Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill

Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Excerpts
Report stage & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 23rd June 2020

(4 years ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 View all Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 114-I Marshalled list for Report - (18 Jun 2020)
Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I added my name to Amendment 13 and I set out in Committee my concerns about the Bill. As I said then, I fully support the intention behind it—that the disruption caused by Covid-19 should not be allowed to trigger the failure of otherwise financially viable companies—but I was anxious, and I remain anxious, that some of the permanent and far-reaching proposals would be damaging to pension funds and to their members in the longer term. I assumed that this damage was unintended and was caused by the speed with which this package of protective measures had had to be introduced, and I am pleased that the Government have gone some way to acknowledging this in the amendments they have brought forward.

Other noble Lords have set out in detail the problems that the Bill would cause as currently drafted. I emphasise just one point in relation to defined benefit pension schemes. The stability and effectiveness of the current system in dealing with insolvency has depended on unsecured pension debts ranking side by side with debts owed to other unsecured lenders. This has underpinned all valuation funding and covenant discussions. The super-priority status granted by the Bill to finance debts in an insolvency following a moratorium undermines that stability and endangers members of affected pension schemes, while preventing the PPF acting effectively as creditor. As I said in Committee, it also undermines the role of the regulator. However, the Government have clearly made efforts to address these concerns and go some way to addressing the issues raised by me and other noble Lords. I have been convinced that the Government want to make this work and will ensure that the PPF has access to and influence on discussions about recovery plans.

The Secretary of State will have access to considerable Henry VIII powers in the Bill and will be able to intervene swiftly if it seems that restructuring plans and insolvency procedures are being abused, to the detriment of pension scheme members. So in thanking the Minister for the way he has responded to the concerns we in this House have expressed about the Bill, I urge him to stay alert to any attempts to undermine the assurances he has given that the position of pension scheme members will not be weakened, and that their lifeboat—the protective umbrella of the PPF—will not be undermined in any restructuring and insolvency discussions.

Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Portrait Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted (LD) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register. I support Amendment 13 and what has been said already about it. I am a signatory to that amendment, but I shall concentrate on Amendment 14. The Times this morning reports that Intu, owner of shopping centres, is seeking a standstill on loans from its banks, otherwise it will go into administration. Without commenting on the merits of the case, save to mention that coronavirus has stopped rent payments, the facts are writ large: it is all in the hands of banks.

The idea of a moratorium is as a formal standstill, a breathing space for a company to trade out of its problems, get back on its feet or at least find a way to reorganise without the situation deteriorating due to a feeding frenzy of creditors, each trying to get at the assets before someone else does. For all essential suppliers other than financial institutions the moratorium terms are that they must continue with normal supply, with no demands for up-front payments or elevated prices that would destroy cashflows and undermine the purpose of a moratorium. But not for banks: they have no constraints and are free to demand accelerated payment. So there is a feeding frenzy exclusively reserved for the banks.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the amendments in my name make provisions relating to pension schemes in the moratorium and the restructuring plan. Although the moratorium is not an opportunity for employers to walk away from their liabilities, it may become the point at which preparations for and discussions about a restructuring proposal begin. Where the pension scheme would be a large unsecured creditor in any insolvency, should the employer ultimately fail, restructurings can have a significant and immediate impact on the expected outcome of the scheme.

There is the possibility that the company may seek to reschedule payments to provide working capital to give time to shore up its operations. This might result in lower payments to the scheme for a period of time. A rescue may also involve certain other creditors, such as new lenders providing rescue finance, taking security over company assets. This would mean that there would be less available for other creditors, including the scheme, in the event that any such rescue ultimately failed.

Some insolvency procedures are designated as “insolvency events” under existing pensions legislation. One effect of such designation is that the Pension Protection Fund has a statutory role to play, acting as a creditor in place of the trustees of eligible schemes. However, the new procedures are different. They are not qualifying insolvency events, as they are focused entirely on giving the company every opportunity to achieve a rescue as a going concern. This would be the best outcome for a pension scheme: moving forward with the support of its newly rescued sponsoring employer.

