All 9 contributions to the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

Wed 3rd Jun 2020
Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & 2nd reading
Wed 3rd Jun 2020
Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill
Commons Chamber

Committee stage:Committee: 1st sitting & 3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons & Committee stage & 3rd reading
Tue 9th Jun 2020
Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading
Tue 16th Jun 2020
Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage:Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee stage
Wed 17th Jun 2020
Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage:Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tue 23rd Jun 2020
Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage
Tue 23rd Jun 2020
Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill
Lords Chamber

3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 3rd reading
Thu 25th Jun 2020
Royal Assent
Lords Chamber

Royal Assent & Royal Assent (Hansard) & Royal Assent (Hansard) & Royal Assent (Hansard) & Royal Assent & Royal Assent & Royal Assent (Hansard) & Royal Assent: Royal Assent (Hansard) & Royal Assent (Hansard) & Royal Assent: Royal Assent (Hansard) & Royal Assent (Hansard) & Royal Assent: Royal Assent (Hansard)
Thu 25th Jun 2020
Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill
Commons Chamber

Consideration of Lords amendments & Consideration of Lords amendmentsPing Pong & Ping Pong & Ping Pong: House of Commons

Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill

Second Reading
Alok Sharma Portrait The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Alok Sharma)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

On 23 March, the Government requested many businesses to close their doors to safeguard the nation’s health. We absolutely recognise the huge sacrifices that this entailed. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has been at the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions, has outlined the unprecedented economic support for businesses and workers across the country.

Like the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), I have regular conversations with businesses, business representative organisations and trade unions, and I know that the scale of what the Government have done has been appreciated across the board. We have supported millions of businesses and individuals through a range of support schemes. These have included grants to small businesses—over £10 billion out of the door now —loans, through the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme and coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme, and bounce-back loans, with more than £14 billion now paid out, as well as business rate holidays, tax deferrals, the job retention scheme and, of course, the self-employed scheme. By any international comparison, the effort that has been put into supporting businesses and individuals to safeguard lives and livelihoods is incredibly favourable.

Alongside those fiscal measures to support businesses and individuals and protect livelihoods, in this Bill we want to provide further support: non-fiscal measures to ensure that we can help businesses at a time of difficulty.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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Is the Minister satisfied that the measures being proposed today could expire within 27 days? Is that sufficient time to address the problems that might be coming down the track?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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As ever, the hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. I will talk further about this, but that is precisely why we have ensured an opportunity to extend the temporary measures in the Bill, but by regulation, so statutory instruments will have to be laid before the House. However, I am sure that the sentiments he expresses are felt across the House. If we need to, I am sure that we will collectively look to extend some of the temporary measures to continue to help businesses.

The Bill will allow business owners time and space to explore rescue options. It will allow directors of companies that are technically insolvent, but simply because of a temporary drop in demand caused by the covid-19 crisis, to proceed with the business without the threat of personal liability. That has been incredibly warmly welcomed by businesses and business representative organisations.

Jacob Young Portrait Jacob Young (Redcar) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Bill will give businesses in Redcar and Cleveland and across the country the much needed breathing space to get through this crisis?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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My hon. Friend is already making a huge impact in supporting businesses in his constituency, and he is absolutely right. The whole point of these measures, both permanent and temporary, is precisely as he says: to give businesses the breathing space to allow them to see whether they can recover and ultimately bounce back. That is what we all want to see.

Gary Sambrook Portrait Gary Sambrook (Birmingham, Northfield) (Con)
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Unfortunately, some businesses fail. In my constituency, MG Rover collapsed 15 years ago, ripping a huge hole in the community in Northfield and Longbridge. Fifteen years on, over 6,000 people are owed money from the liquidation of MG Rover. Will my right hon. Friend look into ways in which we can speed up the process—15 years is too long and causes a lot of problems and anxiety for people—so that they can get closure and the money that they are owed.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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Again, the manner in which the debate has begun demonstrates the consensus on supporting businesses, not just in our individual constituencies but across the country. I can give my hon. Friend a commitment that I am happy to meet him to discuss the case and see what more can be done. He is absolutely right—where we are able to, we must seek to speed up and provide that support to individuals who need it.

The Bill will provide extra flexibilities to hold AGMs online during the covid-19 pandemic and will also provide more time to file accounts and other filings with Companies House.

Paul Holmes Portrait Paul Holmes (Eastleigh) (Con)
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May I ask the Secretary of State whether companies have to apply for those extensions on filing, or will there be an automated aspect whereby Companies House will approach the companies affected?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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Once the filing requirements are enacted, as my hon. Friend says, companies can make filings up to the extension dates. As was mentioned earlier, if there is a need to extend temporary provisions, we will look to see if that is required. While we recognise that these and other support measures will not, sadly, be able to save every business and every job, the Bill delivers commitments that will give businesses in difficulty due to the pandemic a fighting chance of eventually bouncing back.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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There are indeed some important measures in the Bill, and we will undoubtedly scrutinise them in more detail in due course. I thank the Secretary of State for the work of the officials in his Department to support a number of businesses in my constituency, and I thank the Welsh Government for the support that they have provided through the economic resilience fund.

We have not had enough support from the banks, some of which have not only struggled to make themselves available to businesses seeking support through the loan schemes that the Government have set up but seem to be trying to push off their books businesses that could make it through the crisis. What does the Secretary of State have to say to the banks?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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When we first launched CBILS there were a lot of concerns about how quickly the process was moving. I have been talking to banks individually and to senior managers in the banks, and I think that we are beginning to see movement. CBILS has had over 40,000 loans out of the door, and over 450,000 bounce-back loans have been made. If there are specific banks about which the hon. Gentleman has concerns—he, like all colleagues, is concerned about retaining employment in his constituency—I would be happy to take up those issues with him individually.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
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Because of the success of bounce-back loans—it is a much easier process to get a bounce-back loan than a CBILS loan—lots of businesses that need more than £50,000 have gone for a bounce-back loan as an interim step, but are restricted from taking a CBILS loan, as they can only have one or the other. Would my right hon. Friend consider allowing businesses to apply for a CBILS loan for a larger amount, subject to necessary lending criteria, then paying off the bounce-back loan so that they can get access to the finance that they need?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), will correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that it is possible to transfer loans between the bounce-back scheme and CBILS. I am happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who is absolutely right—people cannot have one of each, so to speak, but I think that it is possible to make a transfer.

The measures set out in the Bill have been welcomed across the board by business representatives’ organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, R3—the insolvency and restructuring professionals trade association—and the Trades Union Congress. Some of the measures will take retrospective effect to provide as much relief to businesses as possible. To ensure that is the case, we have announced the dates from which the measures will begin.

Let me turn to corporate restructurings, and the package of permanent corporate restructuring measures, which have previously been consulted on. As colleagues know, they were consulted on in 2016, and then formed part of a wider consultation on corporate governance and insolvency published in 2018, so they have been consulted on in some detail. They will have immediate effect in helping companies get through the covid-19 emergency.

A number of time-limited provisions are there to cater for the immediate economic impact of the covid-19 pandemic. They have been added to the package and will be in place for a month after Royal Assent.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)
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Playing a fundamental part in the Bill, we have a number of measures that have been consulted on for a long period; people have thought about them and, as my right hon. Friend said, there has been a large degree of consensus around them. Then we have some other measures that have been brought forward in response to the immediate crisis; the Department has worked incredibly quickly to come up with them. Is the Department satisfied that it has got the balance right between the two? Is there anything that we should look out for in the next few months about the permanence of some of those measures?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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My hon. Friend is of course right. By the way, I am delighted that he is back in the House, after a short absence. He brings a huge amount of experience in this area, as a result of his work in the private sector. The permanent measures have already been consulted upon, and they enjoy broad support. The temporary measures are of course temporary, and if we were to look to extend any of them, we would have to do so by way of regulation—we would have to come to the House with statutory instruments, and there would be an opportunity, if colleagues in the House felt it was not right to extend them, for them to voice their concerns. So I do think we have managed to get the balance right in this case. We want to ensure that the measures are put in place as quickly as possible, so that we are able to provide support to businesses in difficulty right now. In all the discussions that we have had with the right hon. Member for Doncaster North and his colleagues, we have always had a really constructive approach; I hope that is exactly what we will have today as well.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I speak as a co-chair of the all-party group on fair business banking, has dealt with a lot of problems in how banks treat SMEs, facilitated by insolvency practitioners. To eliminate those conflicts of interest, the Secretary of State’s Department has committed to bringing forward measures to provide that the conduct of insolvency practitioners is overseen by a single regulator, rather than by recognised professional bodies. Can he commit to bringing forward those measures in the not-too-distant future, so that we can try to eliminate those conflicts of interest?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will elaborate on some of the points that my hon. Friend raised. I would simply say that in July 2019, the Government issued a call for evidence on the insolvency regulatory framework, to determine whether any changes needed to be made. That included questions on whether there should be a single regulator. We expect to publish the Government response to the call for evidence later this year. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will elaborate later.

Returning to the Bill, the package of measures has three elements. The first is a moratorium. That will give a company that is threatened with insolvency temporary respite from its creditors and a chance to arrange refinancing or a rescue. The moratorium will be for an initial period of 20 days, which can then be extended. There will be a time-limited easing of the eligibility criteria for a company to enter into a moratorium, to make it more accessible during the covid-19 response period.

Mike Wood Portrait Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con)
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The temporary measures that my right hon. Friend has included in the Bill will provide great respite for many businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector, where businesses have been unable to trade throughout this outbreak but rents have remained very high; the measures will protect them from aggressive landlords. Those pressures will continue well past the end of June, so will he consider extending the protection for tenants from winding-up petitions?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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Of course, that is part of the measures that we will bring in. I recognise why my hon. Friend wants to ensure that tenants have protection, and that is why we will introduce the temporary measures around this issue, but of course we also need to think about landlords. I will address that point as I go through my speech.

Returning to the moratorium, the time-limited easing of the eligibility criteria for a company to enter a moratorium, to make that more accessible during the covid-19 response period, will be in place for a month after Royal Assent. Of course, that can be extended if it is deemed necessary.

The second part of the new permanent restructuring measures will allow companies in financial difficulty to propose a rescue plan to restructure complex debt arrangements, and to bind creditors to it, as long as certain thresholds are met. That means that viable companies struggling with debt obligations will be able to restructure under the new procedure.

There are, however, significant safeguards and protections for creditors, which is right and proper. The plan must be sanctioned by the court and, indeed, any dissenting creditor class bound to a plan must not be made worse off than it would have been in the next most likely outcome. I know that a number of colleagues, both in the House and outside, have raised this issue. That is why we have ensured that this measure is in place.

The third part of the restructuring package will prohibit termination clauses. That will prevent suppliers from terminating contracts or raising prices just because a company has entered an insolvency procedure or a moratorium. Of course, we recognise that requiring companies to supply under those circumstances may cause them financial difficulties, so we have built in a number of protections for suppliers too.

If continuing supply would cause a supplier hardship, it can apply to the court for permission to terminate the contract. In addition, if goods or services supplied after the insolvency begins are not paid for, the supplier can terminate the contract. Further, the Government will temporarily exempt small suppliers from this requirement altogether during the covid-19 crisis, recognising the particular challenges that those firms face.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con)
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Small businesses often find themselves dictated to by larger organisations, and the last thing we want is for small businesses to be put at a disadvantage by being compelled to supply when they are not capable or it is not in their interest to do so. Will the Secretary State reassure us that small businesses in particular will be protected by these provisions?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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My hon. Friend raises a really important point about protecting small suppliers. They will of course have this exemption. According to the definition in the Companies Act 2006, a small supplier is one that meets two of the following three criteria: having up to 50 employees, a turnover of up to £10.2 million, and gross assets of up to £5.1 million. I think that will cover a very large number of businesses in our country.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller
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May I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for permitting so many interventions? As we are rushing through the Bill relatively quickly, it is important that Members on both sides of the House have the opportunity to raise points directly with the Secretary of State, so thank you for permitting some latitude for interventions.

The small business commissioner appeared before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee a few weeks ago, and I posed some questions about whether he had the powers he needed. As my right hon. Friend looks at this period, with the particular pressure caused by covid-19, is he assured that the small business commissioner’s powers are as will be needed, or does he envisage wanting to look again at this in the future?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. I championed this issue—support for small businesses—when I was on the Back Benches. As he will know, the Government’s payment terms are favourable in setting a very time-limited period within which payments must be made to Government suppliers, and of course the Government also require that if a large organisation is being paid by the Government under a contract, they need to pass on that speed of payment to smaller subcontractors. He will also know that in the manifesto on which he and I stood we committed to looking further at the role of the small business commissioner and how it might be strengthened. We will bring forward a consultation on that in due course.

I move now to the temporary measures in the Bill. The first set provides for a suspension of the serving of statutory demands and a restriction on winding-up petitions. These measures will be retrospective from 1 March and 27 April respectively and will last until one month after Royal Assent, although they can be extended if that is deemed necessary. The Coronavirus Act 2020 temporarily suspended the right of commercial landlords to forfeit the tenancies of retail businesses in order to protect tenants unable to trade because of covid-19. While this temporary suspension has been in place, the majority of landlords and tenants have been working well together to reach agreements on debt obligations, but a small number of landlords have been using aggressive debt recovery tactics to put pressure on tenants, including through the use of statutory demands and threats of winding up. For this reason, the measures in the Bill to limit the use of statutory demands and winding-up petitions have been welcomed by many, especially in the hospitality sector.

Jonathan Djanogly Portrait Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)
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The Government have repeatedly spoken about this clause in the context of landlords, but can the Secretary of State confirm that it actually applies to all creditors?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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It is intended to apply to all suppliers—I am sure I will be corrected if I am wrong on that. As my hon. Friend has also been keen to point out, although this measure is not restricted to commercial landlords, some landlords will have particular concerns, and I can reassure him that the Government will monitor the impact of the measure and are asking lenders and investors to consider how debt obligations can be met in a way that does not put unnecessary pressure on landlords.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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In respect of commercial loans, currently the banks, when showing forbearance, are providing capital repayment holidays but only on the capital element of the repayment. In respect of residential mortgages and loans, they are giving complete repayment holidays. The monthly capital repayment is a small element of the overall payment. The banks could be much more helpful to landlords by giving a complete holiday across the whole repayment for a period of time while showing forbearance to their tenants.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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Colleagues in the banking sector will I am sure be watching this debate and listening in, and they will have heard what my hon. Friend has said. I would be happy to have a discussion with him after this debate if there are particular points that he wants to raise or if he wants to talk about particular organisations.

The second temporary measure is the suspension of the wrongful trading provisions. This will be retrospective to 1 March and will be in place until one month after Royal Assent, and again it can be extended if that is deemed necessary. Hon. Members will know that wrongful trading is an important deterrent against company directors continuing to trade when the company is insolvent and when doing so increases the losses to creditors. Directors can be made personally liable as a result. However, during this difficult period, many otherwise viable companies may become technically insolvent, particularly if they have been severely affected by a drop in demand caused by covid-19. This measure gives company directors the confidence to use their best efforts to continue trading without the threat of personal liability, should the company ultimately go into insolvency. Since the measure was announced in March, we have received much support for it from stakeholders. The Institute of Directors has welcomed it, saying that it

“will help to avert entirely preventable corporate collapses.”

The Bill also contains the necessary time-limited powers to extend these temporary provisions, should that prove necessary.

The Bill will also allow the Government to make other temporary amendments to insolvency law or the new restructuring plan to deal with the effects of covid-19, where needed. The power to amend corporate insolvency or governance legislation will allow the insolvency and business rescue regime to react quickly to the challenges we face as a result of the impact of covid-19, and that power will expire on 30 April 2021. However, due to the potential unforeseen circumstances relating to covid-19, the expiry date of this power can be extended if it is deemed necessary. If an extension is sought, the House will of course have an opportunity to scrutinise it.

The next group of temporary measures deals with meetings and company filings. These measures enable companies and other bodies, including mutual societies and charitable incorporated organisations, to hold AGMs and other meetings in a safe way, while respecting social distancing rules.

Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD)
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On the point about AGMs, it is obviously good that the legislation makes provision for AGMs to be held digitally, but is it necessary for the legislation to restrict the participation of shareholders quite as much as it does? Surely, if a digital method enables shareholders to question directors, that should be encouraged if it can be facilitated.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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There are, of course, other methods for shareholders to question directors of a company. There will be shareholders’ days, for example. The reality is that businesses will be reacting and doing their best to try to get information to their shareholders. I am sure that the hon. Lady’s point will be noted, but the intention of this Bill—and, I think, of the business community—is not in any way to use these measures to restrict shareholders’ access to information. This is actually about making sure that we can get past the pandemic and be in a position to bounce back.

The flexibility in terms of these meetings and filings will apply from 26 March—retrospectively, obviously—until 30 September. The measures also enable AGMs to be postponed until 30 September this year, where necessary.

Sara Britcliffe Portrait Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn) (Con)
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I am encouraged that the measures for AGMs and other meetings are temporary. Does my right hon. Friend share my belief that in-person AGMs provide the best opportunities for shareholders to hold their directors to account?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. We would all like to get back to those face-to-face discussions, just as we are doing in the House today. These are temporary measures, and I hope that when we get through to the other side there will again be that opportunity for shareholders to meet and ask questions face to face, because that is right and appropriate.

Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con)
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Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are not mandating how companies and organisations are to hold an AGM, but rather giving them flexibility at this incredibly difficult time as to how best to engage with shareholders?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. This is not about mandating; this is about giving choice. I expect that many companies will take up the temporary support that is being made available through these measures.

Expanding on the announcement I made on 25 March that companies would have an extended period for filing accounts, the Bill will also give businesses more time to meet a range of filing requirements. The extensions to the various filing requirements will be set out in regulations to be laid once the Bill receives Royal Assent. We will be giving businesses the maximum period allowable under the powers in the Bill for filing their accounts, confirmation statements and event-driven updates. We will also extend the period within which charges should be registered with Companies House to 31 days, which I believe strikes the right balance between providing businesses with breathing space and ensuring that lenders are protected.

In conclusion, the package of measures that the Bill introduces will give businesses the best opportunity to survive the effects of the covid-19 crisis and lay the foundations for a bounce-back in the UK economy. This Government are committed to supporting businesses. We are listening, and we are putting in place meaningful and common-sense measures to provide that support. Let me end by again paying tribute to the millions of business owners up and down our country who are doing their bit to keep Britain moving. In bringing these measures forward, we demonstrate again that we stand with them. I commend the Bill to the House.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab)
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I begin by thanking the Business Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for the constructive conversations that we have had about the Bill, including with the shadow Business Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). We are very much approaching this in a constructive way, and we welcome the discussions.

I want to focus on the provisions in the Bill and the wider policy context around insolvencies, which will determine what happens to millions of businesses in our country. As the Secretary of State implied, we face potentially the most dramatic recession in 300 years. What is more, we know that it is a recession necessitated by the essential public health measures that have been taken to contain coronavirus. Just as we are mutually dependent on each other when it comes to controlling the pandemic, I believe there is agreement across the House that that sense of mutual dependence should extend to the businesses of our country, because it is the right thing to do and because it is in all our interests. Every viable business we save will make the recession less deep and the recovery easier. Every business lost is disastrous not only for that business and its workers, but for our economy and all of us.

We know the great distress that many businesses are facing, and I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to businesses up and down this country that are keeping going in these circumstances, with one fifth temporarily pausing or ceasing trading during lockdown and another quarter saying that their turnover was down by at least 50%. That is the context in which we should test our approach as a country. I acknowledge that this challenge is bound to test the imagination, speed and responsiveness of any Government, and that is why we want to work constructively with them.

In that context, we welcome the measures in the Bill to help reduce insolvencies and will support their passage. As I will explain, we do not think the Bill does enough to address the dangers for what we might call the less powerful interests—particularly employees—when it comes to insolvency and the new restructuring provision, and I will explain what I mean by that.

Let me say something about the headline provisions, many of which we agree with. As regards the permanent measures, we support the moratorium to give breathing space to firms. We welcome the measures to prevent suppliers from sending businesses into liquidation, suspending so-called ipso facto provisions, and I will say something in a minute about our views on the new restructuring plan provision.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for welcoming this Bill, which I do as well. Does he accept that what is so important about the Bill is that it includes and incorporates Northern Ireland absolutely? Northern Ireland is not cut adrift and the Bill does not have some special arrangement that the Assembly will manage; Northern Ireland is part and parcel of it. The measures have given collective support to businesses across all the United Kingdom and especially in Northern Ireland. Without British money, we would have been ruined. That is the bottom line.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is very important that the approach is UK-wide, and I welcome that.

Let me say something about the temporary measures in the Bill. We think it makes sense to remove the threat around winding-up orders, for example, to deal with the issue around landlords. We welcome the measures that the Secretary of State put in place, but there is another way around, as it were, which is a landlord issuing a statutory demand followed by a winding-up order. We think that the suspension of personal liability for wrongful trading while insolvent makes sense as a measure, but for a strictly time-limited period. It is important, as I think is clear, that other duties continue to apply to directors.

In addition, easing the requirements on company filing deadlines and AGMs makes sense. Indeed, given proceedings yesterday in this House, the facility in the Bill for virtual proceedings at AGMs carries a certain irony. If only the Business Secretary had told the Leader of the House, perhaps we would have been spared a lot of trouble and a lot of queuing yesterday.

As the hon. Members for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) have both said, there is clearly a case for a longer period than to 30 June. This is no disrespect to the people writing the Bill, but I think we can agree across the House that the temporary measures will need to be in place for longer. We would be happy to see an amendment that puts the end of September in the Bill, and one of our amendments would do that. I accept the Secretary of State’s point that the change can be made by statutory instrument.

Having given the Bill a broad welcome, I want to raise some issues.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
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I agree with all that my right hon. Friend has said. Does he agree that some extension will be needed for some of the sectors that may be hit for longer, such as the creative industries? Many in my own patch will be affected for longer because they will be closed down for longer, and they need special assistance.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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My hon. Friend is a brilliant champion of those industries and other industries in his constituency, and I agree with him. I will come on to the particular sectoral challenges that the Secretary of State and the Government are facing.

Let me mention the areas where we would like to see improvements made to the Bill. First and most importantly, the Government’s case on the restructuring plan provision is that it could have benefits in enabling companies to restructure and not go into liquidation and in stopping large creditors from forcing companies to do so. I accept the case. I think I am right in saying that the cross-class cram-down provisions—it is not a very beautiful phrase—apply across the EU under EU law and apply in the United States as well. What is important about the provisions is that they mean that even if a class or classes of creditors object to a rescue plan, it can still go ahead providing they are better off than in the other most likely scenario, which is often going to be liquidation. That is why protecting those without power—creditors and others—is so important.

What cannot be allowed to happen—I know the Secretary of State agrees with this—is for the RP provision, which has wide scope and is not just for companies that are insolvent, but for those who fear they might become so, to be used to ride roughshod over the rights of employees, including their pensions. Given the nature of the crisis we are in, it is essential that there are proper safeguards.

To give an example, the Secretary of State will have heard earlier the deep concerns across the House about the actions of British Airways, including sacking its employees and apparently offering worse terms and conditions. The RP provision cannot become a charter for more of that sort of action, and it is our mutual responsibility to make sure it does not become so. I know the Secretary of State shares that view.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller
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I am extraordinarily grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this point, because he will be aware that when a company is in a crisis situation and has so many wolves at the door, it has to make rapid decisions to salvage the assets and the business and continue, hopefully, to trade profitably. He is putting his finger precisely on the issue of what the rights of employees in that circumstance are and what protection there is for their pension benefits in the long term—that is a fundamental part of this issue. I am interested in his new clause on employee representation, which refers specifically to trade union representation; would he be prepared to broaden that out to include some broader sense of employee representation?

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says, and the answer is yes, because lots of businesses do not have trade unions, and the question is what rights employees will have in those circumstances. The US experience is quite informative: I mentioned the US hazard provision, and at American Airlines and General Motors we saw employees lose out very significantly. The hon. Gentleman’s point about pension provision is absolutely part of this. I very much hope—this is the spirit in which we are approaching the Bill—that the Government will seek to improve the protections that are in place. Our new clause 5, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, seeks to ensure mandatory discussions with the trade unions once a company enters a restructuring process. That will ensure that employees are provided with all the information made available to the court and fully consulted on any restructuring plan, and the court could then take that into account. There may be better and more comprehensive ways to build in such protection, but it is essential that we do so. Perhaps the Minister can come back on that in his winding-up speech and, indeed, in Committee.

Secondly, we are concerned about similar issues when it comes to insolvency. Unsecured creditors are left to bear most of the risk of insolvency, so they are often at the back of the queue when it comes to being protected. The protection of unsecured creditors, or the greater protection of them, could be provided through strengthening the ring-fencing of the proceeds of sale of assets when a company becomes insolvent, increasing the proportion of the proceeds reserved for them to 30%, and removing the financial limit, which is what we propose in one of our amendments. We also believe that pension schemes—this goes to the point that the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) made—should be made a priority creditor in the event of insolvency so that they get to have a role as a class, because currently I do not believe that they necessarily will.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his position and wish him well. I have a bit of concern about what I refer to as predatory companies, which look for companies that are probably heading towards insolvency and see them as an opportunity to gain something. I wonder whether it is possible to ensure in the Bill that such predatory companies that would prey on those in trouble, of which there are many, are prevented from taking over an asset that is probably solvent in the long term but is not in the short term.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I once used the word predatory in relation to companies and it was rather controversial, but I think the consensus may have changed. [Interruption.] Government Members are saying it has not; it was worth a try. The hon. Gentleman makes a really important substantive point on which I think Members from all parties can agree, and it goes to the width and breadth of this provision: we have to make sure that companies cannot use it as a way to take their employees for a ride. I know from my conversations with the Secretary of State and the Minister that the intention to make sure that that does not happen is shared throughout the House, but we have to give expression to it in the Bill, and I hope the Government will indeed do so.

Let me turn to some things that are not in the Bill—

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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The right hon. Gentleman touched on his amendment that would ring-fence 30% of assets for unsecured creditors; is he not concerned that if we did that, people who are willing to extend finance to businesses on a secured basis may be less willing to lend?

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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I believe I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman knows a lot about this, and I congratulate him for his work on the all-party group dealing with the whole range of these issues, but I am talking about the situation after secured creditors and others have been dealt with. There is currently a provision for 20%, but up to a limit of £800,000. Our amendment seeks to make that 30%, and to raise the proportion, but remove the limit. We must ensure that we do all we can for employees and small businesses—my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central will correct me if I have got those figures wrong, but I think I am broadly right.

Two sets of issues are not in the Bill, although we would have liked them to have been included, as I believe they are missed opportunities. First, in 2018 the Government consulted on a set of corporate governance safeguards in the wake of the scandal at Carillion, and indeed at Thomas Cook, which came after that. I understand that the Bill relates to the immediacy of the coronavirus crisis, but it would have been better if the Government had acted on those vital corporate governance issues in the Bill, and we would have supported them in doing so. Given that this crisis makes corporate distress more likely, it is strange that the Government have not chosen to introduce such measures. The risk is that we will get more Carillions and Thomas Cooks, with all the consequences of that for employees.

In 2018 the Government were committed to greater accountability of directors in group companies, legislation to enhance powers for insolvency practitioners, and further raising standards by ensuring an explanation about the affordability of dividend payments. Labour supports all those measures—indeed, we have tabled amendments to insert them into the Bill—and we do not think they cut across the need to protect businesses through the coronavirus crisis. Will the Government explain what plans there are for those improvements to corporate governance? I understand that the Bill must go through at speed, but it would have been better if it contained those measures.

Secondly, like the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire, I wish to mention late payments to small businesses, and the important role of the Small Business Commissioner. If larger companies do not make good on their payments to small businesses, that could be the thing that pushes them over the edge. We believe that the Bill could be used to strengthen the powers of the Small Business Commissioner to help businesses that are struggling with cashflow and liquidity, and such a measure would have improved the Bill.

As I have said, we want to facilitate the passage of the Bill as it is important to protect businesses up and down the country, and we hope it can be improved in the ways I have set out. Having dealt with its specific provisions, however, let me deal with the wider context. The measures in the Bill can play a part in preventing insolvencies, but as the House knows, the number of businesses that go out of business depends on the external environment and on what the Government do in response to that. I welcome the action taken by the Government so far. There are lots of measures that we support, but we also believe there are gaps and other areas where the Government need to act.

I wish briefly to outline four sets of issues that go directly to the question of insolvency. First, I fear that the support system introduced by the Government is still not working sufficiently for our SMEs, and it risks worsening the insolvency problem. We called for the 100% underwriting of loans six weeks ago for smaller firms, and we welcomed the bounce back loan. Clearly, however—the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) made this point—those loans do not do enough for SMEs that need more than £50,000 of liquidity.

The bounce back loan was intended to improve the working of the CBIL scheme, but I am afraid that has not happened. I have the figures for what happened to the CBIL scheme in the past few weeks—I am sure the Secretary of State is as in touch with them as I am—and the number of facilities approved each week is going down, and the gap between the total numbers of applications and approvals is widening. Somebody contacted me the other day who will not be counted in those figures. He waited two months to be told by his high street bank that he was not eligible and that there was no point in him applying for a loan under the CBIL scheme. He will not be counted in those statistics, and hon. Members across the House will have heard of similar experiences.

I know that the Secretary of State is dealing with a range of issues to do with companies in distress. As I understand it, the idea was to get rid of the forward credit check for the CBIL scheme, but that does not seem to be doing the business and we need to understand why. I personally would be open to having 100% underwriting slightly higher up the scale, but we need a solution.

Secondly, beyond SMEs, I am deeply concerned about particular sectors, with manufacturing top of the list. We have seen thousands of redundancies at Rolls-Royce, real problems in the aerospace sector, issues in the car industry and massive issues facing steel. In France, steel received support within a fortnight of lockdown, whereas here our companies are still waiting. We read stories in the Financial Times about public equity stakes being considered—the so-called “Project Birch. It sounds like an interesting idea, but I say to the Secretary of State that this is taking too long, both for larger companies and for the SMEs in the supply chain.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
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My right hon. Friend is right to mention steel and aerospace in particular, as they are crucial providers of jobs in south Wales, and we have the situations with BA and with the steel industry. Does he agree that we need to get support to them as soon as possible?

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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My hon. Friend has been powerfully advocating for the steel industry, along with other hon. Members in all parts of the House, and there is real urgency in this respect.

Let me just say something about the CLBIL—Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan—scheme, which is for larger loans. We are talking about more than £45 million. I fear that this is Treasury orthodoxy, so I will not expect the Secretary of State to comment. We all know Treasury orthodoxy—I do, as I used to work there. The good news is that the Chancellor raised the limit to £200 million for the amount that companies can get, but the bad news for companies is that the CLBIL loan has to become their most senior loan—it has to be top of their list. The problem is that that means companies then have to renegotiate their other most senior loan, so they are caught in a Catch-22 situation. I suspect the Secretary of State agrees with me, but he cannot say; perhaps the Chancellor is watching. I say to the Secretary of State that companies such as McLaren have said, “We have tried to get this loan but we cannot get it because of this Catch-22 situation.” This is urgent and I urge him to get it sorted. We have had only £1 billion paid out under this scheme; 191 firms have got loans, but that is out of 579 that have applied. This is about manufacturing largely; it is about lots of large manufacturers across our country who are really in distress. There is more to be done in advancing some of the money that is already in the budget for low carbon. That is true in relation to aerospace, where I believe there is a fund—I am hoping that can be advanced— and to steel.

Let me refer to some other sectors, as one of my hon. Friends did earlier. With the public health measures that are necessary, it is obvious that sectors such as hospitality, tourism and the arts will face much greater pressures for longer; they are going to take longer to reopen and recover. To give the House a sense of the scale, I should point out that the British Beer and Pub Association has warned that up to 40% of Britain’s pubs cannot survive beyond September with the current level of financial support; that one third of jobs in tourism-related areas are estimated to be at risk; and that the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre estimate that 70% of the 290,000 jobs in that sector are at risk. Those are dire warnings we are being given.

That brings me on briefly to the furlough scheme. It has been a really good innovation, but I do not understand why the Chancellor is pursuing a one-size-fits-all policy on that scheme, because the public health measures mean that some sectors will take longer to reopen and recover. Whether through the furlough scheme or a second wave of support, these sectors are going to need extra help. I know the Secretary of State is working on this, but I underline its importance: we are talking about thousands of pubs across our country, hundreds of theatres and arts venues, and jobs in tourism. These things are the lifeblood of our constituencies.

