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Vince Cable: the only way to protect the NHS from private US firms is to work with the EU

February 10, 2018 3:53 PM
By Vince Cable in i News

VInce CableThe scales of bravado about Britain's strength in future trade negotiations fell briefly from the Prime Minister's eyes this week. I challenged her in the Commons about the Trump administration's ambition to see US companies take over profitable parts of the NHS.

Her response was revealingly weak and non-committal. Apparently we'll have to see "what the American Administration are going to say about their requirements".

What a stark contrast with the muscle the EU exerts in these circumstances. When the Commission entered negotiations on a free trade deal with the US - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) - we won explicit protections for member states' public services.

As Cabinet Minister responsible, I was able to deal with widespread concern that US companies might cherry-pick profitable parts of the NHS out of the public sector. Theresa May was present in Cabinet when I reported that I had secured the agreement from EU Trade Commissioner and Swedish Liberal, Cecilia Mälmstrom, that the NHS would be excluded from the Treaty.



US ambitions were met with a firm rebuff from Commissioner Mälmstrom that under EU trade rules "member states do not have to open public health services to competition from private providers, nor do they have to outsource services to private providers". She went on to confirm the NHS is "protected…in EU trade agreements through our protective reservations".

Theresa's tepid answer

In politics, immediacy breeds candour, which is why catching an unprepared Prime Minister at Questions can be so effective. What she let slip in her tepid answer was that the UK enters negotiations with the US far less able to set terms than the EU. A few hours later, after feverish online speculation about the future of the NHS, Downing Street issued a statement.

"The UK's public health sector is protected by specific reservations in all EU trade arrangements, and as we leave the EU, the UK will continue to ensure that rigorous protections for the NHS are included in all trade agreements it is part of." A luke-warm reassurance, which came several hours too late.

Needless to say, even the eventual statement from Downing Street offers no concrete plan to 'ensure' these protections. And this belated statement doesn't negate the clarity of the Prime Minister's reference to American "requirements". A weakened UK Government negotiating on behalf of a market of 63 million people with a US administration representing 323 million, is demonstrably weaker than the EU Commission representing 500m.

Brexit means a weaker

NHS This is the hard reality of the hard Brexit the Conservatives seek to impose. Far from garnering the fabled £350m a week extra for the NHS, all the signs are that Brexit will mean a weaker economy and less money available for public spending. Now I fear the UK will be less able to defend the NHS in trade negotiations too.

As all these facts emerge, more and more people are joining the Liberal Democrat campaign for a public vote on the final deal, with the option to stay in the EU. There is, in our view, no better deal for our economy, our NHS, or for the internationalist ambitions of Britain's young people than remaining as a member.