7 October 2020
In July we outlined three reasons why Conservatives in the House of Commons should vote to amend the Trade Bill that was then before them to include the NHS protection amendment.
Incredibly, despite the pressure that was mounted on them by members of the public, 75% of whom, in our recent poll, said they wanted our NHS to receive special protections in any post-Brexit trade deals, the majority of MPs (all but one of them Conservative) voted against explicit protections for our NHS in the Trade Bill.
The House of Lords passed that amendment in December, and MPs now have another opportunity today, Tuesday 19th January, to protect our NHS from trade deals.
Here are four things the NHS protection amendment would do and why MPs must pass it today:
1. It would prohibit the sale of NHS patient data to private companies
The text of the amendment states: “The condition in this subsection is that the agreement… prohibits the sale of patient data, public health data and publicly provided social care data.”
We have already seen many people express some reticence over downloading the NHS Covid-19 app due to privacy fears. But what many of us do not know is that the data we give to the NHS when we visit our GP or fill out an online form about our symptoms is already being sold. According to a report by The Observer in December 2019, data from millions of NHS patients has been sold to US companies for research without the consent of the patients. That is an outrageous betrayal of our trust. This amendment would prevent such betrayal.
2. It would protect the rights and terms and conditions of employment of NHS workers
The text of the amendment states: “The condition in this subsection is that no provision of that international trade agreement in any way undermines or restricts the ability of an appropriate authority… to protect the employment rights or terms and conditions of employment for public sector employees and those working in publicly funded health or care sectors.”
The Covid-19 outbreak has really shown us just how important to the health and wellbeing of our nation the people who work in the NHS are. Over the last 7 months, they have risked their lives and worked unforgiving hours, and they have done so with a smile on their faces. We should be raising their wages and benefits, not placing them at risk of worsening working conditions.
According to a ComRes poll last year, a majority of the public think that the practice of transferring NHS staff into the private sector is unacceptable. These transfers, according to trade unions, are more often than not accompanied by a deterioration in the pay and working conditions of the staff who are transferred. This practice is only bound to accelerate if our NHS is not protected from a post-Brexit trade deal with the US. Why would we want to worsen the pay and conditions of our amazing NHS staff after they have just saved our lives in an outbreak?
3. It would prevent US pharmaceutical companies hiking the prices of drugs they sell to our NHS
The text of the amendment states: “The condition in this subsection is that no provision of that international trade agreement in any way undermines or restricts the ability of an appropriate authority...to regulate and control the pricing and reimbursement systems for the purchase of medicines or medical devices.”
US pharmaceutical companies have always been quite forthright about their desire to charge our NHS exponentially more for their drugs than they are currently able to. In February this year, in their submission to the United States Trade Representative, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry lobby group for US drug companies, called on the US government to place the UK on an international trade watch List. The move was an effort to put pressure on the British government in advance of trade negotiations with the US government in a bid to secure more favourable (i.e. higher) prices for US drugs exports to our NHS.
We do not yet know what our government’s negotiating position will be, outside of vague promises that our NHS is not on the table in any trade deal with the US. It is important that we safeguard against the possibility of the US forcing our NHS to pay more for drugs. And the only way to do that is to write it into the law.
If our NHS pays more for drugs, it means it has less money for other important services and staff within the NHS. The effects of this would be enormous and catastrophic, especially in a time of Covid-19.
4. It would guarantee that decisions that affect our NHS are made by the relevant UK authority, not by a foreign court
The text of the amendment states: “The condition in this subsection is that the agreement…explicitly excludes provision for any Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause that provides, or is related to, the delivery of public services, health care, care or public health”
The amendment also states: “The condition in this subsection is that the agreement…contains explicit recognition that an appropriate authority (within the meaning of section 4) has the right to enact policies, legislation and regulation which protect and promote health, public health, social care and public safety in health or care services”
Regardless of where one stands on the issue of leaving the European Union, the outcome of that vote, the subsequent European Parliament election and the last General Election make it abundantly clear that the British public wants to see sovereignty over our institutions explicitly returned to the United Kingdom.
What this requires, in terms of the Trade Bill, is that the NHS is excluded explicitly from the purview of any Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause in any future trade deal. The Investor-State Dispute Settlement system allows multinational companies to sue governments for the introduction of public policies and/or regulations which those companies believe undercut their future profits.
A UK government, regardless of party, should be able to enact “policies, legislation and regulation which protect and promote health, public health, social care and public safety in health or care services” in the United Kingdom without fear of being sued. We should properly take back control of our NHS, and that means passing this amendment.
Image credit: Garry Knight - Creative Commons