Thirdly, I want to raise with the Secretary of State the issue of the “month 13 problem” of insolvency. This is a bit further off, but it is still an issue. Even if the Government fix their loan schemes and provide the sectoral support required, the more debt there is weighing down companies, the greater the danger of insolvency down the line—this debt overhang is also bad for our economy when it comes to recovery. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire muttering about borrowing from a sedentary position, but I am talking about private debt. The Federation of Small Businesses has been suggesting for some time that loans need to become income contingent. It has suggested a student loan-type approach. In other words, when businesses get to a certain level of financial health, they can start repaying the loans. There may be other ways forward, such as converting the loans into equity, but we are going to need solutions for these firms.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
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Would the right hon. Gentleman support the ideas that I have been doing some work on—as have lots of people—outside this place in relation to recapitalising the British corporate sector, not just in terms of debt to equity, but in finding ways to get much more equity into our businesses so that they are not weighed down by debt? That approach could be how we recover from this situation.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need innovative thinking in this area. We are going to have to do things—I think that the Chancellor has said this—that we would not have done in normal times, but we cannot send businesses back out into an economy that is recovering, with this massive debt overhang. [Interruption.] I will not give way again because I need to get on with it so that other Members can speak; I can see the beady eye of Madam Deputy Speaker.

Fourthly, crucial to helping businesses through this crisis is an economic stimulus that matches the moment. In particular, I hope that plans for a green recovery, which the Government have been talking about, will be at the centre of what they do. This is the way to get our economy moving, help to save businesses and meet our climate goals.

The Bill is a step forward. We continue to have worries about the protection of workers in the event of restructuring and insolvency, and hope it can be addressed as the Bill passes through both Houses. I wish that the reforms to corporate governance had been included.

I will end by mentioning the wider economic context. We are only at the end of the beginning of the economic crisis that we are facing, and there is a need for urgency, boldness and action in the coming weeks and months. The Chancellor has said that he will do whatever it takes. In my view, that means support for specific sectors, reform of the loans scheme, imaginative solutions to the debt problems facing the small and medium-sized enterprise sector, a commitment to building back better and a green recovery. It is in the interests of everyone across the country for the Government to act; if they do, they will have our support.

Stephen Hammond Portrait Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to follow the shadow Secretary of State. During this crisis, many of us have experienced groundhog day, and we have certainly just experienced it now; looking at the right hon. Gentleman at the Dispatch Box took me back to a period before 2015.

I warmly welcome the Bill. As the shadow Secretary of State said, the Secretary of State is right to set this legislation in the context of an extraordinarily impressive set of business measures—regardless of any tinkering around the edges that is needed—that the Government have put in place to tackle the covid crisis. We are right to recognise that in normal circumstances the Bill probably would have been split into two phases. Some of the changes that it contains are permanent, and have been debated and consulted on certainly since 2016, but maybe earlier. Other changes are rightly temporary, as they are urgent measures to address the challenges faced by many in the corporate sector who would not necessarily normally be experiencing such problems with insolvency. The flexibility is therefore clearly right.

As I have said, the Bill sets out a number of permanent and temporary concepts and provisions. I will spend a little bit of time reflecting on one or two of the permanent ones, before finishing with a particular temporary issue that affects my constituency. The Bill outlines the concept of moratorium, and it is quite clear what that is. It gives the challenged business a 20-day opportunity to consider a rescue plan. That can be extended for a further 20 days if the directors ask for it, and can, as I understand it, be extended for a whole year should the creditor or the court consent. The purpose of that is clearly obvious, and all that makes a huge amount of sense. During that period the directors retain control of the company and no legal action can be taken against it without a court decision.

However, the process is overseen by a monitor, a point on which I want to raise a few issues that I hope my Front-Bench colleagues will consider or at least address later. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) has already raised with the Secretary of State the potential conflict of interest to do with whether the monitor is sanctioned by an independent regulatory body or is just a normal insolvency practitioner that could be taking work from one group of companies with one hand and, with the other, working against that in looking at insolvency. I hope my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench will carefully consider the point about regulation and bring something back quickly.

The second point concerns the criteria that the monitor has to use for the moratorium, the time it could take to assess whether the definition is met, and whether the criteria are too tightly drawn or could be met more quickly if they were more easily drawn. I recognise the need for the monitor to make a suitable statement about the moratorium. The current threshold is whether

“in the…monitor’s view, it is likely that a moratorium…would result in the rescue of the company”.

However, the monitor has a relatively short period in which to make that assessment. In normal circumstances there would be a huge amount of due diligence done on trading, future trading, inspection of management accounts, general financial arrangements and debt arrangements. Not only does that normally take longer than 20 days; it is potentially a costly process to undertake. Particularly given the spirit of what we are trying to do in the Bill, will Ministers consider whether it might be more effective to look at the definition of the criteria and approve a slightly lower threshold for what constitutes a company that could be rescued? That might be as simple as saying that “it is likely” that the moratorium could result in the rescue of the company, as opposed to saying that “it must”. That would be of considerable help in rescuing companies.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I agree with my hon. Friend and support his point. I think the provision to which he is referring is proposed new section A6(1)(e) in the Insolvency Act 1986, which contains the wording:

“in the…monitor’s view, it is likely that a moratorium for the company would result in the rescue of the company as a going concern.”

Simply changing “would” to “could” would resolve the issues.

Stephen Hammond Portrait Stephen Hammond
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My hon. Friend drafts the amendment for me. I absolutely agree, and I hope those on the Front Bench will too. That would seriously help with what we are trying to do at this stage.

The permanent measures are designed to allow as many companies as possible to be rescued and to continue trading, but these companies will be creditors of others. In that regard, we must also look at the Bill’s potentially perverse impacts. I have a constituency case, Ms Ravindran, a constituent who runs a design business. It is a small company that is owed £36,000 by an individual, and at least 10 other creditors are owed up to £200,000 in total by that particular individual and company. She is rightly concerned that the Bill will give undue protection to one rather than the other. The issue is that it will be clear to those intending to use the provisions of the Bill to protect themselves, and to enable themselves to trade through and be rescued or restructured, that they should not be undertaking activities. I would like the Minister’s reassurance that the companies seeking to be rescued will not be able to take early advantage of things such as directors loans to take money out of a business that is then likely to apply for a moratorium and thereby impact others who are debtors of that company.

There is also a potential problem that I hope the Minister will be able to reassure me about later. Under the current drafting, ongoing trading costs and scheduled debt repayments that occur during the moratorium do get paid. Those that do not get paid become a super-priority, but nothing prior to that gets paid. The concern is that the potential suppliers to a company in the moratorium period may try to game that period. They may well see a company in difficulty and decide that it is easier to put the payments due to them in the moratorium period, so that they get super priority, not in the normal supply. I suggest to the Minister that the way around that is to have a look again at whether there could be some tweaking of the definition and to consider that the Bill be amended so that only the interest and charges incurred during the moratorium, rather than the scheduled debt repayment, becomes the super priority. That would take away the incentive to game the system.

There is clearly an understanding about why changes are proposed in the Bill to the termination of supply contracts. We all know that currently a supplier could use contractual terms to cease supply. Therefore, ensuring that a company that has entered into a moratorium or a restructuring procedure, as defined by the Bill, is not forced to rely on the usual contractual terms is clearly right, but there are some other circumstances. Again, have we thought clearly enough about the protection to the supplier? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly talked about some of the protections that are there, but it is clear that the non-payment of those debts to the supplier could put that supplier into insolvency as well, because it may not be able to get the protection from the court fast enough.

I think that the definition of what constitutes hardship to the small or medium-sized supplier or the company in the rescue package might clearly present some—I was going to use the phrase “wriggle room”—legal possibilities that should not be contemplated. Beyond the definition of hardship, should there not at least be a legal obligation in the restructuring plan that requires a supplier’s status to be given legal protection? I think that is quite important, and it inevitably means some reconsideration of the named cross-class clampdown proposals as well.

A lot has been said about the supplier and making sure that it continues to supply, and, hopefully, the company getting those supplies is then rescued. Again, however, in some circumstances not every company entering the restructuring procedures will actually be rescued. It simply will not happen. What happens then? As I understand it, the supplier is given the super priority status, but—and this leads into another point I want to make in a moment—will Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, or indeed other financial providers, want to be given super super priority status over and above that of the supplier? The provisions to ensure the continuity of supply are welcome, but I ask my hon. Friend on the Front Bench to reflect on whether he can reassure us about the protections to the suppliers.

That leads directly to my next point, which is that the Bill reintroduces the concept of making HMRC a preferential creditor. I am very concerned that all the good work that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing in this Bill could be unwound by doing that. It could have a really negative impact on business rescuing and lending across the UK.

Do not take my word for it: R3, the industry insolvency practitioner, directly makes that point. It goes against a policy, which has encouraged lending to small businesses, that has been in place for some 18 years.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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That is a very important point. I think the legislation is covered under clause 95 of the Finance Bill, which makes HMRC a preferred creditor once again. The real concern is not just that lenders will be less willing to lend on that basis—that is a concern because you go above lenders with a floating charge—but that HMRC may be less willing to show forbearance to businesses that are seeking protection and time to get through these problems.

Stephen Hammond Portrait Stephen Hammond
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I thank my hon. Friend. The House will be pleased to know that it will not need to listen to the next couple of minutes of my speech on the basis that he has just made exactly the point I wanted to make about the floating charge in particular. They are the normal financiers to those sorts of businesses. If they find themselves displaced in the ranking of credit priority, they are less likely to lend and that will have an impact. It was introduced in 2002 and has seen an extraordinary expansion of lending via those floating charge providers. It would seem odd that we are, in one place, trying to do one thing in one piece of Government legislation, and potentially undermining the impact of this very welcome Bill in another. I hope the Minister will, with his formidable powers of persuasion, speak to the Treasury about this matter.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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I have a long list.

Stephen Hammond Portrait Stephen Hammond
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The shadow Secretary of State says that he has long list. I am sure we all have, but I have only one point today, which is this particular issue. I ask the Minister to have a conversation with the Treasury about whether that measure, which it may or may not want to do, needs to be brought in now, because I think it will impact this Bill.

Finally, I want to talk about one of the temporary changes that directly affects my constituency. I welcome the flexibility that is being allowed to charities and bodies to move their annual general meetings or to hold them digitally. That is extremely sensible, but it does not cover all bodies. It does not cover charities set up under an Act of Parliament, or charities that are not CIOs—charitable incorporated organisations.

The wonderful Wimbledon and Putney Commons is such a body. It was set up in 1871 by an Act of this place and it has, in its constitution, a requirement that it meets in person, that all levy payers are instructed of the date of the annual meeting and that it must happen by the end of June. The measures in the Bill would undoubtedly help the conservators who run the common. The trouble is that it does not apply to them. May I therefore make a particular plea to the Minister to say in his winding-up speech either that the Bill will include all charities rather than just those set up under CIOs, or that all bodies set up by an Act of Parliament are included, such as the Wimbledon and Putney conservators—Wimbledon and Putney Commons. [Interruption.] I said conservators. For those who want a history lesson, I made that slip in my maiden speech, but I am not making it now. If that is not possible, I ask that there be a definitive statement that the Charity Commission specifically allows some temporary flexibility to those bodies. With that entreaty on behalf of Wimbledon Common, I thank you Mr Deputy Speaker.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his customary and welcome thorough exposition of the Bill. I pass on my thanks, too, to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for his engagement. We have been working constructively to try to ensure that we are, as the Secretary of State said, supporting businesses with the measures we are taking. It is very important to remember that people and businesses should be the laser focus of the work we are doing throughout this crisis.

It is important to consider the Bill and support it through today in a constructive manner. That is what the SNP intends to do. The Bill, although in itself a welcome step in the current crisis, should not be seen in isolation. Some very good points were made by the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). Some interventions were also very telling.

        As I have said, this Bill should not be seen in isolation. I want to touch on the impact of the Finance Bill, current business conditions and, of course, business and public confidence in the steps that need to be taken. This Bill helps with some provisions and should allow firms to apply their best endeavours to continue to trade during this pandemic emergency. As I have said, we support the Bill and the amendments to make that as easy as possible for people. None the less, as I have alluded to, the problems for the Bill lie in three other areas. Another piece of legislation—the Finance Bill—actually undermines, not just risks, these provisions and sets the conditions that could push companies to the brink. Then there are the plans to grant HMRC preferential status in the insolvency procedures, and the measures to make directors personally liable for companies’ tax liabilities. Together, these represent a significant challenge to businesses across the nations of the UK in trying to access working capital finance. While noting that it is difficult to accurately model the policy’s impact on business lending, UK Finance estimates that the policy could hit lending by well over £1 billion per annum, and possibly—because the modelling is difficult—much more than that.

        As well as having a detrimental impact on business and economic growth, restricted lending will make it harder to rescue businesses, increasing the knock-on effect of insolvency on other businesses and people. Business investment returns to creditors and confidence in the UK corporate framework all stand to be damaged as a result. Although the tax abuse using the company insolvencies measure can be mitigated through accurate legislative drafting and detailed guidance from HMRC, the policy to grant HMRC preferential creditor status should be withdrawn entirely, as its introduction may prove a hammer blow to businesses at exactly the time that the Government profess to be seeking to level up and support them as they adapt to the impact of covid-19.

        The second area of difficulty involves the economic inequities left by the gaps for businesses and Government support schemes during the covid-19 crisis. If the changes for this Bill can be pushed through sensibly in record time, there is no reason why the same urgency cannot be applied to filling the gaps that people and businesses are experiencing. We have heard today that there are substantial problems that not only exist now, with people struggling and unable to access support, but that are looming larger because of the decisions that have been made— over quarantine, for example. As I said during the statement earlier, this is not about whether quarantine is a good or bad device; it is about the fact that it will impact disproportionately on businesses involved in tourism and hospitality. That has to be addressed as we go forward.

        The issues are very clear. Firms are already finding it difficult to access cash, not least because of the UK Government’s flawed coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. I say this with the understanding that the schemes had the best of intentions—to support businesses —but, as we have already heard, they are just not working for everyone. I will not repeat the details because we have heard about that in the Chamber today. There are also big holes in the job retention scheme and the support programme for the self-employed. All of those things are critical to supporting businesses, and all of those things undermine what we are trying to do with this Bill by working collectively to ensure that these measures are taken forward as effectively as possible.

        I agree entirely that the Treasury should extend its 100% bounce-back scheme. That guarantee should cover the entire CBIL scheme. The fact that only a tiny fraction of businesses have received support underlines the need for the UK Government to introduce grants, not just loans. The UK Government should review and relax the lending criteria and speed up the process so that businesses can get vital access to cash.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think it is a bit harsh to say that the schemes are not working at all. About £30 billion has been lent under both those schemes—about £9 billion under the CBILS and £21 billion under bounce-back loans. The CBILS issue seems to be that, although the forward-looking viability test has been removed, banks are still assessing whether businesses can afford to make the loan repayments over that period. If we remove the requirement for banks to do that, a lot more money would go out the door under the CBILS.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree and I am willing to concede that some people have indeed been helped. I said that the scheme was introduced with the best of intentions, but the fact is that there are far too many people running businesses who have tried to access this scheme but could not do so. We have heard examples, and I could give dozens more from people who have contacted me. I guarantee that just about everybody—if not everybody—in the Chamber has had similar contact from people who have been unable to access the scheme. The fact is that it is not working as it was intended to. It is not getting through to the people who really need it, notwithstanding those who have been able to access it.

My party, the Scottish National party, also backs calls by the Institute of Directors for the Government to use the scheme to provide firms with overdrafts during this crisis. For firms still unable to access finance, it is high time—indeed, it is overdue—for direct grants and/or equity investments to be offered instead.

The final problem is public and business confidence. We are at stage four in the covid crisis at the moment. There has been a relaxation of measures for people to get out and about and do things and for businesses to start up, but that confidence evaporates if we have to go back to the restrictions and businesses are not able to do that. That will pile on the pressure for the businesses that we are trying to assist today.

I was struck by what was said by the hon. Member for Wimbledon—I hope I get this right—about one of the problems being the protection of one thing at the expense of another. That is a really good comment, because overall confidence and compliance for people and businesses will face further threat. All measures that are introduced by a Government who are, unfortunately, defined by double standards are likely to run into difficulties. This UK Government, these measures and those on public health are all being undermined by the failure to deal with the Dominic Cummings saga. No matter how much the Prime Minister bloviates, this matter has not gone away. My inbox and, I am sure, those of many others, were still full this weekend of messages from people looking for that to be addressed. I know that it is not a party thing, because I have seen the tweets and messages from people representing constituencies and parties around the House—they have all had the same messages. This matter—the principle of different rules applying—has not gone away or failed to register. We might take the comment of the hon. Member for Wimbledon and say that the protection of one at the expense of all others applies here. Observance of the rules is critical to the success—[Interruption.]

Stephen Hammond Portrait Stephen Hammond
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The hon. Gentleman has taken a bit of latitude with what I said. I was pointing out that this was beneficial, but that we needed to consider the interests of the other and therefore their protection. He is corrupting, or misusing, my words, shall I say.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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Order. I think we might be straying a bit further afield from what we are supposed to be debating this afternoon.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I did say that this was about the ability of businesses to continue to trade and this has a material impact on the Bill, because along with the Finance Bill, which it was entirely relevant to mention today, and the support for business, this can undermine the work that we are doing on this Bill. I will rein myself in now, but I think that that is a valid point. I hope—as you know, I greatly respect you, Mr Deputy Speaker—that you will understand and accept that point.

I have a lot more to say about that. This issue has not gone away, nor has it been dealt with—but it should be if the public are to have any confidence going forward.

Finally, returning to the Bill, getting this through today to protect people and allow them to trade out of difficulties is vital. We should accept that changes need to be made. I have set out a few, and we have seen the amendments. We should work collectively to make sure that the Bill is as good as possible to protect businesses.

Jonathan Djanogly Portrait Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)
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I declare any interest I may have arising from my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Bill initiates the most significant changes in insolvency rules for at least the past 20 years, and it has two broad directions. The first introduces new requirements for moratoriums and company reconstructions, which have been consulted on in outline over the past two years. They were expected and are generally welcomed by practitioners and by business. However, when one looks at practitioners’ commentary, nearly all of them note that the devil is in the detail and they look forward to debates on the Bill. Of course, that is not going to happen to any extent, given that 170 pages of the Bill are allocated to two complicated proposals that were published a day before recess only two weeks ago. To allocate one day for all stages of the Bill is inadequate.

The foundation of our insolvency system is the Companies Act 1985 and the Insolvency Act 1986, both significant measures forged by a Conservative Government that have stood the test of time through the rebuilding of our economy after deindustrialisation, the dotcom crash and then the banking crash. Yes, we face another crisis, but rushing these changes through will not, in my view, produce the best law. For instance, if we take the moratorium, the key change is to introduce the concept of a monitor to review companies’ affairs. What will that involve? How will the role work, and will the monitor be able to charge for staff placed on site and so on? The purpose of the Bill is to present oven-ready processes that can be used to help businesses in the crisis, but I am not sure how that will work if practitioners, civil servants and possibly courts have to spend a long time working out what the law means.

The remaining provisions of the Bill have not even been consulted on despite their raising many serious issues of principle—above all prioritising the survival of businesses over the interests of creditors and consumers. We need to appreciate that the Government support schemes for businesses and employees, which have been popular and which I absolutely support, are often a blunt instrument. For instance, some businesses have taken state support, then gone on to renegotiate their leases, effectively leveraging their crisis support to undermine the market. The proposal to prevent winding-up petitions could accentuate that. Usually if companies are becoming insolvent, deals will be done and rents will fall, but banning winding-up petitions could undermine the market.

Why concentrate on big landlords? What about small companies sub-letting to cover part of their rent? They, too, will lose protection. As I asked the Minister, why are the Government talking just about rents when that applies to all debt and all sectors? Has the Minister considered that preventing winding-up petitions and the new wrongful trading termination provisions could reduce the willingness of banks and private lenders to issue credit? It could increase lenders’ risk aversion. It could increase demands for cash on delivery, prepayments and deposit increases. It could require more bonds and personal guarantees. That state meddling in the marketplace could have serious negative implications for credit and business, and I am interested to hear the Minister address those issues.

Some of the provisions are retrospective which, again, will undermine confidence in our economy. Why are the provisions being effected only for one month, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and others have mentioned, which is simply unrealistic and points to extensions effected by ministerial order rather than by Commons debate?

Let us be quite clear: the provisions that will temporarily prevent winding-up petitions are being made on the basis of statutory demands not just from now but including those demands made between 1 March and 30 June. This suspension applies to all statutory demands, irrespective of whether the financial difficulties being experienced by the debtor have anything to do with covid, and of course they apply to all creditors. So a blanket ban is being introduced on a retrospective basis, with no reference to covid or the circumstances of the company. If I were to believe, as I do, that these provisions might merit the justification of proper scrutiny, a practitioners’ review and then feedback, I do not think that I would be asking for anything out of the ordinary.

On winding-up petitions being suspended, this is based on cash flow insolvency in circumstances where covid has had a financial effect on the relevant debtor, which has given rise to the proceedings in the first place. In such a situation, the creditor requesting the winding up must show the court that the company’s inability to pay its debts was not caused by the covid crisis. One wonders how, in the current health climate, the creditor will be able to show that this test has been met. Could the Minister enlighten us? Will there be a series of tests to be met, or will this all have to be fleshed out by the judiciary and the courts, which is presumably not the intention? Again, this provision is to be retrospective, so we could have a number of void petitions out there at the moment. Can the Minister advise us how many we are likely to be talking about?

The Bill goes even further, because it says that the court can make orders to restore a company where a petition was brought under the existing law but the requirement was not met. I believe that this would all be at the cost of the petitioner. Could the Minister confirm that? It looks like if creditor A has a petition in against company X, who owes A money, not only will creditor A be forced to withdraw his petition for winding up and be unable to collect his debt, but he might have to pay more money to company X to put X in the same position as if A had not tried to get his money back. We do live in strange times. Moreover, what about creditor A? How many mouths might creditor A have to feed from the money that should have come from X? What if X had been taking every loan and support going, but A had taken nothing from the state? I have met a lot of small businessmen who have not wanted to take anything during this crisis. There will clearly be knock-ons from this, and I am frankly unsure whether the legislation will help or hinder in certain respects.

Could the Minister explain why the winding-up provisions should be needed if the Government have confidence in their own new moratorium proposals, which will allow courts, following assessment, to stop winding ups? Will directors get any benefit from the wrongful trading proposals, knowing that they could be in breach of other directors’ duties and that these proposals are only temporary, so they could well need to justify their decision to trade on at a later date in any event?

The wrongful trading provisions have served us very well, and let us remember that they were brought in to reassure creditors and consumers who were disgusted at companies being used to trade in situations where they were clearly going to the wall. The reform of termination clauses in supply contracts had been suggested some time ago; I appreciate that. The problem is that if we stop people freely negotiating contracts in one direction, businesses will look for other ways of limiting their exposure. Ultimately, we can all understand that if I, as a supplier, am not paid for the previous consignment, I might not want to supply any more until I have been paid, because I might not get paid if the customer were to go insolvent. So we will head to cash on delivery, reduced credit, shorter payment terms and possibly contract terms. This will not help our economy.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey
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Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is the 30-day, 60-day, 90-day culture that has arisen in trading between companies? It is much easier now for companies to get an earlier payment, because so many payments are by electronic transfer, and the notion that the cheque has to be there when the guy delivers the goods no longer applies. If this measure moves trading in that direction, does he agree that that would not necessarily be a bad thing?

Jonathan Djanogly Portrait Mr Djanogly
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Not necessarily. These are the sorts of things that I would like to have heard debated, frankly.

The provisions have a limited time exclusion of, I think, one month for small companies. I am not sure of the worth of that. If a large company entered into a very large contract and failed to be paid yet was still forced to supply, that could be just as devastating as a scenario in which a small company had to do likewise on a smaller order. In my experience, not only are these clauses often negotiated, but there are standard gives and takes to be had. For instance, a hard termination clause for any type of insolvency event may be narrowed down to exclude deals with creditors or waived if the debt is repaid, say after a month, despite an insolvency event having occurred.

Removing the ability for negotiation in the way the Bill does may have a minimal impact at the cost of damaging our reputation as a place for free contracting. I can see that there are safeguards for suppliers to go to court on the grounds of hardship to the supplier, but going to the court in that way will not be a cheap process, and it will run the risk of throwing good money, which the supplier may not have, after the existing debt.

I agree with the proposals to enable AGMs to be held flexibly, but why mess about with the filing deadlines? If companies have filing problems, the current system allows for that to be quietly considered by the Department. Why publicly undermine our corporate governance and national economic credibility, especially on the filing of accounts?

My concern is that the Bill, although well meant, may not properly work for lack of scrutiny, or may provide dubious short-term benefit at the cost of longer-term distrust in our economic system. In market economies, weaker businesses will sometimes fail, particularly in a downturn. I suggest that the Government’s role is to ensure confidence in the marketplace rather than in companies themselves.

One thing that has been missing from the debate so far is the question of corporate governance in the wider sense. I notice—the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), nods—that the Opposition have tabled new clause 3, which addresses that. As it happens, I do not agree with all the things in that new clause. However, I do recognise, and it is important to say, that a lot of companies have been conducting excellent corporate governance. A lot of directors have forgone salaries. A lot of companies have not paid dividends and are doing the right thing. A lot of good work has been going on, and I would like to see more recognition of that; let us recognise the good.

Although corporate governance is mentioned on the front of the Bill, it is about how we will suspend corporate governance. That may be for good reasons, but we should use the opportunity of the Bill, and particularly its Second Reading, to discuss how we are going to move corporate governance forward too. I would like to hear a little about that from the Minister when he winds up the debate.

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab)
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I welcome the measures in the Bill, which will support struggling businesses during this difficult economic period, but, as other Members have said, this short-term relief needs to be followed quickly by a comprehensive recovery plan for the British economy.

For British businesses, this is a moment of genuine crisis. More than one in five companies across the economy, and an overwhelming majority of those in the worst affected sectors, have already been forced temporarily to cease trading. Survey after survey and the cases we have all encountered in our constituencies shed light on the depth of the anxiety that businesses and their employees are carrying about the coming months. I think there is an understanding across the House, therefore, that failure to act would have meant hundreds of thousands of fundamentally healthy businesses going under altogether, and that that would have been unacceptable.

In that context, the Bill’s time-limited provisions are a matter of necessity. The measures on wrongful trading, statutory demands, winding-up petitions and greater flexibility on governance constitute meaningful, if in some respects temporary, respite for struggling businesses. However, the urgency of responding to this crisis must not blind us to the deeper challenges that we face.

The measures we are debating will postpone the threat of insolvency, but giving workers and businesses real security about the future will require a more ambitious and better-targeted package of support. A significant majority of businesses that have continued to trade are currently reliant on some form of Government help. The success of that model has been its ability to deliver a one-size-fits-all remedy at pace, but the slowdown so far has been marked not just by its severity but by its unevenness.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee heard last month from the retail sector, for which the challenge is especially stark, with as many as a fifth of independent non-food retailers expecting to close for good and often in no position to take on additional debt. Tomorrow we will hear from the manufacturing and energy sectors, including aerospace, automotive and steel, whose needs are self-evidently of a different order, with a small number of major companies providing a significant percentage of British exports, but often reliant on a vast supply chain of small and medium enterprises, themselves in distress and in need of bespoke support. So as the economy reopens, the key measure of success for preventing insolvencies will be the Government’s ability to get help where it is required, on a sectoral basis, with a whole-supply-chain view.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller
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It is a pleasure to serve on the Committee of which the hon. Member is Chair. I am interested to hear him talk about the differential impact on different sectors. He mentioned retail. Does he think that the Government’s policy to close retail was wrong?

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones
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I do not. The public health emergency had to be dealt with, and understandably, it had consequences for the economic emergency we find ourselves in. Retail was one example that we heard from. However, I declare my constituency interests in the aerospace sector and in the transport sector, where evidently there will be a longer tail of damage to their business prospects than to other sectors of the economy that might be able to open sooner rather than later.

That is why we need a comprehensive recovery and growth plan, which, I understand from the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee hearing last week, will be with us before the summer recess. That plan will need to take a strategic view on what the British economy should look like in the future, and what capacity, skills and production we therefore need to protect now—with, of course, the net zero transition baked in.

On corporate governance, which the Secretary of State noted today has been part of the longer-term thinking of this Government, I worry that the Government’s determination to act quickly in the Bill has come at the cost of bringing forward long-awaited reforms, as was so eloquently posited by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly). The failings that led to the collapses of Carillion and Thomas Cook, for example, and the impact of those failings on their employees, suppliers and customers, as well as the taxpayer, were the subject of extensive work by the BEIS Committee under the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), and that work underpinned serious reform-minded proposals to protect employees and the smaller suppliers, which too often suffer most.

In response to the Government’s 2018 consultation, Ministers also made repeated commitments to strengthen governance before the point of insolvency, for instance by better incentivising shareholders to take responsibility for performance.

I do not wish to set a panacea standard for the Bill, which I of course recognise needed to come forward quickly, but there was a welcome opportunity for the Government to have a bit more to show to bear out its claims of seriousness on this issue. With that in mind, I am curious to hear what commitments Ministers can make today to ensuring that the anticipated legislation on “Good Work”, following the Taylor report, and parallel legislation to reform the Financial Reporting Council into the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority, are introduced to the House as soon as possible.

Relatedly, the BEIS Committee’s work in the last Parliament on curbing runaway executive pay and requiring proper reporting of the gender pay gap, alongside the question of how investment decisions on behalf of British savers and pensioners should be made in such a way as to bring society-wide benefits, in line with the stewardship code, constitute a challenge which I hope Ministers will rise to, if not in the Bill, then in the short future.

I understand the Government’s hesitation to reinvent the wheel with this specific piece of legislation, but I would welcome a clear statement of intent from Ministers today on the importance of rigorous corporate reporting—including on executive pay and the gender pay gap—and the centrality of building environmental, social and governance principles into investment decisions. I agree with other hon. Members that there have been many businesses acting in the best possible good faith in very difficult circumstances, but all of us recognise, as has been debated in the House today, that some businesses might be pushing that good faith too far, and where businesses are acting in bad faith, especially when in receipt of British taxpayers’ money, there ought to be at least consequences for the worst examples.

I appreciate the Government’s determination to act quickly, but moments of crisis should broaden, not constrain, our ambition to create a better future. The Bill will come as a genuine relief to businesses in the most difficult shape, and I of course support it. But its caution should be a matter of regret, and any such continued caution could yet be the undoing of the Government’s recovery efforts in the long term. In that spirit, I gently urge Ministers to be bold as well as decisive—so that the Bill forms the start, not the end. I look forward to further discussions on this topic before our Committee.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I call Chris Clarkson to make his maiden speech.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a great privilege to be called to give my maiden speech as the first ever Conservative Member for Heywood and Middleton. May I add what a pleasure it is to see you, Mr Deputy Speaker, in the Chair when I do it?

Before going any further, I would just like to say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones). I served very briefly with him on the Science and Technology Committee, and I would like to personally congratulate him on his election as Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. I am sure he will bring his thorough, fair and forensic approach to scrutiny on that Committee, and I wish him well.

It has also come to my attention that I am one of the last of my intake to make my maiden speech. I would like to salute all my colleagues who have, through a varied and personal collection of speeches, shown that ours is a party that now truly represents the entire country. I would like to say in particular a great thank you to my hon. Friends the Members for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes), for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) and for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), who have joined me to give a bit of moral support.

At this most challenging time for our country, I would like to dedicate my first speech to the people who are rising to that challenge, both in my constituency and across the four nations of our Union: our NHS staff, careworkers, armed forces, police, posties, bin men and the hundreds of thousands of other people working tirelessly to keep us safe. They truly embody the best of what it is to be British. I know that for my part, when I have been clapping on Thursday night, it has been not just with a sense of thanks, but with immense pride that this is a country that pulls together.

I am grateful to have been drawn to speak today. I can only imagine that, when Members saw the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill on the agenda, Mr Speaker’s office was inundated by people desperate to speak on this most glamorous of topics. Mr Speaker may have been inundated by anxious Members, but this particular subject—sexy or not—is of great importance. The Bill will do a great deal of good for a great deal of people, and really that is what we are here to do.

What must strike Members, as it does me, is the widespread support for the Bill, not just in my constituency but across the whole country. It has the support of businesses, professional bodies, the Institute of Directors, the TUC and the British Chambers of Commerce, which welcomed the Government’s sensible and flexible steps to protect businesses from the threats they face at this difficult time.

It is vital that urgent action is taken to help those struggling and worried for their businesses. By continuing to trade in these difficult times, they will be the turbo boost our economy needs as the new normal becomes the old normal. When we have asked so much of the British people, and they have given so much more than we asked of them, it is only right that we look to give those businesses and the people who run them the breathing room they need in the closest of economic climates.

The measures will ensure that essential supplies are maintained to support trade and that companies can maximise their chances of survival, saving livelihoods as well as lives. Quite simply, the Bill will help companies to increase their chances of going on when we need them most. It will protect jobs and underpin our country’s economic recovery. It consists of measures that will support businesses through this period and, where they need them, provide new lifelines to companies in desperate need of rescue.

