Belfast Telegraph

Probe into BHS pensions following chain's collapse

The pensions watchdog said it has launched a probe into the arrangements at collapsed department chain BHS.

The Pensions Regulator said it wants to make sure that the retailer can meet as much of its pensions obligations as possible.

The fashion and homewares chain has fallen into administration, putting 11,000 jobs at risk across its 164 stores.

BHS has debts of more than £1.3 billion, including a pension fund deficit of £571 million, holding 20,500 pensions in its scheme.

The Pensions Regulator said it wants to make sure that the owners of BHS are not deliberately attempting to avoid their obligations, leaving it to the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) to pick up their pension liabilities.

The PPF is made up of a levy from UK firms, used to pay individual pensioners when a company collapses into insolvency. It covers around 6,000 UK pensions schemes.

A spokesman for the Pensions Regulator said: "We can confirm that we are undertaking an investigation into the BHS pensions scheme to determine whether it would be appropriate to use our anti-avoidance powers.

"Such cases are complex. There is a clear process that must be followed and this can sometimes take a considerable amount of time. We are unable to provide a running commentary on case investigations, or confirm the targets of our investigation."

The consortium Retail Acquisitions bought BHS last year for £1 from retail entrepreneur Sir Philip Green. Sir Philip bought BHS for £200 million in 2000.

Sir Philip, who owns Topshop, is reported to have offered £80 million towards the cost of BHS's pensions, though the regulator could still pursue further payment from the billionaire.

The Pensions Regulator has legal powers to pursue anyone they judge may have made the firm's pensions pot weaker going back many years. It has powers to compel firms to make payments to collapsed pension funds.

Administrators Duff & Phelps said they are seeking buyers for the firm, but last-ditch rescue talks with retailer Sports Direct fell down because of the pension deficit.

Malcolm Weir, head of restructuring and insolvency at the PPF said BHS members would be protected by the fund.

Mr Weir said: "Following the BHS announcement that it has filed for administration the PPF will now work with the Pensions Regulator and other parties to secure the best outcome for the pension schemes. Members can be assured they are protected."

Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: ''We don't want to see BHS staff locked out of discussions, sent to the back of the queue of creditors and treated like fixtures and fittings, as happened at Woolworths."

The collapse of BHS is the biggest retail failure since Woolworths folded in 2008 with the loss of almost 30,000 jobs.

Business Secretary Sajid Javid tweeted: ''Worrying news for #BHS workers this morning. Government is in close contact with the company's management at this difficult time.''

The Government is expected to make a full statement in the House of Commons later.