Wells Fargo boss should be fired, says senator

Washington senators have criticised Wells Fargo, saying the US bank had not done enough to reform the corporate culture that led to the creation of millions of fake accounts.

Senator Elizabeth Warren called for the chief executive, Tim Sloan, to be fired and board members replaced.

Another senator asked if regulators should revoke the bank’s charter.

Mr Sloan, who was appointed following the scandal over sales practices, said the firm had taken steps to improve.

“We’ve made fundamental changes to the way we do business,” he said at a congressional hearing in Washington on Tuesday.

The hearing occurred about a year after Wells Fargo leaders appeared in Washington to speak about the fake accounts, which were used to boost sales figures.

Regulators fined the the bank more than $180m over the those practices last year. Wells Fargo also agreed to pay more than $140m to settle a class-action lawsuit.

But this summer, Wells Fargo said as many as 3.5 million accounts may have been created for customers without their permission over about eight years – more than it had previously acknowledged.

It has also said it had uncovered problems with the bank’s online payment system and admitted to wrongly charging customers for car insurance.

On Tuesday, Mr Sloan, a long time executive at the bank, maintained the most serious problems were limited to the firm’s retail banking unit.

Senators criticised the company for the additional problems and continuing to force customers to pursue claims outside of court, among other practices.

“Wells Fargo is not going to change with you in charge,” Ms Warren said.

Ms Warren had called for the resignation of the firm’s previous chief executive as well.

‘More than 600 apps had access to my iPhone data’

While Facebook desperately tightens controls over how third parties access its users’ data – trying to mend its damaged reputation – attention is focusing on the wider issue of data harvesting and the threat it poses to our personal privacy.

Data harvesting is a multibillion dollar industry and the sobering truth is that you may never know just how much data companies hold about you, or how to delete it.

That’s the startling conclusion drawn by some privacy campaigners and technology companies.

“Thousands of companies are in the business of harvesting your data and tracking your online behaviour,” says Frederike Kaltheuner, data programme lead for lobby group Privacy International.

“It’s a global business. And not just online, but offline, too, via loyalty cards and wi-fi tracking of your mobile. It’s almost impossible to know what’s happening to your data.”

The really big data brokers – firms such as Acxiom, Experian, Quantium, Corelogic, eBureau, ID Analytics – can hold as many as 3,000 data points on every consumer, says the US Federal Trade Commission.

Ms Kaltheuner says more than 600 apps have had access to her iPhone data over the last six years. So she’s taken on the onerous task of finding out exactly what these apps know about her.

“It could take a year,” she says, because it involves poring over every privacy policy then contacting the app provider to ask them. And not taking “no” for an answer.

Not only is it difficult to know what data is out there, it is also difficult to know how accurate it is.

“They got my income totally wrong, they got my marital status wrong,” says Pamela Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, another privacy rights lobby group.

She was examining her record with one of the merchants that scoop up and sell data on individuals around the globe.

She found herself listed as a computer enthusiast – “which is a bit annoying, I’m not running around buying computers every day” – and as a runner, though she’s a cyclist.

Susan Bidel, senior analyst at Forrester Research in New York, who covers data brokers, says a common belief in the industry is that only “50% of this data is accurate”.

So why does any of this matter?

Because this “ridiculous marketing data”, as Ms Dixon calls it, is now determining life chances.

Consumer data – our likes, dislikes, buying behaviour, income level, leisure pursuits, personalities and so on – certainly helps brands target their advertising dollars more effectively.

But its main use “is to reduce risk of one kind or another, not to target ads,” believes John Deighton, a professor at Harvard Business School who writes on the industry.

We’re all given credit scores these days.

If the information flatters you, your credit cards and mortgages will be much cheaper, and you will pass employment background checks more easily, says Prof Deighton.

But these scores may not only be inaccurate, they may be discriminatory, hiding information about race, marital status, and religion, says Ms Dixon.

“An individual may never realize that he or she did not receive an interview, job, discount, premium, coupon, or opportunity due to a low score,” the World Privacy Forum concludes in a report.

Collecting consumer data has been going on for as long as companies have been trying to sell us stuff.

