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Cut the BHS - Time for May to Reform Rotten Core of Capitalism

27/07/2016 09:35 | Updated 27 July 2016

Grotesque greed is only a small part of the scandal over how the department chain BHS was allowed to collapse, the bulk of it is the failure of Capitalism Plc.

So we'd better hope that Theresa May delivers on her promise to reform business culture in the UK.

The quite extraordinary way that BHS, a company employing 11,000 people with an 88 year history, could be sold with a huge pension black hole for £1, and to a former bankrupt with no relevant experience, is a watershed moment. Our new Prime Minister must seize it.

If all that happens is a removed knighthood from one individual, about which the media and some politicians seem fixated, then an opportunity will have been lost; and the systemic problem at the heart of our major boardrooms ignored again.

Frank Field, who led the parliamentary investigation into the retailers' collapse, compared Sir Philip Green, its former owner, to the disgraced media tycoon Robert Maxwell, an overbearing corporate tyrant who stole millions of pounds from the Mirror Group pension fund.

However, although Sir (still) Philip may not be everyone's idea of Capitalist of the Month, there is no evidence he behaved anything other than perfectly legally, which makes the Maxwell comparison distracting and misplaced. Yet in some ways that discovery is worse.

This is because the sale of BHS involved some of the biggest names in professional services, firms supposed to make sure corporate life treads that fine line between strict regulatory requirements and ethical standards. Where were they when Sir Philip decided to offload the chain? What was he advised?

They must share much of the blame for bringing capitalism into disgrace. Hopefully, Mrs May, one of whose singular qualities is being an unclubbable outsider, will see where the answer lies to a root and branch reform: a boardroom culture in the UK that too often means that people of similar backgrounds and incomes behave as the ultimate insiders and hire professional services in their same image.

This lack of diversity means group think and has done more to hold back the UK than anything else. It is ludicrous that we still have to fight hard to get qualified women into executive roles, let alone get a better representation of wider interests in the non-executive one. Now is the time to insist that shareholders and pension funds and employees have a place on the boards of all firms above a certain size.

This will not only help maintain the UK's reputation for good corporate governance, but also tie more people into feeling responsible for how a firm behaves.

In the past, trade unions filled this role from the outside, effectively threatening firms to take account of wider interests with withdrawal of labour. It seems more than coincidental that the general decline on boardroom behaviour tracks closely the decline in union power.

There is still a lot to learn from the collapse of BHS and the earlier employment scandal at Sports Direct. But how we address their respective owners is the least of them.

It could also be that the pressure on 'high street' retailers from the internet is forcing corners to be cut, standards to fall. If that is the wider context, then politicians and regulators must look harder at forcing responsibility. The pension liabilities of a firm should be at the forefront of any takeover process, not an afterthought; or worse, a responsibility that can be shelved for years and years.

Meanwhile, whilst 11,000 BHS workers are about to lose their jobs, all Philip Green seems to risk is being called 'Mr' again. We deserve better.

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