- Thousands of protesters march in London in June, calling for an end to cuts and privatisation, which they say are destroying the NHS. Photograph: Paul Davey/Demotix/Corbis
The Guardian | Thursday 7 August 2014
Two-third of voters in Tory marginals want NHS exempt from US trade pact
TTIP being negotiated between EU and US threatens to make privatisation of UK health services permanent, say critics
More than two-thirds of voters in 13 battleground constituencies want to see the NHS safeguarded from a new trade deal that critics say threatens to make the privatisation of UK health services permanent.
The deal, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), is being negotiated behind the closed doors at the European commission, between EU bureaucrats and delegates from the US. It is the largest bilateral trade deal ever negotiated – worth an estimated £4bn to UK GDP.
But critics say the TTIP threatens to make the outsourcing of health services in Britain irreversible by allowing US multinationals, or any firm with American investors, to sue any future UK government if it attempted to take privatised health services back into public ownership, jeopardising their profits.
Thursday’s survey was commissioned by Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, which has repeatedly warned about the potential impact on hospitals and GPs if the deal goes through without a specific veto for the NHS.
"The Tories’ health act of 2012 opened our NHS up to profit-making US private firms and a new trade deal threatens to make the selloff permanent," said Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey.
This month the EU’s chief negotiator, Ignacio García Bercero, moved to quell concerns over TTIP’s impact on the NHS saying he was confident the health service would be "fully safeguarded".
He added: "If a future UK government, or a public body to which power has been devolved, were to reverse decisions taken under a previous government, for example by discontinuing services provided by a foreign operator, it would be entirely at liberty to do so. However, it would have to respect applicable UK law."
But McCluskey dismissed the "vague assurances" and called on David Cameron to act to safeguard the NHS by guaranteeing it would be exempt from any deal.
"We don’t believe the empty promises coming from the bureaucrats in Brussels but Cameron could act today and protect our health service. Cameron’s silence is deafening. He is refusing to answer a very simple question. Are we going to exempt health from the EU-US trade agreement? Unless he acts the NHS will be at the mercy of US companies and Wall Street investors who will be able to sue the government in secret courts if it tries to reverse privatisation."
A spokesman for the NHS said: "We have no intention of allowing the TTIP to dictate the opening up of NHS services to further competition, and it will not do so. The NHS will always be free at the point of use for everyone who needs it."
The future of the NHS is likely to be a key battle ground in next year’s election and Unite said Thursday’s poll, carried out by polling firm Survation, should serve as a stark warning to Tory MPs.
Based on a poll of more than 2,600 voters across 13 marginal Tory-held seats, the survey found 68% opposed the inclusion of the NHS as part of the deal. Opposition was highest among those planning on voting for Labour or Ukip, 78% and 77% respectively, but even among Conservative supporters only 23% backed the inclusion of the NHS in TTIP.
Damian Lyons Lowe, the chief executive of Survation, said: "When the potential implication of this trade deal are put to voters, they are clear that protecting the NHS is of paramount importance, notwithstanding the benefits of a trading partnership. As this poll shows, healthcare is an issue that cuts across political divides and so may prove critical to MPs in marginal constituencies sitting on very small majorities."