New Clause 17 of the Trade Bill was one of more than 50 amendments that were put forward to the Bill for potential consideration on Monday. Unfortunately, the scope of this amendment has been wilfully misinterpreted by some, as is often the case with opposition amendments and it has been suggested that in voting against this amendment I have supported the selling off of the NHS. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Trade Bill is a continuity Bill, and it cannot be used to implement new free trade agreements with countries such as the USA. Instead, the Trade Bill is designed to enable the free trade agreements that the EU had signed with other countries before the UK exited to be rolled over as a continuity measure for the end of the transition period. The NHS is already protected by specific carve outs, exceptions and reservations in these trade agreements. 20 continuity agreements have already been signed, retaining all of these protections for the NHS.
The Government has made a clear and absolute commitment that the NHS will not be on the table in any future trade agreements to which the UK is party, something I fully support. New Clause 17 actually added nothing to these existing protections, and hence was neither a useful nor productive addition to the Bill.
There are also already checks and balances on the Government’s power to negotiate and ratify new agreements, including through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG). Parliament will retain, through the CRAG process, the right to block any treaty from being ratified. I want to be clear that I would not vote for a deal that sold off our NHS to any nation, and I know that the vast majority of my colleagues wouldn’t either.
In addition, trade agreements cannot by themselves make changes to our domestic law. Any legislative changes required as a result of trade agreements would be subject to the separate scrutiny and approval of Parliament in the usual ways. These arrangements are in line with those in place in Canada and go further than arrangements in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, where Parliament cannot directly block ratification of a trade treaty.
Finally, it is worth noting that as a member of the EU, the UK Parliament had no power to veto trade deals – our government could simply be overruled by majority in European Parliament and Qualified Majority Voting in the European Council.
The government has to ensure that legislation passed is coherent. Amendments such as NC17 are often laid with little other intention than to prompt Parliamentary debate on a topic.