On Monday, the government voted against a Labour amendment to its trade bill which aimed to ensure the NHS was protected from any future trade deals.
The official House of Commons tweet announcing this went viral as critics like Labour’s Diane Abbott said it showed the government was going to put the NHS "on the negotiating table" in trade talks. It also led to the revival of the hashtag #CorbynWasRight on Twitter.
The tweet read: "MPs have voted against New Clause 17, with 340 votes to 251. The New Clause intended to protect the NHS and publicly funded health and care services in other parts of the UK from any form of control from outside the UK."
In fact, it went a little too viral for the House of Commons' own liking. They later deleted the tweet, telling VICE: "The House Service had concerns about how our impartiality was perceived."
The vote was on a proposed amendment to the Trade Bill, which is one of the pieces of legislation which will govern how the UK does trade deals now it can do them independently of the EU. While trade deals excite Brexiteers, they worry others. Sceptics argue that, as the UK is smaller than the EU, it will have less bargaining power in negotiations with countries like the US.
In a weaker position, the UK will have to give countries like the US things they want. One of these things, the argument goes, is their companies to be able to access the profitable parts of the NHS and to weaken the NHS’s bargaining power in negotiations with their drug companies.
The amendment aimed to put it into law that the government can't sign any trade deal which hurts the NHS in particular ways. It aimed to ban changes to how drug prices are negotiated, ban clauses which allow companies to sue governments and ban "ratchet" and "standstill clauses" that allow future governments to extend the trade deal further than originally agreed and make it impossible to reverse existing privatisation.
The government has repeatedly said it will not sell off the NHS – but nevertheless it voted against the amendment. And although every opposition party (even the DUP) voted for the amendment, not a single Tory MP rebelled and so it passed easily.
Campaigners told VICE that they weren’t surprised the amendment had failed, but passing it wasn't the point.
Gay Lee, from Keep our NHS Public says: “There was really no hope of it being agreed. The point was to raise the issue and get it into a public debate. It is usable as ammunition to challenge the government as in – ‘if you really mean this, why not put it into law? What are you afraid of?’”
War on Want spokesperson Leah Sullivan added: “Given what the Tories have said the NHS and the price of drugs will not be on the table, the Conservative Party should be able to put that in writing if they really mean it.”
While the amendment failed, the fight is far from over. The bill has to go to the Lords and back to the Commons several more times. Amendments can be added at both stages.
Sullivan said there was a chance the Lords in particular could insert amendments. “There was a similar bill which was introduced in 2017 and it was going through parliament until 2019 and then when parliament was un-prorogued, they dropped that bill. In an earlier version, it had very similar amendments put in by Caroline Lucas and [Jonathan] Djanogoly and others that were defeated in the Commons, but there was a lot of public pressure put on the Lords and the Lords re-inserted some of the democracy, transparency and scrutiny amendments back into the bill at that later stage.”
Unfortunately, those amendments were then left out when the bill was reintroduced in March 2020.
Sullivan remains hopeful, pointing to the 11 Tory MPs who did rebel on a separate amendment in the Trade Bill. "It's still significant in the current context," she says. "many of the MPs who stood up to speak on Monday said they had had hundreds and thousands of emails and tweets from their constituents that gives me some hope that the Lords will take it on themselves to re-introduce some of those amendments."
Lee agreed that campaigning could still make a difference. “There is still a chance to persuade parliamentarians that the final wording needs to include a clause to keep the NHS out of all agreements – all is not yet lost, but it sets a marker. We need to campaign hard to make sure a clause to keep the NHS out does go in before the end of the process.”
She added: “Even if it doesn’t get into the Trade Bill, we can still lobby over the trade negotiations themselves to keep all the complex and crucial parts of the NHS off the table.”
Of course, much of the NHS is already privatised. Many of the contracts go to US companies. So what do campaigners mean by "selling it off"?
“Trump doesn’t actually want ‘the NHS’ as a whole," Lee explains, "only the profit-making parts, like data, support and back office services, planned easy surgery, drug price hikes. And he wants to dictate over wider health concerns like food standards and animal welfare, harmful chemicals etc.”
According to former Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner, the other thing pharmaceutical companies want is to increase the amount the NHS pays for medicines. He told parliament: “Free trade agreements can contain an innocuous-sounding provision about the restructuring of pharmaceutical pricing models. That is the way to undermine the health service – by downgrading our bulk purchasing power against big pharma companies.”
In particular, Sullivan adds: “The US side wanted to downgrade the authority of NICE, which is this government institution which sets the drug prices, to having an advisory capacity rather than a more decisive capacity – so that they could charge the NHS more for US-produced drugs. Some of the same drugs cost seven times more in the US than they do now in the UK.”
Much of the trade deal debate has focussed on the US. This is because everybody knows that most Brits dislike Donald Trump and the US’s food standards are particularly bad. But, Sullivan says, there are other trade deals to worry about too.
For example, she said: “Japan is looking to include investment protection measures like ISDS in a trade deal with the UK which would allow Japanese companies to sue the British government for any changes in policy which negatively affect them. She also described the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership between 11 countries, which the UK wants to join, as a “power grab” by the big technology companies.
When asked to comment, a Department for International Trade spokesperson said: “This Government has been clear and definitive; the NHS is not, and never will be, for sale to the private sector, whether overseas or domestic. Nothing in the Trade Bill undermines this commitment.”
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.