Women's Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:19 am on 10th June 1988.

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Photo of Ms Jo Richardson Ms Jo Richardson , Barking 10:19 am, 10th June 1988

I shall gladly elaborate. I agree that I used a shorthand phrase, perhaps I should have explained more fully what I meant by the scandals of VDUs. We accept that VDUs have decreased the work load and made the work easier than it was with the old filing and call and recall system. However, I am sure that it will not have escaped the attention of the Minister for Health that VDUs involve health hazards. I do not think that enough is done to ensure that employers take that into account.

The Ministers are looking puzzled. Sitting for too long in front of a VDU can affect health. There is a risk to a woman's reproductive capabilities. I am amazed that the Minister looks surprised to hear that fact, because it is common knowledge. Indeed, many unions and employers have a written agreement limiting the number of hours that someone can sit in front of a VDU, precisely because of that risk. That is what I meant by "scandal", but perhaps I should have said "hazard". It is certainly something that must be borne in mind.

Before the Minister's welcome interruption I was discussing problems at work. The Government have compounded the difficulties facing women through their attacks on maternity rights and parental leave. The Government preside over legislation designed specifically to encourage low wages and, in some cases, dangerous conditions, and to erode the rights of individuals.

Work should offer the opportunity of better health screening and education and should enhance women's lives. Instead, during the past nine years much gained in previous years has been eroded. On a number of recent occasions, and certainly at some length today, the Under-Secretary has berated women for smoking. She did not refer to drinking today, although she has referred to that and other habits on many occasions. I was stunned when I heard her attributing smoking to the desire of women to keep slim. It is a long time since I heard that one. Most of the women I know who smoke do so because they are under some stress. They do not necessarily want to smoke. I smoke, and I do so because I like—it but that is my problem. I certainly do not do it because of stress.

Many women smoke because of stress caused by poor housing or work or family problems. They smoke not to keep slim but because they are nervous and under stress, and smoking provides some form of release for them. I am a little surprised that the hon. Lady did not acknowledge that. Indeed, it is downright offensive to talk about women in the way that she did and to blame them for seeking relief from tensions that, in many ways, the Government have forced upon them. After all, the Government capitulate to the tobacco and alcohol businesses whenever there is a call for action against advertisements deliberately aimed at the young and at women. Blaming the victim is an obnoxious practice and is always an unproductive and futile exercise.

Does the hon. Lady really believe that women are less aware than men of health risks, or that they are more difficult to educate than men? Does she believe that they are simply more reckless or feckless than men about the lifestyle and health of themselves and their families? I hope that she does not believe that; I cannot believe that she does. However, that is the logical interpretation of some of her outbursts that sometimes, although I am sure she does not mean them to be so, sound almost sexist—until, that is, we place them in the context of the rest of the Government's policies.

The Secretary of State for Social Services presides over a social security system founded on the Victorian values of the deserving and the undeserving poor, while the hon. Lady wants to found the Health Service on the values of the deserving and the undeserving sick. Unlike Conservative Members, the Opposition want all women to have the best available health case and health opportunities, regardless of ability to pay.

The hon. Lady proudly mentioned the role of the private sector in breast cancer screening. I accept that it has a role, but I should prefer all such screening to be carried out within the NHS. A letter dated 4 January 1988 from the London hospital Whitechapel, addressed to one of my constituents, has caused me some surprise. It refers to the first stage of an ovarian cancer screening project in which my constituent had participated. It said that the project had yielded valuable and exciting results that would shortly be published in The Lancet. It said that it would dramatically improve the outlook for the 4,000 women a year who died from ovarian cancer.

To my amazement, the letter's writer said: There are two ways in particular that early participants in the project such as yourself can ensure its continuation: (1) By helping us to raise sufficient money to complete the project by selling tickets for our 1988 raffle. It is amazing that a woman who has taken part in a project to help her health and that of other women should be asked to buy a raffle ticket so that other women can also participate. Is that private health care, semi-private health care, supported health care or sponsored health care? We should fund such projects properly and not depend upon people buying raffle tickets.

The Government must fully provide properly resourced services that genuinely promote health, as well as meeting the needs of women when they are sick. Promoting good health means challenging the causes of ill health, such as poor diet, poor housing and homelessness. What about the hundreds and thousands of women currently living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation? That is hardly a healthy life. They are expected to care for their families in one room and they have to leave the accommodation and stay out all day. I do not know how they can be expected to provide a healthy diet in such circumstances. The Government do very little to help those problems. Other causes of ill health are unemployment, unsafe and stressful working conditions in the workplace and at home, the dual load of unemployment and caring responsibilities and poverty and powerlessness.

Every health study has shown that poverty is one of the most important factors influencing life and health chances, so we should not increase the poverty of those who are already the poorest in our society. The Government's record is second to that of no Government this century, as is shown by the first increase on the infant mortality rate since 1970. An article in The Health Services Journal headed: Why are our babies dying? states: A rise in the infant death rate in England and Wales—the first since 1970—is causing concern among community service managers and staff. The most recent figures from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) show that the number of deaths of children under the age of one, internationally accepted as an important indicator of health and social conditions, rose from 9·4 per 1,000 births to 9·6, an increase from 6,141 deaths in 1985 to 6,313 in 1986 … but initial response from health professionals suggests that social deprivation, not gaps in medical services, is the underlying cause.