I start by thanking all noble Lords, both in person and virtually, for their insightful contributions to this debate, which has shown this House at its best, and for the co-operation of many and their engagement throughout the Bill. I thank particularly the Labour and Liberal Democrat Front Benches for the co-operative spirit that they have shown. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed, and who are helping us scrutinise the Bill effectively.
The points raised have highlighted the importance of the measures in the Bill and the necessity of giving them effect without delay. The permanent package of insolvency reforms in the Bill—the moratorium, restructuring plan, prohibition of termination clauses, et cetera—will provide businesses with the space and tools they need to help them continue trading and avoid insolvency during this challenging time and beyond. It is vital that we introduce these measures immediately to help UK businesses weather this crisis and, I hope, thrive on the other side.
The temporary changes to insolvency law introduced are necessary to help businesses get through this unprecedented period. The temporary suspension of wrongful trading liability will encourage directors to use their best endeavours to keep trading through Covid-19 by removing the threat of personal liability. I again reiterate that directors will still be bound by their wider legal duties under company and insolvency law.
The Bill also temporarily prohibits creditors from issuing statutory demands and winding-up petitions against companies unable to pay their debts due to Covid-19. It will give businesses and creditors the opportunity to co-operate to reach a fair agreement and help companies survive. These temporary insolvency measures are retrospective in effect and have been widely welcomed by the business community. They will apply until one month after Royal Assent and can—and will—be extended should it prove necessary to do so. Of course, any case for further extensions will be carefully considered and subject to all the usual scrutiny that this House undertakes.
The temporary changes to corporate governance that the Bill introduces will provide companies and other bodies with much-needed temporary flexibilities on meetings and filings. This is of particular importance at this critical time, when businesses are struggling to cope with reduced resources and, like the rest of us, are abiding by social distancing rules. We have been careful, throughout this process, to take account of the interests of investors and others in devising these measures.
I will now respond to the many points that have been made. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and my noble friend Lord Balfe, raised the important issue of employees’ rights. I am in complete agreement with my noble friend Lord Dobbs, who summed it up extremely well—as he usually does—when he said that the greatest protection for employees is to see their company survive. Where employees are included in restructuring plan proposals, they will be treated in the same way as other creditors, including in relation to their right to information, participation in voting and ability to make representations to the court. I can confirm to my noble friend Lord Balfe that I fully support ministerial colleagues in the other place, who said that it is expected that the court would be mindful of the interests of employees affected by a restructuring plan when deciding if that plan is just and equitable.
The noble Lords, Lord Stevenson, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Hain, my noble friend Lady Altmann and other noble Lords asked about the classification of pensions and defined benefit schemes. Similar issues were raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Drake, Lady Warwick and Lady Blower. Employees will want the company pension scheme to be able to pay them when they retire. If an employee is not a creditor or shareholder of the company, they cannot be included in a restructuring proposal. The interaction between pensions legislation and insolvency legislation gives rise to some extremely complicated issues, and the Government are working closely with key stakeholders to determine any implications for the Pension Protection Fund, the Pensions Regulator and pension schemes more generally.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, spoke about the prioritisation of debt in relation to moratoriums and termination clauses. If a moratorium ends and is followed within 12 weeks by administration or liquidation, any unpaid moratorium debts, including those to suppliers who were obliged to continue supply under the new termination clause provisions, will indeed receive super-priority. This means that they are paid above all expenses of that administration or liquidation, including the administrator’s or liquidator’s fees and payments to other creditors, other than fixed-charge creditors.
On super-priority, the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, both raised points on preventing banks profiting in moratorium. We are aware of the concerns that have been raised about the priority order of debts. We are also very conscious that attempts to game super-priority, by banks or anyone else, should be deterred. The Government are working with all the relevant stakeholders to ensure that creditors are not disadvantaged by these important measures, and we will continue to work to avoid this.
