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Pension watchdogs are scrutinising the collapse of Ralph & Russo, the upmarket British-based fashion brand which is now at the centre of a legal fight.

Sky News understands that The Pensions Regulator is examining the treatment of the company’s retirement scheme in the period before administrators were called in in March.

The status of the regulator’s work was unclear on Friday, although sources said its work had got under way recently.

Ralph & Russo, which was sold last week by its joint administrators to Retail Ecommerce Ventures (REV), a US-based investment vehicle, is best-known for having designed the Duchess of Sussex’s £56,000 engagement dress.

It collapsed after running out of cash, with the business failing to make a number of salary payments and staff pension contributions in the months prior to its insolvency.

The Pensions Regulator, which has a wide range of enforcement powers, said in a statement that it did not comment on “individual schemes or employers”.

“Where a company has become insolvent we will work with relevant third parties, such as insolvency practitioners, the Insolvency & Redundancy Payment Services and the pension scheme provider in our role to protect savers,” it added.

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“We have no further comment.”

Administrators from Begbies Traynor and Quantuma have launched a High Court action against Tamara Ralph, the brand’s co-founder, alleging that she and business partner Michael Russo extracted substantial sums of money from the company.

In the particulars of claim, a legal document which sets out the basis of their case, the joint administrators alleged that from October 2020 until March this year, the company “failed to make any pension contributions to Aviva, the company’s pension trustee… notwithstanding the fact that employee contributions were deducted automatically from the employees’ monthly salary via the company’s payroll and PAYE mechanisms”.

The documents assert that “approximately £176,000 was appropriated and/or diverted from the company pension scheme”.

In a statement on Friday, a spokesman for Ms Ralph said that she “has not been involved in any wrongdoing”.

The spokesman added that “along with the company’s directors and c-suite [top executive] staff were advised to seek financial and legal advice prior to making any payments from Ralph & Russo”.

“Ms Ralph was off on maternity leave at the time but the directors followed the advice of their legal and financial advisors on all payments.

“One of the advisors dealing with the financial decisions was Andrew Andronikou of the firm Quantuma [who] subsequently became one of the joint administrators.

“The advice from Andrew and Quantuma was followed completely.”

Ms Ralph had previously denounced the claims against her in the court action as “misconceived and demonstrably false”.

A spokesman for the joint administrators said: “We have a statutory duty to investigate the affairs of the company, the conduct of the directors and any shadow directors and, in particular, in relation to the £60m invested into the company and spent by the founder directors at the expense of the pension regulator, HMRC, secured, preferential and unsecured creditors.

“We are continuing our enquiries in that regard.”

The rescue of R&R by REV – which was set up by Tai Lopez and Alex Mehr, two entrepreneurs – follows the injection of tens of millions of pounds in funding into Ralph & Russo from the likes of Candy Ventures, the vehicle of entrepreneur Nick Candy, and John Caudwell, the billionaire founder of the Phones 4U retail chain.

Tennor Holding, the owner of the La Perla lingerie brand and investment vehicle of financier Lars Windhorst, invested roughly £40m in return for a minority stake in Ralph & Russo in 2019 which valued it at approximately £175m.

The fashion house, which specializes in haute couture and ready-to-wear clothing and luxury goods, has notched a number of notable achievements during its brief history.

In 2014, it was the first British designer in nearly a century to be accredited by the French body which decides which fashion labels can officially be designated haute couture.

It sprang to global prominence in 2017 when Meghan Markle wore one of the designer’s dresses in her engagement photographs.

Ralph & Russo’s celebrity customers are also reported to include Beyonce, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Its average client spends £50,000 per transaction, and it has opened boutiques in Doha, Dubai and Monaco.

The company also operates from locations in London’s Mayfair and New York’s Fifth Avenue, befitting its internationally renowned designs.

Its journey into choppy legal and financial waters was partly triggered by the pandemic’s impact on its business, with a dearth of red carpet events – one of the mainstays of the haute couture industry – hitting demand for Ralph & Russo’s dresses.

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Tesco sees food sales grow as inflation eases

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Tesco says it has recorded a “strong” rise in retail sales in the latest quarter – buoyed by easing inflation.

The UK’s largest supermarket also said its market share was growing at its fastest rate than at any time in the last two years.

