Leaving the EU: State Aid, Public Ownership and Workers’ Rights Debate

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Department: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Leaving the EU: State Aid, Public Ownership and Workers’ Rights

Laura Smith Excerpts
Tuesday 11th December 2018

(4 years, 12 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Laura Smith Portrait Laura Smith (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered state aid, public ownership and workers rights after the UK leaves the EU.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to have been selected to sponsor this important debate. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and the Minister. Their presence underlines the importance of this issue.

I do not need to spell out that we are having this debate in the context of what appears to be gridlock in Parliament. There is no clear consensus about what priorities should shape our future relationship with the EU. Today was supposed to be a day on which we made at least one decision, but even that is no longer the case. I wanted this debate to take place outside the main Chamber to ensure that its content was not considered purely in the context of the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. Instead, I wanted it to inform the wider, ongoing debate about what the future relationship might look like.

I have chosen to consider these three policy areas for three reasons: first, because they are tools with which the UK Government could transform our economy and society for the better; secondly, because I believe that there is public support for their use by the UK Government; and, thirdly, because I am concerned that there is some friction between the effective use of these tools and EU law. This year, research by the Institute for Public Policy Research concluded that the public want to take back control and expand the role of the state, not reduce it. It suggested that there is no mandate for a buccaneering Brexit based on a race to the bottom in pursuit of even freer markets. Instead, the public want higher environmental standards, tougher regulation and a greater use of state aid, even at the cost of freer trade.

For balance, I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that EU law bans all forms of public ownership. Nor am I suggesting that the EU prevents all forms of state aid. Indeed, there are several exemptions, and where there are no exemptions a member state can seek the approval of the European Commission. I will come on to workers’ rights later in my speech, but I acknowledge that the EU has sought to create a floor for minimum employment standards. In theory, it should prevent a race to the bottom. Those are, without doubt, important safeguards.

I was more than troubled to read that the withdrawal agreement referred only to the non-regression of labour standards. I am deeply worried that exiting on that basis would leave the British workforce exposed to the risk of seeing their statutory rights gradually eroded or falling behind those of their European counterparts.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con)
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I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is right to have secured this debate in this Chamber. Before she moves on to employment rights, I want to take her back to state aid. How does she think it will be different, given that the UK helped to develop the EU’s state aid rules, and the withdrawal agreement says that there will be a level playing field, which suggests that the sort of things we see now will be incorporated?

Laura Smith Portrait Laura Smith
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will come on to that issue, and specifically the level playing field, later in my speech. I hope that I will answer his question shortly.

One would have to be wilfully blind to argue that there is no tension between EU law and the pursuit of a heightened role for the state in our economy. For now, I want to move on to discuss public ownership, which can take various forms. I am not advocating organisations that are owned by the Government but behave in the same way as for-profit companies, focusing on financial goals and insulated from democratic control, but the dogmatic obsession with privatisation in the UK in recent years has been exposed as a failed and outdated ideology. Hon. Members no doubt represent workers in their respective constituencies who were affected by the collapse of Carillion, which cost the taxpayer at least £148 million. There were also the failures of the east coast main line and Northern rail services, and the emergency takeover of Birmingham Prison—the list goes on.

Our public services have been siphoned off and are run by private companies interested only in extracting profits to line the pockets of their shareholders, instead of reinvesting them to improve the service or reduce consumer bills. The privatised water companies have paid out £18 billion in dividends to shareholders over the past 10 years.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab)
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My hon. Friend is making a very important point about how water companies work. In Wales, we have Dŵr Cymru—Welsh Water—which is a publicly owned company that reinvests in the water network and reduces people’s bills. There are very real examples of how water companies can work for people, and we have the best example in Wales.

Laura Smith Portrait Laura Smith
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I thank my hon. Friend for that example.

In the name of efficiency, our public services have been handed to those offering the cheapest services, often at the expense of our public sector workers, who have paid the price with their pay, their terms and conditions and even their jobs. Public ownership does not just bring an end to such bad practices. Done right, it can be used to combat inequality, political disenfranchisement and underinvestment.