On the knotty subject of HMRC, many noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, the noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Palmer and Lord Liddle, and my noble friend Lord Leigh, raised concerns about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs climbing up the creditor ranking, not through this Bill but through other work that is being done. This House will of course agree—I hope—that it is important that taxes go to fund our valuable public services. This reform will ensure that when a business becomes insolvent, more of the taxes that have already been paid in good faith by its employees and customers, but which are held temporarily by the business, will go to fund public services, as intended, rather than being distributed to other creditors. This is money that has already been paid by employees but is held by the business. It is important to note that HMRC will remain an unsecured, non-preferential creditor for taxes levied directly on businesses, such as corporation tax and employer national insurance contributions.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and my noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lady Neville-Rolfe for their important points on the need to extend the powers of the Small Business Commissioner. This Government intend to fulfil our manifesto commitment to consult on extending the powers of the Small Business Commissioner to advocate for and support small businesses as soon as we are able. We are keen to capture as many views as possible to ensure that the policy response is the right one. In light of businesses having furloughed staff and other priorities, we do not believe that consulting now would be the correct course of action.
The prompt payment code was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. The code now has more than 2,400 signatories. UK legislation already effectively establishes maximum 30-day payment terms for contracts for the supply of goods and services between businesses and public authorities. There are 60-day maximum payment terms between businesses, although longer payment terms may be agreed, provided that they are not grossly unfair to the supplier. To make the voluntary code mandatory without further appropriate modification would in effect set maximum payment terms for large companies when contracting with smaller suppliers.
I understand that it might seem desirable but, while setting limits on the maximum legal payment terms might address the problem of lengthy payment periods in some commercial contracts, we believe the disadvantages of a one-size-fits-all approach are of greater significance.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, my noble friend Lord Bourne and others for raising their concerns on the need for directors to continue to act in good faith when wrongful trading liability is suspended. Let me reassure them and other noble Lords who raised this point that directors will still be obliged to comply with their normal duties, as clearly set out in the Companies Act. Other remedies will remain available where directors do not meet acceptable standards of behaviour, such as fraudulent trading provisions. I therefore hope that noble Lords will agree that, with these provisions stated elsewhere, putting them in the Bill is unnecessary.
I pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for raising an important point on the role of the court, as mentioned in Clause 10, in relation to wrongful trading. Let me reassure him that the wording of the clause is sufficient to direct the court to make an assumption. It does not invite an argument to the contrary. The noble and learned Lord may be aware of similar provisions elsewhere in insolvency legislation which create the possibility of rebuttal. For example, where a preference payment is made by a company, which may be clawed back by a liquidator, and the recipient is a connected party, it is presumed to have been made with the intention of putting the recipient in a better position in the event of insolvency “unless the contrary is shown”. The last part of that provision creates the opportunity for rebuttal, and Clause 10 does not use such language.
The lack of transparency of pre-packs was raised as a concern by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Vaux and Lord Mendelsohn, and my noble friends Lord Hodgson and Lady Neville-Rolfe. The Government recognise creditors’ concerns about pre-packs, particularly where the sale is to a connected party. If strengthening of professional standards and the existing regulation do not deliver increased creditor confidence in connected pre-pack sales, the Government will look to bring forward further legislation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, asked whether Companies House undertakes scrutiny of information submitted during this emergency. The register of companies is continuously under scrutiny. It was accessed more than 9.4 billion times in the financial year 2019-20. With so many eyes viewing the data, any errors, omissions or worse can be identified and reported. Companies House undertakes numerous checks on the validity of information, both at incorporation and throughout the life of the company as new information is submitted. Companies House will continue to be vigilant during the current period. Compliance with the extended deadlines is still expected, and the existing offences and penalties for late filings, as set out in the Companies Act 2006, will continue to apply.
In addition, my noble friend Lord Wei asked whether late filings should be reflected in the credit rating of a company. This is already the case. Extending the filing deadline will therefore ensure that filings are not classified as late. This will help directors to focus on managing their businesses without being diverted by credit rating changes based on temporary practical impediments to filing while the Covid-19 restrictions apply.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra raised concerns regarding small suppliers once termination clauses are prohibited. We think it right to give a temporary exemption to small companies at a time when many are suffering due to the pandemic. I entirely understand and sympathise with noble Lords’ concerns and the desire to assist small companies; the intention is to do so for as long as necessary in the current economic climate. I assure them that if the protections are needed beyond their present expiry date, they can be extended by statutory instrument. In addition, we have built in numerous protections for suppliers who are required to continue supplying a company during a moratorium or other insolvency procedure, including allowing suppliers to apply to a court for permission to terminate a contract if continuing supply would cause them hardship.
