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
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.