The Owen Paterson last year affair kicked off a bit of a scramble to uncover more sleaze hiding beneath the increasingly threadbare veil of virtue that surrounds Westminster. Unfortunately, the media’s attention has since been distracted by the goings on in Downing Street, now known as partygate, which is still rumbling on with gathering force.
After Paterson, the parliamentary committee on standards was prompted to start an inquiry into the operation of the MPs code of conduct. Most attention is falling on MPs moonlighting with second jobs but last week journalists from Private Eye gave evidence to the committee, including this contribution from Richard Brooks who writes for the satirical magazine about conflicts of interest.
Brooks is talking about the often mysterious entries in an MPs register of interests with nothing more than a name and a sum of money (in this case a Richard Matthews giving a shooting trip worth £1,500 to Sir Bernard Jenkin). One might argue that at least we had some idea what Paterson was doing for his £112,000 a year but with many donations, there is a distinct absence of any purpose or transparency whatsoever.
Who is Andrew Baxter?
The committee hearing occurred a few days after I read on the Facebook page of Selby for Europe someone asking who the Andrew Baxter was who gave Nigel Adams, MP for Selby and Ainsty, the £10,000 declared on 5 August 2020. The assumption being he was a local business owner. I confess I knew who he was, because I had also noticed this donation and did a bit of research at the time of the Paterson affair.
It wasn’t easy, but I am pretty sure (and no doubt Mr Baxter or Mr Adams will demand a swift apology if I’m wrong) that Baxter is 46 year old Andrew Neville Baxter, the MD of Europa World Wide Logistics, based in Dartford, Kent. At least they follow each other on Twitter with Adams (@nadams) being one of Baxter’s tiny band of followers and Baxter in turn has ‘liked’ Adams’ tweets.
Dartford is about 200 miles from Selby, so it isn’t immediately obvious what the connection is.
More than that, I checked on the Electoral Commission website and discovered that an Andrew N Baxter has contributed £35,700 to Conservative party central funds. I assume that he, the MD of Europa World Wide Logistics and Nigel Adams’ 2020 benefactor, are one and the same person. Why he chose to single out a Tory MP from North Yorkshire and minister without portfolio at the cabinet office for another £10,000 is a mystery. No other MP received a donation from him as far as I can see.
Why didn’t Baxter simply send another £10,000 to Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ)? And what does a Dartford-based logistics business hope to gain specifically from Nigel Adams? You may well ask.
Brexit seems to be the connecting link
Baxter is a leading and vociferous Brexiter. He even hosted Boris Johnson at his depot in March 2016, a visit that was the subject of a humorous John Crace sketch in The Guardian. His Twitter account picture has him sitting proudly above a ‘Vote Leave Take Control’ message as you can see below:
Before the referendum, he was urging fellow hauliers to vote to leave in an open letter. His company has at least one curtain-sided trailer carrying the message “We love Europe not the EU” and unveiled on 24 June 2016 with a smiling Baxter saying, “today was a great day for haulage”.
Baxter was also one of the 30-strong ‘expert group’ unveiled by Vote Leave in May 2016 to ‘dismiss Brexit fears’ and in the same month he was involved in a debate on ITV with the title: ‘Would our economy be better or worse off if we left the EU?’
During the show, he is reported to have said:
“Anyone who says that the EU is going to put big trade barriers up against the UK, is talking rubbish, there’s no way that will happen”.Andrew Baxter May 2016
We now know the EU didn’t need to put up any big trade barriers because Britain asked, no demanded, to be put outside the biggest trade barriers the EU already had and that we had helped to build.
The following is a look at Baxter’s business and tries to see what benefit Brexit could possibly be to a logistics company, which you may or may not find interesting. It will perhaps provide a test bed for Brexit – a sort of Gerald Ratner test.
Europa Worldwide Logistics Group
Europa Worldwide Group is a sizeable business with a consolidated group turnover around £200 million on which it made a profit of just £2.7m (1.35 percent) after tax but it also has a bank overdraft of £14m according to the latest accounts filed with Companies House.
The company has charges registered against it, one from Lombard North Central PLC for £100,000 paid in February 2021 and another outstanding one from RBS Invoice Finance Ltd from April 2020. Invoice financing is used to release cash ‘quickly and confidentially’ through having invoices paid early by a bank in return for a discount. It can also release cash from existing assets.
It is not clear why Europa needed to raise cash using finance companies, a process usually reserved for businesses with cash flow problems, as I understand it.
The other thing that strikes you about the Europa Group is the extraordinary number of directors who have resigned. Companies House lists 17 officers, 13 of whom have resigned, usually after quite short periods. A previous company secretary for example, Adam McBride, quit in April 2021 after just 16 months.
There are four current directors, two appointed in September last year and one appointed in February 2020. When I looked, Baxter was the only director with more than two years with the company. This seems surprising for such a large business.
