Sir Philip Green will have to make a generous offer to rescue the BHS pension scheme if he wants to save his reputation and knighthood, MPs have warned after a fiery six-hour hearing with the billionaire retail tycoon.
Green promised to resolve the problems facing the pension scheme and apologised for the collapse of the department store chain during an extraordinary parliamentary meeting that ran from just after 9am until 3pm.
The tycoon, who declined to provide details about his rescue plan, repeatedly clashed with MPs during the hearing, castigating Richard Fuller, the Conservative MP, for staring at him in a “really disturbing” way and accusing committee chairman Iain Wright of being “really rude”. At one stage he told MPs: “I want to try to get back to work after this, I have been out of work for four weeks.”
MPs are now planning to call Green’s wife, Lady Green, to give evidence. Monaco-based Tina Green owns the family’s business interests, including Arcadia, the parent company of Topshop, Wallis and Dorothy Perkins.
Trade union leaders said Green’s apology was “simply not enough” for the 11,000 workers who face losing their jobs due to the collapse of BHS. “There are still serious questions that need to be answered and we hope the select committees take up Sir Philip’s offer to scrutinise his finance team,” John Hannett, the Usdaw general secretary, said.
BHS is being wound down after administrators failed to secure a rescue deal, putting 11,000 jobs at risk and leaving it with a £571m pension deficit. Green controlled BHS for 15 years until March 2015, during which time the tycoon and other investors collected more than £580m in dividends, rent and interest payments. Green sold BHS to Dominic Chappell, a three-time bankrupt whose consortium, Retail Acquisitions, extracted at least £17m from the retailer.
Green told MPs: “Nothing is more sad than how this has ended. There is certainly no intent at all on my part for anything to be like this, and it didn’t need to be like this. I just want to apologise to all the BHS people who have been involved in this.”
The 64-year-old insisted that the financial structure of BHS during his tenure in charge was “not excessive” and claimed that between 2004 and 2015 as much as £800m had been pumped into the business. “We put all that back into the business and more,” he said of the shareholder payments. Green also said he had a “clear conscience” over the tax structure of his businesses. “We have run these things properly and paid everything due,” he stated.
The tycoon said the sale to Chappell had been an “honest mistake”. “I made a bad call selling this business to RAL [Retail Acquisitions]. We found the wrong guy,” he said.
Green denied Chappell’s claims that he had pushed BHS into administration by blocking a rescue deal with Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct. He claimed to have had “no involvement in that deal whatsoever” initially, but then offered to pay a “few million” to top up Ashley’s offer when he found out.
However, while insisting the demise of BHS was “my fault”, Green also pointed the finger at the pension trustees, the Pensions Regulator, Goldman Sachs and Chappell’s advisers, Grant Thornton and Olswang.
Green said that he “one million per cent would not have done business” with Chappell if he had not passed an informal vetting by Goldman Sachs.
He also said Grant Thornton and Olswang had given Chappell “credibility” by representing him, and had collected more than £8m from the deal. Green alleged that both firms had worked for Chappell “on contingency”, implying the size of their fee depended on whether the deal happened. “They didn’t know him from a hole in the wall,” he claimed to MPs.
Green accused Olswang of helping Chappell to extract £7m from the £32m sale of BHS’s offices at North West House in London. This was a “blatant breach of covenant,” he said, because Chappell had agreed not to extract money from BHS when he bought it from Green. “This is £7m that went missing,” the Arcadia boss said.
Green also said that “stupid, idiotic mistakes” had been made about the pension scheme and the trustees should have approached him earlier about restructuring it.
However, he said the problems facing the BHS scheme are “resolvable and sortable”. Green pledged to find a solution that involves BHS workers getting a better deal than if the scheme entered the Pension Protection Fund, where they would suffer a 10% cut to their benefits.
“We will sort it, we will find a solution,” Green said. “I want to give assurance to the 20,000 pensioners that I am here to sort this, in the correct way. We are working on it. As we speak there is a team currently working. It is in motion.”
Green declined to provide details about the potential rescue plan. However, MPs said he needs to make a “very generous” offer.
In a joint statement after the hearing, Frank Field, chairman of the work and pensions committee, and Iain Wright, chairman of the business, innovation and skills committee, said: “We hope he will come up with an offer that is satisfactory to the Pension Regulator. However, he doesn’t only have to satisfy the Pensions Regulator – today he is before the bar of public opinion. Much of his reputation now depends on how generously he responds.”
Field said that “a lot of credibility now rests on a very generous settlement” from Green.
The Labour MP said the retail tycoon’s evidence suggested he had “just gone through the worst four weeks of his life” and that to win over public opinion, which was clearly important to Green, the payment of £571m would be “quite cheap”.
Field agreed a deal with Green that his wife would not be called if he made an appearance. But Wright said he had not signed up to that deal and hinted that she could yet be called. “We are very interested in corporate governance and ownership structure,” he said.
The Pensions Regulator said claims from Green that it had not engaged with him and his advisers about a restructuring of the BHS pension scheme were “not true”.
The regulator added: “Our door is always open to discuss credible proposals and we have made initial contact with Sir Philip’s advisers to remind them of this point following comments that we have not engaged with them. We cannot comment further at this stage.
“We will consider any credible and reasonable proposals that are put to us but we have not received details of any new proposal from Sir Philip Green or his advisers.”
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