UK parliamentarians have criticised as “wholly inadequate” attempts by the former owner of retailer BHS to address the company’s pension deficit and called for significant contributions to address the scheme’s underfunding.
Philip Green was the focus of the parliamentary investigation into the retailer’s insolvency earlier this year, which followed Green’s sale of BHS to Retail Acquisitions Limited (RAL) in 2015.
In publishing its findings, the joint work and pensions, and business, innovations and skills committee criticised that Green failed to invest in BHS during his 14 years of ownership, and said his tenure left its schemes “weakened to the point of the inevitable collapse of both”.
The company’s staff and executive scheme have begun Pension Protection Fund assessment since the sponsor became insolvent earlier this year, after they were left with a buyout deficit of £571m (€729m).
The report further criticised BHS for failing to push ahead with a long-planned restructure of the company’s main scheme, insisting Project Thor could have made the company’s pension liabilities more manageable.
It questioned the Arcadia board’s motives for postponing the implementation of Thor, noting it was told that the Scottish independence referendum, instability in Ukraine and Christmas trading in 2014 were variously cited as reasons the restructure did not go ahead.
“We do not accept them,” the report said, placing the blame instead at the feet of Green, who, the committee argued, was unwilling to provide key information to TPR as part of Thor’s implementation.
“[Green] did not wish to respond to requests for information regarding historic dividends, management charges, sale and leaseback arrangements, inter-company loans and the use of BHS shares or assets as collateral for company purchases,” the report concluded.
“At best, this demonstrated a lack of willingness to act to secure the pension funds’ future.”
MPs were also critical of the Pensions Regulator (TPR) as “slow-moving” and lacking urgency when dealing with BHS.
“TPR will increasingly be called upon to make decisions crucial for thousands of employees and pensioners in a fast-moving and uncertain environment,” the report warned.
“It is essential that it has the powers, resources, leadership and commercial acumen to act decisively.”
The regulator has already said it would wish to see its ability to scrutinise mergers and acquisitions enhanced.
The Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association welcomed the committee’s “clear conclusion” that BHS was not sufficiently supportive of its schemes.
Graham Vidler, the association’s director of external affairs, added that the report sent a “welcome and strong message” to sponsors about their responsibility to support defined benefit (DB) funds.
He also welcomed the report’s pledge to further investigate the DB regulatory framework and whether it offered protection to members and sufficient support for trustees.