Andrew Vine: Sports Direct and BHS expose moral vacuum which is bad for business

Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley leaves Portcullis House, London, where he gave evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on working conditions at his company.Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley leaves Portcullis House, London, where he gave evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on working conditions at his company.
Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley leaves Portcullis House, London, where he gave evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on working conditions at his company.
THE unacceptable face of capitalism, with the glint of greed in its eye and a sneer of contempt for workers, is disfiguring the world of business and exposing a shameful moral vacuum at the heart of too many companies.

All perfectly legal of course, however ugly and reprehensible. Within the letter of the law, but far outside its spirit, the quaintly old-fashioned concept of behaving honourably being something to be laughed at.

Tomorrow, the latest instalment in the sorry saga of the collapse of BHS is due to unfold, provided the retailer’s former owner, Sir Philip Green, submits to a grilling from MPs about his role, and how he came to sell the business to a former bankrupt for £1.

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Still, if MPs get the chance to tear into him – and his former employees will hope they do – he can take consolation that the discomfort of a few hours in a Commons committee room is only temporary.

The compensating factors of a £3bn fortune and a new £100m super-yacht – the third in his fleet – are potent soothers of ruffled feathers.

How starkly different that is to the fate of 11,000 BHS staff facing unemployment, and the 20,000 pensioners of the company facing a 10 per cent cut in their income.

But then it’s always the little people who suffer, those who serve loyally, work hard and save for retirement. They invariably become the victims, the staff with no option but to trust their employers.

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There is categorically no suggestion that Sir Philip did anything illegal in taking £400m out of BHS whilst its pension fund sank into a deficit of £571m.

Or that he did anything illegal in selling the company for a token sum to Dominic Chappell, branded a liar lacking the know-how to run the company by his own executives to MPs last week, one of whom said his life was threatened when an attempt to move money out of BHS accounts was blocked.

However, just as Sir Philip and Mr Chappell are entitled to argue that they behaved perfectly legally, so the rest of us are entitled to regard their conduct with scorn and distaste, or to consider that knighthoods should only belong to the honourable.

Also up before MPs last week was Mike Ashley, boss of Sports Direct, where workers have complained of a culture of fear, and some have to pay £10 a month to access their wages.

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Then there were the Panama Papers, which revealed how wealthy companies and individuals have cut their tax bills with the ingenious – and legal – use of offshore havens.

And everybody’s favourite benign internet search engine, Google, one of the world’s richest companies, turned out to be paying a comparatively miniscule amount of UK tax, again thanks to moving money around offshore subsidiaries.

Such behaviour is the despair of those running honest, responsible companies, large and small, who pay their taxes and have the welfare of employees at the forefront of their minds.

It gives business a bad name, fostering resentment amongst the public who see a few fat-cats grow rich at the expense of the people who work for them, and become suspicious that many companies harbour a dark heart behind a façade of respectability.

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The shield of legality that those who might behave unscrupulously can deploy is a matter of intense frustration.

Two senior MPs from different parties have given voice to this. Last week, Yorkshire Conservative David Davis pointed out the moral responsibility successive governments bear for allowing a legal framework to develop that gives the disreputable so much wriggle room. And Labour’s Frank Field spoke of his concern at the lack of a “moral framework” in some businesses, adding: “We have regulators, but that is no substitute for knowing how to behave.”

Both are correct, and if any good is to come out of this parade of legal getting-away-with-it, much thought needs to be given to tightening up the law.

In the meantime, MPs have the rare chance to become champions of a public which so often regards them with hostility by making it clear that there is not one rule for the rich corporate oligarchs and another for the people who work for them.

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Humiliation is a powerful weapon, and subjecting those who dance through legal loopholes to a public grilling in the Commons is likely to discourage others from following the same path.

Pressure from within the business community also has its part to play in maintaining a moral framework. Companies need to be seen to act fairly if customers are not to turn away turn away in disillusion or disgust.

It is a rare coalition of unity that brings the public, MPs and honest business together. The pity is that it takes the unacceptable face of capitalism, with its hapless victims, to do it.