ALEX BRUMMER: Pensions Regulator hogs centre stage

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The Pensions Regulator (TPR) has shown it means business by pursuing former BHS boss Dominic Chappell after breaches of rules – and is chasing him for £10million.

How it proposes to recover the funds from the thrice bankrupt entrepreneur is not clear.

The truth is that high-profile trials seem to be as important to the regulator as getting things right.

We have had a succession of recent cases where closer attention by TPR might have averted catastrophe for members of retirement funds including Toys R Us, Bernard Matthews, Carillion, and the abuse at the gates of Tata Steel in South Wales.

The Pensions Regulator (TPR) has shown it means business by pursuing former BHS boss Dominic Chappell after breaches of rules – and is chasing him for £10m

The Pensions Regulator (TPR) has shown it means business by pursuing former BHS boss Dominic Chappell after breaches of rules – and is chasing him for £10m

It is also hoped the regulator is keeping a close eye on the implications of a break-up of GKN should it fall to the hostile bid by Melrose.

The entrepreneur who has received the most opprobrium for failing in obligation to pensioners is the only one to personally stump up. 

Arcadia boss Sir Philip Green pumped £363million of his personal resources into the BHS pension fund in February 2017, keeping it out of the lifeboat of the Pension Protection Fund.

Indeed, HSBC (in a document I have seen) wrote to the regulators in October 2016 offering to make the transfer on Green’s behalf. 

But with a publicity opportunity looming, regulators and the Commons work and pensions select committee chose to wait another six months before closing the matter down.

The BHS case is far from closed, despite the settlement. BHS was sold to Chappell, who was advised by lawyers Olswang and accountant Grant Thornton. 

And in spite of taking blue-chip advice from Linklaters and Goldman Sachs, Green and several of his colleagues are under investigation by the Insolvency Service.

There has, of course, always been a suspicion that BHS was sold to Chappell and his firm Retail Acquisitions in the hope the new owners would run it for long enough for any lingering obligations by Green to the pension fund to be expiated.

What no one has grasped is the extent of the documentary fishing expedition being undertaken by the Insolvency Service. One estimate suggests it has reviewed more than 30m pages. 

There has been constant pressure on Green and his legal team for answers, running up a bill which has already topped £30million.

Among the issues the Insolvency Service is reportedly focusing on is alleged gaps both in attendance and records of the board of Arcadia and BHS parent Taveta, formerly chaired by barrister Lord Grabiner QC.

The Insolvency Service has considerable powers, including the right to bring prosecutions which can lead to the disqualification of directors, fines and imprisonment.

The BHS scandal is bigger and more complex than many cases it has handled, and it has engaged a leading QC to advise on the chances of bringing prosecutions.

Green, who personally did most to right a wrong by plugging a gap in the pension fund, is being pursued hardest by the authorities.

If there is to be consistency in regulation then the directors of other firms who have neglected responsibilities to pension funds – including construction and infrastructure giant Carillion – should face the same kind of enforcement actions. 

There can be no confidence that the work and pensions select committee, TPR or the Insolvency Service have the resources and willpower to deal with all cases in a consistent manner.

British justice had its City show trial when it went after the Guinness Four, who were found guilty, in 1990. Key advisers escaped potential prosecution. That is a history unworthy of repetition.

China syndrome

Astrazeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot has struggled to meet the growth targets the pharmaceutical giant promised when it saw America’s Pfizer off the field of battle in 2014.

Speeding up output at a UK drug champion always was going to be difficult, given long lead times for bringing compounds to market and the risks of failure for even promising trials.

Nevertheless, Astrazeneca is able to report two new blockbusters in the shape of heart drug Brilinta and diabetes medicine Farxiga.

It is doing the right thing for post-Brexit Britain with its research base in Cambridge and promising global expansion in China, where it has 11,000 staff and has done critical deals with Alibaba and Tencent.

Onwards and upwards.

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