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SC rejects telcos’ plea for new schedule for AGR payments, slams DoT

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In a major setback for the telecom companies, the Supreme Court on Friday rejected the plea seeking new schedule of AGR payments. Coming down heavily on the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) for not taking coercive action against telcos for failing to repay, the apex court ordered contempt proceedings against Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea.

The next hearing has been scheduled for March 17.

The Apex Court also pulled up the DoT desk officer who wrote to the Attorney General asking him to not insist on payemnt of dues. The SC issued a contempt notice to the officer to explain why no action should be initiated against him.

The court summoned managing director, director of all telcos including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and others on March 17 to explain why these dues were not deposited despite orders and why contempt action must not be taken against them for non-compliance of order.

A bench of justices Arun Mishra, S Abdul Nazeer and M R Shah heard a batch of petitions filed by telecom companies in open court.

ALSO READ: Voda Idea dips 11% as SC rejects telcos’ plea for new schedule for AGR dues

Earlier on January 16, a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra had dismissed review petitions of telecom firms seeking review of its earlier order asking them to pay Rs 1.47 trillion in statutory dues by January 23, saying it did not find any “justifiable reason” to entertain them.

The apex court had on October 24 last year ruled that the statutory dues need to be calculated by including non-telecom revenues in AGR of telcos.

It had upheld the AGR definition formulated by the DoT and termed as “frivolous” the nature of objections raised by the telecom service providers.

In an affidavit filed in the top court, DoT said that according to calculations, Airtel owes Rs 21,682.13 crore as licence fee to the government and dues from Vodafone totalled Rs 19,823.71 crore, while Reliance Communications owed a total of Rs 16,456.47 crore. BSNL owed Rs 2,098.72 crore and MTNL Rs 2,537.48 crore.

“The definition of gross revenue is crystal clear in the agreement. How the to be arrived at is also evident. It cannot be submitted that the revenue has not been defined in the contract. Once the gross revenue is defined, one cannot depart from it and the very meaning is to be given to the revenue for the agreement,” the apex court had said in its October verdict.

First Published: Fri, February 14 2020. 11:04 IST

Source: Business Standard

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Airports ‘will fail in weeks’ without cash injection for baggage firms, Government warned

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Airports will collapse within weeks without emergency funding for the firms that supply baggage handlers and refuel planes, the Government has been warned. 

Ground handling firms, which supply 25,000 staff in the UK to manage the most vital airport operations, last week told Transport Minister Kelly Tolhurst they are ‘perilously close to collapse’ and are likely to run out of cash within six weeks. 

The UK’s four biggest such companies – Swissport, Menzies Aviation, WFS and Dnata – are understood to have already laid off thousands of staff after suffering a 95 per cent drop in revenues due to 11 partial or full airport closures including Gatwick, Manchester, London City and Teesside International. 

Going nowhere: Ground handling firms supply 25,000 staff in the UK to manage the most vital airport operations

Going nowhere: Ground handling firms supply 25,000 staff in the UK to manage the most vital airport operations

Going nowhere: Ground handling firms supply 25,000 staff in the UK to manage the most vital airport operations

Sources said unless the Treasury steps in with a rescue package the firms will be forced to furlough their entire workforce, meaning they will be categorised as being on temporary absence. 

This will leave no ground staff to handle cargo including crucial ventilator components and other critical medical supplies for the NHS. Menzies, which is listed on the FTSE 250, last week laid off half its global workforce. 

In a joint letter sent to Tolhurst last week, the bosses of the four big ground handling firms called for emergency support to cover business rates as well as the provision of VAT relief and access to shortterm loans. 

The letter, seen by The Mail on Sunday, said: ‘We survive … on a pay-as-you-go model generating revenue on the number of aeroplane turns we support, tons [of goods] we warehouse, and litres of fuel we pump. 

‘As 95 per cent of these flights are not arriving, and 70 per cent of our costs are staff, the resultant fall in revenue has driven us into a crisis.’ 

The correspondence added: ‘If one of us ceases to operate, the impact will be devastating for all of us, leaving the entire UK aviation system unable to function.’ The four firms held talks with the Department for Transport last Friday. 

It is understood that the department is lobbying the Treasury for help. The Airport Operators Association, which represents more than 50 airports, also called on the Government for support last week. 

In a letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the DfT, the AOA said airports are not eligible for schemes that benefit the retail and hospitality sector and cannot apply for loans from the Bank of England. 

The organisation called for six aid measures to help airports stay open – including a holiday from taxes such as business rates and corporation tax, and access to Bank of England loans. 

