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NI High Street Voucher Scheme: Department defends hiring firm fined for part in ‘prepaid card cartel’

The Department for the Economy has defended hiring a firm for the High Street Voucher Scheme that was recently fined for its part in a ''prepaid card cartel'. Prepaid Financial Services has been given the contract to deliver the GBP145million scheme that will be available to everyone over the age of 18 in Northern Ireland. Over the past few months, the company has been involved in a series of issues which include their handling of a prepaid card scheme for asylum seekers in the UK, an investigation by the Central Bank of Ireland and being one of five companies who provisionally agreed to pay fines in the UK for their involvement in an alleged 'prepaid card cartel'.

In March of this year, PFS, along with Allpay and Mastercard, agreed to pay fines totalling more that GBP32million for their alleged anti-competitive behaviour. The case relates to prepaid cards that are used by local authorities to distribute welfare payments to vulnerable members of society, such as the homeless, victims of domestic violence and asylum seekers. PFS was fined GBP1 million for its part in the scheme.

At the time, Chris Hemsley, Managing Director of the Payment Systems Regulator, said: "Pre-paid card services, like these, can provide significant benefits to local authorities as one way to make welfare payments to some of the most vulnerable people in society. "By colluding in this way, we consider the parties were acting as a cartel. Because of the reduced competition local authorities may have been missing out on an alternative supplier or products that were either cheaper or better suited to both their needs and the needs of those using the pre-paid cards.

"Collusion in payments is absolutely unacceptable. Where we see it happening, we will take action, stop it, and seek to impose significant penalties." Two months later in May, the Irish branch of PFS, which runs it's European business, came under investigation from the Central Bank of Ireland regarding significant regulatory concerns.

The Irish Times has reported that these are related to anti-money-laundering and counter-terrorism financing matters, risk, control frameworks and governance at PFS Card Services (Ireland). It is understood that PFS' parent company, EML Payments, suffered a 46% loss in share value after the regulatory probe was announced by the CBI, however it has since recovered some of this value. PFS used to carry out most of its European work through its UK branch based in London, but this moved to its Irish branch following Brexit.

EML has said that the CBI investigation "may see an impact of delayed programme launches". A Central Bank of Ireland spokesperson told Belfast Live: "Our regulatory engagement with the firm continues and we will not be commenting further at this time." The Guardian has reported how thousands of Asylum Seekers in the UK "went hungry" after they suffered problems with the prepaid cards they had been given.

It said that around of third of those given the cards had struggled to use them properly. PFS had taken over the running of the prepard card scheme contract from the Home Office in May 2021, from previous provider Sodexo. Following the concerns a PFS spokesperson told the Guardian: "PFS has been working closely with the Home Office to prepare for the switch over.

As part of that preparation, PFS has created and issued cards according to the data we received from the Home Office. The majority of service users have successfully activated and are using their cards." The Department for the Economy has said that it was aware of these issues with PFS prior to the awarding of its contract for the High Street Voucher scheme, and does not believe they will effect its rollout.

A Department for the Economy spokesperson said: "The Department for the Economy is aware of the issues and does not believe these will have any impact on the rollout of the High Street Scheme. The Department's contract for the supply of a prepaid card is with PFS (UK) which has no involvement in the Central Bank of Ireland investigation. PFS(UK ) is regulated separately by the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom.

"The contract for the pre-paid cards was awarded after a secondary competition using a government wide contracting framework in which four pre-qualified companies on the framework were invited to submit bids. Two companies submitted completed tender documentation. This process was carried out in accordance with the relevant procurement procedures and best practice."

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‘Russian Lidl’ announces it will open first UK store within weeks

A no-frills store known as the "Russian Lidl" will open its first UK store in the coming weeks. Discount grocery chain Mere claims to be 30 per cent cheaper than the nation's most popular low-cost retailers and it will open its first UK store in Preston on August 14, in a former branch of Nisa. The store was initially scheduled to open at the start of the year but this was delayed until June because of pandemic hold-ups, reports the Mirror.

