I am not opposed in principle to free trade agreements, including with the US. Trade brings prosperity to the UK and we will need to agree new deals that benefit UK workers and businesses of all sizes. However, these agreements must serve our long-term interests. Crucially, they must not undermine or threaten our NHS or any other public services.
Healthcare is one of the biggest industries in the US. The US Government is therefore sure to seek a UK-US trade deal that will benefit US healthcare companies. This is clear from the US Government’s negotiating objectives for such a trade deal, which include access to our service markets. Exceptions to this access, it says, should be “on a negative list basis” – where all services are included unless explicitly excluded. It also says it will seek to ensure drug price regulations “provide full market access for US products.”
The UK Government says the NHS and the price it pays for drugs will not be on the table in talks with the US. However, when given the opportunity to put this commitment into law in the Trade Bill, the Conservative Government resisted doing so.
I supported an Opposition amendment to the Trade Bill that would have stated explicitly that the NHS would be exempt from the provisions of future trade agreements. This would have included exemption from clauses entrenching existing privatisation in our public services, as well as protection for our drug-pricing mechanisms. Unfortunately, Tory Government MPs voted down this amendment. This means there is now no legal safety net preventing this or any future Government from including the NHS – whether intentionally or inadvertently – in its trade deals.
I also supported New Clause 4 (NC4), which would have stopped trade deals being signed unless they were approved by Parliament. This would provide not only some of the framework for international trade negotiations that a modern democratic country ought to have, but also, as campaigners have highlighted, a means for MPs to protect the NHS in trade negotiations. Unfortunately, NC4 was also defeated.
It is worrying that these defeats leave the US Government and healthcare companies free to pursue their goals in a UK-US trade deal. Nevertheless, I can assure you that I will continue to do all I can to protect our NHS.