An Afghan banana seller in Jalalabad, 2013. Each of the fruit contains more than the RDA of sugar. (Photo: Getty)
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Getting into state school Gove-style, milking the dairy industry and going bananas about sugar

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

Michael Gove has won praise for sending his ten-year-old daughter to Grey Coat Hospital, a girls’ comprehensive in Westminster. It is refreshing that a Tory education secretary has opted for a multi-ethnic urban school (nearly 30 per cent of its pupils don’t have English as their first language) and that his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, has written about “the miracle of our state education system . . . [which] welcomes all-comers”. Vine admits that “snobbery” (her word) plays a part when parents choose fee-charging schools. They are “paying for their child to mix with the right kind of kids”.

While giving the Goves due credit, we should note that they aren’t exactly sending their child to the neighbourhood comprehensive. She will travel more than five miles from their home in west London, bypassing several other comprehensives rated “outstanding” by Ofsted.

More important, you need nifty footwork to get your child into Grey Coat. It is not only a Church of England school but also a specialist language school, which admits 10 per cent of its children after an “aptitude” test. It is hugely oversubscribed, with more than six applicants for each place, and the criteria for choosing the lucky ones are exceedingly complex.

More than two-thirds of places are reserved for Christian applicants who have attended church with their family weekly for five years. The child must also acquire “points” from baptism, confirmation, Sunday school attendance and “a role in public worship”. Parents, too, must accumulate points from, say, “elected office in the church” and “practical involvement”.

In November, the schools adjudicator deemed these arrangements neither open nor fair as required by the government’s
admissions code. Working hours or childcare difficulties prevent some families, especially single parents, from participating in church activities, the adjudicator ruled. Did Gove take advantage of an admissions process that breaches his department’s rules?

Following Shephard

While we’re about it, it isn’t true that Gove is the first Tory education secretary to send a child to a state secondary. Gillian Shephard, in office from 1994 to 1997, sent two sons (actually stepsons, but their mother died young and Shephard raised them from infancy) to state schools. But Shephard is a woman, so I suppose she doesn’t count.

Dear dairy

Tesco’s latest cut in the price of milk – it will sell four pints for £1 – has led to another spate of stories about the imminent collapse of the British dairy industry. I do not know enough about the economics of farming to judge the veracity of these reports. I do know that, all my adult life, people have complained about things that, though the complainants do not realise it, are the result of successive (mostly
Tory) governments trying to make the British economy more “competitive”.

Rock-bottom milk prices putting farmers out of business? Blame it on the abolition in 1994 of the Milk Marketing Board, which once set prices according to production costs. Small, independent retailers going out of business? Blame it on the abolition in 1964 of resale price maintenance (RPM); RPM allowed producers to fix the prices at which their goods were sold. Unhelpful and ignorant sales assistants? Blame the end of RPM again, because retailers now compete on price, not on personal service. The country has repeatedly voted for more capitalism. It should now grin and bear it.

Sugar goes bananas

Is milk good for us? Who knows? Following advice on what to eat has as many ups and downs as following the England cricket team. Keep sugar to a minimum, we are told. Fine, many of us already call it “white death”. Now the World Health Organisation says we should aim to limit it to six teaspoons a day. A banana contains seven teaspoons, the WHO adds. I deduce that I should never eat a banana or, if I do, I should eat half, saving the other half for another day. On either day, I should take care not to eat an orange, which contains four teaspoons. Can that be right?

Tell me Hawaii

Sir Tim Rice seems baffled by the failure of his latest musical, musing that people don’t want new songs, only old ones repackaged. Reluctant to reject a production because it lacks popular appeal, I hastened to buy tickets before From Here to Eternity closes at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. The music was unmemorable, the set colourless (though it’s supposed to represent Hawaii, a tropical island), the choreography ragged, the historical context (the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941) barely evident. Sometimes, the popular verdict is spot on. Rice should try writing better shows.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.