As far back as 1841, Dun & Bradstreet collected credit information and gossip on possible credit-seekers. In the 1970s, list brokers offered magnetic tapes containing data on a bewildering array of groups: holders of fishing licences, magazine subscribers, or people likely to inherit wealth.

But nowadays, the sheer scale of online data has swamped the traditional offline census and voter registration data.

Much of this data is aggregated and anonymised, but much of it isn’t. And many of us have little or no idea how much data we’re sharing, often because we agree to online terms and conditions without reading them. Perhaps understandably.

Two researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in the US worked out that if you were to read every privacy policy you came across online, it would take you 76 days, reading eight hours a day.

And anyway, having to do this “shouldn’t be a citizen’s job”, argues Frederike Kaltheuner, “Companies should have to protect our data as a default.”

Rashmi Knowles from security firm RSA points out that it’s not just data harvesters and advertisers who are in the market for our data.

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    “Often hackers can answer your security question answers – things like date of birth, mother’s maiden name, and so on – because you have shared this information in the public domain,” she says.

    “You would be amazed how easy it is to piece together a fairly accurate profile from just a few snippets of information, and this information can be used for identity theft.”

    So how can we take control of our data?  

    There are ways we can restrict the amount of data we share with third parties – changing browser settings to block cookies, for example, using ad-blocking software, browsing “incognito” or using virtual private networks.

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      And search engines like DuckDuckGo limit the amount of information they reveal to online tracking systems.

      But StJohn Deakins, founder and chief executive of marketing firm CitizenMe, believes consumers should be given the ability to control and monetise their data.

      On his app, consumers take personality tests and quizzes voluntarily, then share that data anonymously with brands looking to buy more accurate marketing data to inform their advertising campaigns.

      “Your data is much more compelling and valuable if it comes from you willingly in real time. You can outcompete the data brokers,” he says.

      “Some of our 80,000 users around the world are making £8 a month or donating any money earned to charities,” says Mr Deakins.

      Brands – from German car makers to big retailers – are looking to source data “in an ethical way”, he says.

      “We need to make the marketplace for data much more transparent.”

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Who is losing out from Trump’s tariffs?

The US-China trade dispute is starting to have consequences.

US tariffs on foreign steel and aluminium went into effect last month. China’s retaliatory duties on more than 100 US imports, including pork, fruit and wine, kicked in soon after.

Further tariffs on $50bn worth of the each country’s products are in the offing, as the Trump administration presses China on state subsidies and practices it says encourage intellectual property theft. The White House has threatened even more.

Economists expect the duelling taxes to have a relatively limited impact on the overall US economy. But they say the measures will touch most parts of the country and lead to higher prices for everything from televisions to vitamins.

For certain industries like agriculture, aerospace and manufacturing, the effects could be severe.

So how are US companies handling a looming trade war?

Roadtec: ‘Unanswered questions’

For some firms, the measures are welcome. Companies such as US Steel have announced plans to expand their operations, bringing on hundreds of workers.

Their customers – many of them manufacturers located in the Midwest – are worried, however.

They say US tariffs have already increased demand for domestic steel – which accounts for the majority of the metal’s sales in America – driving up prices for firms reliant on steel-based parts.

The proposed tariffs, which include taxes on hundreds of Chinese-made parts and equipment, promise more pain.

At Roadtec, a growing 600-person Tennessee company that makes asphalt paving machines, suppliers are already asking 40% more, says the firm’s marketing director, Eric Baker.

He says the firm is still trying to figure out how to best address the higher costs.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” he says. “I think the biggest question is how long this is.”

Seneca Foods Corp: ‘Absorb the cost’

Hundreds of firms have asked the Commerce Department for exemptions from the US steel and aluminium tariffs, including Wisconsin-based Seneca Foods Corp.

The firm, which makes its own cans to support a large fruit and vegetable processing business, started importing coils of tin-plated steel just a few years ago, after domestic supply became uncertain.

Leon Lindsay, Seneca’s vice president for sourcing, says he is not sure where he will buy coils now, given the uncertainty about how the US tariffs will affect other markets such as Europe.

