Guest Post from Toby Perkins MP: Pubco Reform
Toby Perkins is Shadow Minister for Small Business and Labour MP for Chesterfield
Whilst any politician would obviously prefer to be making decisions in government, an effective opposition can still achieve change in important areas, particularly with passionate and well organised campaigning groups behind them.
A perfect example would be the work CAMRA and Labour have recently done on the regulations of "PubCos" – the large branded pub companies who own thousands of pubs and dominate the industry
Our pubs are amongst our most iconic national treasures. But whilst the Rovers Return and the Queen Vic might remain hubs of their fictional communities, too many local pubs across the country are closing and too many pub landlords are facing bankruptcy. Each of the eighteen pubs that close every week costs their community eleven jobs and sees a loss of around £80,000 to the local economy.
Pubs are struggling in these tough times. Factors such as cheaper supermarket offers to cash strapped punters have played a part in this trend, but crucially the unfair relationship between PubCos and their tenants has gone on too long and must be tackled.
The cross-party Business Select Committee has produced four reports in recent years all of which called for a stronger statutory code to regulate the relationship between PubCos and licencees and in January 2012 the Commons voted unanimously for just such a code to be introduced. This move was supported by a broad coalition led impressively by CAMRA.
Despite all this, the Tory-led government still needed much persuasion to move towards the position taken by CAMRA and myself. As recently as October 2012 the minister responsible for pubs refused a meeting request from the Publican's Morning Advertiser on the grounds that all the government's commitments to pubs had "now been achieved".
I was determined to convince them otherwise, so I called the first Opposition Day Debate of 2013 (one of the rare opportunities where parties not in government can set the agenda for the House of Commons and force a vote on an important issue) on PubCo regulation.
CAMRA played a hugely important role in getting their members to send out thousands of emails to MPs across the country to highlight the importance of the debate. Without this interest I doubt the debate would have had the high profile that it did in the House of Commons and beyond.
I was therefore delighted that within 24 hours of this debate taking place the government spectacularly back-tracked and agreed to introduce statutory regulation. This was great victory for the perseverance of groups like CAMRA.
However, whilst the government now agree that there is a problem they still have not gone far enough in giving the pub industry the certainty it deserves and there remains suspicion that they will not deliver the scale of change that is needed.
A non-tied option for publicans was one of the key changes which the BIS Select Committee called for but the original BIS press release from January 2013 noted that the new code "will not mandate, as some campaigners have suggested, a ‘free of tie option' with open market rent review". A couple of hours later this sentence had been removed from the press release on the Department's website, leaving campaigners scratching their heads as to where they stand.
The government now say that they will ensure that tied pubs are no worse off than free-of-tie pubs, but I don't know of any pubs campaigners who think this can be realistically achieved without a mandatory free-of-tie option.
Even more alarmingly, the government launched its consultation far behind schedule and following weeks of reports in the newspapers that they were preparing to ditch plans for a statutory code following internal coalition wrangling.
We cannot allow the government to perform another u-turn and walk away from its commitments to pubs. I would therefore encourage all CAMRA members to take part in the consultation on the BIS website to ensure that proposals like a guest beer provision – something I know is particularly close to the hearts of many CAMRA members – are included in the final legislation.
I have made it clear that if the government take the necessary steps to redress these concerns I will work with them to get it on to the statute book as quickly as possible. I will be consulting directly with publicans and campaigners in the coming weeks to better understand what must go into the statutory code if it is to work for ale lovers across the country.
I hope the future of the pub will look much brighter at the end of 2013 than it did at the end of 2012.