Andy Burnham: NHS must be exempted from EU-US free trade agreement

Shadow health secretary reveals he will soon travel to Brussels to lobby for the health service to be exempted from international competition law.

Aside from his threat to vote against HS2 (for which he was swiftly rebuked by Labour), the most notable comments by Andy Burnham in my interview with him for this week's NS were on the proposed EU-US free trade agreeement and its implications for the NHS. Many Labour activists and MPs are concerned at how the deal, officially known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), could give permanent legal backing to the competition-based regime introduced by the coalition.

As Benedict Cooper wrote recently on The Staggers: "A key part of the TTIP is 'harmonisation' between EU and US regulation, especially for regulation in the process of being formulated. In Britain, the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Act has been prepared in the same vein – to 'harmonise' the UK with the US health system.

"This will open the floodgates for private healthcare providers that have made dizzying levels of profits from healthcare in the United States, while lobbying furiously against any attempts by President Obama to provide free care for people living in poverty. With the help of the Conservative government and soon the EU, these companies will soon be let loose, freed to do the same in Britain ...

... The agreement will provide a legal heavy hand to the corporations seeking to grind down the health service. It will act as a transatlantic bridge between the Health and Social Care Act in the UK, which forces the NHS to compete for contracts, and the private companies in the US eager to take it on for their own gain."

When I spoke to Burnham, he revealed that he will soon travel to Brussels to lobby the EU Commission to exempt the NHS (and healthcare in general) from the agreeement. He said: 

I’ve not said it before yet, but it means me arguing strongly in these discussions about the EU-US trade treaty. It means being absolutely explicit that we carry over the designation for health in the Treaty of Rome, we need to say that health can be pulled out. 

In my view, the market is not the answer to 21st century healthcare. The demands of 21st century care require integration, markets deliver fragmentation. That’s one intellectual reason why markets are wrong. The second reason is, if you look around the world, market-based systems cost more not less than the NHS. It’s us and New Zealand who both have quite similar planned systems, which sounds a bit old fashioned, but it’s that ability of saying at national level, this goes there, that goes there, we can pay the staff this, we can set these treatment standards, NICE will pay for this but not for this; that brings an inherent efficiency to providing healthcare to an entire population, that N in NHS is its most precious thing. That’s the thing that enables you to control the costs at a national level. And that’s what must be protected at all costs. That’s why I’m really clear that markets are the wrong answer and we’ve got to pull the system out of, to use David Nicholson’s words, 'morass of competition'.

I’m going to go to Brussels soon and I’m seeking meetings with the commission to say that we want, in the EU-US trade treaty, designation for healthcare so that we can exempt it from contract law, from competition law.

Should Labour fail to secure these reassurances from the EU, it would undoubtedly embolden the party's small but significant eurosceptic wing, those who have long denounced the EU as a "capitalist club". 

It's worth remembering, of course, that it was once Labour, not the Conservatives, that was most divided over Europe. The 1975 referendum on EEC membership was called by Harold Wilson after his cabinet proved unable to agree a joint position (Wilson subsequently suspended collective ministerial responsibility and allowed ministers to campaign for either side, an option that David Cameron may well be forced to consider) and Michael Foot's support for withdrawal was one of the main causes of the SDP split in 1981. Those divisions have not entirely been consigned to history. While the Tories are now split between 'inners' and 'outers', in Labour the fundamental europhile-eurosceptic divide persists.  

US and EU flags are pictured on November 11,2013 at the EU headquarters. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.