Leaving the EU: State Aid, Public Ownership and Workers’ Rights DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Laura SmithMain Page: Laura Smith (Labour - Crewe and Nantwich)
(2 years, 9 months ago)Westminster Hall
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
It is, as always, a great pleasure to see you in the Chair for this afternoon’s proceedings, Mr Hollobone.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) on securing this debate. In some respects it is timely, because the actions of the Prime Minister yesterday have perhaps moved us a little closer to a no-deal scenario, which would be catastrophic for jobs and our communities, although my argument is that that is not a new phenomenon.
The British Government have left key Scottish industries without support for decades, and are now set to subject our firms to a Tory Brexit race to the bottom. Communities in Scotland, whether those of Linwood, Ravenscraig or Methel, know fine well that British Governments simply cannot be trusted to protect jobs and people’s livelihoods. I welcome the opportunity to shine a bright light on the stark contrast between the privatisation-obsessed British Government and a Scottish Government who believe in a thriving, healthy public sector. Westminster, not the EU, sold off our public services.
Thanks to the Scottish National party, Scottish Water, the island ferries and our NHS have all remained in public hands. In sharp contrast to the increasing health privatisation by Westminster Governments, the SNP Scottish Government have kept, and will always keep, Scotland’s NHS in public hands. Unlike water suppliers elsewhere in the UK, Scottish Water has remained a statutory corporation that provides water and sewerage services across Scotland, and it is accountable to the public through the Scottish Government.
Caledonian MacBrayne is the major operator of passenger and vehicle ferry services between the mainland of Scotland and the 22 major islands of Scotland’s west coast. Glasgow Prestwick airport is also operated on a commercial basis, at arm’s length from the Scottish Government, in compliance with European Union state aid rules, and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd is a public corporation wholly owned by the Scottish Ministers, which operates 11 Scottish airports that are vital to the social and economic welfare of the areas that they serve—some of the most fragile communities in our country. The reality, however, is that they are loss making and supported by subsidies from the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Government are also pressing ahead with plans for a national investment bank and a public energy company, supporting our position as a leading EU mixed economy. Last September, the First Minster announced plans to establish a Scottish investment bank, and we may hear more about that later this week. On a personal level, as someone who wants to see much more state ownership, I am genuinely delighted that the Scottish Government are on track to deliver their ambition of a public energy company by the end of the Parliament in 2021. Even better, there will be a public sector bid to run the railways in Scotland—long overdue, in my view. In Scotland, we have a good story to tell about our commitment to workers’ rights, protecting jobs and putting more services in public hands.
I now turn to the real threats to workers’ rights as a result of our exit from the European Union. History shows us that the EU has forced successive Westminster Governments to improve workers’ rights. Such rights must not be put at risk by a Tory Brexit race to the bottom. It is important that we reflect on them and take stock of just how much EU membership has improved workers’ rights. For example, the EU’s working time regulations were introduced in the UK in 1998, meaning that employees cannot be forced to work more than an average of 48 hours a week and should get a rest time of at least 11 consecutive hours. Equal pay between men and women has been enshrined in EU law since 1957, and the 1992 EU pregnant workers directive guarantees women a minimum of 14 weeks’ maternity leave.
Make no mistake: leaving the European Union and allowing the British Government to take charge of those rights is a deeply retrograde step that will lead to a bonfire of workers’ rights. That is why, even at this late stage, I appeal to Members on the Conservative and Labour Benches to join us to end the Brexit chaos. If they do not, or will not, they should not be surprised when Scotland unhooks the tow bar and takes us on a different path of independence.
I am not going to pre-judge what is taking place as we move towards a clear, definable free trade agreement with the European Union and the discussions that will happen after the political declaration. We have made that commitment, but actually we want to make sure that the United Kingdom has the ability to ensure that UK rights are clear, definable and stronger. They are already stronger than those in many European countries. We will continue to ensure that we have the reputation I mentioned: being the second best country in the EU for workplace wellbeing, behind only Sweden. It is important for our global reputation that we maintain that.
On the point about the EU workers council, if the EU withdrawal agreement is not approved we will still unilaterally protect workers’ rights in relation to European workers councils, as far as we can. However, to protect them fully, we require a deal with the EU, which sets the rules governing the establishment of a new European workers council. That is why I believe that the withdrawal agreement is so important to ensuring that we have no reduction in workers’ rights.
We will go further than the minimum labour market standards guaranteed in a withdrawal agreement. The Government will protect workers’ rights to ensure that they keep pace with changing labour markets. I hope the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich agrees that our approach on these vital issues will help secure the best possible deal for the UK as we leave the European Union.