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Free Trade Agreements: NHS/Public Services

Volume 658: debated on Thursday 25 April 2019

1. What steps he has taken to ensure that the NHS and other public services are excluded from future trade agreements. (910509)

7. If he will ensure that future free trade agreements do not (a) lower standards in and (b) lead to the privatisation of the NHS. (910516)

9. If he will ensure that future free trade agreements do not (a) lower standards in and (b) lead to the privatisation of the NHS. (910518)

As we leave the European Union, the Government will ensure that all future trade agreements continue to protect the UK’s right to regulate public services, including the NHS. I have been clear on a number of occasions that more trade should not come at the expense of the high levels of quality and protection enjoyed in the UK.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has made those comments, and I am sure we can all agree that, whatever happens with Brexit, our country must not be held to ransom by multinational corporate interests over the future of the NHS and other public services, so can the Secretary of State give a watertight guarantee that we will not see any trade deals that would drive up the costs of medicines and allow foreign firms to sue the UK over improvements in public health and standards in healthcare generally?

As I have made clear in questions and in debate in this House, if we look at trade agreements that we have already entered into, for example, in chapter 9 of the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement—the cross-border trade and services chapter—article 9.2 makes it very clear that the Government retain the right to regulate in public services. Any changes in the NHS should be a matter for domestic policy debate in the United Kingdom, and not anywhere else.

The UK is a world leader in healthcare provision, founded on the core values of the NHS. What steps is the Department taking to promote British expertise in this sector and sell those skills abroad?

There is not only enormous interest but enormous demand for UK expertise in healthcare, and we are committed to sharing that expertise and knowledge with the rest of the world. Research commissioned by Healthcare UK recently identified £3 billion to £7 billion of potential contracts for UK health organisations annually over the next 10 years. That is a lot of jobs.

Mr Philip Dunne—not here. Where is the fella? I hope he is not indisposed. We will have to proceed.

Free trade agreements are, of course, needed, and the EU has some very good ones, which is why the United Kingdom Government are copying them. But trading on World Trade Organisation terms is very expensive. What is the Secretary of State doing to dispel the notion that is abroad, particularly in his own party, that leaving the EU and trading on WTO terms is a good idea? If it was, every country would be walking out of their trade blocs and every country would be ripping up trade agreements. It is a very silly and very dangerous idea, and I hope he is doing his best to combat it.

I am not quite sure how that relates to the question on healthcare, but it is an important point that the WTO rules provide a baseline, and the way in which countries get preferential treatment beyond that baseline is very often through a free trade agreement. That is why we want to see free trade agreements beyond what we have today.

I welcome the assurances that the Secretary of State has given to the House here today, but can he confirm that the principal protections for public services related to the comprehensive economic and trade agreement are in fact to be found in the joint interpretative instrument, which does not have the same legal force as the treaty? Crucially, it cannot alter or override it. If we are to have confidence in the protections for our public services and the NHS in future trade agreements, these must be written into the text of the treaties. Does he agree?

However we get the assurances, that is what we need to do. In CETA, for example, they are contained in chapters 9 and 28, as well as annex 2 and the additional national reservation in annex 2. It is up to this House how we carry out public policy. For example, in the four years from 2006, Labour outsourced 0.5% of the NHS budget to the private sector each year, which of course fell to only half that level under the coalition Government. If Labour want to increase to their previous levels of outsourcing, they should be able to do so under a policy protection given under the treaties.