As TUC Congress kicks off the headlines have been dominated by Frances O’Grady’s defence of Single Market membership. This is the culmination of months of recent debate in the labour movement around the commencement of the government’s Brexit negotiations and the policy of the Labour Party. Much of this debate has been reflected in the pages of the Morning Star and has tended to focus on the question of Single Market membership. In this blog, Jane Carolan, the former chair of Unison’s policy committee argues that we need to keep a focus on the role the EU plays in reshaping public services. Trade Union Futures invites more contributions on either side of the debate over the labour movement’s position on the EU.
Brexit and Public Services
Political and media discussion over Brexit has overwhelmingly focused on whether it should be “hard” or “soft”, whether free movement (and hence migration control ) was the principle motivator of the Leave vote , or whether membership of the Single Market is the only way forward. Trade union campaigns have focused on “workers’ rights” insisting on a level playing field between the UK and our EU counterparts.
This is a continuing theme from the trade union Remain campaign, based on a view that fundamental rights emanated from EU legislation. This supposed strength of the EU is brought into question by several ECJ rulings in favour of corporations, for example the Viking, Laval and Alemo-Herron cases. (1)
Yet arguments about the essential ideology of the European project were far wider before the EU referendum and for many years on the UK left included the serious threat posed to public services. The main thrust of European level economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation and privatisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness, the neo liberal agenda writ large . This has been reflected in European treaties from the early 1990s and the austerity programmes imposed in response to the 2008 economic crash.
However voices on the sidelines of the Brexit debate continue the conversation about privatisation and public services:
“One of the biggest prizes in the UK’s Brexit negotiations is the opportunity to devise our own public procurement procedures………The existing EU-inspired regulations are complex, time-consuming, and cost both the public sector and potential contractors hundreds of millions of pounds per year…….Our Brexit negotiations need to ensure that as soon as possible after March 2019 we withdraw from the EU procurement regulations which would be possible even if there was a transitional customs union.” Simon Randall CBE, former Bromley Councillor and local authority adviser on procurement matters
“APSE is calling upon the Government and all political parties to ensure local government services are protected. A future domestic framework, governing matters such as freedoms and powers for local councils, procurement regulations, environmental protection regulations, employment matters for the local government workforce and, most importantly, council budgets are treated fairly with the full involvement of the local government sector. In developing alternative plans, policies and any necessary legislative changes, local government needs to be fully consulted.” Paul O‘Brien Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE)
“Public services have been brainwashed by marketeers and ….. it is incredulous that little effort had been made to expose the limits of markets and neo-liberalism despite the major role this had played in creating the recession.” David Walker Guardian
Public services used to mean publicly owned, publicly delivered universal services. Public procurement refers to the purchase by governments and state-owned enterprises of goods, services and works. As public procurement accounts for a substantial portion of taxpayers’ money, governments are expected to carry it out efficiently and with high standards of conduct in order to ensure high quality of service delivery and safeguard the public interest. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must ‘comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality’. This means that all procurement contracts must be open to bidders across the EU and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries.
Thus there is an imperative to begin to frame a critique of EU procurement, competition policy and single market regulations to examine its effects on public services and public service delivery. More importantly, are there left alternatives that deserve promotion and not only challenge the neo liberal agenda but could bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs?
(1) For an alternative view see Brian Denny, EU Attacks Our Pay And Undermines Unions – Morning Star online https://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-6560-The-EU-attacks-our-pay-and-undermines-unions#.WbJcD4bTXqA
Jane Carolan retired from UNISON NEC in June 2017 and was formerly chair of UNISON NEC policy committee