Administrators appointed to look into the demise of failed funeral plans provider Safe Hands Plans have put customers on alert that they are unlikely to get back much of their money.
It means there is now a strong likelihood that the 47,000 customers of the Wakefield-based company will be left with near worthless plans that cost them on average around £3,000. Customers were told the plans would cover the cost of their funeral when they died.
But documents seen by The Mail on Sunday show the administrators FRP have managed to take control of less than £4million so far, leaving more than £60million of customers’ money outstanding. There are now major question marks over whether this remaining money can be retrieved.
On alert: There is now a strong likelihood that the 47,000 customers of Safe Hands will be left with near worthless plans
This is the stark prospect facing plan-holders this weekend as administrators at FRP Advisory assess the parlous state of Safe Hands’ finances. FRP was appointed in late March after Safe Hands suddenly withdrew its application to become an authorised seller of funeral plans under a new regulatory regime overseen by the Financial Conduct Authority. It was forced to stop selling plans, triggering its fall into administration.
The main focus of the work being undertaken by FRP centres on the Safe Hands Plans Trust where customers’ payments were paid into – and then invested. Such a fund is meant to safeguard customers’ money with independent trustees ensuring assets are not misappropriated – and are ring-fenced from the business assets of the funeral plan provider. Prior to FRP’s appointment as administrators, the trust was overseen by Sterling Trust Corporation, based in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.
In the latest customer update, a document seen by the MoS, FRP confirms – as we have previously reported – that there is a shortfall between the value of assets held in the trust and the future cost of paying for all the funerals people have purchased. In other words, there is not enough in the pot to meet the promises made to customers.
But far more worryingly, FRP indicates that the vast majority of the trust’s assets are overvalued. Even worse, it raises concerns that some of them may not be owned by the trust, but by other parties. If proven, this would constitute fraudulent use of trust assets.
FRP has so far managed to take control of just £3.8million of assets which were held in liquid investments such as blue-chip UK shares. But the bulk of trust assets – more than £60million – are in ‘illiquid, high-risk investments’, many based in offshore jurisdictions.
These assets were managed by two companies. The first was TJM Partnership, which also traded for a while under the name of Neovision Global Capital. It was put into liquidation earlier this year. The other fund manager, FRP says, is based in Mauritius, more than 6,300 miles from the UK.
The administrators warn that the amount they will get from disposing of these assets will be ‘materially lower’ than £60million. On the issue of ownership of trust assets, it says it is looking at who is entitled to them, adding that it has the right to issue legal claims if they have been misused. In other words, it is unsure whether all the assets attributed to the trust belong to it.
Concerns about the trust fund were highlighted in an independent report undertaken by Bury-based Zenith Actuarial earlier this year.
Its report, obtained last month by the MoS, raises numerous red flags over the investment funds held – their ‘potential lack of liquidity, specialist focus, high charges and potential issues relating to disinvesting’. It also noted that the funds were mostly based in the Cayman Islands.
Customers of Safe Hands are alarmed about FRP’s latest missive on the state of the trust. Among them is John Salisbury, a retired engineer from Stockport, Greater Manchester. He bought two plans – one for him and one for his wife Dale – in late 2019 after seeing a local solicitor. In total, he paid £7,000. ‘We thought we were doing the right thing,’ says John, aged 67. ‘Dale had just decided to retire after being made redundant from a national retailer. So we felt it was a good time to sort out our finances. We got our wills in good order and took out Safe Hands funeral plans.’
He adds: ‘It seemed like a good idea. The literature told us our money would go into a secure ringfenced trust that would be operated independently from the business. But now, it looks like we could lose all the money we handed over. The latest report from FRP makes for depressing reading.’ Like many customers, he contacted his local MP to complain about what has happened, but the response was disappointing. John says: ‘All the MP wrote about was the future regulation of the funeral plans market. That’s no good for me and Dale. Our money has already gone up in smoke.’
The MoS has led the way on exposing poor practice at Safe Hands. Last month, we reported on the company taking annual surpluses from the trust to pay dividends to directors. We also revealed trust fund money being borrowed to fund the purchase of commercial property.
Last week, we sought the views of those involved with Safe Hands before it went into administration. Kylie Simmonds-Cox, chief executive of Sterling Trust Corporation, was asked (by both phone and email) to comment on its oversight of Safe Hands Plans Trust. She did not respond. Sterling is a member of The Association of Corporate Trustees, which said it was not investigating the company.
On Friday Scott Robinson, chief executive of Zenith Actuarial, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘We understand how distressing this situation must be for customers of Safe Hands Plans. However, the report we did, in which we highlighted a number of serious issues, is confidential.’
We attempted to contact TJM and Neovision Global Capital. No comment was provided.
Eight days ago, Richard Wells, owner of Safe Hands at the time of administration, told us: ‘It is with sincere regret that Safe Hands Plans is in this position. The company was acquired in good faith to provide funeral plans in what was an expanding sector.’ No comment was offered on the health of the trust.
After Safe Hands debacle… new fears over rival Capital Life
Funeral plan specialist Capital Life has become the latest provider to withdraw its application to be authorised, ahead of new regulatory rules being introduced later this year.
Capital Life, based in Wilmslow, Cheshire, sells plans ranging in price from £1,895 (which it calls ‘simple’) to £8,465 (‘majestic’). But last week, it published a statement confirming it had withdrawn its application to be authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority.
Blow: How Capital Life announced its plans not to seek FCA approval
Without such authorisation, a funeral plan provider cannot sell new products after July 29.
Capital Life says its decision to withdraw has been made ‘after careful consideration’. It also says it intends to reapply to the FCA ‘as soon as possible’.
Its statement also points out that the trust fund it uses to hold clients’ money is in good health – ‘funded to 160.1 per cent – 60.1 per cent higher than the minimum FCA’s requirement’ that comes into effect at the end of July.
In other words, it has sufficient assets to pay for all the funerals that customers have paid for in advance.
The company continues to promote plans through its website, even though the FCA states quite clearly on its own website that if a provider has withdrawn its application, ‘you shouldn’t buy a new plan’ from it.
According to the latest data from the FCA, 35 providers have submitted applications to be authorised sellers of funeral plans.
Of the 66 on the regulator’s list of providers, ten have withdrawn applications, five have yet to apply while 16 intend to transfer their plans to a rival – or have already done so.
It is understood that by the end of the month the regulator will give consumers an indication of which providers it is minded to authorise. Those with applications pending include big players such as the Co-op, Dignity and Golden Charter.
People with plans can check on the progress their provider is making with its authorisation application by visiting www.fca. org.uk/consumers/funeral-plans/ providers-list
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