Thursday, 2 June 2016

The European Union Referendum Question Time

Date & Time: 18 May 2016, 7pm-9.30pm.

Venue: RISC Conference Hall (above the Global Cafe), 35-39 London St, Reading RG1 4PS (parking at rear).

Panellists: Jonathan Hayward (Unite the Union: International Dept), Steve Hedley (RMT Senior Assistant General Secretary), Ragesh Khakhria (Trade Unionists Against the EU) and Cllr Matt Rodda (Labour Party).

Ahead of June’s EU Referendum, the Reading Trades Union Council cordially invites you to an evening of debate to consider the pros and cons of remaining within the European Union or leaving it. A panel of four prominent guests – representing both the ‘remain’ and the ‘Brexit’ camps – will take questions and comments from the floor. It should be an enlightening evening, aimed at assisting voters to make an informed decision about this most important subject.

If you would like to submit questions for the panel, please email them to with your full name. You will then be called upon to ask your question in person on the night.

The event is being organised by the Reading Trades Union Council, but (in line with the varied views of its affiliated trade unions), the RTUC does not endorse one side of the debate or the other. We are proud to act as facilitators – “Let the Public Decide!”

More information about this event can be found on the following Facebook page:

Reading Chronicle, 12 May 2016, p.8
Reading Chronicle, 2 June 2016, p.3

The European Union Question Time Debate: The Report
Organised by: The Reading Trades Union Council
Panellists: Jonathan Hayward (Unite the Union: International Dept), Steve Hedley (RMT Senior Assistant General Secretary), Ragesh Khakhria (Trade Unionists against the EU) and Cllr Matt Rodda (Labour Party)
Chair: Chris Reilly, Vice-chair, RTUC
Venue: Reading International Solidarity Centre, London Street, Reading
Date & Time: 18 May 2016, 19.00-21.30.
In an effort to afford the people of Reading a chance to listen to and partake in arguments for and against European Union membership, the Reading Trades Union Council organised a ‘Question Time’ event at RISC. The event was extensively publicised through Facebook and local trade union networks, and received media publicity through the Reading Chronicle, the Morning Star and Jack FM Berkshire.
Chris Reilly took the chair and, as well as receiving questions in advance of the event, invited questions from the floor before the meeting commenced. Chris then welcomed guests, gave an overview of the RTUC’s purpose and activities, and introduced the panellists. Each panellist was then invited to state their positions on the EU referendum in no more than five minutes.
Jonathan Hayward commenced, explaining that he is not convinced the majority of the population understands the magnitude of the decision to be made. The debate around EU membership is being hijacked by rightwing Tories fighting for party politics and the party leadership through the EU debate. The ‘leave’ campaign is using emotive arguments – ‘immigration, immigration, immigration’ – leading 80% of people polled considering immigration to be the key issue but only 30% of respondents seeing it as a personal issue in their locality or workplace. Jonathan argued that immigration did not cause the economic collapse of 2008, did not cause pressure on services, or pressure on wages. He argued for ‘A Better Europe, not No Europe’. The EU accounts for 46% of world trade, the UK does more trade with Germany than the USA, and we do more trade with Sweden than with the Commonwealth. The Tory right hates employment rights and Jonathan warned that, if we leave the EU, the Tories will attack our rights at work.
Steve Hedley began his five minutes by pointing out that he is an immigrant (from Ireland) whilst pointing out that EU immigration drives down wages in the UK. He also suggested that the EU institutionalises privatisation. It pushes rail privatisation, advanced by Britain in the 1990s, into an EU-wide policy. Regarding labour laws, Steve asserted that the EU has not repealed Britain’s anti-union laws. While Jeremy Corbyn promotes nationalisation, if elected he cannot introduce it into the rail industry as such a policy is against EU law. The EU ‘separates wheels from steel’ – the rail operator cannot be owned by the infrastructure maintainer. Steve pointed out that the EU did not defend workers in Ireland when an austerity tax was introduced, or Greece when trade union rights were suspended.
Ragesh Khakhria started his five minutes by asserting that he is an internationalist, socialist and trade unionist, but he felt the EU is ‘undemocratic in theory and in practice’. The EU parliament cannot propose legislation; this comes to the parliament from unelected commissioners. MEPs get block grants without need to present receipts for their expenses and flights to their home countries are paid for at business class rates. He pointed out that 79% of the UK’s trade is internal and the UK’s trade share with the EU is declining. The EU is the only trading block experiencing zero growth.
Matt Rodda, in his opening remarks, declared that his support for the EU is based on local, practical issues. Local employers are Reading University, retail, IT and the public sector. Reading has a large trade union membership in an expensive area of the country to live in, though with many people on modest incomes. Matt asserted that we cannot afford the economic shock of leaving. The uncertainty caused by an exit vote and a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU would lead to a ‘great recession’ which could take ten years to overcome.
Following these introductory remarks, Chris took a straw poll of the audience which showed 44% for ‘leave’, 44% for ‘remain’ and 12% undecided. Chris then invited the first question from the audience.
Question One: Does the panel think that Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne are not using honest arguments but instead are adopting devious, manipulative tactics which if you vote to remain will result in an illegitimate victory?
Matt Rodda began his answer by stating that he is not a fan of the Tories, but looks at the arguments of ‘remain’ Labour MPs.
Steve Hedley called the Tory ‘remain’ arguments ‘campaign fear’. He said they are disastrous arguments and dishonest. He also pointed out that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporter Owen Jones were anti-EU until Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party.
Jonathan Hayward said he is not interested in Tory arguments. He warned that the UK would break up if we left the EU and that the EU is for trade unions.
