Panic after for­eign aid firm col­lapses

War zone em­bassies refuse pleas for help from be­sieged staff

The Mail on Sunday - - Peter Hitchens - By Michael Pow­ell

THEY were handed tens of mil­lions of pounds of British tax­pay­ers’ money to de­liver vi­tal over­seas projects for the For­eign Of­fice and help bring sta­bil­ity to some of the world’s most volatile war-torn na­tions.

But two for­mer UK diplo­mats were last night ac­cused of caus­ing ‘huge dam­age’ to Bri­tain’s rep­u­ta­tion across the Mid­dle East and Africa after their firm Ak­tis Strategy col­lapsed, leav­ing hun­dreds of em­ploy­ees and sup­pli­ers in third­world coun­tries to face mas­sive debts.

Staff work­ing in con­flict zones have ac­cused British em­bassies of ig­nor­ing their pleas for help as they are hounded by lo­cal busi­nesses owed hun­dreds of thou­sands of pounds. Some for­mer em­ploy­ees have been made home­less as a re­sult.

Yet founders Dr An­drew Rath­mell and Alex Martin – whose time at the For­eign Of­fice helped to se­cure ma­jor UK Govern­ment con­tracts – ap­pear to have es­caped un­scathed. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by The Mail on Sun­day can re­veal:

British em­bassies have re­fused re­quests by des­per­ate Ak­tis staff to set­tle bills owed to firms across the Mid­dle East and Africa;

More than 80 ex-staff are owed thou­sands in un­paid wages and pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions;

The wife of Bri­tain’s am­bas­sador in Iraq quit her se­nior role with Ak­tis be­cause she ‘saw the writ­ing on the wall’;

The ‘penny pinch­ing’ firm is ac­cused of fail­ing to pay for se­cu­rity teams or health in­sur­ance for some field work­ers in con­flict zones;

Bosses blew a six-fig­ure sum on a cham­pag­ne­fu­elled ‘re­treat’ for staff.

One for­mer se­nior staffer said: ‘The direc­tors of Ak­tis have left their own staff high and dry and the debts to sup­pli­ers are eye-wa­ter­ing in places like Iraq. If it is not sorted out soon I fear that peo­ple will be killed over this. This is all hugely dam­ag­ing for Bri­tain’s rep­u­ta­tion.’

A project co-or­di­na­tor in Er­bil, Iraq, said she was be­ing chased for more than £350,000 owed to sup­pli­ers. ‘It is a scary sit­u­a­tion. I just don’t know how we are go­ing to get the money back.’

An­other Ak­tis source said: ‘Peo­ple are get­ting des­per­ate.’

The MoS has seen an email ex­change be­tween an Akt is em­ployee and the British em­bassy in Iraq plead­ing for help to pay off an­gry busi­ness­men chas­ing them for money. The re­ply from a UK em­bassy of­fi­cial reads: ‘The FCO ( Forei gn a nd Com­mon­wealth Of­fice) has paid Ak­tis for work de­liv­ered in line with our con­trac­tual obli­ga­tions.

‘The re­quire­ment to pay sub-con­trac­tors and staff rests with Ak­tis and we would there­fore en­cour­age you to speak to Ak­tis di­rectly.’

Ak­tis was founded in 2013 by Rath­mell and Martin. In­sid­ers say the firm ex­panded rapidly be­fore sud­denly run­ning into difficulty in the sum­mer of last year and ‘im­plod­ing’ on March 14. Be­fore its col­lapse, it had landed ma­jor con­tracts for For­eign Of­fice projects in 25 coun­tries in­clud­ing Iraq, Syria, So­ma­lia, Libya and Afghanista­n.

Last year, the FCO paid Ak­tis £24 mil­lion. Some of its work is in train­ing se­cu­rity chiefs and po­lice forces as coun­tries rebuild after years of war. But for­mer staff say it is they who need pro­tec­tion.

One ex-man­ager said: ‘You can’t just run a com­pany into the ground like this, reck­lessly or oth­er­wise, and walk away like noth­ing has hap­pened, skip­ping off into the sunset. Peo­ple’s lives have been ru­ined.’ It is a far cry from the au­tumn of 2017, when the firm splashed out more than £100,000 on a ‘boozy’ three-day re­treat for staff.

The com­pany con­tin­ued to ex­pand last year, but em­ploy­ees say their salaries be­gan ar­riv­ing late or only in part. Some bills for ho­tels and se­cu­rity per­son­nel on mis­sions abroad went un­paid. Pa­tri­cia Haslach, a for­mer US am­bas­sador

‘I fear that peo­ple will be killed over this’

and the wife of Jon Wilks, the British am­bas­sador to Iraq, started work­ing at Ak­tis last July as head of con­flict man­age­ment. But she quit i n Novem­ber a nd last ni ght ex­plained: ‘I could see the writ­ing on the wall. I was hav­ing to tell peo­ple they were not go­ing to get paid on time, it just didn’t look good.’

Bailiffs ar­rived at the firm’s Lon­don HQ in Jan­uary and told staff to work from home. On March 14, the firm an­nounced it had gone into ad­min­is­tra­tion. ‘Peo­ple are dev­as­tated,’ said one for­mer em­ployee. ‘The For­eign Of­fice never stopped pay­ing its bills on time, so the ques­tion is: where did all the money go?’

In­deed, FCO records show Ak­tis Strategy re­ceived al­most £2 mil­lion in the last three months of trad­ing. As re­cently as Fe­bru­ary, the depart­ment paid it al­most £800,000. Last night, the For­eign Of­fice con­firmed that it ‘had a small num­ber of con­tracts with Ak­tis Strategy Ltd which have now ended’.

In a state­ment, Rath­mell and Martin blamed the com­pany’s demise on ‘ weak­nesses in its fi­nan­cial man­age­ment and in the fi­nan­cial man­age­ment team’.

They said t hey had in­jected £600,000 of their own money into the firm in an ef­fort to res­cue it and de­nied fail­ing to pay for per­sonal se­cu­rity and health in­sur­ance. They said no tax­pay­ers’ money had been spent on the event at the De Vere Woke­field Es­tate in 2017, adding: ‘This was an im­por­tant event to al­low staff from our re­gional of­fices to work to­gether on busi­ness plan­ning and train­ing…

‘None of the funds were tax­payer funds; th­ese were all paid for from com­pany prof­its rein­vested in the com­pany rather than taken out by share­hold­ers.’

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