Pensions regulator ‘shares blame’ for collapse of BHS

The BHS store in Leeds: Picture by Simon Hulme
The BHS store in Leeds: Picture by Simon Hulme
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The businessman who bought BHS from Sir Philip Green has blamed the pensions regulator for hindering his plans to turn the company around.

Dominic Chappell told BBC’s Newsnight a probe launched into his £1 purchase of the retailer in 2015 had impacted his efforts to secure competitive loans to fund his plans to bring BHS back to health.

The programme also revealed claims that, several years before the takeover, Sir Philip had proposed a large-scale restructuring of BHS that included him paying millions into the company’s pension pot, but the regulator would not sanction the plan.

The stalwart of the British high street was placed into administration in April after nearly 90 years of trading, putting 11,000 jobs at risk and leaving a £571 million pension fund black hole.

Mr Chappell told BBC’s Newsnight that he was “upset and devastated” by the collapse and that he believed his company “could have saved BHS”.

The entrepreneur had been declared bankrupt twice and had no retail experience when he bought the company, although he stressed that he was supported by a strong board and was backed by internationally renowned companies, adding “I was prepared to spend a lot of money”.

He explained that his efforts to revitalise the company were blighted by two main factors; poor sales during Christmas trading and the decision of the pensions regulator to launch an inquiry into the takeover.

The “anti-avoidance probe” stopped Retail Acquisitions, the group headed by Mr Chappell, from securing loans from leading lenders. He said he was left paying interest of 15% on credit.

“The impact of the regulator is one of the main things that knocked us over,” he told the programme.

Lesley Titcomb, the watchdog’s chief executive, told the Work and Pensions Select Committee (WPC) that it launched the investigation after the retailer was sold without their knowledge.

She said the watchdog had been involved with BHS and its trustees prior to the sale, although they did not have confirmation it was to go ahead until the day after the takeover took place.

Sir Philip issued a letter after Ms Titcomb gave evidence that said it was “incorrect” and the regulator had been notified by email.

The regulator later said: “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.”

When an employer wishes to sell a company it can obtain clearance from the regulator in advance of the sale which exempts it from such an investigation after the takeover has taken place.

Mr Chappell told the programme that the investigation had badly affected his plans.

As a result of the collapse taxpayers now face having to fill the pensions void.

Newsnight said it had been told that Sir Philip had mooted paying £80 million into BHS’s pension fund as part of a reorganisation of the retailer, but the plan was blocked by the pensions regulator.

Labour MP Frank Field, chairman of the WPC, told Newsnight he was unaware of the claims, but added that a lot was still emerging over what happened prior to the takeover.