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Clear and present danger

The Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) would be privatisation on amphetamine and once allowed in would close the door in on itself and throw away the key. Martin O’Beirne reports

It’s customary to refer to NHS privatisation with a time-scale appendage, such as “slow-motion privatisation” or “creeping privatisation.” 

This makes the process sound ominous but not entirely inevitable. It provides a reflective pause, a sense that if we play our cards in the right way, there will be moments of opportunity en route to either slow down or reverse what has been or will be done.

But the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) would be privatisation on amphetamine, a 360-degree plan which, once allowed in, would close the door in on itself and throw away the key.

TTIP talks have been alarmingly secretive and it’s about much more than trade.

What it boils down to is a corporate wish list for access to untapped markets and the attenuation 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.

One part in particular is of great concern — the toxic “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) which allows big corporations to throw their toys out of the pram if they don’t get what they want and accordingly sue governments. 

There are plenty of examples from a number of countries where this kind of mechanism exists and has been enacted.

For example, the Polish government was sued under the “Netherlands-Poland investment protection treaty” by a multinational investor in health insurance called Eureko to the tune of €1.8 billion, including a commitment for further privatisation of the formerly government-owned health insurance company, PZU. 

The government’s “crime” was to stand in the way of Eureko’s profit-making potential by refusing to float shares of PZU on the stock exchange.

More — TTIP also envisions the establishment of a “regulatory co-operation council.” 

Big business has been lobbying for this for years. It basically means that corporations can “nip in the bud” government policy, meaning that anything that would potentially be a corporate inconvenience would never progress past the proposal stage. 

If it did, then there is the previously mentioned “investor-state dispute settlement” — a thorough stitch-up.

The NHS is a world-renowned institution that represents such notions as people over profit and co-operation over corporations. It is a thorn in the cold heart of neoliberalism. 

TTIP would signal the beginning of a rapid shift, a corporate power grab and the realisation of neoliberal shock doctrine — the progeny of those no longer living: Friedman, Pinochet and his loyal colleague in arms Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher got the ball rolling with NHS privatisation when the Community Care Act came to fruition in 1990. Subsequent Labour and Conservative governments have been complicit in the gradual movement and developments thus far. We now stand at the precipice with TTIP — a race to the bottom.

The thrust of the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Act is to “harmonise” Britain with the US health system, where “harmonise” means allowing US corporations to compete for NHS contracts.

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

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 marketeers, given that the NHS has just been declared the world’s best healthcare system by the Washington-based Commonwealth Fund, and the US the worst.

However, the right-wing think tank Reform has released a report regarding the benefits of moving the British health system in the direction of the US system. 

Incidentally Cameron’s chief health adviser 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.

Cameron has said of TTIP that “it is a once in a lifetime prize.” 

When asked in the House of Commons if the NHS would be excluded from TTIP, he gave a typical “political” response.

“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.”

Being “not aware” has little relation to not actively pursuing an exclusion.

Furthermore, Cameron in NHS spin salesman mode has 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.”

Nick Clegg openly supported TTIP in the European Union TV debates and has not spoken of an exclusion for 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, aside from the NHS, Labour has not opposed TTIP. 

It is Ukip policy to put the NHS out to tender, but the Green Party is opposed to TTIP in its entirety. Caroline Lucas tabled an early day motion to that effect in November last year.

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

The Royal College of Nursing is fighting 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.”

Unsurprisingly, the resolution was passed with overwhelming support, with over 97 per cent in favour.

A national day of action looks to have good support for July 12, uniting activists, trade unions, environmentalists, health campaigners and more. This will be a convergence of different voices reflecting the vastness of the power shift that TTIP represents.

There are no signs that public support for the NHS is dipping, despite the constant ideological heckling it receives in the Murdoch papers. 

The Commonwealth Fund’s report 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 next big fight, the fight against TTIP, gets under way.

 

Martin O’Beirne blogs at www.martinobeirne.co.uk.

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