Working for Europa Worldwide Group
A jobs website called Indeed, has a section allowing former employees to review companies they have worked for to guide potential jobseekers and Europa has what some people might describe as ‘mixed’ reviews. A sample of the 43 reviews on the site:
“Basically it is a sweatshop!”
“This place really is a shambles – No matter how badly you need a job don’t try this place!”
“It’s worse working there than being unemployed. The managers are terrible, they haven’t got a clue what they are doing. Shouting constantly with staff and all they can blame. Really shambles, bringing in new supervisors and team leaders all the time and most of them don’t last even two days.”
“This place is a nightmare! The managers and team leaders run around like headless chickens. They want you to work work work but offer nothing in return….horrible place to work.”
“There doesn’t seem to be a plan. Leadership is poor at best but mostly just non existent. Senior managers are arrogant, even with high numbers of leavers they refuse to see that they are the issue.”
In fairness, the reviews weren’t all bad, some actually seemed to like it.
Europa’s relationship with the Road Haulage Association
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) is one of several trade bodies that represents the UK transport industry. Andrew Baxter has a rather fractious relationship with it and with Rod McKenzie, the RHA’s executive director on policy and public affairs, who has been outspoken about the government’s handling of Brexit.
In 2016, a survey of RHA members showed a majority supported Vote Leave on the grounds of increased regulatory burden, trucks from abroad crossing into Britain filled with cheap diesel, and EU companies able to hire cheaper labour, making it difficult for UK hauliers to compete. Ironically, these are all problems the industry are facing in spades after Brexit.
In addition, the loss of freedom of movement has helped to create a shortage of qualified drivers leading to higher wage costs with one driver reporting a 40 percent increase. UK drivers are now only permitted to spend 90 days in any 180 day period in the EU, potentially requiring more drivers to be employed.
Baxter terminated Europa’s membership of the RHA last October with an open letter accusing the organisation of failing to be an “adequate representative organisation for the UK road haulage industry” and claiming:
“The RHA has destroyed its productive relationship with the government by repeatedly leaking information from confidential meetings [and has] undermined preparations for Brexit.”
He also claimed the RHA was “substantially responsible for the current fuel crisis, by leaking information regarding fuel stocks, which has damaged the country and the haulage sector”.
Problems at Dover-Calais
Baxter may have been regarded as an expert in 2016, but one questions what the advantage of Brexit has been for UK hauliers. The government website lists a mass of documents now required to transport goods across European borders and another page sets out more checks being introduced throughout 2022. The slightest error causes delay. Who benefits?
Europa Worldwide Group had a video ready in September 2020 launching ‘Europa-Flow’ and promising users that their European customers “won’t be hit with increased transit times”.
In February 2021 Baxter was forced to admit it had been anything but plain sailing:
“Despite all of our very significant preparations the reality is that we struggled to process the volume of EU import clearances that we needed to do. This created a backlog of shipments and some quite serious delays to transit times. However, I am pleased to say that that backlog is now cleared.Andrew Baxter February 2021
“The issues we faced”, he went on, “were so multifaceted they were very hard to predict in advance. Customer errors, our staff errors, our IT errors, IT supplier errors, shipping line errors, UK, FR and BE customs errors, etc, etc. Nearly every shipment was being snagged by something. Frankly, it was pretty horrendous, but due to our team who have worked incredibly long hours, and by working closely with customers and suppliers we have now broken the back of these issues.”
A year later, there are growing and credible reports of delays both ways across the short straits. Bylines TV released a video last week showing drivers who had been stuck in Dover for hours and hours, one for four days, because of minor issues with paperwork:
Last Friday night, waiting times at Dover – excluding time queueing to reach the port – had reached 11 hours and at Calais 14 hours with the build-up of HGVs triggering the traffic access protocol known as Dover TAP to manage traffic through the town. And we’ve not yet reached a busy period with little tourist traffic.
More than this, trade with EU countries has been cut by at least 15 percent and cabotage rights (the right to transport goods for hire and reward inside another country) is now tilted in favour of continental hauliers.
A survey by Transport Exchange in December 2020 of exporting haulage companies suggests some hauliers had started to have second thoughts about Brexit with 72 percent believing they would be negatively impacted.
We may never learn what the £10,000 given to Nigel Adams was for. Perhaps it was simply a donation without strings, which begs the question why Adams got it and it wasn’t added to the £35,700 Andrew Baxter had given previously to central party funds.
But as Ian Hislop said to the standards committee last week, “Why do they [MPs] think these businesses are paying them this money?” Why indeed?
If Baxter’s preference for Brexit and the near £46,000 he has spent on the Tory party and Adams apparently in aid of it, is a good thing, no doubt the company accounts due to be filed in December this year and next will show how the fortunes of Europa Worldwide Group have been boosted by Brexit – or not.
We wait with interest.
Baxter’s £10k wasn’t the only donation declared by Adams in August 2020 by the way. He was given £1,900 by Adam Beaumont, £2,600 by Simon Chappell, £2,000 from Lawrence Tomlinson and £13,000 from Nigel Clack, people I do not know and haven’t been able to identify – yet.