In the midst of all the Brexit chaos, I want to take a moment to reflect on a significant and unreported win for the Liberal Democrats against the Conservative Government.
A few months ago, a Bill was introduced into Parliament which seemed fairly uncontroversial – it’s aim was to replicate our reciprocal healthcare arrangements with other countries in the event of Brexit (either in a deal or no deal scenario). However, the Conservative Bill went much further than replicating healthcare with EU countries and was is in fact much more threatening. It opened up health deals with the whole world, one of our fears being that that in Liam Fox’s frantic attempts to sign a trade deal, the Tories were planning to put the NHS on the table as well. As a result, Sal Brinton, Jonathan Marks and I – along with members of the Labour Party and the crossbenches spent weeks challenging the Government to limit the application of the Bill – with great success!
One of the privileges of being members of the European Union, is that no matter where we are in the EU, our health needs are safeguarded when we need medical attention. Under EU agreements, the UK has participated in a variety of reciprocal healthcare arrangements with other countries, with the result being that all citizens and visitors are protected.
The Liberal Democrats with cross-party support worked to amend the Bill significantly. We were clear that this Bill must only allow ministers to replace the health deals we already have with the EU, the EEA and Switzerland.
The Bill’s scope was extraordinarily wide, and the powers included were unjustifiable. In November, the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee described its scope as “breath-taking”.
The Bill had a worldwide scope, it did not just apply to EEA countries and Switzerland – countries we will need to establish healthcare arrangements with in the event of Brexit. We made sure to limit this.
Not only did Liberal Democrats feel that worldwide powers were being snuck through in the guise of Brexit legislation and were unnecessary, but there was a genuine fear that this was an attempt to allow the NHS to be used as part of trade arrangements when creating new trade deals with countries such as the USA or China. We were witnessing the Conservative Government attempting to steal powers for ministers in Whitehall which could see them selling our NHS down the river.
Another issue was the vast Henry VIII powers included in the Bill. If the Bill had been left unamended, the Bill would have given vast powers to the Secretary of State to modify legislation without any real scrutiny or ability for Parliament to restrict the use of the powers.
We also considered issues concerning devolution, cross-border health arrangements, and the use of data, putting them on a firmer footing.
Simply put, the Bill did not make provision for adequate parliamentary oversight and it was too wide and unfocused in what it covers.
Liberal Democrats in the Lords felt so strongly about the sweeping powers Government was trying to award itself, that we gave the Conservative Government an ultimatum. Either improve the Bill and accept our changes, or the Lords will vote against the passage of the Bill. This is a measure that is rarely used in the Lords and is saved for the most serious issues.
In the end however it was unnecessary as the Government accepted the numerous changes laid down by the Liberal Democrats. We curtailed significant powers, restricted powers to EEA member states and Switzerland, and also made improvements to the use of data, consideration of devolution and cross border health arrangements.
Up and down this country people rely on our hard-working doctors and nurses to care for us when we are in need. The NHS can often be the difference between life and death. The Liberal Democrats demanded better for our health service, and we achieved better.
* Baroness Judith Jolly is Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Health and Social Care.