Anti-TTIP protesters take to the streets. Photo: Getty Images
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People's concerns over TTIP must be heard

Public anxiety over the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership (TTIP) must be listened to, and addressed. 

An important vote was passed in the trade committee (INTA) of the European Parliament today, which will impact upon the future of a trade deal currently under negotiation between the European Union and the United States. If passed, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, will be the biggest agreement of its kind, shaping the rules governing a quarter of all global trade. It is also the issue about which I have received an unprecedented number of emails from constituents and campaign groups. Emails expressing concern that TTIP will lead to reduced transparency and accountability, pressures on wages and social dumping, a weakening of health and safety standards and a hampering of our efforts to tackle climate change.

I want to ensure that we get the best deal for European citizens. A positive outcome on TTIP could present a unique opportunity to regulate globalisation and to promote the high standards on which the European Union (EU) prides itself. This can only be achieved if the people it will affect are given the chance to have their say.

As Member of the European Parliament (MEP), member of the European trade committee and the European Labour Party's spokesperson on TTIP, it is my duty to ensure that these voices are heard in Brussels and Strasbourg, and since being elected in May last year I have made this a priority. I have met with hundreds of campaigners, attended dozens of events and written at length on the state of play in the Parliament. I have listened to the public's concerns and tried to explain in the clearest terms possible the complicated process of negotiations, so that UK citizens know what is and isn't at stake.

It is important to note that it's the European Commission, not the European Parliament, which leads negotiations on trade deals in the EU. In fact, MEPs have no role in the negotiating process at all. What we do have is the power to veto any trade deal that does not satisfy our demands or the demands of our constituents. This is a blunt tool - MEPs can only say yes or no - however the threat of a negative vote means that we can have an influence on negotiations, however indirect. Knowing that MEPs will have the final say, it would be very unwise for the Commission not to take into account the Parliament's position on TTIP.

As such, the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, together with other progressive political groups, have wasted no time in making clear what we are willing to accept in a final trade deal, and what we would reject. We have consistently pushed for the current European Parliament to formally adopt a position on TTIP, to set out in advance our conditions for supporting any deal with the US.

But in order to get this resolution, we need the numbers. Since we don't command a majority on our own, or even together with the greens and the radical left, this means agreeing common demands with the conservatives and / or liberals.

In this context, this week was a brilliant first step forward. A resolution adopted in the trade committee set out our position on a wide array of issues. It is, however, just a first step: the texts adopted in committee (by 41 MEPs) will then be voted by the plenary of the European Parliament, which will confirm the position on TTIP of all 751 MEPs. This crucial second vote will take place on 10th June 2015.

One such position contained in this resolution calls for an assurance that all public services - including the NHS, water, social services, social security and education - are exempt from the scope of an EU-US trade deal. Importantly, we have also demanded that national and local authorities retain the full right re-nationalise any public services currently under private control. In the context of the rapid privatisation of the NHS currently being overseen by the Conservatives, the inclusion of this clause will be highly significant for any future UK government wishing to reverse such a trend.

Anyone that has heard David Cameron call our concerns for the NHS "nonsense" last November will appreciate the significance of this victory.

This resolution is largely based on recommendations we've received from public services users, providers and employees. It was already the position of the Labour Party and European Socialists. It is now the position of the trade committee, and hopefully it will become the position of the whole European Parliament on 10 June.

We have also managed to secure strong provisions to defend binding labour safeguards in a future agreement, so as to prevent social dumping. The outcome on standards is significant, too. The text we agreed on the infamous "regulatory cooperation", which some multinationals and Tory MEPs view as a way to bypass Parliament in order to slash our standards, is a clear rejection of undemocratic power-grabbing of any kind. 

Finally, the outcome reached in the trade committee on private tribunals - known as Investor State Dispute Settlement or ISDS - is an important victory, even if it is not ideal. I had tabled an unambiguous amendment against ISDS, for which I had gathered the support of 66 Socialist MEPs.

My position on ISDS is clear. While we may include investment protection rules in trade deals, I do not believe that these rules should be enforced through special private tribunals in which multinationals can secretly sue governments for implementing policies that threaten their current and future profit margins. I have defended the use of national courts in TTIP, and I'm sympathetic to the idea of creating an international tribunal in the medium- or long-run so that all countries have access to the same system. However any outcome that threatens elected policymakers from implementing laws as they see fit is nothing short of unacceptable, and I will vote against any such measure.

The position adopted this week is a compromise on my amendment, though it nonetheless favours the use of public courts instead of any investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. To me this means no ISDS in TTIP.

This is not the end of our fight. On 10 June, the text we adopted this week in committee will be put to the vote in a plenary session of the European Parliament. This will give us the opportunity to table amendments again, and I will continue to press for a strong position from the Parliament that includes an explicit rejection of ISDS. Labour MEPs will of course support such a move, but in order to win this vote we will need the support of Tory, UKIP and Lib-Dem Members, too. This week's vote is proof that when the people make enough noise, MEPs with the power to influence positive change listen. Another big push to convince those politicians not already on side - via social media, via letters and emails and via collective public action - could make all the difference. As we approach this important next hurdle, I urge you to all to make your voices heard loud and clear.

 

Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for the North East of England

Photo: Getty
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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left