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Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Bill

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2022

Consideration of Lords amendments

Financial privilege is not engaged by any of the Lords amendments.

Clause 2

“Rent” and “business tenancy”

Before I speak to the Lords amendments, I thank the shadow Ministers—the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury)—for their constructive and positive engagement during the Bill’s passage through the House. I have been pleased with the support for the Bill across both Houses. The Government made several amendments in the other place to ensure that the Bill is as useful as it can be. To that end, I believe that Members across this House will support the amendments.

I will begin with the Lords amendments that were introduced following extensive engagement with the Welsh Government; I am grateful for their positive and thoughtful discussions about the Bill. Lords amendments 1, 3, 4, 6 to 8, 10, 15 and 17 were introduced to allow Welsh Ministers to have rightful control over devolved matters.

Lords amendment 1 defines Welsh and English business tenancies to allow the Bill to distinguish between business tenancies in later provisions.

Lords amendment 3 clarifies that the power to extend the time limit for making a reference to arbitration could be exercised separately for English or Welsh business tenancies, as well as for both.

Lords amendment 4 removes a definition that is redundant due to Lords amendment 6 to clause 23.

Lords amendments 6 and 7 decouple the moratorium period from the period for making a reference to arbitration. They provide that the moratorium period will end six months from Royal Assent unless extended.

Lords amendment 8 inserts a new clause that means that the consent of Welsh Ministers would be needed to extend the moratorium period for Welsh businesses in respect of devolved matters.

On the power in clause 28—which was previously clause 27—to reapply the Act, Lords amendment 10 enables regulations under the clause to be made just for English or Welsh business tenancies, as well as for both.

Lords amendment 15 requires the consent of Welsh Ministers to exercise the power to reapply devolved provisions in relation to Welsh business tenancies.

Lords amendment 17 inserts a new clause that provides that Welsh Ministers can use the power in clause 28 concurrently with the Secretary of State insofar as it relates to the reapplication, in respect of Welsh business tenancies, of devolved provisions—that is, certain moratorium provisions.

Following those amendments, I am pleased to say that the Senedd has agreed a legislative consent motion, for which I thank them wholeheartedly.

Separately, I thank the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for its consideration of the Bill. The Committee raised concerns about clause 28, which, as I said, was previously clause 27. The clause provides that the Act can be reapplied if there are further closure requirements due to coronavirus.

The Committee’s concerns were about the breadth of the power and the potential for significant alterations to be made for a reapplication. In response, Lords amendments 12 to 16 were introduced to limit the power’s breadth. As a result, the power would still allow for targeted modifications in order to accommodate new dates and make adjustments to moratorium provisions to take account of new timeframes. However, the amended power could not be used to change the operation of the arbitration process or policy.

I am sure that Members will agree that the Committee’s points are important and will be reassured by the appropriate limitations.

Lords amendment 11 ensures that the power can be used in respect of closure requirements imposed after the protected period set out in the Bill, whether that is before or after the Bill is enacted and whether or not the closure requirement has ended when regulations are made. It ensures that the power will be clear and robust for any new waves of coronavirus. Along with Lords amendment 9, it also ensures that the language of clause 27 is consistent with that of clause 4.

We have continued to listen to stakeholder concerns. When the Bill was in the other place, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors gave useful feedback relating to the exercise of the arbitration bodies’ functions to remove arbitrators on the grounds provided for in the Bill. The Arbitration Act 1996 gives arbitration bodies immunity from liability in relation to the function of appointing arbitrators; arbitration bodies were concerned that under the Bill they did not have explicit immunity from liability in relation to the function of removing them. In response, Lords amendment 18 clarifies that approved arbitration bodies have immunity from incurring liability for anything done in exercise of the function of removing arbitrators under the Bill, unless the act is shown to be committed in bad faith.

Similarly, we introduced Lords amendments 5, 19 and 20 as a result of stakeholder feedback submitted via written evidence to the Public Bill Committee. I am grateful to those who submitted evidence, as well as those who took the time to give oral evidence. Lords amendment 5 expressly sets out the effect of an arbitration award under the Bill, including how it affects the liability of the tenant and of a guarantor or former tenant. Lords amendments 19 and 20 are minor amendments to schedules 2 and 3 that clarify the application of certain provisions to former tenants and guarantors, including where an indemnity was given.

Lords amendment 2 is also a clarificatory amendment. It confirms that an obligation to close either the premises or the business at a certain time is regarded as a closure requirement.

I am grateful for the support that the Bill has received. Tomorrow, if the Bill receives Royal Assent, the measures that have affected the commercial property sector for more than two years will come to an end. I will be pleased to see the measures in the Bill play their part in encouraging a return to normal market operation. To that end, I urge the House to agree with the Lords amendments.

I thank the Minister for the chance to raise issues with him earlier. I also thank colleagues in this House and the other place, as well as staff and all those who gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee.

As the Opposition have laid out here and in the other place, Labour has consistently recognised the need for a fair arbitration process to deal with the significant commercial rent arrears that have accrued during the pandemic. Our amendments were intended to strengthen and clarify the legislation, so that the new regime can be effective, accessible and affordable, and can fairly balance the interests of landlords and tenants.