In the meantime, a Chinese shipment from an order of 11,000 metric tons, placed last summer, is due in port in the next few weeks and faces the new 25% mark-up.

Mr Lindsay said he is not optimistic a Commerce Department reprieve will come in time, nor can the firm, which is in the competitive food industry, pass on the higher cost of steel to its customers.

“The stuff we’re asking for exclusion [for] is on the water. It can’t go back, so we’re the ones that will probably have to absorb the cost, which is significant,” he said.

Hsu Ginseng Farm: ‘This comes up with every customer’

Farmers are also bracing for a hit.

Will Hsu, whose father started a ginseng farm in Wisconsin more than 40 years ago, was in China last week, meeting with clients and sales staff.

“This comes up with every customer that we meet with. This comes up with our staff,” he said. “They’re worried about how they’re going to pass on that price increase.”

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    Wisconsin, the source of more than 90% of the United States’ cultivated ginseng, can’t afford to lose access to the Chinese market – which has been a key buyer of American ginseng since the 1700s and is the destination for more than three quarters of the state’s crop.

    Industry members said American ginseng has a reputation for quality, commanding a premium price that provides some room to negotiate.

    Mr Hsu says his farm, which employs about 400 people in the US and China, also has enough US clients to handle a temporary tariff. But levied long term, the tax could force him to scale back.

    Hutchinson Farms: ‘Cutting off our nose’

    Farmers are also worried about foreign competition.

    About a third of America’s soybean crop heads to China each year – some $14bn in exports – but Argentina and Brazil are also big exporters.

    Drought has hurt Argentina’s crop, but farmers in Brazil expect the US-China dispute to increase demand for their product, says Victor Carvalho of Informa, a business intelligence firm. They are also watching to see if US prices will fall enough to make it worth importing US soy to crush and resell, he says.

    Will Hutchinson, a fourth generation farmer from Tennessee, has been monitoring developments on the news and is hoping the situation will de-escalate.

    “Trade is vitally important to both countries,” he says of China and the US. “We don’t need to be cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

    Greenland America: ‘There will be an overhang in the market’

    About half of US scrap aluminium exports went to China last year, but US firms are already starting to turn to other markets.

    The shift is a response in part to tougher environmental rules China had already imposed on waste imports. China’s new tax on aluminium scrap compounded the problem.

    Randy Goodman is executive vice president at Georgia-based Greenland America, a brokerage that buys and sells scrap metals in countries around the world.

    So far, he says less than 10% of his firm’s business to China has been affected, but he’s worried about the future.

    “The issue is that these other countries or even the domestic consumers … can’t pick up all the slack so there will be excess material,” he says. “There will be an overhang in the market that will eventually affect the pricing.”

    ‘It’ll be very good’

    President Trump has said he is confident that confronting China will lead to a stronger US economy, and tried to reassure those who are worried.

    “It’ll be very good when we get it all finished,” he said this week.

    The people whose livelihoods are caught up in the dispute are hoping the president is right.

British Airways owner considers Norwegian bid

The owner of British Airways may bid for Norwegian Air Shuttle, the fast-expanding budget airline.

Buying the airline would allow International Airlines Group to increase its market share amid rising competition from low-cost carriers.

Norwegian said it had not been aware that IAG had acquired a 4.6% stake until media reports on Thursday.

Shares in Norwegian closed 47% higher after news of the bid interest emerged, while IAG fell 1.2%.

Norwegian said it has not held talks with IAG but said the interest “confirms the sustainability and potential of our business model and global growth”.

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    IAG said it had bought a minority stake in the airline with a view to opening talks about a deal.

    “The minority investment is intended to establish a position from which to initiate discussions with Norwegian, including the possibility of a full offer for Norwegian,” IAG said.

    However, it said no discussions have taken place and it had not decided whether to make an offer.


    Analysis: Simon Jack, BBC business editor

    Norwegian has been ruffling feathers in the aviation market, bringing a budget airline model to the long-haul sector. The industry is divided as to whether it works when you cross the Atlantic.

    Norwegian has bet big that it does. Starting life as a short-haul carrier, it has nearly 200 long-range aircraft on order and the legacy carriers have had to respond.

