openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Explosive UK/US trade deal leaks - how Corbyn succeeded where I had given up

We can now see the pressure the US is putting on the UK to put "everything" - including the NHS - on the table in trade talks. That this is now at the forefront of public awareness, is thanks to Labour having a leader who's also a lifelong campaigner.

Brendan Montague
27 November 2019, 2.26pm
Jeremy Corbyn holds an unredacted copy of a readout of the US/UK working group talks on a trade deal
PA Images/Dominic Lipinski

I had given up. I'd been trying to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents from meetings between UK officials and foreign governments who were negotiating post-Brexit trade deals, as part of my work with Global Justice Now.

The Department of International Trade had released a wedge of papers after years of wrangling. But each document had been redacted to within an inch of its life. The department claimed any transparency would kill the talks dead. The Information Commissioner, hiring the country's best Freedom of Information lawyers, said she knew almost nothing about trade talks, nor Freedom of Information regimes overseas, so could not rule whether release of the documents was in the public interest.

It seemed hopeless. It had been two years and all I had was documents so redacted they might have been shredded. This was not exceptional. The Tory government is so contemptuous of Freedom of Information that it has been rendered all but obsolete. I could no longer, in good conscience, advise charities to spend time and money filing requests. So I shut down my company - the Request Initiative - and moved on.

But then Jeremy Corbyn happened.

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But in the recent leaders debate, Jeremy Corbyn branded the redacted response to my Freedom of Information Act request on national television and claimed secret negotiations were taking place that would undermine the NHS. Boris replied that this was “an absolute invention” and “completely untrue.” He add there were “no circumstances whatsoever in which his government or any Conservative government” would put the NHS on the table in any trade negotiations.

And this morning at a press conference Corbyn was waving around a block of papers: all the documents I had spent years trying to obtain - along with hundreds more.

The papers are marked “OFFICIAL - SENSITIVE (UK eyes only)” and, Corbyn argued, provided evidence that Boris Johnson had misled voters as we approached the general election in promising that the NHS would not fall prey to United States health privatisers.

The leaders debate had been shown on Gogglebox, where ordinary folk from around the country were filmed watching the debate. They had been visibly shocked by the redacted documents and Corbyn’s claims - but then immediately bewildered and disengaged following Johnson’s categorical denial. What’s in the documents? one asked.

Now we know. Days after the television debate I received an email with a link to a file posted to Reddit. The file included hundreds of pages of documents generated from meetings between the Department of International Trade and the US from the first meeting in Washington on 24 July 2017 to the sixth, this time in London, on 11 July 2019.

Corbyn told today’s press conference, “Voters need to ask themselves some very serious questions: is the NHS safe in Boris Johnson’s hands? We’ve now got evidence that under Boris Johnson the NHS is on the table and will be up for sale. He tried to cover it up in a secret agenda but today it’s been exposed. Now we know the truth, when Johnson says, ‘get Brexit done’, it’s a fraud on the British people. This is the reality. Years of bogged down negotiations and our NHS is up for sale. This election is now a fight for the survival of our National Health Service. As a public service free for all at the point of need.”

The United States delegates are demanding “total market access” for private companies to our public services. In particular, “NHS access to generic drugs will be a key consideration”. Barry Gardiner, the shadow secretary of state for international trade, explained that US companies want to extend the life of drug patents, so that the NHS will be paying monopoly prices for treatments for even longer. Even UK nursing qualifications has been a negotiating chip - according to the documents: if we adopt US standards the world’s superpower can drain our NHS of trained staff.

Gardiner added that the US was after the huge amounts of patient data the NHS holds. This information can be used by drug companies to develop new treatments, which will then be patented before being sold back to the NHS at exorbitant monopoly prices.

Corybn said drugs available to the NHS for patients in the UK that cost less than £1,500 were currently being sold in the US under patents for more than £8,000. This is the basis of the claim by the Labour party that £500 million a year could be drained away from the NHS following Brexit..

Further, the US was demanding t the second meeting, held in November 2017 in London, that climate breakdown must not be even mentioned in any future deal with the UK - which has in turn declared a climate emergency. The Labour party said the talks had covered everything from “financial services, the British film industry, workers’ rights, data privacy, pesticide control, sugar content labelling and even gender discrimination rules.”

The documents from the first meeting at page 20 say this: “The US approach was that everything in services should be open unless there was a very good reason…The EU has reserved the right to introduce new discriminatory measures after the FTA [Free Trade Agreement] was in place. They [the US] found this ‘horrifying’”.

“Services”, of course, includes the NHS. "Discriminatory" measures could include protecting the NHS.

“The UK had a very open system already and the US should expect the UK to be a liberalising influence.”

On the following page: “The US explained that they were committed to preventing data localisation issues”. This is trade talk for not wanting the UK to be able to protect the data the NHS holds “locally” and away from predatory US health corporations.

In terms of public health, the US offered the UK trade negotiators advice on how to sell the idea of chlorinated chicken to horrified customers. “US to share their [sic] public lines on chlorine-washed chicken to help inform the media narrative around the issue.”

And elsewhere: “The US view the introduction of warning labels as harmful rather than a step to public health.” “The US explained that agricultural chemicals give the US the most ‘angst’”.

There we have it. The truth is out. The NHS is very much on the table. The UK is engaged in head to head trade talks - for the first time in a generation - with the world’s superpower. The government had tried desperately to keep the truth of these negotiations secret. Johnson had given empty reassurances - weeks away from an election.

It was Jeremy Corbyn and his team that made this possible. Corbyn talks about listening to the public. He has been quietly going around the country, listening to patients, listening to trade unionists, listening to campaigners.

It was through listening to Global Justice Now that his team discovered that the Department of International Trade had refused my Freedom of Information request. It was Corbyn who brought this to the nation’s attention. And it was Corbyn who made sure journalists were aware of the leaked documents.

The thing about Corbyn is he is an inveterate campaigner. He has for decades he has fought for the NHS, fought for equality, fought for workers rights, and fought for the environment. I had given up trying to get hold of these documents. Corbyn has never given up. And what I have learned from all this excitement is that if we want to protect the then we simply cannot give up. And certainly not now.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

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