The corporate governance measures give directors more flexibility during this emergency to focus on the things that really matter to them and their employees. According to a study by KPMG, the north and the midlands will bear the economic brunt of coronavirus, with a slump of up to 10% in the economy of my region, the north-west. Only with the injection of the common sense that the Bill affords can business owners have confidence that their contribution to our national recovery will be recognised with the appropriate safeguards. However, another study by Deloitte says that the north-west is the most optimistic region when it comes to recovery, and that is what we always bring with us. Whether it is Lancashire, Manchester, Merseyside, Cheshire or Cumbria, the north-west will be at the heart of this country’s economic recovery.

The Government’s commitment to levelling up has always relied on opportunity and aspiration. By safeguarding that through the measures in the Bill, we are keeping our promise to the people who put us on these Benches. I know that the Herculean efforts of the Secretary of State, the Chancellor and the BEIS and Treasury teams have been felt far and wide as livelihoods and businesses from Heywood to Hertfordshire and from Middleton to Middlesbrough have been saved by the decisive action of this Conservative Government.

Today’s Bill will reinforce that commitment to a one-nation, compassionate Conservative ideal. But in these exceptional times what truly define us are the acts of kindness all too easily forgotten, such as shopkeeper Damian Edwards of Alkrington, who has worked 22-hour days to ensure that the most vulnerable in his community will have the essentials that they need; the staff and students of Middleton Technology School and Hopwood Hall College, who are producing thousands of pieces of PPE for local key workers; my constituent Win Page, who celebrated her 100th birthday by raising over £15,000 for the North West Ambulance Service; and Mike Goldrick of Heywood, whose local blind manufacturing company is now producing scrubs for the local NHS trust. Those are just a few examples of the countless reasons why I am proud to represent Heywood and Middleton—some of the finest, most patriotic and enterprising people not just in the north, but in the whole country.

The events of December’s election may seem like a distant memory now, but it is important to remember what they signify. For years, the forgotten towns of the north and midlands have waited their turn, promised so much by the people they elected only to see themselves passed over time and again. In 2010, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, took the first steps on the long journey to levelling up the north of England long before it was fashionable to do so. What we now call the northern powerhouse began as a labour of love, and now forms part of our central promise to this country. It is a promise that I and so many of my new colleagues intend to fulfil.

As well as paying tribute to the wonderful people in my constituency, it is only right that I pay tribute to those who have represented it before me. For five years Liz McInnes served the people of Heywood and Middleton, and holds the distinction of being the first and only woman to have represented the seat. Before her, Jim Dobbin served for 17 distinguished years and is still fondly remembered on both sides of the House as an active MP and a true gentleman.

On a personal note, I would like to reach a bit further back to my noble friend Lord Haselhurst, who now sits in the other place, and was the last Conservative MP for the Middleton and Prestwich constituency. He is the most recent Member of my party to represent any part of my seat. His kindness, mentorship and support have been greatly appreciated during my first months as a Member of this place, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch) would no doubt agree, set a very high bar for those who come after.

I would also like to thank the people who helped me get here. Like so many across the Chamber, I was supported, encouraged and helped every step of the way by a dedicated group of friends, colleagues from my local party, the local community, councillors, activists and concerned local residents. This was as much their victory as it was mine, and that I stand here today is a testament to their selflessness.

At this unprecedented moment in our national history, when so many are giving so much, I must also recognise two more of my predecessors, who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Heywood has the unique distinction of being the only town to have lost its MP on active service during both world wars. Howard Cawley of the Liberal party died at Gallipoli, and Richard Porritt, a fellow Conservative whose coat of arms is on the wall of this Chamber, was killed during the evacuation of Dunkirk; he was the first Member of this House to lay down his life in the second world war.

I am a proud supporter of our armed forces. Their dedication to our nation and its people is humbling under normal circumstances. At this time of great stress, nothing demonstrates this dedication more than their extraordinary work transforming Manchester Central in under 10 days into one of several state-of-the-art Nightingale hospitals.

Heywood and Middleton is actually a relatively young constituency by parliamentary standards, having first been contested in 1983, but the towns within it have a long and rich history. Heywood is celebrating its 750th year as a town. Once famed for some of the finest textiles in the world, it also has an important part to play in the history of this place, as the home of Lord Heywood, who foiled the gunpowder plot. I will simply say to hon. Members on behalf of my constituents: you’re welcome.

Middleton—a town conspicuously missing from the Domesday Book, bar a passing reference to being “of great antiquity”—is home not only to Manchester’s oldest church, St Leonard’s, but also to England’s oldest pub, The Olde Boar’s Head, a beautiful timber-framed building originally built in 1632. I am pleased to say that I have frequented both, although, I will admit, one more than the other.

Lastly, in a remark that will no doubt prohibit me from any future position in the Treasury, although maybe not in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, mine is a seat of three halves; beyond the eponymous Heywood and Middleton, it also includes the western reaches of the town of Rochdale. The communities of Bamford, Castleton and Norden—all villages in their own right—have much to boast about, with beautiful green spaces, thriving local businesses, excellent schools and, of course, yet more superb pubs, all of which we dearly hope to see reopen shortly. These communities also require protection, as their precious green belt is under threat, and I will stand with fellow Members across the House and community groups in opposing the disastrous Greater Manchester spatial framework.

It is all too easy endlessly to wax lyrical about what an immense privilege it is to be stood here, but in all honesty I doubt that words could ever truly convey the reality of what it is to be entrusted with this responsibility. In ancient Rome, our predecessors in the Senate would invoke the maxim “Acta non verba”. As ancient as that concept is, it is not one lost to time. One of Manchester’s greatest daughters, Emmeline Pankhurst, was still calling people to action with the cry of “Deeds not words” hundreds of years later, and it holds as true today as it did then. When we get through this crisis—and we will get through it—it will ultimately be our deeds, not our words alone, that will do it.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
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May I say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), who has paid a passionate and upbeat tribute to his constituency? It is the tradition in this House that when one gives a maiden speech, one is usually surrounded by one’s colleagues in a so-called doughnut. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on giving the first ever maiden speech with a socially distanced doughnut.

Let me begin by saying that I support wholeheartedly the aims of the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill. This is a welcome response and a much-needed one in the crisis times in which we find ourselves. However, the changes are and must be just a small part of the rescue and recovery package that will be required in the long term. This Bill will provide short-term relief from overbearing creditors and give necessary protections, but to avoid a wave of insolvencies as we come off the back of this crisis and those protections begin to recede—a situation that would profoundly damage livelihoods and might have just as many damaging public health consequences as the immediate effects of the crisis—we need to have a plan for the long term that will enable our economy to bounce back in a sustainable manner. This means that the Government must go further and they must go faster.

These needs for ambition and urgency are particularly relevant to the steel industry. It is the largest employer in my Aberavon constituency, with 4,000 well-paid jobs directly employed in the Tata steelworks in Port Talbot, but with many thousands more in the supply chain. Nationwide, the UK steel industry employs 32,000 people and contributes £3.2 billion to mitigating our balance of trade deficit through the exports that are produced. It contributes £5.5 billion to the economy directly and through supply chains, and each job pays on average 28% higher than the average UK job. Indeed, steel is the very backbone of our whole manufacturing sector—from defence to transport to infrastructure—and there can and will be no post-pandemic economic recovery for our country without a strong and healthy steel industry.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), the shadow Business Secretary, has rightly said, the support to the steel industry has been far too slow, and it finds itself now teetering on the edge of the abyss. I do not understand why the French and German steel industries received the liquidity injections they required, backed by their respective Governments, within 10 days of their respective lockdowns starting, yet not a single penny of Government liquidity has been made available to the British steel industry to date. I think we do need an explanation of why it has been so slow.

My worry was that the reason might be that some on the Government Benches have given up on the steel industry. I do not believe that to be the case. I do truly believe and hope that the silver lining from this dark coronavirus cloud may be that the UK Government finally recognise the need to support industries of vital strategic, foundational importance, such as the steel industry, and also that they will begin to acknowledge the value of more localised and shorter supply chains.

What we need, coming off the back of this crisis, is nothing short of a manufacturing renaissance in our country. If we are to grow the economy to meet the challenges presented by climate change, by the social care crisis and by the need to rebuild our economy post-pandemic in a serious, sustainable and balanced manner, we must significantly boost our manufacturing sector. It is currently languishing at 9% of GDP. I would strongly recommend that the Government set an ambitious target of boosting manufacturing to 15% of GDP by the end of this Parliament. We know that the Government like to chase targets. Let us have a target that can actually pull our economy together and rebuild it on the basis of a manufacturing renaissance.

Boosting manufacturing is a win-win-win in so many areas. Our economy is currently dangerously skewed towards consumption and debt. Manufacturing is about production, and that is the kind of shift that we need to make. It would boost productivity, and it is far easier to make productivity wins in manufacturing than in the services sector. It would rebalance the economy and correct the massive geographical gap that exists between the wealthiest region in our country—London and the south-east—and the poorest regions. It would reduce our reliance on China. Just look at the issues around PPE: 40% of the world’s PPE is manufactured in China. We surely cannot go back to having strategic dependence on a country such as China, which so patently does not share our democratic values and ideals.

The steel industry must underpin this manufacturing renaissance. Successive Conservative Governments have unfortunately failed to support the steel industry sufficiently over the past 10 years. For instance, UK steelmakers pay 80% more for their electricity than their French counterparts, and 62% more than their counterparts in Germany. Now, during the pandemic, the Government have failed to come up with the size of loan and liquidity for the cash-flow crisis that Tata Steel, the owner of the Port Talbot steelworks in my constituency, is facing. It is the UK’s biggest steelmaker. It asked the Government for a loan—I stress that it would be a loan, which the company would of course be contractually obliged to repay—to cover the £500 million cash flow black hole that has been caused by coronavirus for the company. The Government recently increased their large business interruption loan scheme to a £200 million cap, but that still falls well short of what the company requires to plug that temporary gap in its cash flow. What a contrast, as I say, with the French and German Governments’ actions. Within 10 days, their steel industries had the liquidity injection that they required.

The Government have now introduced Project Birch, which aims to support those larger companies that did not fall within the parameters of the business loan interruption scheme. However, we know very little about how Project Birch is going to work. Yet again, I am concerned that coming forward with a new initiative could set back the work that has been done under the framework of the previous initiative. It almost feels like we are back to square one. With every day that goes by, the British steel industry teeters closer to the abyss, so I urge the Government to make this their top priority. We need to see the action that is required happening with the greatest possible urgency. My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) have recently written to the Government demanding more action on UK steel, and I thank them for their efforts.

The Government must also urgently recognise that the cost of doing nothing is so much greater to the UK taxpayer than the cost of intervening. Previous research from the IPPR think-tank suggests that the loss of 4,000 well-paid steel jobs could cost the Exchequer almost £1 billion over 10 years, and that is before we count the astronomical capital expenditure cost of decommissioning the blast furnaces and steelworks. The structural cost of putting thousands of well-paid workers on to benefits, combined with the capital expenditure costs of decommissioning, would be absolutely astronomical for the British taxpayer. It would be the definition of a false economy.

The British steel industry is a 21st century industry. It builds the offices we work in, the cars we drive and the homes we live in. It is a cutting-edge industry that is doing so much to promote green growth. There is a project involving Tata Steel and Swansea University just next to my constituency called SPECIFIC, which is creating photovoltaic cells on the basis of a steel-based film, which could turn every home and office in our country into a power station. That is a steel-based product. We are not talking about metal bashing; we are talking about cutting-edge technology and manufacturing. We need to support the backbone of our manufacturing sector that is the British steel industry. We cannot afford to let that backbone break at this crucial time.

The legislation has also missed other opportunities. The Government should be bringing forward long-awaited reforms of corporate governance. I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), the Chair of the BEIS Committee, who I congratulate on his recent election to that position. We should ensure that directors do not focus only on profit. They must also focus on people and planet. There needs to be a triple bottom line reporting structure, and the first step is to amend section 172 of the Companies Act 2006. We need companies to adopt a much broader responsibility, not only to narrow shareholder needs and aims, but to a much broader-based stakeholder approach in setting their corporate objectives and mission.

On that note, I commend the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in his role as shadow BEIS Secretary. He has made it clear that we need a green, sustainable recovery by creating, in his words, an army of zero-carbon workers by retraining and redeploying those who cannot work into different industries. That churn will be essential as we enter the new paradigm of the post-pandemic economy and could apply in areas from home insulation to wind turbine manufacture. These are the opportunities that we see.

My right hon. Friend has also rightly pointed out that those companies that receive state support through this crisis owe obligations to the taxpayer. Those registered in tax havens who want support should come onshore before they get it. Multinationals that plan to pay dividends to shareholders while claiming the Government resources do not need to be doing that. We could also be more creative. In the long term, the Government should consider turning Project Birch into a sovereign wealth fund of the type that has boosted the prosperity of countries such as Singapore and Norway.

Let us ensure that we use this recovery to form a new partnership between Government and business—a partnership that will benefit the whole economy. Let us use this crisis as an opportunity to rethink, redesign and rebuild the British economy. However, the urgent, No. 1 priority now must be to protect the backbone of our economy, our UK steel industry; because without a strong and healthy steel industry, there can be no post-pandemic economic recovery.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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It is always good to hear Swansea University get a good mention—yes, I went there.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and his passionate response to the issues facing the steel industry, and also to hear the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), who seemed rather bothered that he was among the last of his intake to deliver his maiden speech. I would say to him there is nothing wrong in leaving the best till last.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I support the Bill and the measures it provides for business. I ran a business for many years before becoming to this place and recognise the many challenges that business owners and managers face at this difficult time. We were reminded of that by the Chairman of the Select Committee, who talked about the survey showing that 80% of manufacturing companies have seen orders fall, while 20% have seen their order books halved. These are substantial reductions in demand, and there are some sectors of the economy, in retail and hospitality, where trade is non-existent. However, those businesses continue to incur costs. Many of those costs have been defrayed by Government support, but that will never match the expense needed to keep a business going.

At the same time, many businesses face delayed payment by their suppliers, many of which would legitimately say that they are not able to pay their bills because they are not trading and do not have money coming in. The Select Committee recently spoke to the Small Business Commissioner, who is going to need to be very busy and active.

In the face of all this, the Government have been incredibly quick to respond with a broad range of measures. I thought it was rather churlish of the shadow Secretary of State not to acknowledge the great support that the Federation of Small Businesses, the chambers of commerce and the Institute of Directors have given to the many measures that businesses brought out at great pace. Everything was done very quickly. We need to see the Bill in the light of those measures: it is part of a package of measures available to support businesses in a very difficult time. Of course, the measures in the Bill have been introduced quickly. There has been some criticism of the amount of time it took to get the Bill ready and that we have to scrutinise it, but these are important measures that will support businesses and keep them alive. We need to get them on the statute book to enable businesses to survive these exceptional times.

It is important to look at the permanent measures and the temporary measures. On the permanent measures, the protection from creditors, which provides a breathing space in which businesses can adjust to a new reality to get provisions in place, is incredibly important. Such protections will be taken up by businesses that, but for this pandemic, would have been trading completely profitably over recent months. It is not the fault of the company or directors that they are faced with these challenges. It is of course in our interests—it is in the public interest—for us to enable company rescue and to prevent the failure of businesses that are experiencing short-term problems.

Many of the measures in the Bill have been described as heading in the direction of chapter 11 as exists in the United States. They do not go quite that far, but they are important steps in the right direction. It is important to remember that in many cases the companies that will be supported by the process we are discussing will be ones that have received Government support in recent months, with staff furloughed or the businesses having received grants—companies to which public funds have already been committed. It is important to consider the fact that the Bill will ensure that that earlier funding—that public money that has been made available—does not go to waste. It will be a huge shame if we do not protect those businesses that have had Government support over the past few months.

The Bill will introduce a moratorium during which no legal action can be taken. I discussed with a recovery specialist the appropriateness of the amount of time that the Bill gives for that, which is 20 working days—in essence, a month, for most of us—extendable to two months. He said to me that in the context of a company restructuring that is actually not a lot of time. It can of course be extended, but for a creditor of the company who is waiting to find out what the future is going to hold and how much of the debt they are due is going to be repaid, a month or two can be a pretty long time. We need to respect the position of all the people involved. During that time there will be a payment holiday during which suppliers will not be paid.

There is then, of course, the restriction on enforcement action that a creditor can bring, which I shall talk about in a moment. That provision covers landlords, who are often being painted as the villain of the piece, taking aggressive action against companies in many cases; it seems to me that in some instances landlords need to have a view about their own better interests, and it may be better for a landlord to retain a tenant in a building, continuing to trade with Government support, and to keep the tenant in there while deferring rent, rather than the landlord ending up with an empty property for which, after a period of time, they will pick up a liability for the business rates.

Under the provisions of the Bill, companies will be able to use their breathing space to re-forecast their business. One of the challenges with the loans that we have already discussed this afternoon is how someone prepares a cash-flow forecast for a business for which the previous three months have been completely out of kilter with the historic trading pattern of the business. For directors and business owners who are in that position that would be incredibly difficult. I used to run my business on an annual basis, and would prepare my business forecast in October or November ready for January trading. I knew exactly the pattern of trade for my business, which remained remarkably stable year after year. I am incredibly sorry for businesses that have to go through that right now, as it must be extremely difficult.

I wish to raise with the Minister concerns about the termination clauses and the ipso facto change, which is permanent. If a supplier ceases to supply because of impending insolvency, that action, in critical cases, could lead to failure. Having run a business, I know that if a large debt builds up with a customer and payments are weeks and months overdue, the only action that a supplier can take is to cease supply. Businesses are often reluctant to do that, but they should have more courage and confidence in what they supply to the customer and the terms and conditions of their deal.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller
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My hon. Friend is making an important point. Does he share my concern that there is a certain vagueness about what continuing supply might mean for a business in crisis? Does it mean that the historic pattern of supply should be continued? Does it mean that a company that is potentially insolvent has the right to demand a much greater increase in supply? It is very unclear.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey
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That is a good point, and I hope that the Minister will consider that, because in many cases a contract has been entered into on the basis of a certain volume of business. Many businesses have contracted, so a purchasing company may not be buying the same volume. Does that provide the ability to keep the price at the original position? Price and volume go hand in hand, and there may be additional economies of scale. There are concerns, and I know that the Minister will respond.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) raised the issue of debts accruing because of extended payment terms. Buyers are often more interested in payment terms than the price of the product. A buyer does a great job if he manages to screw 60 or 90-day payment terms out of a supplier, rather than a particularly good deal on the product. If we can move our culture away from extended credit many of the provisions in the Bill would be rather less necessary than they are. The Minister will deal with those issues, and it is entirely right that in the Bill he guarantees that supplies that are made during the moratorium are exempt—the supplier is guaranteed to be paid once the monitor has agreed that they will continue to trade. That goes some way towards providing substantial confidence to the supplier. I am also happy with the exemption from the provisions for small companies. As the Secretary of State has said at the Dispatch Box, the usual criteria on size apply.

I want to conclude with the temporary suspension of the rules on wrongful trading, which I entirely support. Right now, business directors around the country are pretty worried about the financial viability of their businesses and their liabilities if they continue to trade, particularly if the trade position continues to worsen. The current rules are that they could be liable personally if they do not bring their business to a conclusion, even though the challenges facing those businesses are not of their making. Relaxation of those wrongful trading provisions will enable many directors across the country to sleep rather more soundly at night.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)
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Could I just come back on that interesting point about the risk of personal liability hanging over directors? I declare an interest, as I am a director of a trading business. It fits very well, does my hon. Friend not agree, with the development of the CBIL scheme? Originally, that scheme was not very popular, because many banks insisted on personal liability for businesses and for the directors of businesses to stand behind the loans that they were giving. The current scheme removes the risk of personal liability for directors via the scheme.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey
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My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we must provide every support to business owners and directors at this challenging time, to allow them to make decisions that will enable their businesses to continue to survive.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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I declare an interest as I am a director on the board of a couple of charities. Extraordinary and unprecedented times call for very special measures. Without doubt, the Government have produced ultra-special measures to deal with the times in which we find ourselves because of the economic crisis, which has been stimulated by the covid-19 crisis that is upon our nation. I welcome the measures that the Government have taken. As I said in an earlier intervention on the Secretary of State, if Northern Ireland had not received support from the Government and those special measures, quite frankly the place would have gone bust. Those special measures indicated the strength of this Union—they kept it together and demonstrated that, to use a worn-out phrase, we are all in this together, and that, as a nation, we are able to help each other through in difficult times. That is to be commended.

There are businesses across my constituency, and up and down Northern Ireland—indeed, across the entire United Kingdom—that have survived only as a result of the extraordinary and special measures that have been put in place. I believe that we should put on record our thanks and gratitude for the fleet-of-foot way that those measures were put in place for us all.

At times, there has also been a reluctance by other sectors to step up to the mark, and I think the banks could have acted quicker. Most of the complaints that I have had to deal with came from companies that were trading, but that ran into the brick wall of the current crisis. When they approached the banks, which the Government were supporting and encouraging people to support, suddenly the banks put up road blocks and hurdles for people to cross. Of course banks must ensure that they are guaranteed to get their money back and be able to lend fairly, but to put up extraordinary road blocks in front of some companies was incredibly naive at this time, and it left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. I have spoken to some traders in my constituency who say that one of the first things they will look into as soon as this crisis is over is changing their bank because of the way they have been treated. That is a bad mark; that should not have happened or been part of this process.

Other Members have said that what is now required is an economic stimulus, and two or three important steps could be taken almost immediately to help to stimulate the economy. First, we must think differently and think big. Our country deserves a Government who demonstrate that they will provide leadership. Indeed, it has been said that without a vision the people perish, and it is imperative that the Government provide a vision, think big, and demonstrate that they are going to invest in infrastructure and stimulate the economy. They need to invest in bridges, roads, and other things to drive the economy forward. They must encourage Heathrow to get back to developing its hub plan for all regions of the United Kingdom, and stimulate that in a way that provides a vote of confidence that the economy will turn the corner, and do very well once it has.

The Government could also consider other special measures. Members have mentioned some of them, such as coupons or bonds that could be backed by Government money to help stimulate certain sectors, such as the arts or sport. Sovereign wealth funds were also mentioned, and the Government could invest in those. I think that is a good idea. It could even be pushed on to local devolved institutions, which should be looking at regional wealth funds to help stimulate the economy directly.

The huge issue that I really want the Government to look at is new technology. This is an opportunity to stimulate the economy with new technology through, for example, measures to support the development of a hydrogen hub and hydrogen power. We are a potential world leader in that new technology, which will generate employment in the manufacturing sector, use the steel made in this country to produce goods and ensure that we are able to provide something that is zero-carbon and will help the environment. We should be looking at such measures.

I am delighted that the Bill’s provisions are extended to Northern Ireland. I raised with the Secretary of State at the beginning of the debate the fact that these are temporary measures—indeed, they will expire in about 27 days if approved today. I think that they will need to be extended well beyond that. I agree with Members who have said that the earliest these measures should elapse is September, or even the end of the year, so that people have time to use the provisions that the Government have given them.

There are a number of core measures in this legislation, which I support, to provide companies with the best chance of surviving the financial difficulties of the covid-19 crisis. Providing insolvency breathing space is essential. The protection from threat of personal liability and aggressive creditor action during this crisis has been mentioned by many Members, and I agree with those provisions. Providing a temporary relaxation of rules surrounding meetings and filings during this time is also very important. The Bill introduces a free-standing moratorium for UK companies, overseen by an insolvency practitioner, to allow time for the rescue conditions to apply, with the moratorium ending if it is unlikely that the company will ultimately be rescued.

Northern Ireland is affected by this legislation in the following way. Clause 4, which inserts new part 1A into the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, and schedules 5 and 6 mean that the moratorium provisions are practically the same in Northern Ireland and GB. Clause 5 and schedule 7 are similar to schedule 3 for GB. Clause 6 and schedule 8 outline the timescale for these provisions and powers for the Department for the Economy. I encourage the Minister to keep in close contact with the Minister in Northern Ireland and the Executive, to ensure that the good flow of conversation and in-step approach remain, so that we can utilise the best provisions being made here at Westminster.

Clause 11 temporarily suspends liability for wrongful trading under the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. Clauses 14 to 17, on termination clauses, amend article 197 of the 1989 Order to cover new categories of electricity provider, suppliers of IT goods and services, which is very relevant today, and cases where utility supplies are made by a landlord, and grant a temporary exclusion for small suppliers similar to GB. Those measures are very important for small businesses in particular. Clauses 26 to 33 outline the powers available to amend corporate insolvency or governance legislation in Northern Ireland.

The inclusion of Northern Ireland in this legislation is most welcome. The measures bringing corporate insolvency more into line with that of Great Britain, at least during this time of crisis, are a vote of confidence, in that we are all going to have to emerge from this together—we will have to pool our strengths, share our responsibilities and make sure that the entire kingdom enjoys the opportunity of emerging from this crisis united, stronger and better.

This important legislation supports our companies through the financial difficulties of covid-19. What other measures has the Minister considered to continue to help companies after the initial threat of covid-19 has passed? It is important that we look beyond this. This has to be temporary. We do not want to see this as the main way forward. I hope the Minister will provide the sort of vision we talked about earlier and to which other Members have referred in their speeches. The importance of collaboration across the United Kingdom to help and strengthen our economy is the cornerstone of this proposed legislation. I hope it gets a fair wind. It will certainly have the support of Members of my party in the House today.

Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)
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I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) on an excellent maiden speech. It made me feel slightly nostalgic, because I made my maiden speech—I was trying to work it out— 10 years and one week ago. In addition to that, I made my maiden speech immediately following the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who has just spoken. The right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) opened for the Opposition on that occasion as well, so there are a lot of similarities even though we are talking about a different topic today.

I rise to speak in support of the Bill. It has a lot of practical and important measures to support businesses, particularly in my coastal constituency which has many businesses in the hospitality sector. They are particularly badly affected because trade cannot resume as normal. As many Members will know, businesses in the hospitality sector do not necessarily make all their money at an even pace every month throughout the year. They are effectively losing much of the summer season when they would usually seek to raise the revenue that sees them through the rest of the year. Extra financial support at this time is therefore particularly important for businesses in that sector and I welcome it strongly for that reason.

I would like to speak about one sector that is not covered by the provisions in the Bill. I do not believe it is covered by any of the measures that have been put in place so far. It does have rather unique circumstances, but I believe it is a very important sector because of the unique role it plays in our national life—professional football. Professional football clubs are unusual businesses. They have very high turnovers but operate at very small margins. Many people would say that the big clubs in the premier league have a huge amount of money that they spend on players, but most of the income they receive is tied up in the contracts of the players who play for them. They do not necessarily have very much cash.

Clubs in league one and league two are particularly vulnerable because their revenues do not come from broadcasting. Most of the income for big clubs such as Manchester United, Manchester City or Liverpool comes from people around the world watching them play on television. For them to play behind closed doors and receive that broadcasting money gives them the money to succeed. However, for clubs that play in tier 3 and tier 4 in league one and league two, the vast majority of their income comes from playing live in front of spectators. Without that income, they have no revenue. What they have is a series of fixed costs.

The reason professional football clubs have fixed costs is that, unlike almost all other businesses in this country, they cannot restructure their debts and finances by going into administration. They are bound by the laws of their leagues to pay all their football debts in full, including player salaries and transfer fees. Unless they can meet all those costs, they will be expelled from the league. This is an application of a rule that has been the subject of court cases by HMRC and of much debate on matters to do with football club insolvency in this House in my 10 years here. That is a rule called the football creditors rule. It is a rule created by the football leagues for competition reasons to ensure that clubs cannot over-extend themselves, buy better players that they cannot really afford, go into administration to clear their debts and then resume. They have to be consistent in what they can afford through the season, but it does mean that they do not have the option of restructuring their debts. Their obligations and major outgoings are largely going to be the fixed costs of paying players.

There have already been a number of warnings that we will see this summer, because of the financial distress of lots of clubs, the mass release of a large number of players. It has been estimated that up to 1,400 players may be released without being re-signed. We had a small foretaste of that in Scotland last week when Dunfermline Athletic released 17 players.

More troubling over the next few weeks will be the fact that many smaller clubs supplement their income during the summer months when they are not playing through advance sales for the following season. Advance sales of season tickets normally come through in June, which is also when advertisers will make bookings, as will people taking out matchday hospitality packages. That money comes in in June and July and keeps the clubs going while they are not playing, but it is not going to come through now because these would be advance sales for a season that has no start date and no one knows how long it will be before things go back to anything like normal. That affects the whole hospitality sector. As I said, it is less of a problem for those in the premier league, because as long as they are playing on television, although there will be some loss of income because the package is not quite the same as it would normally be, they will still be getting their money in that way, whereas other clubs will not. There is a severe danger that some clubs will simply run out of cash in the next weeks.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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My hon. Friend is making an important point. Is he aware that some banks have a blanket restriction on lending money to football clubs and are applying that restriction to CBILS as well, so even though the Government support is not supposed to have a sector-based restriction, this is being applied to football clubs?

Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins
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My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, which has pre-empted what I was going to come on to say, although I would not make the point in quite that way. There is no doubt that football clubs would count as businesses in difficulty for a lot of lenders. The clubs that will be the most severely affected will be those that are probably trading at a loss, that have a history of debt and that rely on owners’ loans to make ends meet. They are going to be in a position soon where the cash that normally comes into the business has dried up, and even if the owner has the capability they are probably left trying to put money back into the club so that it can carry on paying the players, even though the players are not playing. The furlough scheme is great for ground staff, but it covers only a small percentage of a player’s wages, even for some of those playing in league one. So these businesses, such as they are, are going to be drained of cash, with no ability to supplement it, and they will be being asked to compete in sporting competitions and leagues where unless they pay these bills they will be kicked out.

Administrators and company voluntary arrangements for football clubs have always faced that problem, whereby even if they try to honour all the creditors at the same amount and they do not pay all the football debts in full, the club loses it golden share to play and therefore the business is almost worthless. So the administrator will honour the rules of the league, which also has the dire consequence of meaning that other local businesses that supply the club get almost nothing when a club goes bust. What we saw with Bury last year is that if no one will come and put the money in, nothing can be done and the club is expelled from the league. That is the position we are going to be in. How attractive is it going to be for an owner or a new owner to put money into a club that is running at a loss, and that has no income and no prospect of any income any time soon—perhaps for another year?

Even the idea of simply mothballing these organisations until competitive football can restart is not going to be viable, because they are bound by their contracts to their playing staff and other people, which are high. I was told by someone from the Premier League that it will probably lose £300 million in broadcasting from this season, which it will have to repay. There are liabilities in transfer payments to other clubs, in this country and around the world, of more than £1 billion, which will nevertheless have to be fulfilled. So there are real problems ahead and no ready solutions on the table for these clubs. We do need a credible plan on this. The Government could initiate a conversation with the football authorities to say that the suspension of the football creditors rule, to help clubs restructure their finances, alongside some support, would be the moment for genuine reform.

What I do not believe we should do with these businesses is chuck good money after bad. Some clubs have been poorly run and in financial distress for many years, and supporting them in that way would simply be throwing good money after bad. This is an opportunity to give many clubs the support they will need to get them through the next few months, recognising that football clubs in leagues one and two are community businesses and organisations. They are valued by and at the heart of their community, and they mean a lot to their community. These clubs should be sustained because they are very important to those communities.

What I suggest—this was referred to early in the debate when Project Birch was mentioned—is that we could look at acquiring, with public money, minority stakes in football clubs, which will give them the cash injection they need to keep going. I suggest creating an independently run fund with some public money and some money from the football bodies, in a similar way to how the Football Foundation operates to fund grassroots football. With those equity stakes to keep clubs going, there should be an opportunity for a supporters trust or a community organisation to then acquire those stakes. That would give the public resources the money back and would give the communities an opportunity to acquire a stake in the club and have much greater oversight of how it is run.

With a mechanism such as that, independent directors could be appointed to the boards of clubs, to have proper oversight and real-time financial information about how these clubs are being run. One reason why clubs are constantly in debt and difficulty is that they manage to get around the rules set for Football League clubs. Clubs in leagues one and two are supposed to spend only about 60% of their income on player salaries, but last year’s report by Deloitte showed the real figure is more like 80% or 90%. With much closer scrutiny of how they are spending their money, and with oversight by independent directors, we could start to put some of those issues right.

Football probably needs an independent body—an independent financial authority—to oversee these issues. One perennial problem in football, particularly in the Football League, is that it is really run by the chairmen of the 72 clubs in it and they are not that interested in having close oversight and scrutiny of what they do. The executive of the Football League has no real power, as these people report back to the chairmen. Therefore, an independent body to oversee all that could be important. We need to think of a creative solution that will not only provide financial stability, but create reform in the finances of football to put these clubs on a more even keel and create an opportunity for community investment and ownership in the longer term as well.

