Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

– in the House of Commons at 5:00 pm on 9 July 2015.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment) 5:01, 9 July 2015

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important issue here today. While the public debate around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, seemed to quieten down after the white hot heat of the general election, the issue is once again in the spotlight following the debate on the Lange report in the European Parliament this week. It is right that, at this important moment in the development of this agreement, the House considers the deal and its possible implications for our public services, especially in light of yesterday’s vote—although it is an indicative vote, and therefore non-binding.

After two years of negotiations, TTIP remains a highly controversial issue across Europe. To date, almost 2.5 million people have signed a Europe-wide petition in opposition to the proposals. It is clear from that, and from the high degree of public participation in consultations on the issues, that many people remain highly sceptical about the detail of those complex negotiations. That mobilisation of public opinion is a credit to the tireless campaigning work carried out by organisations such as War on Want and other campaigns, including that of 38 Degrees, which plays a valuable role in helping to inform the debate on a range of issues and in affording people the opportunity to make their voice heard.

Before I move to the areas of most concern to my constituents and me, I should state that some parts of the current proposals, despite their faults, have widespread support. I agree with the fundamental principle that has underpinned the negotiations. Europe and the US should work together to increase trade across the Atlantic. Trade is good for jobs. Scotland alone enjoyed £3.9 billion of exports to the US in 2013, making the US our single biggest market outside the EU. The US remains the largest inward investor in Scotland, with investment supporting some 100,000 jobs. I support measures that would grow the market for Scottish products in the US, and back any plans that will attract new investment to Scotland to support our growing economy. Our export potential is huge, and we must do all we can to support Scottish firms in maximising that.

It is in that context that I support a reduction in tariffs that would allow Scottish firms to compete on a level playing field with US manufacturers, because that would be good news for Scottish jobs. Despite these potential benefits, however, several key aspects of the proposals serve to undermine the whole process as things stand. The lack of transparency around the negotiations has prevented proper scrutiny and diminished public confidence.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)

Does the lack of transparency in the negotiations not stand in stark contrast to my hon. Friend’s earlier point about the huge democratic engagement by the public on this issue and the huge concern expressed, including by several hundred of my constituents, before and since the election?

Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment)

I am sure my hon. Friend speaks on behalf of many of our hon. Friends’ constituents who have written to us with similar concerns.

It is unacceptable that Members of the House and the European Parliament have been prevented from properly examining the documents in the process. At one stage, Members of the European Parliament were only allowed to see the documents relating to the treaty in a secret room and could not even remove them. It is self-defeating to act in the public good but prevent the public from properly examining the work that is being carried out on their behalf.

It is also of great concern to many that, in order to standardise the rules governing markets in the US and the EU, TTIP will lead to the lowest common standard of regulations. The European Union in particular has been a force for good in the creation of world-leading safety standards, which protect the best interests of workers and consumers. It is one of the many benefits of retaining membership of the European Union. We should celebrate those successes, not seek to undermine them.

However, my main point is that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has the potential to undermine public services in my constituency and across Scotland and the UK. We need to take decisive action now to prevent this outcome. The Scottish Government have already made a number of representations to the UK Government and the European Commission about the possible implications of TTIP for Scottish public services, in particular the Scottish NHS and Scottish Water. I welcome the tone of the responses to date, which have contained encouraging words about how TTIP does not pose any threat to the NHS. In particular, I welcome the statement by the European Commission Director General for Trade that

“the net effect of the EU’s approach is that nothing in TTIP will lead to privatisation of the NHS”.

However, the fact remains that both the Scottish public and the Scottish Government must be able to see the final legal text of any agreement to be fully assured on this vital issue.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Scottish National Party, Glenrothes

I have been contacted by a number of people who work in the NHS and a number whose lives depend on a successful NHS. Their concern is that TTIP may be the first step along a road towards the kind of health service that we see in parts of north America, where the first thing they do with a casualty coming into hospital is check their credit rating before checking for a pulse. I hear what my hon. Friend is saying about the assurances we have had from the European Commission. Does she believe that the people of Scotland have had sufficient reassurances to take the Commission’s words at face value?

Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment)

I do not think we have had sufficient reassurances, but the people of Scotland can be absolutely assured that every one of my hon. Friends will be here to ensure that we continue to represent their best interests and protect the public services that are dear to our heart and, indeed, to the people of Scotland, whom we represent.