My noble friend Lord Dobbs mentioned the need for the moratorium to run beyond 20 business days. The initial moratorium period of 20 business days can be extended by the company by a further 20 business days, and further extensions beyond that can also be made with creditor or court approval.
On timing, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, asked whether there was a limit to the number of times a moratorium could be extended. While creditors can agree to extend a moratorium a number of times, they cannot agree cumulatively to extend beyond one year. A court may extend beyond one year but, when doing so, it must consider the interests of pre-moratorium creditors and the likelihood that the extension will lead to a rescue of the company.
During the debate, we have heard several questions about moratoriums, including from my noble friends Lord Hunt, Lord Flight and Lady Altmann. I assure the House that the qualifying condition of entry into a moratorium is that it is likely that the moratorium will result in the rescue of the company. This will be assessed by the proposed monitor of the moratorium prior to their agreeing to take the appointment.
On the lack of a requirement to seek support from the secured creditors, the moratorium will enable companies to act early, which we hope will increase the chance of a successful rescue. For unsecured creditors, the new moratorium can be accessed only if the company is likely to be rescued as a going concern in the opinion of an insolvency practitioner. Where a rescue is achieved via the moratorium, all stakeholders of a business, including secured creditors, will benefit.
On her point about individual bankruptcy, I assure my noble friend Lady McIntosh that the Government recognise fully the impact of Covid-19 on individuals. We will continue to monitor the situation as a whole and consider whether further measures are needed. Credit card companies and other lenders have been required by the Financial Conduct Authority to offer payment holidays to people struggling to make repayments at this time, and it has issued guidance to lenders about offering mortgage payment holidays and halting repossession actions.
I appreciate the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson, Lord Mendelsohn, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill and Lord Mann, and my noble friends Lord Hunt, Lady Altmann and Lady McIntosh on insolvency practitioners acting as monitors. Insolvency is a highly regulated profession. Insolvency practitioners are qualified members of a recognised professional body who are required to abide by legislative, professional and ethical standards. There are strict educational and professional competence requirements for becoming a practitioner, and the vast majority are highly professional individuals with a great deal of expertise in insolvency and business rescue. Where an insolvency practitioner fails to comply with required standards, they can be subject to disciplinary sanctions by their authorising body, which, in the most serious cases, can involve them having their authorisation to practise withdrawn. I hope that this goes some way to alleviating noble Lords’ concerns.
As the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, rightly said, the role of insolvency practitioners is positive rather than negative. They can offer professional advice to companies on the best options available and may help businesses to avoid insolvency where appropriate, as well as ease the process where it is inevitable.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, spoke about the green recovery. My department is committed to a recovery that is as green as possible, and it is of course responsible for energy and for COP 26.
I turn to the point raised by my noble friend Lady Anelay about charities and the impact that the Bill will have on that sector. As my noble friend said in her contribution, it is important to listen to those closest to the third sector. Colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have developed these measures alongside the Charity Commission. The commission has indicated that it will take a proportionate approach where members’ meetings need to be postponed or held virtually in order to comply with social distancing, even if that is contrary to the rules of the charity’s governing document. In such cases, the Charity Commission advises trustees to record their decisions, attendees and the time of the meeting in order to demonstrate good governance of the charity. I hope this will provide some reassurance to my noble friend and to those charities that the regulator will adopt a sensible and flexible approach in the current difficult circumstances.
We have heard a number of concerns about the limited time available to scrutinise the Bill, and I totally accept the points made by many noble Lords. These concerns were rightly highlighted and raised by my noble friends Lord Blencathra, Lord Flight, Lord Shrewsbury and Lord Trenchard. The Bill contains a series of familiar measures; in fact, many of these insolvency measures have been consulted on and refined over many months. Her Majesty’s Government were always seeking to bring forward reform to the insolvency regime that would bring our regime in line with those of other nations with similar economies. Covid-19 has, sadly, made the need for these measures more acute.