Mere UK business development manager Aleksandr Chkalov told The Grocer: "We will be glad to present our new retail model: a real hard discounter, with no shelves, no service, no convenience, just the lowest prices."

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Some of the brands that will be sold in the Preston store are Cusheen toilet paper, Maxsonic batteries, Reach sanitising wipes and Warrior energy drinks. It will stock up to 1,200 products overall. Further three Mere outlets are also planned this year - including two in Wales, in Mold and Caldicot, and another in Castleford in Yorkshire.

It is also planning sites in Devon, Stockport, Neath, Banbury, Selby, Bradford, Middlesbrough, Grantham, Kettering, Plymouth, Beckenham, Gloucester, Northampton, Cardiff, Oswestry, Barnsley, Sheffield, Exeter, Stretford, Southampton, south Scotland and Wales. In total, the discounter has said it wants to open 300 sites in the UK within a decade but no other locations have been confirmed. Mere, which trades as Svetofor in Russia, has 3,200 stores internationally and opened its first European Mere store in 2018.

It now operates in include Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine. Mere stores double up as warehouses, with images from other sites across Europe showing items displayed on pallets. Shoppers pick items directly from these pallets, saving Mere time and money on stacking shelves.

Suppliers are also expected to deliver straight to the shops, which will each be about 10,000 sq ft. Each must have parking spaces for 30-40 cars and a local population of 60,000 or more. Each store in the UK will have just eight staff, to keep costs down.

For more stories from where you live, visit InYourArea.

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‘Russian Lidl’ announces it will open first UK store within weeks

A no-frills store known as the "Russian Lidl" will open its first UK store in the coming weeks. Discount grocery chain Mere claims to be 30 per cent cheaper than the nation's most popular low-cost retailers and it will open its first UK store in Preston on August 14, in a former branch of Nisa. The store was initially scheduled to open at the start of the year but this was delayed until June because of pandemic hold-ups, reports the Mirror.

Mere UK business development manager Aleksandr Chkalov told The Grocer: "We will be glad to present our new retail model: a real hard discounter, with no shelves, no service, no convenience, just the lowest prices."

Read More
Related Articles
Read More
Related Articles

Some of the brands that will be sold in the Preston store are Cusheen toilet paper, Maxsonic batteries, Reach sanitising wipes and Warrior energy drinks. It will stock up to 1,200 products overall. Further three Mere outlets are also planned this year - including two in Wales, in Mold and Caldicot, and another in Castleford in Yorkshire.

It is also planning sites in Devon, Stockport, Neath, Banbury, Selby, Bradford, Middlesbrough, Grantham, Kettering, Plymouth, Beckenham, Gloucester, Northampton, Cardiff, Oswestry, Barnsley, Sheffield, Exeter, Stretford, Southampton, south Scotland and Wales. In total, the discounter has said it wants to open 300 sites in the UK within a decade but no other locations have been confirmed. Mere, which trades as Svetofor in Russia, has 3,200 stores internationally and opened its first European Mere store in 2018.

It now operates in include Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine. Mere stores double up as warehouses, with images from other sites across Europe showing items displayed on pallets. Shoppers pick items directly from these pallets, saving Mere time and money on stacking shelves.

Suppliers are also expected to deliver straight to the shops, which will each be about 10,000 sq ft. Each must have parking spaces for 30-40 cars and a local population of 60,000 or more. Each store in the UK will have just eight staff, to keep costs down.

For more stories from where you live, visit InYourArea.

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Russian discount supermarket brand plans Stockport store

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Russian discount supermarket brand plans Stockport store

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Russian discount supermarket brand plans Stockport store

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Northern Ireland public is urged to make every penny of voucher count

The public has been urged to "make every penny count" when they spend GBP100 on a pre-paid card to be given out under a government economic stimulus scheme from September. ut one independent retailer said he feared smaller traders would lose out, with most people likely to spend the windfall with supermarkets that have traded unimpeded since the pandemic began. Adults will be able to register online for the GBP100 card in September, though they will have to already be on the electoral register, which is currently being updated. The cards would then be ready for spending in bricks and mortar stores or hospitality venues during September and October.

