It's time to protect pubs from exploitative PubCos

Too many pub companies force their licencees to buy limited products at inflated prices. But the Tories have consistently failed to act.

I often say that one of the best things about my job is that no two days are the same. But for the first time since I became shadow minister for pubs, I’m getting a strange feeling of déjà vu. This is now the third January in a row I’ve been involved in a grassroots campaign to drag ministers to the House of Commons to talk about supporting British pubs.
 
Pubs need this support so they can get a fair deal. Most people know a favoured local which has been left derelict or transformed into a supermarket. These personal stories are reflected by the national figures. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) estimates that 26 pubs close each week and that each closure costs the local economy £80,000. Pubs are more than just businesses – they are community hubs, part of the fabric of neighbourhoods which bind us together.
                                                                                                                    
That is why it is so important that we fix the unbalanced and unfair relationship between landlords and the large pub companies (known as PubCos) from whom they rent their premises. In the House of Commons on Tuesday we will be repeating our call for a proper statutory code to govern this relationship and protect landlords.
 
Many landlords used to dream of opening a pub so they could be their own boss and run their own business. Unfortunately this dream is all too often not matched by reality. The PubCos own three quarters of Britain’s pubs and often require their licencees to buy all drinks products from them, at whatever price they determine. There also many disputes about setting of rents on pubs, and even cases where a licencee works hard to increase the profit of their pub only to see this swallowed up in increased rents the next year. The PubCos have been accused of creating perverse incentives to squeeze short-term finance out of their properties rather than promote long term stability. No wonder CAMRA estimates that three fifths of landlords tied to PubCos earn less than the minimum wage.
 
The cross-party BIS Select Committee has investigated this issue several times and has consistently recommended a strengthened statutory code to rebalance this relationship. Such a step is also supported by trade unions and small business groups. However, the Tory-led government has consistently failed to act.
 
A new statutory code would not be a silver bullet addressing all of the challenges that publicans face, but it would certainly make a positive difference.
 
In January 2012, the House voted unanimously to introduce such a code, but the government did nothing. So in January 2013, I called an Opposition Day Debate to highlight this inaction.  Just 24 hours ahead of the debate the government announced a dramatic U-turn and promised finally to introduce the code.  But a year later, despite a lengthy consultation, nothing has changed in legal terms.
 
So next Tuesday we will be debating the issue once again.
 
I will make a genuine offer to work collaboratively to get a code on the statute book to support local publicans.  But any new code must meet three key tests:
 
1. The Beer Tie, whereby landlords can only buy products from their PubCo, works for some licencees. However, for many others it means they can only buy limited products at inflated prices. We want every landlord to have the choice of whether to go free-of-tie. This would allow licencees to operate in a re-constructed market which would actually be more competitive.
 
2. When a new licencee takes over a pub, or when an existing rent contract expires and is renegotiated, there should be a fully transparent and independent rent review completed by a qualified surveyor.
 
3. There must be a truly independent body to monitor the regulations and adjudicate in disputes between licencees and pubcos.
 
Many Lib Dems privately claim that they are persuaded of the need for these measures, but have difficulty persuading the Tory side of the coalition. I hope we are able to gain enough support from right across the House to ensure that next Tuesday marks the start of a brighter future for this great British industry.
 
The Campaign for Real Ale estimates that 26 pubs close each week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Toby Perkins is Labour MP for Chesterfield and shadow minister for small business

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder