MPs say 'dominance' of big home-building firms must end


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MPs have called for an end to the dominance of big home-building firms to fix the “broken” housing market.

The communities and local government committee said the eight biggest firms built more than half of all new homes.

MPs said the government should do more for smaller builders who do not have the scale to bid for big projects.

But the Home Builders Federation, which represents large and small businesses, said only big firms could spread the risks large-scale projects pose.

The committee also said local authorities should prepare land for home building.

That would include providing the infrastructure needed, such as roads and public transport.

“The housing market is broken, we are simply not building enough homes,” said Clive Betts MP, chair of the committee.

“Smaller builders are in decline and the sector is over-reliant on an alarmingly small number of high-volume developers, driven by commercial self-interest and with little incentive to build any quicker.

“If we are to build the homes that the country so desperately needs, for sale and for rent, then this dominance must end.”

Government promises more affordable homes

Labour promises to build one million new homes

The committee found that smaller builders struggled to obtained land for development, as local authorities focused on large sites which only big companies could afford to take on.

The Homebuilders Federation said: “We fully support the committee’s call for measures to assist smaller builders, encourage new entrants and scale up specialist housing sectors, such as the retirement housing market.

“The vast majority of the big increases in housing supply in recent years have come from the larger, mainstream builders – but we need more builders of all sizes and specialisms if we are to tackle our acute housing shortage.”

‘Feeble’ measures

In February the government promised to build more affordable houses and help people buy and rent, after admitting the current market was broken.

The housing strategy for England included giving councils powers to pressure developers into starting building on land they own.

Ministers also pledged to make renting more “family-friendly” with longer tenancies offered.

However, Labour called the measures announced “feeble beyond belief”.



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Brent Delta platform removed from legs


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Allseas

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The Brent Delta platform was removed from its legs and lifted on to a huge purpose-built decommissioning vessel

The first major decommissioning project in the North Sea has been completed with the removal of the Brent Delta platform from its legs.

It has been lifted on to a huge purpose-built ship which will transport it to the north east of England to be scrapped. The legs will stay in place.

The 24,000 tonne Brent Delta platform topsides sat on a three-legged gravity-based structure in 140 metres of water.

The Shell platform lies 115 miles north east of Shetland.

It is one of four which is due to be removed from the field in the coming years.

Unusually for a platform, the legs of Brent Delta are made of concrete which makes it much more difficult to decommission than one with steel legs.

Allseas, the company which operates the decommissioning vessel Pioneering Spirit, said it had set a world lifting record with the removal of the platform.

The topsides have now been sea-fastened on board the vessel for transportation to Teesside.

What is Brent Delta?

Brent Delta was one of the first platforms to be built in the very early days of Britain’s oil and gas industry.

It sits about 115 miles (185km) north-east of Shetland in a cluster of four platforms which make up the Brent field. Its sister, Brent Bravo, produced its first oil in 1976.

At its peak, in 1982, the four platforms were producing more than half a million barrels of oil a day.

Being one of the first, it’s now at the end of its life and has to be removed.

Brent Delta is the first major piece of infrastructure to be decommissioned in the North Sea.

More than 100 platforms are forecast to be completely or partially removed over the next decade in the waters of the UK and Norway.



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Niger 'cleared' over Areva uranium deal


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The “uranium-gate” case has fuelled protests in Niger

French nuclear giant Areva was solely responsible for a controversial $320m (£250m) uranium deal, a parliamentary investigation in Niger has said.

The 2011 deal, known as “uranium-gate”, involved companies in Niger and abroad. Activists have begun legal proceedings.

It caused an uproar after a local paper said it had served as cover for officials to embezzle public funds.

The report did not find any evidence of wrongdoing by any officials. Areva says it cannot comment on the report.

The French company says it has not yet received the report. It has previously said it was co-operating with a French investigation into the case.

Niger is one of the world’s biggest uranium producers and the metal is the country’s largest export.

Opposition parties say the report has been botched and lacks integrity.

They say that two of their lawmakers who were part of the group which led the inquiry were not associated in drafting the document.

Last month, activists in Niger started legal action into the deal, saying they feared the parliamentary investigation would lead to a whitewash.

Their complaint alleges embezzlement of public funds, money laundering, forgery and conspiracy to defraud.

According to the parliamentary inquiry: “A transaction took place indeed between Sopamin [a local mining company], Areva and other international partners.”

“The uranium used in that transaction is not uranium from Niger. The money transferred to [a bank account] in Dubai to fund the transaction is neither money of the state of Niger nor of Sopamin – it is Areva’s money.”

The on-going legal action centres on the allegation that Areva in 2011 bought a stock of uranium from Niger at a discounted price, causing the national treasury to lose money.

‘Trading operation’

Areva used the transaction to provide funds requested by Niger to secure uranium sites in the north against militant attacks, the report said.

Niger’s uranium mines are located in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, an area where Islamist groups such as a local branch of al-Qaeda are active.

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Niger is a leading uranium producer with nearly all of its output sold to Areva

The report said that Finance Minister Hassoumi Massoudou had been involved as a mandated “representative” of Sopamin to facilitate the transfer of the requested funds.

He has previously denied any wrongdoing.

A separate French enquiry has been looking into the “uranium-gate” allegations as part of a wider investigation into Areva’s business dealings.

A spokesperson for the nuclear giant told the BBC the company maintains that the 2011 transaction was a “trading operation”.

“We have not seen the report and cannot comment on it,” the spokesperson added.

Niger has two significant uranium mines that provide 7.5% of the world mining output from Africa’s highest-grade uranium ores, according to the World Nuclear Association, the international organisation that represents the global nuclear industry.

Niger’s first commercial uranium mine began operating in 1971, with a strong government support for expanding uranium mining.



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No Bank balance


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Charlotte Hogg’s departure means there are no women on the Bank of England’s high-profile interest-rate setting committee

Despite being an Old Lady, few real senior women seem to find the Bank of England’s company congenial.

Friday marked deputy governor and Monetary Policy Committee member Charlotte Hogg’s last day there. She’s the second woman deputy governor out the door this year. And it’s only April.

Another executive director, Jenny Scott, is also leaving and in June, fellow MPC member Kristin Forbes goes.

Fair enough, Ms Hogg’s departure is not a sign of mutual antipathy. She resigned for failing to stick to the letter of the rules on disclosing family connections within the industry.

But these departures will leave no women at all on the nine-member MPC – arguably the most public of the Bank of England’s faces as it sets interest rates – and only one woman on its three main policymaking committees.

There will be none among the five deputy governor ranks and just four among 16 executive directors.

Bothered

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, says the Bank is simply in line with the rest of the sector.

“It is vital that women are represented at the top of such powerful institutions. But the finance sector is one of the worst for women’s representation and the gender pay gap. So the fact that the Bank of England is so male-dominated is unsurprising,” she says.

It is true. There is a glaring lack of women at top company level, and although some global corporate giants have women chief executives, there are none in banking.

And it is fair to say the Bank, and its governor, Mark Carney, are bothered. When he joined the Bank in 2013, Mr Carney said the lack of women on the MPC was “striking”.

He says he wants to improve diversity to avoid “being mono-culture, secretive and ridden with groupthink”.

‘Salon and suburb’

The Bank has a target to raise the percentage of women in senior roles from its current 28% to 35% by 2020.

Lower down it has a better ratio, with 44% of posts filled by women.

But, unless you are a frustrated high-flying woman banker blocked from getting that top post on a key panel – why care?

Mark Carney says improving diversity at the Bank “can reduce misperceptions that we are experts making esoteric decisions in an ivory tower for the benefit of others… [and can help] communicate to both the City and the country, the salon and the suburb”.

How to fix it though? The Fawcett Society’s Sam Smethers says the problem is partly because there aren’t enough women in the middle ranks: “Institutions such as this need to address the pipeline of women to head this problem off.”

The governor says the Bank’s diversity efforts are beginning to bear fruit: “Of the 700 experienced professionals we hired last year, almost half were women.”

It is plainly progress in priming that pipeline.



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Qualcomm says Apple withholding royalty payments amid legal row


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Qualcomm, the largest maker of mobile phone chips, has cut its profit forecast, warning investors that Apple is withholding royalty payments amid a legal battle.

