Amendment 23

Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted:

Moved by Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted

23: Clause 1, page 11, line 22, at end insert—“( ) the prescribed part of a company’s net property available for the satisfaction of unsecured debts under section 176A of the Insolvency Act 1986”Member’s explanatory statementThis is a probing amendment to discuss the effect of priority advancing on unsecured creditors and in particular pension fund deficit, notwithstanding the power for rules to rank the order in inserted section A18.

Photo of Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will also speak to the other amendments in this group. In some ways, I see this group as a continuation of the previous debate concerning the effect of the moratorium on pension funds and small companies. Amendment 23 inserts the prescribed part for unsecured creditors into the A18 priority. It should in fact have had an extra condition to it that said “when there is a pension scheme” but, in the amendment rush, that somehow got left off. Noble Lords will see that in the explanatory statement I did reference pensions as being of particular relevance.

This was an idea I had as part of the continuing story of the adjusted insolvency waterfall and the damage that can be done to pensions. My objective was to probe how else the prescribed part could not be diminished or how there could be some form of compensating balance. Another way could be by putting an extra or reserved part into the higher priority, designated as a first tranche reserved towards pension deficit, with any remaining pension deficit still sharing in the later general pool of the prescribed part. For example, if the prescribed part is raised to 30% so that there is more available in general for pension deficits, as other noble Lords have suggested, could the extra 10% be moved to be given a higher exclusive priority reserved for pension debt alone?

As I said before in the group on pensions, the Government have lifted the lid on changing priorities, and what has to date been accepted as an uncomfortable compromise regarding the position of pension deficit is now open to challenge. Why should there not now be some extra reserved part or special preference in the mix, especially given the point made more than once already that pensions really belong with wages and salaries? They should never have been demoted to unsecured creditors.

As a generality, I see the raising to 30% as beneficial, not just for making more available for pension deficits but also for SMEs. Irrespective of whether there is any changed priority as part of the compensating measures that one will have to start looking at, the rise to 30% —which has been proposed before—is given more impetus in the light of what is happening in the Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour

My Lords, my contribution dovetails with that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, whose remarks I support. I speak to Amendment 56, the purpose of which is to preserve for the unsecured creditors a larger share of the assets available for distribution than the legislation currently provides. The legislation recognises that something must be preserved for them, but the question is: how much?

The first part of our amendment seeks 30% of the “prescribed part” of the company’s property. This is an arbitrary figure, intended to be reasonably fair. The problem is that the “prescribed part” is fixed by a formula and is capped. I understand it to be £800,000, or thereabouts, but I confess that I am no expert on this. Consequently, 30% may be a very small sum and spread very thin. The second part of the amendment therefore proposes that, in any event, if assets are being sold to pay debt, as is usual, at least 30% of the proceeds should be reserved for the unsecured creditors, leaving 70% for the secured and other creditors.

I add a word about unsecured creditors. Included in this, for reasons I touched on earlier, will be much of the debt owed to employees of the company, which falls outside that preserved for preferred creditors. The unsecured creditors also include all the workers for the company who are not classed in law as employees but who are nominally self-employed or engaged through a personal company. This is a significant sector of the workforce—over 5 million people in total.

As I mentioned earlier, it is right that workers should have priority because, unlike secured creditors, they cannot diversify the risk of the company becoming insolvent, and their stock of labour is ever-diminishing. There is another reason that they should be given preference: they spend their remuneration; they do not put it in hidden bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. They spend it because they and their families have to live on it. This creates demand and is good for the economy and for business.

Also included among the unsecured creditors are the many SMEs in the company’s supply chain. This may involve dozens of suppliers who have supplied materials, items or labour on credit, but cannot recover them. In turn, they may employ hundreds or thousands of workers. It is right that, in a complex and interconnected economy, unsecured creditors and their workers should be guaranteed an appropriate slice of the cake.

Photo of Lord Mendelsohn Lord Mendelsohn Labour

My Lords, I reinforce my support for Amendment 56, in my name and those of my noble friends Lord Hendy, Lord Hain and Lord Monks, and Amendment 59, in the name of my noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. I had intended to introduce amendments in these areas, but these are far better crafted than I could ever have achieved.

