By Scott Wright

SCOTTISH pub tenants have been dealt a blow in their calls for a code of conduct to be introduced to boost their statutory rights in the relationship between them and their powerful landlords.

MSPs on Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee have voted by a majority to not support the general principles of the Tied Pubs Bill, which seeks to strengthen the position of Scotland’s 750 tenants in their dealings with pub owning companies.

The proposed legislation stems from long-running concerns held by tenant campaigners over the beer tie, which compels tenants to buy beer and occasionally other products from their landlords, amid claims that the prices are set at an uncompetitive level.

Pub company landlords counter this by saying tenants are often on lower rents compared with the market, and receive other forms of support.

The Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) described the vote by the Holyrood committee as “baffling”, and declared that it effectively denies pub tenants in Scotland the rights that are enjoyed by their counterparts in England and Wales.

And it said the SNP members on the committee had voted against a principle that the party had supported with the introduction of a statutory code of conduct south of the Border, which has now been in place for several years. Moves are currently being made to bolster the code in England.

SLTA spokesman Paul Waterson said: “It really is baffling, especially when they are trying to strengthen the statutory requirements of the pub code.” Mr Waterson said Labour MSP Neil Bibby, the driving force behind the bill in Scotland, is “trying to give Scottish pubs the same rights as they have in England”, but noted his efforts have been “rejected by a coalition of the SNP and Tory party” in the Holyrood committee. This is despite the SNP block in Westminster supporting similar legislation.

Six members of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee voted for a recommendation to reject the principles of the bill, including four SNP members and two from the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Two MSPs, one Labour and one from the Scottish Green Party, voted against the recommendations, while one MSP from the Conservatives abstained. Mr Waterson expressed surprise at the lack of support given to tenanted pubs, whom he described as the “most vulnerable part of the industry”, at the height of a pandemic, which has put businesses in the trade under severe pressure. “The committee has had the chance to give something back… but they have not taken it,” he added.

The bill proposes to establish a Scottish Pubs Code to set out rules and procedures to govern the relationship between pub owning companies and their tied tenants, with a Scottish Pubs Code Adjudicator appointed to apply the code.

It would also ensure that tenants have the option of a “market-rent-only” lease deal, meaning that they could pay the market rate to rent the pub without having to buy products from the landlord, in effect ending the tie relationship. Furthermore, the bill recommends that tenants should have the opportunity to sell guest beers even if they remain tied, and that these products should not be restricted to those offered by the landlord.

However, in its stage one report on the bill, members of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee decided by majority vote that they do not support its general principles.

In a statement, the committee said the majority of its members “saw little evidence to suggest widespread problems exist that warrant primary legislation” when hearing from tenants who support the aims of the bill.

In spite of the vote, the bill can still survive. It must first pass the stage one debate, during which it will be subject to a vote by all MSPs.