Apple sued Qualcomm in January, accusing the company of overcharging for its patented technology.

Qualcomm said on Friday it would defend its right to receive “fair value” for its “technological contributions”.

The licence agreements had been in place for a decade, it said.

“These licence agreements remain valid and enforceable,” Don Rosenberg, executive vice president and general counsel of Qualcomm, said.

Qualcomm’s share price dropped 3% following the latest update, which came less than two weeks after the company reported quarterly earnings. Qualcomm said its forecast at that time involved scenarios with reduced payments – not their complete absence.

Qualcomm derived 40% of its revenue from Apple and Samsung Electronics in its most recent financial year.

In a statement, Apple said: “Without an agreed-upon rate to determine how much is owed, we have suspended payments until the correct amount can be determined by the court.”

Apple’s legal action in January followed a complaint by the Federal Trade Commission, a US regulator, alleging Qualcomm had used “anticompetitive practices” to maintain a monopoly over key technology.

Apple has also sued Qualcomm in China and in the UK.



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'Fire sale' risk with Bank capital approach, says Vickers


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Sir John Vickers, who was asked to construct a safety plan for Britain’s banks in the wake of the financial crisis, has warned regulators over hasty bank asset sales.

Parliament is investigating whether UK banks have the capital means to keep going during a shock and Sir John and the Bank of England gave evidence.

The Bank said some lenders could help themselves by selling off assets.

Sir John has warned that this could lead to a “fire sale”.

Sources close to the Bank insist that it monitors plans for asset sales during economic stress to show that the sales could still be beneficial.

During the financial crisis, bad loan losses chewed through banks’ capital reserves and lenders including Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds had to be given new capital by taxpayers, making them part-nationalised.

Price risk

Parliament’s Treasury Committee, which has the responsibility of examining the government’s work on economic and regulatory matters, is aiming to discover whether new plans for banks will mean they can avoid needing taxpayer help the next time trouble calls.

As part of evidence published earlier this month, the Bank of England said one way for a bank to bolster its capital when it was facing low expected profitability due to high costs rather than poor lending, was to sell some of its loans.

Sir John has replied in a letter seen by the BBC, and said this plan may work if only that one bank is in trouble.

However, he warned that during another widespread crisis, this may be seen by other banks and investors as a so-called “fire sale”, where the assets, or loans, would be considered damaged goods by potential buyers and end up selling at a knock-down price.

‘Insurance Policy’

“Systemic crisis risk is the principal risk that regulation should guard against,” Sir John wrote in the letter to the Bank. “The prudent stress test question, then, is whether the bank can meet its obligations without resorting to asset sales. It is not whether it can do so on the assumption that assets can be sold at good prices.”

Sir John, who has served as chief economist for the Bank of England and is now professor and warden of All Souls College, Oxford, has cautioned his former employer before over its approach to capital.

Capital is considered vital to a bank’s safety, as it serves to protect it from sudden losses. It comes in many forms, but the most common is funding from shareholders, who expect a hefty return on the risk they are taking.

Last year, Sir John said the central bank needed to demand a deeper capital buffer from the banks, calling it an “insurance policy” against harder times and deserving “full cover”.

The exchange is part of a wider debate over how banks should be managed and policed and whether they are still too big to be rescued by the private sector.

Stricter accounting rules, stress tests, stricter liability for bank directors and plans to dismantle failing banks have at various stages been discussed as the solution.



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US economy slows sharply in the first quarter


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The US economy slowed down dramatically in the first three months of the year.

GDP expanded at an annual rate of 0.7% in the first quarter, which was a sharp slowdown from the 2.1% growth rate in the final three months of 2016.

However, in recent years GDP growth has typically been sluggish in the first quarter, but has picked up later in the year.

Lower levels of government spending and private investment were behind the fall, the official data showed.



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Barclays pulls FTSE 100 lower


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Shares in Barclays were the biggest fallers on the FTSE 100, despite the bank reporting a doubling of quarterly profits.

Pre-tax profit for the first three months of the year jumped to £1.682bn, from £793m a year earlier.

But analysts were disappointed by the performance of Barclays’ investment bank, and the shares fell 5%.

Shortly before midday, the FTSE 100 index was down 19.80 points, or 0.3%, at 7,217.57.

Shares in Royal Bank of Scotland were having a better day, rising 1.7%, after it reported its first quarterly profit since third quarter of 2015.

RBS posted profits of £259m in the first three months of 2017, compared with a £968m loss a year earlier.

Rising copper prices boosted shares in mining companies, with Antofagasta, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto all up by more than 2%.

In the FTSE 250, shares in transport group Stagecoach fell 3.25% after HSBC cut its rating on the company to “reduce” from “hold”.

On the currency markets, the pound shrugged off weaker-than-forecast UK growth data. The UK grew by 0.3% in the first quarter of the year, according to an initial estimate, a sharper-than-expected slowdown from the 0.7% rate seen at the end of 2016.

Despite this, the pound continued to rally against the US dollar, hitting a fresh seven-month high of $1.2951 at one point.

However, sterling was lower against the euro, down 0.3% at 1.1837 euros. The euro was boosted by the latest set of eurozone inflation figures, which indicated that inflation in the 19-nation bloc rose to 1.9% in April.



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Eurozone inflation picks up to 1.9%


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Inflation in the eurozone accelerated in April, returning to the European Central Bank (ECB)’s target.

Initial estimates from Eurostat showed inflation in the bloc hit 1.9%. That was up from 1.5% in March, but just below February’s four-year high of 2%.

The ECB aims for an inflation rate of below, but close to, 2%.

On Thursday, ECB head Mario Draghi said the eurozone’s economic recovery was “increasingly solid” but inflation was not high enough to lift interest rates.

Following its latest meeting, the ECB kept its main interest rate on hold at zero, and left its bond-buying stimulus scheme unchanged.

The bond-buying programme has already been trimmed to 60bn euros (£51bn) a month from 80bn euros. However, there has been speculation that the ECB could scale back its stimulus measures if the eurozone’s economic recovery continues.

The main factor behind April’s pick-up in inflation was rising energy prices.

Core inflation – a measure that is watched closely by the ECB and which strips out energy and unprocessed food prices – rose to 1.2% in April from 0.8% in March.

The core figure was stronger than expected, and its highest level since September 2013.

However, Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Markit, said the ECB was “highly unlikely” to read too much into April’s data “as it was clearly lifted by Easter timing distortions”.

“The April/March swings in eurozone consumer price inflation – both the headline rate and the core rate – were influenced substantially by pricing distortions, resulting from the fact that Easter occurred in mid-April in 2017 compared to late March in 2016.”

Separate figures from France showed that the country’s economic growth rate slowed in the first three months of the year.

France’s economy grew by 0.3% in the quarter, down from a rate of 0.5% in the final three months of 2016.

The slowdown was partly due to weak consumer spending, after unseasonably warm weather led to lower spending on clothes and heating bills.



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M&S online food delivery service will be no piece of cake


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Soon available from the comfort of your armchair?

Couch potatoes everywhere are licking their lips as two High Street giants prepare to enter the crowded market of online food orders for home delivery.

Middle-class shoppers could soon find it easier to order high-end treats from home as Marks and Spencer prepares a trial online grocery service.

Humbler tastes are catered for too, as McDonald’s unveils a pilot fast-food delivery service in the London area.

But as existing players already know, the delivery market is no pushover.

In the case of M&S, the move comes as part of a wider push into the food sector that involves opening 200 new food-only stores.

M&S currently has 959 UK stores, of which 615 are food only.

The retailer is being cautious about its plans, saying that it wants to undertake “a soft trial in the autumn”.

Chief executive Steve Rowe said: “The economics of food online are not straightforward and it is not something that we are going to rush into until we have substantial customer insight and a better understanding of what is right for M&S and right for our customers.”

Luxury items

However, it’s not clear that M&S has the muscle to take on the big supermarkets, which in many cases have spent years honing their online offer.

Industry sources say the average Tesco stocks 40,000 different products, whereas an M&S food outlet has just 7,000.

Of course, M&S has carved out a distinctive niche for its mostly own-label nosh, with TV advertising stressing the exclusivity and luxury nature of its food and drink.

