Simon Walker, director general of the IoD, discusses Sir Philip Green and the collapse of BHS, freeing the market for healthcare and London’s new mayor
Christopher Hitchens, often caustic in his social commentary, once said that “there is no such thing as notoriety [in the US] these days, let alone infamy. Celebrity is all.” Fame, it seems, is so enticing that people scarcely care whether they are remembered as a hero or a villain, as long as they are remembered.
So perhaps it does not bother Sir Philip Green, Britain’s leading celebrity retailer, that his reputation hangs in the balance over the collapse of BHS. His good (or bad) name is his concern, but where it becomes a worry for all decent, hard-working businesspeople out there is the implication that he might be typical.
Like Donald Trump, Green presents a bizarre and unreal image to young people looking at a business career. The IoD members I have met in the last five years, while clearly successful at what they do, are more likely to have remortgaged their home to finance their company than to own a superyacht. Green’s remonstration that two parliamentary committees investigating him were conducting a “trial by media” is particularly ironic given his constant seeking of the limelight, often flanked by celebrity friends.
The affair has led MPs to revive Edward Heath’s famous accusation [aimed at Tiny Rowland] that Green is the “unacceptable face of capitalism”, and prompted the investigations, but Green is not the only one who has questions to answer. One of the major concerns is the fate of members of BHS’s pension scheme, but where were the pension fund trustees when the company was offloaded for a pound to a three-times bankrupt with no obvious credentials to run a major high-street brand? And where were the regulators, who say they only found out about the sale when they read about it in the papers?
The reckoning for this debacle will leave very few people coming out smelling of roses.
Freeing the market for healthcare
Bravo Boots! Britain’s biggest chemist is to offer in-store skin cancer checks and diabetes treatment. In time, the company wants to offer a £7.50 on-demand sore throat check and a £35 service that will scan patients’ moles and send them to a dermatologist for remote analysis. LloydsPharmacy is also offering health checks and asthma and respiratory clinics. Pharmacists are a particularly well-trained and under-utilised part of the UK’s healthcare structure.
Already the whingers are complaining that this represents “privatisation by the back door” and the Patients’ Association is asking about “safeguards to protect patients”. The British Medical Association also professes worry about a degree of competition between pharmacists and doctors.
What rot! With family doctors facing 60 million more appointments than five years ago, and consultations among over-85s up by a quarter, this is a sensible complement to an overstretched NHS. If the politically untouchable commitment to “free at the point of delivery” is to last, it needs to be supplemented by competitive and easily available treatment for straightforward conditions for those willing to pay a few pounds for rapid attention. Let the market provide!
More competition, Mr Mayor
Many congratulations to Sadiq Khan on his election as mayor of London. He made clear in his campaign that he was keen to work with business, and I look forward to seeing more of him, to discuss matters such as support for London’s thriving start-up scene. He has one of the most high-profile jobs in British politics, and I urge him to use it to promote competition and innovation in the capital. Speaking of competition, Khan is now just one of a host of directly elected mayors across England – the race is now on to see who can use their powers most effectively to boost growth in their city.
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