Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill

Baroness Drake Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 16th June 2020

(4 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
20: Clause 1, page 11, leave out lines 21 and 22
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Baroness Drake Portrait Baroness Drake (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests. I shall speak also to Amendments 39, 63 and 64.

I fully support the Government’s desire to assist companies in bouncing back from Covid-19, but it is neither necessary nor desirable that such a policy should seriously weaken the position of defined benefit pension schemes and the Pension Protection Fund in the event of an insolvency or restructuring. The Bill does this in several ways: by granting super-priority status to unsecured banking and finance debt, ranking it above pension scheme debt if a company is not rescued, which introduces material detriment to the level of recoveries the PPF, acting as creditor for a scheme, can achieve through insolvency proceedings; by finance debts getting preferential treatment over pension scheme liabilities by continuing to be payable during a moratorium; and by the new moratorium and restructuring plan processes not triggering a PPF assessment period or a pension scheme’s Section 75 debt, weakening the position of the scheme and the Pension Protection Fund, which would not have a seat at the table for key creditor and restructuring plan discussions and would be denied a meaningful voice on employer liability to the scheme.

The Minister wrote yesterday and indicated that the Government will bring forward amendments on a number of matters, for which I thank him. We have yet to see the text of those amendments, but I will seek to reference the Minister’s letter in what I say.

Amendment 20 removes amounts payable in respect of pre-moratorium debts and other liabilities

“arising under a contract or … instrument involving financial services”

from the exemption from the payment holiday during a moratorium and the super-priority provisions in the event of an insolvency process. Amendment 39 does the same in Northern Ireland.

There is nothing in the Minister’s letter that indicates the Government’s intention to give further attention to their decision to give such a wide range of finance debts elevated status and preferential treatment over pension scheme liabilities. We have today heard his statement on accelerated finance debt, but I will continue to press my amendment.

It is difficult to comprehend the Government’s reasoning for liabilities under financial services contracts, extremely widely drafted in the Bill. It would include unsecured lending such as shareholder loans and intercompany loans, including from a director or parent company, as well as arm’s-length regulated activities and bank debts, all getting preferential treatment over pension scheme liabilities. Others have asked similar questions in respect of SMEs and workers.

As drafted, it would allow finance parties to accelerate all debt so that the entirety of the lending would be payable under these provisions and benefit from super-priority on insolvency. There is a real risk of gaming. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, articulated such examples so brilliantly in the first group debated. From what I heard during that debate, I welcome the Minister’s statement that accelerated debt will not now have super-priority status, which addresses in part—but certainly not in whole—the purpose of my amendment.

During a moratorium, these financial debts would continue to be payable, pension scheme deficit contributions would not and the trustees could not call on any contingent assets that would otherwise be triggered by non-payment of deficit contributions. Priority for finance debts would remain. The Law Society has said:

“the Bill would create an incentive for lenders without effective security to allow the rescue of a company through a moratorium to fail, so as to force it into administration or liquidation and achieve super-priority.”

I say this without sight of the Government’s amendments, but there may remain a perverse incentive that undermines any preference the trustee or PPF may have to rescue the company.

Worryingly, liabilities imposed by the Pensions Regulator on the company for breach of moral hazard rules, such as contribution notices and financial support directives, also rank behind these financial debts. This is not addressed in the Minister’s letter. Will the government amendments address this concern?

Amendment 63, through an amendment to the Pensions Act 2004, provides that both the start of a moratorium and an application for a meeting of creditors to consider a restructuring plan would trigger a PPF assessment period and a scheme’s Section 75 debt. Amendment 64 applies similar provisions to Northern Ireland. This would enable the PPF to act as the creditor of the scheme, which would have an improved standing and vote. These are key protections that currently exist.

In his letter yesterday, the Minister advised that the Government will bring forward amendments that will: during a moratorium, give the PPF rights to information and the right to challenge the actions of the directors and/or the monitor; on a restructuring plan, provide that both the PPF and the Pensions Regulator will be entitled to receive copies of all the information sent out to creditors; and, on both procedures, grant the ability to provide creditor rights to the PPF, subject to appropriate constraints.

I welcome that the Government have recognised that the pension trustees, the PPF and regulator need the rights and authority to engage effectively during the moratorium and restructuring plan discussions, but it is unclear how meaningful those engagement powers will be without seeing the actual amendments and to what extent they will be broadly comparable with or weaker than the current safeguards available.

It will also be important to understand how any government amendments address the serious risk that the new restructuring process could give rise to the systemic dumping of DB pension schemes by companies that are financially underperforming. The restructuring plan procedure can compromise creditors’ claims and standing. It allows for a cross-class cram down and there is much speculation that this could be used to cram down the pension scheme. I ask the Minister how the government amendment would address that concern.

