MPs' debate about Sir Philip Green's knighthood is premature

Perhaps a deadline for the retail tycoon to ‘sort’ the BHS deficit before taking away his title might focus him on fixing the hole in the fund

Sir Philip Green is clearly desperate to keep his gong. The Topshop tycoon would not be telling ITV viewers about his “horrible, horrible, horrible” summer, or recounting his heart trouble, if the knighthood didn’t matter. We assumed as much, which is why the interview was mostly interesting for what Green, on the eve of a parliamentary debate about BHS and whether or not he should lose his knighthood, did not say about the mess at BHS.

First, he did not indicate clearly when he thinks agreement will be reached with the Pensions Regulator. Instead he said: “I am hopeful that we have some light in the tunnel to a solution,” which has been his vague line for many months. The regulator’s account was blunter: “We are yet to receive a comprehensive and credible written proposal and have made clear what we require.”

Second, Green did not say if BHS pensioners will receive the pensions they expected. He said he wants to get to a position where the Pensions Protection Fund (PPF), the industry-wide rescue scheme, is not required. But since the PPF rules mean basic-level pensioners must suffer 10% haircuts, BHS retirees could still take a hit. If such an outcome is in Green’s mind, it would be better if he was frank.

Those MPs who have followed this saga closely may also have been annoyed by Green’s insistence on quoting a figure of £600m for what his family “put back” into BHS after taking £300m in dividends in the early years of ownership. His “put back” number includes £350m of “investment” that may cover the everyday costs of running a chain of department stores. A more useful figure in this context is net investment after depreciation: it was negative in 10 out of 14 years of ownership by the Green family, the select committee’s report showed, quoting BHS accounts.

Add it all up, and one suspects Green’s plea for mercy will achieve little. It is odds-on that MPs will recommend that the knighthood be annulled, assuming the speaker allows a vote.

Yet the attempt to put pressure on the honours forfeiture committee feels as if it has come too soon. Yes, Green is an unsympathetic character, his answers can be slippery and his attempts to shift blame onto his advisers are irritating. Yes, the sale of BHS to a thrice bankrupt individual whose outfit was described as a “shambles” by the two select committees was legal but shocking – or, as Green now admits, a mistake. And, yes, the delay in “sorting” the pension deficit, which is Green’s declared ambition, has become tiresome. If he had acted firmly when he owned the business, the funding position might not have deteriorated so severely.

Yet, at the end of the process with the Pensions Regulator, Green will be presented with a bill and be expected to pay. If he refuses, the knighthood should be removed – no question. But if he pays up, what are the grounds for degonging? Green, albeit after faffing around for ages, would have met the demands of a regulator that enjoys the support of parliament. It would be better if MPs set a deadline for Green to do the right thing for BHS pensioners and then returned to the question of the knighthood.

There’s no need to kick the can any further down the runway

Artist’s impression of proposed Gatwick expansion by architect planner Sir Terry Farrell.
Artist’s impression of proposed Gatwick expansion by architect planner Sir Terry Farrell. Photograph: Gatwick Airport/PA

Change is coming, Theresa May told us many times a few weeks ago. Only up to a point at Heathrow, it seems. Like her predecessors, May senses trouble on the runway.

At a push, we could agree that is an advance on the previous indecision if the government will next week indicate a preference for a third runway at Heathrow. But retreating from a parliamentary vote on expansion until winter 2017-18 is feeble. The couple of Tory MPs who would resign their seats will presumably still be in a resigning mood a year from now.

This column has always argued that Gatwick is the logical option for a new runway (it would be cheaper and more likely to happen) but Heathrow is a respectable choice from a political perspective since it had the backing of the Airports Commission, the body David Cameron formed to kick the can down the road and avoid his “no ifs, not buts” rejection of a third runway.

Sir Howard Davies, as chair of that commission, is not a disinterested party but he is right when he says May should put expansion at Heathrow to a vote in the Commons without delay. The pros and cons have been debated for ages. There are no fresh facts to unearth. Opponents aren’t going to be converted in the next 12 months.

Finance chiefs welcome workers to the boardroom

Surprising news: the boss class is coming round to the idea of having workers in boardrooms. A majority in an FT poll of 60 corporate chiefs and policymakers came out in favour of the prime minister’s flagship governance reform. Supporters include Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Legal & General, and Martin Gilbert, his counterpart at Aberdeen Asset Management.

If replicated more widely, the shift in mood is significant. But, if they really want to blaze a trail, Wilson and Gilbert should remember that a volunteer is worth 10 pressed men. There is no obligation to wait until company law changes.


Nils Pratley

The GuardianTramp

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