changed, companies are not run by those under suspicion, and the thing takes on a degree of academic, almost impersonal review, where it is also now, conveniently, too late to exact any meaningful penalty.
Think of Maxwell. He died, either accidentally, suicidally, or at the hand of others, in 1991. The report which the DTI produced on the matter took 10 years to surface. By which time, he was a bit of folk-lore/notorious gangster/spy/businessman/potential war crime suspect – add more to suit yourself. The fact that he destroyed 30,000 pensioner’s lives by his actions seems to have been lost in time. The fact that his Auditors, Coopers and Lybrand, were finally, 10 years after the event, hauled over the coals seems to have been lost in time as well. They had even become a different company in 2001, and whilst contrite about their actions a decade previously, life for them seemed to move on without too much change. A decade can make things look so different.
Looking back at another case however, you conclude that Diana’s inquest and the Maxwell report have actually surfaced with a deal of what can only be described as unseemly haste.
Are you sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.
Between 1978 and 1982, our Government provided assistance totalling £77 million to a company called DeLorean, to build a brand new sports car in a brand new manufacturing plant in Belfast. The grand plan was to produce 30,000 cars a year, and employ 2,000 people over 5 years in a politically highly charged, UK unemployment black-spot.
One year after production started, the company went into receivership, having produced just over 8,000 cars, and with a workforce of 2,600 people – what we would probably see in hindsight as a significant, negative variance to Plan.
The saga about who did what, to whom, and when, is contained in a 61 page report issued by the Northern Ireland Audit Office. The report, were it not for the fact that it is trying to explain how our leaders stood in a suburb of Belfast ripping up our five pound notes as quickly as they could manage it, is almost high farce. It sets the UK Government, and its team of lawyers against Arthur Andersen, later to star in the Blockbuster Enron affair, and if you want a good hour’s reading to convince you that the Government should not be trusted with your money, download it. You will not be disappointed.
By the way, the date on the NIAO’s report, should you be interested, is 12th February 2004, some 22 years after the company failed.
In the case of DeLorean, the Research and Development for the car was to be performed by Lotus Cars Ltd, under an agreement with a Swiss company (GPD) who retained the services of Lotus. The original agreement provided for GPD/Lotus to receive $17.65 million, although DeLorean paid a further $23 million on a “cost plus” basis to Lotus/GPD for, allegedly, additional development work on the car. It later transpired that none of the initial $17.65 million ever reached Lotus.
In the end, following a culture clash between the American Andersen partnership, who, reading between the lines in the report, were very keen to string the proceedings out until the UK Government got fed up with it all, and the UK Government, who, equally clearly, wanted the whole thing to go away, and like a boomerang, the further they threw it, the speedier it came back. In the end, out of claims lodged against Andersens of £73 million in the UK, and a further $100 million in the USA, the DTI finally agreed a settlement of £20.72 million.
In addition, a further recovery of £15.64 million was obtained from the Receivers, following realisations of the DeLorean Company’s assets, as well as settlements of court actions arising out of the GPD misappropriations.
There were a few other “sundries” which built the total receipts up to £40.45 million, BUT, the DTI’s external costs in all this amounted to £20.72 million, and when asked what their internal costs over the years 1982-2002 were, they were unable to proffer a figure. The NIAO’s view was that “these costs amounted to a substantial sum”. So, in all probability, after 20 year’s work the net receipts were probably as near zero as makes no difference.
Interestingly, there are a few paragraphs relating to the Lotus saga strewn around the report. It is well known that the Government wanted to charge John Delorean with something, but being American, that came to nothing. They would have prosecuted Colin Chapman, the Lotus chief Executive, and probably the greatest racing car designer ever, except he had died from a Heart Attack three years previously. The poor sod they managed to charge, because he was a non-American who was still alive, was Fred Bushell, the Lotus Finance Director.
At a trial held in Belfast, Lord Justice Murray sentenced Bushell to 3 years imprisonment, and a fine of £1.6 million. The judge’s closing remarks in Bushell’s trial went on “…….and had Delorean not been American, and beyond the court’s jurisdiction, and Chapman alive, each would have been given 10 year prison sentences.”
If you rummage around in the Appendices to the NIAO’s report, you find entries relating to subsequent successful court actions for recovery of monies against Lotus (£1 million), Fred Bushell (£3.0 million), John Delorean ($9.5 million), and Colin Chapman’s estate (£4.67 million). Now, I don’t remember reading that in any of the Colin Chapman books I’ve seen.
The whole sorry saga, however, started its amazing story way back in 1978, and the benefit of the 22 year timescale between deciding to spend £77 million of our my money in building 8,000 cars in Northern Ireland, and producing the report which documents what happened, is that the extreme redness in the faces of those responsible in Government is now completely invisible.