George Freeman says Government will not let TTIP lead to back-door Privatisation of NHS

George Freeman responds to questions from back bench MPs on issues including the effect of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the NHS and the publication of the review into the closure of surgery at Leeds children’s heart unit.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

1. Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): What progress he has made on negotiations relating to the potential effect of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership on the NHS. [905538]

6. Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership on NHS services. [905543]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (George Freeman): The Government’s aim and my central mission as the new Minister for life sciences is to accelerate access for NHS patients to the very latest diagnostic devices and drugs by making the UK the best place in the world in which to develop innovative treatments. The US is a world leader in medical technology and TTIP will help NHS patients get faster access to those innovations. Let me be clear: the treaty excludes the NHS from binding commitments. Parliament will retain sovereignty over how we organise and fund our health system and NHS England is free to decide how best to commission NHS services in the clinical interests of local patients, as it does today.

Caroline Lucas: I thank the Minister for his answer and I welcome him to his new post. If his assurances were remotely credible then surely the British Medical Association would not have called for health to be excluded from TTIP entirely. Will the Minister confirm that under the investor-state dispute mechanism, US corporations will be able to challenge our national health policy decisions for ad hoc arbitration tribunals and potentially sue us for millions of dollars in damages for loss of profit in the event of any moves to reverse the coalition’s privatisation agenda and bring the NHS back fully into public hands?

George Freeman: No, I will not confirm that, but the hon. Lady does not have to take it from me. She can take it from the people who are doing the negotiations.

The US chief negotiator confirms that the United States has no provision in its trade agreements on health. The EU chief negotiator says:

“I wish… to stress that our approach to services negotiations excludes any commitment on public services, and the governments remain at any time free to decide that certain services should be provided by the public sector.”

Mr Watts: Before the election, there was a promise that there would be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS. Given the concern of the Opposition and the BMA, will the Minister meet the BMA to work out how we can get a cast iron assurance that these TTIP talks will not be used to privatise the NHS?

George Freeman: I will happily meet the BMA, but such a request is a bit rich coming from a Labour party that legislated to introduce competition in the health service and to pay private sector providers 11% more, which is now illegal under the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Let me be clear about this, and I can be no clearer than the Labour member of the all-party group for TTIP, who said that

“my direct discussions with the EU’s chief negotiator have helped produce an EU promise to fully protect our health service…TTIP could have no impact on the UK’s sovereign right to make changes to the NHS.”

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that these negotiations will have no effect on NHS services and how they are provided. With his life sciences hat on, will the Minister also confirm that this treaty gives us a real advantage as UK companies will be able to compete in the American market?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As well as providing a £10 billion boost to the economy, which I am surprised to see that the left is not in favour of, and securing 13 million jobs in the EU, this treaty also helps our NHS pioneers and innovators and our UK life science companies generate revenue for this country from our innovations in health care in the world’s biggest health care market.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): Is it not the case that free trade agreements have always grown the economies that have contracted within those agreements, and a growing economy can only benefit the NHS in the future?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The truth is that we cannot have a strong economy without a strong NHS, and we cannot have a strong NHS without a strong economy. In a modern society, health and wealth go hand in hand, which is why this treaty, with the safeguards that we have secured, is good for Britain and good for NHS patients.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Some 3 million people with diabetes have not received their full health checks, and 630,000 people have diabetes but do not know about it. Will the Minister give us an assurance that nothing in this deal will affect the ability of people to have free diabetes tests?

George Freeman: The last time I checked the TTIP negotiations do not make any specific provision for access to those services within the NHS. All I can do is remind the right hon. Gentleman that over the course of this Parliament, we have invested another £12 billion, hired more doctors and nurses and increased the provision of diagnostics in the NHS. This treaty does not affect that.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is absolutely no requirement in TTIP for this or any future Government to open NHS health care services to further competition and private sector provision, and that TTIP will have no effect on the ability of local NHS commissioners to decide who delivers services to patients?

George Freeman: I can absolutely provide that guarantee. UK sovereignty on health is not in any way threatened by TTIP. As I have already told the House, safeguards on this are being built in by both the American and the European negotiators. As my right hon. Friend points out, clinical commissioning decisions in the NHS will rightly remain with the clinical commissioning groups, which include the people who are closest to the patients.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): For the avoidance of any doubt, given that health is devolved to Northern Ireland, what assurances can the Minister give us that not just the UK Government, but the devolved Administrations, will be safeguarded from the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism?

George Freeman: The treaty’s provisions apply to the whole United Kingdom, so it will be for the delegated authority of the people of Ulster and their Administration to give effect to the treaty locally.

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Leeds Children’s Heart Unit

11. Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): When the third stage of the review into the closure of surgery at Leeds children’s heart unit will be published. [905548]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (George Freeman): Safe, compassionate care is an absolute priority for the Government. Publication of the Verita reports regarding the Leeds paediatric cardiac unit is a matter for NHS England. The reports are due to be published on 28 October, and copies will be placed on the NHS England website.

Jason McCartney: Constituents and clinicians continue to tell me that the children’s heart surgery unit goes from strength to strength, provides high-quality care, and has the full confidence of NHS England. Does the Minister sympathise with patients, families and clinicians who have faced uncertainty because of the delay of the third stage of the review?

George Freeman: Yes, I absolutely sympathise: I understand how important this is to local patients and their parents. As my hon. Friend knows, NHS England’s review of children’s heart surgery goes back a very long way—to the Bristol royal infirmary issues in the 1980s—and I know that Leeds and Newcastle Members are actively engaged on it. I can say that there is no immediate threat to any congenital heart surgery unit. NHS England has held a drop-in session with all MPs, and I encourage Members to make representations to the consultation on the national review.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): The reality is that NHS England has made a mess of this. I hope that it will finally apologise when the third stage of the review is published. On the process that we have now, will my hon. Friend confirm that it is an open and fair process that will allow all units, including Leeds, to reach the important standards that we want for all our units?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is a matter for NHS England to deal with. I have made inquiries to ensure that the process is being followed as it should be. As I say, there is no immediate threat. The issues around the provision of congenital heart disease services are not limited to Leeds. NHS England is conducting a nationwide review of congenital heart services, which will look at the whole of life care pathways available across the country. The truth is that congenital heart diseases are often very serious illnesses affecting life expectancy and quality of life for patients, who will expect NHS England to put in place the very highest quality care and service available.

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Topical Questions

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Healthwatch England recently released a report, “Suffering in silence”, that found that almost two thirds of people felt that their complaint about the NHS was not taken seriously and half ended up not receiving an apology or even hearing the word sorry. What action is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that complaints are taken seriously in the NHS?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (George Freeman): My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Following the appalling systemic abuse and neglect described in the Francis report, our response, set out in “Hard Truths”, focused relentlessly on hearing the patient voice, learning tough lessons on patient safety and care, and, in particular, the creation of the new independent chief inspector of hospitals, who is looking closely at all complaints. The health ombudsman has increased its caseload and we are also taking measures to display information on how to complain in every hospital and ward across the country.

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