The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a short statement to update the House on the latest position following the announcement this morning that British Home Stores has filed for administration. This is obviously a very difficult time for all its employees. Somewhere between 8,500 and perhaps as many as 11,000 people work in its many stores across the United Kingdom. We must of course bear it in mind that it is also a difficult time for the many creditors concerned, especially those that are small businesses.
BHS is a name that has been synonymous with the British high street for more than 80 years. The company has been an important player in the history of British retail, and still has a significant high street presence, with 164 stores nationwide and, as I have said, somewhere between 8,500 and 11,000 employees. I recognise that consumer trends are changing, moving away from high street shopping and, increasingly, towards online retail channels. We continue to see the retail landscape change. The media speculation today and in the past few days has been particularly troubling for BHS workers and their families, but a clear message is going out to all staff today: BHS is still open for business as usual. There are no plans for immediate redundancies or store closures and the administrators are looking to sell BHS as a going concern. If that proves not to be possible, the Government stand ready to offer their assistance, including through the Jobcentre Plus rapid response service, to help people to move into new jobs as quickly as possible.
There has been a lot of comment and speculation about the BHS pension scheme. The pension regulator is investigating a number of concerns and allegations. I understand that the BHS scheme is in the early stage of a Pension Protection Fund assessment, during which time the PPF will determine the final funding position of the scheme and whether it should assume responsibility for it.
The retail sector is crucial for the United Kingdom economy. The total value of retail sales, excluding fuel, was £340 billion in 2015. The value of retail sales has increased every year for the past 12 years, although in 2015 the volume of sales grew faster than values, indicating a decline in prices overall. The sector accounts for 3 million jobs. Almost a third of those employees are under the age of 25. We intend to ensure that this success continues. In the Budget, the Government announced the biggest ever cut in business rates in England, worth £6.7 billion over the next five years. I commend the statement to the House.
Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)
I thank the Minister for her statement and for giving me early sight of it.
Eleven thousand BHS staff will be desperately worried about their jobs today. BHS is a venerable British company, which has been a feature of our high streets for almost a century. I am sure Members on all sides of the House will hope that administrators will be successful in their attempts to sell BHS as a going concern. At this difficult time for the workforce and their families, we all want to be reassured that the Government are doing everything they can to support a successful outcome to the process. If the worst happens, BHS workers will want to know that the Government stand ready to offer help for them to get back to work as soon as possible.
The crisis facing BHS highlights a wider challenge for our high street retailers, with increased competition from online retailers. It is vital that our high streets adapt and change to stay relevant and competitive. It is important to understand how we ended up here and to think about the implications for public policy.
There are some serious questions to answer, not least by the former owner, Sir Philip Green. He bought BHS in 2000 for £200 million. In just two years of his ownership, £422 million in dividends was paid out, with the vast majority going to him and his family. He seems to have taken out far more in value than he paid for the business in the first place. Last year, he disposed of BHS for just £1. When Sir Philip bought BHS, the pension fund had a surplus of more than £5 million and it remained in the black as late as 2008. Yet when he got rid of the business, he had turned this into a deficit of hundreds of millions of pounds. The pension fund now reportedly has a black hole of £571 million.
If the worst happens, the liability will be covered by the Pension Protection Fund, as the Minister indicated, and BHS staff will get only 90% of the pension they have worked so hard for and saved for. However, Philip Green seems to have got much more out of BHS for himself and his family than that. BHS staff and the public will understandably want to know whether the former owner, who took so many millions of pounds out of the business, will have to pay his fair share of the liabilities that accrued during his stewardship.
It is right that the pensions of working people are covered in the event of their employer going under, but in this situation it appears that the owner has extracted hundreds of millions of pounds from the business and walked away to his favourite tax haven, leaving the Pension Protection Fund to pick up the bill. We know that Sir Philip is such a vocal supporter of the Conservative party that in 2010 the Prime Minister asked him to conduct a review for the Cabinet Office of how to slash Government spending. What he appears to have done with BHS is to extract huge value from the business before walking away and leaving all the liabilities to others, including the public purse. Now we are learning that BHS has paid more than £25 million to Retail Acquisitions, which bought it for £1 in 2015.