The lack of transparency on the detail continues to undermine the public statements made by Ministers and European officials. I am disappointed that yesterday the European Parliament failed to take the opportunity to amend the Lange report to explicitly protect public services such as the NHS and water.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

Does the hon. Lady agree that we would be better served by putting areas of trade on the positive list, rather than the negative list, so that we could include the areas of trade that we wanted in the trade agreement, as opposed to including all services, with only those named being removed?

Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment)

I agree with the hon. Lady.

What is demanded, and what we require, is a clear and unambiguous exemption from the deal that guarantees that democratically elected Governments in Scotland and beyond cannot be forced to privatise services and that any attempts to roll back previous privatisation will not be open to challenge under the new rules. These conditions must be explicit.

We come now to one of the areas of greatest concern: the process known as investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS. Including this type of measure in the agreement potentially undermines the right of European Governments to regulate effectively on a range of issues. As the Minister will be aware, the most relevant example of that is the recent action by the Uruguayan Government to legislate to increase the size of the health warnings on cigarette packs, in an attempt to reduce the number of people smoking and improve public health.

In response, the multinational tobacco giant, Philip Morris, used a similar process to sue the Uruguayan Government. The concern of many of us, including the Scottish Government and our trade unions, is that similar measures could be used by private organisations here to limit our democratically elected Government’s powers in a range of important areas. My right hon. Friend Alex Salmond has considerable experience in this area, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I understand that if he catches your eye he hopes to raise it before the Minister replies.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

Will my hon. Friend confirm that Unison Scotland has concerns about TTIP being a threat to the new public procurement legislation that has just been passed through the Scottish Parliament, whereby Scottish public bodies can take local environmental and social wellbeing concerns into account in contracts?

Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s position in relation to Unison. I am about to come to Unite in a similar respect.

In February this year, SNP Members of the Scottish Parliament, led by our First Minster, signed up to a pledge proposed by Unite, which stated, amongst other clauses, that

“TTIP must not give current or future US investors new rights that they could use to sue any level of government, public authority or NHS organisation because of their policies or actions relating to public healthcare.”

My colleagues and I absolutely support that pledge. Of course we welcome the recent developments announced by the Commission in May, but there is still some distance to travel if the final agreement is to gain our full support. This Government must clearly state to our European partners that the UK will veto TTIP unless we receive an explicit exemption for the NHS and Scottish Water as part of a general public sector exemption.

We are very proud of our public services. Governments in Scotland, the UK and beyond must therefore be able to manage those services for the greater good without fear that their democratic mandate might be overruled in the courts.

Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment)

I will make some progress.

I hope that the Minister can start to set out today how this Government are making progress in delivering the kind of deal that Scottish MPs and the Scottish Government can support and the current timetable for agreement and ratification. In particular, I hope he takes this opportunity to set out how Parliament will be able to scrutinise the final proposal before it is ratified. We must have a full debate on this important matter.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership undoubtedly has great potential to help grow the Scottish economy. We must ensure that that is not undermined by unwarranted and damaging provisions that put our public services at risk.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (International Affairs and Europe) 5:12, 9 July 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Ahmed-Sheikh on securing this debate. I thank her and the Minister for agreeing to my making a brief contribution on this subject.

I saw a few minutes ago at the closure of the Budget debate that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was in his place. Of course, he goes by the acronym IDS. He is a very controversial Minister at the present moment, as he should be, because he is at the heart of plans to impoverish millions of people across the United Kingdom and hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland. If IDS is a controversial acronym, then so is ISDS—the investor state dispute settlement mechanism that is at the heart of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership arrangement.

I congratulate my hon. Friend not just on securing this debate—her first Adjournment debate in the House—but on its topicality, because only yesterday in the European Parliament, by a vote of 447 to 229, there was an approval to revamp the disputed investor court that will be part of TTIP. The text proposes to

“replace the ISDS system with a new system for resolving disputes between investors and states.”

I know that the Minister will appreciate the extraordinary importance of not offering additional avenues for corporate challenge to democratic decision making. We have seen many examples in these islands over the past few years. The Government I led as First Minister of Scotland had to battle through the courts the insurance companies that were trying to prevent those suffering from pleural plaques from having access to compensation for industrial injury. I am delighted to say that the Scottish Government’s position was upheld first by the inner house and the outer house of the Court of Session—our highest court in Scotland—and then by the UK Supreme Court.