The relevant legislation, which gives the PPF creditor rights, is chiefly the Pensions Act 2004, which puts in place a careful framework that supports action to rescue distressed companies, while protecting the interests of pension scheme members. It does this by triggering a PPF assessment period at the start of the insolvency proceedings that aim to rescue an employer. The PPF steps into the shoes of the trustees by acting as creditor for the debt owed to the scheme. This legislation has proven effective and has delivered better outcomes.

As drafted, the Bill directly undermines that carefully structured framework. It will be important to understand how and to what extent the Government’s amendment rows back from that consequence. The 2004 Act provisions were a product of the failure of successive Governments to protect pension scheme members under UK insolvency laws. It would be regrettable if, through this Bill, history repeated itself.

The Minister’s letter sent yesterday and his statement on accelerated finance today are a significant step forward, but they do not eradicate all the key risks that many noble Lords are so deeply concerned about. I ask the Minister if, before Report, he will reflect further on the concerns that I, and no doubt others, will express today. I beg to move.

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. I will speak to Amendments 20 and 63. Like my noble friend Lady Drake, I have yet to digest the contents of the Minister’s letter from yesterday evening and we have yet to see the actual amendments, but I want to set out my concerns, so that they can be tested against the concessions he has made.

I fully support the policy intention behind the Bill: to help otherwise financially viable companies avoid the prospect of failure, as a result of the unprecedented disruption that Covid-19 has caused. However, alongside its temporary measures, the Bill includes permanent measures—the moratorium, the restructuring plan and changes to creditor status—that will be far-reaching. On the current drafting, there will be consequences that have the effect of reducing the protection and rights of underfunded pension schemes and the Pension Protection Fund when companies are in financial distress—protections that have been carefully built up and developed over 16 to 17 years.

Amendment 20 removes financial debts being exempt from the moratorium payment holiday and the granting of super-priority to those debts in the event of a company entering into an insolvency process. Amendment 63 provides for the triggering of PPF creditor rights and a scheme Section 75 deficit at the start of a moratorium and of restructuring plan discussions.

We cannot overestimate just how serious this is. For many years, the covenant position of defined benefit pension schemes has been based on unsecured pension debt 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 to finance debts in an insolvency following a moratorium removes that base. It weakens valuations and funding arrangements and is detrimental to members of pension schemes and to the role of the PPF acting as creditor. It also affects the scheme trustees. The liabilities of the scheme—the pension promise—are usually significant and payable over a significant number of years. Unlike other unsecured creditors, trustees are not in a position to manage the exposure to the scheme’s debt by ceasing to deal with their employer. Therefore the Bill dramatically enhances the interests of the finance lenders and weakens the interests of the pensioners and future pensioners in an insolvency situation.

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Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan
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Without giving a specific commitment about Thursday, because I have a number of things in my diary, not least because I am answering further Questions in this House, I will attempt to ensure that the forum mentioned by the noble Baroness takes place before Report. Noble Lords who take an interest in this matter will get the opportunity to talk to me and the various Bill officials who are handling what is, I am sure she will accept, a complicated area of law.

Baroness Drake Portrait Baroness Drake [V]
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I thank the Minister for his reply and I am grateful for the advance notice from him yesterday evening, which I took in the spirit in which he gave it. It allowed us to make our contributions more relevant, so I thank him for that.

As my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton observed in the previous debate, the fast-tracking of emergency measures in the light of Covid is combined in the Bill with radical, permanent changes to the status and rights of creditors and stakeholders. This House and indeed Parliament have not had time to address the consequences of that and their significance, and we are beginning to see quite serious consequences—maybe unintended consequences—being revealed.

The moratorium is not an insolvency event, but it is the start of a process that moves towards insolvency or restructuring and it does trigger a change of creditor status. While I completely accept that a strong UK economy needs a strong, functioning financial market, there is also a question of balance. The definition of finance debt in the Bill, which is given superior status, is drafted very widely, way beyond being a simple issue of banks. On the arguments that noble Lords have put today, that balance between protecting the pensioners, on which the insolvency laws were changed back in 2004, as opposed to the interests of the financial markets, is tilted in the Bill against the pensioner and risks us going back to the position that existed in 2004 where pensioners were not protected sufficiently—or in that case, not at all—under UK insolvency laws.

I thank noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. Throughout Second Reading and Committee, we have put our concerns very clearly about how this Bill impacts the framework of protection for pensioners that has been finely crafted and built up over 60 years. I welcome the Minister’s statements because they are a recognition of the concerns that we have all been expressing.

I look forward to seeing the government amendments but hope that the Minister will reflect on the seriously held views expressed today across the House on protecting pension schemes, their members and the lifeboat scheme. If it is possible to have any discussion so that these could be considered further, that would be helpful. In view of the significance of this matter, I may wish to return to it on Report, but I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 20.

Amendment 20 withdrawn.