    IAG is dabbling with its own offshoot, Level, and BA announced cheaper fares for long-haul passengers not checking in bags and not wanting to choose a seat. Air France’s Joon is also trying to cut long-haul costs.

    Norwegian is still losing money and its finances are stretched by the number of planes it is buying, but today’s announcement from BA suggests Norwegian has proved the concept is sound.

    Whether passengers are best served by a legacy carrier swallowing a competitive upstart is another debate.


    Norwegian Air has earned a name for its low-cost deals, such as £99 one-way flights from Edinburgh and Dublin to New York.

    However, it posted a net loss in 2017 and had to raise fresh funds earlier this year to cope with its rapid expansion and higher fuel costs.

    Nevertheless, its move into discount intercontinental flights has shaken up the market and forced bigger rivals such as IAG and Air France to take measures to win back customers.

    IAG has already put a toe in the budget long-haul market with Level from Barcelona, while adding European airport slots from failed UK airline Monarch.

    ‘Poaching’

    IAG chief executive Willie Walsh has long been interested in low-cost long-haul concept long before it set up Level, said Liberum analyst Gerald Khoo.

    “This may be an attempt to accelerate its development, while also adding to the scale and reach of [IAG-owned] Vueling in the intra-European market.”

    This week, BA began selling “Basic” tickets from London to destinations including Boston, Delhi, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore.

    Fares start from £143, but passengers must pay £60 to check a bag and £20 for seat selection.

    Simon Calder, travel editor of the Independent, told the BBC: “The main purpose of this initial move is to get more competitive with Norwegian, which is building an extensive network from Gatwick and poaching passengers from British Airways. Most of the first 10 destinations are on the Norwegian network.”

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Facebook’s Zuckerberg to testify before US committee

Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is to testify before the US House Commerce Committee regarding the firm’s use and protection of user data.

Facebook has faced criticism after it emerged it had known for years that Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from about 50 million of its users.

He will testify before the committee on Wednesday, 11 April.

Committee chairman Greg Walden and member Frank Pallone welcomed the decision by Mr Zuckerberg.

“This hearing will be an important opportunity to shed light on critical consumer data privacy issues and help all Americans better understand what happens to their personal information online,” the pair said.

Facebook is facing scrutiny over its data collection following allegations that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, obtained data on tens of millions of Facebook users to try to influence elections.

Cambridge Analytica worked for US President Donald Trump’s campaign.

The company, funded in part by Trump supporter and billionaire financier Robert Mercer, paired consumer data with voter information.

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    Cambridge Analytica gathered the data through a personality test app, called This Is Your Digital Life, that was downloaded by fewer than 200,000 people.

    However, the app gave researchers access to the profiles of participants’ Facebook friends, allowing them to collect data from millions more users.

    Mr Walden and Mr Pallone said last month that they wanted to hear directly from Mr Zuckerberg after senior Facebook executives failed to answer questions during a private briefing with congressional staff about how Facebook and third-party developers use and protect consumer data.

    Facebook has also published new versions of its terms of service and data use policy.

    The firm said the documents were longer than the previous versions in order to make their language clearer and more descriptive.

    The data policy now states: “We don’t sell any of your information to anyone, and we never will.”

    However, this does not prevent the firm from using the data to let advertisers target their promotions. It will also continue to share anonymised analytics and insights with third-parties.

    Facebook will now carry out a week-long consultation before finalising the text and adopting it.

    ‘Breach of trust’

    Facebook, which has two billion users, is now one of the main ways politicians connect with voters. It has been looking to repair its public image and restore users’ trust since the Cambridge Analytica scandal emerged.

    Facebook said last month that it had hired forensic auditors to examine if Cambridge Analytica still had the data.

    Mr Zuckerberg has apologised for a “breach of trust”, and taken out full-page advertisements in several UK and US Sunday newspapers.

    He has also said he welcomes more regulation.

    The US Senate commerce and judiciary committees also have requested that Mr Zuckerberg appear in front of them.

    And the US Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether Facebook engaged in unfair acts that caused substantial injury to consumers.

