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Ministers must safeguard our NHS against privatisation

Ministers must safeguard our NHS against privatisation
4 min read

The EU’s Public Health Procurement directive has protected the NHS from mass privatisation. The government must make clear those safeguards will stay in place in future trade deals, writes Baroness Brinton

Much of the debate over the UK leaving the European Union has been focused on trade, the Single Market and the Customs Union. This week, as we mark one year since the triggering of Article 50, I believe it is important that we also start to identify some of the less visible but absolutely vital elements of Brexit that will affect the health and welfare of people in the UK.

If you asked most people what effect Brexit would have on our health service, regardless of how they voted in the Referendum, I suspect they will cite that large red bus from the Leave referendum campaign stating the EU costs the UK £350m per week, which on leaving could be invested in the NHS. Not only was this untrue, but there are now figures to show that the cost of leaving to our economy could be equal to £350m per week. And, at a time of unprecedented pressure on the NHS, it needs urgent and real investment to prevent it crumbling.

However, one of the lesser known pillars of protecting our NHS is also at risk with Brexit. With more and more parts of its services being put out to tender, the NHS has been protected by the EU Directive on Public Health Procurement. This directive governs the way in which public bodies purchase goods, service and works and seeks to guarantee equal access and fair competition for public contracts in the EU markets. It was approved in 2014 and includes protection for clinical services and more legal clarity on the application of procurement rules.

The bottom line makes it clear that, unlike non-public services, a public body can accept a contract that isn’t the cheapest, but one that fulfils the quality, continuity, accessibility and comprehensiveness of services and innovation. There is also no need to publish procurement advertisements cross-border, which, as ministers have repeatedly said in Parliament, is a key tool to preventing the mass privatisation of the NHS.

When there was concern about the TTIP agreement, it was this EU Directive which provided a guarantee that US companies could not come in and cherry pick our NHS. Lord Livingston of Parkhead answered my question in November 2014 and quoted Commissioner de Gucht “public services are always exempted....The argument is abused in your country for political reasons.” Livingston went on to say: “That is pretty clear. The US has also made it entirely clear. Its chief negotiator said that it was not seeking for public services to be incorporated. No one on either side is seeking to have the NHS treated in a different way... trade agreements to date have always protected public services.”

So I am seeking for confirmation from the government that they will stand by their words in 2014, and re-enact these procurement rules for public services into UK law, to continue to protect the NHS from future trade agreements.

Another key element of these procurement rules that needs to be protected is accessibility. This has meant that public money should no longer be used to introduce or maintain inaccessible structures, systems or services. It is essential for disabled people that these accessibility rules continue.

There are many other issues that are affecting the health and welfare of people in the UK which I know will be covered in the debate. The reduction of EU workers is already having an impact on our hospitals and social care services, from clinical to support staff. Leaving Euratom risks supplies of radioactive material required for treatment and research. The loss of the European Medicines Agency headquarters from London, and our influence over it will be very serious.   

Baroness Brinton is a Liberal Democrat peer and party chair. Her debate on the effect of EU withdrawal on health and welfare is on Thursday 29 March 



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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Brinton - We are desperate to return to normal life - but we must also be safe