Whatever model we choose, coming fast down the track will be the problem that multiple clubs will start running out of money very soon. The problems that we saw last summer with Bury and Bolton and other communities in Portsmouth, Hereford and Darlington that have been through this before could be repeated by one club after another in the next few weeks. We need to know what the plan is, because the plan is not in this Bill—great though this Bill is. It is not in the measures that have been introduced elsewhere by Government. This is a big loophole that has to be closed.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)
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I draw the attention of hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you know, as you have been listening to this debate, that many speakers have put this Bill in the context of the current economic situation and so perhaps I shall start by providing some of my own views. I am taken back not to when I gave my maiden speech, but to about 72 days ago when this House voted through the measures that have had the economic consequences that we are now debating how to mitigate. Seventy-two days ago, every single Member of this House—me included—supported or acquiesced in the measures that have destroyed parts of our economy and put many others on life support. So how should we come into this debate? We should follow the line that the Secretary of State took: he came here with a sense of humility that these were measures that the Government had to take. He came here not with hubris, but with humility, because I think he understood that the hands of politicians—of all of us—are all over the fact that so many hundreds of thousands of businesses in our country are facing such terrible times and that so many millions of people who are in employment, or who think they are in employment because they have been furloughed, are facing some severe economic consequences as a result.

It was our decision—the decision of every single Member of Parliament—to close the economy down, and we seek to excise from our collective memory the fact that there was any other choice. We say that we had to do it, there was no other option, but of course there were other options. Other countries have followed other paths. This was the path that every single Member of this Parliament chose, and we did it because we were frightened. We did it because we were uncertain. There is nothing particularly wrong with fear and uncertainty, but, my goodness, what a cost it will bring to our economy.

The Secretary of State was absolutely right to bring this Bill forward and to do it in such a humble way. What a shame it is, as I have sat here listening to the contributions of other MPs, that that humility has not been reflected in those contributions. No, having wrought this destruction on our economy, Members of Parliament now want to rush forward with their own ideas about how they can make the economy better, how they can make it greener, how they can level it up, and how they can give employees more rights. It is as if the parsecs of collective experience in this House of running businesses make us suitable champions for the economy of the future.

We should learn some humility. If there is one message that I have for the Government and for all politicians here it is to get your sticky fingers off British business. We should let the business leaders of this country find their way back. We should say that we are sorry for destroying lifetimes of work in a rushed decision to close down the economy. People who have been forced to see all their efforts come to nothing have spent every hour of those 72 days worrying about whether they can continue to employ their workers, and worrying about whether they can sustain themselves and their families. That angst and that anxiety stems from the decisions that we made in this House. Let us have some humility, let us follow the guidance of those on the Front Bench in this debate and let us not seek an opportunity for more political meddling in our economy as a result of what we have done. I am glad to have got that off my chest.

The corporate insolvency measures in the Bill seek to address this most extreme consequence of the actions we have taken, and therefore it is quite right that this is one of the first Bills the Government are bringing forward to deal with what the economy faces. I support the measures that the Government are putting in place. It is right to bring forward greater flexibility in the insolvency regime and, as many Members have mentioned, this has been welcomed across much of industry and the professional services, and has had plenty of time for discourse and debate.

It is also right that there should be a temporary suspension of insolvency laws to enable companies to trade through this emergency. I know from my own experience as a director that the issue of personal liability, particularly in relation to going concern, is one of absolute centrality to directors. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) mentioned, it is extremely difficult for many businesses to produce a forecast in such difficult times that will provide the certainty that the directors are actually producing a forecast that is real and achievable. Indeed, as many Members have mentioned, when it comes to banks and CBILS, banks themselves have found it very difficult to interpret the forecasts that companies are putting forward. As for the temporary easing of requirements, that seems to me to be a housekeeping exercise that the Government have judged adroitly and correctly.

I have some questions for my hon. Friend the Minister. The first is about the reputation of the UK as a safe haven for capital. We have had tremendous experience of attracting foreign investment, both in equity and debt. Is he assured that that reputation is going to continue? The efficient allocation of capital is a hallmark of an effective economy. Have the measures in this Bill been checked to ensure that all providers of debt financing to our businesses understand, accept and support the changes that he is bringing forward?

On the housekeeping measure of filing annual accounts, as the Minister will be aware, the availability of updated information is quite crucial for investors and others to make judicious decisions. Of course, there is always access to the private accounts of businesses, but in the public domain those evaluations are quite important. In his judgment about whether to extend that, he will certainly want to bear in mind the consequences for extensions of that particular aspect.

In his opening speech, the Leader of the Opposition—I do apologise; the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) used to be the Leader of the Opposition, but is now the Opposition spokesman on business—talked about some very important issues relating to the balance of rights, particularly with regard to employees and the protection of pension assets. This is something that I think the Government should consider. In fact, the shadow Secretary of State was kind enough to say that this is something the Government are considering, and I think it is right for all of us to consider what the impact of the pressure on employees will be. We saw during the urgent question earlier about the bare-knuckle behaviour of the management of British Airways that desperate situations sometimes bring forward desperate attitudes, and the long-standing rights that employees felt they had no longer seem to have any currency, so that seems very pertinent to this part of the Bill.

On the cross-class clampdown, the Government are bringing forward the ability for a court to decide whether a particular class of creditors who have not themselves agreed to a settlement should be forced to accept a settlement. We have no experience in this country—perhaps we do, and the Minister could tell me if so, but I am not aware of it—of courts being able to decide between the equitable rights of one class of creditors and those of another class of creditors in coming to a conclusion that is right for all in the round. What are the Government’s thoughts about what would be required from the courts in coming to those judgments? What is required in terms of disclosure from the courts that might be useful for the Government and the public to know? What is the Government’s view about whether there will be emerging patterns of response from the courts as they come to those intra-class decisions?

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
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I have done several schemes of arrangement in my previous life, and know that the courts are very used to them. We are talking about an instance where a minority of creditors would effectively be outvoted by a majority agreeing to the scheme beforehand—something that currently requires unanimity. The difference between what we have now and where we are going is therefore not actually that significant, as long as an objective judgment can be made—judges can do that; they do it all the time in the High Court—as to the financial benefit, or lack thereof, of a particular scheme to a particular creditor.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller
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I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s clarification, but my concern—I may well have read the Bill incorrectly—is that we are talking not just about majority or minority, but about where the majority or minority lies. At the moment, the majority has to be within every class of creditors, and there might be a disabusing minority within those instances. Under this legislation, an entire class of creditors could become a minority, and even though they all agree that they do not like the arrangement, for example, they will be forced to accept it. I think that that is a difference of approach. If we are giving that power to the courts, it is important for us and for the Government to be clear about the pattern that is likely to emerge, because in that respect the provision is different and new.

I think that the Secretary of State has answered my next question, but I will ask it again if I may. Will the clauses that are designed to be temporary measures sunset automatically without a subsequent affirmative statutory instrument proceeding in the House? Will they be subject to the negative procedure, or continue without an SI to cancel them? I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that at some point, perhaps in his closing remarks if he has the time.

It is relevant to raise the issue of companies and sectors that may take time to recover, beyond the relevant period. I think that is addressed in Opposition amendments 3 to 6. What if the directors themselves cannot reach a clear judgment that fully escapes the risks of wrongful trading? What is the position of someone on a directorship in this situation who reaches a dissenting opinion to the majority of directors on the important issue of whether the organisation is able to continue trading? That is another issue of detail that the Minister may wish to address in Committee.

The impact assessment for the Bill does not appear to address the cost of debt from these changes, essentially assuming that changing what has historically been a situation that favoured senior debt to one that is a little bit looser between different classes of debt would have no impact on how much that debt might be priced at in the future. But it is my understanding that increasing risk on an instrument might cause an increase in the price on it. That may have been considered in the impact assessment and have been negligible, but it would be interesting to see what the Government have to say.

I am interested in what happens in the circumstances that arise under the chapter 11 equivalent proceedings when the Government are a debtor or a shareholder in a business. Do the Government have a voice that is different from any other creditor? The contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) was interesting in this regard, as he highlighted the part of the Bill where HMRC becomes a preferred creditor. Well, those of us who have had to deal with HMRC as a creditor in the past would not mark it down as one of the most amenable of creditors when it comes to its own interests, and that is putting it lightly. In fact, as we are seeing in this Parliament already, HMRC is acting, both in the Treasury and in general, somewhat as a bovver boy in British industry. It does not seem to like people who are self-employed and it certainly does not like people who have a loan charge. Now it seems to want to have priority in the debt structures of our companies. Where will its ambitions end? Where will this Government’s facilitation of the taxman’s ambitions end? As a Conservative, I would have hoped that they would have ended some time ago. Perhaps I can tempt my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on that.

Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins
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I am following my hon. Friend’s remarks closely. Given his opening remarks, might it not be better, if we believe in backing British business, for us to have some skin in the game? We might not get our money back every time, but overall we probably would.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller
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After my hon. Friend’s comments about association football, of which I have absolutely no understanding at all, I will bow to his better judgment on this topic too, but generally I am not really in favour of the Government having skin in the commercial game. When they get active in the economy, they tend to blunder around and probably, with the best of intentions, make things worse. I am not saying that they should not have their role; certainly, right now, many people will want the Government to have a role. Many Members have rightly looked at the measures the Government have put in place to support business and praised them.

Of course, people need not just take our word for that. Ask people around the world which country’s Government have responded best to the economic consequences of the virus and they will say that the United Kingdom Government are No. 1, with Japan, America and Germany in the United Kingdom’s wake. That is a tremendous credit to Ministers, but I would not like to encourage them to make that participation any longer than it needs to be.

On the guidance for going concern judgments, the Department will have spoken with auditors about how they are approaching their going concern judgments this audit season. Does the Bill have any impact on those judgments? Does the Department already think that it might need to bring forward any other measures based on the independent judgments of those auditors?

I raise that because in the 2007 crisis, there was a feeling that the rating agencies had been captured by their corporate clients and were giving ratings that perhaps did not reflect the true underlying status of businesses. We are fortunate in this country already to have embarked on reforms of accounting and on the separation of accounting and other activities to limit that risk, but I just caution that we ought be aware of that in a year’s time when we look at those going concern judgments. We would not like those to come back on our accounting firms, which are doing the best they can.

In Committee, the Minister would be wise to give a few more details about the role of the monitor—my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) raised that issue—and what role the Department will have in monitoring the monitors. Is any change expected to that?

One other concern I have is that facilitating businesses to continue trading at a time when the economy as a whole may be recovering and uncertain has a hint about it of creating some form of zombie businesses, where people are compelled to provide supply, as is required under the Bill, but there is the increasing sense that those businesses are not going to make it. I may be expressing a concern based on widespread use of the insolvency practice, which may not come to fruition—let us hope that for many people it does not—but I wonder what the Government’s thoughts are about the risk of businesses existing in name but not actually being able to create a long-term future for themselves or their employees.

I mentioned the Opposition’s amendment 1, on the voice of employees on obtaining a moratorium. If that were tweaked, it would be an interesting issue for the Government to consider. I also mentioned in an intervention the powers of the small business commissioner. The Secretary of State was right to say, “Hold on a minute; that’s something that we will come back to,” particularly as we are going through this in one day. It is probably not something that we would want to put through so fast. Similarly the calls by the Leader of the Opposition—[Interruption.] I did it again. I am so sorry. It is so hard to forget that time.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller
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Perhaps the current Leader of the Opposition would take offence at what the shadow Minister has said. I am not sure, although if we are ranking Leaders of the Opposition, I would say that as long as they are Labour, that is fine by me.

Notwithstanding the shadow Secretary of State’s position, he raised the issue of reform of corporate governance. It is an interesting topic, and the RSA Group did an interesting review of it last year, but again I would say to the Opposition that this is probably not the time for bringing that forward.

The protection of pension schemes is an issue that the Government ought to consider quite seriously. I have had personal experience of that, and I would not like those dependent on a pension fund to find themselves somehow further at risk as a result of these issues.

I started by mentioning the position 72 days ago and some of the consequences for businesses in the interim. I wanted to be absolutely clear that every single politician has been part of causing that, and, to the extent to which the Opposition continue to be supportive of the Government, as they have been in this debate, and the Government continue to be open with the Opposition, that is the spirit that the country would expect. For those businesses that have fallen because of the crisis or are likely to fail, I would like to say that, as a Member of Parliament, I am sorry. I am sorry for all that has happened to your businesses. I am sorry for the consequences. In the case of one particular constituent—who I will not name in full, but her first name is Peta—let me say that I have worked tirelessly to find ways in which Government programmes can support what you have done and will continue to do so. However, the best thing that we can do is to restore the British economy, get the Bill passed to ensure protection for the businesses that will fall on hard times and get the economy moving again.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their speeches and contributions. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) for his maiden speech, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. We were unable to provide him with what people refer to as a doughnut, but we were here to support him. I wish him well and look forward to his future contributions.

I was pleased to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) about where football teams will be in future, and I thank him for his knowledge of football and sport. It is critical for football teams to have the revenue that comes from crowds attending matches. I am a Leicester City supporter and have been for almost 50 years—nearly all my life, or the best part of it. A number of MPs in the last Parliament were Leicester City supporters. Some of them are no longer here, but others have taken their place, and we hope that the Leicester City supporters club in this House might grow again—it was six before—to perhaps four or thereabouts. I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman’s contribution and his thoughts are helpful, because the smaller clubs probably depend entirely on the revenue generated by the supporters on a Saturday afternoon or Friday night, or whenever it may be, so this is very important.

At this time of economic crisis, it is essential that we get the Bill right. I put on record my thanks to the Government for all they have done in their response. It is all very well to criticise, and easy to do so, but we should give accolades whenever they are due. It is the right to thank Government for their response and particularly the Chancellor for what he has done, because he has been excellent and has tried hard at a very difficult time.

I represent many little towns with high street shops, as well as my main town of Newtownards, which recently won the champion high street award for Northern Ireland. I am well aware that, despite the grant funding that has been allocated, alongside the tax deferral option, many of those businesses will be unable to continue trading. I want to give a clear picture of the covid 19 position for those high streets and businesses—without mentioning any names, by the way—some of which have literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of stock in their shops, yet with no outlet at all and their summer stock ready to go. They have been unable to do anything with it and their shops have been closed. It is a difficult pill to swallow. Six months ago they were running successful businesses, employing between five and 20 staff in their shops, so this has been calamitous.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) will know that I put forward a suggestion to our parliamentary group meeting that we could introduce some sort of revenue that could help those businesses. Lots of businesses are going online, and I can give the House an example of something that is happening in the Republic of Ireland. The Government there are giving up to €40,000 for each business to increase its online business or to start a new online business, and I am just wondering whether that is something we in this House should be doing as well. I know that we are talking about insolvency, and I understand that, but this is also about how we can help businesses to grow and ensuring that they can do that. The shops that I referred to are small and medium-sized businesses. There are successful family businesses but they are facing great uncertainty, so I again make the plea to be cautious, compassionate and understanding with them as they try to get through this difficult situation.

It was no surprise to read in the Library briefing that the coronavirus outbreak has led to a decline in business activity and revenue across many sectors, causing a large negative shock to the economy. The average forecast for quarterly GDP growth in the second quarter, April to June, was 16% based on Her Majesty’s Treasury’s survey of investment banks, economic research organisations and other institutions in May 2020. However, the estimates are highly uncertain, including on the extent to which the economy will bounce back. Companies and shopkeepers, and other Members, have referred to the rental issue, and I want to make the important point that every landlord needs to review their rental charges. Is it not better to have a small rent coming in than to have no rent at all, given the rateable obligations on the businesses? Is it not better to come to some sort of an agreement, rather than holding fast to what the rental figures would normally be?

The Office for National Statistics’ survey on the business impact of coronavirus reported that, between 20 April and 3 May 2020, 78% of businesses that responded were continuing to trade and 20% had temporarily closed or paused trading. I have had something come up in my constituency—I am sure that others have as well—relating to businesses that have been able to trade without having to borrow from the banks, be they in construction or in fishing and fishing vessels, or other businesses on the high street. They have conducted their business over periods of six, eight and 10 years—to give three examples without naming who they are—and they have never had to borrow until now, when hard times have hit them. It was difficult for them to go to the bank and borrow money because they did not have a credit status that the bank could look at and say, “You have always made your payments on time.” They had never had to make any payments. One of the predicaments that I have contacted the banks about is that they need to understand that those who have been able to conduct their businesses over periods of six, eight and 10 years have shown that they can well manage money without having to borrow it. I would have thought that those businesses’ credit status was therefore suitable and that there should be no difficulty whatsoever. Again, I just make the point.

I reiterate the point made by the shadow Minister in relation to the pension scheme deficits. I support his concerns about where that will end up, and I hope that the Minister will give us some clarity on that matter and maybe some reassurance. I have no doubt that he will do that. Northern Ireland has the highest rate of temporarily paused business trading, at 25%. That is the highest in all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I know this to be true from personal experience in my constituency, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim will have seen that among the businesses in his constituency as well. We must get the help and support needed to enable those businesses to reopen. London and the south-east have the lowest level, with some 16%.

The industries with the largest proportion of businesses that have temporarily paused trading are the accommodation and food services, at 78%, and the arts, entertainment and recreation sectors at 80%. A small number, just less than 1%, responded to say that they had permanently ceased trading in that period. Of the businesses that continue to trade, 61% reported that their turnover had decreased and 25% reported that turnover had fallen by more than 50%, although I am aware of some whose turnover has fallen by as much as 80% to 90%. Almost all businesses—99%—reported coronavirus as being the reason for the turnover reduction outside of the normal range, so it is very clear what the issue is.

The Government responded to the circumstances they were presented with and did their best, given the fear we all had of coronavirus and all the uncertainty. They were trying to get us to a position where we were able to lessen the number of deaths. What would have happened if we had not done anything? What would have happened if the Government had just said, “Plough on ahead”? We would be in the most calamitous, destructive time ever, and I think we have to thank and congratulate the Government for what they have done.

The largest fall in turnover was in accommodation and food services. The pharmaceutical and agrifood sectors are incredibly important for me in my constituency. Tourism and hospitality rank up there at the highest because the economic focus of the local council, Ards and North Down Borough Council, is tourism and hospitality. That is where the growth is. That has been the growth for the past three to four years and it will be the growth for the next three or four years as well, but we need to ensure that help is there for tourism and hospitality to get out the other side. Some of the hotels need that. We have some clarification on hotels in Northern Ireland, and that is good news. It gives the hotels a chance to try to book for the end of July onwards. We have to try to ensure that things are going in the right direction.

The Government have helped those who are self-employed and those who have furloughed staff. Under no estimation can we doubt that that has helped greatly to ensure that things go forward. These are unprecedented times, and while I must thank the Government again for all the steps they have taken and for going the extra mile, I have real concern about many businesses that need more. I am referencing not failing businesses, but businesses that were thriving, doing well, creating employment, creating opportunity and boosting the economy, and they can thrive again.

I was pleased on 20 March 2020 when the Business Secretary announced that the Government would introduce measures at the earliest opportunity, together with temporary covid-19-related measures intended to help companies avoid insolvency. Following that, I welcomed the Government’s announcement on 23 April 2020 of other measures to protect companies from the aggressive use of statutory demands and winding petitions, particularly by commercial landlords. I welcome those measures to help business and to step in where possible. I further welcome the mixture of permanent changes to insolvency law and temporary changes to insolvency law and corporate governance to ensure that we help at this time but do not tie our hands for the future.

The proposal in the helpful document is that the help for businesses would be from 1 March 2020 to 30 June 2020 and one month after the provision comes into force. Will the Minister confirm that, in the event of the pandemic’s impact on businesses continuing beyond the end of that period, the provision may be extended for up to six months using secondary legislation, and that the process may be repeated? It is important that we know that, because it is not just about the short-term measures; it is about the longer term to encourage businesses to be able to do more.

To conclude, on behalf of the people and businesses of Strangford, whom I am very privileged to represent, I thank the Government for their financial intervention, but I ask for more short-term support, more help with tax deferrals and greater help with staffing problems. We will get through this, but I believe that the business sector is the only way we can. We will reap the benefits from anything that we pour in at this time. Those entrepreneurs will end up repaying more than the help they receive with the income that will be allowed to be generated.

I support the Bill. I understand the reasoning behind it, and I support it fully. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said, we understand that the implications will be for Northern Ireland as well. It is good to have that in place, but I ask for further grants to be allocated for special circumstances. That, however, is a debate for another day. As others have said, tomorrow will be a better day, but we have to work towards that day.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); we have spoken in many debates on business issues before and he is a huge champion of business. It was also a pleasure to listen to the maiden speech of my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson). It is great to have another Conservative northern Member of Parliament to champion the cause of the northern powerhouse. He neglected to mention Yorkshire, and particularly north Yorkshire, in his list of areas in the north that will contribute to the recovery, but I will have a word later. It was a fantastic speech.

I draw the House’s attention—of course, in all these types of debates—to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am still involved in business to this day. I am also the chair of the all-party group on fair business banking, which has talked about many of these issues over the last months and years. In my view, the CBILS and BBLS are a huge success, but there are problems, particularly with the CBILS, in terms of making sure that banks do allow money to go out the door based upon the business being a viable business on 1 March. There are still issues about banks assessing the ability of the business to pay the loan back over a period of time. In particular, there are sector-based issues—football clubs being one and house builders being another. Banks seem to be translating from a standard lending policy into a CBILS lending policy, which cannot be right. That was never the intention of the Government scheme.

On the Bill, I am a strong supporter of the measures being brought forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, particularly on the moratorium and the opportunity to restructure. That has been planned for some time to give businesses breathing space. Irrespective of the covid crisis, at any point in time, many businesses can be salvaged through this process. It has happened in the US for many years—it is known as chapter 11—and it is absolutely the right thing to do.

I will not talk in detail about the Bill, because many others have, but I will talk about some of the things that I think we need, as well as this legislation, that would make a significant difference. There are some outstanding issues that the Minister and the Department are aware of and they have consulted on some of them, particularly about moving from a self-regulation basis for insolvency practitioners to a single, truly independent regulator. There are some very important issues that we have seen over recent years in terms of conflicts of interest that will carry on despite the Bill. The moratorium and the opportunity to restructure will help to some extent, but the conflicts of interest will carry on. This is particularly because most insolvency practitioners who are appointed to carry out work on an insolvent business are appointed by the major creditor, which tends to be the bank. It is a panel appointment by the bank and clearly, people rarely bite the hand that feeds. So if most of the work that the insolvency practitioner—who is supposed to work independently of any individual creditor and in the best interests of all creditors—is getting is from the banks, they are more likely, in our experience, to work in the interests of the bank.

It is even worse than simply the facts of what happens in the insolvency. On many occasions, we are talking about large accountancy practices, such as KPMG, Deloitte, Ernst and Young, who are appointed by the banks prior to insolvency, for example, to carry out a supposedly independent business review—paid for by the business but instructed by the bank. They have been brought in to do an independent business review, which is supposed to give a fair representation of the business, and that accountancy practice then becomes the insolvency practitioner and can earn hundreds of thousands of pounds of fees in the insolvency, which is a clear conflict of interest.

This issue has been brought up for decades in this House. I found two debates in 1999 when this conflict of interest was mentioned. It is something we need to deal with. This has featured in many of the issues we have seen over the last decade or so, particularly around the last crisis, where we had tens of thousands of businesses that were put into administration by the banks—this is a matter of public record—particularly by RBS and Lloyds Banking Group. Tens of thousands of businesses were put into insolvency inappropriately. A fair percentage —around 20%—of those businesses were viable, but there is not one instance of an insolvency practitioner deciding to sue the bank and saying, “Your business has gone into receivership as a result of creditor misconduct.” In other words, the bank is forcing the business into administration. Never has there been a case in which an insolvency practitioner who is supposedly independent and working for all the creditors has said, “There is something wrong. We need to take the bank to task.” There has not been one instance. We have pushed for information, and we have received emails from accountancy practices saying, “We would never sue a bank—we would never litigate—because of the conflict of interest.” There is a huge conflict of interest, and huge sums lie at the heart of this.

We are talking about thousands of businesses in this situation. This is systemic for every bank and almost every insolvency practitioner, but I should like to discuss a particular case, because it reveals the nature of the issue. We are talking about tens of thousands of businesses, and we have to understand that there are tens of thousands of people—individuals—whose life’s work has been taken from them, along with hundreds of thousands of jobs. These are very serious issues.

The case I wish to raise is that of Arthur Holgate and Son. This is not a sub judice issue, and I have obtained consent from the business to discuss it. It is a tangible example of the problems that arise. It was a family-owned business that ran caravan parks and turned over about £2 million. It was a significant business that, like a lot of other businesses, sold a swap that put it in danger, which increased the cost of loan servicing a great deal. That became the matter of a redress scheme, because of the inappropriate sale of complex financial instruments to businesses that were not sophisticated.

When that came to light, with a route for redress, the business approached the scheme and was offered £300,000 in compensation, despite the fact that its losses totalled £1.4 million. Ultimately the business failed and went into administration. It was taken off the owners—it had been in the family for generations—but it was one of the few businesses that we have come across that had the financial wherewithal and tenacity to get this thing through to court. On the courtroom steps, compensation was settled at about £10 million by Barclays bank.

We need to look at the actions of the insolvency practitioner as well as the actions of Barclays bank. Despite the fact that the insolvency practitioner is supposed to work independently, it did not do so. It colluded in bringing about the failure of the business and as a result the distribution of assets from the business effectively went to them and to the banks. Deloitte was the insolvency practitioner. This is not an isolated case: Deloitte was fined this year for its administration of Comet—many Members will remember that—and it was given a £1 million fine for failing to manage a conflict of interest in that case. We need to deal with this, as we are not dealing with it in the legislation.

Deloitte was brought in to undertake an independent business review for the bank to see whether the business was viable and able to get through its financial difficulties. It charged the business £50,000 for that work, which was paid after the business was declared insolvent on a preferred creditor basis, which is against the law.

There are many concerns, but the most disgraceful part of this case was the correspondence between Barclays and Deloitte. Barclays effectively told Deloitte to ignore the directors, although they were running the business and knew it best. In fact, I can quote from one of the emails sent internally in Deloitte, which said: “Be careful of swallowing the Paul Holgate line”—Paul Holgate being one of the directors of the business—“that it’s somebody else’s fault”. He kept saying to them, “It’s not our fault that we are in this position. This is because the bank sold us a swap.” He was right, but Deloitte deliberately did not put that information in the business review and did not even mention the swap at that point in time or when the insolvency happened. Another email sent internally in Deloitte said, “We do not want to appear critical of the bank.” That is because of the conflict of interest, and it cannot be right.

We must put a Chinese wall between consultancy work that a bank requires an accountant to do and that very accountant then being able to do the insolvency work, because there is a clear conflict of interest. In this case, there were fees of £400,000 for Deloitte to carry out the insolvency work. Had it just done the £50,000 report and said, “This business is fine. It’s actually your fault because of the swap. If you settle that problem, the business will carry on trading fine,” Deloitte would have got £50,000, and that would have been it.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew
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My hon. Friend talks very persuasively about this, and I have found myself nodding along to everything he has been saying for the last several minutes, but he keeps on referring to a conflict of interest, when surely what he is talking about is better named corruption.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. Before the hon. Gentleman answers the intervention, although he has not spoken for an inordinately long time—indeed, other Members have spoken for much longer—he has spoken for well over 10 minutes, and I have to ask him to conclude pretty quickly, because it is in the interests of everyone that the Minister is able to answer the debate. Members have asked questions, and we must have time for that.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will try to move on quickly.

A lot of this information is supplied by the then business owners. Deloitte actually perjured itself in court on many of these issues. All this arises because of the conflict of interest. Deloitte should have sued the bank, but that simply does not happen. This stuff happens because of the unholy alliance of vested financial interest, which we must eliminate.

The moratorium will help tremendously, but we also need to do what the Department has said it is keen to do: move away from self-regulation, which is how the sector is currently regulated. We need to recognise professional bodies and move to a single regulator—an ombudsman. We must put a Chinese wall between the accountancy practices that do the consultancy work and the insolvency practitioner.

We must also give individuals more power. In my view, we should allow the business to challenge the appointment of an insolvency practitioner and the approach of an insolvency practitioner, to effectively recognise creditor misconduct within the insolvency process, and let them take their complaint to a tribunal there and then. In Comet’s case, it was eight years down the line before the situation was resolved. It must happen there and then. We must have an ombudsman supported by a tribunal that can support businesses who feel that the insolvency has been carried out incorrectly.

There is one final thing I would like to say. I completely support the removal of the right of forfeiture from landlords and the suspension of winding-up orders. Some businesses, particularly very big businesses, are abusing that privilege—I would name Boots and WHSmith —by effectively saying to landlords, “We’re not even talking to you.” That is completely inappropriate. Ideally, those measures should come with the condition that a company cannot take dividends if it is benefiting from those measures. With that, I will happily conclude.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
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I concur with what many Members have said about the maiden speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson); it was an excellent maiden speech indeed, as I am sure everybody would agree. I also concur with what my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) said about landlords at the end of his speech. I spoke a couple of weeks ago to the Hitchin Property Trust, which owns a big part of Hitchin town centre, and the trust talked about the behaviour of some of its tenants; I will not name them, but they are very big corporates and are behaving in a similar way to that which he described. We have to look at that.

I do not know about you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I was struck by the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller). It was one of the best speeches I have heard in this House for long time. It is very important that none of us forget that every lost business is not just a line on the balance sheet or a statistic in a newspaper—it is a drop in income for a family; it is a mortgage that might be lost and a home that has to be sold; it is somebody’s life’s work up in smoke because of something that happened that was completely not their fault. I speak as somebody who has worked in business and in the City of London. My wife is currently running a family business, and I have seen the worry that she has gone through. Many of our friends, constituents and various other people—hundreds of them—have gone through similar worries over the past 72 days. When we consider the Bill and any of the other actions we are taking, we all need to bear in mind those people and those businesses.

The moratorium process in the Bill is a very good measure indeed. It provides a formal breathing space for a business to gather itself, take a pause and work out a restructuring plan that means that the business—and that means assets, jobs and people—can survive in a sustainable way going into the future. We should all commend that process.

There has been some discussion about certain creditors who will in effect be bound in. I cannot remember the name of the provision—somebody needs to rename it—but I think it is cross-class cram-down. It is awful. I like to think of it as the debt equivalent of the sort of drag-along right for a company that equity shareholders have. It feels a bit more like that to me and I much prefer that terminology. The point is that the scheme of arrangement that we can make under the moratorium process can be orderly and can lead to discussion, not just with the creditors and the company but with the court. Indeed, together we can work out a way forward. That is a very sensible provision.

I do have a couple of questions, though. First, bearing in mind how busy the court may be in the next 12, 18 or 24 months, have the Government thought of any provision for giving additional resources to the court and thought about how things are set up? Schemes of arrangement take a minimum of around three months to go through, so we do need to consider the practicalities of this happening en masse. If the process works as well as I hope it will, there will be a lot of moratoriums, so that is an important point for the Government to consider.

Connected with that, have the Government considered more of a mediation process contained within the moratorium? Does it always necessarily have to go to court? I may have missed that in the legislation. If it does not have to go to court, what is the process whereby we can have something similar to a scheme that does not go through a court, so as to help by not jamming up the High Court? As I say, there may be a lot of traffic going through.

There has been some discussion throughout this good and well-informed debate about the Government’s economic actions to try to save the economy from the public health measures that we have had to take. I completely agree that the Government have been foremost in the world—not just in Europe but in the world—in the actions that they have taken. We have heard criticism of the CBIL scheme. It is important to note that it is hard, practically, to get so much money out of the door in a way that observes a basic understanding that each business is a real business, with a real balance sheet, that can pay its debt. Yes, there have been problems, but let us not allow them to get in the way of our saying, “This is a really, really good economic response.” I know that the Minister, the BEIS team and the Treasury have worked tirelessly over the past few weeks and months, to ensure that that scheme works as smoothly as possible—and indeed, generally, it is working better and better all the time.

People may criticise the banks on this, but every situation is different, and we should bear it in mind that there are difficulties in pricing anything in the economy right now. Therefore, a bank, has to think about whether it might have big losses come Q4 this year or Q1 next year and has to think about whether money can be paid back and if it would have to take 20% of the loss, as is the case under the CBIL scheme. If people think that the Government—the British taxpayer—should pay 100% of every single loan that goes to every company, they should say so; but if they accept that that would not necessarily be the right thing for the taxpayer to do, and that the banks must therefore be involved, we must understand the worry that the banks have about big losses in the next 12 to 18 months. We do not want a banking crisis on top of what we already have.

