More freeloaders than free market. How Britain bails out the business chiefs

It’s a scandal. Charlatans in pinstripes are being allowed to wring dry their companies, with the taxpayer footing the bill

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze for Aditya C
‘In an age of untrammelled greed, company executives are rewarded for cannibalising their businesses and bilking their staff.’ Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

On Wednesday, two very different men will have to explain themselves. Both appear in London, to a room full of authority figures – but their finances and their status place them at opposite ends of our power structure. Yet put them together and a picture emerges of the skewedness of today’s Britain.

For the Rev Paul Nicolson, the venue will be a magistrate’s court in London. His “crime” is refusing to pay his council tax, in protest against David Cameron’s effective scrapping of council tax benefit, part of his swingeing cuts to social security. In order to pay for a financial crisis they didn’t cause, millions of families already on low incomes are sinking deeper into poverty. In order to pay bills they can’t afford, neighbours of the retired vicar are going without food. The 84-year-old faces jail this week, for the sake of £2,831.

Meanwhile, a chauffeur will drive Philip Green to parliament, where he’ll be quizzed by MPs over his part in the collapse of BHS. A business nearly as old as the Queen will die within a few weeks, leaving 11,000 workers out of a job and 22,000 members of its pension scheme facing a poorer retirement.

There the similarities peter out. Nicolson was summoned to court; Green wasn’t going to bother showing up at Westminster. When the multibillionaire was invited by Frank Field to make up BHS’s £600m pension black hole, he demanded the MP resign as chair of the work and pensions select committee.

But then, Green is used to cherry-picking which rules he plays by. Take this example: he buys Arcadia, the company that owns Topshop, then arranges for it to give his wife a dividend of £1.2bn. Since Tina Green is, conveniently, a resident of Monaco, the tax savings on that one payment alone are worth an estimated £300m. That would fund the building of 10 large secondary schools – or two-thirds of the annual cut to council tax benefits.

Just as Green underinvests in society, so he underinvests in his companies. The man to whom he sold BHS last year, Dominic Chappell, told MPs last week that “for the past 10 or 12 years there had been little or no inward investment in the stores”. A staple of the high street had been run down.

Then again, what incentive has he had to do otherwise? Green bought BHS with just £20m of family money and borrowed the rest. Within four years, he had pulled £400m of dividends out of the firm – 20 times his initial outlay.

He used the same tactic to buy Arcadia – stumping up £9.2m in equity and taking out £1.2bn three years later. This isn’t retailing as you might think of it, it’s balance-sheet shazam – the kind of financial engineering that posed as real business in Britain’s bubble years. And it’s enabled Green to turn major retailers into what Robert Peston, in Who Runs Britain?, calls “giant gushers of cash”.

But in today’s Britain, the poor are forced to pay the unaffordable, while the tax-avoider is honoured for his contribution to society. Green was knighted by Tony Blair, while David Cameron appointed him a government adviser.

Just as Green pretends to be a cheeky chappy even though he went to boarding school, so any charlatan in pinstripes can claim to be a businessperson – and be handsomely rewarded. The barons who run our rail services tout themselves as “investors”, but for every quid they put into their trains, they take out £2.47. That level of underinvestment ensures commuters are never sure of getting in on time and having a seat – but shareholders and managers can make a fortune.

From Margaret Thatcher through Tony Blair to David Cameron, successive prime ministers have preached the virtues of free enterprise. We’ve ended up with an economy comprised of what parliament’s public accounts committee calls “quasi-monopolies” – from water to banks to electricity to public outsourcing – and big businesses being treated as money-sponges to be wrung dry by their owners and managers.

In the 1970s, £10 of every £100 in corporate profits was paid to shareholders. Now between £60 and £70 of every £100 is handed out. Workers, companies and the economy are thus starved of investment and growth opportunities so that, asAndy Haldane at the Bank of England warns, firms are “eating themselves”.

In an age of untrammelled greed, company executives are rewarded for cannibalising their businesses and bilking their staff. The typical FTSE-100 boss is now on a total pay of around £5m, the High Pay Centre calculates, even while the average employee is still earning less in real terms than in 2008.

This is less about the free market than freeloading. The banks collapse and are bailed out. The Sports Direct billionaire Mike Ashley walks away from a collapsed business, giving hundreds of workers 15-minutes notice of redundancy – and handing taxpayers the £700,000 bill to clean up the mess. Tax-avoider Amazon receives tens of millions of public money to build warehouses, and even has a road in Swansea built for it. Richard Branson takes £28m to open a call centre in Wales.

The public pay for apprenticeships, so that companies get readymade workers. We shell out for upgrading the railways. Most of all, we top up poverty pay. Official figures show that 37% of working-age households in this country now take more from the public purse than they pay in. Not because they’re lazy or unemployed – employment has never been so high – but because their bosses can rely on the rest of us to pay their way.

Survival of the fittest? This is a deformed capitalism, barely worthy of the name – and it won’t improve by slinging a few rotten tomatoes in parliament. We need a working capitalism, where the public no longer give away their protections and subsidies for free – but instead make businesses take their responsibilities seriously.

If rail operators rely on taxpayer billions, they should train staff and pay them a living wage. Why shouldn’t big supermarkets that need public planning permission and licensing to trade be required to stock some locally sourced goods? And why shouldn’t local and central government, which allocate billions in procurement and tendering, foster a diversity of business models – from not-for-profit to mutually owned.

Some of you may think such measures impossible, others may see them as baby steps. They should be the first heaves on the pendulum, turning our economy away from the interests of the wealthy to the rest of us.

Last week Nicolson promised: “I shall start paying my tax again when they stop taxing benefits.” Good for him. The rest of us taxpayers should do the opposite: asking businesspeople what they’ll do to deserve our corporate welfare. That question should not just be put to Green and Ashley, but to those who run all our major corporations. Otherwise, we’re merely chasing out a few big names and hanging up a sign over Britain that reads: “Under new owners, business as usual.”

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