Friday 23 March 2018

UK wants big private firms to open books

The British move is a response to last year’s collapse of the BHS retail chain. File Photo: PA
The British move is a response to last year’s collapse of the BHS retail chain. File Photo: PA
Donal O'Donovan

Donal O'Donovan

Some of Ireland's most secretive private companies could be forced to reveal detailed financial data for the first time, under radical plans unveiled in the UK.

Private Irish companies with substantial UK operations - including the likes of Dunnes Stores, Larry Goodman's ABP Group and retailers like Smyths Toys and Musgrave Group - would be forced to dramatically increase the level of public disclosure about their finances.

The British move is a response to last year's collapse of the BHS retail chain after it was sold by retailer Philip Green for just £1, with a £571m (€670m) hole in its pension fund.

The BHS collapse was dubbed "the unacceptable face of capitalism" in a report last year by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee.

That report said that Mr Green, BHS buyer Dominic Chappell, company directors and assorted advisers all got richer or rich from their roles with BHS, while ordinary employees and pensioners were the losers.

It sparked a consultation by the UK government on corporate reform.

Yesterday, in response, the House of Commons committee said corporate governance and reporting requirements that only apply to stock market-traded firms should be extended to private firms that "have an important social impact: large private companies and those with over 5,000 defined benefit pension scheme members".

In practice that definition would include all large employers. The committee also says company directors should have a new duty to pension fund trustees, as representatives of pension scheme members, as well as their responsibility to other stakeholders, like owners.

That change would affect all company types operating in Britain and Northern Ireland - including Irish public companies with substantial UK operations and large numbers of employees - the likes of Bank of Ireland and AIB, Ryanair, Greencore and CRH.

BHS went out of business in April 2016 with a pension deficit of at least £570m. The failure cost 11,000 jobs and threatened the pensions of more than 20,000 former employees.

In its report yesterday, the Commons committee accused BHS of a "lamentable" level of corporate governance, with little public information about its strength or that of its pension fund, and said that those relying on it for their retirement had no voice in how it was run.

"For a company with a big social and economic footprint like BHS it is simply not enough to be accountable to shareholders - particularly when one shareholder owns most of the stock," Frank Field, the committee chairman, said. "The finances and leadership of a company with so many people depending on it should be open to scrutiny."

The report includes a list of 30 large employers that would be affected by its recommendations, including Irish-owned builder Laing O'Rourke, but it does not suggest the list is exhaustive.

Irish Independent

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