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NHS: Future UK Trade Deals - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:25 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 12:25 pm, 4th July 2019

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness who, as usual, made an excellent speech on the problem before us. I thank my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe. I do not want to praise the NHS; we know that we love it. The issue is not about whether we love the NHS. To a great extent, saying that we will protect the NHS is a statement that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Every Government that I know of said, “The NHS is safe in our hands”.

However, in the 55 years I have spent in this country, the NHS has changed dramatically. What we want to protect—the core values that are popular with the public—is the concept of being free at the point of use. That is the core that people want to protect and that will command 100% of public support in our negotiations on a free trade agreement. We will go to a free trade agreement because those agreements, by and large, mutually benefit both sides. Trade agreements require give and take. It is not possible to say, “You give me this, but I won’t give you anything in return”. We must be absolutely clear about what precisely we want to protect as the core of the NHS and what is not so much up for sale, because that is a romantic description, but up for exchange—that is, what we will give to get something else. I say this because it is easy to go on in praise mode and forget that a trade agreement is a matter of negotiation.

One thing that has changed about the NHS is the purchaser-provider distinction. Noble Lords may remember that we have been discussing the NHS’s problems with funding, and keeping up with research and patient satisfaction, since the 1990s. We said that we should distinguish between the purchaser and the provider. The purchaser will always be the public; the state purchases health services and sees to it that they are free at the point of use. However, the provision of health services is not necessarily just in the public sector. Private sector providers can also be in the NHS and sign contracts with it. Those providers are not from just the domestic private sector. Actually, “domestic private sector” is a meaningless term because a British provider can be owned by Americans. That is capitalism, it is a very subtle system. So, we have agreed that private providers can supply services to the NHS. We also know that we buy medicines from not just British providers but others because the state does not manufacture medicines.

We have always had the valuable jewel of the NHS, constructed and kept free at the point of use with great difficulty, but it has been swimming in a tide of increasing privatisation. When it was founded, the idea was of state ownership, Fabianism and all that. It all changed in the 1970s; we are now in a very different world altogether. We escaped the full extent of the effect of privatisation because we went into the European Union, which was also socially democratic, by and large, even when it was right-wing. The Germans had a right-wing but socially responsible philosophy. That is why the public procurement directive, described in detail by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has been very useful to us.

We have to decide at some stage what the core that we want to protect is. I do not agree that we will not let other people profit from the NHS. We are not going to exit capitalism; we are going to exit only the EU. We are not going to rebuild a system in which everything is done not for profit. It is not possible. Forget it. Decide on the core and the precise principle. Do we want the public procurement directive in there? That is a crucial decision. We have to be prepared for the free trade agreement negotiations and be clear in our mind on the precise core of the NHS that we want to protect. We already know that eyes and teeth have gone; we all go somewhere else for them. We also know that we often escape to the private sector when elective surgeries are available only after a delay because of rationing in the NHS. We have to decide precisely what the NHS we want to protect is. It is not possible to rule the NHS completely out of an agreement because that agreement will not start. Let us be clear about that. It would be good to have a non-nostalgic, non-romantic notion of what we want to protect. There is no doubt in my mind that we want to protect it—it is a unique institution and we must protect it—but we have to do so in an intelligent way, not in a way in which we will lose everything.

I mention just one thing about which there will be controversy: data. For some years now, the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, who will follow me, has urged your Lordships’ House to think of the NHS’s dataset as an asset that we can earn money from. Once upon a time, we said that data were very valuable and that we cannot sell them, but every time I use my smartphone, my data are being sold. Data being sold is no longer a no-go area. We have to be clear: will we sell NHS data? That is a crucial point for whoever negotiates. Will the sale of data help the NHS’s finances or hurt its intellectual property rights? That is the question to be examined.

All I want to say, as I will not take up my full 10 minutes, is: beware of romanticism, nostalgia and thinking that we live in a socialist world. That world is gone.