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Howson playing the victim rings hollow

Jack Simpson

It has been almost two months since MPs on the Carillion joint inquiry published their explosive report into the contractor’s collapse.

The 100-page document portrayed a board that ran its company with “recklessness, hubris and greed”

It concluded that suppliers were treated with “contempt” by Carillion, which had been “abusing its dominant market position” by making subbies wait for payment and “quibbling with invoices to avoid prompt payments”.

Until today, we haven’t heard much from the board’s main protagonists who were so vilified in the report’s pages.

The select committees have now published the responses given to MPs following the report. 

They reveal that Richard Adam, Philip Green and Keith Cochrane gave the committee curt statements disagreeing with their conclusions, but saying that it would be inappropriate to comment as other investigations were ongoing.

Richard Howson, however, was far more forthcoming.

The former chief executive used the opportunity to launch into a three-page diatribe against the report, arguing that it missed out crucial evidence.

Mr Howson claimed public sector clients withholding cash was a major factor in Carillion’s liquidation, and that this was ignored by the select committee in its assessment.

We have seen this before from Mr Howson.

When he sat in front of the select committee, he explained how he “felt like a bailiff” as he made claims about efforts to collect cash from the Middle East.

This time it was the government that found itself in Mr Howson’s crosshairs.

At the time of his departure there were substantial amounts due to Carillion from public sector clients, he said. These included the Highways England, Ministry of Defence, Network Rail and Transport Scotland.

Predictably, all the clients have refuted the claims.

It is interesting who Mr Howson has targeted this time around.

In the case of Highways England, its use of project bank accounts on work such as smart motorways projects has been praised by the industry as a way of ensuring fair and swift payment for suppliers at all levels.

It is no coincidence that roads subcontractors working on Carillion’s smart motorways programmes were not hit as badly by the contractor’s collapse as those in other parts of the industry.

Network Rail also came out strongly against Mr Howson’s claims, saying that it had sped up rather than slowed down Carillion’s payments due to its precarious position.

Bearing in mind the amount of money the rail client has had to fork out to Carillion suppliers following the collapse, it would have surely been counter-productive for it to have hastened the contractor’s demise by withholding payment.

It is important to remember that when Carillion was seeking a government bailout shortly before its liquidation, Carillion’s management was not asking for the government to pay unpaid bills; rather, they were requesting an advance on work it hadn’t yet completed.

When reading Mr Howson’s response, it smacks of a man trying to paint himself and his company as the victim, crippled by a system that was stacked against it.

Carillion might have been owed some money before its collapse, but the reality is that this pales in comparison to the £7bn of liabilities it owed when it finally fell.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Carillion were well known for not signing up their supply chain to PBA's on Highways England jobs. The fact that some of their HE subbies weathered it a bit better is that most of their JV partners (not all) ensured the supply chain did

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