BHS 'sorted' according to Sir Philip

BHS store closing down Image copyright Reuters

Nearly five months ago, Sir Philip Green promised to "sort" the pension problems at BHS. In his mind - he's delivered.

I understand that Sir Philip is offering around £250m. The Pensions Regulator wants around £350m.

Working with the help of global accounting heavyweights Deloitte, Sir Philip has come up with a solution that he says achieves three important things.

It keeps the scheme out of the pensions lifeboat fund (so other pension schemes don't end up subsidising BHS's), it provides better benefits for the 20,000 members than they would get in the PPF and it has the support of the chairman of the BHS pension fund trustees.

Job done.

Not according to the Pension Regulator who didn't think the proposal was "comprehensive or credible" enough.

So its going after him, his family's companies and the other former owner Dominic Chappell to roars of approval from the politicians who were his inquisitors in chief - Frank Field and Iain Wright - co-chairs of the inquiry into the collapse of the retailer.

Ill will

By pursuing this action, the Pensions Regulator perhaps risks being swept along by the understandable tide of political ill-will towards Sir Philip to the possible detriment of the BHS pensioners themselves.

If the regulator is successful in extracting £350m from the billionaire, it is very unlikely that the BHS pensioners will see any of that money.

It is almost certain to end up being paid into the general funds of the Pension Protection Fund to mitigate the hit the industry-wide body will suffer as a result of taking on a pension scheme with a £600m hole in it.

That outcome is not a bad one but it means that although Sir Philip may pay more, BHS pensioners will not get more.

And remember, even that is only if the arms-length panel to whom this will now be referred finds in the regulators favour.

That is a reasonably big if.

Sir Philip's wallet

Last month pensions expert John Ralfe rated the chances of successful enforcement against Sir Philip as 50/50 and told me he has seen nothing in yesterday's announcement to change those odds.

Even if the panel sides with the regulator, that decision can be appealed.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Sir Philip Green went in front of MPs to give his views on the BHS collapse

The last time enforcement action of this kind was taken was three years ago - as of today, not a penny has been paid. This is not a short cut to Sir Philip's wallet.

One of the regulator's main jobs is to stop companies casually dumping ailing pension schemes into the PPF net - like a goalkeeper if you like.

Despite acrobatic efforts, it could yet prove that it's dived the wrong way and this scheme is more likely to roll slowly into the other corner.

Spleen venting

Will the threat of him losing his knighthood force him to up his offer? Maybe.

MPs recently voted to recommend exactly that in a commons motion that passed unopposed.

That was a bit of commons theatre to allow MPs of every stripe to vent their spleen at the "unacceptable face of capitalism".

Despite thousands of documents examined, hundreds of hours of interrogation and acres of negative newsprint, no illegality has yet been alleged - let alone found.

The real decision will be made by a panel of senior civil servants and the number of people who have been stripped of honours without doing anything illegal is a pretty short one - in fact here is the list... Fred Goodwin.

Yesterday's enforcement warning made clear that the door remains open for an improved offer to be made but Sir Philip's response last night ended by saying he believed his offer "confirms the statement of intent that I made in regard to the BHS pensioners".

In his mind he has "sorted it" - there may not be another offer.

What's £100m between friends?

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