Women's Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 10th June 1988.

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Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:30 am, 10th June 1988

My hon. Friend has summed up the position admirably. When there are shortages of midwives and other nurses—as we have seen recently in the Birmingham children's hospital—staff must be recruited, but that can only be done if we change the basis of their working conditions, and perhaps enable some of the menopausal women about whom we have just heard to get back into our hospitals and the NHS. That also applies to younger women with children at school. All these issues are vitally important.

I am delighted to see that breast cancer screening services are being set up all over the country. Let me say as an aside, however, that if the Minister is so keen to introduce them and to enlist the help of all hon. Members on both sides of the House, it might have been helpful to receive an invitation to the opening of the one that serves my constituency. I received no such invitation, which is why I was outside with all the other people who are concerned about aspects of NHS funding.

I welcome the introduction of the breast screening services. In Staffordshire the take-up of those services has been beyond our wildest dreams. A 70 per cent. take-up was expected, but the actual take-up was 76 per cent. My main concern is to ensure that, when women have plucked up courage to go for cancer screening, it will be possible to get treatment, should they need it, without having to wait a long time. I am concerned that in the west midlands those women who are receiving radiotherapy treatment have to wait a long time for that treatment and as a result suffer great personal hardship.

Cervical cancer screening is incredibly important. Women are unnecessarily dying of that disease. The problems that have been experienced by my district health authority have had to be kept in the public eye. There has been a considerable delay in processing the results of the tests, but I understand that that problem is now more in hand than it was four months ago. That is probably only as a result of the initiatives that have been taken by local hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding).

I was horrified when one of my constituents came to me and said, "My wife has been prescribed some treatment as a result of cervical cancer, but why is it that there is no laser equipment within the North Staffordshire health authority to provide that treatment? My wife must go elsewhere." When I delved deeper into the matter, I discovered that there are some fortunate district health authorities that have laser technology equipment. In many cases, however, that equipment has been bought as a result of private contributions, fund raising or by individuals taking out an overdraft, as in the case of the Sheffield consultant. The marvellous advances that have been made in new technology should be used to treat everyone who needs help. In the debate about the National Health Service and funding, the Secretary of State must face up to the fact that one must take account of new technology. We should ensure that every district health authority has the necessary equipment for treatment.

In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Barking, I am delighted that, after campaigning since 1982, we are to have cervical cancer screening in the House. That development only occurred because of the screening that was conducted in the House of Lords, the results of which were so alarming that we managed to finally swing the balance and acquire that service in this House.

The Ceramic and Allied Trades Union, the major union for pottery workers, the headquarters of which are in my area, passed a resolution at a recent conference that it should do everything possible to ensure that a well woman clinic was established in north Staffordshire. On a number of occasions, I have made inquiries of the district health authority about that, but it has said that it does not consider that such a clinic is necessary.

I am sure that CATU members will be delighted that they have the full support of women hon. Members for a well woman clinic. I am sure that even the Minister will exert some pressure to demonstrate the importance of such clinics. If we had such clinics I believe that there would be many more of the "reconstructed women" referred to earlier.

I share the disappointment that the provision of school meals has been cut and the fact that marvellous initiatives, such as the healthy eating initiative adopted by Staffordshire county council, are likely to be affected by competitive tendering and as a result of loss of income due to social security changes.

Last week, a dentist in my constituency told me that Stoke-on-Trent is a black spot for tooth decay. I am sure that those of us who are mothers have, from time to time, had a child screaming with toothache. We must take into account the cuts in the school dental service and the recent charges for dental treatment that have been introduced.

It is marvellous that women are living longer. Many women need community care, and in my constituency that care is not available. Local authorities are hard pressed to find sufficient money within the rate support grant for such care. I make no apology for referring to a constituency interest, Westcliffe hospital, an institution which houses a large number of elderly patients. In the past, I have been assured that, if it is closed down, alternative health provision will be made available. I have been informed that the switchboard of that hospital is likely to be closed down, which will create safety problems for the women in that hospital. With regard to mental health care, it is clear that, as a result of DHA cuts, replacement hospital facilities will not be available.

