Wasn’t it nice to see business minister Matthew Hancock so adamant that the NHS is protected from the provisions of the hugely controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership plan?
“There is no threat to the NHS from TTIP,” he promised. “Public services, and publicly funded health services, are not included in any of the EU trade commitments.”
Oh, really? And what happens when a future Labour government restores the NHS to full state control and the private companies that have been creaming cash off it scream blue murder? Can Hancock promise they won’t go to the even-more-controversial Investor-State Dispute Settlement system to take revenge on that government.
Of course he can’t.
But it was interesting to hear his opinions today. That was all the backbench business debate could claim to do – get MPs to air their own views and those of their party on this sticky subject. The decision that the EU and UK Parliaments should scrutinise the provisions of both TTIP and ISDS are not binding on any government, even though they express the wish of the current Parliament.
Here are a couple more Tory opinions. First, Conservative Robert Walter tried to allay fears by pointing to a letter from business secretary Vince Cable, stating that “the new Commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, has… stated explicitly that ‘public service, including health, education and water management, are not on the agenda.’”
‘Not on the agenda’ means ‘not on the agenda for discussion’, though, and not necessarily ‘not included in the deal’.
And Conservative Dr Sarah Wollaston tried to offer more substantial reassurance by saying she had received correspondence from Jean-Luc Demarty, the European Commission’s director-general for trade, who “made it absolutely clear that all publicly funded health services, including NHS services, would be protected under TTIP… as long as the services are publicly funded, it does not matter how they are delivered.”
This seems fair – but what if the Tories decide to remove state funding from NHS services that are now – or will be in the future – provided by private firms? This would firstly force people receiving that service to pay, and secondly the TTIP would remove the right of any future government to restore state provision; it would be interfering with a private company’s profits.
The motion was moved by Geraint Davies MP, who said: “If we end up with a situation where multinational companies are able to sue democratically-elected Governments over laws they have passed to protect their citizens, we will be in the wrong place altogether.
“The harsh reality is that this deal is being stitched up behind closed doors by negotiators, with the influence of big corporations and the dark arts of corporate lawyers. They are stitching up rules that would be outside contract law and common law, and outside the shining light of democracy, to give powers to multinationals to sue Governments over laws that were designed to protect their citizens.”
On health, he said: “All sorts of assurances have been given on health and social care but they are by no means watertight… As case law has not been established in Britain, the NHS remains at risk. The opening door created by the endless privatisations from the coalition Government creates more scope and risk for intervention, which could lead to possibly billions of pounds worth of legal action if a future Labour Government reversed a lot of the privatisation that has already occurred. Frankly, that would be in contrast to, and conflict with, the democratic wishes of the British people—if we get in.
“Due to the lack of case law, at any point a judge could say ‘Here is an area where there is already private competition. We will allow TTIP; why shouldn’t we?’ The more it goes forward, the more we are exposed, which is a real problem.”
Regarding ISDS, he said: “If these powers are available, they will be used to fleece the taxpayer. In my view, they are unnecessary. I accept that some protection may be needed between developed economies and democracies and rogue states, but rogue states are certainly not the United States. Mature democracies and economies, namely the EU and the US, do not need anything more than contract law to protect investors.”
Caroline Lucas (Green) pointed out in support of this that “the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, who are in trade agreements that include this kind of investor-state relationship, have been sued 127 times and have lost an amount of money that could have employed 300,000 nurses for a year“.
Mr Davies added: “The Labour party is standing on a pledge of freezing energy prices; again there could be a risk of challenge. If we wanted a one-off tax on privatised utilities, such as the one introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), on, for instance, Royal Mail, we could be at risk. If there were a move to partial or actual renationalisation of the railways or whatever, it could be subject to fines. The point is not whether one agrees with these policies; it is whether one thinks that we have the democratic right here on behalf of the people to pass those laws and not face financial intimidation.”
Labour’s David Anderson said: “People in this country are sick to death of the way public services have been treated over the past three decades. We have the nationalised train companies of other countries running our train services. We have multinational energy companies fleecing the old and poor in this country who are trying to keep their lights on and their houses warm. We have foreign postal companies undermining the universal service obligation. We have water companies—dealing with the basis of human life—that do not know where the people they provide the service to live. We have a coal industry where 200,000 people lost their jobs and communities were devastated, and we buy in coal from some of the most unstable regimes on earth. And now we worry that the health service will be fragmented before our very eyes. That is why people do not trust, and are very worried about, these negotiations.
The risk to air and water safety from fracking, and of sub-standard environmental controls, as there are in the United States, through the back door of TTIP, with ISDS, was also raised – and members on both sides of the house agreed that it was a valid issue.
Perhaps Labour’s John McDonnell described the issue best when he said: “The TTIP agreement passes over economic sovereignty on a scale that is equivalent to the establishment of the Common Market and the European Union, so I cannot understand why the Government are allowing that to happen without the full involvement of the people.
“This is about the corporate capture of policy making in this country – and in parts of Europe.”
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