BHS pensions probe a 'hostile and deliberate' act, says former owner

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The final boss of BHS has accused the pension regulator of a "hostile and deliberate" act by launching an investigation just days after his takeover.

Former bankrupt Dominic Chappell, 51, was the director of Retail Acquisitions, the company that acquired BHS for just £1 from billionaire Sir Philip Green in 2015.

He is accused of failing to provide information about two pension schemes to investigators after the chain imploded, leaving thousands jobless and a vast black hole in its pension fund.

Chappell is charged with failing three times to give information to The Pensions Regulator (TPR) over BHS's pension schemes, which had a combined total of 19,000 members.

BHS went into administration in April 2016
BHS went into administration in April 2016 (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Giving evidence at Brighton Magistrates' Court, the businessman said the regulator had taken an aggressive stance against BHS since he took the helm.

He was handed a section 72 notice - a request to provide information to TPR under the Pensions Act - 16 days after he took over the struggling retailer on March 27 2015.

Separate section 72 notices, served in April and May 2016 and a third time in February 2017, form the basis of the charges against him.

The self-described entrepreneur, dressed in a grey suit and open-neck white shirt, said of the first notice: "We were devastated by the service of the section 72, we found it an outrageous act that was served when we had given the pension regulator every courtesy.

"It was a hostile and deliberate act and it fundamentally affected our business."

Such a notice, he told the court, was a "powerful document resting on the back of the company", as it signalled an investigation into wrongdoing.

He continued: "It would be very challenging for any high-profile individual to come into a business that had been served a section 72 as they could be sitting in the seat I am today."

The high-street giant went into administration in April 2016 with a £571 million pension deficit, although Sir Philip later agreed to stump up £363 million to plug the gap.

Chappell claimed he was locked out of the BHS offices when it plunged into administration, prohibiting him access to all relevant documents and forcing him to wait three months to retrieve personal belongings.

Asked by his counsel Michael Levy whether this had a bearing on his willingness to cooperate with the regulator, he said: "Not at any stage had I even thought about not assisting TPR and had assisted them right the way through the process.

"It had never crossed my mind in the slightest not to comply with The Pensions Regulator."

He added: "We were of the strong opinion we were the ping pong ball between the regulator and Sir Philip Green."

A meeting between TPR and the new owners of BHS was set up within days of the takeover, it was heard.

Chappell said: "We offered them every assistance to help them find out the true detail that had been hidden from them for a decade.

"To go through the accounts of BHS, which they had not been able to do for a decade."

The third notice relates to a request by TPR for information from Chappell about an alleged leak of information to the media from a confidential "warning notice" sent out in November 2016, the court heard.

Chappell, of Clenston Manor, near Blandford Forum in Dorset, denies three charges of neglecting or refusing to provide information and documents, without a reasonable excuse, contrary to the Pensions Act 2004.