Online shopping, whether with independent retailers or giants like Amazon, is barred. The GBP145m stimulus scheme is intended to encourage people to spend on the high street -- particularly at independent retailers who had to shut during lockdowns. However, spending at big supermarkets like Lidl, Sainsbury's and Tesco, is permitted although the design of the card incorporates a "Spend Local" logo.

Roger Pollen, head of the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland, said: "We would urge users of the scheme to consider those businesses that have been most impacted by the pandemic and use their pre-paid card where it can spread most benefit." A report commissioned by the Department for the Economy on how the scheme could operate said 63% of consumers indicated they would use their voucher to support independent retailers. It also identified the autumn as the best time in which to launch the scheme.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the scheme would be a welcome boost for high street retailers. "It will create a virtuous circle of spending that supports our economy, boosts local commerce and gives our shoppers some retail and hospitality therapy. "We would encourage everyone who is eligible to register for the scheme and make every penny count."

However, Gary Connolly Close, co-owner of florist Memento on Belfast's Ormeau Road, said he had reservations about the scheme. "As a consumer it's fantastic, it's a great thing, and I wouldn't turn it down. "With my business cap on, it's still a great idea, but how am I going to stand out among every other business, and is it going to make big business richer?

"It's GBP145m -- that's a lot money to take out and I wonder is there good value for money in it," he added. No indication has been given of how much card provider Prepaid Financial Services (PFS) is being paid. But with the total scheme costing GBP145m, and 1.4m vouchers of GBP100 to be distributed, that will leave GBP5m to cover costs.

Mr Connolly Close said: "To me, spending it in Tesco isn't boosting the local economy, and giving it to big retailers who already made big bucks when we were having to close in lockdowns, doesn't make sense. "But I certainly will be working on a marketing initiative to get people to spend it with me, and I will think very carefully about how to make myself stand out from Tesco and Home Bargains. "If I market it to try and attract people away from big supermarkets, it could work out well.

But realistically, lower-income families aren't interested in my types of products. "They're thinking of next week's shop." And he said he thought the money could have benefited businesses in a more direct way.

But he added: "I'll be chasing those pre-paid cards and doing some savvy marketing to stand out from the crowd but I don't know how much it will benefit me in the long-term. "I hope people see if as the opportunity to treat themselves with nice flowers, then a nice cheese board from Indie Fude, the business next door to us. "But that's for the few... the vast number of people will probably use it for their weekly expenses.

"A lot of people will also go towards Victoria Square Shopping Centre where there is a big conglomerate of global retailers," he said. The luxury retailer Flannels, which is part of the former Sports Direct Group and incorporated into its Frasers store, would get a lot of custom following the launch of the scheme, Mr Connolly Close predicted. "That escalator to Flannels will be flat-out. "

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said PFS had been appointed to administer the scheme after a "robust procurement process".

Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald, chair of the Assembly's economy committee, said she hoped measures would be taken to ensure everyone could access the application process.

And SDLP economy spokesperson Sinead McLaughlin urged the public to use the card to support locally-owned independent businesses.

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British Airways Discount Codes: 10% OFF in July 2021

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British Airways Discount Codes: 10% OFF in July 2021

Whether you're looking for a city break, a beach vacation, or a longer journey, British Airways has it all.

From the stunning Dubai and mesmerizing India to the laid-back Maldives and on-trend Berlin, whether you're looking for a city break, a beach vacation, or a longer journey, explore hundreds of destinations with prices from just GBP34 pp.

Terms and conditions More information is available on the website.

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British Airways Discount Codes: 10% OFF in July 2021

Choose between the Blue, Bronze, Silver or the Gold Executive Club membership card at British Airways and enjoy fantastic tiers and benefits, including up to 1500 points, free seat selection at booking, extra baggage allowance and plenty more.

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