The government has rebutted accusations that a vast free trade deal being negotiated between the EU and the US will act as a cover to privatise the NHS while also watering down food standards and banking regulations.
The trade minister Lord Livingston argued that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) could add as much as £10bn to the UK economy a year.
His claims come as the campaign by anti-poverty groups and trade unions against the "secretive" nature of the negotiations is getting increasing attention. The deal is being negotiated behind the closed doors at the European commission, between EU bureaucrats and delegates from the US.
Campaigners say the talks are being driven by the interests of big transnational companies that want to deregulate markets. But Livingston countered that consumers stood to gain from more choice and cheaper goods, workers would benefit from higher wages as manufacturing makes gains and small companies would be able to break into export markets. The government estimates the average UK household will "benefit by as much as £400 a year".
The minister told reporters: "It's often talked about being a business thing but big benefits are going to come for consumers and small businesses."
Livingston, who was chief executive of BT until last year, said that during 2015 he hoped to see political agreement on TTIP, the largest bilateral trade deal ever negotiated. The deal will then have to be ratified by individual governments across Europe.
He rejected accusations that the process has lacked transparency, highlighting press briefings, consultations and a "huge amount of discussions". He added: "In many ways, it's the most open thing the EU in particular has done."
The future of the NHS under TTIP has become a key concern among the unions. Critics say the deal threatens to make the outsourcing of health services in Britain irreversible by allowing US multinationals, or any firm with American investors, to sue any future UK government that attempted to take privatised health services back into public ownership, since it would jeopardise their profits.
Livingston said the deal, which seeks to cut remaining trade tariffs and simplify regulatory rules, will not change anything for the NHS. "The NHS and how it chooses to operate will not be impacted by TTIP," said Livingston, a Conservative member of the House of Lords.
The anti-poverty campaign group War on Want have accused the officials negotiating the deal of trying to remove regulatory barriers that provide important social safeguards and environmental protection.
Livingston said European labour laws "will not be weakened in any way" by the deal and that there would not be any reversal of banking regulations brought in to avoid a repeat of the global financial crisis.
"I have talked a lot to UK financial institutions. None of them are wanting to use this to reduce standards or row back," he said. The negotiations were about reducing the varying sets of regulations and looking to a "single set of rules" instead, he added.
Livingston extended that principle to other areas. "This is not about reducing standards. This is about creating a single very high standard," he said.
John Hilary, the executive director at War on Want, reiterated concerns around the TTIP deal opening up public procurement markets to the private sector and he rejected Livingston's claims about the nature of negotiation process so far.
"TTIP is a bill of rights for business, negotiated in secret by the European commission, with all key documents kept confidential, even from our own elected MPs. Any claims of transparency in the negotiations are ludicrous," Hilary said.
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