I want to reflect on where we go from here—with the proviso that we are at least getting towards the conclusion of the health crisis. Obviously, I shall not put a timeframe on that, because none of us know, but if we are approaching that point, we shall be left with a hugely indebted corporate sector. If there is a hugely indebted corporate sector, notwithstanding the measures in the Bill—and indeed other measures—even the businesses that survive will find it very difficult to grow, carrying a huge amount of debt. We shall have to recapitalise large parts of the British corporate sector, and in this House in the weeks and months ahead we need to think about how we do that. The Bill could be one of the ways in which we start that process.

Lucy Powell Portrait Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to be on the Front Bench and at the Dispatch Box again as the shadow Business Minister, although I would have much preferred to make this speech safely and socially distanced in sunny Manchester—no offence.

I reiterate the thanks of my colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), to the Minister, the Secretary of State and their teams for all the engagement we have had on the Bill. Our objective, as the Opposition, is to be constructive, and to ensure that businesses get the support they need now and in the long term, to keep the number of insolvencies in the coming weeks and months as low as possible. As my right hon. Friend said, we support the overarching objectives of the Bill. However, we hope the Government can give us some reassurances in Committee. Many others today have voiced similar concerns.

I thank many colleagues from across the House for their speeches in this interesting debate. Obviously, the highlight was the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), who was a bit nervous about coming last out of his intake; but as a fellow Mancunian, I reiterate that the best was definitely saved till last.

Although we back the Bill today, we are clear that it should be the last resort for many businesses. There is much more for the Government to do now to support businesses so that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) eloquently put it, the measures debated today are not necessary. Every previously viable business that needs to call on these insolvency changes because of our decision to shut down the economy for public health measures, is a business that has been failed. Ministers have recognised the huge scale of the situation, with the unprecedented support they have established to retain jobs and support businesses. That has been the right thing to do and we have supported it. However, as we enter the end of the lockdown phase, the challenges ahead are becoming clearer. More must now be done to rescue more businesses, and ensure that the recovery is as short and strong as possible. We must stop a second, and possibly a third or fourth wave of insolvencies arising from unmanageable debts and creditors. Any business that goes bust as a result of public health measures will lengthen and deepen the recession and leave long-lasting scars on unemployment levels and the wider economy.

Labour Members firmly believe that the cost of not doing all we can now to save businesses will be far higher than the cost of action today. Ultimately, the taxpayer will pay for the cost of failure, through lost tax revenues and higher unemployment over many years, not months. The Government need to renew their support package over the coming period, as it is now clear that the easing of lockdown will be longer and more complicated than was predicted at the start of this crisis. That is why we suggest that the temporary measures in the Bill should be extended today, rather than waiting until later.

Preventing insolvencies today, in and of itself, will not stave off insolvencies tomorrow, if the Government do not take a long view and ensure that businesses do not face a cliff edge. A second wave of support and sector-specific action is also required. Critically, if the recovery is based on unmanageable debt, it will be no recovery at all. In the immediate rescue phase, businesses and business organisations are asking for more discretionary grant funding to support the hardest hit businesses that have so far missed out, more flexibility with the furlough scheme, simplification of the CBIL scheme, and many other measures that have been mentioned today. Those include more clarity and joined up working on business critical issues such as quarantine measures, safety in the workplace, childcare, and shielded employees. The Government must not fall into complacency and think that their actions so far have been sufficient, because a second wave of support is urgently needed.

We have heard from a number of colleagues, notably my hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), and the hon. Members for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), and for Strangeford (Jim Shannon)—

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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It’s not Strangeford!

Lucy Powell Portrait Lucy Powell
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Sorry. Strangford. It’s just that the Member of Parliament reminds me of that—no, I’m only joking.

The economic emergency we are in is affecting different sectors of the economy in different ways, some particularly and devastatingly harshly. This will be a sectoral recession, and the Government response must reflect that. We have raised with Ministers the serious issues facing our manufacturers, car manufacturing, steel makers, the aerospace and defence industry, aviation and tourism, the hospitality industry, and other areas such as football. The crisis is also affecting supply chains in those sectors, and we have already seen job losses at premier British companies such as Rolls-Royce and McLaren. There have been layoffs in the airline industry, despite the furlough scheme, and despite warnings from many industry bodies about the failure to provide adequate support and liquidity to business now. Will the Government step up with the more urgent response that is needed for those sectors, which so many Members have asked for today?

Project Birch has potential, but talking must quickly be followed by action. The promise of jam tomorrow will not pay the bills today. The feedback I get from businesses, especially some of our most important and largest employers, is about how slow the discussions with Government are, compared with the urgency of the cashflow problems. For example, our world-leading aerospace, aviation, tourism and travel sectors now face what could be a final blow from the confusion and mixed messaging about quarantine measures.

As the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, and as the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) has warned, the scale of the debt that companies are taking on to survive this crisis is huge. We will see a debt-laden recovery, with demand unlikely to return to normal quickly for many. Coupled with that debt, the recovery is likely to be weak, deepening its economic impact, and with insolvency spread over the months ahead.

Once companies have to start paying back loans, further insolvencies are likely to follow, with recovery choked by high levels of unemployment, and low levels of confidence. Are the Government exploring with business organisations and the finance sector ways to mitigate the month-13 problem of Government backed loans with a more long-term solution, as was suggested earlier?

Finally, we need to do more to increase and generate demand through a green recovery plan, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) described, and to address the youth unemployment crisis. The Government must seize the opportunity to bring forward pipeline projects to put British businesses at the forefront of the green and digital revolution.

Turning to some of the specific measures in the Bill, we support both the permanent changes to insolvency law and the temporary changes to insolvency law and corporate governance, but with some caveats. A balance must be struck between allowing businesses to survive through the crisis and not removing essential protections for creditors, pension funds and employees. The trade unions and others here today have raised some serious concerns about this, with good reason, and I will say more on that in Committee.

We believe that there must be no revision of the directors’ duty of care to their employees and suppliers. The Bill must ensure that SMEs and smaller suppliers are protected when larger companies go into administration. As the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and others have said, the temporary measures need to be extended today.

The Bill is a big missed opportunity to address corporate governance accountability, as the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) outlined. The collapse of Carillion was a national scandal. Yet again, corporate greed and very shaky indebted finances led to the taxpayer paying the price of directors’ failures. While those directors and shareholders reaped all the gains during the good times, the collapse of Thomas Cook more recently exposed these failings further, with the taxpayer once again footing the bill for failure. We had a conversation earlier about equity stakes, but the taxpayer in effect does have an equity stake in many businesses—but only in paying for the costs of failure, not in reaping any of the rewards of success. Ministers consulted on changes to insolvency law after these collapses, and some of these changes are in the Bill, but, inexplicably, other important ones are missing.

Over the coming months, as the recession takes hold and complex financial arrangements are pushed further towards breaking point by the new loans that these companies have, we are no doubt going to see the collapse of more household names and large corporates. Why have the Government not taken this opportunity, which we stand ready to support, to bring forward the long-awaited reforms on tackling bad corporate governance and protecting creditors, employees and, ultimately, the taxpayer? We also think it is a missed opportunity to have given the small business commissioner more powers and teeth, as the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) seemed to agree.

This is a speedy process for this Bill. It is a very large Bill, and we are expediting its passage through both Houses very speedily, so we are relying on Ministers to take on board some of the concerns raised today in the spirit of us working together. We will come back to some of these missed opportunities in Committee, but, to close, I urge the Minister to press his colleagues, including the Chancellor, to do more now to protect companies from insolvency. This Bill provides a small and important safety net and breathing space, but much more needs to be done and more quickly to prevent businesses from needing that breathing space in the first place. I hope that the Government will heed the warnings of business and provide further support so that the recession to come does not leave deep and lasting damage to our economy and employment.

Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
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May I first welcome the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) to her place? I thank her and the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), for the engaging way in which they have spoken to officials. That has expedited the passage of this legislation, and our discussions—including with the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) —have been particularly fruitful.

Unfortunately, I cannot respond to every question in the short time available to me now, but I hope that we will pick up some of these discussions during the next stages of the Bill. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken for their contributions to the debate, not least, as has been mentioned, the excellent maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson). May I add my happy birthday regards to Win Page? My hon. Friend talked about the fact that the general election seemed a long time ago, and made the point about the Olde Boar’s Head—and a haircut for me as well—so congratulations.

As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses have been incredibly supportive of the measures in this Bill. We welcome that support. It will help businesses that are struggling with the effects of the covid-19 crisis and lay the foundations for economic recovery in the UK. The insolvency reforms in the Bill will provide vital and urgent support for businesses to help them through the period of instability and to help them recover from the impact of covid-19 as the economy fully emerges from this crisis.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point of order after the Minister has finished, unless it is immediately urgent to his speech.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Well, it is timely.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am guessing that it could well be timely, but the Minister has a very limited time in which to speak, and he should finish his speech first. Then I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point of order.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The corporate restructuring package in particular will be of immediate help to companies in financial distress, which need further regulatory tools to help them recover. This Bill provides that. It will enable UK companies undergoing a rescue or restructuring process to continue trading, giving them breathing space that could help them avoid insolvency. I want to reassure right hon. and hon. Members that the temporary changes to insolvency law that are necessary to help businesses get through this unprecedented period will consider very carefully any case for further extensions to these powers, and they will be subject to the full scrutiny of the House.

The temporary prohibition on creditors filing statutory demands and winding-up petitions for covid-19-related debts will support the Government’s programme to help companies survive the covid-19 emergency. It will temporarily remove the threat of statutory demands and winding-up petitions being issued against otherwise viable companies by creditors not following the Government’s advice to show forbearance at this time.

Furthermore, temporarily removing the threat of personal liability for wrongful trading from directors who tried to keep their companies afloat throughout this emergency will encourage directors to continue to use their best efforts to trade during this uncertain time. The governance measures will provide temporary flexibilities on meetings and filings at a time when businesses are coping with reduced resources and restrictions due to social distancing measures.

Let me quickly address a couple of points made by the right hon. Member for Doncaster North. First, he is completely correct to say that, although there will be a temporary suspension of wrongful trading liability, directors will still have legal duties under wider company law. Those duties will remain in place, as will measures under insolvency law to penalise directors who abuse their position. I understand the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey that the temporary insolvency measures should be extended to 30 September 2020. At present, all the temporary insolvency measures will automatically sunset a month after Royal Assent. I can reassure them, though, that the Bill contains provisions enabling those temporary measures to be extended by statutory instrument where appropriate. The Government have every intention of making use of those provisions if the protections are needed beyond their present expiry date. It is a truly fluid situation and we do not want provisions to be in place for longer than is necessary.

The temporary measures all have significant impacts on the normal working of the business community, and the case for extending the measures will need to be considered against those impacts. Any extension should rightly be scrutinised by Parliament, but the Government will not hesitate to extend if that is required.

The right hon. Member for Doncaster North also raised a fair point on the need for employees to be protected in regard to restructuring plans. That point was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller). The aim of these measures is to restore the viability of struggling companies, thereby boosting the economy, saving jobs and protecting long-term investment. Yes, employees could find themselves as creditors in a restructuring plan, but in those circumstances, they will benefit from the same protections that are in place for other creditors and members. This will include the provision that they must be no worse off through the plan than they would otherwise be in the next most likely plan, and it will, of course, take into account their entitlement under employment legislation.

Importantly, a court can refuse to sanction a plan if it is not fair and it is equitable to do so. When making this assessment, one would expect the court to be mindful of the interests of employees in any pension schemes affected by that plan. If a restructuring plan is not agreed, it is worth remembering that the company might enter an insolvency proceeding, which would almost certainly produce a worse outcome overall for all involved. The company might stop trading altogether, which would put all employees at risk of losing their jobs. The Government are in the business of protecting jobs.

The right hon. Member for Doncaster North also raised concerns about CBILS and CLBILS, as well as the bounce-back loans. The Government have listened to helpful feedback on the business interruption loan schemes in recent weeks. That feedback has also shown that the smallest SMEs, some of which have perhaps not used finance in the past, are struggling to get their finance applications approved as quickly as they need, as we heard earlier. That is why the bounce-back loan schemes, which are fast for lenders to process and for businesses to access, have been launched.

On 27 April, the Chancellor announced the new bounce-back loan scheme, which will ensure that the smallest businesses can access up to £50,000 of loans in a matter of days. The scheme went live on 4 May. Businesses can complete a short, simple online application in up to a few hours. Under the scheme, there is no need for lenders to ask for complicated cash-flow forecasts or ask difficult questions about the future, which means those applications can be submitted and processed rapidly. Almost 700,000 have been have already been approved.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), for Rugby and for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and the hon. Members for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) for their contributions. I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon that the Charity Commission has confirmed that it will look favourably on charities that have been unable to hold their AGMs in the normal way, but asks that they write down their decisions to prove that they have done due diligence in holding a virtual AGM or delaying their AGM.

I applaud the passion of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire in standing up for businesses being able to come out of the recovery, as we motor through, changing gears. We will not go back immediately to how things were in January; we have to work with business and listen to business. I am grateful to all other Members who have spoken today.

These new measures complement the Government’s existing far-reaching economic support package for businesses and workers through this emergency. Today’s debate on these measures reinforces the importance of responding to the concerns of UK businesses and providing them with much-needed support during this difficult time. We are in the midst of a global emergency, in which otherwise economically viable businesses are facing the risk of insolvency because of covid-19. We must protect them as best we can. It is imperative that we act now to support our businesses and do what we can to ensure that they survive, preserve jobs and support future growth. Clearly, our first priority is to protect lives, but restoring livelihoods, protecting businesses and getting the economy motoring is also essential. That is why it is imperative that we act now. The measures in the Bill will provide businesses with the flexibility and breathing space they need to continue trading during this difficult time and support the nation’s economic recovery.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the Minister; it was not my intention to be rude to him by interrupting him earlier.

We have gone past seven o’clock, as you will have noticed, Madam Deputy Speaker, which means that the motion in the name of the Leader of the House that pertains to virtual participation in proceedings during the pandemic will—I think this is the Government’s intention—be a “nod or nothing” measure. There can be no debate, and if it is opposed, it therefore falls. I have tabled an amendment and I have no intention of withdrawing it. I would want to contest the motion, and I understand that the amendment would be selected by the Speaker if it were to proceed. It is my understanding that it cannot now proceed. Nobody needs to object; it simply cannot now proceed because it is opposed business. Is that your understanding as well?

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He will understand that I did not want to hear it during the Minister’s winding-up speech because it would have taken time away from the Minister, which would not have been fair, as many people had asked questions that required answers from the Minister.

The hon. Gentleman refers to motion No. 4, on virtual participation in proceedings during the pandemic. He has just publicly made me aware that he intends to press his amendment and will not withdraw it. That means that the motion is effectively contested. As it is a contested motion, I will not be able to put the main Question, so the simple answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point is that he is correct in his analysis of the situation. In case other people are confused, I will make this point again when we come to motion No. 4.

Karen Bradley Portrait Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I just want to be clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that although I tabled an amendment to the same motion that was also selected, I have withdrawn that amendment and will not be pressing it.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for informing the House of that matter. As Mr Speaker had selected three amendments, having one amendment that continues to be contested settles the matter.

Valerie Vaz Portrait Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Opposition do not want to withdraw our amendment.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. Arithmetic is my strong point: I had three amendments. One has been withdrawn. That means that I have two amendments left. It does not change the constitutional position.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was here at 7 o’clock and it did not appear that the Government moved the business of the House motion that was due to be moved at 7 o’clock. It is probably a technical matter, but it now seems to me that if there were to be a Division on the current Bill, it would be a deferred Division. Is that correct?

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, it is not correct. There was no need for the 7 o’clock motion to be moved, because of the terms of the business of the House motion relating to today.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Yesterday, I intervened on the Leader of the House to ask about the possibility of introducing proxy voting to enable people to vote remotely during the current way in which Parliament has been organised, and the Leader of the House said that that matter had been referred to the Procedure Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who is in her place. Today at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister said that the Government were proposing to introduce proxy voting. Have you had any notification from the Government that they intend to table a motion tomorrow introducing proxy voting for Members other than those who are on maternity leave, and to provide time for that matter to be debated and voted on?

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Now, I thought that we were doing very well, because all the other points of order that I have just taken were real points of order, and it is such a pleasure to have real points of order. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, but it is not a point of order for the Chair. I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman will be able to ask those questions tomorrow.

Before we move on to the next item of business, which is the Committee stage of the Bill, in order to allow the safe exit of Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next item of business, I am now suspending the House for five minutes. I would be grateful if hon. Members would leave the Chamber.

Sitting suspended.
On resuming—
Valerie Vaz Portrait Valerie Vaz
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I clarify my earlier point of order on motion 4? I understand that there have been further discussions with the Government and the Opposition. I rise to withdraw our amendment, because I understand that a new motion will be put down tomorrow on proxy voting.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s point of order and for her clarification. I will do my arithmetic again. Having started with three amendments, I now have two withdrawn, so there is one amendment left. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady.

Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill

Committee stage & 3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Wednesday 3rd June 2020

(4 years ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 3 June 2020 - (3 Jun 2020)
Considered in Committee (Order, this day)
[Dame Eleanor Laing in the Chair]
Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Before I ask the Clerk to read the title of the Bill, I should explain that, in these exceptional circumstances, although the Chair of the Committee would normally sit in the Clerk’s chair during Committee stage, in order to comply with social distancing requirements I will remain in the Speaker’s Chair, although I will be carrying out the role not of Deputy Speaker but of Chairman of the Committee.

Clause 1

Moratoriums in Great Britain

Lucy Powell Portrait Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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I beg to move, amendment 1, page 3, line 24, after “debts,”, insert—

“(da) a statement on behalf of any trade union made on behalf of employees affected by the proposed rescue of the company as a going concern,”

This amendment would include trade union views among the relevant documents which must accompany an application by the directors of the company to the court for a moratorium.

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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With this it will be convenient to consider:

Amendment 2, page 4, line 38, at end insert—

“(2A) For small businesses, in this Chapter, the initial period, in relation to a moratorium, means the period of 30 business days beginning with the business day after the day on which the moratorium comes into force.”

This amendment would extend the moratorium for small business from 20 days to 30 days for businesses facing insolvency.

Clause stand part.

Clauses 2 to 9 stand part.

Amendment 3, in clause 10, page 63, line 21, leave out “June” and insert “September”

This amendment would extend to 30 September 2020 the period since 1 March 2020 during which a court in Great Britain is to assume that a person is not responsible for any worsening of the financial position of the company or its creditors that has occurred, following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Clause 10 stand part.

Amendment 4, in clause 11, page 64, line 46, leave out “June” and insert “September”

This amendment would extend to 30 September 2020 the period since 1 March 2020 during which a court in Northern Ireland is to assume that a person is not responsible for any worsening of the financial position of the company or its creditors that has occurred, following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Clauses 11 to 12 stand part.

Amendment 5, in clause 13, page 69, line 12, leave out “June” and insert “September”

This amendment would extend to 30 September 2020 the period since 1 March 2020 during which section 233B of the Insolvency Act 1986 (to be inserted by clause 12 of this Bill) does not apply in Great Britain in relation to a contract for the supply of goods or services to a company where the company becomes subject to a relevant insolvency procedure, and the supplier is a small entity at the time the company becomes subject to the procedure.

Clauses 13 to 16 stand part.

Amendment 6, in clause 17, page 76, line 1, leave out “June” and insert “September”

This amendment would extend to 30 September 2020 the period since 1 March 2020 during which Article 197B of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 (to be inserted by clause 16 of this Bill) does not apply in Northern Ireland in relation to a contract for the supply of goods or services to a company where the company becomes subject to a relevant insolvency procedure, and the supplier is a small entity at the time the company becomes subject to the procedure.

Clauses 17 to 22 stand part.

Amendment 13, in clause 23, page 79, line 20, leave out “section 18” and insert

“sections (Moratoriums in Great Britain: time-limited effect and renewal), (Moratoriums in Northern Ireland: time-limited effect and renewal), (Arrangements and reconstructions for companies in financial difficulty: time-limited effect and renewal), (Protection of supplies of goods and services: time-limited effect and renewal) and 18”

This amendment allows the Secretary of State to make consequential, incidental or supplementary or transitional provision or savings (including modifying the effect of this Act or any other enactment, making different provision for different purposes and binding the Crown) in connection with NC6, NC7, NC8 and NC9.

Clauses 23 to 47 stand part.

New clause 1—Ring-fence for unsecured creditors

“(1) Section 176A of the Insolvency Act 1986 is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (2), insert—

‘(2A) The prescribed part of the company’s net property available for the satisfaction of unsecured debts shall not be less than 30 per cent.’”

This new clause inserts into section 176A of the Insolvency Act 1986 a requirement that at least 30 per-cent of the proceeds from the sale of assets of businesses (after the deduction of the amounts owed to preferential creditors and the fees/expenses of the insolvency practitioners) in administration and liquidation shall be ring-fenced for payment to unsecured creditors.

New clause 3—Corporate governance: reforms

“(1) Before 31 December 2020, the Secretary of State must—

(a) carry out a review of corporate governance;

(b) set out the conclusions of the review in a report;

(c) publish the report; and

(d) arrange for copies of the report to be laid before both Houses of Parliament.

(2) The report under subsection (1) must in particular set out the Government’s proposals for—

(a) ensuring greater accountability of directors in group companies which sell failing subsidiaries;

(b) legislating to enhance powers for insolvency practitioners in relation to value extraction schemes (removal of value from a firm at the expense of its creditors when in financial distress);

(c) further raising standards by ensuring that directors of a company publish regular explanations to their shareholders as to what extent the company can afford to pay dividends alongside its financial commitments such as capital investments, workers’ rewards and pension schemes.”

This new clause paves the way for the introduction of measures proposed in the 2018 consultation on Insolvency and Corporate Governance.

New clause 4— Preference for pension scheme deficits in case of insolvency

“(1) The Secretary of State, after consulting the Pensions Regulator, may make regulations amending this Act to ensure that contributions owed to pension schemes by a company are treated in the categories of preferential debts under the Insolvency Act 1986 as a priority secured creditor.

(2) Regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing them has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”

The intention of this new clause is to make pension scheme deficits a ‘priority creditor’ in the event of insolvency and therefore due to be paid before unsecured creditors.

New clause 5—Trade union representation in restructuring process

“(1) Before 31 December 2020, the Secretary of State must—

(a) carry out a review of the role of trade unions in company restructuring arrangements;

(b) set out the conclusions of the review in a report;

(c) publish the report; and

(d) arrange for copies of the report to be laid before both Houses of Parliament.

(2) The report under subsection (1) must in particular set out the Government’s proposals for ensuring that trade unions representing employees affected by any proposed restructuring are—

(a) provided with all the information made available to the court,

(b) fully consulted by the directors of a company before any application for restructuring is made, and

(c) given the opportunity to contribute to decisions made by the court affecting their members.”

The intention of this new clause is to require mandatory discussion with trade union representatives once a company has entered the restructuring process.

New clause 6—Moratoriums in Great Britain: time-limited effect and renewal

“(1) Part A1 of the Insolvency Act 1986 (inserted by section 1 of this Act) ceases to have effect on 30 September 2020, subject to the condition in subsection (2).

(2) The condition in this subsection is that the Secretary of State has made regulations by statutory instrument providing that Part A1 of the Insolvency Act 1986 should continue to have effect for a specified further period of no more than one year.

(3) Regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing them has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

(4) The Secretary of State must keep under review the operation of Part 1A of the Insolvency Act 1986 during the period for which it has effect.

(5) The Secretary of State must arrange for a report of a review under subsection (4) to be laid before both Houses of Parliament no later than 15 September 2020.”

This new clause would terminate the free-standing moratorium provision for Great Britain on 30 September 2020, subject to temporary renewal for up to one year.

New clause 7—Moratoriums in Northern Ireland: time-limited effect and renewal

“(1) Part 1A of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 (S.I. 1989/2405 (N.I. 19)) (inserted by section 4 of this Act) ceases to have effect on 30 September 2020, subject to the condition in subsection (2).

(2) The condition in this subsection is that the Secretary of State has made regulations by statutory instrument providing that Part 1A of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 should continue to have effect for a specified further period of no more than one year.

(3) Regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing them has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

(4) The Secretary of State must keep under review the operation of Part 1A of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 during the period for which it has effect.

(5) The Secretary of State must arrange for a report of a review under subsection (4) to be laid before both Houses of Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly no later than 15 September 2020.”

This new clause would terminate the free-standing moratorium provision fin Northern Ireland on 30 September 2020, subject to temporary renewal for up to one year.

New clause 8—Arrangements and reconstructions for companies in financial difficulty: time-limited effect and renewal

“(1) Part 26A of the Companies Act 2006 (inserted by section 7 of this Act and Schedule 9 to this Act) ceases to have effect on 30 September 2020, subject to the condition in subsection (2).

(2) The condition in this subsection is that the Secretary of State has made regulations by statutory instrument providing that Part 26A of the Companies Act 2006 should continue to have effect for a specified further period of no more than one year.

(3) Regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing them has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

(4) The Secretary of State must keep under review the operation of Part 26A of the Companies Act 2006 during the period for which it has effect.

(5) The Secretary of State must arrange for a report of a review under subsection (4) to be laid before both Houses of Parliament no later than 15 September 2020.”

This new clause would terminate the new restructuring plan provisions on 30 September 2020, subject to temporary renewal for up to one year.

New clause 9—Protection of supplies of goods and services: time-limited effect and renewal

“(1) Sections 233B and 233C of the Insolvency Act 1986 (inserted by section 12 of this Act) cease to have effect on 30 September 2020, subject to the condition in subsection (2).

(2) The condition in this subsection is that the Secretary of State has made regulations by statutory instrument providing that sections 233B and 233C of the Insolvency Act 1986 should continue to have effect for a specified further period of no more than one year.

(3) Regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing them has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

(4) The Secretary of State must keep under review the operation of sections 233B and 233C of the Insolvency Act 1986 during the period for which they have effect.

(5) The Secretary of State must arrange for a report of a review under subsection (4) to be laid before both Houses of Parliament no later than 15 September 2020.”

This new clause would terminate the widening of Ipso facto (termination) clauses in supply contracts on 30 September 2020, subject to temporary renewal for up to one year.

That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.

Amendment 7, in schedule 4, page 122, line 38, leave out “June” and insert “September”

This amendment would extend to 30 September 2020 the period after this Act comes into force during which the Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument provide for any temporary modifications to primary legislation in relation to moratoriums in Great Britain made by Part 2 of Schedule 4 to cease to have effect.

Government amendment 15.

That schedule 4 be the Fourth schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 5 be the Fifth schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 6 be the Sixth schedule to the Bill.

Government amendment 16.

That schedule 7 be the Seventh schedule to the Bill.

Amendment 8, in schedule 8, page 165, line 28, leave out “June” and insert “September”

This amendment would extend to 30 September 2020 the period after this Act comes into force during which the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland may by regulations provide for any temporary modifications to primary legislation, or temporary Rules under Article 359 of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, in relation to moratoriums in Northern Ireland in made by provision made by Part 2 of Schedule 8 to cease to have effect before the end of the relevant period.

Government amendment 17.

That schedule 8 be the Eighth schedule to the Bill.

Government amendments 18 to 25.

That schedule 9 be the Ninth schedule to the Bill.

Amendment 9, in schedule 10, page 203, line 15, leave out “June” and insert “September”

This amendment would extend to 30 September 2020 the period in relation to which petitions for the winding up of a registered company may not be presented on or after 27 April 2020 on the statutory grounds specified in section 123(1)(a) or section 124 of the Insolvency Act 1986 (that a written demand has not been paid within 3 weeks) where the demand was served during that period.

Amendment 10, page 209, line 36, leave out “June” and insert “September”

This amendment would extend to 30 September 2020 the period in relation to which petitions for the winding up of a registered company may not be presented on the grounds specified in Part 2 of Schedule 10 to this Bill (except where coronavirus had not had an effect on the company).

That schedule 10 be the Tenth schedule to the Bill.

Amendment 11, in schedule 11, page 211, line 2, leave out “June” and insert “September”

This amendment would extend to 30 September 2020 the period in relation to which petitions for the winding up of a registered company may not be presented on or after 27 April 2020 on the grounds specified in sub-paragraph (a) of Article 103(1)(a) or Article 104 of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 Order (that a written demand has not been paid within 3 weeks) where the demand was served during that period.

Amendment 12, page 216, line 25, leave out “June” and insert “September”

This amendment would extend to 30 September 2020 the period in relation to which petitions for the winding up of a registered company in Northern Ireland may not be presented on the grounds specified in Part 2 of Schedule 11 to this Bill (except where coronavirus had not had an effect on the company).

That schedule 11 be the Eleventh schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 12 be the Twelfth schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 13 be the Thirteenth schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 14 be the Fourteenth schedule to the Bill.

Amendment 14, Title, line 3, after “make” insert “temporary”

This consequential amendment clarifies the temporary nature of the Bill’s provisions.

Lucy Powell Portrait Lucy Powell
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As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and I have said, we support the principle of the Bill and urge the Government to do more to support businesses, so that they can remain solvent and do not need to use these provisions. I hope the Minister will take the amendments in the constructive way they are meant. I will speak to each of them in turn and set out why we are seeking reassurances or think that the Government should consider changes to the Bill as it progresses. This has been a very truncated process, so we are relying on Ministers’ good will to take on board not just the comments I am about to make but those made on Second Reading, some of which were excellent suggestions.

I will take the self-explanatory amendments first. Amendments 3 to 12 inclusive would extend the time limits of the covid-19-specific provisions in the Bill. We welcome the retrospective nature of the provisions, but as we have discussed with the Minister, we suggest that the Government amend the Bill to extend the time limits for a number of the provisions, as they are insufficient given the prolonged nature of the crisis. Specifically, the suspension of the wrongful trading liability and statutory demands and winding-up petition measures should be extended to the same date as when the AGM and company account filing measures are valid, which is until 30 September.

Clearly, there was a sense from Government when the Bill was being drafted that on 30 June, most things would be back to business as usual. It is now clear that many sectors will not even be partially open for business again by that deadline—I am thinking particularly of hospitality, travel, tourism and the arts and their associated supply chains. They will not even have begun trading by the end of this month, let alone be getting back to any kind of solvency.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I agree wholeheartedly with what the hon. Lady is saying. In Northern Ireland the start date for the hospitality sector, including hotels, is 20 July, so nothing will even be in place until that time. I am a wee bit disappointed that the Minister has not acknowledged that we should have a six-month extension, maybe even to the end of the year.

Lucy Powell Portrait Lucy Powell
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The hon. Member makes a good point. Businesses that are struggling to keep their heads above water need certainty, and they need to know that the lifeline measures in the Bill will not be pulled from under their feet before they even reach needing them.

The point of the suspension of the wrongful trading provisions is that lots of businesses are effectively trading technically insolvent already through no fault of their own. Just as we have seen Ministers rightly extend the furlough scheme, support for the self-employed and other measures, they should get ahead of this now. Rather than having to spend time on a statutory instrument in only two or three weeks’ time, Ministers could and should take the opportunity to get this done today by agreeing to our amendment.

Amendment 2 would extend the moratorium for small businesses from 20 days to 30 days for businesses facing insolvency. The Federation of Small Businesses has called on Government to extend the moratorium period for small businesses because it does not believe that the 20-day period in the Bill is sufficient. We support that call and ask Ministers to agree to that change.

New clause 2 has not been selected, and we will have a proper look at this in the other place, but we think that the powers of the Small Business Commissioner should be strengthened, as we discussed on Second Reading.

We have long argued for some of the permanent measures in the Bill, particularly in the wake of the Carillion collapse. However, we have some concerns about what has been left out, as I said on Second Reading. There could be unintended consequences in the restructuring proposals that are being put in place that could disadvantage small businesses, employees or other unsecured creditors, such as pension funds. The Minister and I have discussed the issue in private, and it was also raised by a number of Government Members earlier. Given the crisis and the numbers of businesses already struggling, we appreciate the haste in bringing forward the changes, but we are concerned that Members and outside bodies have not had a lot of time to scrutinise the Bill and its implications, so we think the Government could consider having a period for reflection and review.

We have included as amendments a number of omissions from the 2018 consultation. The collapse of Carillion and the consequences for workers, supply-chain businesses and the public were a national scandal and an abject failure of British corporate governance policies. There have been huge repercussions for taxpayers, with unfulfilled contracts, unfinished buildings and thousands of apprentices laid off—the taxpayer had to foot the bill for those failures of corporate governance. There is, rightfully, public anger at the failure to hold people to account for such things. As ever, it seems that in such instances the profits are taken by the private sector, but the public sector foots the bill when the risks have been taken by directors over whom they have no control. Given the economic crisis that we face and the likely recession, it is clear that in the next few months and years we will see more big corporate collapses and failures, so it really is remiss of the Government not to strengthen the corporate governance measures, as they said they would do in 2018. I wish to make it clear, especially because Members raised this earlier, that the measures in our amendment are lifted entirely from the Government’s own recommendations.

