Is the real BHS scandal that Sir Philip Green broke no laws?

Sir Philip Green, pictured in 2013. Credit: PA

Labour's novice business spokesman Clive Lewis made probably the best argument in today's Commons debate about the collapse of BHS and whether Sir Philip Green should lose his knighthood.

Which is that it is all very well for MPs to vote that Sir Philip should lose his knighthood - which is what they duly did (though the power to make him plain Mr Green once more resides elsewhere) - but the more important point may be that he didn't break the law.

Or to put it another way, since MPs believe that his actions were egregious, shouldn't they look at reforming pensions and company law to shut the stable door before other such nags bolt?

Because if they don't they would face the charge of being engaged purely in petty gesture politics.

MPs debated whether Sir Philip Green should lose his knighthood on Thursday. Credit: PA

So what are the issues raised by the collapse of BHS and the risk that 20,000 members of the company's two pension schemes - which collectively have a £600m black hole - could end up poorer in retirement than they expected?

Well one is about whether it is right that those who borrow large sums to buy mature businesses should be able to extract large dividends from those business relatively quickly.

So for example, Philip Green borrowed most of the £200m purchase price for BHS in 2000. And by April 2005 he and his co-investors had extracted more than twice that in dividends, including more than £300m that went to Green's wife Tina.

But for the avoidance of doubt, what Green did is not unique. He is a one-man version of the very substantial and global private-equity industry. And some of what private equity does, in purchasing badly run companies and fixing them, is appropriate and good for the economy.

BHS collapsed earlier this year. Credit: PA

This means that if a way was found to prohibit tycoons like Green extracting large sums from businesses bought with borrowed money, quite a large and sometimes useful City industry would be shut down.

In the round that might be a good thing. But it might not. And it would certainly be a big thing.

Now the second important issue relates to the one mistake that Green admits to making - he was foolish to sell BHS to a wholly unsuitable individual, Dominic Chappell, who had never run a retailer and had been a bankrupt.

Now as a report written by four top lawyers for Sir Philip makes clear, he was within his rights to sell BHS to anyone he liked, and was under no legal obligation to verify whether Chappell was competent.

As it happens, Green says he persuaded himself that Chappell was more able than he turned out to be because two well known City firms, Grant Thornton and Olswang, were lending their reputations to Chappell as his advisors.

Dominic Chappell bought BHS from Sir Philip Green for £1. Credit: PA

But whether Green thought Chappell was the real deal is really neither here or there.

In theory he could have sold BHS to his window cleaner or milkman, and that would still have been lawful (by the way, I don't wish to offend milkmen or window cleaners, who probably would have run BHS better than Chappell).

So there is surely an issue about whether vendors of big businesses should have any formal legal responsibility to vet the suitability of purchasers.

This is something MPs should examine.

Finally, and most importantly, the BHS debacle shines the brightest light on the inadequacy of the legal and regulatory framework for making sure pension schemes are properly financed.

Sir Philip Green gave evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and Work and Pensions Committee. Credit: PA

It may well be that the Pensions Regulator has the legal power to force Sir Philip to make good the massive hole in BHS's pension schemes, if he fails to provide adequate funding voluntarily - but that is not certain.

Also it is very unsatisfactory that the Regulator allowed the hole to become so dangerously large over the last three years or so.

All of which is to say that if you are scandalised that Sir Philip Green enriched himself from BHS and appears to face only moral pressure to sort out the plight of BHS pensions, you should probably be more scandalised at the feebleness of the relevant laws and regulator.

More on this story