Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that the NHS is ‘up for sale’ in post-Brexit US trade talks does not stack up

The Labour Party has proclaimed that leaked documents from trade talks between the UK and the US are “evidence that Boris Johnson has put the NHS up for sale”. The party also claims there have been two years of talks “about how drug companies can rip off the NHS”.

But under scrutiny, neither claim holds up.

At a procedural level, Boris Johnson had nothing to do with these talks, which took place in 2017 and 2018 when Theresa May was Prime Minister. Nor were these formal negotiations at all. They were part of the preliminary scoping dialogue permitted while the UK is still an EU member state.

Reading through the documents, I was struck by the goodwill and high quality of the discussions, which went into considerable detail as the civil servants from each side explained their respective positions on complex matters like intellectual property rights (IPR). Yet Jeremy Corbyn is asking us to believe that the very fact that patents were discussed is evidence that the Conservatives are set on making changing to our laws that would strengthen patent protection afforded to pharmaceutical products and therefore keep the prices paid by the NHS for patented drugs higher for longer.

Putting aside the question of why a British government would do such a thing (and the fact that trade agreements to which we are party through our EU membership include chapters on IPR, so discussing these matters is completely normal), in substance the UK team gave no indication at all that they would countenance adopting the US approach. Quite the reverse.

According to the read out from July 2018, “they presented our system in a very strong light” and this “was well received by US counterparts”. It was made clear that the UK will remain part of the European Patent Convention, and at that time was also seeking associate membership of the European Medicines Agency. Remember, these documents reflect conversations held in the era of the Chequers Plan, which would have seen the UK align to EU regulations on goods, and the UK would have had had little flexibility to move in many of these matters anyway.

There also seems to have been some excitement about discussions on services, with the US asking for an approach with “total market access” as the baseline. This is what is known in trade jargon as a “negative list” approach, where indeed all sectors are included unless, critically, they are excluded. The other approach, which has historically been favoured by the EU, is a positive list where only sectors that are specifically listed are included in a trade deal.

Even if the UK accepted the US’s general approach (which they have not yet done in any event), we would be able to carve out and exempt the NHS, or indeed any other sectors that we wish to continue to protect.

The NHS has always been protected by UK governments in the course of EU trade negotiations, for example with Japan, Singapore and Canada. Contrary to those who believe that malevolent US interests can’t wait to get their hands on our NHS, the outcome from the discussions was that the UK representatives did not consider that the US has a strong interest in this area at all.

The interests of small- and medium-sized businesses were being prioritised, and there was in-depth treatment of areas like financial and digital services, where the two countries have considerable shared interests. There are also comments that should reassure those who worry about standards on things like workers’ rights being driven down: the US representatives stressed that such matters are always for domestic regulation, and recalled that the recent FTA between the US, Canada and Mexico specifically protects sovereign rights on labour.

It is unfortunate that these documents – marked “Official-Sensitive (UK eyes only)” – have been leaked. No doubt the US negotiators have read the UK’s internal commentary on the talks with interest, and will have questions to ask about security. But they offer a fascinating insight into the discussions that, even at a time when the UK was seeking to align with the EU in a ‘common rule book’, show a breadth of ambition and considerable commitment to the realisation of a Free Trade Agreement between the UK and the US.

For those of us interested in trade policy, Mr Corbyn has done a great service in revealing the confidential content of these discussions. In the interests of integrity in political debate, however, and trust between allies at a vital time for this country, perhaps not so much.

The post Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that the NHS is ‘up for sale’ in post-Brexit US trade talks does not stack up appeared first on BrexitCentral.

* This article was originally published here


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