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NHS dossier: What was in secret government trade papers that 'prove health service is up for sale'?

Labour claimed the leaked memos showed the NHS was being discussed with Donald Trump’s administration, but the Tories accused Jeremy Corbyn of peddling ‘conspiracy theories’

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 27 November 2019 12:50 GMT
Jeremy Corbyn says he has documents which 'confirm' under Boris Johnson 'the NHS is on the table and will be up for sale' to the US

Jeremy Corbyn caused a stir on Wednesday when he took to the stage in Westminster to announce that Labour had obtained more than 500 pages of government papers detailing the status of trade talks with the US.

Officials negotiating with Donald Trump’s administration made detailed notes of the discussions, but the government had previously only released a heavily redacted version.

Labour claimed the new documents showed the NHS was on the table during talks on a trade deal with the US, but the Tories insisted this completely untrue and accused Mr Corbyn of peddling “conspiracy theories”.

Although the documents cover meetings that took place between July 2017 and July 2019, before Boris Johnson became prime minister, they give a good sense of the main topics during the negotiations. Here are the most important points contained in the papers.

Privatisation of the NHS

The memos reveal that the US is pushing for a deal in which all services would be opened up to US companies unless they were on a list of specific exemptions.

US officials said this approach “makes total market access the baseline assumption of the trade negotiations”. The Trump Administration is “wedded” to this because it “incentivises freer trade”, they said.

According to the documents, “the US approach was that everything in services should be open unless there was a very good reason not to”.

UK officials say it is “clear that for the US, the priority is securing guaranteed market access for US firms into the UK market”. This, in theory, could include the NHS.

In a phrase highlighted by Mr Corbyn as an alleged sign of government support for this, UK officials said their US counterparts “should expect the UK to be a liberalising influence” and help “fly the good flag for services liberalisation”.

However, there is nothing to suggest that this was anything more than a general approach, and says little about the UK government’s position in relation to the NHS.

Mr Johnson has repeatedly said that the NHS would not be on the table in trade talks. The UK could insist that the health service was listed as one of the exemptions.

Still, the fact that the health service has been raised in talks is likely to fuel fears about what inclusion, if any, it will have in a future trade deal with the US.

Cost of medicines

Mr Corbyn claimed the documents showed that “US corporations want to force up the price our NHS pays for drugs”, and that the US and UK had “already finished initial discussion on lengthening patents for medicines”.

The memos do indeed say that the US “pushed hard” for extending the length of drug patents – a move that would likely drive up the prices of drugs in the UK. They say that US negotiators were “eager to push their positions” on this issue but did so “in a highly respectful manner”.

However, the papers also reveal that UK officials responded by saying that this was “not as relevant for the UK” as it was the US.

The government also defended the UK system, giving “a broad overview of how the UK patent system contributed to an innovative pharma sector and facilitates a balance between generics, innovators and the public while stressing the importance of this system for the health sector”, and presenting the UK system “in a very strong light”. This was reportedly “well received” by the US.

The UK made clear that it considered it to be a “fundamental principle” that the need to protect innovation by drug companies was balanced with the “health need for these products and therefore a need to ensure that they are appropriately available”.

The documents suggest that the two sides reached a deadlock on the issue, with UK officials noting that they were “awaiting the clearance to negotiate and exchange text to really take significant further steps”.

Food safety

The documents make clear that the US and UK (operating under EU rules) currently have different approaches to food hygiene and standards. While the EU focuses on reducing the use of chemicals and pesticides, the US focuses on eliminating pests and pathogens. As the memos point out, these are often conflicting priorities.

The papers record that the US “expressed concern” about this but recognised the difficulties for the UK government in terms of “attention from the media and consumer groups”. It claimed that the UK retaining EU standards on food would be the “worst-case scenario” from a US perspective.

As part of this, the US offered to “share their public lines on chlorine-washed chicken” – a product that has been at the centre of concerns about food standards after Brexit – “to help inform the media narrative around the issue”.

US officials also asked if “there would be an interest” on the part of the UK in bringing back pesticides that have not been used since 2003. It is not clear what the UK’s response was. However, the US said it saw food standards as a “sticking point” during negotiations, suggesting there was resistance to their demands from the UK side.

The US also warned against food labelling to highlight high quantities of ingredients such as sugars and fats, saying it believed this was “harmful rather than a step to public health”.

Climate change

According to the documents, the UK “enquired about the possibility of including references to climate change in a future UK-US trade agreement given that the UK has a strong historical stance on climate change”.

British officials “highlighted the pressure for this that would come from civil society and NGOs”.

However, the US side replied “emphatically” that this was “the most political (sensitive) question for the US” and calling it a “lightning rod issue”.

US trade negotiators said they had also been bound by congress “not to include mention of greenhouse gas emission reductions in trade agreements”, adding that this was unlikely to change “anytime soon”.

No-deal Brexit

Senior US government figures, including Mr Trump, have previously warned the UK against agreeing a Brexit deal that would result in close alignment with the EU, and the memos show that this was also mentioned during trade negotiations.

The minutes of a meeting from July 2019 say that US officials were “clear that the UK-EU situation would be determinative: there would be all to play for in a no-deal scenario”.

They warned that the UK staying in the EU’s customs union and single market “would make a UK-US FTA [free trade agreement] a non-starter”.

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