Carillion inquiry: MP probes must shed more light than heat if they are to be worthwhile

Oliver Gill
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British Construction Company Carillion Goes Into Compulsory Liquidation
Many at Carillion believed the company could be saved right until it collapsed into liquidation shortly before 7am on 15 January (Source: Getty)

Carillion's former top brass yesterday pushed back against a parliamentary inquiry into the failure of the doomed contractor. They are particularly aggrieved by MPs drip-feeding information to the media alongside headline-grabbing quotes.

Whether it be refusing pension top-ups, overseeing "aggressive" accounting or squeezing suppliers, there is no doubt Carillion's execs have serious questions to answer. Ultimately, the business failed under their watch.

But MPs' desire to focus on the personalities means the inquiry is in danger of descending into a collection of soundbites.

Take, for example, evidence provided by the Qatar Foundation-backed Msheireb project.

City A.M. revealed last October Carillion was locked in a £200m row over a contract to prepare Doha for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Msheireb told the inquiry it was “misleading” to say hundreds of millions of pounds were owed.

Armed with Msheireb's response, Frank Field labelled Carillion execs “fantasists”. Meanwhile, inquiry co-chair Rachel Reeves said the firm was guilty of chasing “a pot-of-gold that may never have existed”.

But did MPs try to pin down what was due to the British contractor? Carillion had been working on the project for several years. Did MPs ask Msheireb why it had failed to pay Carillion a penny for more than a year?

It would appear not. The Qataris were taken at their word. It fitted neatly into the settled narrative.

Read more: Carillion’s banks were left on the sidelines while shares plummeted

Philip Green

Timely, then, was an email released by Philip Green (of BHS, rather than Carillion fame) to Field.

"I am aware, as everyone else is, how you love your press profile on the back of me,” Green said. “I do think however the time has come for this to stop.”

MPs on select committees enjoy the limelight. They can do so while at the same time offering forensic investigation – see Andrew Tyrie, late of the Treasury Select Committee as a fine example. But an inquiry that generates more heat than light helps nobody.

Carillion's board undoubtedly need to shoulder the blame. But by simply holding execs’ feet to the fire and ignoring sector-wide problems, MPs are missing a unique opportunity to shine a light on the outsourcing sector as a whole. And in doing so, foregoing a meaningful investigation from which all stakeholders could actually learn.

Read more: Is Laing O'Rourke another contractor we should be concerned about?

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