Landlords of company-owned pubs on verge of being unshackled and able to buy beer from any suppliers, says Colin Valentine
IN THE summer I wrote about the Westminster government’s inclusion in the Queen’s Speech, a section in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill that would set up a pubs adjudicator to give a measure of protection to publicans who are tenants of large pub-owning companies - large meaning 500 pubs or more – with the adjudicator being empowered to ensure that the relationship between the tenant and the pub-owning company is subject to a requirement of fair and lawful trading. Too many tied tenants are charged high rents as well as being required to buy beer at prices around 60 per cent above what they would pay in the open market.
Whilst CAMRA were pleased that the adjudicator was included in the draft bill, we were very much of the opinion that the government could, and should, go a lot further, and we urged them to include a market rent only (MRO) option and to introduce a free of tie guest beer. The MRO option would give tied tenants the choice between a tied agreement and a non-tied agreement allowing them to buy beer from any supplier. A cross party amendment was proposed to add a clause to the bill to include the MRO option and, on Tuesday 18 November, the House of Commons voted against the government by a majority of 26 and MRO option is now part of the bill, with only the third reading, due to take place next month, standing between us and a great victory on behalf of large pub-owning company tenants. Interestingly, the six SNP MPs voted in favour of the amendment instead of abstaining as they usually do on what is perceived to be English only legislation.
The sting in the tail is that, despite what some high-profile campaigners believe, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is very firmly of the opinion that this subject is reserved, which means that the bill, if enacted in full, will not affect the one thousand or so Scottish tenants of the large pub-owning companies. For this reason, CAMRA and representatives of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, which represents individual publicans throughout Scotland, will be meeting with Scottish Government officials and ministers in the new year to push for a legislative consent motion which will ensure that Scottish publicans derive the same benefits as colleagues down south. It is surely perverse for publicans in Annan and Eyemouth who are tenants of the same large pub-owning companies to have different terms and conditions to their colleagues a few miles south in Carlisle and Berwick-upon-Tweed.
I listened to representatives of the large pub-owning companies stating that they will accept the will of parliament and work with whatever legislation is passed. This was most heartening even if somewhat moot as the law is the law. It was also most heartening that the SNP MPs voted for the MRO amendment, after some gentle but persuasive lobbying by both myself and representatives of the tenants of the large pub-owning companies. This will hopefully mean that, if the bill makes its way through Westminster unscathed, then there is good reason to hope that the Scottish Government will get on board. When we last met with ministers and officials, we were asked to provide evidence, not anecdotes, as to how this would positively affect tenants. CAMRA commissioned the most comprehensive research ever done, which we believe more than proves the case that the legislation should benefit Scottish tenants too.
Finally, as we are now in the middle of the festive season, here is something to ponder – why do we always consider it proper to drink wine or port with the Christmas and New Year cheese board? The reason is because the wine industry has done such a brilliant marketing job. So good, in fact, you automatically assume that you must have wine with cheese. Well don’t. There are a great many wonderful Scottish breweries, from Dumfries and Galloway in the south west to the Shetland Islands in the far north, producing great winter beers that are sold by independent shops. Don’t buy wine from the supermarket, buy Scottish beer from your local independent off licence!
• Colin Valentine is national chairman, Camra (Campaign for Real Ale)