An inquiry by MPs into the collapse of Thomas Cook gets under way on Tuesday, with company directors, including Peter Fankhauser, who was chief executive when it went under, the first to appear. Auditors, regulators and possibly ministers are expected to give evidence to the investigation by the cross-party business, energy and industrial strategy committee (BEIS).
MPs will demand to know who was to blame for a corporate failure that put 9,000 jobs at risk and left 150,000 Britons stranded overseas, forcing the government into the UK’s largest peacetime repatriation effort, likely to cost more than £100m.
Here are some questions that the committee, chaired by Labour MP Rachel Reeves, could – and should – ask directors.
Will executives hand back bonuses?
This is more complicated than it looks. Yes, the company’s last three chief executives earned £35m between them in the 12 years leading up to the tour operator’s collapse. Yes, executives pocketed £20m in bonuses alone in the past five years. However in practice, not all of that money is going to be returned. For a start, the majority of the £4.6m in bonuses given to Fankhauser came in shares that he still owned when the company went under. Those are now worthless.
His predecessor Harriet Green gave away one third of a £5.6m bonus to charities after the deaths of two children from carbon monoxide poisoning in 2006 in Thomas Cook accommodation in Corfu. But expect MPs, always unsympathetic to corporate greed, to demand that executives give back any bonuses they have left over. The company’s pay committee chief Warren Tucker is likely to be cross-examined on why pay was so high in the first place.
How did the business rack up £1.2bn of debt?
It had short-term problems such as the weather and Brexit but Thomas Cook ultimately collapsed under the weight of its mammoth debt pile. MPs will want successive chief executives to explain how it was allowed to borrow so much. Much of the debt accumulated under acquisition-happy former boss Manny Fontenla-Novoa, while Green, his successor, took over a company that borrowed even more to survive. The committee will also want to know why auditors, already under intense scrutiny in the wake of a series of high profile business failures, such as Carillionand BHS, signed off the accounts as the debt piled up.
Who knew what – and for how long – about the company’s problems?
Details of meetings with ministers, revealed by the Guardian, show that Thomas Cook executives held increasingly frequent summits with ministers in the months leading up to its failure. In fact, the Civil Aviation Authority had earmarked the company for enhanced monitoring in November 2018, having become alarmed by successive profit warnings. The department for transport was the main point of contact with Thomas Cook but directors also met ministers from multiple government departments as its woes mounted. Strangely, the department for business was not one of them. The select committee that holds that department to account will likely want to know why. MPs might also want to know why the company was still reassuring customers that everything was going to be OK when they must have known that the business was on the brink of collapse.
Could Thomas Cook have been saved?
A series of rescue plans involving creditors and potential new investors were mooted in the year leading up to Thomas Cook’s failure. Ultimately no rescue deal for the whole business materialised. But events since the tour operator’s failure raise doubts about the notion that the business was a total basket case. The airline was profitable and family-run Hays Travel had to beat off competition to buy the high street shop network, expressing confidence that it was a viable business. Overseas divisions such as the Condor airline in Germany have been kept going with money from their governments.
Should the UK government have bailed it out?
As the end neared, Thomas Cook directors wanted the government to step in with some sort of financial support but were met with a flat refusal. Transport minister Grant Shapps has since said that to invest taxpayers’ cash into a failing business would have been throwing good money after bad. But company sources have previously told the Guardian that a last-ditch rescue, backed by the Spanish and Turkish governments, was in place but melted away once Westminster made clear it didn’t believe Thomas Cook was salvageable. The committee has yet to summon ministers to give evidence but may yet do so, depending on what executives reveal about their discussions with government.
Is the package holiday doomed?
According to Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, the package holiday is “screwed”. MPs will be wondering whether a reckoning is coming in the wider tourism industry as the internet becomes even more embedded in the way British people buy holidays. There remain more than 3,000 bricks-and-mortar travel agents, so a wider industry issue could accelerate the problems already facing the high street, risking more redundancies. That being said, figures from the Office for National Statistics and tour operator industry body Abta indicate that packages are still in demand, with people buying them in their millions.