What help can the Department give to ensure that the interests of the 11,000-strong workforce are properly looked after? Does the Minister think that taking hundreds of millions of pounds out of a business which then accumulates a huge pension black hole is responsible ownership? What comments does she have on the conduct of Sir Philip Green during his ownership of BHS? Does she agree that in cases such as this, former owners should be held accountable and liable to pay their fair share of any accumulated pension deficit, rather than leaving it to responsible pension funds to pick up the bill through the pension protection scheme?
Sir Philip has reportedly offered a mere £40 million in lieu of the pension deficit. That is less than 10% of the total, but he has taken far, far more than that out of the business. Does the Minister believe that that offer is acceptable? If not, can she set out the options which the Government and the Pensions Regulator have to pursue him for a fairer settlement? Will she review the current law to ensure that irresponsible owners are not able to extract value from businesses and then walk away, leaving the liabilities elsewhere?
My concern is for the workers of BHS and the creditors, notably the small businesses. I find it most peculiar, though perhaps not unexpected, that the hon. Lady should turn this into some party political game. This is way above all that. I have said that the Pensions Regulator is looking at the various matters, and the Insolvency Service, which will oversee the administration, will take very seriously any allegations of any misconduct by any of the directors of the business. Any impropriety is taken very seriously not only by this Government but by all the regulatory bodies that oversee these things.
I could say that it is, perhaps, unfortunate that Labour decided to vote against our very moderate but important proposals on Sunday trading, when there was clear evidence that that would have helped the retail sector. If the Opposition had not done that, they might have a little more credibility when they comment on the unfortunate situation of BHS. This is not a political football to be kicked around by the Opposition.
Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
I agree with the Minister that the predicament of BHS should not be a party political football. The Pension Protection Fund is not designed to be used as some sort of convenient bargaining chip in financial negotiations over the sale of troubled businesses. Instead, it should be used in rare circumstances for Governments and others to intervene to protect the contributions to company pensions where there has been a sudden collapse in a company. Therefore I agree with some of the concerns expressed from the Opposition Front Bench and hope that the Department will undertake an urgent inquiry into the conduct of the erstwhile and current owners of BHS. It seems appalling that the Pension Protection Fund is being abused in this way, and I suspect that BHS is not the only company in this position.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his wise comments. As ever, he provides a good, sensible insight into the situation. I agree with him: we must be sure that the PPF scheme is in no way abused by anybody. I welcome his comments and he can be assured that this team of Ministers takes these matters very seriously and will keep a keen eye on developments.
Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
Let me associate myself and the Scottish National party with the comments made in relation to the BHS workers and families, and express our concerns for them. One of Scotland’s larger stores is in my constituency, and the store and workforce are well known and widely respected in the local community. We stand in solidarity with them today, and we are thinking of all the BHS workers and their families across the UK at this very difficult time.
The SNP is deeply concerned about job losses now that BHS has gone into administration. We acknowledge the centrality of loyal customers to a store which has been part of our high streets since 1928. Behind every closure and job loss will be a personal story. BHS workers have a diverse range of skills and many of them have given long service. In some respects, BHS’s predicament has more to do with the UK Government’s failure to stimulate economic recovery and the confidence of people across these isles than with Sunday trading, and I am shocked and surprised that the Minister, in one breath, tells Labour not to resort to political point scoring and, in the second, resorts to political point scoring herself.
Dig a little deeper into today’s media commentary and one finds some very worrying claims emerging. In a blog published this morning, the Financial Times asked:
“Would 11,000 BHS workers still have jobs if Tina Green hadn’t siphoned £1bn out of the business?”
