Role of the Parliamentary Select Committees and BHS

The collapse of nationwide clothing retailer BHS has prompted much concern about many issues ranging from pension fund deficits to abuse of limited liability laws. Owing to the complexity and scale of the problem, the Parliamentary Select Committee called on expert advice from barristers at South Square. Hannah Thornley explains the role of the South Square team, giving insight as to why their input was called on, and whether or not we might see more of such arrangements in future.

What was your role in advising the Work and Pensions and Business, Innovation and Skills House of Commons Select Committees?

Gabriel Moss QC, myself and Ryan Perkins, all from South Square, were appointed as specialist legal advisers to the Work and Pensions and Business, Innovation and Skills Committees in May 2016. Our role was to review evidence, assist with the drafting of questions and the analysing of answers, attend the evidence sessions, provide assistance to the MPs and brief them on relevant areas of questioning.

What areas of law were you advising on?

We were advising on company and insolvency law, which is one of the reasons why we were chosen to assist because that is the main specialism of our Chambers, South Square.

What do you think will happen now the report has been published?

There are various investigations that are ongoing. The administrators of BHS (Duff & Phelps) resigned recently and new administrators (FRP Advisory) have been appointed. We have been appointed as counsel for FRP Advisory, so cannot comment any further.

Were you appointed directly by the committee? Did your role end on the publication of the report?

Yes, we were appointed directly by the Work and Pensions Select Committee and our role with the select committees ended upon the publication of the report.

Do you think we will start to see more ‘trial’ by MP committee post a company’s failing prior to any insolvency service investigation?

The failure of BHS was unusual in terms of the combination of the large pension scheme deficit, the unusual circumstances of the sale of the company and its nature as a longstanding nationwide employer. That was why the joint inquiry was launched. I would disagree that this was a trial by MPs. This was a very helpful evidence gathering exercise by the two committees in relation to the failure. I do not think that such inquiries will become more common.

Do you think barristers will be asked to participate in this sort of advisory role more frequently in the future?

I hope so, as I feel that we were able to assist the MPs and their staff from a different, purely legal and questioning perspective, which is one of the reasons why they managed to gain so much helpful evidence. This in turn will hopefully be used to provide the basis for changes in the law so as to give better protection to employees and pension schemes in the future.

Interviewed by Julian Sayarer.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

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