January 12, 2014 4:13 pm

Ken Clarke visits China with health service trade in his sights

Minister without Portfolio, Ken Clarke, gives an interview to the Financial Times©Charlie Bibby

Ken Clarke, minister without portfolio

Ken Clarke, the veteran cabinet minister, begins a five-day trade visit to China on Monday saying he wants to increase British sales in the fast-growing Chinese healthcare market and that efforts to date have been “hopeless”.

Mr Clarke hopes to build on David Cameron’s visit to China last month to create a bridgehead for British healthcare firms, claiming they should be able to exploit the global reputation of the National Health Service.

The minister told the Financial Times that Britain had world-beating healthcare companies but said: “For the moment we’re left miles behind in this field by the Americans and Germans because their export efforts are better than ours.”

Mr Clarke, the prime minister’s trade envoy, has made a priority of selling healthcare to China, India and Brazil, tapping into what he believes is a vast and expanding market in the big emerging economies.

As with Mr Cameron’s trip to China last month, Mr Clarke is not planning to let British concerns about Beijing’s human rights record get in the way of his efforts to win business.

“You can’t have all of your dealings with the Chinese dominated with campaigning and publicity about human rights,” he said, adding that Beijing knew very well that Britain disapproved of its “authoritarian state”.

“The trip is focused on health and – if it were to come up in general conversation – I will of course discuss the evolving human rights situation in China. But I’m not expecting it to.”

To date, British healthcare companies have, with government assistance, won business totalling more than £200m, but Mr Clarke believes the “thaw” in relations with Beijing could herald much bigger opportunities for the sector.

He and his trade delegation will be offering China British expertise in hospital construction, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, medical training and expertise in patient records and other management systems.

Mr Clarke’s role as “minister without protfolio” has extended his life in the cabinet and put him at the forefront of promoting trade, including a putative EU/US trade deal.

He says he has “never known the political climate to be more propitious on both sides of the Atlantic”, with US Democrats and Republicans as well as Europeans agreeing in principle on the need to boost trade.

“The French are not instinctive free traders but the French economy is one of the more worrying economies in western Europe,” he said. “The French government needs something to give it a kick.”

But he added: “It’s going to be done fairly quickly if it’s to be done at all. Unfortunately, as we found at the Doha trade round, once you get past the first few years it just becomes impossible.”

Mr Clarke may be at odds with many in his party over the EU and immigration, but he said he fully agreed with George Osborne’s decision to put a further £25bn of public spending cuts at the heart of the election campaign.

“It’s very courageous because it’s not populist,” he said. “It is extremely bold because to have spelled it out so precisely is a very bold political step.”

Would he have been so bold? “I would have spent a few days worrying whether this would be disastrous,” he admitted, saying that every lobby group in Britain would be demanding to know if they will be affected by the cuts. But he added: “I agree with it. I genuinely do.”

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