Free Trade Agreements: NHS/Public Services

International Trade – in the House of Commons on 25th April 2019.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

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

Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde

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

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

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

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox The Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade

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.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

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?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox The Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade

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.

Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde

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?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox The Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade

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.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, International Trade Committee

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.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox The Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade

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.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Shadow Minister (International Trade)

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?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox The Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade

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.