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Aviva drawing up plans to return up to £5bn to shareholders as boss Amanda Blanc prepares to unveil her new growth strategy for pensions giant










Aviva is drawing up plans to return up to £5billion to shareholders as boss Amanda Blanc prepares to unveil her new growth strategy for the pensions giant. 

The board of the FTSE100 insurer is finalising a blueprint for the bumper payout which will get the sign-off next month. 

It is understood the preferred option is to pay a special dividend along with a ‘share consolidation’ plan, which will reduce the number of shares in the market to keep the price intact. 

Plan: The Aviva board is finalising a blueprint for the bumper payout which will get the sign-off next month

Plan: The Aviva board is finalising a blueprint for the bumper payout which will get the sign-off next month

Aviva is buying back £1billion of shares and has said it will return at least another £3billion, potentially through a special dividend. 

But analysts are now expecting the total payout to be closer to £5billion. Aviva declined to comment. 

Barrie Cornes, analyst at Panmure Gordon, said: ‘We think Aviva could do a £4billion capital return in addition to the £1billion buyback. We would prefer to see a special dividend.’ 

Blanc, 55, will also present her growth blueprint to the market. It will include a plan to acquire a digital advice business to guide customers nearing the end of their investment and pension products. The insurer loses about £7billion a year from customers switching away as their products expire. 

The bumper payout and growth plans, to be announced alongside the insurer’s full-year results on March 2, will be a boost for longsuffering investors after a debacle over preference shares. 

In 2020, the Financial Conduct Authority – previously by Andrew Bailey, now Bank of England governor – reprimanded Aviva for ‘potentially misleading’ the market over its share buyback programme. Aviva subsequently paid out £14million in compensation to investors who sold their preference shares at a loss. 

Blanc came on board as chief executive in July 2020 and quickly set about selling off overseas offices to focus the business on the UK, Ireland, and Canada, while keeping a few outposts in Asia. 

But just a year later, activist investor Cevian took a 5 per cent stake and called for Aviva to return £5billion to shareholders by the end of 2022 following the sale of overseas businesses. It also pushed for further cost cuts of at least £500million by 2023. 

Shares in the insurer have jumped 26 per cent over the past year to 432p, giving it a market value of £17billion. 

Blanc is expected to discuss growth plans in the bulk annuity market, helping companies to secure future pension payouts to their members, and grow its workplace pensions offer.

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Former boss of Unilever wades into row over Government’s plans to give police new powers to clamp down on demonstrators










The former boss of Unilever has this weekend waded into a row over the Government’s plans to give the police new powers to clamp down on demonstrators. 

Paul Polman, 65, says he has ‘profound concerns’ over Home Secretary Priti Patel’s Policing Bill, adding that it ‘threatens the right to peaceful protest’. 

He called on peers in a House of Lords vote on Monday to throw out parts of the bill, which he says restrict people’s ‘most fundamental rights’ to stand up for their beliefs. 

Speaking out: Paul Polman says he has 'profound concerns' over Home Secretary Priti Patel's Policing Bill, adding that it 'threatens the right to peaceful protest'

Speaking out: Paul Polman says he has ‘profound concerns’ over Home Secretary Priti Patel’s Policing Bill, adding that it ‘threatens the right to peaceful protest’

The Dutch industrialist was at the helm of the FTSE consumer goods giant for a decade, during which time it gained a reputation as one of the most woke businesses in Britain.

His intervention into UK politics is highly unusual for a former captain of industry. It came just days after Unilever was savaged by leading shareholder Terry Smith for putting wokery ahead of profits. Deborah Meaden, the Dragons’ Den star and entrepreneur, is also campaigning against the proposed clampdown, claiming it is ‘bad for business’. 

The bill was prompted by public frustration at the toppling of statues and disruptive protests by Insulate Britain, BLM and other groups. 

Its opponents include the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Muslim Council of Britain, the Church of England and other faith leaders who have urged the Government to ‘think again’. Faith leaders argue the bill could criminalise a range of religious activities including street preaching and chanting. 

‘Kill the Bill’ demonstrations are planned across Britain today ahead of the vote in the Lords. A letter signed by Polman, Meaden and 200 business owners calls on the Lords to amend the bill, removing any ‘anti-protest’ provisions. 

Polman, who earned a total of around £70m in his time at the head of Unilever, said: ‘No enlightened business should support disproportionate infringements on this right. Would Unilever have, on its own, woken up to the plastics crisis, if our consumers and employees had not demanded we take notice? The honest answer is no, we would not. 

‘Companies benefit from having channels through which civil society can make itself heard.’ 

Polman and Meaden are opposing the law change which would set start and finish times for protests, as well as noise limits. It also threatens up to 10 years in jail for damage to memorials. 

Critics say the bill is an attack on the right to protest and that it effectively criminalises any demonstration that police deem to be causing disruption. Campaigners also argue it would give the police the power to stop and search anybody they thought was attending a protest. Meaden argued the right to protest is an ‘essential part’ of business and that it spurs innovation. The Government argues the bill will uphold the right to peaceful protest while giving police the power to stop disruption and violence. 