Alongside key omissions from the Bill, we have heard from academics, trade unions and other organisations about some of the sweeping powers in the legislation and the fact that there could be considerable scope for the misuse of some measures to disadvantage particular groups. The next set of amendments would seek to safeguard funds for unsecured creditors, protect pension schemes, and protect employees by giving trade unions a voice in any restructuring plans. I urge the Minister to have conversations with the trade unions and to look to add our provision—or a provision like it, as Members from both sides were calling for earlier—to the Bill as it progresses to the other place.

We have concerns about how the restructuring plan will hit employees: many more could be pushed to or around the national minimum wage and lose their rights and their wages, as we are currently seeing with what British Airways is doing. Pension scheme deficits will be left unaddressed and more workers could end up losing out from their pension schemes. If this was not an emergency Bill, we would have had a lot more time to probe Ministers on these issues in a full Committee and to discuss what could be done to strengthen the protections in the Bill.

New clause 1 would insert into section 176A of the Insolvency Act 1986 a requirement that at least 30% of the proceeds from the sale of assets of businesses in administration or liquidation should be ring-fenced for payments to unsecured creditors, who often end up losing out to larger creditors, such as banks. The new clause explores a way for unsecured creditors to be guaranteed some assets so that they do not miss out. The legislation assumes that all creditors are identical and take a hit, but we know that that is not borne out in reality. There is a case for protecting the debts of SMEs and other unsecured creditors up to a specified amount, and that should not be reduced. What assurances can the Minister give that unsecured creditors will not lose out as a result of the Bill—although I know that that is what it is designed to try to achieve—and what mitigation is in place to protect unsecured creditors, who are often in the SME sector?

The intention of new clause 4 is to make pension scheme deficits a priority creditor in the event of insolvency and therefore due to be paid before unsecured creditors. The new clause would require the Government to make pension scheme deficits a priority, meaning that they would be the first in the queue in the event of insolvency and paid before other creditors. That could make employees’ votes count and offer them some protection. It is worth remembering that pension schemes are unsecured creditors in normal circumstances. If the deficit is not addressed by companies, employees face an erosion of their pension rights and their pension value goes down. Our amendment would help them to become a separate class in their own right and not to be subsumed into the amorphous mass of unsecured creditors. Members would be able to vote on any restructuring plan. That way, there would be a clear message to past and present employees. Given the nature of this debate and the number of colleagues from both sides of the House who have raised this issue, I hope that Ministers will look at the matter.

The intention of new clause 5 is to require mandatory discussion with trade union representatives once a company has entered the restructuring process. I understand that US evidence shows that restructuring plans often hit employees hardest, and many of the provisions in the Bill are based on US-European models. Wages can be reduced and employment terms changed. Many employees end up on zero-hours contracts or, as we have seen recently with BA, are sacked and then offered worse terms and conditions when they are re-employed. Pension rights are also reduced, and that could happen in the UK. I am sure that Ministers do not wish that to be an unintended consequence of the legislation, so we hope that the Minister will look at our idea, or a similar idea, and see if it can be introduced in the other place. I hope he can provide reassurance on that, not least because my boss, the shadow Secretary of State, is particularly agitated—and rightly so—about this issue.

I hope that the Minister will consider the amendments in the constructive way in which they are tabled. A number of Government amendments have been tabled, and they seem reasonable. We have not had a lot of time to study them, but I am grateful to the Minister for arranging a briefing with his officials. I look forward to his providing us with a bit more detail and assurance as the Bill proceeds.

Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
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This Bill has been produced with ministerial colleagues, the Bill team, which has worked through weekends, representatives of businesses, consumers, workers, shareholders, investors, insolvency experts and, indeed, after really constructive conversations with Opposition Members from all parts of the House. For all those people, I want to put on the record thanks for the constructive way in which the measure has been introduced.

We have had a good debate and there are a number of issues that we need to explore. I am more than happy to cover as much ground as I can. An amendment on prompt payment was cited on Second Reading, but it was not selected. However, as the Secretary of State has said, we made a manifesto commitment to consult on extending a range of powers to the small business commissioner and to clamp down on late payment. We still plan to consult on doing so to allow the small business commissioner to advocate for and support small businesses. We are keen to capture as many views as possible to ensure that the policy response is the right one. In the light of businesses furloughing staff and of other priorities, we do not believe that consulting now is the right thing to do, but the Government remain committed to the prompt payment code.

Amendment 1 seeks to add a statement from a trade union on behalf of employees to the document that must be filed at court at the commencement of the moratorium. It is important to note that a successful rescue would be of direct benefit to employees, as it would result in jobs being saved. Requiring a statement from the trade union on their behalf alongside statements from the insolvency practitioner and directors would add little to the process. In fact, it might risk publicising the company’s financial problems before the protection from creditor action that a moratorium would bring, making rescue less likely.

Employees benefit from considerable protection in the moratorium, which will not be a bomb shelter for bad employers. As I have set out previously, wages and any redundancy payments relating to a period before as well as during the moratorium should be paid by the company. If it does not pay such amounts the monitor must bring the moratorium to an end. While legal process cannot be begun or continued against the company while it is in a moratorium without the leave of the court, an exception is made for employment tribunal claims and other proceedings between an employer and the worker. For those reasons I have set out, I am unable to accept this amendment and I hope it will not be pressed, but I do value the regular meetings I have with TUC members, a number of whom I will be speaking to tomorrow as part of my regular engagement. I value their input at every stage on employment rights and other issues that fall within my brief.

Amendment 2 seeks to amend the initial period. As drafted, the Bill already provides a moratorium that initially lasts for 20 business days. A company might not have finalised its plans for a rescue within that time but it may still be rescuable at that point, so if towards the end of those initial 20 business days a moratorium is still required, and the company has paid certain ongoing debts that have fallen due in the moratorium period, the directors of that company can file a notice at court to extend the moratorium for a further 20 business days, taking the possible time for a moratorium to 40 business days in total. Those 40 business days should be sufficient for most companies, including small businesses, to have prepared their plans for rescue or for it to become apparent that a rescue is not likely, at which point the moratorium should, in any case, come to an end.
We do, however recognise that 40 business days may not be enough, and for that reason it is also possible for extensions beyond those 40 days to be granted, but such an extension can be granted only with either the permission of the court or with the agreement of a majority, in value, of pre-moratorium creditors, because it would mean a lot of forbearance for any suppliers whose debts have remained unpaid since before the moratorium commenced. I understand Members’ concern that the moratorium period of 20 business days may not long enough for directors to put in place a plan to deal with the affairs of the company that will also benefit its creditors and employees, but the Government consider that initial period of 20 business days, with the ability to extend to 40 days, and even further with creditor or court permission, strikes the right balance in respect of allowing the company reasonable time to explore rescue options and temporarily suspending creditors’ rights to take enforcement action against the company. In that regard, there is no special case for treating small businesses differently from other businesses, so, again, I ask Members not to press their amendment.
Amendment 3 to 12 seek to extend the period during which the range of temporary measures contained in this Bill will continue to operate. The amendments have been grouped, as they would each operate to extend one of those temporary measures within the Bill. We have heard about the suspension of directors’ liability for wrongful trading, with a small trader carve-out from the scope of the termination clause provisions and temporary modifications to the moratorium process, together with temporary rules for implementing the moratorium and protection for companies from winding-up petitions and statutory demands. At present, these temporary measures will all end a month after Royal Assent, but these amendments seek to extend that date until 30 September. These measures are all necessary to ensure that otherwise viable companies are given the space to recover. I understand and sympathise with the desire of Members to ensure that these measures continue for as long as they are needed, but I can reassure them that the Bill already contains provision enabling these temporary measures to be extended by statutory instrument, wherever possible; that is contained in clause 39 for Great Britain and clause 40 for Northern Ireland. The Government have every intention of making use of clause 39 if the protections are needed before their present expiry date. It is not yet clear that that will be the case or, if it is, what additional period they will be needed for. Matters have continued to progress rapidly and it is not possible to be certain that what is appropriate now will still be desirable up until the end of September.
Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Matters are progressing quickly and it is important to bring forward these measures now, but they do not directly tackle the issues relating to conflict of interest. The Department’s proposal to look for a single regulator could well do that. Will the Minister be prepared to meet me to discuss those measures to see when they might be brought forward in future legislation?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. He has spoken at length on this and he has been a champion for that change, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss that further.

Amendments 18, 19, 21, 22, 23 and 25 deal with the Cape Town convention, which is an international treaty that seeks to lower the cost of finance for various high-value, mobile assets, including, importantly, aircraft. I know the sector has been particularly impacted by the unique situation posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The insolvency provisions in the Cape Town convention and the aircraft protocol, which we ratified in 2015, are some of the key provisions that give rise to low financing costs in the airline industry. They provide aircraft creditors with greater certainty that they will be able to take steps to enforce their security if an airline debtor defaults on payments or enters into insolvency. The effect of the provisions in the Bill that the Government are amending would have been to enhance the existing protections afforded to Cape Town creditors by extending those protections beyond what the convention and the aircraft protocol require. That was done to create even greater certainty for creditors and further reduce lending costs within the industry. However, in doing so, the new provisions would also have constrained the ability of a financially distressed airline to restructure without creditor consent, either using existing tools under the Companies Act 2006 or the new restructuring plan procedure that is being introduced by the Bill.

Since the publication of the Bill, we have listened closely to the views of many, including interested stakeholders in the airline sector and the restructuring profession. Both have expressed that these provisions could create a significant hurdle to successfully restructuring a struggling airline. The Government are absolutely aware of the very significant impact that this emergency is having on the airline sector. I am also clear that the overriding aim of the Bill is to make it as easy as possible for affected companies to get the breathing space that they need to weather the impact of covid-19, which clearly applies to the airline sector. Given the extraordinary challenge of the circumstances faced by the sector, the Government have decided to remove the relevant provisions from the Bill, which will retain the ability for an airline to use a scheme of arrangement and a restructuring plan to affect Cape Town creditors’ registered interests without the consent of every individual creditor, provided that the other safeguards of those procedures are satisfied. It is complex and we know that we need to work with the airlines on this and give struggling airlines the ability to successfully restructure.

I turn to amendment 15, which deals with the temporary changes to the moratorium that we are introducing in the Bill specifically for England, Wales and Scotland. I will shortly speak to a corresponding amendment for Northern Ireland. Members of this esteemed House will be aware that one of the things that the Bill is for is to create the moratorium, which is vital to give troubled companies the breathing space, but they face significant risks when seeking to restructure, and creditors can derail rescue plans and cause otherwise viable companies to fail unnecessarily. This adversely affects the interests of the company, its creditors and its employees, as well as the wider economy. Recognising the pressing need for companies to be able to access a moratorium in the face of the immediate impact of this emergency, in addition to the permanent measures, we have also introduced temporary measures to ensure that it is as easy as possible for businesses to access a moratorium in the short term. This is done in schedule 4 to the Bill.

While the schedule 4 temporary measures are in place, it is important that these can be applied consistently to each type of entity that can obtain a moratorium. If eligibility for the temporary measures changed depending on what sort of entity was seeking the moratorium, that would patently not be the case. As drafted, there are two entities for which schedule 4 would not otherwise apply: limited liability partnerships and co-operative and community benefit societies. This amendment would add a small fifth section to schedule 4, consisting of two paragraphs to make limited liability partnerships and co-operative and community benefit societies eligible for the temporary moratorium measures. That ensures that these entities can also be brought within the scope of the schedule and make best use of the breathing space that the measures offer. It ensures that both co-operative and community benefit societies and limited liability partnerships in England, Scotland and Wales will benefit from the temporary measures that we have set out in the schedule, as well as from the wider provisions on moratoriums. There is a corresponding amendment for Northern Ireland. These time-limited and temporary changes will make sure that we best address specific issues for companies during the covid-19 emergency and ensure that the relevant entities are all equally eligible for our temporary measures on moratoriums.

Amendment 17 is related and ensures that the temporary modifications that have been made to the moratorium process can be applied to limited liability partnerships and certain types of registered societies in Northern Ireland. It inserts two paragraphs to the temporary measures in Schedule 8, so it largely mirrors what we see in the previous amendment.

Amendments 20 and 24 are minor and technical amendments, intended merely to make a clarificatory point to ensure that it is crystal clear that at the point when a company proposes a restructuring plan coming out of a moratorium, the company should contact all creditors with an explanatory note of a proposed restructuring.

Similarly, amendment 16 deals with an erroneous repeal of the Northern Ireland provisions. The provision being repealed is still needed, so the amendment rectifies that and I therefore commend it to the House. I turn briefly to one amendment raised by the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). It seeks to make any pension scheme deficits a priority creditor in the event of an insolvency. I have to say that I can understand where her intentions are coming from in this proposed amendment. I am sure that, in recent years, we can all remember one or two high-profile insolvency cases—we have heard of some today—which feature large deficits owing to the pension scheme, and we can appreciate the uncertainty that that brings.

However, as always, when insolvency occurs, there is a balance to be struck when considering the order in which those owed money are paid out of the available assets. There are seldom enough funds to pay all creditors in full in insolvency cases. To ensure fairness, the law requires that available funds be distributed in a certain order. Secured creditors are paid out first for the sale of any property to which their charges attach. Without that, securities, banks and others who funded business activity would be less likely to do so, or would charge more to cover the increased risks they bear. It is essential that the insolvency system helps to give investors, lenders and creditors confidence to take the commercial risks necessary to support economic growth. Unsecured creditors are paid once the secured creditors and preferential debts, which include employees’ remuneration, have been dealt with, and they share the funds that are left. For limited amounts of unpaid pension contributions, which are preferential, any deficit to a pension scheme ranks alongside all other unsecured creditors, which will inevitably include trade suppliers, some of which will be small and micro companies. Therefore, the level of debt owed to a pension company can be very large—we know that. To raise the priority of these creditors and pay them ahead of not only unsecured creditors, but also, as the new clause would seem to suggest, preferential creditors such as employees for unpaid wages and floating charge holders would really upset the balance that has existed for a long time.

New clause 5 seeks a future review of trade union involvement in company restructuring and to commit the Government to specific proposals in spite of what that review might show. It does not seek to amend or improve the debt finance restructuring provisions in the Bill being taken forward as those most needed at this moment in time. The permanent restructuring provisions introduced by the Bill have been the subject of a considerable period of consultation and engagement dating back to 2015. The process included the then Government’s review of the corporate insolvency framework public consultation in 2016 and extensive public engagements since then, with a wide range of stakeholders. There were no strong or widely made calls at that time for trade unions to be given a formal role in the new processes proposed. The design of the new restructuring provisions already includes strong protections for employees. For example, a company in a moratorium will be required to continue paying wages and salaries during the moratorium. If they are not paid, the moratorium will have to come to an end.

In addition, the measures allow employment tribunal proceedings to continue during the moratorium, despite the fact that other types of legal processes are to be prevented during the moratorium. In cases where employees are creditors of the company that they are employed by, and so a party to a new restructuring plan in that capacity, they will benefit from the comprehensive set of general creditor protections built into the new measure.

On corporate governance reform more widely, the Government are implementing a number of reforms already enacted that strengthen the voice and interests of employees in company decision making, be they members of a trade union or not.

The Government also intend to put forward a further consultation on audit and corporate governance reform, taking into account the recommendations of three independent reviews of audit, the views of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and a recent industry development, so we do not believe that a separate review is necessary.

At this point, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am not able to accept any of the amendments, apart from the Government amendments that are in my name. I hope therefore that hon. Members will therefore withdraw their amendments.

Imran Ahmad Khan Portrait Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield) (Con)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It has come to my notice that certain Members of this House, including well-known Members such as the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), have flagrantly flouted the law and joined the protests outside, boasting that they have broken social distancing measures. I am not going to talk about the legality of this, because that, I presume—I may be mistaken about this—is a matter for the police. What I am discussing here, and what I wish to bring as a point of order, is my concern for the community that makes up this parliamentary estate: the hardworking and dedicated staff, and, indeed, as a subsequent thought, even my fellow Members. I feel that we are going to be placed at risk when there has been such advertised and self-publicised breaking of the law. Vectors of the disease we are fighting, and which the Government are fighting, will be, if he returns to this House, allowed access to spread among the hardworking staff here. Are there measures to prevent such Members, who have flouted the law and are now possibly more likely to be contagious or infected by the disease, re-joining this House until they have undergone a period of self-isolation to ensure that we do not suffer a threat because of their aberrant behaviour?

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I can well understand his consternation. The behaviour of hon. Members when they are outside this building is, of course, not a matter for the Chair, but what is a matter for the Chair and for Mr Speaker is the safety of Members of this House, of people who work here, and of the many, many people who have continued to work here, through a sense of duty, during these last difficult weeks. It will be obvious to the Committee and to anyone watching our proceedings that Mr Speaker has gone to a great deal of effort to make sure that Members and staff working here are protected. Social distancing rules, as one can see by looking at the Benches and the way in which this entire building is now set out, have been very rigorously developed to make sure that everyone who works in this building, who is here to do their duty, is protected and will not put other people, including their constituents and their families, at any risk.

If any Member of this House is openly flouting the rules that we have asked every citizen of the United Kingdom to observe to keep the virus under control, and to protect the vulnerable and to protect the NHS, then that Member is putting not only himself or herself at risk, but everyone else at risk as well. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s observations will prove not to have been accurate. I am not suggesting that he would say that they were, but I cannot make any comment until I know the facts for certain. I hope that the facts are not as he has stated them, but if it transpires that the facts are as he has stated them, then it should be incumbent upon anyone coming into this building, if they know that they have put themselves at risk of contracting or passing on the virus, to act responsibly. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order.

We will resume the Committee stage. I was hoping I would have some sort of indication that someone might wish to speak. I call Sarah Olney.

Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD)
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Thank you, Dame Eleanor. I was not expecting to be next, but I willingly take my place. I state my intention not to press my amendments, but I would just like to say a few words on why I tabled them.

We are in an emergency situation. The response to coronavirus has been first and foremost a public health response, but the necessary measures taken to contain the spread of this appalling virus, supported by all the hon. Members of my party, have now resulted in an economic crisis. While we look forward to a point where the public health emergency has passed at least sufficiently to allow some semblance of a normal life, the economic crisis is likely to have longer and more far-reaching effects. In my constituency, as in those of every parliamentary colleague I am sure, the most immediate impacts are being felt by our small businesses and the self-employed. If we are to plot the most effective path out of this crisis, it is to our small and growing businesses that we should allocate the most care and attention. Apart from the important role that they play in supporting our communities and providing jobs, the new businesses that will emerge from the current shutdown will be offering the innovative goods and services necessary for a new way of life that we may have to get used to. Our recovery—both physical and economic—depends on the next generation of entrepreneurs, and it should be the first priority of the Secretary of State to identify and support them.

The Liberal Democrats support the temporary measures in the Bill. They are sensible measures that should carry successful businesses through the current crisis until such time as they can thrive again on their own terms. We support them, however, only as temporary measures designed to respond to the specific challenges posed by the current crisis. We oppose the bundling into the legislation of permanent changes to our insolvency and corporate governance processes. Permanent changes should be subject to a greater level of scrutiny and debate. My amendment 14 sought to put all the proposed changes on a temporary footing, able to be renewed, but also allowing the proposed permanent measures to be reintroduced to the House at such time as we may be able to consider and debate them properly.

Introducing the proposals as temporary measures would also allow their effect to be properly analysed. Our particular concern is for the ipso facto clause, which can be triggered if an insolvency effectively ends a contract to supply. This will require key suppliers to continue to supply struggling companies, despite the risk that they may not get paid. This transfers the risk from the struggling company to the supplier, which, whether in an economic crisis or not, is unacceptable. In times when cash flow is limited, it is not sufficient protection for a supplier to get in the queue with other creditors in the event of one of its customers falling into administration. Suppliers should retain the right to choose to withdraw their services if they perceive that their resources will face a lower risk return elsewhere. To compel them to continue their supply would be unethical.

I am particularly concerned that such a change would have a disproportionate impact on smaller businesses, especially those that only have the capacity to service a handful of clients, and would be unduly disadvantaged by being required to supply goods and services without the certainty of being paid. I accept that there is a balance to be struck between the needs of customers and suppliers, and that during these difficult times supply chains are critical and need to be supported, but we need to take time to consider the long-term risks of introducing such a change to our insolvency procedures, and the introduction of emergency legislation is not that time.

The acid test of any new legislation at this time should be whether its provisions stimulate and support economic activity. There will be, regrettably, some businesses that will not survive the shutdown. For the sake of those who lose their jobs and livelihoods, it is imperative that capital and investment can be quickly diverted towards those endeavours that can thrive and provide new employment and economic activity. The increase in the scope of exclusions to the ipso facto clause will have precisely the reverse effect, injecting precious working capital into companies that cannot create economic value from it. Now more than ever is not the time to restrict our small business activity in such a way. I urge the Government to adopt the Liberal Democrat proposal that all the provisions of this Bill be time-limited and that we consider the permanent provisions more fully at a later date, when we would have greater insight into the impact of their introduction on our business environment.

Lucy Powell Portrait Lucy Powell
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We are happy to withdraw our amendment on the basis that the Minister undertakes to address the concerns of the trade unions leadership—concerns which they have raised with us about the loss of rights that may result from the Bill—in his meeting with them tomorrow. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 1 to 47 agreed to.

Schedules 1 to 3 agreed to.

Schedule 4

Moratoriums in Great Britain: temporary provision

Amendment made: 15, page 144, line 14, at end insert—

“Part 5

Entities other than companies

91 Regulations under section 14(1) of the Limited Liability Partnership Act 2000 may make provision applying or incorporating provision made by or under this Schedule, with such modifications as appear appropriate, in relation to a limited liability partnership registered in Great Britain.

92 An order or regulations under section 118(1)(a), (3B) or (3C) of the Cooperative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 may provide for provision made by or under this Schedule to apply (with or without modifications) in relation to registered societies (or to registered societies of the kind mentioned there).”—(Paul Scully.)

This amendment ensures that powers to apply Part A1 of the Insolvency Act 1986 to certain entities can also be used to apply Schedule 4 to the Bill.

Schedule 4, as amended, agreed to.

Schedules 5 and 6 agreed to.

Schedule 7

Moratoriums in Northern Ireland: further amendments

Amendment made: 16, page 165, line 4, leave out “2 to 8” and insert

“2 to 5, 7 and 8”.—(Paul Scully.)

This amendment removes the repeal of paragraph 6 of Schedule 1 to the Insolvency (NI) Order 2002, as the amendment made by that paragraph remains relevant for certain limited purposes.

Schedule 7, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 8

Moratoriums in Northern Ireland: temporary provision

Amendment made: 17, page 178, line 14, at end insert—

“Part 5

Entities other than companies

55 Regulations under section 14(1) of the Limited Liability Partnership Act 2000 may make provision applying or incorporating provision made by or under this Schedule, with such modifications as appear appropriate, in relation to a limited liability partnership registered in Northern Ireland.

56 An order under Article 10(2) of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 may provide for provision made by or under this Schedule to apply (with or without modification) in relation to—

(a) a registered society within the meaning of the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, or

(b) a credit union within the meaning of the Credit Unions (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.”—(Paul Scully.)

This amendment ensures that powers to apply Part 1A of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 to certain entities can also be used to apply Schedule 8 to the Bill.

Schedule 8, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 9

Arrangements and reconstructions for companies in financial difficulty

Amendments made: 18, page 180, line 17, leave out “and 901I (special cases)” and insert “(moratorium debts, etc)”.

This amendment is consequential on amendment 21.

Amendment 19, page 181, line 44, leave out from “etc),” to end of line 1 on page 182.

This amendment is consequential on amendment 21.

Amendment 20, page 183, line 34, after “as” insert “including”.

This amendment makes a minor drafting correction.

Amendment 21, page 184, leave out lines 7 to 30.

This amendment removes enhanced protection for creditors with interests in aircraft equipment, which will make it easier for airline companies to make use of the new restructuring process provided for by Part 26A of the Companies Act 2006.

Amendment 22, page 194, line 40, leave out “and 899B (special cases)” and insert “(moratorium debts, etc)”.

This amendment is consequential on amendment 25.

Amendment 23, page 194, line 44, leave out from “etc),” to end of line 45.

This amendment is consequential on amendment 25.

Amendment 24, page 195, line 24, after “as” insert “including”.

This amendment makes a minor drafting correction.

Amendment 25, page 195, leave out from end of line 42 to beginning of line 21 on page 196.—(Paul Scully.)

This amendment removes enhanced protection for creditors with interests in aircraft equipment, which will make it easier for airline companies to make use of the existing restructuring process provided for by Part 26 of the Companies Act 2006.

Schedule 9, as amended, agreed to.

Schedules 10 to 14 agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill, as amended, reported.

Bill, as amended in the Committee, considered.

Bill read the Third time and passed.

Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill

2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 9th June 2020

(4 years ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 3 June 2020 - (3 Jun 2020)
Second Reading
Moved by
Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Callanan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Lord Callanan) (Con)
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My Lords, we have faced, and continue to face, a global health emergency on an unprecedented scale. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought significant challenges to our country and our economy. The imposition of strict social distancing measures has meant that many businesses are facing significant short-term difficulties and, some, sadly, the threat of insolvency.

Providing support to UK businesses is at the heart of the Government’s economic response to Covid-19. The fiscal package introduced by the Government has provided billions to businesses through support schemes such as loans, grants and the job retention scheme. The Bill will provide additional support to businesses by giving them the flexibility and breathing space that they need to bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic. To achieve that, the Bill will do the following.

First, it will introduce a package of permanent reforms to insolvency law to give businesses the space and tools required to maximise their chances of survival. Secondly, it will temporarily suspend parts of insolvency law to protect companies from aggressive creditor action and give company directors greater confidence to continue to trade through the pandemic. Thirdly, it will extend greater flexibilities to businesses, allowing them to hold their general meetings in a way which is consistent with social distancing measures, and providing more time for them to file the information they need to with Companies House. This package of measures will help give businesses the support they need to keep trading, preserving jobs and value, and laying the foundations for the UK’s economic recovery.

The first set of measures is a corporate restructuring package that will make permanent changes to the UK’s insolvency framework. The Government previously consulted extensively on these changes to the corporate insolvency regime and we announced plans in August 2018 to introduce new insolvency rescue and restructuring procedures. The Bill will implement those reforms. This package of reforms will have an immediate effect in helping companies get through the Covid-19 emergency by providing them with the breathing space that they require to help them avoid insolvency as they seek a rescue. The package contains three elements.

The first is a moratorium, which will give financially distressed companies breathing space from their creditors while they seek a rescue. It will last initially for 20 business days, and can be extended. During this time, legal action is restricted against a company without leave of the court. There are some time-limited relaxations of the eligibility criteria for the moratorium to make it easier for companies to enter a moratorium during the Covid-19 crisis.

The second element of the corporate restructuring package is the introduction of a new restructuring plan. This will allow companies to restructure complex debt arrangements and bind creditors to the plan as long as certain thresholds are met. As the House would expect with a proposal that has a binding effect on creditors, significant safeguards are in place for them. For example, the court must be satisfied that dissenting creditors will not be made worse off than they would have been under the next most likely outcome.

The third and final element of the corporate restructuring package is the prohibition of termination clauses. Such termination clauses are often found in supply contracts and are triggered on the commencement of an insolvency or rescue procedure. Their prohibition will mean that contracted suppliers cannot terminate contracts, or demand additional payments, just because the company has entered an insolvency procedure or moratorium. However, there are again safeguards in place for suppliers to protect them from financial hardship as a result of their being required to continue to supply. In addition, due to the impact of Covid-19 on small companies, small suppliers will be temporarily exempt from this requirement.

The Bill also introduces some time-limited measures to provide additional support for businesses during the crisis. The first of these is the temporary suspension of wrongful trading liability. Wrongful trading liability is a deterrent against company directors continuing to trade when their company is insolvent. This temporary suspension will encourage directors of companies that would be viable but for the impact of Covid-19 to continue trading without the threat of personal liability. Let me reassure noble Lords that, while we believe this suspension to be necessary at this time, directors will still be bound by the rest of their legal duties under wider company law. In addition, measures under insolvency law to penalise directors who abuse their position will of course remain in place.

The second temporary measure will help struggling businesses by removing the threat of statutory demands and winding-up petitions issued against companies during the emergency. The Government have already temporarily suspended the right of commercial landlords to forfeit the tenancies of retail businesses in order to protect tenants unable to trade because of Covid-19. The vast majority of landlords and tenants have been working together to reach agreements on their debt obligations. Unfortunately, however, there have been cases of landlords using aggressive debt recovery tactics, including the use of statutory demands and threats of winding-up petitions, to put undue pressure on tenants. This provision will give businesses the opportunity to reach realistic and fair agreements with all creditors.

All the temporary insolvency measures in this Bill will expire one month after Royal Assent. However, the Bill contains the required powers to extend the temporary provisions should it prove necessary to do so due to the ongoing crisis. Furthermore, the Bill contains the temporary power to make other amendments to insolvency or governance legislation. This will facilitate a rapid response to overcome the emerging challenges to businesses that result from the Covid-19 pandemic. As ever, the House will of course have the opportunity to scrutinise the use of these powers if they are needed.

The final set of temporary measures deals with meetings and company filings. The Bill makes it easier for companies, mutual societies and charitable incorporated organisations to comply with legal requirements on holding AGMs and other meetings while keeping their shareholders and members safe and respecting social distancing rules—as we are doing in this House. This flexibility applies retrospectively from 26 March, giving businesses the certainty that they will not be penalised for trying to do the right thing during the pandemic. The measures will also enable AGMs to be postponed until 30 September this year where necessary.

On filing requirements, we are giving hard-pressed companies more time to submit annual accounts, confirmation statements and various notices of relevant events, such as the appointment of a director, to Companies House. Lenders will also have more time to register a charge against a company’s assets. This follows the announcement made on 25 March that Companies House had extended the period for filing accounts. Over 100,000 companies have successfully applied for the three-month extension that is available. This measure will further ease the burdens on businesses at this difficult time while ensuring ultimately that information is still filed with Companies House within a reasonable time.

Overall, the package of measures in this Bill has been widely welcomed by businesses at this critical time. Following its passage through the House of Commons, the chair of R3 in Scotland, the trade association for the UK’s insolvency and restructuring professionals, stated that:

“The proposed legislation will give both solvent and insolvent businesses crucial breathing space and increased legislative flexibility to review options without being pushed prematurely into an insolvency procedure. This new approach could make a significant contribution to repairing the economic devastation caused by the current pandemic.”

The Government are committed to supporting UK businesses throughout the emergency. These measures are being implemented to alleviate some of the current challenges that businesses are facing, maximising their chances of survival and allowing them to continue trading and to help the UK economy bounce back from this crisis. I beg to move.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the Minister, his colleagues in the department and the Bill team for all the engagement that we have had on the Bill in recent weeks. I am also grateful that a number of virtual meetings have been set up for Members of your Lordships’ House. Several helpful letters have also been received. We are therefore well briefed about this sensible and proportionate Bill and cognisant of the reasons why it is being brought forward on a fast track. I can confirm that, while we will give the Bill good scrutiny, our objective as Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition is to be constructive and to ensure that our businesses get the support they need now and in the long term.  

A large number of Members of your Lordships’ House have signed up to speak in today’s debate, and we look forward to their comments and questions to the Minister. We will put down a range of amendments tomorrow based on today’s debates as well as the submissions that we have received from organisations and bodies concerned with this issue. I also thank the Library for its very helpful note on the Bill. 

The Minister said that although some of the measures in the Bill had been consulted on a few years ago, it is at heart a part of the Government’s package of measures to address the supply shock caused by Covid-19. As the impact assessment for the Bill states, the case is certainly strong:

“Early models of the impact of Covid-19 have suggested that UK GDP growth in 2020 … could range between -3% and -13%, with scenarios for corporate insolvencies ranging from 30,000 to 160,000.”

However, does this not raise the question of what is going to happen to the other corporate insolvency measures which were consulted on in 2018-19? What about the wider policy response arising from various significant corporate failures in recent years such as Carillion, which is now overdue?

We are now entering the end of the lockdown phase, and the challenges ahead are becoming clearer. There will be a huge amount to do to ensure that the recovery is as short and strong as possible so that we minimise the impact on unemployment levels and the wider economy. I agree that it would have been wrong to hold back the measures in this Bill because other proposals were not yet ready to be included, but the last thing we want is for these issues to be dealt with in silos. Provisions in the Finance Bill 2020 ensuring that HMRC is a secured creditor in insolvency proceedings are surely a classic example of this, potentially running a coach and horses through this Bill. Many issues need a cross-government approach, which is appropriate. Our insolvency framework touches almost every part of the economy and helps to create the confidence and public trust which underpin trading, lending and investment.

I turn to the Bill. We support both the permanent changes being made to insolvency law and the temporary changes being made to insolvency law and corporate governance. Others speaking today will undoubtedly make particular points about the Bill, and we look forward to the Minister’s responses. To get us started, I will mention a few areas where we will put down probing amendments.

