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

Perhaps we can have one in the House of Commons. It sounds a good idea and I hope that caterers in hospitals, who the hon. Lady says have asked her to produce the book, will be able to afford the ingredients on their reduced funding. We should not simply say that people should buy healthy food—we must remember its cost.

The development of mobile and workplace health care and screening facilities are another development of women's own work and campaigning to improve the quality and quantity of health services. I pay tribute to the work of women in what may loosely be called the women's health movement and to the trade unions who have played an important role in persuading employers to make workplace screening available. It has often been a long and difficult task, as the campaign for workplace screening in the House shows. We are now to have it at last.

I trust that our next success will be workplace child care, out-of-school care and parental and family leave as of right. One day we may get this place into shape. An integrated approach to economic, social and health policies is essential if we are to promote good health and well-being for all women. That is what the Government and the hon. Lady are failing to do.

One-day seminars and one-off conferences are utterly insufficient. I apologise to the Minister for being unable, for very good reasons, to come to her conference on Wednesday. I know that she was anxious to make her announcement. I do not believe that such conferences have the power to embark on the cross-departmental action that is needed. They are useful in their own way—I am not patronising them or putting them down—but I would have preferred it if the hon. Lady had called a cross-departmental conference to consider the medical aspects of women's health, and the social causes of their problems to see how we can bring the whole thing together.

Women are the majority of NHS consumers because of their own health and because of their caring responsibilities for others. A wide range of health care needs and problems are experienced exclusively by women, such as maternity needs, menopause, pre-menstrual syndrome, post-natal depression and problems arising from use of the contraceptive pill or the intra-uterine device. In spite of the catalogue that the Minister gave us in that respect, the Government's policies are robbing and short changing women.

The NHS collects no data on the ethnic origin of patients, so the extent to which it meets the needs of women from ethnic minorities is difficult to judge. We know, however, that research on conditions such as sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia, which are life-threatening in some cases, has been given a low priority.

Similarly, we have been too slow to respond to the needs of women for whom English is not their first language. As we all know, communication between doctor, nurse and patient is essential to confidence and good care. The London borough of Hackney is an excellent example of good practice. Its multi-ethnic women's health project employs five part-time workers, speaking Turkish, Urdu, Gujerati and Bengali. That ensures two-way communication, not just to explain the procedures to patients, but to assist in an exchange and dialogue between health workers and patients.

The Government's policies have cynically and deliberately engineered a crisis in the Health Service so that they can introduce market forces and further privatisation into our health system. The impact on women's health of those policies has already been dramatic and detrimental. Hospital and bed closures have reduced gynaecology beds by 10 per cent. obstetric beds by 8 per cent. and GP maternity beds by 40 per cent. The lengthening waiting list, as a result of the loss of beds for children and elderly patients, means that women are providing even more care at home, losing work time and income and suffering even greater stress.

Last Friday a woman came to see me about her 78-year-old mother whose legs had finally given way so that she could no longer walk. The mother weighs 17 stone. She is confined to bed. She needs a bed from which there is a hoist so that she can pull herself up, and then her 78-year-old husband can help her on to the bed pan. That is a fairly familiar story. A nurse visits three times a day simply to help with those bodily functions. However, most of the caring is down to the 78-year-old husband and the daughter.

I spoke to the health visitor on Monday. She said, "It is a tragedy, Ms. Richardson, that we do not have more of these beds readily available." We must depend on people such as my constituent, the daughter, who not only has to do these extra duties, as well as trying to maintain a full time job to keep her own family, but who feels a terrible sense of guilt about her mother—guilt that, perhaps, she has not done enough. We too infrequently acknowledge the great debt which we owe carers in our society, who have saved the health and community services so much money.

Special care baby units have suffered an 8 per cent. cut. The crisis in community care is rapidly approaching a position of community neglect.

The cervical cancer screening programme on which the Under-Secretary has given a lot of information is, frankly, a shambles. I have written to the hon. Lady telling her that I have already received information on this matter. For example, I am told that in Winchester and Basingstoke the computer call and recall system that came into operation only on 1 April this year is already out of action and cannot be restored because of lack of resources. I am also informed that call and recall letters will not be sent out, regardless of the problems with the computer, because the laboratories cannot cope with the backlog of smears already awaiting inspection. The hon. Lady must know that this is a pattern that is occurring all over the country.

There are similar fears about the much-publicised initiatives on breast cancer screening. Experts in that sector have already said—as they have about cervical screening—that the age at which screening begins should be lower. Today the Minister tried to justify why that should not be so. However, on balance I prefer to agree with the experts. We must aim for three-yearly intervals between screenings rather than five yearly. As I have said, I hope that the Under-Secretary will also look carefully at the shortage of specially trained radiologists and surgeons. All those matters cast grave doubts on the quality of that service.

While such doubts and uncertainties remain, thousands of women will continue to die needlessly. Money—the one thing the Government never want to discuss in debates on the National Health Service—is the major answer: money for training, money for more staff, money for laboratories and clinics, and money for further and continuing research. I am sure that the hon. Lady did not intend to delude women into thinking that all is now well with the programmes for cervical and breast cancer screening, but she appeared to suggest that. That would be unfair. Many of the women whom the hon. Lady wants to see screened will not even be called for screening until 1992. Will she tell us how many women will not be called until 1992? I am sure that she does not know the answer. Perhaps it is incalculable.