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Carillion hearing's drama disguises unanswered questions

David Price

The Carillion horror show came to town yesterday, as the company’s former bosses were grilled by MPs in an intense four-hour inquiry in Westminster.

Seven former CEOs, FDs, a chairman and a remuneration chief faced up to MPs from the work and pensions and business select committees.

Apologies were made, regrets expressed, all-mighty tellings-off given, and veteran MP Frank Field got to throw in the odd quip or 20.

The show even had a big finale as business select committee co-chair MP Rachel Reeves looked down on the chastised executives and said: “All of you are sitting here, multi-millions of pounds of payment from the company over a period of years and you say how ‘sad’ and ‘disappointed’ you are, but what actions do you take to show that? It’s just words, isn’t it?

“So instead of the words why don’t you do something? Why don’t you give some money back? Try to make a difference? Try to put right some of this wrong?”

It was a strong end to a session that had seen the former leaders forced to answer tough questions about dividends versus pensions, cash collection and remuneration.

There was even something of a mea culpa from chairman Philip Green.

But in the wake of the drama of the session, so many questions remain which need to be answered if the industry is to learn and improve.

How can such destructive PPP contracts be agreed? Why are firms leaving themselves so exposed in the Middle East? How can suppliers be protected when contractors collapse? And so on.

In retrospect, yesterday feels more an exercise in justice being seen to be done, rather than anything actually being done.

This is partly because while the MPs were rigorous in their questioning, they were not experts in the construction industry and the particular problems it faces.

This was perhaps best shown when Richard Howson, about to explain why Carillion should not have bid for the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route contract, was cut off by Mr Field with one of his entertaining, if not always helpful, witticisms.

However, an outsider’s view has value in highlighting some of the absurdities in terms of the levels of risk and payment terms the industry accepts as the norm.

The committee also released the turnaround business plan Carillion presented to its lenders, which has arguably told us more about the business than yesterday’s four-hour session did.

But what has changed?

The bosses had their public dressing down and some questions were answered, but that should not be the start nor the end of the investigation into the company’s collapse.

I, and many others, would like to know: how exactly Carillion’s two problem hospital jobs got into such difficulties; what clients in the Middle East were telling the management with regard to payment; how Carillion’s suppliers and subcontractors were being treated; why the auditors didn’t pick up on the company’s problems.

Learning this information won’t be as publicly spectacular as yesterday, but it will be much more useful in improving the industry.

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