Last week, the Treasury rejected pleas for a bailout from airlines, saying it would consider aid only once all other avenues had been exhausted. It is thought that the major airlines’ failure to put on a united front was a factor in the Government’s decision, with a source describing ‘squabbling’ between rivals Virgin Atlantic and British Airways owner IAG. 

The AOA said it was ‘extremely disappointed’ by the Government’s decision to ‘row back’ on its previous commitment to stand by the aviation industry. 

One airline insider said the Covid19 travel restrictions will last until at least September. He added: ‘Airlines must be planning for an extended period of disruption before getting back to some sort of new normal.’

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MIDAS SHARE TIPS: Markets are down by a third and our tips have been hit too, but don’t panic

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Coronavirus has brought economies to a standstill, sent financial markets into shock and panicked investors far and wide. 

Massive government intervention provided some respite for equities last week but stocks are still around a third lower than at the start of the year and dividends are increasingly under threat, too. 

Midas recommendations have shared the pain, some considerably more than others. So what should shareholders do? The temptation may be to cut and run – and many have – but equity investing is supposed to be a long-term process and selling while others panic rarely turns out to be the best strategy. 

Roll with it: Markets are jittery but once people can socialise again, they will return to Hollywood Bowl sites

Roll with it: Markets are jittery but once people can socialise again, they will return to Hollywood Bowl sites

Roll with it: Markets are jittery but once people can socialise again, they will return to Hollywood Bowl sites

LEISURE: PIN HOPES ON HOLLYWOOD BOWL 

Midas recommended Hollywood Bowl in December 2017, when the shares were £1.89. They had risen to £3.12 by the beginning of this year. 

Last week, they closed at £1.53, having fallen to below 70p earlier this month. Even though the shares have come off that terrible low, the current price takes little account of the strength of the business or its prospects. 

Hollywood Bowl has increased sales, profits and dividends over the past three years and a recent trading update showed strong growth from last September to February, before Covid-19 erupted. 

Importantly, too, the firm’s chief executive Stephen Burns seems genuinely to care about his 2,100 staff, which should bode well for the future. Most employees are benefiting from the Government’s 80 per cent wage guarantee but Burns is topping that up through March and April, while some staff will receive full pay until May. 

All sites are now closed but the group had already taken steps to mitigate risk, making fewer lanes available at any one time, turning off amusement machines and performing regular deep cleans. In the week before sites were closed, everyone within the group took turns at cleaning, including Burns and his fellow executives. 

They have not just mucked in with staff, they have also showed financial support for the business, buying more than 30,000 shares with their own cash since the beginning of this month. 

Midas verdict: Hollywood Bowl shares have been savaged over the past few months but they should recover. Bowling is a low-cost form of entertainment and Hollywood Bowl is the biggest operator in the UK, with a strong balance sheet and experienced managers. 

Once people are allowed to socialise again, the lanes are an obvious place to go. Hang on to these shares. 

Looking across market sectors, some industries have been savaged, some are just about coping and others are positively benefiting from the ripple effects of Covid-19. Further out, the key question is which firms will emerge from stronger and leaner and which may be permanently scarred? 

TRAVEL: AIRPORT FOOD GROUP HAS A BIG HELPING OF CASH 

SSP Group keeps passengers fed and watered at airports and train stations around the world. It manages eateries such as Upper Crust, Ritazza, Burger King and Yo! Sushi, as well as smarter restaurants and health-conscious cafes. 

Life was pretty good for this business, until coronavirus brought travel to a virtual standstill. Last week, chief executive Simon Smith admitted that like-for-like revenues are around 80 per cent lower than this time last year in the UK, Europe and North America and that prospects are highly uncertain. 

Smith has pulled out all the stops in response. Units are closing, staff numbers are reducing, rents are under discussion and senior staff are taking big salary reductions.

A final dividend of 6p, due for payment last Friday, has been deferred until June and the company is asking big shareholders to waive their entitlements so cash can be kept in the business. 

The first half dividend for 2020 has been cancelled too. At the same time, Smith has secured a £112.5 million bank loan and raised money in the stock market by issuing £216 million of new shares at £2.50 a share. All these measures should keep the business afloat until at least the end of SSP’s financial year in September, and Smith is optimistic that, once coronavirus ebbs away, the company will bounce back.

The lockdown has raised questions however about whether people will resume their former travel habits. Some may be strapped for cash, others may feel less enthusiastic about flying to foreign climes and businesses may decide that video conferencing is cheaper and easier than international meetings.

Midas verdict: SSP shares were £2.98 when Midas recommended them in 2015. Last year, we suggested that investors sell half their stock at a price of £7.07. The shares were £7.00 by the beginning of this year. 