I would like the Minister to address the operation of these arrangements, the changes to the status of different creditors and how these will be properly balanced to operate as intended, rather than to allow abuse and preserve value in the deal, and how changing creditor status provides for a successful rescue of the company.

We have to appreciate that monitors, moratoriums and restructurings under this legislation are still likely to be in a minority of cases, especially if the comparisons for evaluations, or evaluating the condition of the business, provide both a high bar and ample scope to game the outcome. The majority of cases will still be covered under a going concern administration, whether that leads to a pre-pack liquidation sale or a scheme of arrangements to maintain the company. In many circumstances, the need for protections is even greater.

The new restructuring regime, which should be significantly more attractive, has created a lot of complications by relying on the model of creditor-in-possession financing rather than debtor-in-possession financing. The crucial difference is that this means that external financing is encouraged and given super-priority status, while unsecured creditors can be further disadvantaged by both existing debts and further trading risks. Debtor-in-possession arrangements generally encourage existing shareholders, creditors and finance holders to participate in the future rescue of the business. The amendments would ensure that in this layering of priorities, the weakest in line are not the ones that the system continues to place at a disadvantage. It is important that the Minister should indicate whether the Government are willing to provide extra protections for unsecured creditors and workers who have an unsecured credit with the business.

Have the Government considered a debtor-in-possession financing model and will they consider allowing this in the future? In the spirit of providing a floor to support unsecured creditors, what flexibility can they look for in the system and how are they expected to operate, so that they can participate in the future upside, be that an equity upside or an arranged scheme, thereafter?

Finally, I support the amendments tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bowles and Lady Neville-Rolfe. Can the Minister make it clear how these decisions will be reviewed and what role the Government expect the Insolvency Service to play in order to make sure that abuses can be dealt with and that all forms of creditor can be properly balanced and ensured?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Conservative

My Lords, as time is short, I will focus on my Amendment 60. A court of administration normally involves pre-packs, and that is why, with the support of my noble friend Lady Altmann, I want to provide a quick and easy way of ensuring that the power we gave HMG in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 can be restored. This power was the victim of a sunset clause and a delay in making the necessary regulations. There are later amendments that we may reach today on pre-packs and the encouragement of the pre-pack pool. All of them reflect the fact that a group of us across the House who spoke at Second Reading, including the noble Lords, Lord Vaux and Lord Mendelsohn, think that we need early action on pre-packs. I imagine that we are all rather disappointed—although the usual opportunity for a discussion in the Bishops’ Bar is not available—by the Minister’s response at Second Reading. His suggestion was that strengthening professional standards and existing regulation would be adequate, and if not, there could be legislation at a future date —a sort of mañana.

My amendment is very simple: it would give the Government back the power to make the necessary regulation on pre-packs but it would sunset that power after a year, both to provide the incentive for speedy resolution of this issue and to avoid any unwelcome use of the delegated power for other purposes down the line. I would obviously be delighted if the simple sunset clause I have used in Clause 62 might also help us to consider and find a path to resolving some of the important delegated powers issues we were discussing earlier; I am very hopeful that the Government will be listening in that regard.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister and his department will listen to those of us who have concerns and agree to amend the Bill to deal with the pre-pack issue, perhaps in the way that I have proposed.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, does not seem to be in his place in the Chamber, so we will go to the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I will be brief. I support the amendments in this group. Amendment 23 from the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox—which the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, explained very well—helps to explain the importance of increasing the protection for unsecured creditors being pushed further down the list of priority by the measures in this Bill. Following on from some of the remarks by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, I suggest to my noble friend the Minister that the Government could even consider offering super-priority for less than a Section 75 debt but still recognise the debts owed to the pension scheme, if it has a deficit. That could be in the form of Section 179 debt, which would at least cover the PPF level of benefit, or even for technical provisions, so that at least that has some extra security, especially in light of the current level of annuity rates following extensive quantitative easing and the extra cost of Section 75 debt.