A member of the audience suggested that employment rights are the only determinant in the argument – exiting the EU would be disastrous.
Ragesh Khakhria replied that employment rights are not protected by the EU. Regarding the defeat of the miners in the 1980s and the anti-union laws since 1980, we were not helped by the EU.
An audience member stated that the Central Arbitration Committee and the Working Time Directive were brought in by the EU and these will go if we leave.
Jonathan Hayward said the EU didn’t give us rights – workers across the EU won them and EU membership rolled them out across Europe.
Question Two: The ‘Brexit’ camp holds the belief that the UK is drowning in a sea of EU legislation and red tape that holds back companies and people. In the event of ‘Brexit’ and the removal of EU laws and regulations, does the panel believe that the government will then continue to remove UK legislation?
Steve Hedley answered by asserting that he does not support ‘Brexit’ but ‘Lexit’.
Ragesh Khakhria asserted that the EU is destroying Greece, showing the EU at its worst. The left would have cheered if Greece had left the euro, but the EU wouldn’t let them.
Matt Rodda answered that the LSE reports Brexit would push us into a worse recession than 2008. Michael Gove and Priti Patel represent the right’s efforts to tear up workers’ rights on Brexit. The Tories are planning to redraw electoral boundaries in their favour, Scotland may leave the UK – if we leave the EU the Tories will be supreme in privatisation and withdrawing rights.
An audience member claimed that equal pay was won by the women workers of Dagenham. There have been twenty anti-union laws passed since 1980. The EU has done nothing to stop this.
Jonathan Hayward called the referendum a diversion. Cameron offered a referendum to the Tory right. The Left in Britain was not looking for a referendum pre-2015. The EU represents 50% of world trade and regulates capital. Syriza in Greece wants to remain in the EU. The European left support Britain remaining in the EU.
Ragesh pointed out that Norway and Switzerland are not in the EU but are two of the riches countries in Europe.
Steve answered Jonathan by pointing out that Syriza imposed more cuts that the previous right wing government in Greece.
An audience member noted that TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is being pushed by the EU which will dismantle workers’ protection.
Jonathan countered this by pointing out that the UK government is the biggest advocate of TTIP and that it must be ratified by all EU members.
The audience member objected to this, asserting that as TTIP involves no EU treaty change, no national ratifications are required.
Question Three: Where on earth are you going to put all these people coming in on an open border policy? There are already people living in sheds in gardens in one London Borough.
Ragesh Khakhria asked, why do people come here? The EU economy – Greece, Spain, Ireland – destroyed.
Matt Rodda revealed that Reading Borough Council has land for council housing and used to be able to borrow against the value of future rents – 1000 homes could be built. Sites exist for development. The Tory government won’t allow such development. Instead, developers buy and sell land for profit but don’t build on it. Planning permission gets granted but houses are not built.
A member of the audience suggested immigration is a domestic issue, not an EU issue. The UK has had a housing crisis for years – not just since 2008. New towns need to be planned and built to address the crisis. Trade unions need to organise immigrants and protect them from exploitation rather than accuse them of undercutting wages.
Steve Hedley said the EU allows undercutting of wages. The Laval and Viking cases allow workers in one EU country to be paid the minimum wage of their home country rather than that of the country being worked in. This could allow the minimum wage of another EU country to be applied in UK, undercutting the UK minimum wage.
Jonathan Hayward countered that the Laval and Viking cases led Sweden to legislate to protect their minimum wage – the UK government chooses not to do so. The EU will not tell the UK government what to do in this regard.
Question Four: What is the best way of protecting the UK from TTIP? Stop TTIP, leave EU – do the ‘out’ comrades believe that a Tory government would actually stop TTIP?
Jonathan Hayward, speaking from experience, pointed out that, with TTIP, British trade unionists often negotiate with other overseas trade unionists on its terms. The Tories advocate the worst aspects of TTIP. We’re better in the EU to fight than out to suffer its consequences.
Steve Hedley said: first, elect a left wing UK government; second, allow national self-determination.
Ragesh Khakhria asserted that TTIP represents everything that is wrong with the EU. Negotiations are conducted in secret by bureaucrats. An independence UK government would at least be accountable for decision made in negotiations.
Matt Rodda suggested that leaving the EU would see Scotland and perhaps Wales leave the UK and the left in a rump England would be powerless.
An audience member stated that struggle is needed daily – we can’t wait for elections. He asked the panel, yes or no, in Brexit, would the Tories reject TTIP?
Matt replied: ‘No’.
Jonathan replied: ‘No’.
Ragesh and Steve replied that we shouldn’t assume a Tory victory in the next elections.
Question Five: What will be the impact of the EU convergence obligation under the Stability and Growth Pact upon the UK budget between 2016 and 2020?
Matt Rodda pointed out that the Tories chose to cut taxes on the rich and increase VAT so the poorest would pay more. The UK government’s economic policy is not an EU diktat but Tory ideological policy.
Ragesh Khakhria stated that deficit spending can be 3% of GDP. Osborne has historically low interest rates, but refuses to borrow to invest.
Steve Hedley asserted that Greece is being forced to drive austerity by the EU. A left wing government under Corbyn would have to balance the budget – he would be restrained by the EU. The EU ideology is liberalisation – and the NHS is at risk. The EU is a ‘bosses club in the interest of business, not workers’.
Jonathan Hayward countered that you can’t blame the EU for the privatisation of the NHS – Blair and Brown initiated this. We will have more privatisation if we leave the EU.
With time drawing to a close, Chris Reilly took a final straw poll of the audience to conclude the event. This showed a slight movement in favour of leaving the EU, with 45% for ‘remain’, 50% for ‘leave’ and 5% undecided.
Report compiled by:
John Partington, Communication Officer
Reading Trades Union Council

Morning Star, 14-15 May 2016, p.20