Many campaigns supporting public services - and in particular the NHS - had high hopes for two amendments for the Trade Bill when it came back to the House of Commons from the Lords on the 19th January for its final stage.
Those coming new to this issue may wonder why the NHS is so important to the world of trade. Because the market has infiltrated our health services over the last 30 years, health is now a valuable commodity to be bought and sold on the international market. This risks the very existence of our NHS.
The Trade Bill, apart from being a tidying up process to convert our joint trade agreements held with the EU, into UK-only deals, also sets the legal context for future international free trade agreements. See all the amendments from the Lords here.
One of these amendments aimed to protect the NHS and all other public services from being incorporated into the market for goods and services where the international trading partner has equivalent procurement rights to those existing in the UK. Sadly there was no Tory rebellion on this despite the Lords support for it.
The second amendment of interest to KONP is on democratic scrutiny of international free trade agreements aimed to make the whole process for negotiating and agreeing them much more democratic than it is currently. At the moment MPs can only delay indefinitely an agreement being signed into law. So far this complex process has never stopped the signing of a trade deal.
This is crucial because international free trade agreements are binding under international law so cannot be reversed by domestic legislation – this of course has consequences, for example, if a future government wanted to reverse all the privatisation within the NHS through the NHS Bill which KONP has long campaigned for.
The Lords had agreed this amendment and passed it back to the Commons where – despite a Tory rebellion of 11 – the amendment fell.
It’s worth noting that an amendment concerning trade deals and genocide had a lot of media interest and was lost by only 11 votes after a rebellion by 33 Tories. This amendment may return to the Commons in a different form.
These defeats have been a disappointing setbacks for our Trade Bill campaign but sadly not unexpected. We worked very hard both within KONP and alongside We Own It, Global Justice Now, War on Want and others in the Trade Justice Movement coalition to lobby Parliamentarians on these amendments.
However all is not lost. The Bill will be back in the House of Lords on February 2nd. There is still a chance that a watered-down version of the scrutiny amendment will be re-presented to the Commons later that week and supported by the all-important Tory backbenchers who have been lobbied so hard already. There is evidence that this lobbying has actually unsettled the Tories. Greg Hands, one of the Trade Ministers, sent an email round to all his MPs before Jan 19th drawing their attention to the amendments campaigners were pushing for - including those on standards (crucial to the NHS), genocide and scrutiny. He specifically says :
The Government is wholly committed to ensuring that the NHS remains universal and free at the point of service. The NHS, including the price it pays for drugs, is off the table in each and every negotiation and is a clear red line.
This is patently not true as parts of the NHS are still up for grabs in the EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement that’s been signed recently.
As campaigners, these are things we could work on in the future in terms of educating MPs about how the process of making trade agreements is currently undemocratic, and the importance of protecting our public services.
We haven’t made as much progress as we wished with the Trade Bill but that doesn’t mean that we can’t build on the hard work done so far in bringing trade agreements even further up the political agenda – especially after the worst of Covid is over and not diverting media attention. It seems as if the all-important agreement with the US is now going to be delayed but there is another on the near horizon that government wants to join, the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). This has already been signed by 11 countries on the Pacific Rim, far from the UK.
Our campaign is currently regrouping and deciding the next moves.