At the moment there is an important debate about the funding of the National Health Service, about which many of us are concerned. I wish that the Secretary of State had been present today so that he could tell us whether he had had much success in his discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It would be interesting to know the extent of tax cuts that are to be provided for those who take out private insurance at the cost of the services provided by the NHS. Yesterday, I met representatives of North Staffordshire health authority and they asked that I should make an earnest plea to the Government to reconsider the proposed changes to the RAWP formula. As a result of those changes, it will be almost impossible for my area to provide the services that are especially needed for women.

Health care is not in our hands only. It is affected by the money we earn, our housing, working conditions and the environment. Mention was made earlier of a conference on health care, and I believe that different Departments should be represented at that conference. Exercise and sport are important, but why does the Department of the Environment provide insufficient money for local authorities to provide swimming pools and other services to enable women to keep healthy? Why are creches not provided so that women can take part in sport regardless of young children?

Pollution also contributes to ill health. The Government have been dragging their feet on the introduction of lead-free petrol. There are only two garages in my constituency where one can buy such petrol. Three weeks ago I met representatives of The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Its report "Into the '90s" contained not one mention about lead poisoning, lead-free petrol and its effect on children and women. Why has the Department of the Environment not made strong representations on this matter?

Why has the Department of the Environment not intervened on playground safety? The tarmac and concrete used on those playgrounds is dangerous and causes many injuries to young children, with which we mothers must contend. Why is the Department not prepared to put safety first?

Will the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food be invited to the conference? Will it be asked to look at ways in which food policies affect women? Will there be any change in the labelling of foods so that we know what certain foods contain and therefore whether to buy them—presuming that we can afford them?

What steps will the Ministry of Agriculture take to look at the way in which radiation from Chernobyl gets into the food chain? It has become clear in recent weeks that because of water nitrates the water supply in some parts of the country is not safe for young children and babies. Mothers have been supplied with bottled water because the nitrate levels are so high.

Will the Ministry of Defence be asked to make a contribution? RAF Swynnerton is near my constituency, and radioactive substances have been used in exercises. What effect does that have on children's health? I ask that in the wake of the scientific report published earlier this week about the incidence of leukaemia in areas close to Dounreay. What is the Department of Trade and Industry doing about unsafe goods on sale and about the baby walkers that we heard about this morning? Why are there not more prohibition orders on unsafe goods and why is the Department not looking at imports? The Department should be concerned with ballpoint pens whose precise measurement means that if a child swallows a pen top it is likely to choke. We must look at all the issues about product liability and consumer legislation.

Transport has already been covered. Many women cannot live a full life and their mental health is affected because they are confined to the home. Pensioners in Burslem in my constituency cannot get to the health clinic because the bus service stops at a certain hour at night. There are constant complaints from people about such things.

I should like the junior Minister to take on board a few points about women workers. I have had representations about the effects of maternity pay on contractual payments. Some time ago I said how important it was that new mothers should get the best possible start to motherhood. That includes the importance of maternity pay to assist mothers through this difficult although very exciting time. Constituents have told me that because of the way in which maternity pay is assessed, a woman worker sometimes receives perhaps two weeks' holiday pay on the same day, but she may get more than that. or she could end up with 60 per cent. of the amount to which she is entitled. In my constituency, women sometimes get £90 or £67, while other women in the same factory receive perhaps £110. That is wrong. Women need the maternity pay to which they are properly entitled.

One of the things that has saddened me over the last nine years is the reduction in the Health and Safety Executive's ability to enforce good, safe standards of health and safety in the workplace. One of the industrial diseases that is especially prevalent among women pottery workers in my constituency is tenosynovitis. I pay the greatest possible tribute to the wonderful work of women pottery workers. Government Departments need to do more research into this important industrial disease. Why have we not had legislation about ways in which people move and carry things in the workplace? Those issues are important.

I hope that some of the many valuable contributions by hon. Members today will not be lost. This debate will not be left after today because we shall press these matters and bring them to the attention of the public at every possible opportunity.