International trade agreements: public health services

Part of Trade Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 4:15 pm, 25th June 2020

I start by thanking Opposition Members for tabling new clauses 12 and 13, which provide me another opportunity to stress the Government’s position on the NHS and our trade agenda. The Government have been clear and definitive: the NHS is not, and never will be, for sale to the private sector, whether overseas or domestic. No trade agreement has ever affected our ability to keep public services public, nor do they require us to open up the NHS to private providers.

We have always protected our right to choose how we would deliver public services in trade agreements, and we will continue to do so. The UK’s public services, including the NHS, are protected by specific exclusions, exceptions and reservations in the trade agreements to which the UK is a party. The UK will continue to ensure that the same rigorous protections are included in future trade agreements.

As stated in our published negotiating objectives with the US, to which I referred the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington, the NHS will not be on the table. The price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table. The services the NHS provides will not be on the table.

Those commitments are clear and absolute, but new clause 12 is unnecessary, however laudable the intention behind it is. It overlooks the fact that there are already rigorous checks and balances on the Government’s power to negotiate and ratify new agreements. In particular, and as we discussed on Tuesday, the UK already has scrutiny mechanisms via the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 procedure that will ensure Parliament can see exactly what we have negotiated, and if it does not agree it can prevent us from ratifying the deal.

Furthermore, and most importantly, no trade agreement can of itself make changes to our domestic law. Any legislative changes required as a result of trade agreements, including—if not in particular—in relation to the NHS, would be subject to the separate scrutiny and approval of Parliament in the usual ways.

Turning to new clause 13, as the hon. Member for Dundee East will be aware, the negotiation of international trade agreements is a reserved matter under the devolution settlements. It is for the UK Government to negotiate the agreements and for the UK Parliament to scrutinise them, in accordance with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, prior to ratification. Therefore, it would be constitutionally inappropriate to give the devolved Administrations a veto over such agreements before they were laid in Parliament.

However, that is not the issue here. What is more important is the fact that our commitment that the NHS will not be on the table applies to the NHS in all parts of the UK, including in the devolved nations. So, I hope that I have provided the hon. Members with some reassurance that the new clauses are therefore unnecessary.