Consumers are less likely to go there for baked beans and more likely to seek out speciality items.

The M&S website’s food section features a large section headed “Dine in style”, including the blurb: “From decadent roasts to dinner parties, we’ve got the expertly sourced joints and carefully prepared meals you need to impress without the stress.”

This kind of food can already be ordered online from M&S on a click-and-collect basis, while the chain also already offers office lunch delivery under the Lunch To You branding.

Takeaway challenge?

So maybe it’s the takeaway food outlets that should be quaking in their boots. After all, if all that stress-free, expertly-sourced food can be delivered to your door, perhaps you might prefer it to a curry or a pizza.

But there again, retail insiders aren’t convinced that M&S can pose a challenge.

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Shakes delivered to your shack?

They don’t see much crossover with big players such as online food order and delivery service Just Eat, which operates as an intermediary between independent take-out food outlets and customers.

The general view is that M&S shoppers are not necessarily Just Eat’s core consumers.

On the other hand, maybe Just Eat might be more worried by the other big name that’s mulling an entry into the market: fast-food firm McDonald’s.

The Big Mac purveyor is set to be quicker off the mark than M&S, with a June start date for its London-based trial service.

“We will start with a delivery service from the right number of sites that gives us scale,” McDonald’s UK chief executive Mr Pomroy told the Telegraph.

However, the signs are that the Golden Arches chain will be working with the existing system, not trying to disrupt it.

The actual deliveries will be carried out by an external firm, which means that it might be Deliveroo or another such company bringing your Chicken McNuggets to your door.

At this rate, there may soon be no need to leave your home at all – another blow to the High Street as bricks-and-mortar outlets look increasingly old-fashioned.



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UK economic growth slows to 0.3%


The UK economy grew by just 0.3% at the start of the year, the slowest growth rate since the first three months of 2016, according to official figures.

The Office for National Statistics said that the slower pace in the January-to-March period was due mainly to the service sector, which also grew by 0.3% against 0.8% at the end of 2016.

In the last quarter of 2016, gross domestic product increased by 0.7%.

Friday’s figure is a first estimate and could be revised in the coming months.

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House prices fell again in April, Nationwide says


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UK house prices fell for the second month in a row during April, according to the Nationwide.

The building society said prices dropped 0.4% in April, and the annual rate of price growth slowed to 2.6%, the weakest pace for almost four years.

It said the slowdown may indicate that households were reacting to the “emerging squeeze on real incomes”.

“Affordability pressures” in some parts of the country were also having an impact, Nationwide added.

“Various data suggest that the latest slowdown in house prices may be part of a broader trend,” said Robert Gardner, Nationwide’s chief economist, noting that retail sales growth had slowed “markedly” in recent months.

“Household budgets are coming under pressure, as wage growth has moderated and inflation has accelerated.”

However, Mr Gardner added that in some respects the slowdown in price growth was “surprising”.

“The unemployment rate is near to a 40-year low, confidence is still relatively high and mortgage rates have fallen to new all-time lows in recent months.”


Where can I afford to live?



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Olympus scandal: Former bosses to pay $529m over fraud


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Former Olympus chairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa (right) is among those who must pay damages

Six executives sacked by Japan’s Olympus have been ordered to pay more than half a billion dollars in damages after a massive accounting fraud.

The camera and medical equipment firm brought the case against ex-chairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa and 15 others.

A Tokyo court found Kikukawa and five others liable for $529m.

The ruling comes comes six years after former chief executive Michael Woodford exposed his colleagues for falsifying accounts to conceal losses of $1.7bn.

The scandal was one of the biggest financial frauds in Japan’s history, but Kikukawa and two other executives who pleaded guilty never went to jail. Instead, they were given suspended sentences of up to three years.

An Olympus spokesman declined to comment, saying the former employees could appeal against the ruling.

One of the six men found liable by the court has since died, but his family could still be held responsible for his share of the damages, according to the AFP news agency.



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RBS reports first quarter profit as turnaround continues


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Troubled Royal Bank of Scotland made a profit of £259m in the first three months of 2017, up from a £968m loss in the same period last year.

The bank said that after stripping out restructuring costs, the core operating business made a profit of £1.3bn, up from £1.02bn.

RBS, majority-owned by the government after being bailed out, added its cost-cutting plan was ahead of schedule.

It has already stripped out 37% of the £750m cuts planned for this year.

The three-month profit is the first RBS has made since the third quarter of 2015.

In February, RBS reported a £7bn annual loss and chief executive Ross McEwan ordered a £2bn four-year cost-cutting drive involving job losses and branch closures.

Although RBS said in its statement that there would be no further provision for Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) mis-selling, the bank still faces costs for legacy issues.

BBC business editor Simon Jack said that, despite the progress being made, investors should not expect the bank to post a profit for the year.

“Big fines are still not settled with US authorities, but are expected to do so later this year and are likely to wipe out most if not all the money it makes in 2017,” he said.

Last week, Chancellor Philip Hammond admitted that the government was prepared to sell its 72% stake in RBS at a loss, bought in 2008 at a cost of £45bn.



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Barclays profits more than double


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Barclays says its profits more than doubled in the first three months of the year, boosted by better performance in its core business.

Pre-tax profit for the first quarter was £1.682bn, up from £793m for the same period last year.

Chief executive Jes Staley said it had been “another quarter of strong progress towards the completion of the restructuring of Barclays”.

He said there was good reason to feel optimistic about the firm’s prospects.



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Vauxhall 'reckless' over Zafira fires, say MPs


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SWNS

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One Zafira owner, a mother from Wiltshire, said smoke turned into flames within 30 seconds

Vauxhall showed “a reckless disregard for safety” in allowing customers to keep driving Zafira cars after a fire risk was identified, MPs have said.

It was “morally reprehensible” for the car maker not to warn customers sooner, MPs on the Transport Select Committee said.

And Vauxhall was too slow in general to take action over the fires, which came to prominence in 2015, MPs said.

Vauxhall said there were “lessons to be learned” from the Zafira fires.

The fires started behind the glove-box in the heating and ventilation system, and were a problem in Zafira B cars, which are still subject to a recall.

‘Tardy’

Vauxhall was “too slow to acknowledge drivers’ concerns, too slow to begin an investigation, too slow to address the causes and too slow to alert drivers of real safety concerns. Drivers and their families were needlessly put at risk,” committee chair Louise Ellman said.

The first report of a Zafira fire was noted by Vauxhall in 2009, and in 2014, internal concerns over a pattern in reports of fires were raised.

However, Vauxhall did not launch an investigation into the fires until August 2015. At that time Vauxhall logged 161 fires.

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Vauxhall

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The Vauxhall Zafira B model is the only one affected


Analysis: Richard Westcott, BBC transport correspondent

Even Vauxhall admits it was lucky that no-one was seriously hurt or worse in one of these car fires.

The MPs suggest that the company put money and reputation ahead of safety when it came to fixing the problem. The report uses damning phrases like “morally reprehensible” and “reckless disregard for safety” when describing the company’s sluggish response.

It’s especially scathing about the fact that Vauxhall let people drive around in cars that had been recalled and ‘fixed’, even when engineers knew they could still catch fire.

And there’s a wider issue here. Right now, there’s no system in place to help owners, insurance companies, garages and emergency services report common problems so they come to light more quickly.

The full scale of the Vauxhall fires didn’t emerge until a Facebook group, the London Fire Brigade and then the BBC’s Watchdog programme started noticing and then highlighting a pattern.

These MPs are also calling for new laws to prosecute car makers who fail to sort a safety issue. The current system just relies on the manufacturer doing everything voluntarily.


In October 2015 a Facebook page was launched for Zafira owners that had been affected by the fires, and the BBC covered the issue in Watchdog on 22 October. A complaint was made to the DVSA about that time.

Vauxhall launched the first recall in December 2015.

In February 2016 it was told about the first fire in a vehicle that had been recalled, but it did not launch its second recall until 19 May 2016.

The MPs were particularly scathing over Vauxhall’s decision to let people continue to drive vehicles that had been recalled and returned to the owners when the manufacturer knew the Zafiras could still catch fire.