Throughout the Bill’s passage, we have been clear that no otherwise viable business should face an overwhelming burden as a result of rent arrears that threaten its future. Likewise, commercial landlords must have access to clear mechanisms for recouping appropriate levels of arrears. The guiding principles in the process must ultimately be fairness for landlords and tenants alike, and the long-term interests of British businesses and jobs. I pay tribute to the landlords and tenants who have not waited for the Bill to make it to the statute book, but have used the time to work together in good faith in order to come to an agreement.

We should be clear that commercial rent arrears are just one of the challenges that many businesses face. With today’s announcement that inflation is at a 30-year high, many firms up and down our country face a cost-of-doing-business crisis. Labour recognises how difficult the past two years have been for businesses up and down the country. Sectors of our economy such as aviation, live events, travel and tourism have been hit particularly hard.

The Lords amendments, which are all Government amendments, help to clarify the Bill. In our view, they also give appropriate powers to the Welsh Government; we know that discussions were undertaken. The amendments improve the Bill and we support them all, but there are still a number of areas on which I would welcome clarity and assurances from the Minister on how the Government will move forward.

First, we continue to be concerned that the Bill contains no limits on the costs of arbitration. We cannot let high arbitration fees, or concerns that fees will be prohibitive, deter landlords and tenants from using the processes established under the Bill to achieve a fair solution. That would be a failure of policy and of planning.

We have previously called for a cap on fees, but the Government did not accept that proposal. I note that the Minister in the other place said a cap could be imposed if there was evidence that it was needed, but I should be grateful if this Minister would specify his intentions in that regard. Will he update the House on when guidance on the costs of the arbitration process will be published? Will he also confirm that Lords amendment 18—which relates to schedule 1—effectively limits the liability of the arbitral bodies in the discharging of their duties under the Bill, which is what I understood from his comments?

Ensuring the quality of arbitration is important, and we have consistently called for the Government to explain how they will ensure that there are sufficient numbers of arbitrators to handle the volumes of cases under the scheme. What discussions has the Minister had with the arbitral bodies on their capacity, and on maintaining a sufficient number of arbitrators with the necessary skills and experience, and what quality assurance does he expect will be in place? It is important to have reassurances on these issues, especially in view of the limitation of liability that we have put into the Bill.

Finally on this issue, let me say that the arbitration process will not carry confidence unless the decisions are demonstrably fair and there is consistency of assessment. The Minister will know that business organisations had particular concerns about how the “viability of the business” would be established. Viability is referred to in some of the draft guidance published in February, but what review has the Minister undertaken of that guidance with stakeholders, and when will he finalise the guidance that will accompany the Act?

Let me turn briefly to the detail of the Lords amendments. The Bill, which applies largely to England and Wales, confers a number of powers on the Secretary of State in respect of Wales. Lords amendments 1, 3 and 10 are designed to ensure that different provisions can be made in relation to Welsh and English business tenancies. Lords amendment 3 clarifies that the power to extend the time limit for arbitration can be exercised separately for English and Welsh businesses, which is an improvement, while Lords amendment 10 allows the Secretary of State to reapply the Act to both England and Wales, or to just one of the nations.

Similarly, Lords amendments 4, 6 to 8 and 17 give Wales increased powers to extend the moratorium period, which is the period in which tenants have protection against enforcement action by the landlord in relation to covid rent arrears. This must, of course, be a process that works for both England and Wales, but also, looking at the Bill overall, for Scotland and Northern Ireland, in so far as there are limited provisions that apply to those nations.

Lords amendment 8 inserts a new clause requiring the Welsh Government to consent to any extension of the moratorium period for Welsh business tenancies under clause 23. It states that this moratorium period must be the same length as the arbitration period. Lords amendments 6 and 7 allow for the new clause specified in Lords amendment 8 by proposing that the current moratorium period should be six months long, rather than being tied to the arbitration period. This change allows for different moratorium periods to apply in England and Wales. We support those changes because we recognise that the Welsh Government should have a say in the extension of the moratorium period in Wales.

Lords amendments 12 to 14 were tabled in response to the report by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Lords amendment 12 removes the Government’s power to specify certain parts of the legislation that would not apply if the Bill itself were reapplied. Previously, the Minister would have had the power to pick and choose which parts of the Bill were reintroduced or reapplied, but Lords amendment 13 ensures that the Government can make modifications to a reapplication of the Bill only if they are “necessary”. That is important for the role of Parliament and the Welsh Senedd.

Lords amendment 15 allows the Minister to reapply the Bill in Wales only with the consent of the Welsh Government. Lords amendment 14 allows different provisions to be made in England and Wales during reapplication. Labour supports these amendments, and it is important that the Government have listened to the concerns of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which is a respected voice on these matters.

We are also pleased to see Lords amendments 5 and 19, which ensure that neither the tenant nor guarantors nor previous tenants are liable for any protected rent debt that an arbitrator has cancelled. Similarly, Lords amendment 20 ensures that neither the tenant nor guarantors nor previous tenants can be subject to winding-up petitions or bankruptcy orders for protected rent during the moratorium period. On Second Reading, I raised Labour’s concerns about ensuring that not only tenants but anyone liable for their rent are protected during the moratorium period, so I am pleased that these amendments support that protection.