The grocery giant reported sales grew across the group, including Ireland, by 3.4% to £15.3bn in the 13 weeks to 25 May, compared with the same period last year.

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Its performance was even stronger at home – its UK market seeing a rise of 4.6% to £11.4bn.

This came on the back of a 5% increase in food sales, with high demand for fresh produce helping to drive higher sales volumes.

Sales of Tesco Finest products also grew “strongly” amid demand by shoppers for premium products.

The firm’s market share rose by more than 50 basis points to 27.6% in the 12 weeks to 12 May year on year, according to market researcher Kantar.

Tesco highlighted its strategy of matching the prices of discounter Aldi on key items and its clubcard loyalty scheme, which provides lower prices for members.

These initiatives are being funded by reducing business costs, with a further £500m of savings targeted for 2024/25.

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With sales trends in line with expectations, Tesco said it expects to deliver an operating profit of at least £2.8bn for the current financial year, holding its target set in April.

‘Strong volume growth’

Tesco chief executive Ken Murphy said: “We’ve continued to build momentum in the business, with strong volume growth across the UK, Republic of Ireland and central Europe supported by easing inflation.”

He added: “Our market share reflects this, growing more than at any other time in the past two years, with customers switching to us from other retailers, shopping with us more often and with more in their baskets.”

The results announcement came ahead of the retailer’s annual general meeting, where Mr Murphy was expected to face scrutiny after receiving a £9.93m pay package for the past year.

It compared with a £4.44m total pay deal for the previous financial year and means the boss has been paid 431 times the wage of the average Tesco worker – £23,010.

Mr Murphy said: “I absolutely accept that I’m well paid.”

Following the trading update, Mr Murphy also said he was “not unduly worried” by the Labour Party’s plan to introduce a new package of workers’ rights if it wins next month’s election.

Tesco has about 270,000 UK employees, making it Britain’s biggest private sector employer.

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Referring to the opposition’s new deal for working people, which includes banning zero hours contracts and ending “fire and rehire”, Mr Murphy said: “Many of the measures outlined in proposed legislation we’re already ahead of. We don’t have any minimum hour contracts, for example, in our business. So I’m not unduly worried.”

Workers’ rights

Mr Murphy said plans that protect the rights of workers “is a good thing”, but argued they also needed to bolster productivity, economic growth and jobs.

“We will of course support the government in achieving those three things. Getting that balance right is always the key,” he added.

Regardless of which party wins the election, Tesco wants “stability and consistency” because it would “allow businesses to plan and to invest”, he said.

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Tesla shareholders approve Elon Musk’s $56bn pay package

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Tesla shareholders approve Elon Musk's huge pay package

Tesla shareholders have approved Elon Musk’s $56bn (£44bn) pay package.

The proposal passed despite opposition from some large institutional investors and proxy firms.

Onstage at the annual shareholder meeting in Austin, Texas, the billionaire described himself as “pathologically optimistic”.

“If I wasn’t optimistic this wouldn’t exist, this factory wouldn’t exist,” Musk said to resounding applause.

“But I do deliver in the end. That’s the important thing.”

The approval does not, however, resolve a lawsuit on the pay package in a Delaware court, which some legal experts believe could last months.

The judge invalidated it in January, describing it as “unfathomable”.

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Musk may also face fresh lawsuits on the deal, which would be the largest in American corporate history.

Shareholders had first approved the bumper pay packet in 2018.

“This thing is not over,” said Brian Quinn, a professor at Boston College Law School.

The Delaware judge will scrutinise the vote and require Tesla to prove the process was not coerced or improperly influenced by Musk, Professor Quinn said.

A general view of the Tesla gigafactory in Austin, Texas, U.S., February 28, 2023. REUTERS/Go Nakamura
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A general view of the Tesla gigafactory in Austin, Texas, U.S., February 28, 2023 Pic: Reuters

The judge had criticised Tesla’s board fore being “beholden” to Musk, saying the plan was proposed by a “conflicted board” with “close personal and financial ties” to its top executive.

Shareholders also approved a proposal to move the company’s legal home to Texas from Delaware.

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They also backed other proposals, including the re-election of two board members, Musk’s brother Kimbal Musk and James Murdoch, son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Shareholders did increase the level of investor control by passing proposals in favour of shortening board terms to one year and lowering voting requirements for proposals to a simple majority, despite board opposition to both.

