This summer, the joint work and pensions/business, innovation and skills parliamentary select committee inquiry into the collapse of British Home Stores and its pension scheme concluded with one of the most devastating reports to come out of the select committee process. The report described the ‘systematic plunder of BHS at the cost of the 11,000 jobs and 20,000 people’s pensions’, and found ‘Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and respective directors, advisers and hangers-on, who all got rich or richer, are all culpable’. We concluded that this was ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’.
Last month, Parliament debated our report, with a specific proposal put forward that Green should be stripped of his knighthood. Opposition came there none. Yet while symbolic gestures such as this have their place – why should society honour people whose behavior falls so far short of acceptable? – surely the top priority should be to do right by those who lost most. The BHS pension fund was left with a £571m shortfall as BHS finally folded, and the impact of that is felt by individuals and families who relied on their employer for their income in retirement. After all, as I argued in my contribution to the debate, pensions contributions are not acts of charity, but deferred pay for past and present employees.
Green, giving evidence to us in parliament in the summer, told us he would sort the problem out. With Christmas fast approaching, and thousands of ex-staff still living in uncertainty, nothing has been resolved. So we welcome the recent news that the pension regulator has confirmed that enforcement action has begun. Notices have been sent to Green, to Chappel, the man to whom BHS was sold for £1 shortly before the final collapse of the business, and the former BHS parent company, Taveta Investments.
Absolutely rightly, the pensions regulator chief executive Lesley Titcomb has made clear the intention to’“make significant progress by the end of 2016′ saying ‘Our decision to launch enforcement action is an important milestone in our work to attain redress for the thousands of members of BHS schemes who have been placed in this position through no fault of their own’.
Unfortunately there has been all too little evidence that the problem can be resolved without a credible threat of enforcement. All through our inquiry, we saw and heard those responsible for the BHS debacle shift responsibility and blame each other. Handwringing and warm words signalling the best of intentions for the future now mean nothing unless they are backed up by hard cash into the pension fund. The men and women whose (for the most part low-paid) hard work made the good times roll for Green and others over the last fifteen years, deserve nothing less. But the determination to act sends a much wider message too. With times increasingly tough for millions of people, the rich and powerful must know that they too will be held to account where their greed and irresponsibility cause the kind of harm we saw in the sorry tale of BHS. Rewards are rightly there for entrepreneurial dynamism and risk-taking in business. But when the rewards all seem to go to the individual but the costs of failure are passed on – whether to workers and pensioners, to more responsible businesses paying in to the pension protection fund, or to the public purse, it is time to act. BHS is a good place to start.
Karen Buck is member of parliament for Westminster North and sits on the work and pensions committee. She tweets @KarenPBuckMP
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