The government last night (19 January 2021) voted down a House of Lords amendment to its Trade Bill that prohibited the signing of any international trade deal that “undermines or restricts” the ability of the UK to provide a “comprehensive publicly funded health service free at the point of delivery”.
MPs rejected the clause by 357 votes to 266 after the Conservative Party unanimously voted against it, with Trade Minister Greg Hands attempting to justify this move by saying the amendment was unnecessary.
He insisted that “the NHS is not and never will be for sale” and that any claim otherwise was “offensive and absurd”, saying that for this reason “we do not see the need for this amendment”.
But with news today that the UK will deviate from the EU on workers’ rights – breaking another promise the government refused to put in writing – many will be suspicious of the Tories’ decision to ensure the sale of the NHS is legally possible.
It has long been understood that access to the UK’s healthcare system for American private providers is a key US demand in negotiations around a future trade agreement between the US and UK.
Shadow Trade Secretary, Emily Thornberry, pointed out that the power of the amendment would have been much wider than simply preventing private healthcare companies from edging out the NHS, as it also placed restrictions on the sale of patient data.
“This amendment cuts to the chase of the debate over whether the NHS is on the table when it comes to trade negotiations,” Shadow Trade Secretary, Emily Thornberry, said.
“To some people, that concept would mean private healthcare companies from overseas being able to compete against the NHS to provide taxpayer-funded healthcare, but in fact it is much more realistic and pernicious.
“What it means is those same companies winning a greater right to provide services to the NHS through open procurement contracts and thereby gaining access to the vast resource of NHS patient data, which, quite frankly, they have been actively pursuing for years.”
“This amendment seeks to prevent that, and I cannot see why any Member of the House would disagree with it.”
Johnbosco Nwogbo, of anti-privatisation campaign group We Own It, said last night’s vote was “frankly disgraceful” and that Conservative MPs should “hang their heads in shame”.
“We’re now at risk of higher drug prices, private companies having increased access to our NHS and those same companies being able to sue government if it tries to limit their ability to profit from our healthcare,” he explained.
“Worse still, parliament now won’t even have a say in any future trade deals – meaning our NHS could be offered up on a silver platter to the highest bidder, and we wouldn’t know a thing about it before a trade deal is signed and sealed.”
NHS workers will be concerned about how such a deal would affect their wages and workers’ rights, particularly as the increasing privatisation of public services since the Thatcher administration has led to a continual erosion of pay and conditions in the sector.
Other amendments to the Trade Deal rejected by the government last night included clauses that would have forced the UK to reconsider trade deals with countries currently engaged in genocide, and a duty to make a formal assessment of a country’s human rights record before making trade agreements.