A decade of campaigning and debating, as well as four select committee reports, had led them to this point and it was incumbent on the 18 committee members to make decisions that would ultimately affect tied tenants across the country.
The exchanges afforded MPs plenty of opportunity for political point-scoring and no small degree of grandstanding with the chief protagonists: shadow pubs minister Toby Perkins, and the unofficial minister for beer, Andrew Griffiths.
First up was Perkins, whose initial contribution amounted to little more than a history lesson, running over the conclusions of the four BIS Committee reports and the long road to statutory regulation. In attempting to prove his pro-pub credentials, Perkins also admitted to searching the internet for his own Commons speeches and the number of times he had mentioned “pubs”.
However, he still managed to take a pot-shot at Griffiths, labelling him “the person standing in front of the truck trying to stop this legislation from happening”. Ouch. Griffiths was to have his payback, asking why — if Labour felt the need for a statutory code — his party did not legislate during its time in power.
Attempting to rise above the backbiting was Jo Swinson, minister for Business, Innovation & Skills, who has the unenviable task of guiding the Bill through the complex legislative process. The main revelation from her was that there is to be yet another public consultation on the revised pubs code (a final version after amendments), before MPs get to vote on it and it becomes law.
Speaking up for a family brewers’ exemption to the code was Conservative Sheryll Murray, MP for South East Cornwall. Not surprising given that James Staughton, chair of the Independent Family Brewers of Britain, lives in her constituency and his brewery, St Austell, is nearby. Her amendment was voted through by a majority of 11 to seven.
On the issue of fees that tenants will have to pay to refer an alleged breach of the code to arbitration, an amendment by Griffiths (whose Burton constituency is home to Punch, Marston’s and Spirit) would have exempted pubcos from paying the costs of the arbitrator if a complaint was found to be unsubstantiated. Swinson said this was likely to deter tenants with genuine cases bringing them forward and she would resist it.
Labour’s Perkins moved on to the ‘prime principle’ of a tied tenant being no worse off than a free-of-tie tenant, which underpins the whole code. “We must allow the market to decide whether tenants are better off tied or free-of-tie,” he said, at the same time admitting that Labour had not tabled an amendment containing the mandatory free-of-tie option (also known as the market rent only, MRO, option).
Griffiths swiftly challenged Perkins to show “the courage of his convictions” and “have the guts to table the MRO amendment”. Perkins said: “I would say to him that it is not over until the fat lady sings,” hinting at perhaps interventions down the line and the policy of a Labour government if it were to win next year’s General Election. Lib Dem Swinson confirmed an MRO option was her party’s policy.
As MPs waded through the complexities of parallel rent assessments and the difficulties these might hold for RICS surveyors, it was a further amendment tabled by Perkins that provoked attention — that the code should apply to any pub-owning company with more than 500 pubs.
Griffiths was incredulous: “I am struggling to understand what he is trying to achieve with this amendment. Companies such as Wetherspoon or Mitchells & Butlers would be regulated by a piece of legislation that aims to deal with alleged abuses of the tied system... I cannot see the sense in that. I look forward to his discourse with Tim Martin.”
Perkins’ amendment was, predictably, defeated.
The Bill now moves on to its report stage where further changes may be made. The pubs code within it and the protections it promises remain — for tied tenants at least — something tantalisingly out of reach.