Jim Cunningham Portrait Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. If she wants a good idea of what workers’ rights will be like if we come out of Europe, she has only to look at the recent anti-trade union laws passed by the Government. That will give her a good idea of what will happen to workers’ rights. She talks about privatisation, and Crossrail will now cost an additional £2 billion. These are the issues that we have to consider. My third point is that there is no guarantee that the national health service will survive in its present form when it is opened up to predators from the United States. These are the issues that, at the end of the day, affect people’s jobs and livelihoods. There is no attempt whatever to provide future funding for university research and development, which affects manufacturing in this country in a big way—I asked the Chancellor a question about this this morning. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Laura Smith Portrait Laura Smith
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I agree with the points that my hon. Friend makes, and I share his concerns.

Economic democracy can empower groups and individuals who are otherwise excluded. Involving workers, the public and other stakeholders in economic decision making has both societal and economic benefits. Democratic participation can also enhance the effectiveness of publicly owned enterprises by tapping into grassroots forms of knowledge and the direct experience of employees and users of public goods and services. Democracy, if we are to view it as a vital part of popular sovereignty, must extend far beyond the ability to elect Governments every now and then. The active exercise of individual worker and community member ownership rights is a prerequisite of genuine democracy.

If those campaigning to leave the EU were at all serious about taking back control for the British people, they will recognise the role that democratic public ownership can play in tomorrow’s economy. It can be used to mobilise our economy in pursuit of other policy objectives. For example, democratic public ownership of our energy system could allow us to put tackling climate change at the heart of our energy system in a radical way, while protecting the industry’s workers throughout any energy transition. It is popular: opinion poll after opinion poll demonstrates that the public are crying out for more public ownership, even given the option of “whatever works”.

EU law specifically allows for the public ownership of a service provider, yet the treaty that contains that provision also sets out an economic policy based on an open market economy, with free competition and the liberalisation of services given special status. Some commentators have suggested that remaining subject to EU law will make the reversal of market liberalisation highly problematic for a UK Government who wished to do that.

To take the postal service as an example, the third postal services directive, adopted in 2008, established a clear floor for the postal market, ensuring that collection and delivery take place at least five days a week. At the same time, it has promoted competitiveness for its own sake, which has driven down standards and posed a threat. It fails to see the market as a natural monopoly, and insists that it must remain fully liberalised, restricting the UK Government’s ability to eliminate the market to sustain the publicly owned provider.

Although public ownership of the carrier is not prohibited, it is difficult to see how a UK Government who remain subject to EU law could create a public monopoly with workers and service users at its heart, and with the necessary cross-subsidisation to allow such services to thrive. As far as I am concerned, a true level playing field would establish regulations to ensure that private sector carriers could not undercut prices, and would include a re-establishment of collective bargaining, which I will mention later.

There are similar challenges in the energy sector. The European Court of Justice’s Essent ruling found that the Dutch ban on private ownership of shares in the energy sector amounted to a breach of free movement of capital. The experience in Germany shows that it is possible to create publicly owned energy companies to rival private energy suppliers, but only within the parameters of EU competition law. The recent fourth railway package poses similar challenges in the rail sector.

I briefly draw hon. Members’ attention to a recent dispute at Royal Bolton Hospital. In Alemo-Herron, the ECJ ruled that private employers that take on the provision of public services cannot be required to pay transferred staff the pay rises that they would have had if they had remained in the employment of the public sector. By prioritising the rights of private companies to business freedom over the rights of workers who find themselves in that situation, EU law creates a financial incentive to privatise our public services.

On state aid and public procurement, I recognise that the UK has not made full use of the flexibilities on offer to it as a member state. As with all other aspects of the debate, I do not blame the European Union for the pursuit of neo-liberal policies by successive UK Governments. This Government have certainly not needed any encouragement in that respect. I also accept that there will always have to be some rules to facilitate fair trade, but the EU state aid rules are far more stringent than those in the WTO subsidies regime.

Earlier this year, I called on the Government to provide funding to cover the cost of pay owed to care workers who were found to have been paid less than the minimum wage. The failure to do so risked bankrupting care providers and putting many vulnerable people at risk. The Government, however, had to discuss the issue with the European Commission because of concerns that state aid rules would prevent them from taking such action. I am not sure whether those discussions reached a conclusion before the Court of Appeal’s July ruling.

In addition to restricting the UK Government’s ability to react to certain economic events that threaten our industries, those state aid rules can restrict our ability to intervene proactively to support individual industries or domestic supply chains as part of a comprehensive industrial strategy.

