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UK pensions regulator, Arcadia row over details of BHS sale

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Arcadia Group, the former owner of UK retailer BHS, has criticised the Pensions Regulator (TPR) over evidence given to a parliamentary committee, arguing the regulator’s chief executive made inaccurate statements.

In a letter to the work and pensions select committee and the business, innovation and skills committee, Arcadia company secretary Adam Goldman criticised Lesley Titcomb, chief executive of TPR.

Titcomb was speaking to the joint parliamentary committee about the combined £571m (€734m) buyout deficit left in the two BHS defined benefit schemes following the sponsor’s collapse – a hearing that saw suggestions that the regulator lacked the “teeth” to enforce existing laws.

Goldman criticised Titcomb for saying the regulator only learned of Arcadia’s decision to sell BHS to Retail Acquisition when deal was made public in March 2015.

“This evidence of Ms Titcomb has been widely reported in the press, but it is incorrect,” Goldman said.

He went on to detail how TPR was informed of Arcadia’s desire to sell BHS, and noted that the regulator sought – and was granted – an “urgent” meeting a week before the sale was announced to clarify how the sale could impact the BHS schemes.

“Specifically,” the letter adds, “in relation to the BHS pension schemes, [Arcadia chairman] Sir Philip [Green] expressed his strong wish to agree a sustainable solution, and there was a discussion as to the possibility of implementing a restructuring with the approval of TPR.”

The chairman of the work and pensions select committee, Labour MP Frank Field, said the letter was an “important intervention”, and that the central message was “disturbing”.

Responding to the letter, a TPR spokesperson said that, while it did conduct the meeting with Arcadia, it was not given “sufficient information” to gauge the impact of the sale on the pension fund.

The regulator also noted that companies hoping to conduct a sale were able to apply for a clearance statement if there were concerns about the sale’s impacting a fund.

However, it noted that Arcadia did not approach it for such a clearance statement.

“Given our concerns regarding the BHS pension scheme and the circumstance relating to the sale, and in the absence of clearance, we opened an anti-avoidance investigation, which superseded our earlier valuation investigation,” the spokesperson added.

TPR confirmed last month it was investigating the collapse of BHS.

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