Clause 1 - Overview

Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:30 am ar 9 Rhagfyr 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray.

Many businesses are still on the long road to recovery following the pandemic, particularly in the sectors that have been hit hardest, such as hospitality and retail. The most recent data indicates that rent collections for this year’s third quarter are much higher than they were for last year’s third quarter, but they are still not at pre-pandemic levels. An estimated total of just under £7 billion of rent was deferred over the pandemic.

Although we have provided an unprecedented package of support to businesses, we have also been clear that we expect landlords and tenants to come together and negotiate. Agreements have been reached for many businesses, but for others negotiations have stalled, leaving rent arrears to build up, which could threaten many of the valued jobs that those businesses provide.

The statutory arbitration process that the Bill introduces should be used as a last resort, where landlords and tenants have been unable to reach their own agreements. For those tenancies, the Bill will ring-fence rent debt accrued during the pandemic by businesses required to close, and set out a process of binding arbitration that will resolve rent disputes and help the market return to business as usual. The Bill will temporarily restrict remedies available to landlords in relation to rent debt built up during the pandemic. To respect the primacy of the landlord-tenant relationship wherever possible, the arbitration process will not be available where legal agreements are reached between landlords and tenants over the payment of a protected rent debt.

I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mrs Murray.

I am grateful to the Minister for his opening remarks, in which he set out why the Bill is needed. Indeed, some of the estimates of the deferred rent debt that has been built up are around £7 billion, with some as high as £9 billion. That is why we called for action earlier this year, so that there was clarity about how some rent disputes would be resolved, and resolved fairly, because we know that the impact of the pandemic is ongoing.

I have concerns that may be outside the scope of the Bill, unless we decide to accept some amendments on Tuesday. In the light of the announcements yesterday and the guidance coming out today, there may need to be a review if there is a risk of further rent arrears if income drops for businesses in the period ahead. So I hope that there will be ways in which we can keep matters under review, in the light of recent developments.

Clause 1 indeed provides an overview of the Bill, and it is in part 1 of the first three short parts. Part 1 is about “Introductory Provisions”, including important definitions; part 2 provides the framework for statutory arbitration between landlords and tenants; and part 3 provides for the ongoing restrictions on “Certain remedies and insolvency arrangements” in relation to protected rent debt.

Importantly, clause 1 also confirms that nothing in the legislation affects the ability of parties to a business tenancy to reach a negotiated settlement outside the arbitration process. That is important because the arbitration process is a backstop; it is a last resort. It is preferable—in terms of time, cost and the relationship between the parties—that they can be supported to reach a negotiated settlement without the need to resort to arbitration.

Labour will continue to encourage landlords and tenants to negotiate settlements, and it is good to see that most of them have already done so; indeed, that was an important part of the feedback from witnesses this week. It is a sign that most commercial landlords and tenants have worked closely together to get through the crisis, and I pay tribute to them for doing that, because it is a recognition that we have all been in this together and that everybody needs to play their part in bringing flexibility where it is needed.

UK Hospitality estimated that around 60% of its members reached agreement with their landlords on any outstanding debt, but there is an estimate that around one in five have yet to reach a negotiated settlement. Perhaps some settlement discussions are still in progress.

We support clause 1 and we will vote for it to stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.