Nevertheless, there is concern that these procedures could result in the pension scheme being disadvantaged as an unsecured creditor of the company. The PPF, as the provider of protection for members of eligible schemes in specified circumstances, could potentially face a greater loss. An example of this would be if the company subsequently fails and the scheme falls into the PPF with a larger deficit than it originally had.

Consequently, it is agreed that there is a need to build in specific protections. These focus on the interests of the scheme and its members, and the interests of the PPF and its levy payers. This would be by ensuring that the PPF has a seat at the table in any restructuring proposal and that its voice is heard. After all, it is the statutory compensation scheme for members of eligible defined benefit schemes, and ultimately bears the risk for the scheme should the company subsequently fail.

The challenge has therefore been to strike the right balance between the interests of the trustees, the board of the Pension Protection Fund, the company and its creditors. Taken together, these amendments achieve this balance. They provide for both the PPF and the Pensions Regulator to get appropriate information in the case of both a moratorium and a restructuring plan. The regulation-making power will allow the Secretary of State to provide for the board of the PPF to act in the place of the trustees of the scheme as a creditor in certain circumstances. The board of the PPF and the Pensions Regulator will have the right to the same information as creditors, concerning the start and end point of a moratorium and any change in the monitor, in specified circumstances. The board of the PPF will have the same rights as trustees to challenge in court the monitor’s or director’s actions in specified situations where the interests of the trustees as a creditor are considered to be unfairly harmed by those actions.

Where a restructuring plan is proposed and the company is a sponsoring employer, provision is made for the board of the PPF and the Pensions Regulator to receive the same information sent to creditors, in specified circumstances. This means that they are informed that a proposal has been made and they can then consider what action, if any, to take.

In respect of both the moratorium and the restructuring plan, where the trustees of a PPF-eligible scheme are a creditor of the company concerned, the proposed amendments provide a regulation-making power. This power will give the board of the PPF the ability to exercise the creditor rights of the trustees; again, in appropriate circumstances. These rights include attending the creditors’ meeting, voting on the restructuring plan and making representations to the court. The powers are drafted to allow an appropriate balance between the trustees and the Pension Protection Fund’s interests by allowing creditor rights to be exercised concurrently where appropriate. Conditions can also be placed on the exercise of any rights given to the board of the PPF.

Restructuring will always involve trade-offs. Employees will be concerned that the rescue ensures that their jobs are secure, but at the same time they will be interested in the impact on the company pension scheme if they are a member. The changes tabled in my name have balanced the interests of employees and scheme members with those of a company and its creditors, giving them all the best chance for survival, in our view. I beg to move.

Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Portrait Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I welcome the amendments tabled by the Government to address the position of the Pension Protection Fund and the Pensions Regulator where there is a relevant scheme. The amendments give them the right to be notified of moratorium events and give the Pension Protection Fund rights to challenge the monitor or directors, vote as a creditor and make representations to the court.

An amendment on the issue that remains unaddressed was originally tabled in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann; we have tabled one on Report with her support. The noble Baroness, with her great experience in pensions, will speak next.

Amendment 15 concerns the status of pledged assets and whether the court can give permission for their disposal without the Pension Protection Fund’s permission. In the absence of an amendment, those assets are not protected, which unravels the basis on which settlements over funding and deficits are made with trustees.

The effect of that is twofold: the actual disposal of the assets, which may be unfavourable to the pension scheme; and, even without any of that happening, the fact that such a possibility exists raises doubts about the numerous pledges that underpin contribution agreements. It is far from desirable to have to revisit them but, without any assurance, it would seem necessary for trustees to think about that and seek more cash funding. That would be bad at any time, but when companies are facing more difficult times due to the pandemic and its after-effects, it would be particularly unwelcome. That is the reasoning behind the amendment, and I know that other noble Lords are well able to illustrate the problem further.

--- Later in debate ---
Moved by
14: Clause 1, page 13, line 48, at end insert—
“(f) banks and other financial creditors may not seek to accelerate payment.”
Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Portrait Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted [V]
- Hansard - -

I thank noble Lords who signed the amendment and spoke in support. The noble Lords, Lord Hodgson and Lord Holmes, and my noble friend Lady Kramer all spoke from experience about how banks will behave to extract cash. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, asked what grounds the Government had for thinking banks could be constrained. The noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Altmann, expressed concerns about gaming. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, admitted that the amendment was persuasive. There is consensus that the focus is people.