The other provisions in the Bill are all temporary. If the Government wish to extend their operation, both Houses will have the opportunity to scrutinise the relevant order. In addition, any regulations made after the Bill will of course be subject to the usual scrutiny.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked whether there was no limit to the overall number of times that the temporary measure can be extended. At present, all the temporary insolvency measures will automatically sunset one month following Royal Assent. The Bill contains a provision enabling these temporary measures to be extended by statutory instrument where appropriate. The Government have every intention of making use of that provision if the protections are needed beyond their present expiry date. The maximum time period for which the temporary measures can be extended by statutory instrument is six months and the power to extend can be used more than once, so there is no absolute sunset.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, asked for the Bill to sunset the permanent measures. The permanent provisions have not just been developed in the short time since Covid-19 first appeared; they have been the subject of a considerable period of consultation and engagement dating back to 2015. This process included the then Government’s review of the corporate insolvency framework, a public consultation in 2016 and an extensive period of engagement since then with a wide range of stakeholders. Additionally, the Bill includes regulation-making powers to enable changes to be made as and where necessary.
At present, all the temporary insolvency measures will automatically sunset the month after Royal Assent. These measures all have significant impacts on the normal working of various parts of insolvency legislation and the business community, and they will need to be considered and scrutinised by Parliament when determining when the temporary measures should be extended and for how long. The Government also have the power to bring any temporary measures to an early end if they are no longer required.
My noble friend Lord Trenchard also raised a point on the introduction of retrospective legislation. The decision to make certain aspects of the Bill retrospective has been taken for specific policy reasons. For example, in the case of the suspension of wrongful trading, retrospection takes effect at the time the Covid-19 emergency began, rather than when the Bill is enacted.
I thank the noble Lords who raised the use of Henry VIII powers. I thank the chair of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, my noble friend Lord Blencathra, for his comments on these powers. We all look forward to receiving the committee’s report on the Bill, which I think is due tomorrow. The Bill contains powers to enable its provisions to be adapted to different types of corporate body or bodies subject to special insolvency procedures, as well as to ensure that the detail of the procedures can be amended in the light of these reforms. Delegated powers are also included to extend the temporary provisions should it prove necessary and to make other temporary amendments to insolvency law to deal with the effects of Covid-19 where needed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, raised a point about impact assessments on the Bill’s measures. The impact assessment estimates that the three permanent changes to the UK insolvency framework will result in net benefits totalling over £1.9 billion in today’s prices. The equivalent annual net direct cost to business of the three permanent changes to the UK insolvency framework is estimated to be minus £222.9 million. In other words, we estimate an overall £222.9 million annual net benefit.
I will respond to the point from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, about WUPs and the Covid test: how, in this climate, the creditor will be able to show that the test has been met, and whether it is to be fleshed out by the courts. Whenever legislation creates a new legal requirement, it will of course be for the courts to consider how the test should be applied in individual cases. Indeed, this measure is no different. The test of whether Covid-19 has caused the company’s difficulties is indeed intended to present a high bar. The measures in respect of statutory demands and winding up petitions are intended to temporarily enforce the forbearance from creditors that the Government have called for.
I will be happy to meet the noble Lord to discuss trade credit insurance. He also asked about what happens if directors do not co-operate with the monitor. The legislation enables the monitor to bring the moratorium to an end if the directors fail to comply with the rules. These include providing information requested by the monitor and paying certain debts due during the moratorium period.
In closing, since 23 March this country has faced unprecedented hardship as a result of the stringent social distancing measures necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. As noble Lords are all aware, UK businesses have been hit hard as a result, with many unable to trade or facing a significant reduction in demand for their goods and services. Consequently, many otherwise viable companies face the threat of insolvency.
The Government are committed to doing all we can to support businesses during this challenging time to ensure that they can bounce back once the pandemic is over. The measures introduced by the Bill offer vital support alongside the substantial fiscal support packages for businesses and workers already in place. It is crucial that these measures are brought forward as a matter of urgency to protect those businesses. They will provide the flexibility and breathing space needed by businesses large and small to ensure their survival now and as the country emerges and rebuilds from this crisis.