The tax and business affairs of BHS and the gap in its pensions fund merit serious investigation, so I hope that the Minister and the Government will look carefully at this issue. Will she please tell the House, the nations of the UK and, most importantly, the workers of BHS what the UK Government will do to facilitate the sale? The Scottish Government will do all they can to support the workers in Scotland, but we want a commitment to leave no avenue unconsidered in a bid to secure the future of BHS and its workers.
As I said, our thoughts are with the workforce. It is important to point out, however, that the stores are still open and people still in work—they have not lost their jobs—so we must not talk down the business. We want somebody to come forward and buy the company and to make sure it has a good, sustainable future. That is where my thoughts are at the moment. We want to help in any way we can to make sure a buyer comes forward. I pay tribute to the excellent workers at BHS not just in the stores but—not forgetting—in the various distribution centres around the country. I also have to say, however, that we are the Government who delivered 2.5 million new jobs in just five years.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con)
Tens of thousands of BHS pensioners are set to suffer from this news, so I ask that the Government do what they can to ensure answers to the following questions: how did a £5 million pension fund in 2001 turn into a deficit of £571 million and was there any wrongdoing? If so, will they ensure that those responsible are brought properly to book?
As I said, the Pensions Regulator is looking at the many concerns that hon. Members on both sides of the House are raising, and the PPF is now involved. My hon. Friend makes important points. Unfortunately, some companies find themselves with very large pension fund deficits, which should concern us all.
Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab)
First, may I thank the Minister for spending this morning at the Tata Steel facility in Hartlepool? I was grateful for her time.
On BHS, a theme seems to be emerging across the House. Does the Minister agree that it cannot possibly be right that Sir Philip Green, as the previous owner, loaded the company with debt, did not invest in the business and paid his wife over £400 million in dividends via the tax haven of Monaco? How an owner runs a business is up to them, but when 11,000 jobs are under threat and the taxpayer might face substantial pension liabilities, something is gravely wrong. Will the Minister consider changing company legislation on directors’ duties to ensure that former owners cannot simply walk away from the fallout, having taken the fast buck, and that substantial, long-term value creation is prioritised over short-term value extraction?
We have to make it clear that allegations of impropriety by anybody holding a directorship are taken very seriously and that serious consequences can follow an investigation—nobody is above that—and I am confident that any allegations will be investigated. As we know, the Pensions Regulator is already looking into these matters.
Finally, I know it is a bit off subject but I want to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s first point. I am sorry we had to cut short our trip to Hartlepool, but it was an excellent visit, and, as ever, I found excellent management, an excellent workforce and excellent steel products made with British steel.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con)
I went to the BHS shop in Worthing this morning. I did some shopping and told the staff that they had the support of people in the House and across the country during this uncertain time. The important thing is to keep them in jobs, if we can, and to make sure that nothing is done that harms their prospects of getting the best possible pension, for which many have been working for years.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is the old story: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Unfortunately, BHS is one of those retail chains that has suffered from the presence of online sales and the lack of the support that companies traditionally had. We are old enough to remember when people always shopped in the same places. Those days have gone—there is no longer that sort of loyalty—but here is a perfect opportunity: the shops are still open and still taking vouchers, so if someone has BHS vouchers, they should go and spend them and support the staff and, as ever, the great British high street.
Joan Ryan (Enfield North) (Lab)
I am pleased to hear the Minister say that any impropriety will be taken extremely seriously, because there is a serious concern, given what we have heard about the previous surplus of at least £5 million turning into a pension fund deficit of £571 million, over a period when the company paid hundreds of millions of pounds to Sir Philip Green and his family. I reiterate that because it should be said time and again until we get satisfactory answers. On the workers, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers has offered to work with management to help consult staff at this difficult time. Will the Minister join me in encouraging BHS to take it up on this offer?
Absolutely. I am a firm supporter of good, responsible trade unions. I am a former shop steward myself, so I know the invaluable role that trade unions can play in representing workers, as long as they act in a good, sensible and responsible way—as they are doing, if I may say, in our steel industry.
Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
This is a worrying time for staff at the BHS store on Union Street, Torquay. Will the Minister confirm that, as well as planning to support the company, we should offer support to councils faced with having to find new tenants for major anchor stores on their high streets?
In such circumstances, there is a role for everybody, and my hon. Friend makes a good point about councils, which are invariably concerned about the future of their high streets. Good councils are already doing considerable work to make sure that their high streets are good, healthy places—in a business sense—and this should be a continuation of that. I would urge councils immediately to contact the local management to see what help, if any, they can provide. Some landlords, however, have already been engaged in a period of rent reduction, or of no rent at all. Despite much effort, this business is still in dire straits, but we are positive about the fact that a new buyer might well come along, which is what we want.
Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
I represent Glasgow city centre, which has a great retail sector and two BHS stores, one on Sauchiehall Street and one in the St Enoch shopping centre. My sympathies go out to the workers in those stores who face an uncertain future. I understand that around 1,500 subcontractors are employed by Compass, which does the cleaning and catering, within the stores, and there are also connected supply chain jobs. What is the Minister doing to ensure job security for those workers, in addition to those directly employed by BHS, and will she work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that those workers have the best possible future?
When any business is in difficulty, it has a knock-on effect throughout the whole supply chain. It is not simply about the difficult circumstances in which the immediate employers find themselves. I have already mentioned the creditors, but there are the connected attendant businesses too. It is not just about the immediate impact; it goes all the way through the chain, which is why it is important to stay positive and make sure and hope that a buyer comes forward.
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con)
It might be that, facing a large and growing pension deficit, the previous owner, when Retail Acquisitions came knocking on his door to purchase the business, laughed all the way to the bank. If the sale was done on the understanding that it was avoiding a responsibility for pension losses, that £1 he received was equivalent to 30 pieces of silver in his betrayal of the BHS employees and pensioners. There is a reputational question for Sir Philip Green to answer. Will the Minister write to him and ask him to respond to the questions raised in the House, and will she look acutely at the PPF to ensure that the original legislation is strong enough to avoid this unacceptable face of capitalism in the passing on of losses to the taxpayer?
My hon. Friend knows me of old, and he knows that while I support capitalism, I do not believe it should have anything other than a caring heart. I do not believe in unfettered free trade and all the rest of it, as one would expect from a Conservative on my wing of the party.
I want to agree with my hon. Friend that this is a very serious matter, and this Government take these sorts of issues and allegations extremely seriously. At the moment, of course, the regulator is involved. Let us see what conclusion the regulator comes to. My hon. Friend and anyone else listening to or indeed reading this debate, as no doubt Sir Philip Green will, should be absolutely assured that if there are any suggestions of impropriety, we will come after people. We believe in everybody in our society doing the right thing, especially when they hold people’s livelihoods pretty much in their hands.
Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab)
Since the closure of Woolworths, Great Grimsby has said goodbye to Comet, Staples, Homebase, Phones 4u and, most recently, WHSmith, which has vacated a very large space within our Freshney Place mall. Many constituents regularly share their worries with me about the future for our town centre, and the loss of BHS would be a real blow to the local community. Does the Minister share my concern, echoed around this place today, about the report that while significant funds of up to £100 million of so-called “negative goodwill” were secured by Philip Green for the future of BHS, rather than being invested in the business, that money was apparently diverted using dividends offshore? If the Minister is concerned, will she investigate those claims, because up to 11,000 members of staff will be concerned about their redundancy payments and, of course, their pensions?
I am in danger of repeating everything I have already said about how seriously we take these sorts of allegations and about how we are looking forward to seeing the outcome of the work done by the pensions regulator. I am familiar with Grimsby, having had the great pleasure of visiting Grimsby Crown court and shopping in the hon. Lady’s town centre. [Interruption.] It is probably a good job that I did not hear what the hon. Lady said. In all seriousness, in common with many town centres, Grimsby faces many challenges. I would like to commend to the hon. Lady a report that was written for her party by a gentleman called Bill Grimsey. He produced one of the most radical and brilliant reports I have ever seen on the future of Britain’s high streets. It is pretty controversial and the hon. Lady may not agree with everything written in it—I am not sure I do—but for understanding the future of retail and how people will shop now and in the future, I think Bill Grimsey had a great insight and put forward many excellent solutions. I commend his report to everybody.