They are now £2.99. Supporters of the business can take comfort from the price increase since the finance package was announced but the stock has still tumbled and the outlook is hard to predict. Now is not the time to sell but shareholders should keep a close eye on this stock over the coming months.

PROPERTY: REAL ESTATE HAS BRIGHT PROSPECTS 

Real Estate Investors has been a pretty disappointing investment, even before the Covid-19 catastrophe. 

Midas recommended the Midlands-based property firm in 2014 at 52p. At the beginning of the year, it was 55p and last week, it closed at 34p. The business was buffeted by Brexit-related worries in 2016 and the shares have clearly been hit hard in recent weeks, too. 

 response seems overdone. Real Estate Investors is a highly conservative business, led by Paul Bassi, a veteran of the property market. The company’s tenants are deliberately spread across sectors, with NHS offices leading the pack, as well as other government bodies. 

There are retailers, restaurants and hotels in the mix, too, but most tenants are responsible for a fraction of the group’s total revenues. Reassuringly, Bassi’s portfolio is 96 per cent let and when quarterly rents fell due last week, no one defaulted or even suggested that they might. Real Estate’s 2019 results, released this month, showed solid progress and a total dividend of 3.8p was proposed. 

Once that is paid, shareholders will have received more than 15p worth of dividend payments per share over the past five years, some compensation for the poor share price performance. 

Midas verdict: Real Estate tenants may struggle if the effects of coronavirus intensify over the coming months. But the company is financially strong, the Midlands has been forging ahead and long-term prospects are bright. At 34p, this stock is cheap – and it offers a yield of more than 10 per cent. 

FOOD: BUYING FRENZY BOLSTERS REVENUES 

Food retailers have been booming in recent weeks. Shoppers have gone into panic mode: pasta, booze and loo roll have been flying off the shelves and online delivery services are swamped. 

The frenzy should bolster revenues across the grocery sector but it will feed through to certain suppliers as well. Hilton Food Group, for instance, unveiled an upbeat trading statement last week, saying 2019 figures were ahead of expectations and the current year has started well. Hilton provides Tesco with all its beef and lamb – roasting joints, steaks, chops and more specialised goods, such as barbecueready burgers or Bolognese sauce. 

Having focused on red meat throughout its 26-year history, the company recently expanded into fish, vegetarian and vegan products, in response to changing consumer tastes. 

Hilton operates in several countries outside Britain, including Australia and New Zealand and much of Northern Europe. In each place, the group tends to work with one large supermarket group so it can build a relationship with them and become a partner, not just a faceless supplier. 

The strategy is clearly delivering results. Chief executive Philip Heffer is optimistic about the future and doing pretty well in the present. Lockdowns across the world mean people are eating more at home and the good weather here is likely to encourage barbecue enthusiasts to light up their grills, particularly as eating out is no longer an option. 

Midas verdict: Midas recommended Hilton Food Group back in 2008 when the shares were £1.85 and again in 2013 when the price had risen to £3.05. The stock closed last week at £10.24, compared with more than £11 at the beginning of the year. 

Existing investors keen to bank profits may choose to offload a few shares but they should not sell out completely. This is a solid, well-run business and the 2019 dividend, forecast at 22p, looks pretty secure.

HEALTH: YOUR GENE IS FIGHTING THE CRISIS

Your gene health is making a direct contribution to the fight against coronavirus. Last week, the diagnostics specialist revealed it is helping medical group Novacyt to make Covid-19 testing kits. 

The tests produce results within just two hours so hospitals can quickly find out whether suspected sufferers and medical staff have the virus. Demand is racheting up by the day from countries around the world, including the US where the authorities gave the tests emergency authorisation last week. 

Tens of millions of tests are expected to be sold over the next few months. Novacyt cannot satisfy all these anxious customers alone so it has turned to just two other businesses to help, one of which is Manchester-based Yourgene. 

The decision is a ringing endorsement of Yourgene’s facilities and its ability to produce cutting-edge diagnostic materials. The company will be building up production in the next few weeks and may play a larger part in the process over time. Midas recommended Yourgene at the beginning of the year when the stock was 13.75p. 

It is one of the few shares to have risen since, to 14.50p, an increase of more than 5 per cent. The group usually focuses on tests for Down’s Syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis and male infertility but it is diverting resources to help in the fight against Covid-19. 

Midas verdict: Medical companies around the world are working to curb the spread of coronavirus and Yourgene, a small AIM business, is at the heart of these efforts. The business is at a pioneer in the sophisticated medical diagnostics industry and the shares should continue to gain ground. 

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You can still live the good life in lockdown – so dig for victory over the Coronavirus!