I understand fears of pushing that all into a super-priority category, but offering extra security—at least for the pension deficits and the pension promises of workers, should an insolvency occur—seems to me to respect and reflect the environment we have had successfully for so many years to protect defined benefit schemes in the UK.

As far as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe’s Amendment 60 is concerned, I merely add my support to the wise words she has already laid before the Committee.

Photo of Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I did not realise someone was withdrawing. I asked to speak mainly to support Amendment 60, but also to inquire whether this will achieve what the movers want to achieve. With sale to connected persons, there is always a worry in any liquidation or moratorium as to whether those connected persons are getting a benefit, to the detriment of other creditors. It is also a fact that very often a sale or arrangement with connected persons is a way of saving a company by connected persons taking some of the business out of the company. If there is a situation in which that company can survive enough to pay all its creditors, sales to connected persons could be a valuable tool. I just want to ensure that the Minister says this is an open book and can help in some ways and police in others.

Photo of Lord Monks Lord Monks Labour

I do not wish to speak at this stage.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My Lords, we have heard descriptions of a series of power imbalances. There are two large, powerful entities on the scene; one is covered by this Bill and the other is not. One is the banks and financial institutions, and the other is of course HMRC, which is covered in the Finance Bill but not in this. My noble friend Lord Palmer referred to that as the elephant in the room. Those two wield the power, and then we hear the tale of small creditors, small businesses, pensioners and workers eking out a return.

In proposing this Bill, the Government have destabilised what had been a static relationship. Things are moving, and we need to understand in detail how the Government see all this movement shaking out. The Bill, letters and now assurances from the Minister have moved everything around. It is still not clear to me—perhaps it is clear to others—where the power has moved in the end. At the moment, it still looks as if the financial institutions will get increased power as a result of this Bill and HMRC will get increased power as a result of the Finance Bill. If that is not the case, I am happy to be surprised by the Government.

I will say just one other thing. I welcome the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, to perhaps look at different levels of pension fund debt below that of the Section 75 debt. That could be one way of alleviating some of the concerns. I hope the Minister is able to catch up on what the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, had to say just now, because there was some wise suggestion there.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I call the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. Is he there? No? I call the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank noble Lords for their amendments on these important issues and their comments in this short debate. The amendments include making additional changes to insolvency legislation in the provisions regarding the prescribed part, which is the amount of a company’s net property that must be reserved for the benefit of unsecured creditors when a company enters insolvency. There is what I take to be a probing amendment, which will provide the opportunity to discuss the effect of priority on creditors, such as pension fund deficit, as flagged by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles. There is also an amendment in this group from my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe to enable the regulation of pre-packs and connected sales in administration. As this matter is being dealt with in group 10, I hope my noble friend will not mind if her amendment is spoken to in full in that group.

The measures in the Bill are intended to help companies maximise their chances of survival during the Covid-19 emergency, to protect jobs and to support the recovery of the economy. That is why other measures that would not alleviate the impact of the current emergency have not been included in the Bill.

I shall first deal with the probing amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox. It is correct that the priority rules, which apply to some debts when a company enters insolvency following the end of a moratorium, change the way in which a company’s assets are allocated among different types of creditor, but the Government consider there to be compelling reasons why the moratorium provisions should give priority to certain types of creditor. These relate to rent and goods and services supplied during the moratorium, which will enable the company to pull through as a going concern.

For example, they include amounts owed to employees —which, as I am sure noble Lords agree, should rightly be considered a special category—and liabilities involving financial services, where default could result in the company facing a demand to repay a much larger amount, which would prevent the rescue of the company as a going concern. For the moratorium measure to operate successfully, it is essential that providers supplying these types of goods and services during the moratorium have some level of assurance that they will receive payment for those supplies.

The amendments from the noble Lords, Lord Hendy, Lord Hain, Lord Monks and Lord Stevenson, would change the value of the prescribed part and alter the way in which an insolvent company’s property is distributed between different categories of creditor. The rules for calculating the prescribed part were recently amended by statutory instrument in April this year. The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, asked how this was calculated: the proportion set aside for payment to unsecured is calculated at 50% of the first £10,000 of assets plus 20% of the rest up to—he was correct—a current cap of £800,000. This amendment was as a result of a consultation that ran between March and June 2018. As a result of these changes, the maximum amount of the prescribed part was increased from £600,000 to £800,000.