Tesla did not disclose the voting tallies, which are expected to be revealed in coming days.

At least a half-million viewers watched the meeting on the livestream on X, which Musk also owns, and about 40,000 watched on YouTube.

Tesla’s share price has dropped about 55% from its 2021 peak as electric vehicle sales have slowed.

The stock closed up 2.9% on Thursday.

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Wizz Air ranked worst airline for delays for third year running

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Wizz Air ranked worst airline for delays for third year running

Wizz Air has been ranked the worst airline for UK flight delays for the third year running as passengers were landed with a fare hike.

The low-cost operator’s departures from UK airports were behind schedule by an average of 31 minutes and 36 seconds in 2023, according to analysis of Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) data by the PA news agency.

Turkish Airlines recorded the second worst punctuality last year, with an average delay of 28 minutes and 36 seconds.

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Wizz Air said it has made “significant improvements” but acknowledged there is “still work to be done”.

The analysis covered all scheduled and chartered departures from UK airports by airlines operating more than 2,500 flights. Cancelled flights were not included.

The next worst airlines for delays were:

Tui – 28 minutes and 24 seconds
Air India – 28 minutes and 12 seconds
Turkish low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines – 25 minutes and six seconds
Air Portugal – 23 minutes 48 seconds
Vueling – 23 minutes six seconds
Swiss – 22 minutes 48 seconds
Air Canada – 22 minutes six seconds
BA – 21 minutes 36 seconds

Consumer group Which? said airline passengers are in the “outrageous position” of paying record air fares for “unreliable services”.

Irish carrier Emerald Airlines recorded the best performance last year with an average delay of just 13 minutes and six seconds, with Virgin Atlantic in second place at 13 minutes and 42 seconds.

The average delay for all flights was 20 minutes and 42 seconds, down from 23 minutes in 2022.

Wizz Air’s UK operations serve Aberdeen, Birmingham, Gatwick, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool and Luton airports.

Despite its poor UK punctuality, the airline – which operates in Europe, north Africa, the Middle East and other parts of Asia – saw passenger numbers reach a record 62 million in the year to the end of March – up by more than a fifth on the total of 51.1 million in the previous 12 months.

Over the same period, Wizz Air recorded a pre-tax profit of €341.1m (£290.4m), as its revenue from ticket sales per available seat rose by 11.2% year-on-year, which was similar to fare rises across the airline sector.

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Rory Boland, editor of magazine Which? Travel, said: “These latest delay figures will come as no surprise to travellers, who find themselves in the outrageous position of paying record amounts for air fares and in return receiving unreliable services.”

He added: “It’s time for airlines to get their act together and start delivering the service their customers are paying for – including ensuring they’re investing properly in their customer service teams.

“When delays and cancellations do occur, there can be no justification for airlines failing to meet their legal obligations – including promptly refunding or rerouting customers, and ensuring they are offered meals and accommodation as required.”

‘Extraordinary operating challenges’

Wizz Air was ranked the worst airline for passenger satisfaction in an annual report by Which? published in February, with survey respondents awarding it an average of one star out of a possible five for customer service and seat comfort.

A Wizz Air spokeswoman said: “In 2022, like all airlines in Europe, Wizz Air experienced extraordinary operating challenges driven mostly by the external environment.

“Since then, we have invested more than £90m to stabilise operations, reduce the number of delays and provide a better experience for customers.

“While we saw significant improvements in 2023, there was still work to be done.

“Helping our customers reach their destination is our number one priority and we will continue to invest in our service to ensure they get there on time.”

She added the airline’s current performance is “among the strongest in the entire industry”, with a punctuality record that is “the highest among our direct competitors” and “the best flight completion rate in the whole of Europe”.

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Enforcement action

In January, the CAA said its enforcement action against Wizz Air led to the airline paying a total of £1.2m to UK-based passengers whose financial claims were reassessed after initially being rejected.

This included payments of money owed for expenses such as replacement flights, food and hotel rooms during disruption.

Dale Keller, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK, a body representing airlines operating in the UK, described 2023 as “an extremely challenging year, particularly over the summer”.

He said many delays were caused by factors outside of carriers’ control, such as air traffic control disruption including strikes in France and the National Air Traffic Services meltdown on 28 August which grounded flights across UK airports.

He added punctuality had “continued to exponentially improve” this year.

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