“Vauxhall’s decision to continue to let people drive affected cars amounts to a reckless disregard for safety. This is particularly damning given its admission that it should have notified customers earlier,” the MPs said in their report.

“In the absence of any explanation for its tardy response from the witnesses that appeared before us we can only conclude that commercial considerations and the need to avoid reputational damage were put ahead of safety; this is unacceptable and morally reprehensible,” they added.

The committee said that it wasn’t aware of any fatalities or serious injuries caused by the fires, but they were “serious enough to destroy an entire vehicle and cause damage to other property and buildings in the vicinity.”

The MPs added that the regulator, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) should be given powers to prosecute car companies that don’t comply with instructions.

‘Safety letters’

Vauxhall said that “there are lessons to be learned from the cases of fire in Zafira B models” as to how it investigates fires.

It said it had altered its recall process “to ensure we complete recalls swiftly and minimise customer inconvenience.”

However, it said that it had “made it clear to customers” during the first recall letters “how they should operate the heating and ventilation system to keep them safe.”

It added that it had made “very good progress” with the second recall.

“As of today 183,172 vehicles have had the second recall carried out and we have been working closely with DVSA as we complete the process,” the car maker said.

That figure represents 79.1% of the affected cars. Vauxhall said it was aiming for a rate of 85% given that a certain number of vehicles have been stolen, seriously damaged, scrapped, exported or “sold to trade”.

Industry body the SMMT said that the vehicle recall process in the UK “is one of the most comprehensive and successful in the world.”



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TED 2017: UK 'Iron Man' demonstrates flying suit


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Richard Browning took off beside the spectacular Vancouver harbour

A British inventor, who built an Iron Man-style flight suit, has flown it at the Ted (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Vancouver.

Richard Browning’s short flight took place outside the Vancouver Convention Centre in front of a large crowd.

Since he posted the video of his maiden flight in the UK, Mr Browning has had huge interest in his flying suit.

But he insists the project remains “a bit of fun” and is unlikely to become a mainstream method of transportation.

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Media captionWATCH: ‘Rocket man’ tests his flying suit

He was inspired by his father, an aeronautical engineer and inventor, who killed himself when Mr Browning was a teenager.

He told the BBC that he always had a passion for making things and loved a challenge.

“I did this entirely for the same reason that you might look at a mountain and decide to climb it – for the journey and the challenge.”

He said he was also fascinated by the idea of human flight.

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Richard Browning

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Richard Browning practised his flights in Wiltshire in the UK

“My approach to flight was why not augment the human mind and body, because they are amazing machines, so I just bolted on what was missing – thrust.”

Mr Browning, a Royal Marine Reserve, created his flying machine using six miniature jet engines and a specially designed exoskeleton.

He has a helmet with a sophisticated heads-up display that keeps him informed about fuel use.

The Daedalus suit – named after the father of Icarus by Mr Browning’s eight-year-old son – takes off vertically. Mr Browning uses his arms to control the direction and speed of the flight.

Mr Browning said it is easily capable of flying at 200mph (321km/h) and an altitude of a few thousand feet.

But, for safety reasons, he keeps the altitude and speed low.

He insisted it is “safer than a motorbike”.

The suit can currently fly uninterrupted for around 10 minutes.

The start-up he founded, Gravity, is working on new technology for the device which Mr Browning said will make the current prototype look “like child’s play”.

Since video of his maiden flight went on YouTube, he has had thousands of views and interest from investors and the UK military.

But he does not think that the system is about to go mainstream anytime soon.

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Richard Browning

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Getting his equipment from the UK to Canada proved tricky and he borrowed fuel from sea planes in Vancouver harbour

“I think of it as a bit like a jet ski, a bit of fun or a indulgent toy, but I do have a hunch that stuff will come along to make it more practical.”

It remains a fascinating project for those who see it in action.

“There is something strange in seeing the human form rise up and drift around and that leaves a deep impression on people,” he said.

The Civil Aviation Authority has yet to take any decisions of the level of regulation required for jetpacks.

And in Europe, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which has responsibility for approving all new aircraft designs, including experimental concepts, has not yet formed an opinion on human propulsion technology.

“Going forward it may be necessary to create a new category of regulation for this technology as it clearly does not fit in neatly with aircraft regulation,” a CAA spokesman told the BBC.

“Ultimately, I think it unlikely that such technology would be completely deregulated.

“This is potentially powered flight after all, unlike activities such as hang-gliding and paragliding which are deregulated. High speed human propulsion could easily conflict with low flying aircraft and so the ‘pilot’ would almost certainly need some kind of training and a licence.”



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US tech giants post strong quarter


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Google’s parent company, Alphabet, employed more than 72,000 people at the end of 2016

Profits surged at four US tech giants in the first three months of the year.

Revenue at Google parent Alphabet increased more than 22%, lifted by advertising on mobile phones and its popular YouTube video service.

Profits at online retail giant Amazon climbed more than 40%, to $724m (£560.8m). It was its eighth quarter in a row of profit.

Microsoft also had a strong quarter, with profits up nearly 28%, while chipmaker Intel’s profits rose 45%.



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Passenger dragged off United Airlines plane wins settlement


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Media captionAn eyewitness describes how the passenger sitting next to her was dragged off the plane

The Kentucky doctor dragged off a United Airlines flight from Chicago earlier this month has received a financial settlement from the airline.

Lawyers for Dr David Dao, 69, say a condition of the payout is that the “amount remain confidential”.

United boss Oscar Munoz “said he was going to do the right and, and he has”, Dr Dao’s lawyers said in a statement.

Dr Dao was violently removed by airline law enforcement officers after refusing to give up his seat to United staff.

Video of the bleeding Vietnamese-American doctor went viral online and sparked international outrage.

The airline had asked Dr Dao to leave his seat in order to allow four United staff members to get from Chicago to Louisville.

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Media captionCrystal Dao Pepper: ‘Horrified, shocked and sickened’

He refused, saying he had patients to see the next day.

Mr Dao’s lawyer, Thomas Demetrio, said his client “has become the unintended champion for the adoption of changes which will certainly help improve the lives of literally millions of travellers”.



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BBC exposes flaws in 'world's most secure' email service


A BBC Click investigation has thrown doubt on claims that the small, personal email server Nomx can provide “absolute security”.

Created by entrepreneur Will Donaldson, Nomx says it uses the “world’s most secure communications protocol” to protect email messages.

But security analysts cracked the device’s simple passwords and hacked its hardware and software.

Defending itself, Nomx disputed the way the tests were done on its gadget.

Hardware exposed

The Nomx personal email server costs from $199 – $399 (£155 – £310) and its publicity material claims it is designed to handle email communications for consumers.

It says that using a dedicated personal server, users can help to stop messages being copied and hacked as they travel to their destination across the net.

BBC Click asked security researcher Scott Helme and computer security expert Prof Alan Woodward, from the University of Surrey, to scrutinise Nomx. They were asked to assess whether it did let people send messages in a way that was secure against hacking and interception.

The investigation started by taking the device apart to find that it was built around a £30 Raspberry Pi computer. As the operating system for the Pi sits on a removable memory card, Mr Helme was able to download the device’s core code so he could examine it closely.

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Nomx

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Nomx has made strong claims for the protections its devices give to customers

This allowed Mr Helme to run it as if he were the administrator for the device. He discovered that the software packages it used to handle mail were not proprietary and many were very old versions, five years old in one case, harbouring unpatched security bugs. Default passwords found in the code included “password” and “death”.

Mr Helme also found many problems with the web interface Nomx uses to administer the secure email service. This was vulnerable to several widely known and easy to execute attacks that, if exploited, would give attackers control over a target’s Nomx system.

He also found a way to create a hidden administrator’s account on the Nomx box that would allow any attacker to fully compromise the gadget.

In addition, Mr Helme found more than 10 other issues with the Nomx box that left him “horrified” by its approach to security.

The analysis was reviewed by Paul Moore – an experienced tester of secure hardware.

Mr Moore said the Nomx was an “overpriced and outdated mail server” and used one of the “most insecure PHP applications” he had ever encountered.

Update cycle

In an emailed response to Click, Mr Donaldson thanked Mr Helme and Prof Woodward for finding and sharing information about Nomx’s vulnerabilities.