When this issue was consulted on, respondents expressed concern that further alterations to the rules for calculating the prescribed part were likely to have an adverse effect on lending, as floating charge holders may not be able to accurately assess their level of risk and anticipated recovery in the event of the debtor’s insolvency.

The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, asked why the Government have not introduced measures to support the provision of debtor-in-possession rescue finance for distressed companies, in line with other jurisdictions, such as the Chapter 11 arrangements in the US. While the current UK restructuring framework does not provide explicit debtor-in-possession finance provisions, it allows rescue finance to be used to help rescue a financially distressed company. The Government previously consulted on various ways in which rescue finance could form a more prominent part of the restructuring package but, at that time, feedback from stakeholders was that the new measures would still allow for rescue finance with all the features found in other jurisdictions. I hope that answers the noble Lord’s question.

Lastly, the noble Lord, Lord Fox, mentioned the Finance Bill and HMRC taking precedence. I am not sure that he is aware that its precedence relates only to moneys it holds on behalf of employees, such as national insurance. For the reasons I have set out, the Government are not able to accept these amendments. I hope the noble Lords will therefore withdraw their amendments.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I have received a request to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. We were unable to hear him earlier due to a technical error.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade)

My Lords, I want to make a brief point. The Minister’s response was interesting but very much couched in the existing paradigm. We seem to be in a situation where, as somebody said, the Government have lifted the lid on the debate over how we work out what goes into the insolvency waterfall, as it were, and how to compensate those who lose out as a result of that compression. Pensions should be part of wages and salary; they should not be where they are. Small businesses always seem to suffer. Thirty per cent is just a figure; it is beneficial but it does not go to the heart of the problem of how we deal with creditors and who comprises the neediest in terms of the analysis of what must be paid back and how that should be organised.

As the Minister was trying to argue, I think, there may be a short-term fix to get this thing back on the road, but these reforms will not be sufficient to resolve the inadequacies of the present arrangement. Does she agree that the time has come—but perhaps it is already too late—to review this area critically, with particular reference to issues such as debtor-in-possession financing? Obviously, there is a crisis because of Covid-19; that crisis provides an opportunity to say that we need to look at this issue again. This would be a good time to do so.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I take the noble Lord’s point. The point of the Bill is to provide emergency relief in the current crisis. The restructuring planned provisions that we have tabled and are taking forward in the Bill are flexible and will permit complex funding arrangements to be used in a company rescue. This will bring our regime more in line with other jurisdictions where debtor in possession rescue finance is well established. These measures will add to the UK’s existing first-class restructuring and insolvency framework and ensure that it keeps pace with developments in other highly regarded international jurisdictions.

Photo of Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank everybody who spoke in this wide-ranging debate. We have explored further how the Bill has been a catalyst for looking at some long-standing issues with the fairness of the insolvency waterfall in general. I hear what the Minister says about the April update but that is still broadly based on the original tenets.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, explained so well, the situation is different in modern times, with many more what would have been employees and other workers falling to the unsecured creditors. It is also they who are squeezed in the robbing of Peter to pay Paul that goes on in the adjustments to provide the impetus for a moratorium. We heard an interesting suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann—one she has made before, perhaps in connection with the Pensions Bill—that, instead of looking at Section 75 debt, which tends to make you throw up your hands in horror and run away, we should look at technical provisions or the amount that would go to the PPF; that is another part that could be preserved.

I thank noble Lords. We have more food for thought. I accept that new Clause A18 is perhaps not the place to introduce new priority protection—that probably belongs more in Schedule 3—but these matters are serious enough that they must be brought back at a later date. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.

Amendments 24 and 25 not moved.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 26. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister’s reply should email the clerk during the debate. The Minister should allow me to call these Members before seeking a decision on Amendment 26, and anyone wishing to press this or any other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.