The letter of protest has not been signed by Unilever. However, it has been endorsed by one of its best-known brands, Ben & Jerry’s. The ice-cream maker has already attacked Patel on Twitter in 2020 over migrant boats crossing the Channel. 

And its refusal to sell its wares in the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’ was cited by Terry Smith as one instance of ‘ludicrous’ woke behaviour.

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New Selfridges owners plan a luxury hotel on same site as its flagship Oxford Street store










The new owners of Selfridges are planning to open a luxury hotel as part of a major revamp of its flagship store.

The 113-year-old business, whose UK stores are in London, Manchester and Birmingham, was sold by the Weston family for £4billion on Christmas Eve. 

The buyers – Thai retailer Central Group and Austrian property firm Signa – now want to overhaul the Oxford Street site in London.

Room and board: The new buyers of Selfridges buyers – Thai retailer Central Group and Austrian property firm Signa – want to overhaul the Oxford Street site in London (picture

Room and board: The new buyers of Selfridges buyers – Thai retailer Central Group and Austrian property firm Signa – want to overhaul the Oxford Street site in London (picture

Part of it has been empty since 2008 when the old Selfridges Hotel was closed.

Central and Signa plan to develop a luxury hotel as well as serviced apartments. Signa executive chairman Dieter Berninghaus said such a move would mean ‘significant upside potential’ for the new owners.

‘The purchase price merely reflects the valuation of the main Selfridges building and its retail utilisation,’ he told the Financial Times.

Central and Signa, which already jointly own Swiss department store chain Globus and Berlin department store Kadewe, will also focus on food. Berninghaus said: ‘We plan to trade up the food hall of Selfridges. 

That is one of our core competencies we have in the group. We operate the best fine food delicatessen business in the world.’

Selfridges was founded by American Harry Gordon Selfridge in 1908 and has 25 shops worldwide including in Dublin, the Netherlands and Canada. 

It was bought by the Weston family for £598million in 2003 in a deal spearheaded by Galen Weston who died in April aged 80.

Central Group is controlled by the billionaire Thai Chirathivat family while Signa Group was founded by the Austrian property magnate Rene Benko. The pair will share ownership of Selfridges in a 50-50 joint venture.

The proposed redevelopment in London comes amid a wave of change on Oxford Street that has already seen Debenhams, Topshop, French Connection and Gap shut.

House of Fraser is expected to leave soon while younger rivals such as Primark go from strength to strength.

Selfridges is not alone in planning for the future on Oxford Street.

Marks & Spencer’s Marble Arch flagship store is set for an overhaul. The retailer plans to raze the building and build a new site with half the selling space and several floors of offices above.

The development is set to include a shopping arcade, a small park and possibly facilities such as a gym.

John Lewis is also planning to convert its upper floors into offices, as shoppers go online.

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Ministers plan U-turn over whether to include internet scams in the Online Safety Bill










Ministers are preparing to make a U-turn and include investment scams in the Online Safety Bill.

Hundreds of thousands of would-be investors are being conned out of their savings every year by internet adverts purporting to be from legitimate financial services firms.

The Government previously shied away from forcing internet giants to check the validity of adverts on their websites.

Online fraud: The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport has maintained that most financial harms will not be included in the Online Safety Bill

Online fraud: The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport has maintained that most financial harms will not be included in the Online Safety Bill

But ministers are under pressure to include online scams in the Bill to halt a ‘pandemic’ of fraud. Whitehall and City sources told the Mail they are expecting paid-for adverts, hosted by the likes of Google, Bing and Facebook, to be included in the Bill.

This would force internet firms to check whether adverts they show are ‘real’ – and stop taking money from criminals.

Some of these scammers pose as household names, such as Aviva or Hargreaves Lansdown, while others use their own name but set up a professional-looking website.

Savers click on the adverts, thinking they are investing their money in a legitimate business – and often only find out months later that in fact they gave all their cash away to a criminal.

Conmen stole a total of £753.9million from British savers through fraud in the first half of this year alone, according to trade association UK Finance – and most of these scams originated online.

Under former culture secretary Oliver Dowden, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – which is leading on the creation of the Bill – maintained that most financial harms will not be included.

But Nadine Dorries, who took over last September, is understood to be more receptive to the idea.

Two sources in the banking industry told the Mail that Treasury ministers have also come round to including rip-offs such as investment fraud and mobile phone text scams in the Bill, and are lobbying their counterparts in other government departments.

One source added that Treasury ministers were ‘leaning on’ their ministerial colleagues in the DCMS.

A joint committee of MPs and peers released a report last month urging ministers to broaden the scope of the up-coming legislation. 

DCMS said it would consider the recommendations of the committee, and is expected to issue a response around February.

The Treasury declined to comment last night.

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