DFID squeezes £70m from the private sector

Actis Capital complains of "strong arm" tactics

The Department for International Development has sold its 40 per cent stake in the emerging markets investment company it set up in 2004, Actis Capital. In return, DFID is receiving $10m in cash and a large share of future profits, expected to be worth over $100m over the next ten years.

The company was spun out of the Commonwealth Development Corporation when its managers paid £373,000 for 60 per cent of the business. It has gone on to become one of the world's leading private-equity firms specialising in emerging markets, but in that time the revenue to the taxpayer for its minority share has been zero.

Despite the fact that DFID was supposed to receive 80 per cent of the company's profits, no payments were made, because the company had set up a charitable arm which reduced reported profits to zero. In 2011, Andrew Mitchell, the secretary of state for international development, told the Commons that he was "amazed and surprised at the way the management of Actis have so enthusiastically exploited the taxpayer's position."

What is fascinating about this sell-off is that Mitchell apparently decided that, since Actis' managers weren't playing fair, he wasn't going to either. The government's financial adviser suggested that its share in Actis was worth between $3m and nothing, yet they managed to get almost forty times that. The BBC's Robert Peston reports how:

It is understood that Mr Mitchell - a former banker at Lazard - threatened to use the government's residual shareholding to frustrate the smooth operation of the business. For example he has the right to veto the appointment of Actis's chair and one non-executive.

The government will have been emboldened by the political background of the Actis spin-off, since the Conservatives have always maintained that Gordon Brown privatised it for far below its fair value; yet from a party which is so often accused of using privatisation to give "hand-outs" to private-sector allies, it is rather refreshing to see genuine antagonism.

DFID secretary, Andrew Mitchell. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.