Vauxhall to build new Vivaro van at Luton

Vauxhall’s French parent company PSA has announced an investment in its Luton van-making plant which could eventually see Peugeot and Citroen-branded vans made in the UK.

PSA said Vauxhall’s next Vivaro van would be built at the Luton plant.

The investment, which PSA said it made “despite Brexit uncertainties”, secures 1,400 jobs beyond 2030.

However, the Unite union said there was still “a cloud hanging over” Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant.

The government said the investment is worth more than £100m in total. The Unite union estimates that figure to be up to £170m.

It was secured after a negotiation with the Unite union and a financial contribution from the government thought to be about £9m.

Business Secretary Greg Clark said: “Today’s decision is a vote of confidence in Vauxhall’s high-skilled workforce and the UK’s world leading automotive sector.”

In 2017, the Luton plant produced 70,000 Vauxhall Vivaro-branded vans.

The next-generation model will be based on PSA’s Citroen and Peugeot technology, and the company hopes to produce up to 100,000 vans a year, which could include some under the Peugeot and Citroen brands. The life-cycle of commercial vehicles is between 10 and 15 years.

If demand for the vehicles means that target is hit, then additional jobs will be created in Luton.

PSA bought General Motors’ European business last year, and there has been intense speculation about the future of both Luton and Ellesmere port, where the Vauxhall Astra is made.

Group chief executive Carlos Tavares said: “This is a major milestone for the future of the Luton plant and a key enabler to serve our ambitions in the commercial vehicle market.”

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “The investment into Luton is very welcome, but we do expect to hear of similar plans for Ellesmere Port, where the workforce has been just as loyal and is just as deserving of a secure future but continues to live with a cloud hanging over it.”

Peugeot and Citroen have made inroads into the light commercial vehicle market, and accounted for half the increase in the total van market in Europe, which is why the company is looking to increase production capacity.

Company officials said it had the choice of Germany or Poland to base the new plant, but neither of those plants are equipped with a paint facility suitable for vans, and installing one would come at enormous cost.


Vauxhall UK manufacturing

  • Vauxhall employs 1,400 people at its Luton plant, which produces Vivaro vans
  • There has been a plant at Luton building vehicles since 1905
  • The firm has 1,300 employees at its Ellesmere Port plant, where the Vauxhall Astra is built
  • The Ellesmere Port plant has been running since 1962
  • Vauxhall has 3,400 employees overall

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Could non-alcoholic gin ever be as good as the real thing?

It’s 13:00 on a Wednesday lunchtime and in the Palace of Westminster, a very lively drinks party is in full swing.

In the gracious surroundings of the wood-panelled Jubilee Room, corks are popped, beer is guzzled and lemons fizz in free-flowing G&Ts.

But despite the prodigious volume of liquid being consumed, there aren’t any slurred words or collisions with furniture. That’s because, contrary to appearances, no alcohol is actually being drunk.

The event is co-organised by Club Soda, a “mindful drinking movement”, and is being held to showcase low and alcohol-free drinks.

The group, which has about 15,000 members, was co-founded by Jussi Tolvi and Laura Willoughby. Jussi still enjoys the odd alcoholic tipple, but Laura is teetotal.

“I gave up drinking six years ago and was stuck with a tonic or a really bad non-alcohol beer,” says Laura.

“There is demand for good products, but industry is taking time to catch up. Having said that, big companies like Heineken are spending money on creating a beer that tastes like their full-strength product and to me, this shows that it isn’t a fad, it’s a market shift.”

The demand appears to be borne out in the figures. The Office for National Statistics found that in 2016, 20.9% of Brits drank no alcohol, up two percentage points from 2005.

At the same time, CGA, a food and drink data firm, found that for the on-trade – that’s restaurants, bars and festivals etc – sales of no and lower alcohol beers, ciders, wines, spirits and mocktails were £232m in 2017. That’s up about 3% on the year before.

Among the MPs ploughing their way through booze-free tipples at the drinks event is Fiona Bruce MP, chair of the all-party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm.

“There are some lovely options: prosecco, G&T, ale and lager,” she says. “Later, I’m going to be able to go into the chamber of the House of Commons this afternoon and not be in the least bit woozy.”

