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NHS: Future UK Trade Deals - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:20 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Courtown The Earl of Courtown Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 1:20 pm, 4th July 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, is quite right. I speak in relation to any future trade deal and how we protect the NHS. Of course, the NHS is open to private companies in various ways and they serve it in many useful matters. I was looking at where we are and the future protection that we need for the NHS in any trade deals we enter into.

As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Desai, under existing competition rules, the NHS in England does not discriminate against foreign firms wishing to bid for clinical contracts—I know that I am repeating myself but this is important—provided that they meet UK requirements and standards and are approved by UK regulators. In practice, this means that foreign companies are already eligible to bid for NHS clinical contracts in England, regardless of whether the UK has a trade deal in place with a given country. However, few do so as they cannot readily meet our requirements. Only a small amount of NHS work is carried out in the private sector. Trade deals will not force the NHS to provide preferential access to foreign companies.

The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, mentioned data, as did the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and my noble friend Lady Fairhead. The UK has committed to maintaining a high level of data protection standards, which are set out in the Data Protection Act 2018. The UK recognises the importance of data protection to ensure that data continues to flow uninterrupted and to enable trading partners to build trust through the transparent treatment of personal data. Patient information will never be sold for marketing or insurance purposes unless the patient has explicitly consented. The Government’s principles governing data-sharing agreements entered into by the NHS, published in draft in December 2018, require that data may be assessed by third parties only where there is an explicit aim to improve the health and care of patients in the UK and a fair share of benefits from any agreement flow back to the NHS.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, also mentioned data protection. The Government take seriously the use and sharing of NHS data. I reiterate what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care stated recently:

“NHS data must always be held securely, with the appropriate and proper strong privacy and cyber-security protections”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/6/19; col. 114.]

Both the Department for Health and Social Care and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are aware of the sensitivity of patient data; I can confirm that both departments will work closely together to ensure that trade negotiations will not undermine the safeguards we have in place around healthcare data that enable the public to trust in what it is used for, while realising its value and ensuring the fair distribution of associated benefits.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and my noble friends Lady Fairhead and Lord Lansley mentioned ISDSs, which do not and cannot force the privatisation of public services. To be absolutely clear: ISDSs will not oblige the Government to open the NHS up to further competition and overseas companies will not be able to take legal action to force us to do so. The NHS will continue to be free at the point of delivery and of use for everyone who needs it. The protections here are in law.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, looked at the preparations for a UK-US trade deal and asked when we will publish our objectives. We are well prepared for those negotiations; there have already been four or five initial meetings. As for domestic preparation, we held a 14-week consultation on our approach to a US trade deal, to which we had nearly 160,000 responses, which we have carefully considered; we will publish a summary of them shortly. We will publish our negotiation objectives before negotiations begin and ensure that Parliament has a chance to consider them. We are laying the groundwork for an FTA through our UK-US Trade and Investment Working Group. As I said, it has met five times and will meet again before the Summer Recess.