Addressing the issue of old software, he said Nomx planned to let users choose which updates should be applied to their device.

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Scott Helme

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Mr Helme was surprised to find the Nomx uses a Raspberry Pi computer

“We will selectively allow users to pick and choose when that becomes available but today we’re not forcing any types of updates,” he said, adding that updates can introduce vulnerabilities.

“Updates actually cause a cascading effect and now you’re patching patches and that is not a good place to be in,” he told Click.

The default names and passwords found by Mr Helme were used to make it easy for customers to set up their device and they were encouraged to change it afterwards, he said.

Mr Helme said the set-up process for the Nomx was far from easy and at no point was he told to pick a new password.

Late on 27 April, Nomx published a strong defence of its product and disputed the way in which Mr Helme tested the device. Mr Donaldson said Mr Helme’s tests were unrealistic, as they involved actions no typical user would undertake.

Nomx said the threat posed by the attack detailed by Mr Helme was “non-existent for our users”.

Following weeks of correspondence with Mr Helme and the BBC Click Team, he said the firm no longer shipped versions that used the Raspberry Pi.

Instead, he said, future devices would be built around different chips that would also be able to encrypt messages as they travelled.

“The large cloud providers and email providers, like AOL, Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail – they’ve already been proven that they are under attack millions of times daily,” he said. “Why we invented Nomx was for the security of keeping your data off those large cloud providers.

“To date, no Nomx accounts have been compromised.”

The BBC Click show dedicated to this investigation will air on 29 April on the BBC News Channel and iPlayer, where it will also be available afterwards.



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Coconut milk helps Pret A Manger report record results


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The trend towards healthy eating was evident in the latest results from UK sandwich chain Pret A Manger.

It said that coconut was its “most popular” new ingredient, with coconut porridge selling particularly well.

The sandwich chain reported a 15% rise in sales to record £776m, while its measure of profit hit a record £93m.

Last year, Pret opened its first vegetarian store and the best-selling items from that shop are now sold in all its outlets.

Pret’s menu reflects changes in the nation’s eating habits.

According to research firm Kantar Worldpanel, for supermarkets, these grocery items were among the fastest-selling last year:

  • Flatbread, up 196%
  • Avocado, up 33%
  • Halloumi, up 29%
  • Quark (a type of cheese), up 27%
  • Spinach, up 26%

Fraser McKevitt, a retail analyst at Kantar Worldpanel, says those items reflect two trends.

The first is generally to eat more healthily, so more spinach and avocado is on the menu. The second is the growth in people eating more vegetarian-style food, but not necessarily going full vegetarian, hence the growth in halloumi and quark cheeses, he said.

And those trends are not just seen among young, metropolitan types.

“Everybody is trying to watch what they eat,” Mr McKevitt said. “The people most concerned about health tended to be older shoppers and consumers.”

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While coconut products have not made it on to Kantar’s list of fast-growing groceries, Waitrose says they have become a favourite with its customers.

“Coconut oil, water and milk have now become part of many customers’ regular weekly shopping baskets,” Waitrose said.

It has identified coconut flour as one of its key food trends.

For Pret, coconut milk sales now exceed soya milk, while porridge made from coconut milk now accounts for 20% of its porridge sales.

Great grains

Waitrose says that grains are also “hugely popular”, particularly in bread, as well as salads.

“We’re using chia seeds in a couple of our wraps, and we’ve got grains going in our open sandwiches,” says Michelle Gibbs, who oversees Waitrose sandwiches.

Pret also last year introduced dairy-free products including a range of soups, which were also free from gluten.

But it’s not all nuts and grains. The most popular item at Pret remains the croissant, with 16 million sold last year.



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Nintendo says Switch will help double profits


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Nintendo

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Some users have reported “annoying” screen glitches

Nintendo says the success of its new Switch console will help it to double annual profits.

It has become the fastest-selling games console in the Japanese firm’s history, with 2.7 million units bought in March – the first month it was available.

But Nintendo’s profit estimate of 65bn yen ($583.9m; £453m) for the year to March 2018 was below market forecasts.

Like other console makers, Nintendo is having to counter the rise of the smartphone as a tool for gaming.

And because – unlike Sony and Microsoft – Nintendo relies on games and consoles for almost all its sales, it is arguably more vulnerable to this trend.

‘Relieved’

Nintendo said it was aiming to sell 10 million units of the Switch by March 2018 – which would make it the firm’s biggest hit since the Wii launched in November 2006.

“I was relieved by a strong start of the Switch,” said Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima

“If the 10 million target is achieved… that means the sales momentum would be close to the Wii.”

He batted away criticism that the profit forecast was too low, saying that the money spent marketing the Switch was eating into profits.

The Switch looks like a tablet computer with Joy-Con controllers that attach to its sides, and can be played both on televisions and as a standalone device.

It launched with a just handful of games, with some critics saying there were too few.

But the popularity of one game – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – is believed to be a driver for many of the sales.

Soon after the launch, thousands of owners of Switch complained about dead or stuck pixels creating distracting and annoying dark squares on their screens.



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European Central Bank keeps key interest rate on hold


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Reuters

The European Central Bank (ECB) has kept its main interest rate on hold at zero for another month.

It also decided not to change the ECB’s bond-buying stimulus scheme, which is already being trimmed to 60bn euros a month from 80bn euros,

Attention now turns to a news conference ECB head Mario Draghi will give later to outline the decisions.

Last month, Mr Draghi spoke of being “more optimistic” about the eurozone’s economic health.

The ECB boss said that the 19-nation bloc was no longer being stalked by deflation.



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Taylor Wimpey apologises in leasehold dispute


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PA

Taylor Wimpey, one of the UK’s biggest housebuilders, has set aside £130m and apologised to home buyers in a dispute over sharply rising fees.

It is the first major builder to apologise after criticism for leaving customers with onerous leasehold deals.

The contracts meant that ground rents – which are paid to owners of the property – doubled every 10 years.

MPs have described the situation as a “national scandal” and the “PPI of the house building industry”.

Other builders have also been criticised for drawing up similar contracts, but are yet to set aside compensation.


What is a leasehold?

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  • Someone who owns a property outright, including the land it is built on, is a freeholder.
  • Most houses are freehold but some might be leasehold – usually through shared-ownership schemes.
  • With a leasehold, the person owns the property for the length of their lease agreement with the freeholder.
  • Leaseholders have to pay their freeholders ground rent and other fees in order to make changes to their homes.
  • When the lease ends, ownership returns to the freeholder unless the person can extend the lease.
  • Some wish to buy their freeholds to save themselves these costs.

Source: The Money Advice Service


‘Ripped off’

In a debate on leasehold reform in parliament last year, MPs said thousands of home buyers were being “ripped off left, right and centre” and that it was “nothing short of a national scandal”.

As well as sharply rising ground fees, many of the contracts also allowed third-party firms to buy freeholds to houses, making it much more difficult to sell the homes.

Taylor Wimpey said the lease structure was introduced “in good faith” in 2007, largely for new developments, and was in place until 2011.

“It is clear from our review that the impact of these doubling rent review clauses is now causing some of our customers understandable concern,” the firm said.

The company added that it was “sorry for the unintended financial consequence and concern that they are causing”.

The £130m will go towards making ground rents for those customers “materially less expensive”.

Taylor Wimpey said it was in negotiations with the majority of freehold owners to change the contracts, and would “pursue other avenues” to help other customers.



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Airbus profits fall as technical problems continue to hit projects


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Problems at Airbus’ troubled A400M military aircraft programme are far from over, the company has warned.

There are still issues over “meeting contractual capabilities” securing export orders, cost cutting, and commercial exposure, Airbus says.

The firm added that technical problems with engines for its new A320neo aircraft were still to be resolved.

The warnings came as Airbus posted quarterly figures showing a 52% fall in net profits to 240m euros (£203m).

The A400M has suffered a number of setbacks over the years, most seriously a crash during a test flight in Spain in 2015 which led to the deaths of the four crew members.

Total revenues for the three-month period rose 7% to 13bn euros, with Airbus predicting that it was on track to deliver more than 700 commercial aircraft during 2017, up from 688 in 2016.