Botanical buzz

Intrigued, I try a “teetotal G&T” from the Temperance Spirit Company. It’s sold 500,000 bottles in the last year and is one of a new breed of adult-focused soft drinks.

Served over ice and with a slice of cucumber, it looks the part. But after the first sip, I’m not convinced; it lacks that deliciously dry bite of the real thing.

Company director Gillian Venning encourages me to persevere: “It takes a while for the flavour to come through, but you’ll soon start to taste the botanicals.”

The juniper does indeed creep up on me and although that warm ginny buzz is missing, it’s far more interesting than the lemonades and colas normally on offer for non-drinkers.

So why are people drinking less? Jane Peyton, founder of the School of Booze, says there are several reasons: “I recently went to a mindful drinking festival and some people said they weren’t drinking because they were pregnant, for others it was religion, but for many it was for health reasons.”

Jane’s last point chimes with the revelation that during this year’s Winter Olympics, German athletes drank gallons of imported non-alcoholic beer.

According to skier Linus Strasser, “It tastes good and it’s good for the body. Alcohol-free wheat beer is extremely healthy. It’s isotonic. That’s why it’s good for us sports guys.”

‘Good karma’

This is music to the ears of Steve Dass, co-founder of Nirvana Brewery. “We’re the UK’s only alcohol-free brewery,” he says.

“It’s a holistic movement, we’re all vegetarian, we hardly drink, it’s about good vibes, good karma and we also have yoga sessions in the brewery.”

But do they have good beer? Steve pours me a pint of Karma, a pale ale with an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 0.5%.

It’s billed as “light, refreshing, with classic citrus and floral hop aromas leading to a dry bitter finish”.

As a fan of big, flavourful beers, I like the taste, but it doesn’t have the all-important body.

Next up is Chakra, “a hopped pale ale with fresh notes of passion fruit, pine & a light bitter finish”.

This is more like it. At 1% ABV it drinks more like something akin to 3.5% and I reckon I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference in a blind tasting.

“Not being able to tell the difference” is something The Big Drop Brewing Co’s Chocolate Milk Stout has arguably managed to achieve; it won a silver medal in the 2017 World Beer Awards in competition against full-strength rivals.

Delicate and refined

Although beer is one of the most visible parts of the low and no-alcohol market, the sector in general can be hugely innovative.

Zoe Burgess is head of research and development at the Drink Factory, a bar group and consultancy. At a laboratory in East London, she creates both regular and alcohol-free products.

“The key to making good non-alcoholic drinks is to pay as much attention to them as alcoholic drinks, keeping them delicate, refined, using beautiful glasses,” she says. “There’s no reason they should be treated any differently.”

Zoe takes a bag of yellowish liquid from the fridge.

“This is pear shrub syrup. We take whole pears which we slice and cover in caster sugar for a day, add verjus, which is a very delicate vinegar, blend and strain.

“This creates a fine syrup which captures the balance of the pear. We top it up with soda to get that lovely sparkle.”

Zoe and her team work with some of the world’s most exclusive bars, but non-alcoholic alternatives are also becoming more popular in mainstream outlets. Bar chain Be At One offers nine alcohol-free cocktails.

“In the last 12 to 18 months, we’ve seen a growth in demand for drinks which are more like cocktails,” says area manager Tim Sparrow.

“Customers are coming out with friends or work colleagues, so we’re dealing with social experiences as much as the drinks themselves. People don’t want to feel as though they’re being left out just because they’re not drinking.”

‘More fun’

As a designated driver, TV and radio presenter, Susannah Streeter is often left drinking Virgin Marys and she’s keen to try something different, so she joins me in a tasting at the chain’s Soho branch. Her verdict is mixed.

First up is the Botanical: Seedlip Garden 108 non-alcoholic spirit plus egg white, apple juice and sugar syrup.

“It’s made my eyebrows stand on end! It’s got a kick to it and it looks like a champagne cocktail. I also like the glass it’s served in.”

The Passionate Pomme is up next, a blend of passion fruit, manuka honey, pomegranate and coconut water.

