The MPs’ report into the downfall of BHS offers little solace for its remaining employees, who will have to endure another few weeks of watching bargain hunters pick over heavily marked down product before the final stores close.
BHS closing down in Ashford
Nor will it reassure those who have already lost their jobs and are dusting off their CVs, or who have the dark cloud of a “significantly reduced” pension hanging over their heads.
The damning 66-page report details the sorry state of affairs, dating from Sir Philip Green’s acquisition of the chain in 2000 to where we are today, with the 88-year-old chain set to disappear from the UK high street altogether next month. It attempts to apportion responsibility and to prevent this type of situation ever happening again.
It finds the once shining knight of the retail industry Green ultimately to blame, alongside Dominic “fingers in the till” Chappell and a series of “directors, advisers and hangers-on”, most of whom profited greatly from the chain at the expense of its 11,000 employees and 20,000 pensioners.
“Sir Philip Green’s family accrued incredible wealth during the early, profitable years of BHS ownership,” it says. “Over the duration of their tenure, significantly more money left the company than was invested in it.” The figures are spelt out in detail for all to see.
Later it reads: “Dominic Chappell’s description of £2.6m that he personally took, in addition to an outstanding £1.5m family loan as ‘a drip in the ocean’ is an insult to the employees and pensioners of BHS that he let down.”
It’s hard to argue.
As an avid follower of the parliamentary inquiry, I also agree with the report’s conclusion that “witnesses appeared to harbour the misconception that they could be absolved from responsibility for blaming others”. Everyone seemed to blame someone else, and it didn’t feel like there was true culpability during any of the sessions, which stretched over hours at a time. In particular, Green tried to deflect responsibility for the chain’s eventual demise, protected and supported by a close-knit team of Arcadia and Taveta directors and advisers.
In most situations in public life, someone has to shoulder absolute responsibility for a problem and face the consequences, so the report’s findings, marking out a clear line of accountability, are welcome.
But it does feel like further action could drag on for months or even years to come. The report says Green has a “moral duty to act”, but this has yet to bring any comfort or practical help to BHS’s employees and pensioners or the myriad other companies affected by its demise.
As well as the impact on staff, many people today have spoken of the implications of the report for other retailers.
Frank Field, chair of the work and pensions committee, is pushing for greater control of private companies that are responsible for the welfare of large numbers of people.
I think many companies would rally against greater regulation, which would inevitably lead to more red tape and administration at a time when they need to be able to react to changing shopping habits, uncertainty and increased competition. But I have a feeling this is one issue Field and his friends in parliament are not going to let this lie. Retailers should get their affairs in order.