Dan Poulter Portrait Dr Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con)
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I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. She is making some fair points, but I take issue with the last one. There has been a very effective deployment of state aid to expand broadband provision throughout the United Kingdom, which she surely welcomes as a positive boost to the UK’s infrastructure, and to help our public services. There are some good stories to tell, despite the general recognition that the level of state aid in the UK is much lower in comparison with that in many other EU countries.

Laura Smith Portrait Laura Smith
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know everybody says this, but I will come to that later, when I address broadband specifically. I agree that improving that infrastructure is essential.

The recent research from the IPPR that I mentioned earlier concludes that the public place more weight on returning powers to expand the use of state aid than to deregulate, with 53% showing a preference for allowing the Government to support and protect our industries, while only 26% preferred conformity with EU state aid rules to secure a far-reaching EU trade deal.

The variation in WTO-plus agreements suggests to me that a bespoke trade deal could, in theory, include room for structural subsidies. Those could, for example, support industries of particular national value or natural monopolies, where cost reductions would be beneficial and would have no impact on other countries. In that sense, Brexit offers an opportunity to redefine what a true level playing field looks like.

The Communication Workers Union suggested that there would, in theory, be a strong argument for rolling out superfast broadband everywhere, supported by the state, which takes us back to the point made by the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). Not only is that a natural monopoly, but it is a driver of social and economic wellbeing, as he pointed out. A similar argument could be made for our post office network.

With regard to the withdrawal agreement as it stands, the Attorney General has made it quite clear that in the backstop, restrictions on state aid are hardwired, and new restrictions could be introduced even if they are not in our national interest. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified whether he expects our future relationship with the EU to be substantially different or based on a parallel system. In the same way, the EU procurement directive is far more restrictive than the WTO agreement on government procurement. I would support, for example, limiting eligibility for public procurement contracts to companies that can demonstrate ethical maximum pay ratios and gender pay ratios, yet the EU procurement directive raises questions as to whether that would be compatible with single market rules.

There will undoubtedly be risks to workers’ rights if we leave the EU. Parliament is currently considering a deal that refers only to “non-regression”, when it would surely have been possible to ensure that British workers enjoy at least the same statutory rights as their European counterparts, as part of what I would describe as a genuine level playing field. We must also consider collective bargaining. I do not want to stray into a debate on the benefits of collective bargaining, but suffice it to say that I believe that rolling out sectoral-level bargaining will bring far more than just improvements to workers’ wages or employment conditions, and, alongside other reforms, it can give workers a real stake in their industries, and is another prerequisite for democratising our economy.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore
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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again, and she is making some important points. She has talked throughout about a level playing field for workers’ rights and state aid. Does she agree that it is extremely important that the UK Government work with both the Scottish and Welsh Governments where there are devolved responsibilities, to ensure that there is a level playing field? That applies particularly to future funding for communities such as mine, which received objective 1 and objective 2 status, and where Welsh Government Ministers are responsible, for example, for the NHS pay structure and, from next year, for teachers’ pay?

--- Later in debate ---
Laura Smith Portrait Laura Smith
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I am grateful once again to my hon. Friend, who makes some excellent points on devolved Governments.

Long before the formation of the EU, British workers’ rights were largely gained through industrial organisation and collective bargaining. Many statutory rights that have been introduced have simply extended those rights so that they can be enjoyed universally by workers not covered by those collective agreements and contractual rights. Although I do not blame the EU for the declining role of trade unions in the British economy, I am concerned that it is heading in the same direction.

The level of collective bargaining coverage is falling across Europe, under pressure from troika policies. To highlight the direction of travel, a report prepared by the European Commission’s directorate-general for economic and financial affairs lists the following “employment-friendly reforms”: decreasing bargaining coverage; decreasing extension of collective agreements; decentralising bargaining systems; removing or limiting the favourability principle; and overall reduction of wage-setting power by trade unions. The same report lists other reforms not related to collective bargaining, including loosening the conditions for dismissals and decreasing notice periods and the level of severance payments.

We must also consider the fact that under EU law the four freedoms of business—to provide services, establish business, move capital and move labour—trump all other rights. I have already highlighted the Alemo-Herron case, in which the right of workers to the benefit of collective bargaining found in the UN charter, the European convention on human rights and the International Labour Organisation declaration was not mentioned. Also, the more well known cases of Viking and Laval, amplified by the Holship ruling, reinforce the fact that under EU law the right to take industrial action will always be treated as subservient to the four freedoms. Furthermore, the directives passed by the EU on individual employment rights have been limited in scope. For example, the agency workers directive appears helpful in principle, but is reported to have led to a massive increase in the number of agency workers across Europe who do not enjoy the same full rights as their directly employed counterparts.

