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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.

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

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.