Nurses fight back against trade treaty that threatens NHS

The fight against an international trade treaty wrecking our NHS receives a boost from the nurses and activists, though most party leaderships are strangely quiet.

Martin O'Beirne
23 June 2014

RCN flag at Congress. RCN. 

It’s customary to refer to NHS privatization with a time-scale appendage e.g. ‘slow motion privatisation’ ‘creeping privatisation’ ‘step wise privatisation’. This makes the process sound ominous but not entirely inevitable. That if we play our cards right there remain moments of opportunity en-route, to slow down or reverse the process. . 

TTIP (Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership) would be NHS privatisation on speed. It would close the door on itself once allowed in. It’s about much more than trade. There are not really major trade barriers between the US and EU, tariffs that could be reduced maybe. 

TTIP is a corporate wish list for access to untapped markets. For the weakening of standards, regulations and access rights, many of which have been fought for over many decades: workers rights, food standards, financial regulations, healthcare services and so on. In short anything that is prohibitive to profit could face the chop.

TTIP envisions the establishment of a 'Regulatory Cooperation Council'. Big Business has been lobbying for this for years. It basically means that corporations can 'nip in the bud' government policy, stuff that would potentially be a corporate inconvenience would never progress past the proposal stage. 

If regulation did sneak through then there is the 'investor-state dispute settlement' (ISDS) which allows big corporations to sue governments if they don’t get what they want. 

Existing bilateral treaties show the dangers ahead. Multinational health investor Eureko sued the Polish government under the Netherlands-Poland investment protection treaty for €1.8billion. The elected government’s crime? To stand in the way of Euroko’s profit making potential by refusing to float shares of the formerly government owned health insurance company, PZU, on the stock exchange. The company’s actions also extracted a commitment for further privatization of PZU.  

TTIP could dramatically extend this kind of corporate power grab to the heart of our world-renowned NHS. 

So where does Cameron stand on the NHS and TTIP? 

It makes for painful reading. He told the Mail in April:

"So many of us have been there. You're in the waiting room as your child goes into the operating theatre. The minutes feel like hours, and the hours go on forever. As you wait for news, a nurse comes to put your mind at rest, reassuring you that your child is in the best possible hands. And in that moment you feel overwhelming gratitude towards our National Health Service."

The thrust of the coalition governments ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (to quote from the corporate dictionary) is to ‘harmonise’ the UK with the US health system, and open it up to corporations to compete for NHS contracts. 

TTIP adds the muscle to the bones. There is a risk that if ISDS were applied to the NHS, that repealing key aspects of the Health and Social Care Act would be deemed to be in breach of the free-trade agreement. It would be set in stone.

 Current talk of a move toward “harmony” between the US health system and the NHS doesn’t come at a particularly good time for the free marketers. The NHS has just been declared the world's best healthcare system by the Washington-based Commonwealth Fund, and the US the worst.

 But right wing think tank ‘Reform’ have released a report regarding the benefits of moving the UK health system in the direction of the US system. Incidentally David Cameron’s chief health advisor Nick Seddon, a private healthcare advocate, was a chief lobbyist for Reform before walking the corridors at no 10. In itself a cause for enormous concern.

 Despite his sweet sweet words regarding the NHS, David Cameron has said of TTIP:
“It is a once in a lifetime prize.” 

When asked in the House of Commons if the NHS would be excluded from TTIP he said:

“I am not aware of a specific exemption for any particular area, but I think that the health service would be treated in the same way in relation to EU-US negotiations as it is in relation to EU rules.” 

Clearly he is not pursuing NHS exclusion.

Furthermore, Cameron in NHS spin salesman mode said: 

“We should not be frightened of our NHS being a great British success story, parts of which can be exported to the rest of the world.”

Coalition partner Nick Clegg has openly supported TTIP in the European Union TV debates earlier in the year and has dismissed fears of its impact on the NHS. Shadow Secretary of State for Health Andy Burnham has been clear in his stance that the NHS should be protected from the treaty, but the Labour leadership have not opposed TTIP. UKIP has studiously avoided commenting on TTIP. The Green Party are opposed to TTIP in its entirety and Caroline Lucas tabled an early day motion to that effect in November of last year.

The good news is that the fight against TTIP is taking off. 

The Royal College of Nurses are leading the way with the fight back to protect the NHS. Gay Lee, of the Inner South East London branch proposed the following resolution to Congress:

“That this meeting of RCN Congress urges Council to lobby against the inclusion of health services in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)”

Gay said: “If health is not excluded, then it could be traded in the same way as baked beans or energy - The NHS is not about making money but about putting patients first. That’s what we all love about it.”

John Hill of the Scunthorpe branch said: “I would suggest that a couple of months ago the vast majority of you would never have heard of TTIP. But this is one of the biggest threats to the NHS that there has been.”
Calling for increased openness in the way TTIP is being negotiated, RCN Deputy President Cecilia Anim said: “This needs to be done in an open and transparent way with full public engagement. There have to be red lines that can’t be crossed - and the NHS is one of those red lines. TTIP will have wider irreversible implications for all of us in our working lives. We’re being kept in the dark and we have to stop it."

The resolution unsurprisingly was passed with overwhelming support. 97.16% (461) For, Against: 2.84% (13) and 14 abstained.

It's not quite 100%. There will always be ‘outliers’, like the London nurse Andy Mcgovern who made the papers last week having proposed a £10 fee for GP visits (a suggestion that was overwhelmingly defeated). There will always be moments where founding principles of the NHS need to be defended, in this case free access at the point of use. 

On July 12th, activists, unions, environmentalists, health campaigners, food campaigners and others will come together in a national day of action against TTIP. 

 There are no signs that public support is dipping for the NHS, despite the constant media heckling. The Commonwealth Fund that places the NHS as the best healthcare provider in the world is a great and much needed tonic, for both service users and workers. It is also a much needed lift as the fight against TTIP gets underway. 

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