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Power to seize Green's assets would lie with court, says Pensions Regulator boss

Published 23/11/2016

MP Frank Field, right, has asked whether Sir Philip Green's assets could be seized over the BHS pensions black hole
MP Frank Field, right, has asked whether Sir Philip Green's assets could be seized over the BHS pensions black hole

The power to seize Sir Philip Green's assets, including his superyacht, to help plug the yawning gap in the BHS pension scheme would lie with a court, the head of the Pensions Regulator has said.

Chief executive Lesley Titcomb moved to assure members of the retailer's pension scheme that the watchdog was "relentlessly" pursuing the best outcome.

However, she said the process of pursuing Sir Philip for funds to plug the £571 million hole the scheme was left with when it collapsed was still at an early stage, and it would ultimately be up to a court to decide whether it would enforce the debt through an asset seizure.

"If we are talking about a contribution notice that creates a normal legally enforceable debt to the scheme, it would be then the scheme trustees of the Pension Protection Fund, with our full support in any way, shape or form that we could offer, would seek to recover that debt through the courts and the court would determine how that would be achieved," she said.

She told a committee of MPs that the watchdog's determinations panel will decide if it is appropriate to issue a contribution notice on the billionaire.

This would convert the retailer's mammoth pension liability into debt, after which a court would decide if Sir Philip's assets can be seized to help pay it off.

However, she said the watchdog did not have the power to freeze assets.

It comes after MPs raised the prospect of Sir Philip's multimillion-pound superyacht and other assets being seized to fill the void in the BHS pension fund.

Asked by the Work and Pensions Committee whether it would be the job of the courts to look at the assets which they would seize to meet the sum which is due, she said: "Yes, that is right."

Sir Philip owned the retailer for 15 years before selling it in 2015 for £1 to a consortium led by former bankrupt Dominic Chappell.

Labour MP Frank Field, who chairs the committee, pointed to the fact that it is now almost six months since Sir Philip pledged to "sort" the deficit and his "ostentatious displays of wealth".

The tycoon has been lambasted for his role in the firm's collapse and has received particular ire for cruising the summer away in the Mediterranean on his yacht Lionheart - reportedly worth £100 million - while pensioners were left facing an uncertain future.

The Pensions Regulator is also "monitoring" the pension scheme for another arm of Sir Philip's retail empire, the Arcadia Group, which includes Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge.

Tom McPhail, head of retirement policy at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: "Many people will find the prospect of the bailiffs seizing Sir Philip's yacht peculiarly appealing.

"His failure to offer the regulator a comprehensive and credible deal on the BHS pension scheme six months on from his promise to 'sort it out' has left no option but to pursue legal enforcement.

"The process will take many months yet though and there is always the possibility that he will yet make an acceptable offer - just possibly the prospect of the bailiffs on the gangplank will focus his mind.

"In the meantime, the scheme members continue to enjoy the security of the Pension Protection Fund lifeboat scheme, with the hope that a better deal may eventually be secured on their behalf."

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