Leaving the EU: State Aid, Public Ownership and Workers’ Rights — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 11th December 2018.

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Photo of Laura Smith Laura Smith Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 2:30 pm, 11th December 2018

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 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.