“New order activity was low in Q1 as predicted but let’s not forget that our strong order book of over 6,700 commercial aircraft supports our ongoing production ramp-up. Programme execution remains key for all our businesses,” said Tom Enders, Airbus chief executive.

However, Airbus has been weighed down by weaker prices as it changes to new models and higher production costs.

And the company, which makes its aircraft wings in the UK, expects deliveries of the A320neo once again to fall predominantly in the latter part of the year. However, it said it hoped to avoid the last-minute rush seen in December last year.

Technical issues with the Pratt & Whitney engine “need to be resolved,” Airbus said in its statement. Harald Wilhelm, finance director, told reporters later that the demonstrated performance on the US company’s new Geared Turbofan engines was “not satisfactory” and that although a technical solution was in hand, “we still need to see proof coming through”.

The Airbus Helicopters unit slipped into loss as the world’s largest commercial helicopter maker continues to suffer from the grounding of aircraft in UK and Norway, following a crash that killed North Sea oil workers.



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FTSE 100 falls despite Lloyds boost


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London’s stock market opened lower despite shares in Lloyds being boosted by its first-quarter results.

Pre-tax profits at the bank doubled to £1.3bn, while its underlying profit edged up 1% to £2.1bn, beating analysts’ forecasts.

Shares in Lloyds rose 3.2%, but the FTSE 100 index was down 46.87 points, or 0.6%, at 7,241.85.

Mediclinic shares jumped 13% after it was seen as benefiting from changes announced by the Abu Dhabi government.

Citizens in Abu Dhabi will no longer have to make a 20% co-payment for treatment at private facilities.

On the currency markets, the pound was up 0.3% against the dollar at $1.2892, and it was also 0.3% higher against the euro at 1.1826 euros.



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Lloyds Bank's profits rise despite 'challenging' times


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Reuters

Lloyds Banking Group has reported a rise in profits in the three months to the end of March, despite analysts’ predictions of a slight slowdown.

It said pre-tax profits doubled from a year ago to £1.3bn in the first quarter, although last year’s figure was pushed down by a one-off cost from buying back high income bonds.

Underlying profit was 1% higher at £2.1bn, beating analysts’ expectations.

The bank said it was responding to a “challenging” environment.

Lloyds’ chief executive, Antonio Horta-Osorio, said: “These results continue to demonstrate the strength of our customer focused, simple and low risk business model.”



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United Airlines to offer up to $10,000 for forfeiting seat


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Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson led a protest at Chicago’s main airport after the incident

United Airlines says it will offer up to $10,000 (£7,800) to passengers who give up seats on overbooked flights.

The change comes as part of a review following an inquiry set up after a man was dragged screaming from a fully booked plane early this month.

Dr David Dao lost two front teeth and suffered a broken nose when he was removed from the Chicago to Louisville flight to make room for crew members.

The incident caused outrage and widespread condemnation of the airline.

Shocking footage was shared and watched by millions of people online.

The latest incident to hit United Airlines’s reputation came on Wednesday when it announced an investigation into the death of a giant rabbit which was being transported on one of its planes.

The 90cm-long bunny, called Simon, was found dead in the cargo hold when the flight arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare airport from London Heathrow.

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Media captionAn eyewitness describes how the passenger was dragged off the plane

Law enforcement officials dragged Dr Dao off the flight forcibly after the 69-year-old Vietnamese-American physician had refused to leave, saying he needed to go home to see his patients.

His lawyer later said that Dr Dao found the experience “more horrifying and harrowing than what he experienced when leaving Vietnam”.

The ordeal led to demonstrations at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and turned into a public relations disaster for United Airlines.

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Reuters

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United Airlines has seen its reputation questioned over a number of recent incidents

The airline offered compensation to all customers on board the flight.

In addition to the $10,000 compensation offer, the series of actions announced as part of the report into the incident includes:

  • No more use of law enforcement officers to remove passengers from flights unless it is a matter of safety and security
  • Seated passengers will not be asked to leave involuntarily
  • Crews to be booked on flights 60 minutes before departure
  • Annual training for staff to handle “the most difficult situations”

In late March, United was heavily criticised on social media after two girls were reportedly barred from flying for wearing leggings on a flight from Denver to Minneapolis.

United said the girls were travelling on a special pass, for employees and their guests, which has a dress code.



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Trump won't scrap Nafta trade deal 'at this time'


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Workers make wire harnesses for automobiles in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

US President Donald Trump has told Mexico and Canada he wants to renegotiate – not scrap – the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Media reports on Wednesday had suggested Mr Trump was drafting an executive order to end the pact.

During his election campaign Mr Trump called Nafta the “single worst trade deal ever” and a “killer” of US jobs.

The reversal surprised markets, sending the Mexican peso and Canadian dollar higher after losses earlier this week.

‘Disgrace’

The White House said it had “agreed not to terminate NAFTA at this time” and that the Mexican and Canadian leaders had “now agreed to proceed swiftly to renegotiate… to enable the renegotiation of the Nafta”.

Trump’s trade agenda: Just what are his priorities?

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Media captionDairy wars: Why is Trump threatening Canada over milk?

Mr Trump’s comments on Nafta come just days after the US imposed a new tariff on softwood lumber coming from Canada.

He also called a new Canadian tariff regime affecting US dairy products a “disgrace”.

On Tuesday, the US lost a trade battle with the other Nafta signatory.

The World Trade Organization ruled that Mexico could impose more than $160m (£125m) annually in sanctions against the US on commerce in tuna, capping a dispute dating back to 2008.

Early in his presidency, Mr Trump fulfilled a campaign pledge by signing an executive order to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The 12-nation trade deal was a linchpin of former President Barack Obama’s Asia policy.



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Samsung sees best quarterly profits in three years


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Media captionCan you live using just Samsung products?

Demand for memory chips and flat screens for televisions and phones has given Samsung Electronics its best quarterly profits in three years,

The South Korean tech giant reported a 48% jump in operating profits to $8.8bn (£6.8bn) for the three months to March.

Samsung said it expected further growth in memory chip orders and a pick up in earnings from its phone business.

It is relying on its new Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphones to help rebuild its reputation after the Note 7 fiasco.

Last October it had to scrap the Galaxy Note 7 after recalling 2.5 million handsets. Batteries were blamed for overheating in the phones, which caused some of them to catch fire.

The two S8 devices launched last week and no sales figures are yet available, but Samsung said pre-orders had been 30% higher than for the Galaxy S7 in 2016.

Despite the financial success, Samsung remains mired in scandal with its de-facto head Lee-Jae Yong on trial over his alleged role in a corruption scandal that brought down South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

Mr Lee denies all the charges, which including bribery and embezzlement.



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TV drama and the weak pound set the scene for holidaymakers


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Google

According to 28-year-old Linnea Rinas, the reason she’s so keen to holiday in the UK is the long-running television crime drama, Midsomer Murders.

She has watched it with her family in Sweden for as long as she can remember.

The appeal of Britain’s small screen dramas abroad is being dubbed “The Crown effect” after the biopic series about the British Queen.

Added to the impact of a weaker pound it is helping set the scene for a bumper year for UK tourism.

Linnea spent Easter visiting the Peak District, the Lake District and the Cotswolds.

“You have the lovely green hills. You’ve got the seaside, the cute houses, the pub culture, you’ve got everything,” she says.

She’s a fan of the property show, Escape To The Country, too, which is also shown on daytime television in Sweden.

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Linnea Rinas

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Linnea Rinas is not alone in choosing Britain as a holiday destination after being lured by the small screen.

A Barclays survey suggests that Linnea is not alone in choosing to explore Britain thanks to a passion for UK’s small screen drama exports.

The popularity of the Netflix series, The Crown, dramatising the life of Queen Elizabeth II and a string of other recent successes such as Poldark, Sherlock and Downton Abbey are whetting travellers’ appetites.

Amongst Chinese tourists interested in visiting the UK, 44% said TV programmes had driven their interest. More than a quarter of Americans planning a UK visit said the same.

On top of that, the weaker pound this year is convincing tourists from both home and abroad, that they’ll get more for their money if they holiday here.

