Why you may wish to raise a toast to MSPs – Neil Bibby

It’s a myth that MSPs are out of touch and don’t care about things like pubs, writes Neil Bibby MSP.
Reforming pub laws would enable them to serve a greater ranger of beers (Picture: Jacky Ghossein)Reforming pub laws would enable them to serve a greater ranger of beers (Picture: Jacky Ghossein)
Reforming pub laws would enable them to serve a greater ranger of beers (Picture: Jacky Ghossein)

The SNP has now been in power for 13 years, and many of its backbenchers have no idea what it is like to be out of power. Take it from me: being in opposition is deeply frustrating. We may all be legislators, but changing the law tends to be the preserve of the government.

Except, that is, on those rare occasions when a backbench MSP successfully steers a Member’s Bill through Parliament. Reaching that moment where a majority of MSPs pass a backbencher’s Bill takes years of effort. For the Bill I am putting forward, it has taken over three years to reach the stage we’re at now, having just presented it to Parliament.

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I hope it is legislation that will go some way to challenge the unfair allegation that Holyrood can be out of touch with the real world. That’s because it’s about Scotland’s pubs.

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Landmark bill could free tied pubs in Scotland to buy more beer

To be specific: it is designed to transform decades of practice which places restrictions on what pub tenants can sell. In Scotland, hundreds of pubs are what is known as ‘tied’; an agreement in which tenants rent from pub owners, with an obligation to purchase alcohol from a particular company. This can leave tied pubs worse off than those which have no tied arrangement.

To end this unfair practice, the Bill will establish a statutory ‘Pubs Code’ to ensure that tenancies are fair with an independent adjudicator to enforce the code. I believe that access to a fair and reasonable market rent for premises, without strings attached, should be a right for Scottish publicans.

Wider range of drinks

With fairer, more affordable tenancies, licensees will be free to invest more in their businesses, supporting pub jobs and boosting the local economy. Tied pub reform also represents a significant opportunity to protect and to grow Scotland’s brewers, making it easier for them to access the market.

The Bill will expand choice for consumers, giving tied licensees the freedom to stock a wider range of drinks, including guest ales and locally brewed, sustainable products. During the course of the parliamentary process, my proposal has won the cross-party support among MSPs it needs to proceed, and a public consultation found 93 per cent of responses were supportive of the Bill.

It was also backed during the consultation by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), GMB Scotland, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Pubs Advisory Service, Tennent Caledonian Breweries and many small brewers. According to a Camra-commissioned survey of tied pub tenants, as many as 96.5 per cent said that paying a reduced rent to pub-owners did not fully take into account the higher prices they paid for their tied products. Only three per cent had a positive sentiment about the tie agreement.

Raise a toast for politicians?

And 99 per cent felt that the Scottish Government should act to ensure that protections afforded to tied licensees in England and Wales, where new tied pub laws are already in place, should also apply in Scotland.

I’m delighted to have reached the stage where the Scottish Parliament can now deliver fairness for the tied pub sector. I look forward to working with MSPs and the Scottish Government to pass this Bill and changing the law.

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This isn’t something that is easy to achieve from the opposition benches. It takes patience, diligence and a great deal of persuasion, but I’m hopeful of success.

After all, it’s not often that glasses are raised in toast to politicians.

Neil Bibby is Labour MSP for West of Scotland