MPs have rejected key amendments to the Trade Bill made by the House of Lords that campaigners say would offer important protection to the NHS. 

At the same time MPs also ditched amendments that: guaranteed MPs a vote on trade deals; protected food, animal welfare, and environmental standards; and prevented trade deals with countries engaged in acts of genocide or serious human rights violations.

Jean Blaylock, trade campaigner at Global Justice Now said:

“Yet again MPs have rejected a series of amendments which would have offered some protection from this government’s toxic trade agenda. Most shocking of all, they have refused to give themselves the power to meaningfully scrutinise or stop trade deals, writing Boris Johnson a blank cheque to negotiate away our rights and protections in trade talks with countries like the USA.”

In December the House of Lords had passed a clause that prevented any agreement that impeded the UK’s ability to provide  “a comprehensive publicly funded health service free at the point of delivery.” The amendment also suggested controls on drug pricing and the sale of patient data.

However, on the return of the bill to the Commons, the amendment was voted down by 357 votes to 266, with only Tory MPs voting against the protections.

The Independent reported that Trade Minister Greg Hands said there was no need to protect the health service with legislation because “the NHS is not and never will be for sale”. But the Independent notes that government ministers made similar promises not to undermine workers’ rights before Brexit, only to move to water down EU rules on rest breaks, holiday pay, and overtime.

Johnbosco Nwogbo from the anti-privatisation campaign group We Own It warned: “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.”

Lowdown Explainer: What is the trade bill and why does it matter?

What are campaigners doing now? The main focus of campaigners is the future negotiations between the USA and UK. The Government announced in mid-March 2020 that it is committed to restarting negotiations as soon as possible. These will be conducted in secrecy and will not be subject to any scrutiny if the Trade Bill in its current form is passed by Parliament. 

On 23 March 2020, 17 organisations signed a letter to the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for International Trade, urging the government to delay negotiations and calling for proper Parliamentary and public scrutiny.

“These are high-risk issues that need to consider public debate and democratic scrutiny, but this debate cannot happen amidst national lockdown and with Parliament closed. Outside of a time of crisis, when the government has the time and resources to dedicate to negotiations, we expect full public and Parliamentary engagement with appropriate scrutiny and transparency throughout the process.

We call on the government to pause all trade negotiations until the Covid-19 crisis is under control and to inform both the public and potential trade partners of this necessary action.”

The calls come as a new poll has found that three-quarters of Britons are worried about the impact a trade deal with the USA could have on the price the NHS pays for drugs.

The poll, conducted by Survation, and commissioned by We Own It found that 77% of the public were worried that a trade deal with the USA would increase the price the NHS pays for drugs, compared to just 18% who say they are not worried.


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