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Confinement to home may stretch some relationships, but it could also encourage you to become a little less reliant on the weekly shop. Here, Toby Walne looks at some do-it-yourself food and drink ideas. 

HERE’S THE SEED OF AN IDEA… 

Now is the time to start growing vegetables, a pursuit you can do in isolation. According to the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, you could save £1,500 a year by doing this. 

The National Vegetable Society provides free online guidance and details of local groups offering support – including how to get seeds at this difficult time. 

Opportunity: Self-isolation is a good time to produce your own food and relax with a home made drink

Opportunity: Self-isolation is a good time to produce your own food and relax with a home made drink

Opportunity: Self-isolation is a good time to produce your own food and relax with a home made drink

Sherie Plumb, society member and five-times winner of the World Potato Championships, says: ‘You can’t go wrong with potatoes. They require little attention. They could then inspire you to try other vegetables – Brussels sprouts, carrots, cabbages, cauliflower, courgettes, peas, runner beans or spinach.’ 

The 60-year-old from Althorne in Essex believes growing your own also provides a great way for families to pull together. Her daughters, Emily, 28, and Amy, 25, help with the digging.

Those ‘first early’ spuds can be bought online for less than £5 (for 1kg) with local shops being closed. During self-isolation, you could even use oldish potatoes starting to sprout at the bottom of the kitchen cupboard. 

People without garden space might consider an allotment – you are allowed to go to them under lockdown rules. There are 300,000 plots in Britain, costing from £10 to £100 a year to rent. Details and costs can be obtained from your local council. 

PUT POT PLANTS ON YOUR WINDOWSILL 

You can start potting up plants without stepping outside – as long as the seeds are put in soil in a spot that gets plenty of sunlight, such as a kitchen windowsill. Tomato seeds sown in pots or propagators should sprout within a fortnight if well watered. 

Seeds can be taken from tomatoes already in the fridge or you might try something more exotic. Dealers such as Plants of Distinction have varieties such as Golden Cherry, Rosella and Artisan Tiger, that tastebuds will find far more appealing than the waterbomb offerings found on supermarket shelves. 

These can be posted to you. A pack costs from £2 – enough to provide healthy salads throughout the summer. Planting pepper and chilli seeds in kitchen windowsill pots is also an option as is lettuce. 

These initially need protection against the cold weather outside so are often started indoors. In a month, they will need to be transplanted outside where they might still require protection. This can be done by putting them under cloches – clear plastic or glass. 

KEEP CHICKENS AND EAT TASTIER EGGS 

A good hen layer produces 300 eggs a year – saving you perhaps £65 and you get a better quality egg than those found in the shops. You do not need a smallholding – just about three square feet per hen and a coop costing £100. 

The Poultry Club of Great Britain can provide free guidance on keeping them. Contact the British Hen Welfare Trust – which saves from slaughter about 60,000 battery birds as they may still have many years of healthy egg laying ahead of them. 

Stroke of cluck: A good hen layer produces 300 eggs a year – saving you perhaps £65 and you get a better quality egg than those found in the shops

Stroke of cluck: A good hen layer produces 300 eggs a year – saving you perhaps £65 and you get a better quality egg than those found in the shops

Stroke of cluck: A good hen layer produces 300 eggs a year – saving you perhaps £65 and you get a better quality egg than those found in the shops

A minimum of two hens is a good idea as they like company. The trust is currently receiving unprecedented demand. Hens typically cost £15 and are cheap to keep, consuming £20 of corn a year. But safety is key. 

Hen thefts are rife as unscrupulous people steal poultry for their own needs or to sell on. So be wary of leaving chickens in vulnerable open areas. Of course, the biggest menace are foxes. An electric fence, costing £120, is one of the best ways of fending off predators and is humane, usually powered from a 12-volt car battery.

IT’S EASY TO BREW YOUR OWN BEER 

Anyone with a bit of extra time and who is willing to experiment should consider some home brew. Basic ingredients for beer – malted barley, yeast and hops – cost £20 and will produce 40 pints of ale. 

But you will also need equipment, some of which may already be lying around the home. This includes a large container in which to stir water with malted barley (a process known as ‘mashing’) and to later rinse with hot water (‘sparging’). 

Once boiled, hops are added (the liquid is now known as ‘wort’) before being cooled to room temperature and poured into a fermenter – often a plastic container with air-bubble locks costing £10 – along with some yeast. 

You then wait about a fortnight before beer is ready for bottling. Old screw-top bottles will do. Good sources of advice include howtobrew.com and books such as Home Brew Beer by Greg Hughes and Camra’s Brew Your Own British Real Ale by Graham Wheeler. Specialist ingredients and equipment can be purchased online from Malt Miller and Brew UK. 

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