Parliament has voted down a legal bid to protect the NHS and publicly funded health and care services from any form of control from outside the UK as the Government seeks to broker post-Brexit trade deals.
Opposition MPs had put forward the amendment to the Government’s Trade Bill which, if approved, would have barred any deal which “undermines or restricts” a comprehensive public-funded health service, free at the point of delivery.
Moved by MPs including Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, the also proposed banning any agreement that undermined the ability “to maintain the quality and safety of health or care services”.
The amendment would also have legally guaranteed the UK’s ability to control the pricing of medicines, and maintained the current level of protection for patient data.
But MPs voted on Monday evening by 340 votes to 251 to reject the amendment, with Government ministers insisting it was not needed as they’ve repeatedly said no element of the NHS will be up for grabs in a future trade deal, and standards will not be lowered.
The Government also managed to stave off a Tory backbench attempt to give Parliament a definitive say on post-Brexit trade deals as its flagship Trade Bill legislation cleared the Commons.
The rebellion failed to gather momentum, with an amendment moved by former minister Jonathan Djanogly being rejected by a majority of 63 after 326 MPs voted against the clause compared to 263 who backed it.
The developments came after concerns were raised that politicians in Westminster would be unable to prevent the Government reneging on commitments to protect the NHS and maintain animal welfare and food standards under the terms of the Trade Bill.
The Government, for its part, has stressed that UK law offers such protections and any changes would have to come before Parliament.
But shadow international trade minister Bill Esterson said a lack of scrutiny over the issues threatens to leave the health service “wide open to pharmaceutical giants” and to “undermine” farmers and consumers.
He told the Commons: “Chemical washes of chicken, hormones in beef, ractopamine in pork and GM crops are banned in the UK – what’s wrong with keeping it that way?
“If the Government is saying we’re going to do it anyway, what’s the objection to putting it all in primary legislation?”
Mr Djanogly meanwhile said his new clause four would have ensured the executive still negotiated free trade agreements (FTAs) but Parliament would have a “yes/no vote” on the negotiating objectives and the final draft agreement.
He said: “Not only has this not ended up in the Bill, but the Government’s position has seemingly reverted to having less scrutiny than we did as a member of the EU.
“For the last 40 years the EU has been negotiating our trade deals and as part of the EU scrutiny process, a yes/no vote would be taken by the EU Parliament on the draft FTA prior to signature.”
Neil Parish, Conservative chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, added that it was “somewhat confusing” that ministers would not accept the amendment as the scrutiny would ensure they follow through on commitments to welfare standards.
Mr Djanogly agreed, adding: “As things stand, there is no longer a parliamentary veto and no formal scrutiny committee relationship yet established despite US negotiations having started.
“The important point of a parliamentary veto is not that it is often used – rather, as is seen in other parliaments, it encourages the executive to seek consensus on its negotiating mandate and keep legislators in touch during negotiations through regular discourse and discussion.
“A wise executive will naturally wish to avoid an unnecessary bust-up just before signing an FTA.”
Tory former environment secretary Theresa Villiers had earlier called on the Government to confirm it will keep the import ban on chlorine-washed chicken.
Ms Villiers said she hoped the Government “will consider seriously whether changes can be made to strengthen parliamentary oversight” through amendments from MPs or in the House of Lords.
She told MPs: “All I’m asking is that we don’t sell ourselves short in this country. The UK is the third-biggest market for groceries in the world – even conditional access to that market is a valuable prize.
“Just because we would like a trade deal with the US doesn’t mean that we should give them everything they want. There is so much we can offer our trading partners in the US and other countries, and is it so unreasonable to say that when it comes to food, there are limits to liberalisation?”
But Tory former minister Steve Brine said: “Ultimately, won’t the consumer decide?
“Just recently we heard Waitrose make it very, very clear that they wouldn’t be selling any product that was imported to a lower standard than we currently enjoy in this country, and their new boss actually quoted chlorine-washed chicken. I just wonder whether the public might be ahead of us on this one already.”
Opening the debate, international trade minister Greg Hands said the Government was “committed to transparency” regarding scrutiny of international agreements.
He said: “International agreements themselves cannot alter domestic law and any changes to UK legislation would need to be scrutinised by Parliament in the normal way.
“We are strongly committed to transparency, as demonstrated by the steps we have taken to provide comprehensive information to the public and Parliament.”
MPs approved the Trade Bill at third reading by 335 votes to 243 – a majority of 92. It will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords at a later date.