It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I fully support the e-petition relating to trade deals and the NHS, which has been signed by more than 110,000 people, including a number of my constituents. I, too, pay tribute to and thank our superb NHS staff for their public service. I also thank Unite, Unison, We Own It, Keep Our NHS Public, Global Justice Now and other organisations for their campaigning to protect our NHS.
Our NHS was founded on a set of collectivist principles that bind our communities together. Those principles represent a commitment to a comprehensive free healthcare service that delivers excellent and professional care to all who need it in the UK. They are also an obligation to provide the best value for taxpayers’ money and ensure that services remain accountable to the public.
That seems to be at odds with the Government’s current trade strategy, however, which does not omit the NHS from future trade deals, but exposes it to competition and the market. That runs the risk of damaging standards of care and diluting the transparency of decision making. The threat posed to our healthcare system is clear for all of us to see. US officials have repeatedly stated that they regard the NHS as being on the table and that they specifically want to ensure that big US healthcare and drug companies can compete fairly to provide medical services, sell drugs and access NHS patient data.
We should not just be looking across the pond. The Secretary of State for International Trade has close relationships with right-wing think-tanks that want the NHS to be opened up to private competition, notably Daniel Hannan. In 2018, Hannan and his Initiative for Free Trade joined forces with the US Cato Institute and 10 other UK and US right-wing think-tanks to promote their ideal US-UK free trade agreement, which called for the opening up of all services in both countries to competition. Its co-editor, Daniel Ikenson, said of the report:
“Healthcare is a service, we call for opening services to competition. And I know some people are worried about what happens to the NHS…We think competition is a good thing and it would lead to better quality healthcare.”
When the Minister responds to the debate, will he explain why the other co-editor of that report, Daniel Hannan, is now a lead adviser on his Department’s Board of Trade? Is it any wonder that we do not feel inclined to trust the Secretary of State when she says publicly that the NHS is not for sale but then surrounds herself in private with advisers from the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Cato Institute and other right-wing think-tanks who argue the exact opposite?
We must remember that even if the US healthcare industry is prevented from directly competing with the NHS for Government-funded services, the Government’s trade agreement may open up access to NHS procurement contracts for buying medicines, delivering medical treatments and providing patient accommodation. US healthcare would then have the power to drive up the price charged for those services in future contract rounds. It is not accurate for the Government to state that the NHS is not for sale when we have already seen them privatise our covid-19 response, handing out huge contracts to companies such as Deloitte, Serco and KPMG, which have put profits and cost-cutting before care and wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
The UK-US trade situation is likely to change as the incoming US Administration takes office in January. However, we must also monitor discussions regarding the UK joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, which demands a very open approach to competition in services, potentially including healthcare. I hope the Minister will address that point and say specifically whether membership of the CPTPP will oblige the UK to accept a “list it or lose it” approach to private competition in the public sector. If so, will the Government guarantee to negotiate a carve-out for the UK from those provisions when it comes to our NHS and other essential public services?
I agree with campaigners that we must oppose the gradual marketisation and outsourcing of NHS care at all costs. Our ethical and communitarian-focused NHS is not compatible with private greed. The Labour party’s stance on this issue is simple and clear: the best way to remove the threat to the NHS, from whatever direction it comes, now or in the future, is to legislate in the Trade Bill that the NHS should be outside the scope of any future trade agreements. However, it speaks volumes that the Government refuse to do that. The NHS is more than a logo.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). I have not seen him in the House in ages, so it is good to see him back. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed. I am my party’s health spokesperson, so this issue is close to my heart as part of my portfolio, but it is more than that. As the hon. Gentleman said, our NHS stands for more than just an organisation; it stands for the care that it gives. I want to refer to that in the few moments remaining.
There are valid concerns about our trade deals. I understand that. That is why we are having this debate. The vote for Brexit presented this place with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make trade deals, to enhance the wealth of the country. I believe that can happen. Others may have a different opinion, but we will wait and see to make our own decisions. As it says in scripture, to whom much is given, much is expected, and there are high standards for all of us in this place and further afield.
What unites us in this debate is our love of the NHS. We have been united together to protect it: the unions, patients, the Government, elected representatives and our constituents. Collectively, we have all made it clear what we need to do and why we are here to debate this matter. The road to attainment is difficult enough without setbacks, but my constituents have made it abundantly clear that our NHS is a treasure not to be touched, other than to enhance and improve in-house.
In the past few weeks, I have come to know at first hand what the NHS can do. I have realised how important the NHS is to my family. Many of us have family members who are alive today thanks to the contribution of the NHS and its staff. I think of my father, who died six years ago. When he was living, he had three operations for cancer. I have no doubt that the skill of the surgeon’s knife, the love of the nurses and the prayer from God’s people saved him on three occasions. The NHS is an important part of all of our lives.
I am sure I am not the only MP to be inundated with emails regarding the trade deal and the NHS. I also received a few personal messages reminding me of how truly exceptional our NHS is. I want to quote one letter. I get lots of letters regularly. It is good to get letters from people. People usually contact me to say how bad things are and to give off. That is in the nature of our job, but people also contact me to say, “Thank you for what you are doing.”
One lady wrote to me:
“I seem to be writing to you a lot recently but our NHS is very important to me personally when I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukaemia Stage 4. What seemed to compound the problem was that when I had to have chemo treatment I had to be admitted due to the problems I have with my back problems. The care I received was excellent and would not have a bad word said against any Doctors or Nurses that give me care during my long time stay in hospital. Jim I’m depending on you and all of your colleagues to make sure that the NHS is protected in LAW and safe from any trade deals. This government says one thing”—
I want to be clear that I am not being critical here—
“and promised they’ll protect the NHS but we need to see it in law.”
This debate is really important because there is a chance to see that in law. My constituents want to know that the NHS is protected in law in the Trade Bill.
The message is clear: we have something that is worth protecting. I am not in any way dismissing the American medical staff. My parliamentary aide’s daughter was taken into hospital with pneumonia while she was on holiday in Florida. The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) referred to some of what happens in America.
I will quote again, to give the comparison between our NHS and what it means in America. She said that the care she had received in that American hospital was second to none, but one memory stuck with her when she was waiting for the consultant to come and see her child after the X-ray was brought to the room. She heard the patient next door being repeatedly told that unless she remembered her insurance details, she could not be treated. Boy, aren’t we really lucky to have an NHS that looks after and saves our people, rather than one that we pay into? That stuck with her and made her thankful for the NHS, because no matter where someone is from, what their job is and what their prognosis is, treatment will never be withheld. That is what our NHS means.
We need to treasure the expertise of the staff and think about the way in which we treat them. These are all things that need to be protected. I hope that all MPs in this Chamber, universally and across all political parties, will collectively say that this trade deal will never impact on the NHS. The Minister has said that, and so have the Government, but I want him to say it in this Chamber today.
My hon. Friend is right that the advanced digital and data chapter in CPTPP will provide huge confidence for those seeking to buy products in that region from British businesses. It is extraordinary that the Labour party does not think that is of any value. It does not think that the EU, which is prepared to sign these digital and data chapters, has agreements any different from the type of agreement we are seeking to accede to, missing out a huge part of the UK economy.