David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con)
When this business was sold a year ago, there were clear going concern issues: there was a massive pension deficit, and the business was sold to an organisation with no retail experience. Does the Minister know whether or not the pension trustees of the BHS pension fund signed off on this deal, prior to it going ahead, or whether the PPF scheme itself was involved? If not, does the Minister agree that there is a loophole that really needs to be fixed?
I always try to give a straight answer to a good, straight question, but I simply do not know the answer to my hon. Friend’s question. I undertake to make full inquiries to answer it. I will write to my hon. Friend, and if any other hon. Members would like to see a copy of my letter, I am more than happy to share it with them, including the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle).
Angela Rayner (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)
I, too, would be happy to receive of copy of that letter. I associate myself with the comments of others about the conduct of Philip Green, and I welcome the Minister’s comments about the investigation by the pensions regulator. Just over a week ago, the pensions regulator had the corporate plan and published it, referring to austerity/efficiency cuts within it. Will the Minister reassure me that there will be a robust approach and that the pensions regulator will have enough resources to produce a timely response to ensure that this does not happen to anyone else?
There will be a robust investigation, and I have full confidence in the regulator.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con)
Will the Government’s reforms of business rates help the BHS property in Cornwall street in my Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency and in the city centre?
I suspect I am going to disappoint my right hon. Friend—I mean my hon. Friend, I nearly gave him a bump up there, which I am sure he deserves—because the changes in business rates are more likely to affect small businesses. Multi-chain businesses, even those with just three or four shops in a particular area, will not get the great benefit that we have undoubtedly given to small businesses, whereby very few of them pay any rates at all and many will have had a big reduction in their bills. That would not have benefited BHS, however.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD)
I commend Ministers for listening where there have been abuses of corporate power before, and I urge this Minister to listen to the Select Committee on this issue. Given the need to modernise in retail, will she reconsider the freeze on further education budgets, so that those in the retail sector can be upskilled to face the sort of challenges that arise in that sector?
I am not particularly convinced, but I will have a look at it and probably write to the hon. Gentleman. Frankly, I think the most important thing is that retail has suffered in many ways, although in some instances it has benefited, from the internet. That is the real trick. It is about how we make sure that there is still a place for the shop on our high streets in the internet age. I believe that there absolutely is a place for shops. I advise reading Bill Grimsey’s report on the future of the high street, which is enlightening, as I said, and contains some excellent ideas.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
Although this is clearly bad news from BHS, does the Minister agree that we should not lose sight of the fact that Britain is spending more on its shops than ever before, that we are the biggest recipient in Europe of foreign direct investment in retail, and that the Government’s plans to cut corporation tax from 28% in the last Parliament to 17% by 2020 will help successful retailers to do even better?
I am delighted to agree completely with everything my hon. Friend has said. I agree that we are doing the right thing in setting the right conditions for businesses to flourish in our country. That is why our economy has grown in the way it has, so that we have become the fifth largest economy in the world, with the subsequent creation of over 2 million jobs. That is our record of success, because we have been doing the right thing by business.
Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
The 11,000 BHS workers no doubt awoke with anxiety when they saw today’s headlines—an anxiety probably shared with many other retail workers on our high streets. The Minister mentioned earlier that she supported trade unions working constructively with the Government to support our industries, so will she join me in meeting USDAW, the shopworkers’ union, to see what work the Government can do to support our high streets?