A third of those interested in holidaying in the UK cited the exchange rate as a reason in Barclays’ survey.

Recent figures show that visitor numbers to the UK in January and February were 6% higher than last year.

VisitBritain, the UK’s tourist body, reports that flight bookings to the UK for April to September this year are 21% higher than last year. And 2016 was already a record breaking year for in-bound tourism.

Barclays surveyed 10,000 respondents. Amongst those outside the UK, 63% said they were more likely to consider pitching up on UK shores this year. And responses from the UK suggest “staycations” could rise by around 30%.

Firms in the tourism sector are reporting an uptick in business.

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Netflix

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The recent hit series The Crown has whetted tourists appetites for a UK holiday

“Operators are reporting good forward bookings. We’re seeing the first few months exceed expectations,” says Mike Saul, head of Hospitality and Leisure at Barclays.

Scott McCready rents holiday cabins on the Devonshire coast. He says sterling’s fall last year following the referendum vote had a marked and immediate effect on his bookings.

“It went bananas. It was like someone flicked a switch. Within a couple of days all the available units to let were booked for whole of last summer.”

He expects to be fully booked again this year, largely thanks to the trend for Brits to holiday at home.

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Getty Images

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UK holidays will be more attractive after the slump in the pound

Hannah Mercer, 35, will count herself among them this year.

In the past she and her husband, an American, holidayed in the States. This year, in part thanks to the poor exchange rate, they’re looking closer to home.

“We’d want nice British experience like a country walk, a pub lunch, that kind of stuff” she says.

They’re looking at Cornwall and Devon.

“It won’t be dry all week,” she concedes. “But if you get at least one or two days of sunshine, you’ve done pretty well. “



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Ebook sales drop as readers favour non-fiction books


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EPA

Sales of ebooks dropped 3% to £538m last year, according to the Publishers Association trade body.

But total book sales including physical books rose 6% to £3.5bn, according to the data, led by non-fiction gains.

Readers flocked to fitness and self-help books, sending non-fiction sales up 9%, while fiction revenue fell 7%.

Exports rose 6% to £2.6bn, benefiting from a decline in the value of sterling, but also rising in line with domestic growth.

The gain reversed three previous years of export decline.

In 2015, adult colouring books and the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland helped the swell in physical book sales, while ebook sales fell 1.6%.

This time, books on the Danish concept of hygge, which is usually translated into English as “cosiness”, assisted factual sales, as well as fitness books by personal trainer Joe Wicks.

While ebook sales took a hit, digital distribution helped other media.

Journals made a 10% gain last year to £1.2bn, led by a jump in electronic subscriptions, making the market for books and journals worth £4.8bn.

“Last year, one of the most eye-catching figures from our statistics was that physical book sales were increasing while digital book sales dropped,” said chief executive Stephen Lotinga.

“While many will debate as to whether this trend will continue, we should not ignore the fact that digital sales beyond the domestic ebook market are growing.”



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'Pawternity' leave


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Brewdog

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Gia is going to take a week’s paid leave to house train her puppy Rye

As anyone who has had a new puppy will understand, 24-year-old Gia Nigro has got her hands full.

Gia, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, is the proud owner of a nine-week-old goldendoodle puppy (a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle) called Rye.

Like any young dog it is going to require a fair amount of training to ensure it becomes housetrained and obedient.

But what can you do if, like Gia, you work full-time, and you don’t have any holiday time left to dedicate to your new four-legged friend?

Thankfully for Gia, her employer – Scottish brewer Brewdog – announced a rather unusual new employee perk earlier this year – one week’s paid leave for all workers who adopt a puppy or rescue dog.

Unsurprisingly the announcement – which was released to the media in a press release rather than just told to staff – made headlines around the world. Newspaper reports were quick to praise the scheme that Brewdog has dubbed “pawternity” leave.

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Brewdog

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The pawternity scheme coincided with the opening of Brewdog’s new US brewery and bar

However, the more cynical may have wondered whether there was more than a whiff of gimmick to Brewdog’s unusual new employee benefit. They may further question whether it was unveiled as “clickbait” to draw attention to a press release that also announced that the company had just opened a new 100,000 sq ft (9,000sq m) North American brewery in Columbus.

Not that Gia, who works at the new facility, has any complaints. “The policy gives me the flexibility to choose when to take a fully paid week off with Rye, which I’ll be doing next month to get her fully house trained,” she says.

And in defence of Brewdog, it has also always been dog-friendly, and allows employees to take their pets to work with them.

While employee perks are nothing new, they have become both more unusual and headline grabbing in recent years. But why exactly are firms offering them?

‘Tears of joy’

Last year New York-based online retailer Boxed was praised when its co-founder and boss Chieh Huang announced that the company would contribute to the cost of employees’ weddings.

Mr Huang says he was inspired to start the unusual scheme when he saw one of his employees crying at work because he was struggling to cover the cost of his mother’s medical bills and save for his upcoming wedding.

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Boxed

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Boxed worker Marcel Graham (centre, in a hat) cried after being told his wedding would be paid for

“He basically realised that he was just never going to make it work,” says Mr Huang, who was immediately inspired to pay for the worker’s wedding, and then introduce the company-wide policy.

“The response was overwhelming,” says Mr Huang. “There was lots of yelling, high-fiving, and tears of joy.

“I think that day our employees realised that we understand just how much of a commitment they make to us every day, putting in long hours to make this company grow, and that we’re willing to make a commitment to them in return. I really think that resonated with them.”

While Boxed is a bit cagey about the details, under the scheme it will pay up to $20,000 (£16,000) for weddings, depending on seniority and time with the company.

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Getty Images

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Boxed will pay up to $20,000 towards an employee’s wedding

So far half a dozen Boxed workers have redeemed the perk, and Mr Huang says there are “lots more on the horizon”.

He firmly rejects the suggestion that the scheme was introduced simply to garner publicity.

“There are definitely less expensive ways to get media attention,” says Mr Huang. “We definitely do not sit around in a room trying to come up with ideas on how to create buzzworthy corporate benefits.”

‘Return on investment’

Occupational psychologist Cheryl Isaacs says that having generous employee perks can be a good way for a company to help ensure that it has a contented workforce, and that numerous studies have shown (perhaps unsurprisingly) that happy staff are more productive.

One such recent report into the issue by the University of Warwick found that employee happiness boosted productivity by 12%, while unhappy workers were 10% less productive.

However, London-based Ms Isaacs cautions that the benefits should apply to most employees, and not just a few.

“A deeper question that each individual organisation needs to answer is: does the benefit bring ROI [return on investment’]? Will it have any long-lasting benefits for the company?” she says.

Other employee perk schemes that have made the headlines in recent years include Apple and Facebook offering to pay for egg freezing for their female employees, while Netflix allows staff to take up to a year’s parental leave.

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US firm Zillow pays for female staff to post their breast milk

Meanwhile, US online real estate firm Zillow pays for female employees to post their breast milk if they are working away from home. They introduced the scheme in 2010 after a worker had difficulty getting her container of milk through airport security.

While all these firms say they are trying to help their staff rather than garner positive publicity, Florida-based PR expert Glenn Selig guesses that businesses can often be seeking both.

“Companies can both really mean it – want to improve the lives of their employees, and get their names out there,” he says.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if in the C suites [at boardroom level] there was some kind of conversation about what kind of benefit can be offered to employees that would also make the company look good, and could generate positive attention.”

While Brewdog has a range of staff benefits that don’t make the headlines, such as paying staff a guaranteed living wage and generous parental leave, Mr Selig says the “pawternity” scheme is a “really neat idea” from a PR point of view.

“Will it make people buy the beer? I don’t know,” he says.

“But you might remember it next time you’re sitting in a bar and someone mentions Brewdog.”



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Job opportunities


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Media captionWhat’s behind Uber’s success in Egypt?

On the congested streets of downtown Cairo, hundreds of cars jostle for position at the junctions around Tahrir Square.

As the rush hour reaches its peak, traffic grinds to a halt and a chorus of car horns rises from the increasingly irate drivers.

“This is the soundtrack of Cairo,” says Tino Waked, general manager of Uber in Egypt, above the din.

He is standing outside Uber’s Cairo office, which opened a little over two years ago.

