Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, told MPs he will sort out the pensions "mess" that followed the collapse of the retailer last month. "We are working on a resolvable and sortable solution for 20,000 members of the BHS scheme," said Sir Philip, although he declined to give details, saying plans were yet to be finalised.
Sir Philip was appearing before a joint hearing of the Business and the Work and Pensions select committees which are investigating the demise of the group where the BHS scheme has a deficit of £571m.The pension scheme, which affects more than 20,000 people, is now in the Pension Protection Fund, where members will receive less money than they had expected.
Sir Philip said there were "virtually no questions" he could answer regarding the pension fund between 2002 and 2012. "Rightly or wrongly, it was not on my table." He said he was not involved "in any way, shape or form" in what the pension trustees did.
"The reality is - if the world were perfect...our auditors should have spoken to us about it when we bought it on day one," said Sir Philip. On trustees, he says there were "substantial fees paid to advisers", including more than £2m a year at one stage.
Sir Philip said that the issue was never brought to his attention but that he was working to sort out the problem. "We have been working away," he said. "By some very strange quirk of fate, which was not something I was going to discuss this morning, in the last week the regulator made a phone call. They have phoned up saying they would be interested in having a meeting. There has been a dialogue with our adviser, and I think two or three phone calls over the last seven days, which I find a little bit of a coincidence.
"We want to find a solution for the 20,000 pensioners. It is resolvable, sortable, and we will sort it. I want to give assurance to the 20,000 pensioners that I am there to sort it. We are working on it. As we speak there is a team currently working.. it is in motion."
When questioned about the pension fund trustees, Sir Philip claims they are “very very independent,” and claimed that if he met former chairman of the trustees Margaret Downes three times it would have been a lot.
Sir Philip denied being involved in what the trustees did or where they invested, but admitted “maybe [he] should have done, maybe the disconnect is part of the reason I’m here”.
Sir Philip says that a lot of money was spent on the pension advisers, around £650,000 in the early days and “north of £1.5m” by 2005-06.
Green says no one brought to his attention the growing problem with deficit before 2012. "I don't blame anyone else" says Green.— Josephine Cumbo (@JosephineCumbo) June 15, 2016
.@JosephineCumbo Sir Philip Green effectively admitting he was *wilfully* uninterested & non-curious ~Credible?— Bruce Benson (@SHB1893) June 15, 2016
Richard Graham MP works through the BHS pension deficit with Sir Philip – the average BHS wage was £17,000, resulting in a pension of £8,500 a year after a long career.
So basically, Sir Philip Green is not answering any of these questions because he claims to not know anything?!— Politips Avenue (@PolitipsAvenue) June 15, 2016
Sir Philip also repeated that he’s not a liar. "I am here, I’m happy to be accountable. I’m not a liar, I can’t tell you about things I’m not responsible," he says.
Sir Philip went on to say that he has never “moved one penny from any bank account” at BHS and “wouldn’t even know where to phone” to get any money from the bank. He claimed that there are employees at BHS whose day-to-day jobs include moving large sums of money and they do not need payments signed off. He claims this is necessary for big businesses, or else they cannot survive.
After the hearing finished, John Hannett, general secretary of Usdaw, said: "We welcome the commitment from Sir Phillip to sort out the pension and await to see the detail of what he is proposing, but there was precious little said today to reassure the 11,000 staff who are staring down the barrel of a gun, facing unemployment. Saying sorry about the demise of BHS is simply not good enough for the hardworking staff about to be made redundant, many of whom have given their whole working lives to BHS. There are still serious questions that need to be answered and we hope the select committees take up Sir Phillip’s offer to scrutinise his finance team."
A spokesman for the Pensions Regulator said: “It is not true to say we are refusing to engage with Sir Philip Green, or his advisers, regarding the BHS pension scheme. 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.