I can say that I would pretty much meet anybody, but I am very happy to meet USDAW. I might try to convince the union that its stance on Sunday trading was wrong, but that is another matter. There is a really good debate to be had about the future of the high street, and about the recognition that for a large number of people, and especially younger people, the days of going shopping have changed hugely. They will go out to meet their friends, have a coffee and perhaps do some shopping almost as an aside. My daughter’s generation does not carry out the same sort of shopping as I did. It is a fascinating topic and would make a great one for a Backbench Business debate, if I may say so.
Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con)
The market economy on which our civilisation rests is dangerously undermined when the privatisation of vast profits is swiftly followed by the projection of similarly vast losses on to other people, whether they be taxpayers or pensioners. Since corporations are creatures of the state, will my right hon. Friend look at the incentives, particularly relating to excess debt? Will she look at how the institutions around corporations can be changed so that we do not end up in a position where this can happen again?
Usually, when something goes wrong, there are lessons to be learned. I have already commented on our combined concerns about many of the issues surrounding what happened to BHS. I really do not want us to have this very negative view of BHS, however. The stores are still open; people are still in work; now we want to secure a buyer so that there is a future for all those shops and the workforce. My thoughts today are with the workforce, as well as the small business creditors.
Roger Mullin (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
I welcome many of the Minister’s comments, but while Sir Philip Green awaits delivery of his third superyacht in Monaco, it is the BHS workers in my and other constituencies who are paying the price of his greed and corporate failure. Does the Minister understand why many employees will feel that the pensions regulator should seek the entire £571 million actuarial deficit from Sir Philip?
I am getting worried, because, increasingly, the hon. Gentleman and I agree about so many things. I am sure that he is as worried as I am.
The hon. Gentleman has made a serious point about the way in which developments like this affect everyone, especially people who have been in their jobs for a long time. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) has left the Chamber now, but I have visited the Hartlepool steelworks, and I know that people have been working there for up to 30 years and paying into a pension fund in the expectation that when the moment comes for them to retire, they will have a certain amount of money on which to live, perhaps a lump sum. I think that there is an increasingly good case to be made for the right thing to be done by people who have given long service, paid into a pension fund, and have themselves done the right thing. It seems particularly cruel for a large amount of money to be taken from them, especially given their age.
Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con)
I trust the Minister recognises that it is the administrator who is in charge of this whole situation. Will she encourage the administrator to look forward, not back, and will she ensure that the administrator understands that the best way in which to protect people’s pensions and jobs—and the creditors—is to find a credible buyer for the group?
I entirely agree. My hon. Friend has made an important point. The administrators have been appointed, and there is no doubt that they will make every effort to do the right thing by everyone—which, of course, means both the workforce and the creditors—and to ensure that there is a successful sale. The Insolvency Service also has an important role, and I am confident that it, too, will play its full part. However, we also need to be confident about stores remaining open and workers remaining in work, so let us make sure that the administrators secure a buyer.
Mr Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op)
The retail sector is dominated by structural issues such as low pay, lack of progression and job insecurity. It is also dominated by women, whereas each of the 11 industrial strategies in the Minister’s Department is dominated by professions that are run by men. Will she think about what more she can do to rebalance, in gender terms, her Department’s efforts to ensure that this vital sector is not lost from the high street?
The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting observation, and I think there is some merit in what he has said. We know that, until recent years, women suffered from inequality in pay and inequality in opportunity, and that one of the great successes of the last Government was the fact that we reduced the pay gap in the most astonishing way. It no longer exists at all among those under 40. When I have met some of the big retailers, their desire to ensure that people are trained and aspire to advance themselves and make progress has struck me as very good and very healthy, but I will always back any opportunity for the advancement of women.
John Howell (Henley) (Con)
I think that the Minister is right not to want to talk down the business, but I understand that BHS has already looked for a buyer and failed to find one. The Minister said that the retail sector was growing, but I wonder whether this is not an indication of fundamental structural difficulties in the sector that will have to be addressed separately.
