Minister defends not meeting BHS owner over pension scheme


Baroness Altmann has defended her decision not to meet the owner of BHS to discuss concerns over the ailing retailer's pension scheme.

The pensions minister said it would have been inappropriate for Dominic Chappell to have circumvented the pensions regulator, who she said was there to "work out any issues".

She insisted she had been correct to refuse to meet Mr Chappell, who told MPs on Wednesday that he was "held to ransom" by the pensions regulator and BHS's former owner, Sir Philip Green.

However, in front of the MPs Mr Chappell was accused of being a "premier league liar" and making death threats against a senior BHS boss.

Lady Altmann told BBC's Newsnight: "Yes, he had asked to meet me and I didn't believe that it was appropriate for him to try to meet a minister to go round the back door and bypass the pensions regulator.

"The appropriate thing to do is to go to the pensions regulator and work out any issues that you have if you've got a problem with your pensions scheme. You don't try and come up to the minister."

Mr Chappell claimed that as well as being confounded in his plans by the pensions regulator, Topshop billionaire Sir Philip blocked a rescue attempt from Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley and tipped BHS into administration.

He said that on hearing of the potential deal, Sir Philip called in a £35 million loan held by his Arcadia group.

Mr Chappell claimed he did everything in his power to save the firm, including offering Mr Ashley his shares, but his attempts were "rail-roaded" by Sir Philip.

The allegations were made during heated exchanges in front of the Commons Business and Pensions Committees, which are investigating events surrounding the retailer's collapse.

Last week, administrators to the department store chain called time on trying to find a buyer, resulting in the loss of up to 11,000 jobs and leaving behind a £571 million pensions black hole.

Lady Altmann reassured members of the BHS pension scheme and the workers at BHS that their pensions are protected by the Pensions Protection Fund.

Earlier on Wednesday it was claimed that Mr Chappell threatened to kill the high street chain's chief executive, Darren Topp, when he questioned him over a £1.5 million transfer of BHS money to Sweden.

Mr Topp said that Mr Chappell's assurances on buying BHS "unravelled and, rather than putting money in, he had his fingers in the till".

MPs also heard that Mr Chappell was a "mythomaniac", a "premier league liar" and a "Sunday pub league retailer", according to former BHS finance consultant Michael Hitchcock.

Attention will now turn to Sir Philip's appearance in front of the committee next week.

A spokesman for the tycoon said he was unaware of any bid by Mr Ashley or Sports Direct and did not block Mr Chappell's firm, Retail Acquisitions, from meeting the pensions regulator before the takeover.