Lords amendment 2 ensures that the provisions in clause 4, specifying closure requirements, apply to the closure of businesses and premises. On Third Reading, I raised concerns that businesses that no longer occupied the premises—because, for example, the pandemic had made a particular location unprofitable—would not be able to access the arbitration process. We are pleased to see this amendment, which ensures that the Bill explicitly allows such businesses to benefit from the provisions in this legislation.

In conclusion, the Lords amendments make some important changes to the Bill. They rightly increase the powers of the Welsh Government over this legislation, provide appropriate constitutional limits to the Government’s powers on reapplying the Bill, and ensure that tenants, guarantors and previous tenants are all protected during the moratorium period. However, Minister should provide further assurances in connection with these amendments—for example, on the cost of the arbitration process, and on ensuring that arbitrators apply the measures consistently across cases. Nevertheless, Labour supports all the Lords amendments. We support the Bill’s passage to Royal Assent and look forward to its implementation as soon as possible.

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution today, and for the way in which she has engaged with me and the Bill team. I also thank other Members across the House for their contributions. The Bill’s passage through both Houses has been a positive and collaborative process, and that is testament to its importance in supporting businesses in recovering from the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. The amendments made in the other place were made for good reason and will serve only to improve the Bill. Let me spend a couple of minutes trying to answer the questions that she has rightly and understandably raised.

The hon. Lady talked about the cost of arbitration. We want to ensure, as best we can, that arbitration fees are predictable and affordable. We have discussed this at length at various stages of the Bill, with good reason. The Bill aims to support both tenants and landlords in resolving rent debt, and it is therefore important that the scheme remains affordable and accessible. Approved arbitration bodies will have the function of setting arbitration fees, and they have the expertise to set them at a level that will ensure that the scheme is affordable while also incentivising arbitrators to deliver the scheme in good time. In the interests of transparency and accessibility, the bodies must publish the details of the arbitration fees on their websites, so that the applicant will know in advance how much it will cost to go to arbitration.

We will monitor the affordability of the scheme by engaging regularly with arbitration bodies, as well as with tenants and landlords. We will be able to judge how things are going by those early cases going through the process. The Secretary of State has the power to cap fees, should they become unaffordable. That power can be used where necessary, but it cannot used prematurely, because we do not want to reduce the number of arbitrators available to act, thereby risking the delivery of the scheme.

The hon. Lady talked about guidance on costs and the viability of businesses. I assured the House that we would bring forward guidance for arbitrators, and we are looking to expedite that, so that it happens within a couple of weeks of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. I am pleased to say that we have published the draft guidance, which is on the Government website, in order to gather feedback from the arbitrators. That addresses viability clearly by setting out a non-exhaustive list of evidence that an arbitrator could have regard to in assessing viability. The final version of the guidance will be published shortly after Royal Assent. Viability is deliberately not defined, because of the vast array of different business models, both within and between sectors.

The hon. Lady raised questions about Lords amendment 18 and the immunity from liability for arbitration bodies. Let me confirm that Lords amendment 18 seeks to achieve consistency between the Bill’s function of removing arbitrators and that of appointing arbitrators. It ensures that arbitration bodies are immune from liability for the proper exercise of the function of removing arbitrators, just as they already are under the Arbitration Act 1996 for appointing arbitrators. I repeat that the amendment does not afford immunity from liability if arbitration bodies exercise their functions in bad faith. She has often asked how the quality, skills and experience of arbitrators will be ensured. Clearly, we want to make sure that this scheme is delivered in good time by skilled and capable arbitrators. So the method of approval that we have devised ensures that the scheme is high quality. The bodies must be approved by the Secretary of State. Only bodies considered suitable to carry out the Bill’s functions will be approved. The Secretary of State has a power to withdraw approval from a body that is no longer suitable. Approved arbitration bodies will maintain a list of arbitrators to carry out the scheme. The bodies have a statutory duty only to list and appoint arbitrators who are suitable by virtue of their qualifications and experience.

Finally, the hon. Lady talked about whether there are sufficient numbers of arbitrators and arbitration bodies. Capacity is a key concern, because we want to make sure that this scheme can go through as quickly as possible, to give the landlords and tenants the certainty they need to proceed with economic recovery. So we will work with arbitration bodies to monitor and manage capacity. Following the intelligence from a similar scheme in New South Wales, in Australia, we believe that the central estimate of cases is now 2,800 in England and Wales, which is a significant reduction from the previous estimate we had of 7,500. I hope that goes some way to reassuring her about the capacity of the market. Clearly, we have also discussed how to manage capacity with the arbitral bodies as well. We have further developed our post-implementation review plan, which sets out how we will engage with stakeholders and collect data which will alert us to issues with capacity, should any arise.

I hope that that has answered the hon. Lady’s questions and that that puts us in good stead to get Royal Assent, so that we can crack on to get the tenants and landlords the certainty that they want. I commend these Lords amendments to the House.

Lords amendment 1 agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 to 20 agreed to.