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NHS: Future UK Trade Deals - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:06 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead Conservative 12:06 pm, 4th July 2019

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, for tabling this debate as it raises two topics that sit at the heart of our country’s identity and of our future—the National Health Service and our future trading relationships. I hope that this debate will flush out two things. The first is that although there is quite properly a fierce desire to protect the NHS for everything that it represents and provides to the UK people, it must not be under threat from trade deals, and we will have the Government’s continued reassurance on that. Secondly, as importantly, having been so reassured, this House must be able to reaffirm how important global trade is to our nation, provided of course that it is underpinned by fair and open international rules. My hope is that this debate will be followed by others that identify trade opportunities and highlight the tremendous benefits that they can bring, including in the vital sector of life sciences.

But first, the NHS. We all agree on the vital importance of the National Health Service. It is at the core of our culture and our national identity. Its impact and reputation were displayed most vibrantly last year, its 70th birthday. I had the privilege last year of representing the UK as a Trade Minister and saw the respect in which it is held worldwide, renowned for its excellence, quality and professionalism and for the dedication and compassion of its extraordinary staff.

We hold a number of elements dear. It should remain universal—open to all who need it. It should be free at the point of use and continue to provide healthcare excellence. Of course, we realise that those must be efficiently supplied within the limits of affordability. But it is worth pointing out that, according to Professor Meredith Crowley at the University of Cambridge, the UK and the US have similar outcomes while the UK spends just 8% of its GDP on health compared with 18% in the US.

I turn to some of the genuine concerns raised by the noble Lord and will add a couple of others. The first concern is that our healthcare will be privatised—owned, controlled and even regulated by foreign companies or countries. However, the UK has always maintained its right to regulate in the public interest. It has been clear that decisions on how to run public services are made by UK Governments including the devolved Administrations, not by our trading partners.

Some elements have indeed been opened up under the policies of Labour, Tory and coalition Governments: building management and some elective surgeries. Department of Health and Social Care accounts for 2017-18, the most recent annual figures, show that only 7.3% of spend by NHS commissioners was in the private sector, and that was slightly down on 7.7% the previous year.

What is more, our international public procurement commitments do not apply to the procurement of UK health services. As the Nuffield Trust recently reported,

“a trade deal would not have the power to stop the NHS being a free, universal service”.

Moreover, in my time as Minister, I saw how the Government have gone out of their way to protect the NHS. It is not just words. The draft WTO schedules retain an explicit exemption for the NHS. This, the Government have repeated, will not change in any future trade deal.

The second concern is that standards will be lowered. Again, I recognise why this is challenged, but the Government have been clear that any free trade agreement, whether with the US or another country, must maintain our high standards for businesses, workers and patients as a priority. The British people will accept no less. This, too, has been acted on. The transition agreements have retained all the protections. It is worth noting that newer trade agreements go further; for example, CETA, the EU-Canada trade deal, explicitly states that standards will not be lowered to gain trade advantage.

The third concern is that the NHS will be forced to pay considerably more for pharmaceuticals as a result of the US aim of achieving procedural fairness, which the noble Lord mentioned. I read the article by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, in the House, and I agree with him that that is a point which it is hard to see the Government ceding. The aim of free trade agreements is to secure trade to the benefit of the UK. Higher prices would be unlikely to achieve that.

The fourth concern is, as the noble Lord said, that our medical records data will be misused. There is little doubt that the NHS database is a hugely valuable UK asset. Used properly, it has the potential to provide answers to some of today’s most challenging healthcare issues. We must embrace that, but it is right that the use of such data must be controlled and must absolutely comply with our rigorous data privacy requirements. I believe that that is very much the Government’s intention.

A final concern is the use of investor state dispute settlement mechanisms. It is claimed that foreign companies could force regulatory change and that they could force the Government to open up the National Health Service to competition. However, on this point the legal position is clear. Nothing in ISDSs can force a Government to regulate in a particular way. The Government have been clear that the NHS will continue to be free at the point of use for everyone who needs it.

I understand why some of the recent comments might have heightened concerns, but it is worth pointing out that President Trump did appear to clarify them later, saying, “I don’t see” the NHS “being on the table”, as he did not consider the NHS to be part of trade. However, to reassure both this House and the country, will the Minister repeat the assurances previously given?

Provided these concerns are adequately and appropriately addressed, there is much to look forward to in trade opportunities globally. I saw for myself the innovation, energy and excellence of UK exporters but, while we punch above our weight, we still punch below our potential. That is as true in life sciences as in other sectors. For example, I have seen first-hand the appetite for Healthcare UK—a joint business and government initiative to promote UK healthcare, including the NHS. What it has brought back to this country has achieved real benefits. I have also seen the excitement created overseas from the two life sciences sector deals, which are part of the UK’s industrial strategy. A lot more can be achieved.

I remain firmly of the view that trade, properly pursued, is a real force for good. For the people of the UK it supports jobs, investment, innovation and wealth, and for consumers it provides greater choice, more innovative products and services, and often lower prices. Therefore, alongside my request for reassurance from my noble friend about the ongoing commitment to the NHS, I urge this House to make more use of its expertise in debating trade issues and opportunities to make sure that we play our full role in helping the UK to harness existing trade deals and develop new ones.