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A very British sell out

June 7, 2016

 

While recent attention has been understandably focused on the future of steel-making in the UK, I find it remarkable how the loss of 11,000 retail jobs seems to have barely registered on some radars.

 

Indeed, the muted reception to the news in some official circles might have you thinking the collapse of British Home Stores after eighty-eight years of trading is a run-of-the-mill event.

 

It is nothing of the sort.

 

This is not just a further symptom of changing consumer trends and other challenges which caused the likes of Woolworths, C&A and few others to shuffle off the High Street.

 

Indeed, the circumstances of how a profitable trading outfit was systematically asset-stripped and then sold for £1 to a former bankrupt has deservedly prompted a parliamentary investigation.

 

In case you don’t know the background, BHS was sold off by tycoon Sir Phillip Green in 2015. He had previously acquired the business for £200m in 2000 as a profitable concern. He took those profits out, quite legally, in the form £400m in dividends over a four year period.

 

He then allowed the tired brand to limp along for another decade by feeding in a few loans from his other holdings whilst building up a £571m pension fund deficit.

 

He eventually sold out the company to former racing driver Dominic Chappell who had no retail experience and a very chequered financial history.

 

As most retail sector observers predicted, the new owner was hopelessly ill-equipped to turn things around and the firm quickly fell into administration.

 

It was announced last week that the brand name which has been a presence on nearly every High Street in the UK would be wound up – along with the loss of 11,000 jobs.

 

Phillips and Chappell both insist they used best endeavours to sustain the business.

 

However, the evidence given to two different parliamentary select committees is that the principal players chose to ignore warnings from financial advisors that the entire business was in trouble.

 

There are also serious question marks about the manner in which the pension fund was depleted and the appalling level of due diligence exercised by the buyers in advance of the controversial 2015 sale.

 

Over forty years ago, a Conservative prime minister referred to the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. There are undeniable echoes here of the same malaise.

 

As a newspaper leading article observed, “the demise of the retailer does not represent a failure of capitalism, but a failure of people to recognise their basic moral duties.”

 

It continues, “It is about the owners of BHS taking millions of pounds out the company, a billionaire offloading a struggling company to a man grossly underqualified to take it on, and the government not doing enough to stop it.”

 

Amen to that. Yet current law would allow exactly the same shabby corporate manoeuvre to happen again tomorrow with those responsible enjoying the same level of impunity.

 

What is more, the latest figures from the Pension Protection Fund show the combined liabilities of pension schemes in Britain are around £300bn.  Five out of every six funds are in deficit.

 

Put bluntly, it’s not just BHS that’s being sold out.

 

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Heritage Galore

 

Like many other people, I’ve often wished that a funding arrangement was possible to help highlight the rich industrial heritage to be found in the lower Swansea Valley.

 

So news that Penderyn Distillery could be the new tenants at historical Hafod Morfa Copperworks was more than enough for me to raise a glass.

 

As you may have read, initial stage approval has been gained for plans for a £3.75m Heritage Lottery Fund bid to create a new production facility and a visitor centre.

 

I wrote a while back as to how CU@Swansea, a partnership between Swansea council and Swansea University, was working to restore the site which dominated the world copper market for 150 years.

 

If things work out, the Penderyn distillery, fully fitted out with copper equipment, would be the centrepiece of the Tawe Corridor regeneration strategy.

 

I know that a huge amount of background work and preparation has gone into getting things this far. So cheers to all involved.

 

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Getting a place in politics

 

Not everyone is cut out for a career in politics. For those minded towards the profession, getting on to the first rung on the ladder can be daunting.

 

Internships in the Houses of Parliament have traditionally been the ideal job-starter route. Previously though, the controversial culture of unpaid posts meant that only those with private financial support could afford to do the leg-work for MPs.

 

Thankfully the situation is changing and the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme now offers paid internships in MPs’ offices to people who would normally not get that kind of opportunity.

 

The scheme offers a living wage over a nine month period along with help and support to prepare the participants for the world of work.

 

Like I said, it’s not for everyone but there’s usually no shortage of applicants.

 

You can find out more about the scheme by visiting www.parliament.uk . I’d hurry though. The scheme closes 17th June.

 

 

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