When up to 11,000 workers lose their jobs, and 20,000 people’s pensions disappear, who is the victim? Why, the director of the company of course!
This seemed to be what the controversially be-knighted billionaire Philip Green believed when attempting to defend the collapse and pensions black hole he left at BHS.
The high street chain store, owned by Green for 15 years before he sold it in 2015, has been at the centre of a scandal. Green has come under attack for £400m in dividends taken out of the firm, and a deficit of £571m in the pension scheme being racked up.
Both the Work & Pensions and Business select committees are investigating what happened. The chair of the former, Frank Field, is particularly furious. He and Green have a somewhat strained relationship. The MP has publicly disparaged the retail tycoon, who in response has called him “biased” and urged him to resign.
Only last week, Green had threatened not to participate in the inquiry until Field stood down. So they were lucky that he even turned up.
Not that he was much use. In a heated and often bizarre hearing – at one point, when asked if he blocked a meeting with the regulator, Green asked if “the sky is light or dark” – he complained he was being “bullied” by his questioners.
“I came here voluntarily,” he said, eyes wide with martyrdom. “Me being bullied into saying something I’ve been asked to say, I’m not going to say.”
After one round of questioning, he even turned to Field to moan that his questioner Richard Graham MP was “beating me up, I’m being bullied”.
But then the playground victim elevated himself rather rapidly: “I’m a big boy,” he said, arms outstretched. “If I wanted to park the blame I think I could spend the next 20 minutes blaming other people.”
Which he did. But for longer than 20 minutes.
“I didn’t sign anything off; I don’t sign off accounts,” he insisted. “Please write this down,” he ordered the committee. “I don’t sign for money, I don’t deal with it . . . I wouldn’t even know where to phone to get any money out of our bank!”
Field pointed out that every other witness had suggested that he was “the guy who calls the shots” and a “Napoleon figure” in BHS’s leadership, so in control that he even micromanaged the supply of coathangers. “We’re just acclimatising ourselves to the different image of you,” Field dryly informed him.
Green promised a “resolvable and sortable” solution to the pensions mess, and did express his apologies to “all BHS people”. But his desperation to shift the blame was clear throughout. “I’m just reading the numbers they gave me,” he shrugged, when called up on some figures.
“You can’t run a business of this size doing everything yourself,” he pleaded. “I was not actively involved in pension conversations . . . I was not a trustee, I was never in the room . . . I don’t want to pass this to other people, but there has to be some accountability [of the] trustees . . . there have been some stupid, stupid, idiotic mistakes.”
His questioners weren’t buying it. Particularly not Karen Buck MP, who pushed him on the fact that he must have been “ultimately accountable” for what went wrong. But Green simply dealt with this with a good old-fashioned technique deployed by businessman through the ages: sexism. Instead of answering her questions, he turned to Field and said: “your lady here is suggesting that I should remember about a board meeting in 20-whatever it was…”
Who’s the bully now?
The more Green was rattled, the more surreal his interventions. He suddenly accused Richard Fuller MP of “staring” – “do you mind not looking at me like that all the time, I find it disturbing?” And told Jeremy Quin MP: “No good you looking at me like that. Put your glasses back on, you look better with your glasses on.”
Clearly a man who doesn’t like being looked at – or his work being scrutinised – very closely at all.
The hearing is still going. Watch it live here.