BHS: Frank Field calls on SFO to launch formal inquiry into demise

The co-author of a parliamentary report into the demise of BHS has called on the Serious Fraud Office to launch a formal inquiry into the actions of the department store chain’s former owners, reports The Guardian.

MP Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions committee, has written to the head of the SFO asking the organisation to initiate an inquiry into whether Sir Philip Green or Dominic Chappell had broken the law.

His letter comes after a joint report published on Monday by Field’s committee and the business innovation and skills select committee concluded that Green had “systematically extracted hundreds of millions of pounds from BHS”.

All remaining BHS stores are expected to close by the end of August with the loss of 11,000 jobs after the business went into administration in April, 13 months after Green sold it to the former bankrupt Chappell for £1. The retirement savings of 22,000 current and former workers have also been hit as the firm’s pension fund was left with a deficit of £571m.

In his letter to the SFO’s director, David Green, Field wrote that “in the light of the extraordinary evidence” received by both committees, the investigatory body should examine whether money was “moved in such a way as to attempt to mislead people into believing Mr Chappell was a credible buyer for BHS”.

The SFO has previously confirmed receipt of material relating to BHS which it is reviewing. It has not yet decided whether to launch a formal investigation.

A SFO spokesperson said: “If the director considers there are reasonable grounds to suspect serious or complex fraud which meets his criteria, he will open a criminal investigation.”

The SFO is a specialist prosecuting authority that only tackles the top level of serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption. When deciding whether to launch an inquiry, it considers whether any apparent criminal action “undermines UK PLC commercial or financial interests in general and in the City of London in particular”.

In weighing up whether to launch a formal investigation, it will also consider whether there is a public interest dimension and whether economic harm might be caused.

MPs found that Chappell’s Retail Acquisitions failed a number of tests set by Green’s retail business to determine his credibility. Nonetheless, Green arranged £25m in financial assistance for Retail Acquisitions to help smooth through the deal.

He also helped Retail Acquisitions with a £10m contribution linked to a property deal, according to the parliamentary report. MPs concluded: “Sir Philip attempted to make good Retail Acquisitions’ financial inadequacies to facilitate the sale. He was both sides of the deal.”

Field told the Guardian that it was not clear why Green had gone to such lengths to assist Chappell. He said the SFO should carry out a thorough investigation to reassure the public that “no stone had been left unturned and nothing improper found” in relation to BHS.

Green declined to comment on Field’s letter, but has previously said he believed the MPs’ report was the “predetermined and inaccurate output of a biased and unfair process”.

Chappell told the Guardian: “I’m sure if the SFO had concerns they would be looking into it. I am totally of the belief that everything we did was accurate and correct.”

The former BHS boss said he was meeting his lawyers and planned a full response to the MPs’ report, but that it might take “a few weeks.”

Field’s letter comes after Green threatened legal action against him over his comments to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the retail tycoon was the principal character in the collapse of BHS and “worse than Robert Maxwell”.