The position of employees seems unsatisfactory, both in terms of their lack of formal involvement in the processes and in relation to outstanding pay and other claims during the moratorium. The classification of pension scheme deficits, particularly for defined benefit schemes, as unsecured creditors seems unfair and perhaps should be reviewed. Many of the companies likely to take advantage of the new measures will be SMEs, and many SMEs will be unsecured creditors in insolvencies of other companies. The current insolvency regime was introduced in 2003 and is basically unchanged since then. It gives preferential protection to secured creditors and, as noted earlier, HMRC has legislated to protect its position. Is there a case for reconsidering the treatment of unsecured creditors?

On the length of the moratorium, Chapter 3 does not contain a maximum period and there appears no overall limit on the number of extensions available. Is that right? The new position of monitor is welcome but, apart from the requirement that he or she must be an insolvency practitioner, there is no other requirement set out in statute and the appointment is left wholly to the discretion of directors, with no role for creditors. We surely need much more detail here.

As has been said, the Bill helps struggling businesses by temporarily removing the threat of winding-up proceedings where unpaid debt is due to Covid-19; and it introduces temporary measures to void statutory demands against companies during the emergency. We support those. It is important that the measures suspending liability for wrongful trading do not relieve directors of their duty of care to act responsibly and in good faith, as specified in Section 172 of the Companies Act 2006. Should these measures not be put into the Bill?

Given the time that has elapsed since the lockdown, and the continuing reduction of normal economic activity, we would not object if the Government wished to extend the initial period of the effect of the Bill to 30 September 2020, even though, as the Minister said, they have power to extend it using secondary legislation. Some of the issues I have mentioned could be dealt with by inviting the Minister to clarify on the record what the Government mean by the current drafting. In other cases, we would hope to convince Ministers that substantive action may be required in subsequent legislation, and we will be pressing them to take an early opportunity to do so.

I mentioned earlier that the measures in this Bill needed to be considered in the wider context of the changes that will be needed to ensure that our economy recovers quickly and sustainably after Covid-19. One of the most shocking recent corporate collapses was that of Carillion, because it seemed to arrive without warning, despite active monitoring by the Government, and it affected tens of thousands of workers and subcontractors. In recent years, many familiar high-street retailers have closed, leading to devastating implications for workers, their families and wider communities. These collapses raise a number of questions. Why are our systems of auditing and reporting not able to pick up possible corporate failures earlier? Who is to blame? Do we focus enough on restructuring and rescuing companies which get into trouble, and do we have the skills and experience in the professional services needed to do that?

In a recent report, the TUC argued persuasively that the insolvency law is currently too heavily weighted in favour of creditors, often the banks. Other countries, notably Germany, take a very different approach. Staff in companies which crash and burn face substantial financial losses when their firm goes to the wall. Gaps in employment law also mean that those in insecure work, including agency workers, zero-hours contract workers and the self-employed—the so-called gig economy—miss out on even basic protections. Despite promises to enact the recommendations of the Taylor review, we still have the situation in this country where all employees are workers, but not all workers are employees. Why the delay?

One of the reasons that Carillion failed was that it carried huge levels of debt, a situation that is, unfortunately, likely to recur more widely in our economy as we recover from Covid, creating inherent risks to which boards, investors and auditors need to be able to respond. Are we confident that we have the systems in place?

Over the next few years, the Government must bring forward an integrated approach to the issues raised by the recent series of corporate failures, including: more corporate transparency and reform to the role and function of Companies House; training for directors, owners and senior management of public companies; legislation for CMA reforms for the appointment and oversight of auditors, and for the Brydon recommendations on compliance and practice; better insolvency practitioner regulation; the future of “pre-pack” administrations; making the Prompt Payment Code statutory, not voluntary, and giving the Small Business Commissioner real powers to ensure that the code is enforced; and ensuring that consumers have a central role in relation to policy on financial services and decisions on mergers and acquisitions.

Finally, the Bill is aimed at helping businesses, but why are these measures not also available to individuals, millions of whom will be facing unmanageable debt? A report in the papers today suggests that British households are expected to rack up debts worth £6 billion because of the coronavirus crisis. That is on top of figures which show that, at the end of January 2020, UK household debt was around £1,680 billion. Some 12.8 million UK households have no savings or savings of less than £1,500. The Government have committed to introduce a breathing space scheme for personal debt, and to roll out the successful statutory debt management plans which operate in Scotland. We urgently need these to be introduced now.

Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Portrait Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I draw attention to my financial interests, as in the register. Although we broadly support the Bill, it is a little frustrating. It does too much by permitting things in a fast-tracked temporary measures Bill, and too little because it has left out other important measures similarly well consulted on. The Minister may conclude that that balance is like Baby Bear’s porridge and just about right. Nevertheless, there are some lumps in the porridge. Expediency has meant that it is the business-favouring parts of the consultations that are being fast-tracked and the more social-facing, small business and employee-facing measures that are left out. I therefore ask the Minister for reassurance that the Bill is not seen as removing pressure from legislating other important reforms on corporate governance and reporting, ESG, insolvency practitioners, audit and replacement of the Financial Reporting Council. I certainly do not see it as a justification for holding off.

The moratorium provision was expected, but there may be traps in the way it works, especially in the event of a following insolvency. There are changes in the insolvency distribution waterfall, with unpaid moratorium debts, and pre-moratorium debts without a payment holiday, being given a new super-priority. Both the treatment of what becomes super-priority and what is “normal supply” disadvantage smaller suppliers. All their pre-moratorium debt is in the subordinated category and normal supply favours stronger creditors’ amounts of super-priority, as they will have contracted shorter payment terms. Will events be monitored, and rankings readjusted if the super-priority does result in outcomes with less in the pot for SMEs, unsecured creditors and pension fund deficits? Unfortunately, it also looks as though the slaying hand will be held by HMRC, with its new claims for extra super-priority, and by banks, as they are outside the ipso facto provisions. It may be that security is not exercised in moratorium, but where are the provisions that prevent banks charging special fees and hiking interest so they can profit in moratorium, or making repayment acceleration demands to secure larger sums with super-priority? Such actions will not help rescue companies, are unfair and should be restrained. That is not to say that the moratorium concept is unwelcome but, because we do not have the time now to weigh up all the checks and balances, it would be sensible to hold its operation under review, to see how it worked and for revisions in the light of unintended consequences to be brought forward.

The temporary suspension of winding-up petitions also has lumps. In a sense, it robs Peter to pay Paul and whether it is the potential petitioner or the company that is smaller, more at risk or more aggressive, is not always one way. I therefore recognise the compromise in trying to keep the period short. However, under Schedule 10, the courts could impose retrospective restoration costs on those required to withdraw petitions made under the current law. Unlimited, might that be a retrospective step too far?

I am conscious that fast-tracked emergency legislation is not appropriate for complex changes and additions, but a few simple things within the scope of the Bill could be achieved. My noble friends will say more.

I regret that there are not more provisions to assist with personal bankruptcy. Australia has raised both the payment time and the financial threshold for initiation of proceedings.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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I remind the noble Baroness of the time limit.

Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Portrait Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted [V]
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What is happening in the UK? Additionally, I regret that the Bill does not include simple Companies House provisions on identity verification, enabling it to play a role in preventing rogue or criminal elements abusing the current crisis to commit fraud. Again, there has been consultation already, but how is that being followed up?

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist
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I ask the noble Baroness to bring her comments to a close.

Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Portrait Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted [V]
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I intend to revert to the various matters I have mentioned with amendments.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I support my noble friend the Minister on the measures being taken here and elsewhere on business support.

Timeliness is everything in a crisis. I commend the Minister on the speed of the measures that we are debating, although I remain frustrated at the tin-eared refusal elsewhere in government to reduce social distancing from two metres to one metre and the extraordinary introduction of quarantine at our borders, which was needed in February or March but is an act of self-harm today. The problem is that both are decimating businesses. So, I particularly support the emergency arrangements in the Bill. They allow closed annual general meetings, delay filing deadlines for Companies House, and temporarily remove personal liability for wrongful trading and the threat of winding-up petitions. I speak as a director with an interest—I draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the register—a chartered secretary and a fellow of the Global Governance Institute.

However, company law has been built up over generations. Rapid changes can alter the balance of our much-admired corporate regulatory framework. The pension funds and insurance companies on which we depend need the opportunity to probe accounts at Companies House, especially in a fast-moving market with the sale of a struggling company sometimes being the right solution. Shareholders need to be able to hold companies to account at annual general meetings. The Bill rightly sunsets these provisions but there are powers of extension. I ask the Minister to promise that he will be sparing in their use. If not, their understandable use retrospectively to help firms from the start of the cliff edge in sales could be questioned.

The main provisions in the Bill bring forward long-planned changes in insolvency law. It is a little cheeky to use what is essentially an emergency measure for these reforms. However, I confess to doing the same many years ago when I led the work on the Food Safety Act. This reforming legislation had been in the famous Whitehall drawer for nearly 10 years when Mrs Edwina Currie precipitated a crisis by wrongly asserting that most eggs had salmonella. Our Bill then secured an immediate slot.

I note that the insolvency provisions have secured good support, having been honed in industry exchanges. They have become urgent because many companies may now be heading for insolvency as a result of our severe Covid controls. The changes give them breathing space now and if they suffer in future, but it is worth reading the impact assessment prepared by BEIS, which it kindly took me through. The net benefit is an impressive £1.92 billion when discounted over 10 years, but that netting-off hides costs of £2.9 billion, which someone must find.

We want to make absolutely sure that the Bill is fit for purpose. I understand that in one of the most difficult areas, discouraging the extraction of ransom payments is precedented in utilities and IT. I ask the Minister for an appraisal and costing of that experience before we reach Committee.

Another issue was raised with me by the British Property Federation. It wants steps taken to reinstate the provision in Section 129 of the small business Act 2015 on pre-packaged administration, which expired unexpectedly, I believe as a result of the Covid emergency. Can we solve that in this Bill?

Finally, I cannot end without commenting on one area in which I have been the most vocal and which was also the subject of legislation that I took through the House: the timely payment of smaller suppliers, and the Small Business Commissioner. Can my noble friend the Minister summarise current expectations on the scale of payment delay and advise on any plans for updated legislation at a future date?

Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I concur with many of the comments that have already been made. I support the thrust of the Bill.

I want to talk about the immediate situation and, therefore, the moratorium. I welcome it but, like my noble friend Lord Stevenson, I think that, in its initial implementation, it is in danger of being too short to be meaningful to many small and medium-sized enterprises. It is about enterprise and entrepreneurship—that is, not just maintaining what we have now but encouraging and supporting those coming out of the virus crisis, as well as providing a bedrock for the future. Would the Minister be kind enough to say a little more about the intentions of using secondary legislation if the initial moratorium period is not to be extended in the Bill?

It would also be useful to know more about the positive role of insolvency practitioners, rather than their negative one. There is potential here to be extremely helpful to those who have a major part to play in the future of our economy but currently face a dangerous potential cliff edge if investors trigger their demise.

Mention has been made of corporate responsibility, not least by my noble friend; I agree in relation to employees but it also applies more widely. I wonder whether we could encourage larger companies to see their supply chain as crucial to them rather than sometimes exploiting their weaknesses, because this is very much about where power lies. I also wonder whether they could mentor and support as part of the recovery programme, and therefore be a positive gain.

I very much welcome at least temporary help with personal liability. For people taking up the opportunity to start a new business and those who are clinging on to survival by their fingertips, personal liability and the reputation that goes with it are important. If we can get this right and avoid those people who deliberately exploit the situation then come back in a different guise with exactly the same company—the bad eggs, to echo the reference made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe—while ensuring that personal liability absolutely does not discourage people or create unnecessary fearfulness at this moment in time, that would be a very substantial step forward.

It is important that these measures, temporary as many of them are, are seen in the context of the long term. We should therefore see what works and try in future to build in those aspects that have been beneficial to both British enterprise and our wider social well-being.

Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I have long argued that the UK needs an equivalent to the US’s Chapter 11, so I welcome the Bill. However, the history of Chapter 11 legislation in the United States has not been straightforward. Many companies turn not to federal law but to state law for greater ease of use, speed and cost. Given the complexity and the probability of unintended consequences, I join those who believe that the permanent measures in the Bill, in contrast to the temporary Covid-related measures, should be properly reviewed with a sunset clause or similar mechanism.

I also believe strongly that the Government should drop the provisions in the Finance Bill which would give HMRC, as a creditor, primacy over other creditors. If that is not dropped, small suppliers will be even harder hit in a ripple effect which our economy cannot afford and which in the long run damages the national tax take even more. I want the Government to use the Bill to give greater protection to small creditors, typically trade creditors, in an insolvency.

We know that most small businesses are at a disadvantage when negotiating with big businesses. They often find that they have to accept long payment terms if they are to win a contract. They also find themselves pressured into providing payment holidays. Small suppliers are being put at risk, especially in these uncertain times. The public sector pays its suppliers promptly. The last report from the Financial Services Ombudsman showed that only 1% of payments from public sector bodies took over 30 days and most were within 15 days.

The picture is not the same in the private sector. Late payments to small businesses rose to £23 billion in 2019 compared to £13 billion the year before, according to Pay UK. Last November, long before Covid, the Chartered Institute of Credit Management had to suspend 20 firms from the prompt payment code for failing to honour their commitment to pay 95% of all supplier invoices within 60 days. These were huge and famous companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Unilever, IBM and Diageo. If the public sector can pay in 15 days, the big players in the private sector can pay in 15 days, never mind failing to meet 60 days. I am hoping for changes in the Bill that will strengthen the position of small suppliers. At the very least, the Government should exclude from any of their procurement processes any company that does not observe the prompt payment code in all parts of its business, not just in its government contracts. There is a very strong argument for a tougher prompt payment code and for making the code mandatory.

Secondly, under the moratorium offered in the Bill, payments due to small entities should be paid no later than the end of the first moratorium, not subject to a rolling moratorium which could run for a year or more and, frankly, sink the small supplier. If the moratorium fails and winding up follows, small entities should be pari passu with claimants who refuse to give payment holidays, on the grounds that payment holidays given by smaller entities are invariably given under duress. Many banks, for example, never give payment holidays—for example, for overdrafts—and so have priority in wind-up.

Lastly, I want to explore the issue, raised by my noble friend Lady Bowles, that SMEs can be disadvantaged if they are encouraged to exclude themselves from supplying the company in a moratorium, because that is when payment is best assured. I am sure there will be many more points as we deal with the details of the Bill, but this House understands the direction in which I am now urging the Government to move.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB) [V]
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My Lords, this is a formidable Bill. Some years ago, I edited the chapters on companies and insolvency law in a practitioners’ textbook and I used to practise in this field myself, so I have some insight into how extensive and complex these subjects are. I pay tribute to those responsible for putting the Bill together. At first sight they appear to have covered the ground very well, but their product has been a challenge for us in this House as we try to master this emergency Bill in such a short period of time.

I have no problem, in principle, with the temporary provisions about meetings of companies and other bodies, or the extension of the periods for filing accounts and providing information for the registration of changes in corporate governance. These are sensible measures in a situation where deadlines of that kind are incapable of being met. The wrongful trading provisions and the provisions about corporate insolvency, however, need to be looked at more carefully. Concern has been expressed about the phrase,

“the court is to assume that the person is not responsible”,

in Clause 10, which is about the suspension of liability for wrongful trading. Can the Minister tell the House whether this assumption is intended to be irrebuttable? If it can be rebutted, the protection the clause offers will be less certain than the word “suspension” in the clause suggests. Directors, who, as has been pointed out, may be subject to action for other breaches of duty, will need to know where they stand in this respect.

As for the moratoriums, it is not difficult to see the value of these for companies in financial difficulty, but giving protection to debtor companies that delays the taking of remedies against them by their creditors is bound to have implications for the creditors too as time goes on. It is important to get the balance right between these two competing positions. My impression is that the banks are content, for the time being, not to press too hard on companies that are in difficulties, and the property market is in such an uncertain state in present circumstances that there is little incentive for the holders of fixed securities to call them in. However, in the longer term, as creditors become less relaxed about the situation, challenges will arise that will need to be faced up to. That may be a further reason for keeping the provisions of the Bill under careful review.

I have one or two particular points to make. Further thought needs to be given to limiting debts that are eligible for priority as moratorium debts in order to avoid abuse of that privileged position and, as has already been suggested, damage to the position of HMRC as a preferential creditor, given the immense harm that situation may create, particularly for other creditors. On the notification requirements in Chapter 3(A), should the company not be required to provide a list of its creditors when making the application, to assist the monitor? As for Chapter 3(A9), should there not be a limit on the number of extensions, and an overall limit on them without the creditors’ consent? As for Chapter 5(A35), to avoid the abuse of the process should there not be an express duty on the monitor to ensure that the company does not undermine rescuing it as a going concern? I hope to come back to these and other details in Committee.

Lord Balfe Portrait Lord Balfe (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I too start by thanking the Minister, not only for his clear presentation of the Bill but for his letters and briefings; they have been most useful. I shall make just a couple of points. They concern members of trade unions as well as employees who have a legitimate interest in what is happening due to this Bill. I speak as someone who has a son who runs a small business, so I am not completely unfamiliar with this. It is important to remember when we pass this legislation that employees also have legitimate interests when restructuring plans are adopted. I realise that, particularly in small enterprises, the level of trade union membership is very low; however, whether in a union or not, employees deserve protection and to be taken into account.

I would like the Minister to clarify, on the record, his attitude to protection for people who work in these businesses. In the debate in the other place, the Minister said:

“Importantly, a court can refuse to sanction a plan if it is not fair and it is equitable to do so. When making this assessment, one would expect the court to be mindful of the interests of employees in any pension schemes affected by that plan”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/6/20; col. 952.]

I would like the Minister to say that he is happy with that statement, made by a Minister in his own department, and to place it on the record in the House of Lords. I would also like him to confirm that the Government expect courts to satisfy themselves that plans placed before them are indeed mindful of the interests of employees, if necessary by inquiring whether there are any relevant trade union staff associations or other bodies and whether they have been consulted and have any views to place before the court. We cannot just leave it to the court to hope that things go right: they need to be proactive, to an extent.

I also hope the Government will consider giving pension scheme deficits the status of a priority creditor. This would give them priority over unsecured creditors, and in defence of this proposal I remind the House that a pension scheme is as much a part of an employee’s income as the rest of their monthly or weekly salary. It represents, in short, deferred earnings: it is not a bonus at the end of one’s working life but something that accrues daily throughout it. As such, I believe it has a right to be considered near the front of any queue. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to these points and hope he will feel able to clarify them for the record.

Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, in any major economic crisis—and this is part of the current world crisis—there will be winners and losers. I was quite amused but not surprised to hear that the hot tub industry is doing incredibly well as people with sufficient money are installing them in their garden—in lieu perhaps of holidays to hotter climates. There will be winners, and entrepreneurs will be critical in coming out of any economic recession. There has been some fascinating research into how new entrepreneurs were critical to economic regeneration in the southern states of the US after some of their climatic disasters.

Some of them will be winners. There will also be losers, some of which may be big and well known. I do not wish to pour gloom by suggesting which kinds of companies, but household names may not survive the next six months, because of how shopping is changing and may permanently change as a result of consumer behaviour.

Therefore, this Bill has many importances—some perhaps beyond its initial worthy impetus. One area that has less accountability and is more poorly regulated than elsewhere is that of insolvency practitioners. From my experience, they always seem capable of charging the fees they are entitled to charge but sometimes, in cases where I have assisted companies, they do not seem to do a great deal more than that. That is a small sector that needs stronger regulation.

There are also landlords exploiting the situation, some of them offshoring, doubtless often for tax purposes, and in receipt of taxpayer support, and endangering the small, emerging businesses—which are sometimes well located and paying higher rents—which are precisely the businesses that will be the engine of recovery and which could be killed by cash flow. The invidious position of those offshoring is not addressed here and could be considered.

Pension funds have been raised already. If major, traditional, long-standing companies end up being the losers, some of them will have major pension funds. It is not just the social justice question, which is of significance in itself, but the economic repercussions for both the local economy and the UK economy if a group of pensioners or soon-to-be pensioners have a significantly lower purchasing power when they have a higher propensity to spend. So the protection of pension funds deserves more attention in the progress of this Bill.

There is also the question of employees. I have assisted people going to employment tribunals where the assets of the company and the directors remain; they start trading again on the same premises, doing the same work the next day, having got rid of a lot of people who then find that, even if they win in a tribunal, there is nothing to claim from. That is not a sensible way to run any economy. The Minister may wish to comment on whether this Bill will have any impact on strengthening that position.

Finally, there is the question of football clubs. That will be a big one that we should be very aware of, in terms of some of the names that may go under.

Lord Wei Portrait Lord Wei (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I declare my interests as a company director with involvement in a number of firms that are affected by the current crisis. I welcome this Bill. We need to do what we can to enable firms to weather this particularly difficult situation. In the time that I have, I will highlight from some of the conversations I have been having in the marketplace an observation that there seem to be at least three types of company situation, although I am sure that there are more.

Broadly, there are companies that were basically already insolvent or on very thin margins before the crisis hit us, those that are temporarily insolvent but which are resilient and have a future, particularly those that have a pivot or a plan—we know the stories of much being done in incredibly innovative ways to pivot businesses; for example, pubs becoming supermarkets and drive-through cinemas massively expanding on stately homes—and there are those that are solvent and doing well but, frankly, have taken advantage of the various available schemes and liquidity to give themselves an extra cushion.

There is a danger that, as we move forward, agencies, regulators and financial institutions will not be able to distinguish between these three types of organisation. I am particularly keen that this Bill should provide some of the framework for that greater understanding. For example, a business with great prospects that has for whatever reason decided to delay reporting or to take advantage of some of the measures in this Bill may find later on that it impacts either their credit rating or certain non-legally controlled matters such as the decision to grant invoice discounting, which can sometimes be a pure business decision and not one necessarily governed by law.

We are hearing stories of company directors not being able to get mortgages currently because they are taking advantage of the various available schemes. Is there a danger, as I am hearing from certain quarters, that banks may force businesses into voluntary insolvency in exchange for equity? Under these measures, it may well be that, if I am a bank that wants to avoid being lumped together with other creditors in an unfavourable situation, it would be better for me to withdraw the overdraft to a business unless it gives me equity in that business, which would mean that I would be protected from that creditor-type situation.

Finally, there needs to be a longer-term view. Can we use technologies such as blockchain and give businesses a new option that is not just debt or equity? There are all kinds of instruments: sharing of royalties; securing or collateralising risk within a supply chain, which means that businesses do not always have to rely just on cash from creditors or new investors; starting to separate the delivery of essential goods and services within a supply chain from the actual survivability of a business, as we have seen in the banking world and could do for our supply chains.

Is this thinking around the three layers being taken into account? How can we avoid a cliff edge in a month’s time, when lots of businesses might start filing for bankruptcy—do we need to taper this over a long period? What are the Government doing to ensure that credit agencies and other bodies make wise business decisions that may not be governed by these laws but which will still have a huge impact on whether we have a zombie economy or one that will thrive and pivot into the new age to come?

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
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My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Wei, in spirit as well as in order, because of his significant concluding remarks on political economy about supporting companies that do not need to be forced into insolvency because they have fundamentally sound business models. I have a question for the Minister, leading on to a wider point.

My question, which shows that I am not an expert in company law, but which will become increasingly significant. particularly if the emergency measures are extended, is: in what order do the Government come as a creditor? My understanding is that where the Government take the form of HMRC as the taxman they are a preferential creditor under the provisions of the Finance Act. However, a lot of the Government’s priority for being repaid will come through coronavirus business interruption loans and other forms of financial support, which could conceivably include furlough support if that is continued into the medium term. I would welcome the Minister’s explanation of this, but my understanding is that where the Government come in the queues depends on what category of government support it is. If it takes the form of a coronavirus business interruption loan paid through a bank, they simply come in the order of the bank. There is no provision for the Government to get any recognition of the fact that they have possibly pumped huge sums into companies through, for example, furlough provision. I would welcome the Minister’s confirmation of that at the end.

However, the wider political economy point behind this is stark staring obvious. It is important that we stand back from the minutiae of company law. The fact of the matter is that in a lot of these companies the organisation that has put most money into the company, particularly in the recent past, will be Her Majesty’s Government, through furlough support, business interruption loans or possibly, if the Government chose to exercise discretion in the matter, their ability to reschedule or suspend payments due to HMRC.

The question that surely arises is: are the Government taking a strategic approach to their own role as a creditor across the various different forms of credit that they are providing to maximise the health of the economy? My understanding of the Bill is that that is not taking place at the moment. Understandably, we have a lot of very techy changes to insolvency and company law, essential for dealing with the immediate crisis we face in the next few weeks, but the point I make to the Minister is: would it be sensible for us to stand back from this and look, in a political economy sense, at the role the Government could play in sustaining the strength of the economy by pooling all the support they are providing to companies—those covered by the Bill with the Government as a creditor for loans, those covered by other legislation, such as the priority given to HMRC under the Finance Act, and those that do not appear to be covered at all, but which are hugely important, such as the furlough support—and for the Government themselves to take a view? That might well, for example, involve the Government taking stakes in companies as a means of sustaining them over the medium term, rather than forcing them, even if it is in a somewhat elongated provision, into insolvency.

That leads to the comment I would like to make. We have, of course, been here before; we are not reinventing the wheel in terms of very serious economic shocks. During one of the greatest shocks of the last century, the financial crisis of 1929 to 1931, John Maynard Keynes—maybe the greatest gift of this country to economic science in history, apart from Adam Smith—argued that the solution to dealing with the crisis faced then, with mass company insolvency in the 1930s, was not wholly in the public or the private sectors, but rather that the Government should

“experiment with all kinds of new sorts of partnership between the state and private enterprise. The solution lies neither with nationalisation nor with unregulated private competition; it lies in a variety of experiments, of attempts to get the best of both worlds.”

That is the position we face now. I would very much welcome some reassurance from the Government that they are looking at these wider political economy considerations.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Portrait Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend for his explanation of the Bill’s proposals. Secondly, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of interests as a director of several companies that would be affected by the Bill’s provisions. It has been made clear that the Bill has been brought forward because of the pandemic. I understand and support that. Nobody who has been a director of a limited company will be unaware of the dangers of trading while insolvent, and who can judge what is solvent in the present very confused circumstances? This aspect of the Bill has my support for a further reason: all the provisions are time-limited, so even if our inevitably rushed judgment proves faulty the sunset clauses will ride to our rescue.

Wearing another hat, I chair your Lordships’ House’s Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which has been looking at, examining and reporting to the House on a great number of coronavirus regulations. There has emerged a tendency of the Government to try to tack on to coronavirus regulations some permanent changes to our law. These may not be objectionable, but they pass through under the radar of the coronavirus regime. We have been drawing these to the attention of your Lordships’ House in our weekly reports. Mixed provisions in regulations, which are of a lower order of significance, are one thing; mixed provisions in primary legislation, leading to statute law, which is what we have here, are quite another. Under the guise of the requirements of the pandemic, the Government are rushing through—I use that word advisedly—permanent changes to the insolvency laws of this country.

Let me be clear: I am not opposed to changes and review of insolvency laws. Some 15 years ago, I sat where the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, would be sitting if he was in the House, leading for the Conservative Party on what became the Companies Act 2006. We brought together every aspect of company law with two exceptions, one of which was insolvency law, because the complexities were too great for us to reconcile them there and then. So, 14 years later, I quite understand that the situation will not have improved, but it remains an immensely complex area, reconciling the irreconcilable. It is an area where unintended consequences, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, pointed out, crop up with unhelpful frequency and where there are people who seek to exploit gaps with unattractive and unregulated behaviour.

What am I concerned about? My worries include the changes to the creditor position of HMRC; the ability of creditors to game the system where the banks and financial institutions are sufficiently bound into the new approach; the future role of the pre-pack watchdog; and provisions for appointing monitors and for ensuring that they are not conflicted. All these are no doubt answerable, but they are not properly answerable in a rush.

To conclude, I understand the need for this legislation to be passed speedily, but I deplore permanent changes to our laws being made under the guise of the pandemic. I hope that my noble friend will consider tabling amendments to apply sunset clauses to the whole Bill. The Government will get their Bill and we could then come back to these very knotty and conflicting issues in calmer times and with the benefit of some real-life experience. In his opening remarks, my noble friend referred to the R3 briefing from Scotland. The R3 briefing from England makes it clear that it is not clear about the detail yet. Indeed, the Minister’s own departmental website quotes Jennifer Marshall, a past president of the Insolvency Lawyers’ Association, as saying that she is looking forward to

“digesting the detail with interest.”

If these two people, with their great experience, are not able yet to understand the detail, surely we should not be rushing these provisions through now.

Baroness Drake Portrait Baroness Drake (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interests. The Government’s desire to allow distressed companies a breathing space while exploring a potential rescue is fully understandable, but fast-tracking cannot ignore an unintended consequence. The Bill weakens the position of DB pension schemes and the Pension Protection Fund in the event of insolvency or restructuring. It grants super-priority status for unsecured banking and finance debt if the moratorium is followed by an insolvency or restructuring, ranking it above pension scheme debt. Importantly, trustees might not be able to enforce a security that they have in place with an employer, such as a floating charge or a security over property. That is a big issue if the scheme’s covenant and valuation had been tied in with that security.

If the company does not emerge from the moratorium intact, elevating this class of unsecured creditors could be materially detrimental to the level of recoveries that the PPF, acting as creditor for a scheme, can achieve through insolvency proceedings. The moratorium and restructuring plan process will not, as it stands, trigger a PPF assessment period or a scheme’s Section 75 debt. This means, and here is the rub, that the Pension Protection Fund is not engaged as a creditor for the scheme. It will not have a voice in the restructuring plan discussions and new arrangements intended to shape the future of a company, which is the scheme’s sponsoring employer. Without a trigger to engage as a creditor, the PPF’s ability to secure better outcomes for the scheme is damaged, yet some finance parties could accelerate all debt and loan payments during a moratorium, so the entire finance debt benefits from the super-priority.

The case of Arcadia brings these concerns to life. There, the original CVA proposed a cut in deficit reduction contributions by half. It was the PPF, exercising creditor rights and working with the regulator in the absence of the new super-priority, which influenced a significantly better mitigation outcome, including security over group assets, £100 million in cash and increases in deficit contributions after three years.

Again, 12% of the Pension Protection Fund’s assets, around £4 billion, come from recoveries from insolvent employers. It is a critical income stream reducing the strain on other employer levy payers. I do not believe the Government intended that the PPF would not have a seat at the table for key creditor discussions or would be denied a meaningful voice on employers’ liability to the scheme. That could not have been intended when the restructuring plan procedure can compromise creditors’ claims and standing and a cross-class claim can impose it on creditors. The restructuring plan involves court oversight and approval, but it is unclear what rights of challenge the PPF would have, what standing the regulator would have and how a pension scheme claim would be valued for voting purposes.

Changes to the Bill are needed to ensure that the moratorium and restructuring plan discussions trigger a PPF assessment period or a passing of creditor rights to the PPF giving it a seat at the table and influence to address some of the implications of unsecured finance debt being granted super-priority over the pension scheme. In the helpful briefing session the other day, the Minister advised us that the department is having discussions with the DWP and the PPF. I hope they turn out to be positive, but in Committee appropriate amendments will need to be considered.

Baroness Burt of Solihull Portrait Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD) [V]
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My Lords, like my colleagues, I give an overall welcome to this legislation. I understand that the urgency of helping businesses during the pandemic and its aftermath necessitated bringing it forward now, but can the Minister assure us that the missing bits, particularly on corporate governance, will be brought forward in a timely manner? In the time available I shall pick up a couple of issues of particular concern to small businesses, and I would like to record my thanks to R3 for its assistance.

My concerns are regarding the position of suppliers, particularly small suppliers, in two respects. First, under the new essential supplies provisions, small suppliers are required to continue supplying a company which has succeeded in obtaining a moratorium. Given small suppliers’ position at the bottom of the creditor waterfall, what protections will be in place to prevent small businesses having to continue supplying an entity that may then enter an insolvency procedure? Secondly, while the moratorium is welcome, there is concern that some larger creditors may game the moratorium by scheduling large repayments during that period, thus ensuring they get paid above other, smaller creditors. I expect the Minister may receive an amendment so that only interest and charges incurred during the moratorium rather than scheduled debt repayment can be eligible for super-priority in a subsequent insolvency procedure.

However, none of the provisions in the Bill will help business in continuing to trade after the pandemic if Part 4 of the Finance Bill, which changes the order of preferential creditors on insolvency, comes into being. Small suppliers will not only find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order for payment but in all probability will find access to credit, particularly from floating charge lenders, cut off. Floating charge lenders, who lend against a changing asset, such as stock, are very important, particularly to small businesses. They came into being after the rules on preferential creditors were changed in 2002 to what they are today, so why change it back just when they are needed more than ever? Who would continue to lend if the chances of getting their money back in the event of insolvency were severely diminished?