Along the pavement dozens of local men, mostly young and dressed in leather jackets and jeans, are waiting to sign on as Uber drivers.

The ride-sharing giant may have been born thousands of miles away in San Francisco, but it’s in fast-growing cities like Cairo that it is now booming.

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Tino Waked says Uber is creating much-needed jobs in Egypt

Egypt is currently one of Uber’s fastest growing markets in the world.

There are more than 40,000 Egyptian drivers working on the platform every month, the company says, and new drivers are joining up at the rate of 2,000 a week.

Among them is Mohamed, a man in his twenties waiting patiently in the queue.

He says he used to be employed as a driver at a local tour company. But with the collapse in the tourism industry following the Arab Spring, he’s now looking for a new source of income.

He has heard good things about the company from friends who are already drivers, he says, and hopes he can “make a million pounds, God willing”.

Tino Waked says it is this urgent need for jobs that’s helping make Uber such a success in Egypt.

“What’s very different in Egypt compared to anywhere else is the economic opportunity that Uber provides to drivers,” he says.

“Forty per cent of our drivers were unemployed before joining Uber. So it’s an additional source of income, especially given the difficult period the country is going through.”

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Many drivers hate the notorious Cairo traffic

Egypt’s economy has been in the doldrums since the economic shock of the revolution in 2011 and the political instability that followed.

The youth unemployment rate stands at more than 30%. Foreign investment and earnings from tourism have dried up.

Egypt’s already-large population is expanding rapidly, and economic growth is not keeping pace.

Things got even worse for many Egyptians last year when the government floated the currency as part of a package of economic reforms, meaning the prices of many basic goods doubled overnight.

In this difficult economic climate, gig economy employers like Uber have been seen as a welcome provider of quick and accessible jobs.

Uber’s expansion into developing markets comes as it faces a string of controversies elsewhere.

In February, chief executive Travis Kalanick was filmed arguing with one Uber driver over the company’s fare structure, while it has faced a string of court cases over its workers’ rights.

There have been allegations of sexual harassment, and accidents in testing its self-driving cars. A campaign last year urged customers to delete their Uber app after the company appeared to take advantage of a New York cab drivers’ strike.

But Uber’s rapid roll-out in Egypt and the huge influx of new drivers has not been without problems either.

As in other markets in Africa and Asia, the company has been forced to accept cash payments in Egypt to accommodate the majority without access to a credit or debit card.

Just 35% of Egyptians have access to a credit card, according to Mastercard, and more than 90% of all financial transactions are in cash.

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Cairo’s traditional taxi drivers have complained that ride-sharing apps threaten their livelihoods

Another problem is that many Egyptian drivers are unfamiliar with the technology that has made Uber so successful elsewhere.

Customers have complained that drivers don’t know how to read online maps.

One Cairo resident complained that an Uber driver who was asked to take her to the airport had no idea where it was or how to get there.

“One of the biggest differences is that we spend a lot of time educating the drivers on how to use the app, how to use the technology,” admits Tino Waked. “A lot of people have not used a smartphone before.”

Meanwhile, traditional taxi drivers who have not migrated to Uber or successful rival ride-sharing apps like regional competitor Careem have been up in arms, staging protests in Cairo’s streets over Uber’s subsidised fares, and accusing the company of stealing their livelihoods in tough economic times.

But Tino Waked is optimistic that Uber’s success in Egypt and other markets will continue for as long as there is a demand for jobs and an alternative to braving the notorious Cairo traffic.

“I hate driving, specifically in Cairo,” he says. “I sold my car six months ago, and I have no regrets.”

Listen to Business Daily’s special programme on Uber on the BBC World Service



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US regulator wants to reverse net neutrality


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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was named by President Donald Trump in January.

Top US communications regulator Ajit Pai has proposed reversing net neutrality rules for internet service providers.

The Obama-era measures prohibit broadband providers from giving or selling access to certain internet services over others.

Those who fought to get the rules passed said his proposal would set off a fierce political battle.

Mr Pai announced the plan to roll back net neutrality measures in Washington.

“Do we want the government to control the internet? Or do we want to embrace the light-touch approach” in place from 1996 until 2015, he said.

Mr Pai was named as Federal Communications Commission chair by President Donald Trump.

Neutrality fear over Trump appointee

Anger as US internet privacy law scrapped

He said the current framework discourages the spread of high-speed internet to poor and rural communities.

“Title II has kept countless consumers from getting better internet access or getting access, period. It is widening the digital divide in our country.”

The commission plans to seek comment on new rules – including how to address questions such as paid prioritization for some traffic – in the coming months.

Mr Pai was first appointed to the FCC by former US president Barack Obama and voted against the rules in 2015.

His plan for a roll back places him on the side of internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, which have opposed the rules.

In the 2015 debate, many people – galvanised in part by firms such as Netflix – wrote in support of net neutrality provisions.



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Deutsche: Brexit risk to up to 4,000 UK jobs


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Deutsche Bank is in talks for a new London headquarters, despite questions raised by Brexit

Deutsche Bank is considering moving as many as 4,000 jobs out of the UK as a result of Brexit – nearly half the firm’s current workforce.

The possibility raised by the firm’s chief regulatory officer was the latest warning from a financial firm since the UK voted to leave the European Union.

Currently, UK-based companies can conduct business throughout Europe, but could lose that right.

However, Deutsche Bank has said it is committed to the City of London.

Brexit: All you need to know about the UK leaving the EU

What are the key issues for the Brexit negotiations?

Sylvie Matherat, chief regulatory officer at Deutsche, made the remarks on Wednesday.

The positions in question include not just front office jobs, but also roles in IT and risk management, she said.

“For front office people, if you want to deal with an EU client, you need to be based in the EU,” she said during a panel at the Frankfurt Main Finance Conference in Germany.

“Does it mean I have to move all the front office people to Germany or not? We’re speaking of 2,000 people.”

She added that an additional 2,000 jobs linked to risk management could also face relocation.

“So we really need clarity,” Ms Matherat said. “We are the largest bank branch operating in the UK. We do have something like 9,000 people there, so I mean they [staff] do have real questions [including] where do I register my children for in the next two years at school? I mean that is a very concrete question.”

Despite the warning, the bank last month entered negotiations for a new London headquarters with a 25-year lease.



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Wall Street edges down after Trump tax plan


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US markets slid at the close after the Trump administration outlined its tax cut plan.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 20.68 points, or 0.10%, at 20,975.44, and the S&P 500 shaved off 1.16 points, or 0.05%, to 2,387.45

The Nasdaq Composite was down 6.52 0.27 points at 6,025.23.

The biggest mover on the Dow was Procter & Gamble, which fell nearly 2.5%.

The drugs giant reporting an 8.3% fall in third-quarter profit, caused by slowing consumer spending

President Donald Trump proposed slashing the US tax rate on corporate and pass-through business profits to 15% from 35% or more.

The administration is determined to get the tax reform done by this year, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

The promise of a massive tax cut has been at the core of the post-election rally, which has driven Wall Street’s indexes to record highs.

However, the rally has stalled of late due to a lack of clarity on Trump’s policies and the failure of his healthcare reform bill.



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Trump 'considering draft order to scrap Nafta'


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Signed by President Bill Clinton, Nafta came into force in 1994

The Trump administration has drafted an executive order that would withdraw the US from the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), US media say.

It is unclear whether President Donald Trump will follow through and strike down the deal, which eliminated tariffs between the US, Mexico and Canada.

In the election he vowed to withdraw from the 23-year-old pact, calling it a US job killer.

He pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in January.

According to Politico, two White House officials said the Nafta draft order could be unveiled this week or early next week.

It is not clear whether the administration is simply floating the proposal as a hardball negotiating tactic, however.

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Media captionDairy wars: Why is Trump threatening Canada over milk?

The plan comes days after the US imposed a new tariff on softwood lumber coming from Canada.

Mr Trump also called a new Canadian tariff regime affecting US dairy products a “disgrace”.

On Tuesday, the US lost a trade battle with the other Nafta signatory.

The World Trade Organization ruled that Mexico could impose more than $160m (£125m) annually in sanctions against the US on commerce in tuna, capping a dispute dating to 2008.



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