Tory MPs have voted down a legal bid which was aimed at protecting the NHS in post-Brexit trade deals.
The House of Lords passed an amendment last month which would have blocked any trade deal that “undermines or restricts” the ability to provide “a comprehensive publicly funded health service free at the point of delivery”.
The amendment also would have blocked “the sale of patient data” in any trade deal unless the proceeds were ploughed back into UK health and care services, along with a string of other restrictions.
But the government defeated the proposed law tonight in the Commons – saying it wasn’t necessary because there was no question of the NHS being on the table in a trade deal.
Trade Minister Greg Hands said the idea the NHS was up for grabs was “offensive and absurd” and “the NHS is not and never will be for sale.”
The amendment was defeated in the Commons by 357 votes to 266. All those voting against it were Conservatives, and no Conservatives voted in favour.
The amendment to the Trade Bill had been passed by the House of Lords after Tory MPs defeated a similar bid from Labour in July.
Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry said today: “This amendment cuts to the chase of the debate over whether the NHS is on the table when it comes to trade negotiations.
“To some people, that concept would mean private healthcare companies from overseas being able to compete against the NHS to provide taxpayer-funded healthcare, but in fact it is much more realistic and pernicious.
“What it means is those same companies winning a greater right to provide services to the NHS through open procurement contracts and thereby gaining access to the vast resource of NHS patient data, which, quite frankly, they have been actively pursuing for years.
“This amendment seeks to prevent that, and I cannot see why any Member of the House would disagree with it.”
Labour MP Margaret Greenwood claimed the government had a “very clear agenda to privatise the national health service and put it in the hands of profit-making companies.”
Following the vote, We Own It campaigner Johnbosco Nwogbo said it was “frankly disgraceful” and “we’re now at risk of higher drug prices, private companies having increased access to our NHS and those same companies being able to sue the government if it tries to limit their ability to profit from our healthcare.”
But Trade Minister Greg Hands hit back: “We do not see the need for this amendment, as protecting the NHS is already a top priority in negotiations.”
He said: “We have all witnessed the heroic efforts of the NHS through the Covid-19 pandemic, and we are immensely grateful for all that it has accomplished.
“The idea that we would now seek to sell off the NHS to foreign corporations is, frankly, offensive and absurd.
“The NHS is not on the table. The NHS is not and never will be for sale.”
He added: “We are wholly committed to ensuring that the NHS remains universal and free at the point of service.
“Our position could not be clearer: the NHS, the services it provides and the price it pays for medicines will remain off the table when we are negotiating free trade agreements.
“These are not just words. I am pleased to confirm that none of the agreements we have signed with 63 partner countries has threatened the delivery of a free and universal NHS.
“Not a single one of those agreements has affected our ability to protect the health service.”
The Lords amendment would have banned the government from implementing any trade deal unless a long list of conditions relating to health and care services were met.
A deal could not restrict the ability to “regulate and control the pricing and reimbursement systems for the purchase of medicines or medical devices”.
A trade deal would also have to “explicitly exclude application of any provision to publicly funded health or care services.”
It would also have to “explicitly exclude the use of any negative listing, standstill or ratchet clause that provides, or is related to, the delivery of public services, health care, care or public health”.
Donald Trump said in 2019 “everything with the trade deal is on the table”, before U-turning and saying of the NHS: “I don’t see it being on the table.
“That’s something that I would not consider part of trade. That’s not trade.”
And Boris Johnson said in October: “In any future trade negotiations with our country, our national health service will never be on the table.”