Billionaire Sir Philip Green is threatening to sue one of the key MPs behind a recent report into the collapse of BHS that savaged his reputation.
Sir Philip has retained law firm Schillings, a specialist in defamation and reputation management. The firm has sent a letter to Frank Field demanding “an immediate and fulsome apology” within 24 hours for comments the Labour MP made on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on Monday.
Field co-chaired Parliament’s joint select committee inquiry into the collapse of BHS, which reported its findings on Monday. Discussing the report, Field told Radio 4 yesterday that Sir Philip was “worse than [Robert] Maxwell”, adding that he was somebody “who behaves like Napoleon.”
Media tycoon Robert Maxwell, who owned the Daily Mirror, died in 1991 but it was discovered after his death that he had taken £440 million out of the newspaper’s pension fund.
BHS, which was owned by Sir Philip up until May last year, collapsed into administration in April with a deficit in its pension plan estimated to be £275 million. The plan was in surplus until 2009 when the funding shortfall began to balloon. However, there is no suggestion in the joint select committee report that there was any wrongdoing on the part of Sir Philip or any other actors in the BHS case.
The Schillings letter reads (emphasis ours):
“In that interview you alleged that our client had stolen money, specifically from the BHS and Arcadia pension funds. This statement is highly defamatory and completely false. Our client has never stolen any money from BHS, Arcadia or the pension funds and you know that. In particular, there is nothing in the recent Report of the Work and Pensions and Business, Innovation and Skills Committees, (the Report) (of which you were one of the Chairs) to support your allegation.
“Clearly an allegation that our client is a thief is likely to cause him serious harm.
“Further, in relation to the recent Parliamentary hearings and the Report and allegations made there you were protected by privilege. That does not apply to the interview this morning (or any others you intend to make).
“In the circumstances, our client requires an immediate and fulsome apology in relation to the allegation (to be agreed in terms of the content and manner by this firm in advance of publication).
“We look forward to hearing from you on this point within 24 hours. This matter is clearly urgent as your defamatory statements are being repeated in the media, for which you are undoubtedly liable.
“The other remedies to which our client is clearly entitled will very much depend on form and manner of your response and in the meantime, all of our client’s rights are reserved.”
Green clashed with Field, who heads the Work and Pensions select committee, even before the BHS inquiry officially began. He called for Field to stand down as co-chair of the inquiry in May after Field told the Financial Times he would recommend stripping Green of his knighthood if the billionaire did not meet the pension deficit left by the failing chain.
As well as the legal letter, Sir Philip on has also responded to the joint select committee report into BHS’ collapse, which heaped blame on the retail tycoon.
The report accused him of taking part in the “the systematic plunder of BHS” and accused him of running the Arcadia Group, which owned BHS, “as a personal fiefdom.” The Taveta Group, an offshore Green family company that owned Arcadia, is criticised as “the apogee of weak corporate governance.”
The select committee report was released first thing on Monday morning and Sir Philip initially declined to comment when contacted by BI but in an email sent just after 7 p.m. BST (2 p.m. ET) last night he made the following statement (emphasis ours):
“I have now carefully read the select committees’ report and note their findings. I believe that the report is the predetermined and inaccurate output of a biased and unfair process.
“With the benefit of hindsight, clearly Retail Acquisitions and Mr Chappell [who Green sold BHS too] were a very bad choice as purchaser on many fronts and I feel badly let down. Sadly, one cannot turn the clock back. The disposal of Bhs was made one hundred per cent in good faith and I still believe that we provided Retail Acquisitions and Mr Chappell with the appropriate finance (c. £200m of cash and assets) to take the business forward.
“As I told the committees, I am trying to find a solution for the Bhs pension and am continuing to work with the Regulator to achieve an outcome.
“I am sad and sorry for all the Bhs people caught up in this horrid story, but I do not believe that this story is being in any way fairly portrayed.”
While Green is battling with Field over his comments in the press, pressure is mounting on Sir Philip to either be stripped of, or relinquish, his knighthood over the BHS affair.
Labour Shadow Business Secretary Jon Trickett said in a statement following the report that: “No one should be allowed to keep a knighthood after such actions,” and an online petition calling for Green to lose his knighthood has attracted over 100,000 signatures.
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