Dean Russell: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
First, I say thank you to those who organised the petition and to those who signed it. It is great to be able to stand here to clarify matters and reassure those people regarding the concerns they may have had about the privatisation of the NHS or any act towards that under the trade deal. The reality is that the Trade Bill has nothing to do with that; it is an extension of the existing agreement, which does not cover US activities. More importantly, this Government have not engaged in any activities to privatise the NHS.
In fact, the fearmongering that happens around this issue, as I wrote in an article earlier this year, actually causes many people anxiety. It causes fear and concern among the very people who need to be reassured that they can always access their NHS services at the point of need and for free. The reality is that nuanced debate is stifled, ironically, by the Opposition.
I do not wish to score points on this issue, because I really do not like political point-scoring, but it was the Opposition that brought in the private finance initiative. The Labour Government brought in the privatised Hinchingbrooke Hospital, and they introduced prescription charges for spectacles and dentistry. This Government have undone much of that work. We bought back Hinchingbrooke. We have invested millions, if not billions, in the NHS over the past year.
As a member of the Health and Social Care Committee, I have seen at first hand the good, but also the challenges the NHS faces. When we look at those challenges, one of the biggest problems I have seen over the past few decades, and particularly over the past few years, is that the rhetoric and fearmongering around privatisation of the NHS have built and built. Yes, it helps people to put leaflets through doors; yes, it helps them to make political points; and, yes, it helps to create coverage and news headlines. However, what it also does is make the people at the very heart of the NHS, who need support, worry about their futures.
Rachel Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman’s point about fearmongering is interesting. Has he, like me, had many NHS employees contact him with their concerns about privatisation of the NHS? They are fearful not for their jobs, but for the future of the NHS.
Dean Russell: I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Yes, they have, and where have they got that from? From leaflets and newspapers. In fact, I was about to make the point that in my volunteering at Watford General Hospital, I have spoken to staff who are anxious about what the future looks like. I was anxious to speak to them because I want to understand what their fears are. Often the fears are based on rhetoric, not on fact, and what there might be in the future, which is based on past Governments, not the current Government.
The anxiety goes deeper. Recently, while volunteering at the hospital, I held an iPad for a gentleman who had had a stroke. It was quite a moving moment. I explained to him that he had time to speak to his daughter and, as I sat there on my knees holding the iPad for him, he reached his hand over to hold my wrist and said, “Just a few minutes longer,” because he wanted to speak to his daughter for a little longer. In that moment, I realised the fear and vulnerability of the patients who are in the hospital beds, and how they, the staff and the families worry about what support they will get. In that moment, I realised also that the issue is not only about medicine, pharmaceuticals and trade deals, but about real people who are suffering and need support. What they also need is the continued reassurance that we are not privatising the NHS, even though the Government have never—not once—opted to do so, and neither will they.
We heard an excellent contribution earlier about data, which is something I am passionate about. Digital and data are the future of the NHS. We want the ability to cure cancer and diseases by looking at data in a much fairer way, and by making sure that people feel comfortable sharing their data online and with the NHS and organisations to help them solve the biggest issues in the world. Why would they not do that? Because of the fear around where the data would go. Yet every single day, people share where they are, what they eat and who their friends are with Facebook, Google and all the big corporate organisations without a second thought. However, because of the rhetoric—I will not blame it fully, to be fair—they are fearful of giving data and important information to the Government and the NHS to help them solve the big issues.
We have seen with the test and trace app that when the safety and security are created and people are reassured, they use it. Being able to use the app saves countless lives, and people can look to see whether other people need support or need to be isolated. That is about people feeling secure and safe, but the constant rhetoric—this drumbeat—just to get leaflets through doors to make the constant argument about privatisation is fearmongering at its worst. In fact, it scares the most vulnerable.
As a member of the Health and Social Care Committee, I hear the good and the concerning from the NHS and social care. I am not saying that it is an amazing organisation—I am not even saying the Government are perfect in every possible way— but there is scrutiny there. There are opportunities to delve into it and to have a much-needed calm and nuanced debate about what it will look like in future. What does the NHS need in the next five, 10, 20, 30 years? We must not constantly look at the next election cycle. We need to take the rhetoric out so that we can have calm, consistent and thoughtful debate about what it will look like. I am pleased to see colleagues here from the Committee. I am sure they will agree that we work closely and very well together on the Committee to be able to have debate and discussion around this. When we cannot do that in the public realm, it stifles our ability to continually improve the NHS.
The Trade Bill is about existing trade. I will not go into the details because I am sure the Minister will go into it in much more detail, but let us move forward. I urge those watching and listening to this debate and who signed the petition to please look at the facts and be reassured by what the Government have done and what we say about the NHS not being on the table. I urge colleagues to come together and have a calm debate about what this will look like in the future, because if we do not, the people who need the most support, who are the most anxious and fearful, will be harmed the most simply by words.