Margaret Greenwood – 2020 Speech on the Trade Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Margaret Greenwood, the Labour MP for Wirral West, in the House of Commons on 20 May 2020.

There is a great deal of public concern about the Bill before us today, because it fails to provide for effective parliamentary scrutiny in future trade agreements. In effect, the Government will have free rein to do what they like in signing trade agreements with countries around the world, including countries that do not have the same level of environmental protections, food safety and animal welfare regulations that we currently have. Free trade agreements can have an impact on our labour standards, and on the ability of our public services to operate in the public sector. That has profound implications for the quality of all our lives, and for our democracy.

Before the current covid-19 crisis, large sections of the public had become aware of the privatisation of the national health service which has been going on under this and previous Conservative Governments. The Bill fails to protect the future of the NHS, since it does nothing to prevent trade deals from being done behind closed doors without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

The Health and Social Care Act 2012, introduced by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government, brought in complex changes, undermining our national health service as a public service delivered by public sector employees. The abolition of the student nurse bursary seemed designed to erode further the public sector ethos of our NHS. Yet, despite this onslaught from the Government, today we see doctors, nurses and other NHS workers putting their all into serving all of us as our country goes through the most terrible of public health emergencies. It is humbling and we owe them an immense debt of gratitude for their outstanding dedication. In this context, it is all the more important that those of us in Parliament and in this place stand up for the NHS and fight to protect it. I believe that the Bill fails to protect the future of our national health service.

The British Medical Association has been quite clear that the Bill should stipulate that the health and social care sectors are excluded from the scope of all future ​trade agreements to ensure that the NHS can be publicly funded, publicly provided and publicly accountable. It is also quite clear that the Bill should rule out investor protection and dispute resolution mechanisms, to ensure that foreign private companies cannot sue the UK Government for legitimate public procurement and regulatory decisions, and that protections should be included in the Bill to ensure that NHS price control mechanisms are maintained so that patients have access to essential and life-changing medicines.

I am very concerned that, while our fantastic NHS workers are doing everything they can to tackle covid-19 and provide care and support to anyone who needs it, the Government are seeking to pass a Bill that does nothing to enable elected representatives meaningfully to scrutinise trade deals to protect the NHS. The Trade Justice Movement has said:

“The current processes are fundamentally undemocratic: Parliament has no guaranteed say on trade deals, and the government is not required to be transparent before or during trade negotiations.”

At the last general election, the Conservative party manifesto promised:

“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”

Yet, the National Farmers Union has highlighted the absence of any provisions to safeguard the high farming production standards in the context of the international trade negotiations. Compassion in World Farming has quite rightly said that any new trade agreements must not undermine UK standards for animal welfare, food safety or environmental protections, and that they must protect UK farmers from imports produced to standards lower than those in the UK.

During the transition period following the UK’s exit from the European Union, trade remedies are dealt with by the EU. At the end of the transition period, we need our own trade remedies authority to investigate alleged unfair practices. However, the new trade remedies authority provided for in the Bill lacks the independence, parliamentary oversight and accountability needed to ensure that it will operate transparently and fairly when investigating and challenging practices that distort competition against UK producers in breach of international trade rules. There is no provision for ensuring a voice on the trade remedies authority for industry bodies or trade unions, and there is no proposed mechanism for their ongoing consultation on trade practices affecting the competitiveness of UK industries or the employment of workers therein.

To conclude, the Bill fails to make provision for meaningful and effective parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals and gives the Government immense powers to turn back the clock on safety standards in the food we eat, the products we buy, our employment rights and the way in which public services are delivered. It threatens the future of the NHS by leaving it exposed to greatly increased privatisation—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. The hon. Lady has exceeded her five-minute limit.