Punitive fines urged in bid to prevent repeat of BHS pensions 'disaster'
Bosses like Sir Philip Green should face "nuclear deterrent" punitive fines for avoiding pension responsibilities to avoid a BHS-style "disaster" happening again, an influential group of MPs has said.
The Commons Work and Pensions Committee said stronger regulatory powers would give Sir Philip a far stronger incentive to make good on his promise to "sort" the £571 million BHS pension fund black hole.
The controversial tycoon is thought to have offered £250 million to help plug the deficit, £100 million less than The Pensions Regulator (TPR) demanded.
But the MPs said the regulator should have the power to impose fines that could treble the amount payable towards covering a pension scheme deficit.
That would mean TPR could threaten Sir Philip with a fine of up to £1 billion unless he paid his contribution.
The power would act as such a strong deterrent to avoiding responsibilities that it would never have to be used in practice, the committee's report on defined benefit pension schemes said.
Labour MP and committee chair Frank Field said: "It is difficult to imagine the Pensions Regulator would still be having to negotiate with Sir Philip Green if he had been facing a bill of £1 billion, rather than £350 million.
"He would have sorted the pension scheme long ago."
The cross-party committee made a number of other recommendations for the regulation of pension schemes, insisting responsible employers have "nothing to fear" from the proposals.
The MPs said regulatory intervention is often "clunky" and concentrated on stages when a company pension scheme is in severe distress or has already collapsed.
TPR should be reformed into a "nimbler, more proactive" regulator to intervene sooner when company pension schemes appear to be in difficulty and before problems mount up.
The committee said the regulator should "never again" take two years to intervene in a pension negotiation that concludes with a 23-year deficit reduction plan, as in the case of BHS.
Instead recovery plans of more than 10 years should be "exceptional", and the Government should consult on new rules for situations where TPR clearance of major corporate takeovers or transactions is mandatory rather than voluntary.
It noted that companies are making less use of the voluntary practice of seeking TPR clearance during major transactions, with just nine cases in 2015-16 compared to 263 in 2005-6.
A move towards mandatory clearance would avoid the situation that arose when Sir Philip sold BHS and its pension deficit for £1 to the "dismally unqualified" serial bankrupt Dominic Chappell, Mr Field said.
The risk-based levy charged by the insurance "lifeboat" for collapsed pension funds, the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), should be recalculated to incentivise good corporate behaviour and avoid the "moral hazard" of irresponsible companies ducking their liabilities, the committee said.
And pension fund trustees should be given new powers to take decisions in the interest of scheme members, including being able to negotiate restructuring that result in better than PPF outcomes.
"The measures we set out in this report are intended to reduce the chance of another scheme going down the BHS route," Mr Field said.
"We hope and expect that we will never again see a company like BHS be able to come up with a 23 year recovery plan for its pension fund, and certainly not that it would take the regulator two years to really begin to do anything about it.
"It is further inconceivable that Sir Philip Green's deal to dispose of BHS and its giant pension deficit for £1 to a dismally unqualified man, with no plan for the pension schemes and no means of financing one, would have evaded or passed any mandatory clearance scheme.
"To prevent another BHS we need to have the means to nip inevitable disasters like this one in the bud.
"We hope the Government will consult on the package of measures we propose, which would go a long way, without resorting to any new reams of red tape, towards doing just that.
"It will sadly be of no comfort to the 20,000 BHS pensioners facing cuts to their promised pensions, but had just some of these measures been in place they might never have ended up in that situation."
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "The majority of employers are managing their pension schemes responsibly but a few recent examples have raised some important questions.
"In the coming months we'll be publishing a Green Paper on pension funding and as part of this we'll be looking at powers of the Pensions Regulator."
TPR chief executive Lesley Titcomb said: "We welcome the committee's report which recognises the importance of robust and proportionate regulation for workplace DB (defined benefit) pension schemes and of ensuring that workplace pension savers and the Pension Protection Fund are well-protected. We note its recommendations and will consider them carefully.
"We continue to discuss options with DWP for the legislative and regulatory framework for workplace pensions, and how this might be improved, ahead of the green paper, which will consider the future of pension funding, the regulatory framework and TPR's powers."
The Institute of Directors backed the report and said what happened to BHS pensioners was an "outrage".
Its director general Simon Walker said: "This timely report proposes a number of measures which must be closely considered in light of the flaws in the system exposed by the collapse of BHS.
"The committee is right to say that responsible businesses - which is to say, the vast majority - have nothing to fear from potential changes that will only increase the quality of governance in some of our best-known firms.
"Ensuring that the regulator is a more active player in the period before schemes collapse, rather than offering post-mortem analysis, must be a priority."
Lady Barbara Judge, chairman of the Institute of Directors and former chairman of the Pension Protection Fund, added: "What happened to the BHS pensioners was an outrage and the committee is right to look at significant changes to the regulatory landscape.
"I have said for a long time that the Pensions Regulator needs more power to protect pensioners during the early stages of takeovers in order to avoid similar cases to BHS being repeated.
"We hope the Government takes this recommendation seriously."