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WTO: open public services to market

The Observer   Sunday October 13, 2002

by Nick Mathiason

The World Trade Organisation and big business are demanding the sweeping liberalisation of Britain's public services, new government documents reveal.

Sensitive areas that multinationals are keen to break into include the health and education sectors.

A government consultation report released last week says the UK faces demands to 'remove all establishment restrictions on hospital and social services, rest, convalescent and old people's homes'.

Other demands include the removal of distinctions between postal and courier services and calls for Britain to end subsidies to broadcasting organisations. This could have massive implications for the BBC.

Details of demands by overseas countries emerged last Thursday, when the government published an update on progress towards a new WTO Treaty - the General Agreement of Trade in Services (Gats). Under Gats countries will be forced to open up their services to overseas companies. If they refuse, final authority will rest with the Gats Disputes Panel, which will determine whether national law or regulation is 'more burdensome than necessary'.

There are growing concerns that Gats will lead to the full-scale privatisation of public monopolies across the world. Barry Coates, director of the World Development Movement, said: 'Decisions now on public services in many cases are guided by active public debate.

'This can change policy. Look at Railtrack. But under Gats, commitments are irrevocable. Countries will be locked in, which is incompatible with democracy.'

Howard Catton, senior policy adviser at the Royal College of Nursing, said: 'If services are opened up so that the private sector can provide them, that means the NHS may look at what it provides and the implications this has for risk pooling and the principles behind the NHS come into question.'

Formal offers for liberalisation between countries will begin in March next year. Organisations have until January to submit responses to the Department of Trade and Industry.

The treaty covers all services from water, energy, telecoms to financial,

The services sector contributes 70 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product and employs 23 million people.

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