The Scottish Government are currently battling the Scotch Whisky Association, which is trying to prevent the implementation of the legislation that was passed and then endorsed by a democratic majority of the Scottish people in 2011 on the minimum pricing of alcohol, which we believe will save a substantial number of lives in Scotland and rebalance our relationship with alcohol. However, that is being challenged, blocked and tackled through the courts.

The United Kingdom Government are facing a legal challenge from British American Tobacco and other tobacco companies, such as Philip Morris, to the proposal on plain packaging for tobacco products, despite the fact that tobacco, as the Department of Health reminds us, costs 80,000 lives in England each year and a slightly higher pro rata number of lives in Scotland, where there are similar proposals from the Scottish Government.

We see corporate interests challenging the decisions of democratic legislatures and Governments. However, those challenges have happened through the domestic and European courts. The danger is that through the system of ISDS, a whole new dimension of challenge will be offered to corporate interests.

Does the Minister support the revamping proposal that was carried in the European Parliament yesterday? How can that give us assurance that the public interest will be protected from corporate challenge? Is he satisfied that we will arrive at a position where each and every democratic decision of this Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and other Parliaments across Europe will not be challenged by corporate interests, who see, as is demonstrated by the precedents cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire, in what otherwise might be seen as a welcome move toward free trade, an avenue to advance their own corporate interests?

In the Minister’s response, will the Government shape up and give us a position that shows that they recognise the danger, and will they assert, as all Governments and Parliaments should, the primacy of democratic decision making to protect the welfare of their people and the right to pursue democratically agreed policies without vested interests challenging them through a court process?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education) 5:17, 9 July 2015

It is a pleasure to respond to this Adjournment debate. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Alex Salmond are disappointed that I am replying to the debate rather than his new friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise. She was due to be here, but is on her way to “Question Time”, where she may well meet the right hon. Gentleman again. I shall do my best to respond to the debate on her behalf. If I do not adequately answer any of the detailed questions that have been posed, I will make sure that she writes to hon. Members with all the details.

I congratulate Ms Ahmed-Sheikh on securing this debate on an important subject that has been raised with me by constituents in a number of emails and letters over the past few months. I am glad she acknowledged that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a very beneficial free-trade area, and that her fine country and the entire United Kingdom rely on trade and have benefited from trade over centuries and generations. Indeed, we think that we are quite good at it and that we usually benefit more even than our trading partners from its expansion.

The Government are confident that the agreement will produce huge economic benefits on both sides of the Atlantic. Outside the EU, the US is the largest export market for British goods and services, and a successful deal could eventually boost our economy by as much as £10 billion each year. That is a large and abstract number, but it translates into additional disposable income of about £400 a year for the households that the hon. Lady and I represent. More money in people’s pockets, cheaper goods and services, more jobs, and new markets for small and growing businesses—those are the things that we are talking about when we talk about this agreement. It is not an abstract or technical process established by elites; it is an opportunity for people up and down the land to benefit.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions)

The Minister made an interesting point about a £10 billion benefit to the United Kingdom economy. Where did that figure came from, and what analysis was undertaken to produce it?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I do not have that information in my pack, but I shall be happy to provide it. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise will reply in writing to any detailed questions that Members may have.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I want to make a bit of progress, but I will give way later if I have time.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire referred to concerns, which have certainly been expressed to me, about the potential impact—or the alleged potential impact—on our national health service. All of us in the House have a responsibility to provide our constituents with the facts as we best understand them, and not to fuel scare stories. I therefore think it important to say that absolutely nothing in the proposed deal would threaten the public nature of our public services, and, in particular, our national health service.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

No, I will not.

The hon. Lady referred to, and I will now repeat, some of the words of the European Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström, who wrote to a Minister in January about the NHS. She said:

“member states do not have to open public health services to competition from private providers, nor do they have to outsource services to private providers”.

She also said:

“member states are free to change their policies and bring back outsourced services back into the public sector whenever they choose to do so, in a manner respecting property rights… it makes no difference whether a member state already allows some services to be outsourced to private providers, or not”.