That is a valid point. The retail sector does face a number of serious challenges. However, I am reminded that on Friday, when I had the great pleasure of attending the midlands Asian business awards, the head of John Lewis—an outstanding organisation which is almost a proper workers’ co-operative—gave us an excellent insight into the way in which his business has been progressing. It has done incredibly well in managing to combine a high-street presence with an excellent online service. The two are not mutually exclusive; they can be brought together. Perhaps we should all take account of some of the big success stories in the retail sector, like that of John Lewis.
Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab)
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I represent a city centre constituency, and I know that many of my constituents are worried about their jobs at BHS today. The Minister has mentioned the role that the Insolvency Service will play. Given that her Department is voluntarily offering to make cuts of 40% in the service, rather than the 17% demanded by the Chancellor, is she confident that it will be able to help the BHS workers?
Order. I was calling a Chris with a “ph” rather than a Jo with a “v”, but never mind. The hon. Lady was in full flow, and what she said has been heard.
The short answer is yes: I have complete confidence in the Insolvency Service.
Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker!
I welcome what the Minister has said about the positive role that can be played in the trade union, and I look forward to further discussion on Wednesday, but will her Department write to the administrators and BHS to ensure that the company is complying with the law and avoiding mistakes made by other companies in the past, when employees have been put at the back of the queue of creditors?
I have complete confidence in the administrators, and I am sure that they will comply fully with all the requirements that are made of them.
Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab)
The Minister mentioned the Bill Grimsey report. I must admit that I had not heard of it until now, but I have just looked at it, and it does not fill me with confidence. The first section is entitled “Why…high streets cannot depend on retailing for future prosperity”. I think that it will be an interesting read. However, given that BHS seems to be the latest casualty on our high streets, may I ask the Minister whether the report supersedes the Portas report, which was produced for the Government in 2011? No action seems to have been taken on Mary Portas’s recommendations.
I must point out that it was the Labour party that commissioned Bill Grimsey’s report. I urge the hon. Lady to read all of it, rather than scanning it quickly in the Chamber. I should repeat, for what it is worth, that I do not agree with all of it, but I absolutely agree with a huge amount of it. It is interesting to note that a number of our great town centres and high streets are, in effect, putting it into operation. Bill Grimsey makes the good point that high streets cannot rely solely on retail; they have to rely on other things as well. I could go on, and try harder to persuade the hon. Lady that this is an excellent report. I urge her to read it. As I have said, she will not agree with everything in it, but it is a great foundation for understanding the problem and considering some of the solutions.
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
I think that what is going on with British Home Stores should ring alarm bells with the Minister. When Hull-based Comet went into administration in 2012, there were 7,000 redundancies, and the taxpayer ended up paying up to £100 million in redundancy costs. At that point, Comet had been owned for a year by a private equity firm which had bought it for £1, but loaded it with about £75 million worth of debt from which it received huge interest payments before walking off. The Government commissioned a report on what had happened, but they have never published it. I think it is about time that the report was published, so that we could observe the similarities between what happened then and what has happened to BHS, and ask ourselves whether there are lessons to be learnt.
I do not think that the hon. Lady asked me a question, but it does not really matter. I shall be happy to find out what happened to the report, and write to her about it.
Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
Let me first express the concern that I feel for my own constituents who face the possibility of redundancy, having been on the frontline of retailing for 36 years in the branch of British Home Stores in Clydebank. The Minister mentioned future technologies. Thirty-six years ago, BHS, as a retailer, was the future, and I should like us to have a debate about that in the House. The real scandal, however, is the fact that my constituents face not only the possibility of redundancy, but a 10% reduction in their pensions when they reach pensionable age. Can the Minister assure me, my constituents and the House that when the regulator carries out an investigation, it will be open and transparent, and that if there is guilt to be apportioned, it will be apportioned and will be subject to the full force of the law?
The short answer to that question is yes. As for the other matter that the hon. Gentleman raised, at one stage BHS really was the future. I will not, at this point, give my own views on the history of BHS and the lessons to be learned from it. As I have said, I want to be positive, to think about the work force and to look for a buyer. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a debate to be had about the changing nature of the way in which we shop, and the changing nature of retail.