Trade experts have cast doubt on Labour’s claims that documents released today show the NHS is “up for sale”, with one saying the negotiations “are not out of the ordinary”.
Jeremy Corbyn unveiled 451 pages of leaked classified documents this morning, claiming they confirmed “the NHS is on the table and will be up for sale” in a post-Brexit free trade agreement with the US.
The documents show discussions between UK and US trade representatives, with American negotiators saying they tend to start talks by assuming “everything is included” and making concessions from there.
David Henig, UK director of European Centre For International Political Economy, said this was standard practice in trade negotiations with the US and did not necessarily mean the UK was willing to allow NHS access to US companies.
Henig was involved in stalled trade talks between the EU and the US on the worked Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TIPP).
“This is exactly what happened in TIPP negotiations – it’s right out of the Americans’ playbook,” he said.
“Both sides are discussing things that would be debated about, but of course not all of them would end up in a final deal.
“This is exactly what I’d expect to happen and not out of the ordinary.”
The documents released today by Labour show transcripts and summaries of six meetings between US and UK trade representatives between July 2017 and November 2018.
The topic of the NHS involvement in a trade deal is broached in March 2018, however UK officials shut down the topic.
In a briefing note, the Department for International Trade said: “The query about ‘health insurance’ was likely a fishing expedition to check the tone of our response.
“We do not currently believe the US has a major offensive interest in this space – not through the [state-owned enterprises] chapter at least.
“Our response dealt with this for now, but we will need to be able to go into more detail about the functioning of the NHS and our views on whether or not it is engaged in commercial activities.”
In Corbyn’s speech this morning he said the documents revealed there had been “advanced talks” about lengthening pharmaceutical patents in the UK.
Pharmaceutical patents and their length were indeed discussed in the document, however no clear decision had been made.
“Longer patents mean only one thing – more expensive drugs,” Corbyn said.
“Lives will be put at risk as a result of this.”
Corbyn and Barry Gardiner, international trade secretary, were asked this morning if there was any proof that ministers had actually agreed to include the NHS in talks.
While they did not have clear evidence, Gardiner said: “You have to be realistic, there’s 451 pages here over six meetings,” Gardiner said.
“That’s a very long way of saying ‘no’.”
International trade secretary Liz Truss denied Corbyn’s claims and called the document release a “smokescreen” and that he was “lying to the public about what these documents contain”.
“People should not believe a word that he says – this stunt is simply a smokescreen for the fact that he has no plan for Brexit and that he has been forced to admit that he wants to increase taxes for millions of families,” she said.
Former World Trade Organisation senior advisor David Tinline said: “I think they are invariably exaggerating for effect, but I think there’s a kernel of truth in the claims.
“Although the NHS is not going to be sold wholesale, there are certainly elements that the US may be asking to discuss.”
Henig said that while the documents did not necessarily show the NHS is “up for sale” he still called the leak “embarrassing”.
Boris Johnson has said repeatedly that the NHS would not be involved in trade talks, however the documents have shown that the subject has at least been discussed.
“It’s quite embarrassing for the government and they have set out to avoid this,” Henig said.
“If the government wants to allay fears they should have a procedures to ensure transparency.”