News & Analysis

The share trading opportunities of a modern-day Basil Fawlty

Andrew Saks, Thursday, 29 April 2021

As if participating in a "one for you, two for me" government scheme which sought to relieve up to £1,500 per person for air passengers arriving in British airports through the implementation of illiberal quarantine hotels in which the business model was to force people to become customers of bottom of the type of bottom of the range hotel that Alan Partridge found himself the sole inhabitant of in the mid 1990s, and then split the inflated and mandatory bill between itself and the government wasn't enough.

Far from it. Once Serco, a publicly listed company that employs over 50,000 staff, got a taste of the ease of revenue generation via the iron hand of government corruption, life became too easy.

Sidling up to senior government officials for high value contract sign-offs is far easier than submitting tenders in the private sector and winning them on merit, or having to be price competitive to fend off the dynamic whizz kids at Accenture or PwC, surely?

It seems so. Serco not only participated in the government's money making racket which sought to force people to endure two weeks at Fawlty Towers for Park Lane prices, but was also the recipient of a £108 million contact-tracing deal from the British government having been cherry picked by the state and given the inside track for this white elephant project which was aimed at "non-complex” contact-tracing cases in England, where call center workers contact individuals who have spent time with an infected person.

Subsequently, British politicians outside the elected government urged health secretary, Matt Hancock, urging him not to hand Serco any more money to run contact tracing and called on the government not to extend the contract, which was estimated to be worth up to £410 million.

Whilst the old school tie brigade indulged themselves, Serco shares rose substantially, however today is the day when the gravy train has finally run out of steam.

As they say in Yorkshire, "Where there's muck there's brass", and Serco have certainly demonstrated that today in the latest scandal following their attempts at being a compulsory host comprising the combined characters of Bernard Madoff, Chairman Mao and Basil Fawlty, and the Orwellian tracing contract.

Today is the day when Serco's shares have gone through the floor and dropped like an iron girder falling from the Hoover Dam.

According to reports, Serco's staff, now accustomed to corruption, issued false invoices worth approximately £500,000 per month during an attempt to... yes... you've guessed it.... rip off the taxpaying public.

The company had a contract with the Ministry of Justice to monitor electronically-tagged offenders, awarded in 2005. Those familiar with driving on British roads will have also noticed that the prison vans which transport felons to and from their places of residence are also branded with Serco livery.

This particular contract had a clause requiring Serco to pay back excess profits to the Government, however between August 2011 and January 2013 it tried to hide these takings by creating false charges worth nearly £15million.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has now stated that for one period of six months ‘£500,000 per month’ was being falsely charged, however the company was later investigated and agreed to pay a £23million out-of-court settlement of which details were revealed for the first time yesterday after reporting restrictions lifted.

It may well have been a case of dishing the dirt, but slippery Serco managed to dig itself out of the hole, and just two days ago a court judge cleared two former executives of concealing the profits from electronic tagging.

Mr Woods, 51, of Ickford, Buckinghamshire, is the former finance director of Serco Home Affairs while Mr Marshall, 59, of Ascot, Berkshire, is a former operations director of field services within Serco.

Their trial at London's Southwark Crown Court began in March, after the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) launched an investigation in 2013 into Serco's government contracts.

This may well have been kept under a very large hat for some time, however it has contributed to a substantial amount of volatility in the value of Serco shares.

Yesterday morning, the stock sat at 144.8p, however it is now down to 142p which is the lowest it has been since over a month ago when it bottomed out at 136p as a result of investor nervousness around the previous scandals that have blighted the firm's reputation and curtailed investor confidence.

Mrs Justice Tipples ordered the two former executives' acquittal on a joint fraud charge and also cleared Mr Marshall of two further counts of fraud.

She said the SFO took the view that issues identified had "undermined the process of disclosure in this case to the extent that the trial cannot safely and fairly proceed".

In a statement, Mr Marshall said: "Over the last eight years I have made clear that I acted properly and honestly in all my work at Serco.

"The allegations against me were entirely without substance, as is now clear."

Mr Woods' solicitor, Andrew Katzen, said the SFO's decision to drop the case was a "vindication" of his client.

He added: "The fact that it has done this after an eight-year-long criminal investigation and three weeks into a trial should be a matter of profound concern to everyone concerned with justice."

Mr Marshall said "It is clear to me that I was prosecuted, not as a result of a fair assessment of the evidence, but because I was collateral damage in the deal that was done by Serco with the SFO."

The more prudent among traders may consider Serco stock an interesting prospect because the company's recent history of publicly aired dirty laundry has resulted in volatility, and volatility is needed in order to make gains from the stock market, plus the company is far too well embedded in the little black book of its friends in senior government positions to either run out of high value contracts, or to fail.

And we all thought Tony Blair's projects were Teflon coated....

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