“I’m not keen, it’s sweet and syrupy, a bit like Ribena.”

We finish with a Bean: coffee, cream and almond syrup.

“It’s quite substantial and I’d get one as a treat, it’s more fun than a lime and soda.”

So would Susannah order a non-alcoholic cocktail in a bar?

“Yes, if I’d had enough to drink already or I was driving. The choice is usually really boring, so it’s nice to have some options.”

A pair of glasses to see a better future

The turning point might be that moment when you’re struggling to read the small print of the cooking instructions.

Or else it might be when you’re straining to read messages on your mobile phone or decipher a map – and have to hold them further and further away, screwing up your eyes to see.

It’s the moment when you realise you need to do something about your sight, which might mean a trip to the opticians or buying a pair of reading glasses in the chemist’s or supermarket.

But what would happen if there was no way of getting help? What would the consequences be if there were no opticians or affordable glasses and you simply had to accept not being able to read?

The chances of keeping a job or staying in education would begin to diminish, even if it was only a minor problem that could be corrected by glasses.

Narrowing opportunities

A report this week from the Overseas Development Institute shows how much can be lost by something as simple as the absence of a pair of spectacles.

There are an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide who need glasses but do not have access to them. About 80% of these are concentrated in 20 developing countries, mostly in Africa and Asia.

The report says that the most acute lack of access to eye care and glasses is in the most disadvantaged communities, marginalising even further those with vision problems.

Poor sight in poor countries, says the report, is a barrier to education and employment. It traps families in poverty.

And the ODI think tank warns that while aid budgets are given to urgent, life-threatening illnesses, relatively little international attention is paid to the slow-motion disaster of someone struggling to see clearly.

Locked in disadvantage

But not being able to see well enough to read, and not having glasses, “can lock children into a life of disadvantages”, says the ODI report.

They can be seen as low achievers and fail to get qualifications, rather than be seen as having a simple problem that could be rectified.

Among adults, researchers say, vision problems can mean loss of opportunities in work and loss of income – and for the local economy a lowering of productivity.

The report was commissioned by Hong Kong businessman and philanthropist James Chen, who has made improving eye care something of a personal mission.

He founded a charity in Rwanda, Vision for a Nation, that has tested ways of delivering eye care to large numbers of people.

Taking the long view

Nurses have been trained to give eye tests, glasses have been provided at low cost or for free and there have been treatments for some eye problems, such as eye drops for conjunctivitis.

The Rwandan project has reached two million people and has delivered 160,000 pairs of glasses.

Mr Chen’s charity, Clearly, is lobbying for more attention to be paid to eye problems and to make glasses more readily available.

“Glasses have been manufactured in different parts of the world for at least 700 years, but at least a third of the world’s population still do not have access to them,” says Mr Chen.

“Most of these people have easily correctable problems such as short- and long-sight. The cost to their quality of life is huge and the total economic cost throughout the world runs into the trillions each year.”

Economic gains

He wants the Commonwealth heads of government, gathering in April, to make sight problems and access to glasses a priority in development projects.

Mr Chen says this is a deceptively simple way of improving individual lives and benefiting national economies by making people more productive.

He says that within Commonwealth countries, making glasses available would mean an economic boost worth $44bn (£31bn) per year.

Former UK Prime Minister and UN education envoy Gordon Brown has backed calls to do more to tackle “the cost, in human and economic terms, of so many of our fellow citizens being unable to see”.

“If we fail to act, those left behind will never catch up,” Mr Brown says.

The ODI report suggests the economic return can be 30 times greater than the cost of glasses and the eye-care screening.

Elizabeth Stuart, of the development think tank, said: “If a third of the world cannot see clearly, and fixing it requires only limited investment, and delivers excellent returns, then this would seem to be a no-brainer.”

She said giving people better vision would help to improve education and eliminate poverty – for people who would otherwise be left behind.


More from Global education

UK/EU trade deal? Boy, it’s going to be a complicated year

When considering any difficult conundrum, it is often worth stating the obvious first.

Both sides in the negotiations between Britain and the European Union say they want a deal on trade once Brexit has happened.