The European Union negotiating position for the TTIP deal is to ensure that EU countries will be free to decide how they run their public health systems. The NHS—our NHS: the Scottish NHS, the English NHS, and the NHS in all parts of the United Kingdom—is not at risk from this agreement.

Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment)

I appreciate that you are able to offer some kind of comfort, but in yesterday’s vote, when there was an amendment for a specific opt-out from TTIP for the NHS, we were defeated. You supported us in the motion—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I let the hon. Lady get away with it the first time, but now that she has done it a second time, I must tell her that she must not address the Minister as “you”. In the Chamber, “you” means the Chair. The Minister is the Minister.

Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment)

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The Minister will have noted that the proposal for a specific opt-out was defeated in yesterday’s vote. How can he be so sure that we will be protected in any future agreement, and can we be assured that we will have an opportunity to debate it?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I shall come to the point about debating it, but let me first deal with the hon. Lady’s point about an opt-out.

Of course it would always be great for the text of any agreement to contain all the reassurances that are required, but, even before yesterday’s vote, the Government were entirely satisfied that the position regarding TTIP would not threaten the public status of our NHS or other public services. We were entirely satisfied that there was absolutely no intention on the part of the Commission in negotiating the agreement, or on the part of any other EU member state, to allow the status of either our public services or theirs to be threatened. We are satisfied with the substance, although I acknowledge that more reassurance for our constituents would be welcome if it could possibly be provided. I fear that, to some extent, the hon. Lady praised 38 Degrees, but I would not be so kind. I think that, all too often, that organisation whips up a great many ungrounded fears. It is important for us, as Members of Parliament, to try to reassure our constituents.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I must move on. I am afraid that there are a number of issues to be discussed.

The hon. Lady referred to—and the right hon. Member for Gordon also dwelt on—some of the questions relating to the ability that corporate interests might be given to challenge regulations. I want to be very clear about what will be involved. The ISDS tribunals will be able to grant compensation for actions and decisions by Governments according to regulations that investors can show to have been unfair or conducted in an undue way. They will not be able to overturn, amend or eradicate any regulations that Governments bring in legitimately.

As a believer in the rule of law and as a practitioner of that rule of law in other phases of his life, the right hon. Gentleman will understand that it is always important that every decision by Government, every rule and every law that we pass can be challenged in court or in proper tribunals by those interests that are affected by them. What matters is that ultimately the responsibility for changing or amending those rules rests with Parliaments, and there is nothing in the agreement that would alter that fact.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (International Affairs and Europe)

I deny absolutely the suggestion that I am a lawyer. I am an economist. I want to put that on the record. What was the revamping that was proposed by the European Parliament in the vote yesterday? Will the Minister explain how that revamping will improve and consolidate the protection that democratic decision making is going to have against challenge from corporate interests?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I will be glad to get the right hon. Gentleman a specific answer to that question. I do not believe in pretending to know things that I do not know, and I do not have the information required to answer it. I am sorry for having assumed from his eloquence in this place that he must at one point have been a lawyer. I agree that that is an appalling slur on any man’s character and I withdraw it unreservedly.

I want to move on to the important question raised by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire about whether Parliament will have an opportunity to consider the Bill. I want to be clear so, if hon. Members will forgive me, I will read a little from the text in front of me. The agreement is expected to be a mixed agreement to which the UK is individually a party. It will therefore be subject to agreement by member states’ Parliaments— including that of the UK—the EU Council and the European Parliament. As part of this process the UK Parliament will receive the complete draft text of the agreement to scrutinise in debates in both Houses.

I hope that provides the reassurance that the hon. Lady seeks. I note that the party that currently governs Scotland is now very adequately represented in this House and I note the level of interest shown by her party late on a Thursday afternoon, so I am sure that she and her colleagues will provide the level of scrutiny that she seeks.

In conclusion, I am certain that this agreement could have enormous benefit for the people of Scotland and the people of the United Kingdom. I am satisfied that the agreement will not threaten the public services that we hold dear and that we want in large measure to remain public—there is nothing in it that will do that. I am also satisfied that there is no process in it that will usurp Parliaments or democratic processes for changing regulations or laws, but I endorse and support the desire for proper scrutiny of an agreement that will be a very substantial commitment by all member states of the EU. I congratulate the hon. Lady for starting that process here this afternoon. I have no doubt that she will continue it over the months to come.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.