EU Referendum

EU Remain vote 'won't stop Labour rail plans' - Benn

Hilary Benn being interviewed by Andrew Neil
Image caption Mr Benn said Jeremy Corbyn's views on the EU had evolved over the years

Hilary Benn has rejected suggestions that remaining in the EU would prevent a future Labour government from nationalising Britain's railways.

Plans put forward by Brussels would open up domestic networks to cross-border competition by December 2019, with mandatory tendering of contracts.

The RMT union says this would scupper Jeremy Corbyn's commitment to bring the railways back into public ownership.

But Mr Benn told the BBC it would still allow the state to award contracts.

The shadow foreign secretary and Remain supporter was questioned about the issue during a wide-ranging interview with Daily Politics host Andrew Neil, in which he was also challenged on immigration, employment rights and Jeremy Corbyn's views on the EU.

Under the so-called "fourth railway package", existing barriers to public and privately-owned train operators providing services across Europe will be lifted by 2020 with competitive tendering for contracts to "become the norm" by 2023.

'Fully liberalised'

It will be against the law to discriminate against new entrants into the market while any contracts directly awarded by individual states would have to meet strict performance targets.

The draft proposals, first put forward by the European Commission in 2013 as a way of increasing competition and efficiency, have been approved in principle by the Council of Ministers although they have yet to be signed off by the European Parliament.

At the moment, only a handful of countries, including the UK, have a fully liberalised train operating market.

Image caption Mr Benn said the UK had the best of both worlds when it came to Europe

At their conference last autumn, Labour members adopted nationalisation as official policy, calling for existing rail franchises to be nationalised when they come to an end and for a new "public operator" to reinvest profits by private rail operators into cutting fares.

The RMT rail union, which is campaigning for the UK to leave the EU, has said this policy will be rendered impossible by the new EU law.

But Mr Benn said he disagreed with the RMT's "interpretation" of the proposals. "I have looked carefully at this...The European Parliament has still to finish the process. It does allow for the direct awarding of contracts which we seek to do if we win the election in 2020.

He added: "It doesn't stop us doing what we want to do."

Workers' rights

While some Labour politicians, including mayor of London Sadiq Khan and former deputy leader Harriet Harman, have shared a platform with David Cameron, Mr Corbyn's appearances on the campaign trail have been few and far between.

Mr Benn was pressed on whether Mr Corbyn's support for remaining in the EU was in complete conflict with much of what he had said on the subject during his political career, including his scathing criticism of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

He said: "The Jeremy of today is campaigning for us to remain in the EU because a lot of things have changed since the Maastricht Treaty passed.

"Jeremy, the Labour Party, the trade unions are clear we are campaigning for us to remain in the EU because of what membership has given us - jobs, investment, growth, protected workers' rights, security, influence in the world and helping us to secure peace".

Mr Benn acknowledged that rights to paid public holidays were guaranteed by UK law well before before the UK joined the then European Community in the 1970s and were actually more generous than that.

And he insisted it wasn't scaremongering to suggest that a future UK government could potentially water down some of these rights, saying Leave supporters had described social protections as "red tape" and should be judged by their own words.

"You can have a floor of basic rights across Europe which protects workers and prevents a race to the bottom and top that up by decisions you take as a sovereign member state," he said. "You get the best of both worlds."

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