Thought leadership

Sir Philip Green and others who “got rich” from BHS have been blamed for the retailer’s collapse in what MPs called the “unacceptable face of capitalism”.

A damning MPs’ report found Sir Philip, the billionaire former owner of BHS, extracted large sums and left the business on “life support”. His failure to resolve BHS’s £571m pension deficit was a major factor in the firm’s demise, the report added.

Sir Philip vowed to MPs last month that he would sort out the pensions “mess”.

In his June appearance before the Business and the Work and Pensions select committees, he also said he had invested £800m in BHS during his 15-year ownership in an attempt to turn around the struggling business.

But MPs insisted he should now urgently make a large payment into the pension scheme. There has been no response from Sir Philip to the report.

‘Hurriedly sold’

MP Frank Field, co-chair of the BHS inquiry carried out by the committees, singled out Sir Philip for particular blame for the retailer’s collapse this year.

“One person, and one person alone, is ultimately responsible for the BHS disaster,” Mr Field said.

The Labour MP told the BBC that Sir Philip was “the Napoleon figure who orchestrated all this”.

“It is now a challenge for the Prime Minister,” Mr Field said, as the government must ensure “people who have behaved as badly as Sir Philip cannot get away with this”.

‘Magic number’

John Ralfe, a pensions adviser for the MPs’ report, said there were two amounts that Sir Philip could contribute to the BHS pension fund.

“The first, lower magic number, is £275m. That’s the loss that the Pension Protection Fund will take,” Mr Ralfe told the BBC.

The total BHS pension deficit is £571m, but Mr Ralfe said that “even for Sir Philip, as a billionaire, that’s a lot of money”.

The report, from the Business, Innovation and Skills and Work and Pensions committees, comes just days after it was revealed Sir Philip’s knighthood is being kept “under review”.

The entrepreneur has repeatedly clashed with Mr Field, accusing him of conducting a “trial by media”.

In response to the MPs’ report, Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “This is further proof if it was needed that if Philip Green won’t do the right thing by the members of the BHS pension fund then he should have his knighthood removed.”

BHS is in the process of closing down after what the report called the “shambolic” ownership of Dominic Chappell, who bought the retail chain from Sir Philip for £1 last year.

BHS was “hurriedly sold to a manifestly unsuitable” buyer in that deal, even though Sir Philip knew Mr Chappell was a former bankrupt with no retail experience, the MPs found.

The sale went unchallenged because Sir Philip ran his retail empire, which also includes Topshop and Wallis, as “a personal fiefdom”, they said.

The MPs’ three-month inquiry, which interviewed dozens of executives, found that a “large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame” for its collapse.

“Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable,” the report found.

US bank Goldman Sachs, UK law firm Olswang and accountancy firm Grant Thornton were also criticised for their roles in the sale of BHS to Mr Chappell in March 2015.

Mr Chappell, meanwhile, was branded “out of his depth” and “over-optimistic to the point of arrogance”, while also taking out “lavish” rewards from the company.

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners,” the report said. “This is the unacceptable face of capitalism.”

It added: “The reputation of business, the engine of prosperity, has been damaged, to the dismay of responsible investors, owners and business leaders.”

The first paragraph of this excoriating report is framed around the words of Theresa May as she entered Downing Street as prime minister.

She vowed to get tough on irresponsible behaviour in big business. The two committees pulled no punches in ascribing that description to Sir Philip Green in his dealings with BHS.

The Topshop billionaire says he’s in talks with the Pensions Regulator to help make good some of the £571m pensions black hole. Any payment less than that sum won’t satisfy this cross-party group of MPs – let alone the court of public opinion.

This report is the first major test of how serious the new prime minister is about standing up for the many rather than the privileged few.

If she agrees that the Arcadia boss is the “unacceptable face of capitalism”, it’s difficult to see him retaining his knighthood.

It’s also tough to imagine that the rules about individuals selling struggling companies to untested buyers wont be hardened considerably.

The Green family extracted more than £300m from BHS, enabling them to accrue “incredible wealth” and with either “inadequate” or “ineffective” investment pumped back into the business, according to the report.

“By 2014, BHS was left on life support, having drawn on all its accumulated reserves and more as a result of large dividends and heavy losses,” it found.

The retail tycoon also gave “insufficient priority” to the pension scheme over an extended period, leaving 20,000 pensioners now facing substantial cuts to their contributions.

“Sir Philip owes it to the BHS pensioners to find a resolution urgently,” the report said. “We still do not doubt that Sir Philip has heartfelt affection for BHS. To an extent it created him; it could also bring him down.”

The government said the BHS report was “very concerning” and the Insolvency Service was now carrying out an investigation.

“This case shows why the government is determined to tackle corporate irresponsibility and reform capitalism so it works for everyone – not just the privileged few,” a spokesman said.

Mr Chappell, chief executive of Retail Acquisitions, said: “It’s a lengthy document and we need to go through and will respond accordingly.”

A Goldman Sachs spokesman said the report recognised it had identified risks to Sir Philip’s Arcadia group from selling the business to Mr Chappell but did not provide advice or recommendations.

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