That is not to dismiss the significance of EU-derived employment rights and, as I have said, I am more than disappointed to see that the Brexit deal as it stands refers only to non-regression. Our existing rights must be protected, and safeguards should have been included to ensure that British workers never fall behind their European counterparts, as part of that truly level playing field. However, as hon. Members look for alternatives to the discredited deal, we should also be conscious that the EU is not the beacon of workers’ rights that it is sometimes made out to be.

To conclude, I ask that for a moment we consider the historic vote to leave the EU. The national turnout was the highest ever for a UK-wide referendum and the highest for any national vote since the 1992 general election. Despite the main parties campaigning to remain and interventions from all sorts of interested parties about the impact that leaving would have on our economy, the public voted to leave the EU, albeit by a small margin. In my constituency, that margin is estimated to have been somewhat wider, at 41% to remain and 59% to leave.

I am sure that everyone present is also aware of the research conducted by Lord Ashcroft that concluded that the three lowest social groups voted to leave by a majority of two thirds. In that same poll, the single reason most frequently given for voting to leave was the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK. One year later, more than 80% of voters cast their vote for parliamentary candidates representing parties promising to respect the result of the referendum—a promise that I also made to the constituents whom I represent.

Since June 2016, I have done a lot of reflecting about what the result really meant. In the end, I decided that many complex and interacting factors probably influenced it, and that making sweeping generalisations would be unhelpful. One thing I concluded, however, as I am sure everyone present did, is that to ignore the result would be a profound and unforgiveable mistake. The referendum was an extraordinary exercise of democracy. If the result in 2016 was anything, it was a demand for change by those who benefited the least from our economic status quo. What is more, it was an expression by a majority of the electorate—however small and for whatever reason—that that change was best achieved with the UK outside the EU.

Even if hon. Members do not feel that expanding public ownership, state aid or workers’ rights are desirable policies, I ask them to consider the long-term consequences of lending support to any deal that further hollows out our democracy or locks us into the economic status quo. I therefore strongly urge Members to reject the single market, along with its legal framework, should such an option appear before the House. To do so is not to retreat into isolationism, protectionism and nationalism; on the contrary, it could herald the beginning of a new internationalism.

Of course we want the fullest access to all markets for our businesses, but the expansion of international trade, including in services, has not required a single market or a similarly restrictive framework. We must be vigilant to ensure that any other deal includes the necessary protections, clarifications and exemptions, so that we can use such policy tools effectively to rebuild and empower our communities, our public services and our economy in every region of the UK. I believe that there is public support for a new type of economy, one in which the state plays a more active role, in which ownership by, and accountability to, the public is included, and in which those who work within those industries are rewarded properly for their labour.

--- Later in debate ---
Laura Smith Portrait Laura Smith
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Thank you to my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and for Stroud (Dr Drew), to the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Henley (John Howell), and to all other hon. Members who made interventions. I thank the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who is incredibly brave, battling through his cold—well done. I also thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), and the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who stepped in at the last moment.

There have been some excellent contributions on the importance of workers’ rights and the popularity of public ownership. I agree that it is UK Governments who are responsible for the privatisation of public services and the casualisation of labour.

On the points made by the hon. Member for Henley, my concern was precisely that the rights of workers in the charter in the European Court of Human Rights were not mentioned in the Court of Justice of the European Union ruling in the Alemo-Herron case. I was not criticising the ECHR or the Council of Europe—quite the opposite, in fact. I was pointing out that the workers’ rights afforded by the ECHR, which appeared to have no bearing in the Alemo-Herron case, were trumped by the four freedoms.

On the point about Birmingham prison, I stand by my view that the evidence is mounting up rapidly. The obsession with outsourcing and privatisation is a failed project that is costing the taxpayer and the workers in those services an awful lot, while letting down those who rely on the services.

Finally, the current withdrawal agreement means dynamic alignment with EU state aid rules, so it is important that we gain a full understanding of them and the likely direction of travel. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that the UK Government have made conscious decisions not to aid industry in the way that other EU countries have done. The point is that our national Parliament understands and is happy that the future state aid framework and regulations around public ownership allows for proper democratic debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered state aid, public ownership and workers rights after the UK leaves the EU.