The Government have not published a proper impact assessment or the data used to arrive at the anticipated revenue to the Treasury of £185 million, but UK Finance, the body that represents many floating charge lenders, while noting that it is difficult accurately to model the policy’s impact on business lending, estimates that the policy could hit lending by well over £1 billion per annum and possibly far more. How can this be a cost-effective measure for anyone? At the very least, can the policy be paused so that a proper impact assessment can be done or could a 12-month cap on age debts eligible for preferential status be imposed? Would the Minister consider an amendment ensuring HMRC’s preferential claim does not outrank floating charges created before December 2020?

The Minister and I have discussed this issue before, and I hope that in his response he will update the House on the outcome of discussions he has had with his colleagues in the Treasury.

Lord Vaux of Harrowden Portrait Lord Vaux of Harrowden (CB) [V]
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My Lords, insolvency rules are a delicate balance between giving a business the best chance of survival while protecting the position of creditors. In these difficult times, it is appropriate to move that balance a little towards the survival of the business for the greater good of the economy, so I generally support the Bill.

I want to raise two issues that relate to the protection of creditors. First, and echoing the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, the Bill prevents a much wider range of suppliers terminating a contract when a company enters the insolvency procedure. This is a permanent change. The Bill gives a temporary exemption to small companies during the current pandemic, which presumably recognises that continuing supply may be disproportionately difficult or risky for a small company, but this exemption is only temporary. This is an area where I think the Bill may have tipped the balance too far from protecting creditors. Will the Government consider a permanent exemption for at least the very smallest businesses which are most likely to be at risk in this situation?

Secondly, like several noble Lords, I want to raise pre-packs. Around one-quarter of administrations involve a pre-pack deal where the sale of all or part of a business is agreed with a purchaser, often a connected party, prior to the company being put into administration. Pre-packs can be a useful and appropriate business rescue tool, but there is a very strong perception of a lack of transparency and there are concerns that they allow directors to create so-called phoenix companies and simply dump the creditors.

In 2014, the coalition Government commissioned the Graham report. It highlighted that nearly two-thirds of pre-packs involved sales to connected parties. It said that, as well as lacking transparency, pre-packs that involve related parties often involve very limited, if any, marketing and that returns to creditors are often lower. Indeed, unsecured creditors are more likely to receive nothing in connected cases than in unconnected cases.

The Graham report recommended the creation of a pre-pack pool of experienced business people who could provide an independent opinion on whether the proposed pre-pack was reasonable. The pool was launched in 2015. Referral to the pool is purely voluntary and is initiated by the connected party. The Graham report also recognised that this voluntary approach might not work and said that, if that was the case, the Government should consider legislating. Unfortunately, the voluntary process has not worked. Only 10% of connected party pre-packs are being referred to the pool, with just 21 referrals last year. Indeed, the Pre Pack Pool oversight committee has recently written to the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, saying that it believes that the body is unsustainable unless referrals are made mandatory.

As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 included a power to make it mandatory. That power had a five-year sunset clause, and it was allowed to elapse unused just a couple of weeks ago. According to the Times, the Insolvency Service blamed Brexit, the general elections and the pandemic for the failure to use these powers. The insolvency and restructuring trade body R3 has also expressed disappointment that no action has been taken to improve confidence in this important business rescue tool.

The Bill gives us the opportunity to fix that. It is important that we act quickly, given the unfortunate likelihood of higher numbers of companies becoming insolvent. Will the Government consider adding a clause to the Bill to make the referral of connected party pre-packs to the pool mandatory? That would be a very simple but important way of making sure that the balance between saving a business and protecting creditors is appropriate and transparent.

Lord Dobbs Portrait Lord Dobbs (Con)
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My Lords, the Bill is about climbing out of lockdown and getting back to proper business. If only we could do the same in this House. This debate is not a Second Reading, not as any of us would recognise. During Second Reading of this Bill in the other place, in the physical reality of the House of Commons, there were 16 interventions on the Secretary of State. We know that that makes for better legislation and better government, yet there will be none of that today.

I am here in person simply to show that it can be done. The risks, and there are risks, can be assessed by each of us. We spend our lives assessing risks for others, so why not for ourselves? I thank all those who have worked so hard to get us this far but, without wishing to be discourteous, I say this to the usual channels: “You have struggled mightily and already achieved the very difficult. Now achieve the impossible.” We have a job to do, like every doctor, nurse, porter, police officer, teacher, tour operator and shop owner in the country, so bring us back. Keep us in business too.

And so to the Bill. I declare my interests, particularly in the hospitality and creative sectors, which are suffering terribly. Many of us are not down by 20% or 50% but are flat on our backs, so the Bill is important. It says that we do not know precisely what to expect so we must be adaptable and flexible to deal with all the unintended consequences mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. A 20-day moratorium is great, but for many struggling businesses will not be long enough. Ministers must be ready to consider extensions, make rapid decisions, be flexible and learn as we go if we are to succeed not simply in salvaging what we already have but in building anew. We will need to be quick on our feet.

The Bill is just a start. We will probably need to strengthen the powers of the Small Business Commissioner; simplify planning applications; make sure that invoices are paid promptly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, emphasised; clarify and probably curtail the role of many quangos; speed up decision-making; and ensure that regulators use their pencils, not simply suck them—give businesses the benefit of the doubt and free up free enterprise, in a simple phrase.

When we look back on the last few months, I suspect that we will find that British industry was more than able to provide PPE in abundance, and quickly, but we lost out because those innovative firms in the private sector simply did not fit the parameters set by Public Health England.

There is no place called “safety” right now. We will have to take a few risks along the way but the Bill seeks to strike a balance. Businesses mean jobs. Many employees fear losing their jobs right now, and understandably so. The best protection that we can give those employees is to keep their companies afloat and ensure that more new companies are floated. The Bill is a very good start.

Lord Mendelsohn Portrait Lord Mendelsohn (Lab) [V]
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I refer to my entry in the register of interests, particularly in restructuring and distressed investments. I welcome the introduction of the Bill, which recognises the extraordinary economic stress and uncertainty by tilting the balance towards restructuring and saving companies. I thank the Minister for his openness and engagement. I am happy to support the measures, especially those that are permanent as a step towards the UK having an insolvency regime that is not just to deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic, but is part of a global process of change started off by the financial crisis.

There is much to go through in Committee on the detailed provisions, so I will outline just a few issues and constructive suggestions that I hope the Minister will address to ensure that these reforms can work to their best and quickly in practice.

The changes to the creditor-in-possession system will be a tweak in a positive direction. However, debtor-in-possession financing is the most effective form of restructuring support as it incentivises existing share- holders, creditors or sponsors to put more cash in. If financing is dependent on new players, that adds a lot of complexity. Does the Minister plan to encourage debtor-in-possession finance through registration?

Do the monitors really have to be licensed insolvency practitioners? The skill sets are not the same. Will the Government consider a suitable threshold for qualified experienced accountants from other fields, even if on a temporary basis? That would certainly help to address the issues around conflicts, cost and availability.

Revenue and Customs as a preferential creditor could adversely affect the availability of funding, especially asset-backed lending, and have a major unintended impact on credit arrangements, unless we can see some clear view of how HMRC will operate. Indeed, under the new Crown preference system HMRC could use its voice to make sure that creditors get a fair deal from post-moratorium planning. Will HMRC publish anything on how it or even the Insolvency Service might work or skill up and operate under these provisions?

Pre-packs will become a more obvious way to game the system. Their exclusion is a charter for abuse. Even prior to the more general review, will the Government consider a simple amendment to make it compulsory for pre-packs to go to the currently voluntary pre-pack panel? The opportunities to game the system are inherent in the language of the moratorium. Will the Government consider that the comparator should not be “winding up”—that is, liquidation—but should be at least as good as “going concern administration”?

The moratorium freeze on payments works well for smaller companies but does not help larger employment-heavy companies as there is no say on bank debt, high-yield bonds or complex financing arrangements. These tend to be the issues that need most restructuring. Will this be dealt with by regulation?

The regulatory framework is not addressed but it is crucial to ensure that the system operates fairly, efficiently and effectively. Can the Minister please give some assurance on what guidance will be given to the judiciary on how to use this and to practitioners on how to use the courts, and on what will be published for us to see during the passage of the Bill?

The oversight of issues around late payment, the abuse of supply contracts and other areas that deal in particular with small businesses are not adequately protected, but they could be by use of the Small Business Commissioner. Will the Government bring forward such an amendment in Committee?

Regulation is required to make sure that potential conflicts and operations of monitors have the right robust system. We cannot really rely on the old cosy world of professional bodies. Can we receive assurances about how the obvious weaknesses in regulation will be plugged and what resources will be applied to it?

Lastly, will the Government include in their regulations provisions to bring in both the Pensions Regulator and the Pension Protection Fund at an earlier stage, to be able to participate and ensure that pension schemes are properly considered?

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP) [V]
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My Lords, my concern about this Bill is the same as my concern about the Government’s wider response to the current economic crisis, which is that no thought appears to have been given to the risks of propping up failing, climate-destroying businesses. For example, the Bank of England has been giving hundreds of billions of pounds of cheap loans to oil and gas companies as part of its Covid-19 relief efforts.

Although it is essential that we support viable, positive businesses through the coronavirus crisis, the Bill completely misses the mark when it comes to addressing the much larger and longer-term climate and ecological emergency. It should make provisions that contribute to the 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target; it should contain provisions that prevent public money bailing out carbon-spewing, filthy companies and industries; and it should build a framework for managing the winding-up of planet-destroying companies, which will have no future in a net-zero world.

Trillions of pounds globally are tied up in the assets of these dirty industries, and almost everyone’s pension pot will be invested in them. Much of these companies’ value will evaporate into thin air when the necessary policies are imposed to reach a net-zero world. The Government should act now to manage this decline in a socially just way, protect pension investments, and prevent precious public funds being wasted in propping up these polluting companies, which will inevitably be consigned to the dustbin of history.

I support the points made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Neville-Rolfe, Lady Kramer and Lady Burt of Solihull, on the issue of timely payments for smaller companies, which are most vulnerable to this crisis. We need to think about how to make it easier for them to survive.

I want to pick up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, with which I strongly disagree—that somehow a virtual or hybrid House of Lords is not an effective way of holding a Government to account. He cited the House of Commons, where there were many interventions. I point out that interventions are not necessarily of any use. The way that we are operating now shows a great deal of creativity on the part of the House of Lords and I hope that it will persist into the future. I would also like to point out that the noble Lord is a year older than I am and he is therefore in a vulnerable category. We should all take care and listen to government advice about staying at home.

Lord Blencathra Portrait Lord Blencathra (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I have never considered my noble friend Lord Dobbs to be vulnerable to anything, but that is another matter.

I am honoured to be the chair of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and we will consider the Bill tomorrow. Therefore, I cannot comment on what we might conclude but I want to inform the House that we will have a very important report to make on it, which noble Lords will wish to take into account for possible amendments in Committee. We hope to publish our report on Wednesday afternoon, so the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, might wish to wait to see what we have to say. However, although I cannot say what our committee will decide, I anticipate that we might draw attention to the very large number of Henry VIII provisions—10 in the first 32 pages—and the very wide range of regulatory powers.

Speaking now in a personal capacity, I can say that I support the Bill. It is important that companies that are technically insolvent can get some breathing space to restructure, with the hope and expectation that they can carry on trading and resurrect themselves.

Although I support the need to make urgent legislation, all urgent legislation inevitably has flaws, which this House normally sorts out—if we have the time to do it. This Bill of 233 pages, one of the most complex we have ever seen, was rushed through the other place—all stages: Second Reading, Committee and Third Reading —in four hours, 45 minutes. The Committee stage to consider 47 clauses and 14 schedules took just 45 minutes. Our colleagues up the Corridor scrutinised this Bill at 12 seconds per page—surely a record. I know that we have a bit more time scheduled in this House, and the Bill must get better scrutiny than it did in the other place.

In the Explanatory Notes, the Government’s justification for all the regulation-making powers is that they might have to move at speed and do not want to bother Parliament. However, Parliament has ample time and can move at breakneck speed, as we are doing with this Bill. Emergency legislation is necessary on occasion and justifiable, and it is legitimate in this case, but that does not mean that every change in the future has to be rushed through by regulations, often using the negative procedure, when for major issues an Act of Parliament should be the norm. I agree with the important points made by my noble friend Lord Hodgson.

Finally, I am concerned about the provision in the Bill that a supplier has to continue supplying goods, with possibly no prospect of payment, to a company undergoing this procedure. If the company eventually fails, the supplier who was forced to continue supplying might not get any payment or will be behind a whole list of preferential creditors. We have all had the briefing note from R3, which says that HMRC is now legally the preferential creditor. The Government cannot have it all ways; they cannot compel a supplier to supply goods and then compel him to wait behind HMRC for payment. That is very unfair and, if I were a supplier, I would use the hardship excuse every time to cancel the contract if I was going to be stuck behind HMRC for payment.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, until recently I was a member of the board of the Pension Protection Fund—PPF—so, like my noble friend Lady Drake, I want to focus on the impact of the Bill on defined benefit pension schemes.

I recognise the intent and urgency behind the Bill. Businesses have been asked to take extraordinary measures to help control this terrible virus, and we need to ensure that viable businesses survive and get back on their feet. Defined benefit pension schemes and their members want to know that sponsoring employers will ensure that member benefits are secured over the longer term. However, there is a significant shake-up of insolvency, and some of the changes, however well intentioned, could have unintended consequences.

The PLSA and others have highlighted potentially serious consequences for underfunded DB schemes and the PPF. The PPF plays a vital role in protecting defined benefit schemes and enjoys broad cross-party support. We need to ensure that it can continue to perform the role that Parliament has given it. Some provisions in the Bill might make that difficult: they could reduce the ability of the PPF and pension schemes to have any influence in a company restructuring; they could push schemes and the PPF further down the creditor pecking order; and they could affect the amount that schemes and the PPF might otherwise receive in recoveries.

I want to focus on two things. The Bill proposes a new moratorium to provide struggling businesses with some breathing space to speak to creditors and to try to find a way to continue as a going concern. If a company becomes insolvent within 12 weeks of a moratorium ending, some pre-moratorium debts will be granted super-priority in the insolvency. At present, these are on a par with pension debts but under the proposed change they would rank above pension debts. By elevating unsecured debt finance over other unsecured creditors, there could be a serious detrimental impact on DB schemes and the PPF. It stands to reason that if some creditors get priority status and so, in the event of insolvency, get more, others will get less. Also, those with finance debts and super-priority could start to game the system, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, pointed out—for example, by taking equity in a company or accelerating all debts and loans to bring them into super-priority status.

Neither the moratorium nor the restructuring plan appear to count as qualifying insolvency events, so there is no provision, as happens now, to trigger the start of a PPF assessment period or the Section 75 debt. Therefore, as my noble friend said, neither the scheme nor the PPF have a seat at the table when important discussions about the company’s future are happening. That does not seem right or fair.

This matters. There are still more than 10 million members in about 5,500 DB schemes in the UK, the majority of which are already in deficit. Recoveries from insolvent employers are a vital income stream for the PPF: 12%, or about £3.8 billion, of its current assets have come from recoveries, helping it to protect members and reduce the strain on levy payers. The change in the Bill could mean that the PPF needs to raise more levy than it would otherwise have to do from other, solvent businesses.

I believe that these issues could be remedied without a major impact on the overall intent of the Bill. To protect pension schemes and their members, the Government should not let other unsecured creditors—banks or hedge funds, for example—leapfrog up the creditor queue. They should build into the moratorium and restructuring plan appropriate safeguards to ensure that the voice of the PPF is fairly represented so that, as now, the PPF can exercise schemes’ creditor rights and represent their interests. Suggestions such as those must surely be worth considering in Committee.

I support the overall intent of the Bill but I want to make sure that it does not undermine DB schemes and the retirement funds of their members throughout the country. The Minister said at his helpful briefing yesterday when I raised this matter, “Watch this space”. I hope that that means that officials can work with the PPF and others to find solutions.

Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Portrait Lord Palmer of Childs Hill (LD) [V]
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My Lords, a Bill to seek to deal with temporary conditions, at the same time as permanent reforms, could be a case of “legislate in haste, repent at leisure”. Is it prudent to mix permanent and temporary measures? What plans are in place for the Insolvency Service to monitor the effectiveness of this legislation?

In the current situation, the underlying problem to be prevented is a tsunami of liquidations. In the 1990s, there was such a situation. Banks realised the need to ensure that, in a liquidation, there was a co-ordinated sale of assets. Is such collaboration in place, to forestall fire-sale discounts or the mass selling of assets?

Under the Bill, an insolvency practitioner would oversee the moratorium, acting as a monitor, leaving the directors to run the business for a while. If this is not successful, a liquidator is then appointed. I would welcome details on the connection, if any, between the monitor and the liquidator, and some expansion on the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, with regard to conflict.

I am concerned that, as I perceive it, the prime concern of an insolvency practitioner is his or her own fees, which are still at the top of the preferred creditors list. I also have concerns about the liability of the monitor during proceedings, as it appears to be a high-risk role. In the event that insurance becomes disproportionately expensive, or difficult to obtain, the Government should consider whether to include some limitations of liability. There are further concerns over the requirement for a monitor to obtain bonding, similar to other insolvency appointments, even though, as noble Lords will appreciate, the monitor does not control the assets of the company.

I am concerned at the changes to priority status for certain creditors, and in particular the reintroduction of HMRC’s priority status. This matter has been raised by others, including my noble friends Lady Burt and Lady Kramer. Parts of the Finance Bill 2020 undermine efforts to support businesses in the Bill before us. The proposals make HMRC a secondary preferential creditor, thus Clauses 95 and 96 of the Finance Bill should, in the light of the insolvency Bill, be withdrawn. Reintroducing HMRC preference seems to me to be pulling in the opposite direction from taxpayer support being provided by the Government at the current time to help businesses survive. This impacts on pensioners, suppliers, customers and lenders. Trade creditors and floating charge creditors could be forgiven for thinking: what has HMRC ever done for me?

There will be a substantial number of cases where a company is unlikely to be rescued as a going concern, but where part of the business can carry on and the employment it supports be sustainable, if sold off to another company through the administration and insolvency procedure. It is not clear why the moratorium should not be available in these cases.

Companies of a certain size are excluded from the moratorium, and this excludes many private companies with many employees and supply chains. Will the Minister provide further information underpinning this decision, to enable parliamentary scrutiny, or consider extending the moratorium to these companies that are not covered by this Bill?

Lord Bilimoria Portrait Lord Bilimoria (CB)
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My Lords, the US has had chapter 11 for years. As Secretary of State Alok Sharma said, the Government now believe that

“the package of measures that the Bill introduces will give businesses the best opportunity to survive the effects of the covid-19 crisis and lay the foundations for a bounce-back in the UK economy.”—[Official Report, Commons, 3/6/20; col. 897.]

Paul Scully, the Small Business Minister, said:

“If a restructuring plan is not agreed, it is worth remembering that the company might enter an insolvency proceeding, which would almost certainly produce a worse outcome overall for all involved. The company might stop trading altogether, which would put all employees at risk of losing their jobs.”—[Official Report, Commons, 3/6/20; col. 952.]

As the noble Lord the Minister said, businesses and practitioners of insolvency law have largely welcomed the Bill. For example, Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality, said:

“This is a very important piece of legislation from the Government … The Bill should provide businesses with some very welcome respite from aggressive landlords and valuable breathing space to restructure their businesses.”

Jennifer Marshall, a partner at Allen & Overy, said that the Bill represents

“the most significant insolvency reforms in the UK for a generation”.

The Institute of Chartered Accounts, where I am proud to be a fellow, said:

“This is a pragmatic move and a useful addition to the government’s strategy to protect employment and … will definitely help some businesses survive, but we would encourage any directors with concerns about their company to seek professional advice at the earliest opportunity.”

The provisions of the Bill on company moratoriums, termination clauses, restructuring plans, the suspension of wrongful trading regulations, dealing with statutory demands and winding-up petitions, and flexibility around AGMs and filing requirements are all very welcome. As vice-president of the CBI, I can say that it supports the measures in the Bill, with our members widely welcoming the breathing space it will provide. The retrospective application of some of the measures is particularly important as firms continue to struggle with cash flow. Matthew Fell, one of our directors, said:

“The CBI welcomes these interventions at a critical time for business. The temporary suspension of wrongful trading provisions, along with other measures, will give much needed headroom for company directors to enable otherwise viable businesses to use the government’s support package and weather this crisis.”

With the Government’s support packages tapering off in the coming months, the timely passage of this Bill will be crucial to provide headroom for management teams across the UK. For firms to understand the extent of their liability, and the options for and likelihood of avoiding insolvency and securing a rescue package, the Bill will be pivotal. At a time when firms are grappling with huge demand shocks, constrained cash flow, and an uncertain picture on domestic and international consumer demand, government support is widely welcomed.

Following the comprehensive financial support package provided by the Treasury, for which business is very grateful, this Bill will help to underpin the Government’s requirements for the next stage of our economic recovery in the coming months. We encourage the Government to ensure that businesses, and especially SMEs, which have the least capacity—I hope that the Minister agrees—have as much support as possible to retain jobs and livelihoods in the coming months.

The Minister said that the Bill is about maximising the chances of survival. It certainly helps to do that, but does he agree that, before companies have to resort to its measures, we should support them as much as possible? For example, look at the government loan guarantee scheme. We have 100% bounce-back loan schemes. The original CBIL scheme, from 23 March—two and a half months ago—has seen a 50% approval rate, to 47,000 businesses, with almost £10 billion lent. But under the bounce-back schemes, with a 100% guarantee from the Government, in just over a month £24 billion has been lent, to almost 800,000 businesses. Should not the Government consider matching what Switzerland and Germany are doing, and increase the limit for the 100% loans up to £500,000? That would help businesses, especially as measures are tapered off.

Finally, if we can reduce social distancing from two metres to one metre, that will mean four times as many people in pubs and restaurants: at two metres, there is 30% capacity; at one metre, there is 70% capacity. This could be the difference between opening or not, and between survival or not. Cinemas, theatres—everyone would be helped. France, Denmark, China, Singapore, Lithuania and Hong Kong are doing it—why are we not doing it, in line with what the WHO says? We need to get the economy back up and working as soon as possible, and safely.

Lord Hendy Portrait Lord Hendy (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, preserving companies in financial difficulties as going concerns is laudable. The workers of such companies will welcome measures that keep at bay corporate predators intent on stripping a company’s assets, thus destroying jobs. But the Bill does not eliminate the dangers to workers. Indeed, it contains no specific provisions to protect workers. Let me amplify some omissions which have been touched on by my noble friend Lord Stevenson and others.

Most fundamental is the absence of any obligation that workers and their representatives be involved in proposals for a moratorium or a restructuring—proposals likely to affect them profoundly. The Companies Act 2006 requires directors to take into account the interests of the workers, but they are not obliged to ask the workers for their views. We know that directors commonly ignore workers’ interests when a company is in financial difficulty. Often, the workers first learn that the company has gone bust on TV—well after all key decisions have been taken. The 1992 trade union Act requires consultation before redundancy, but we know that too often that does not happen, even where administrators have been appointed. It is cheaper to pay compensation than to keep the company going while consultation takes place. In the Woolworths administration, £67.8 million was paid out in compensation for failure to consult; at Comet, it was £26 million.

Another point is that those payments were not made by the companies, the directors or the administrators. They were made by the taxpayer, under legislation that requires the National Insurance Fund to pay some awards, unpaid wages and pension contributions. The burden is shifted to the taxpayer because the workers’ claims are insufficiently protected by insolvency law. It is true that the Insolvency Act 1986 confers preferred creditor status on employees in respect of some unpaid awards, wages and pension contributions. Preferred creditor status sounds good, but it ranks behind all secured creditors, including, often, the shareholders themselves, where private equity is invested by way of secured loans rather than share purchase. After the secured creditors have been paid out, often there is not enough to go around the preferred creditors. In the case of Bernard Matthews, the pension fund recovered next to nothing, while the secured creditors were paid in full. Debts owed to workers outside preferred creditor status rank at the bottom, with all other unsecured creditors. Since the company is, by definition, in financial difficulty, usually there is not enough for them. What is required is to make the benefits of this Bill contingent on the company fulfilling its obligations to their workers first. Noble friends and I will table amendments to achieve this if the Government do not.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, it is a huge relief to be back here in the flesh. I give an enormous vote of thanks to all those who have made it possible. I apologise to the Minister for being unable to attend his briefing session on the Bill yesterday. I am afraid that the invitation, which came late on a Friday afternoon, somehow got missed in the flow of traffic to my inbox. If I had known that it was taking place, I would very much have liked to attend.

My remarks on the Bill will be rather limited. I declare an interest as a member of the Bank of England’s enforcement decision-making committee, which is part of the PRA structure. I will thus keep my remarks to the general questions that arise in the course of the Bill. Having said that, I welcome the Bill. It is urgently needed to provide the breathing space and flexibility for firms in the current circumstances. My main concerns are with the intent versus the wording in the Bill, and perhaps the Minister can reassure me as the Bill progresses. Let me give an example from Clauses 18 and 19, which give the Secretary of State powers to amend legislation. The use of the word “procedure” in those clauses is ambiguous and appears to give

“considerable discretion to the Government”.

They are the words of the Law Society, which has provided a briefing on this Bill, for which I am very grateful.

These clauses relate to the power to amend and make changes to insolvency or governance legislation through statutory instruments, which extend to both primary and secondary legislation and are indeed very broad. I understand the need for speed, but the nature of these decisions will depend on a number of unknowable factors. If the idea is to give protection to businesses that would be viable but for the effect of the pandemic, as the Explanatory Notes put it, that raises questions about viability and determining it, and the confidence that stakeholders can have in assessing that viability. Then there is the issue of temporary changes to the overall insolvency regime and how long they might last, as well as the method of their review.

Turning to the moratorium and the rule and powers of the monitor, while necessary at a time of economic stress, there is the risk that the moratorium might be overemployed by firms as a shield from creditor obligations. The results of the question about how many companies might seek this route makes me fear that there are inadequate safeguards in place to prevent them exploiting it. The Law Society’s suggestion is that there should be a simple test with clear qualifying criteria for firms employing this avenue to buy time. Have the Government had conversations with the Law Society about its concerns?

There is no maximum period for the moratorium, nor any limit to the number of extensions. My concern is that the ability of directors to seek extensions from the court, and the Bill’s lack of a maximum number of extensions, may constrain creditor rights, as many other noble Lords have put it. Is there not a real possibility that the directors of a company start in the hope that the business is saleable, but do not quite get that their financial position might be worsening? Does the relative unpredictability of the outcomes that this power allows not disadvantage creditors, particularly those small creditors that so many noble Lords have spoken about?

Should there not be an overall time limit for extensions by the court without creditor consent? There also seem to be insufficient safeguards regarding the appointment of the monitor or additional monitors, or indeed, their duties. Other than professional qualifications, there are no statutory requirements for the monitor to be independent of the directors of the company who make their appointment. When directors decide on a replacement or additional appointment, they do not have to explain to the court why a replacement is being made.

On the face of it, the rules of the court are too limited, but the role of the monitor is potentially too cosy in terms of relations with the directors, and the provisions of creditor rights are too weak. There is much in the Bill to commend but, given the haste with which it has been fast-tracked, much to worry about in terms of the exploitation of well-meaning legislation that may prove to have been inadequately thought through.

Sitting suspended.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns Portrait Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister and his officials for their online briefing yesterday. I shall focus my remarks on the economic impact of the pandemic on the voluntary and charitable sectors, and the potential for the Bill to assist them to continue to operate effectively.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations gave evidence to the DCMS Select Committee in the House of Commons last month. NCVO estimates that charities will lose approximately £4 billion in projected income in the three months from March this year. Age UK, for example, reported that the closure of its 400 charity shops resulted in the loss of one-third of its income overnight. Some charities have reserves that can be drawn upon, but only marginally in most cases. When drafting this legislation, what meetings did Ministers or officials have with representatives of the charitable sector to take their concerns into account?

Last week, I was able to benefit from a webinar on the Bill, which was set up for the charity sector and hosted by the NCVO, in association with Bates Wells solicitors. I shall draw upon the questions raised during that webinar and seek clarification from the Minister today.

The Bill provides to companies, including charitable companies, temporary easements on company filing requirements and requirements relating to meetings, including AGMs. It is welcome that the Bill permits a period of flexibility for members’ meetings in the period 26 March to 30 September. It is also welcome that the flexibility in the Bill allows a charity to do things, even if those things are not permitted by their own governing document. The particular issue on which charities have found difficulty is holding AGMs in accordance with their governing document. They cannot convene an in-person meeting with any guarantee either that they could secure a quorum in the timeframe allowed for holding their AGM or that they could ensure access that is fair to all.

Schedule 14 sets out some provisions on the holding of meetings, and appears to suggest that a quorum can be formed by an entirely virtual meeting. Can the Minister confirm that is the case? Can my noble friend also confirm that, if an organisation has already held its AGM virtually or in hybrid form, even though its rules do not permit that format, the Bill will ensure that the meeting is deemed valid retrospectively? Can my noble friend also clarify the correct way to record the place of a virtual meeting? Is it the location of the chair or the name of the IT platform, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams?

Finally, I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify exactly which type of charity will benefit from this greater flexibility. Does the Bill cover only charitable incorporated organisations and community benefit societies? If so, it would exclude help to all those charitable and voluntary bodies that have been set up by an Act of Parliament or charter. Have the Government had discussions with such organisations to see what further assistance could be offered to them? Have they also discussed this with the Charity Commission to see what assistance it might provide? I look forward to the Minister’s response today.

Baroness Blower Portrait Baroness Blower (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I have no specific interests to declare in the context of the debate, but I declare one as a lifelong trade unionist. As such, I always look at proposals from any Government in the light of how they will impact on employees and workers. There is, I am sure, a widespread fear that in the aftermath of the pandemic there is likely to be wide-scale job loss and the prospect of not a little unemployment. This prospect must focus our minds on what can be done to avoid or alleviate it.

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the significant levels of inequality in this country. Many more people are now aware of just how little others had to live on before the pandemic, and many will look for a better and more equal society in post-Covid Britain, as well as globally. If we are to see a fairer Britain, it will be ushered in by ensuring that employees and workers have well-respected legal rights.

On the surface, this Bill is about rescuing financially distressed companies; I think we can agree that there may be a number of them. We can also agree that maintaining companies so as to maintain jobs is an important objective. However, what potentially may be enabled through the Bill’s proposed company restructuring is a situation in which companies restructure their liabilities while remaining in business, with the impact of such restructuring falling very heavily on the workforce—perhaps in particular on employees’ pensions. Can the Minister clarify what recourse an ongoing restructured business would have to the Pension Protection Fund?

Further, can the Minister explain the lack of intention in the Bill’s proposals to limit in any way executive pay and bonuses, even for a specified period? Nowhere in the Bill is there even a nod in the direction of the need to consult the workforce, much less engage in meaningful negotiations. If this legislation is in part modelled on Chapter 11, as it is popularly known in the United States, it may open the door to what has been seen in some companies in the US: the strategic use of insolvency as a means of jettisoning previously agreed collective bargaining arrangements in order to depress wages, conditions and pensions.

There is an opportunity in the Bill to legislate for the requirement to consult the workforce in any company that is genuinely facing difficulty. This would indicate a desire that restructuring should not be used in an unreasonable strategic fashion. The much-vaunted agenda of levelling up will ring hollow if legislation is not seen to take into account the voices of workers in their own futures. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on his remarks in this regard and his recognition of pensions as deferred wages.

I trust that the Minister will consider favourably amendments that will be brought forward from these Benches to remedy the lacunae in the Bill.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on introducing the Bill. I welcome the thrust of the Bill—bringing forward measures to support company rescue—particularly in the current circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic and its dreadful impact on business.

Although I overwhelmingly support the Bill, I will raise a number of issues, particularly as regards the role of the monitor and areas where it may be vague and uncertain as to how provisions will apply in practice. I will take the opportunity to ask the Minister: for what reason have individual insolvencies been excluded from the scope of the Bill? Can he clarify the Government’s position regarding the monitor? How independent will that person be of the company and its directors?

More specifically, will the Government look more closely at the role of the monitor and consider introducing further safeguards to ensure their independence? In particular, could he look at the appointment and duties of the monitor? Should they outline and introduce a statement of how they understand the company intends to use the moratorium to rescue the company? Should the monitor be asked to provide a progress report? Should they be required to file any relevant correspondence between the company directors and the monitor with the court? Finally, would it be appropriate for the monitor to submit a statement of their independence from the company, with a test of that independence?

In spite of these comments, I wish the Bill a fair wind and would be grateful if the Minister could explain, particularly regarding its permanent measures, the monitor’s role in reducing financial distress of companies with the introduction of a moratorium.