The Minister’s answer is simply that if the banks press for too much, the payment will not happen and the moratorium will end. That does not stop the accelerated payments and death by a thousand cuts. From the cash flows and other information they have about their clients, banks are well able to know how much they can take a company for and to pace their demands until the money is gone or they have pressurised the business into other lucrative financial arrangements. It is game on.

I am not convinced by the answer about financial stability; the Minister knows this is a subject I know very well. Contracts on market operations do not have to end; it is simply the acceleration of payment on lending that needs restriction. Every pound that is required over and above the general terms existing pre-moratorium is tantamount to reaching through and picking the pocket of employees, pension schemes and small businesses.

The scope given to banks and other lenders to press their advantage during moratorium is too great. It can remove the very breathing space that is the objective of the moratorium. I have not heard any expression of limit to reasonableness other than some kind of banking self-control caused by a moratorium end if the banks get too greedy. As my noble friend Lord Fox said, it is simply tiptoeing around the banks.

To save jobs and businesses and protect pensions, banks must be far more equally in the moratorium. No amount of employee consultation can blunt the banks, and I wish to test the opinion of the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, very briefly, it seems that the solution of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is very elegant, and, like the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, I am struggling to find out why the Government might not accept it. One of the things that has come up on a number of occasions is the need for speed for both the Bill and decision-making: “We do not have time to talk to the workers”; “We do not have time to do this.” This is an opportunity to take one moment out and review whether this move—a pre-pack—is in the best interests of all concerned. I cannot see why the Government would not support it, and I expect that the Minister will stand up and wholeheartedly embrace Amendment 45 shortly.

Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Portrait Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I supported the pre-pack amendments in Committee and have done so again. The reason for the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is simple: reference to the pool is not happening, and bad pre-packs are. Like others, I do not consider all pre-packs to be bad, but it is unquestionable that some bad deals are going on.

The Government are reinstating a provision to give themselves powers that have recently lapsed. I do not wish to prevent that but, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said, that power has already lain for too long—for five years—without regulations being forthcoming. Due to coronavirus, more deals and insolvencies are likely, and there will be horrid cases, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said. The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, also reminded us again of the storm that is about to come—or the “tsunami”, as my noble friend Lord Palmer said. Every day we already hear of more, and some are a rip-off of creditors, as the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, said in Committee and as the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, reminded us. The evidence is that insolvency practitioners can easily tick boxes to cover themselves. It is happening.

This amendment is simple and complete: use the panel that has been set up. In Committee the Minister was critical of the fact that the panel is set up in a light-touch way rather than having a regulatory power, but it is like that because government wanted it that way. If the Government want to come forward with powers for ARGA to take over the job—and to make ARGA happy—I will be there in support. But that is not here now, and nor are other regulations. So let us not hurt the public still further by having the recovery from Covid littered with scandals of cosy and inappropriate pre-packs. This is another feature of how the unfairness built into the moratorium will work, with pressure for restructuring, where the big winners will be the financiers. The least we can do is to have some assurance that the deal meets the standard of reasonableness.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, my name is on Amendment 46, as I strongly support the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, in her attempt to revive the powers taken in the small business Act 2015. We supported her in 2015 and pressed then for action to be taken against the abuses which were occurring in the pre-pack cases that came to light at the time.

However, as the noble Baroness said, thanks mainly to the rhetoric of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, and my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn, the Government have done a U-turn. Therefore, purely on consistency grounds, it is logical and right that we should support Amendments 37 and 38 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan. When he responds, I hope that he will confirm that he intends to use these powers and to act urgently.

I have been in discussion during the past couple of weeks with the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, about his Amendment 45. In the absence of government Amendments 37 and 38, I would have backed his proposal. However, I have an old-fashioned view about statutory powers being operated by non-statutory bodies such as the pre-pack pool. Given that the powers sought by Amendment 45 are contained within those to be taken under Amendments 37 and 38 and that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, admitted, there are some problems with the existing arrangements —the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, called them “murky” and denigrated the standards being achieved—I am minded to support the Government on this issue.