Why we all should be concerned about the Brexit risk to the NHS

PUBLISHED: 10:27 30 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:24 04 August 2020

Photo:  ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP

Photo: ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP

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Campaigner ELLEN LEES on how the government’s trade legislation leaves the NHS vulnerable.

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When the government’s Trade Bill – which sets the framework for the UK’s future trade agreements – came back to the House of Commons recently it was unsurprisingly filled with gaping holes.

First of all, it contained no protections for our NHS. Without that we’re facing higher drug prices, private companies being able to sue the government if it tries to limit their ability to profit from our healthcare, and privatisation of the NHS being ramped up and locked in to international trade treaties that will be increasingly difficult for future governments to unravel. And we know that Donald Trump will be pushing hard for all of these things in any trade deal he signs off on.

Worse still, the bill didn’t provide a mechanism for parliament to properly scrutinise or vote on future trade deals.

Failing to write this into the legislation means that the government can negotiate, agree and sign up to trade arrangements behind closed doors, without MPs getting a look in.

It means the public will have no idea which parts of our NHS are being handed on a plate to Trump and the American private healthcare industry. And it means the government will get carte blanche to do as they fancy with little accountability from the media, parliament or public.

These gaping holes in the legislation shouldn’t necessarily be an insurmountable problem. No bill is ever perfect. The parliamentary process is designed to finesse and strengthen legislation at each stage.

But that hasn’t happened. Instead, Tory MPs lined up one by one to vote down amendments that would have protected our NHS and given parliament a final say on trade deals. So much for parliamentary sovereignty. If Brexit was about taking back control, the Tories have got a funny way of showing it.

As Caroline Lucas pointed out in the debate, the Trade Bill, as it’s currently worded, would give far more powers over UK-EU trade deals to members of the European parliament that it would to those in the UK parliament.

But we’re all used to Boris Johnson’s promises not being worth the paper (or buses) they’re written on. And the lies are just as transparent on the NHS, as on Brexit.

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Tory MPs love to repeat that they won’t be selling off our NHS, that it won’t be included in any future trade deal. Laughably, they point to manifesto promises that the NHS will not be ‘on the table’. Yet their manifesto is about as far as it’s possible to get from a legally binding commitment.

We don’t need warm words or reassurances. We need concrete red lines in the Trade Bill.

So what happens now? With the Trade Bill having passed through the House of Commons, it’s now over to the Lords.

MPs might have failed us, so it’s time for peers to step up to the plate.

Johnson might be resting easy on an 80 seat majority in the Commons, but he has no such luck in the upper chamber.

The campaign group We Own It – which fights to protect public services from privatisation – is calling for the House of Lords to pass the amendments that the Commons failed to.

And we’re bringing the public with us. Last week, we launched a petition calling for the Lords to protect our NHS from trade deals.

Within 24 hours, 80,000 people had added their name – with the number going up and up ever since.

The public are crystal clear. They won’t stand for our NHS being carved up and sold off in trade deals.

• Ellen Lees is the campaigns officer at We Own It

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Almost four years after its creation The New European goes from strength to strength across print and online, offering a pro-European perspective on Brexit and reporting on the political response to the coronavirus outbreak, climate change and international politics. But we can only rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press with your support. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

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