Both have said they want that deal to be comprehensive – “deep and special” according to the UK.

Both have signalled they are willing to give ground to achieve their desired outcome.

Britain – for example – has moved on the issue of financial services’ access to the European Union once we have departed.

No “passporting rights” as Theresa May admitted in her Mansion House speech in London earlier this month.

Benefits

Just one of the “costs” of Brexit the Government is now admitting are attached to the decision to depart.

Alongside the “benefits” on sovereignty and the freedom to sign free trade deals with non-EU countries.

The EU – for example – has agreed that Britain will be able to negotiate and sign (if not implement) free trade deals with non-EU countries whilst still effectively a member of the single market during the implementation period.

And despite many protestations that there would be no such thing as a “bespoke” free trade deal for the UK, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has made it clear that a different type of deal is exactly what is on offer.

As David Cameron’s former advisor, Mats Persson, now of EY, points out, the offer of no tariffs and no quotas on goods trade between Britain and the EU already puts the deal in a better position than the EU’s agreements with Canada, Norway and Switzerland.

The two sides do differ on sticking points and red lines.

‘Equivalence’

Such as how on earth do you solve the Irish border issue without resorting to “technological solutions” that even the most optimistic of trade negotiators admit don’t actually exist yet?

Or what does “equivalence” look like when it comes to regulating the insurance or banking industries for example?

And can that equivalence be too easily withdrawn by either side, leaving a great deal of regulatory risk on the post-Brexit table?

But, here are two sides in a difficult negotiation whose expressed will is to get a deal.

And, when it comes to negotiations, that is not a bad starting point.

Lower growth?

That is not to say for a moment that whatever Britain’s deal with the EU, there are not likely to be costs.

Nearly all the economic modelling done on any future free trade arrangements – including by the government – have said comparative economic growth is likely to be lower for the UK.

And growth since the referendum has softened as Brexit uncertainty has weighed on business confidence and the inflation spike linked to the fall in the value of sterling has re-introduced the incomes squeeze.

That’s when prices go up more quickly than peoples’ wages.

That effect is only now starting to unwind as the pound strengthens once again.

The timetable is tight for the “political agreement” planned for later this year on a future trade deal.

The government insists it is doable as there is already a great deal of regulatory trust between the two sides, bound as they have been for more than 40 years in a trading union.

And sources indicate that Britain will show the correct degree of humility in asking the “club” to rewrite the rules of an organisation we have just quit.

Heroic assumptions, critics will say.

No deal has been done and Parliament has not voted on leaving the customs union or the single market.

“A shambles” according to the Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, will remain just that until the government either falls or a different deal is put in place.

For the two protagonists, though, at least in this negotiation both sides want an outcome whose similarities possibly outweigh the contradictions.

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UK car registrations plunge in March

Car registrations plunged in March, according to figures from industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

Preliminary data shows the UK new car market shrank by 15.7% last month compared with 2017.

Demand for diesel vehicles fell 37%, but demand for petrol was flat and that for alternative fuel models rose 5.7%.

March 2017 was a record month as customers bought new vehicles ahead of a change in Vehicle Excise Duty.

New car sales fell for the first time in six years in 2017, with a 5.7% decrease to about 2.5 million vehicles.

Demand for diesel cars plunged by 17% last year, meaning the pace of decline for such vehicles in March has more than doubled.


Analysis: Theo Leggett, BBC business correspondent

At first glance, this looks like deeply worrying news for the automotive industry. But it it’s worth remembering that in March 2017, new car registrations hit a record high. Buyers were rushing to get hold of new vehicles ahead of big changes to the vehicle excise duty regime, which sharply increased the rates payable on some cars.

But we can say with certainty that registrations have now been falling steadily for a whole calendar year. The SMMT has consistently blamed economic uncertainty, which it links to Brexit and the collapse in diesel sales.

The latest figures show that the move away from diesel seems to have accelerated. That suggests that the industry’s attempts to convince consumers and politicians that modern diesels are clean and have a future are failing badly.

By historical standards, new car registrations are still at pretty high levels. The steep fall in March might be a glitch. However, the overall trend cannot be ignored – and that is what the industry will be worried about.