Women's Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:26 pm on 10th June 1988.

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Photo of Mr John Browne Mr John Browne , Winchester 12:26 pm, 10th June 1988

I declare an interest as a director of the Churchill Clinic, which is in the private sector. I very much welcome this first Government debate on women's health. The Minister, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) and others have alluded to the fact that not only is our total Health Service of vital national importance but it affects women more than men both because they live longer and because they have special roles such as childbirth, child care, and so on. They also have the role of educating children. As I hope to illustrate, preventive medicine is a key aspect. The debate is particularly timely and I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in it.

The National Health Service is about 40 years old and it is in a crisis of change. It has been alleged that the Government do not care and that they have instituted cuts. I find such allegations amazing. When I read Government statements or listen to Ministers, as I have over the past nine years, I find it hard to see how allegations of not caring could be justified. One type of caring is to give money away; the other is to ensure that that money is properly spent and that it genuinely goes to those who need it. That is effective care.

Let me deal with the allegation of cuts. Spending on the Health Service increased from £7.5 billion in 1979 to £22 billion this year. That is an amazing increase—30 per cent. and more ahead of inflation. Opposition Members' claims are therefore difficult to substantiate.

It is interesting to note that as more money has been spent on the National Health Service in vast amounts, so the complaints have increased. The complaints reached a crescendo last winter, which makes it obvious to me that the problem is not one of money and that we need to look somewhere else for the cause. Therefore, I greatly admired the Government's courage in not responding to the crescendo of complaint by pouring more money into what is effectively a leaking bucket. Instead, they decided to spend on a maintenance basis and conduct a top-level review to establish, on behalf of every citizen in the country, where the taxpayers' money must go to ensure that in the next 40 years the Health Service will still work, and work to the benefit of the nation as a whole.

As we all know, health is a complex problem. As has been said by the Minister and others, more people live for longer. As they live longer, more complex demands are placed on the Health Service. Furthermore, expectations have changed. When I was a lad, for the symptoms of many ailments one readily accepted a glass of hot milk and two aspirins and the recommendation that one should go to bed. Today people expect more sophisticated treatment, or at least more sophisticated consultation, for the same symptoms.

Technology has improved, and that is greatly to our advantage. But that has happened at a price far in excess of inflation. There is a technology expenditure curve, in addition to an inflation curve. Furthermore, high technology operations place much greater demands on the resources of the Health Service.

Technology has enabled operations such as kidney transplants, which were unheard of 30 or even 20 years ago, to become routine. They are very demanding on Health Service resources and there are huge opportunity costs. If kidney transplants are to be carried out, what operations will need to be stopped? What is the opportunity cost? There is also a greatly increased awareness of new types of disease such as stress, which has already been mentioned this morning. That all leads to increased demands on the Health Service.

Somewhat misguided comments have been made today about alcoholism and so on being directly related to unemployment. My county of Hampshire has recently been told that it has the worst record in the country for violence against the police. There were 34 cases last year, 90 per cent. of which were alcohol-related. Yet Hampshire is not an area of high unemployment—indeed, it has low unemployment and high earnings per head. Therefore, we cannot simply and justifiably relate stress to high unemployment.

The good health of the nation is absolutely essential to our survival as a developed nation. However, it is not just a question of money—although funding is, of course, a critical problem. I hope that, in their current top-level review the Government will turn heavily towards preventive medicine. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for not having given her notice, but I would be interested to know how much of the NHS budget is spent on preventive medicine. Even without knowing the figure, I guess that it is not enough. In that top-level review, preventive medicine must be seen as a massive source of cost saving. Government spending on preventive medicine should be seen as an investment in the future to reduce potential costs and claims on the NHS. Just as with buildings, to modernise, maintain and take preventive action is a good philosophy.

I support the Government's aim of increasing the emphasis on self-reliance, and women can play an influential and important role in that. However, the Government must also play a key role in preventive medicine. First, they must regulate on matters such as pollution. Secondly, they must provide preventive services such as screening, and thirdly, they must publicise much more widely the good programmes that they are following, such as immunisation, and educate on such matters as diet.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has done a tremendous amount in that area and I much admire her courage in challenging even the sanctity of the English breakfast and other dishes that are thought to be sacred. That took guts. She had to take a great deal of flak following some of her comments. The Government's first role in preventive medicine should include action on pollution, especially passive smoking and leaded petrol. Secondly, there should be action on what I call lifestyle—diet, alcohol and active smoking. The third area is in services such as immunisation and screening.

The recent Froggatt report shows conclusively that passive smoking alone—and I am not yet speaking of active smoking—increases the incidence of lung cancer by between 10 and 30 per cent. That is an enormous figure. Think of how many people are suffering and using the resources of the Health Service because of lung cancer predominantly caused by smoking.

When I spoke in the Chamber on 9 May 1980 (luring a smoking and health debate, I said: I believe that the Government should consider legislation on non-smoking areas, particularly enclosed, confined public spaces, such as lifts, cinemas, waiting rooms and, indeed, the Committee Rooms and Dining Room of this House—a place where we are fortunate to have a specific Smoking Room set aside."—[Official Report, 9 May 1980; Vol. 984, c. 714.] I was almost laughed out of the Chamber for saying that. I am glad to say that, today, I think the story would be very different. Indeed, there is now an early-day motion along those lines.

Subsequent early-day motions have stated that we should not have such a tyranny of restricting smoking.

The Government must take strong action. Obviously,people have a right to smoke—I am not trying to take away that right—but the Government's duty is to defend a far more basic right than the right to smoke, and that is the right of the non smoker to breathe fresh air. The Government have not grasped that nettle firmly enough. Leaving it to the free market is not enough. Every day people are unnecessarily being caused mortal injury. More legislative action should be taken, and the voluntary codes and so on should be toughened up. I realise that the Government believe in the free market, but legislation can hasten the free market. We have seen that done in many areas.

I now refer to leaded petrol. As we know, there are approximately 18 million cars in the United Kingdom. Two million motor cars, without any adaptation, could use unleaded petrol. Another 7 million cars, with the smallest adjustment to their ignition timing, could immediately take unleaded petrol. In fact, as a demonstration, James Bond's Aston-Martin was converted in 25 seconds. It is not an expensive deal. Most garages could do it for free. If they charged £1, they would get a lot of money for it. So, today nine million cars or 50 per cent. of the cars on our roads—could run on unleaded fuel. Actually, the consumption of unleaded petrol, despite the fact that it is 6p a gallon cheaper than leaded petrol—thanks to the Chancellor—is less than I per cent. of petrol sales in this country. Again, the Government must invest more money in publicity to put the message across.

I now refer to what I call lifestyle—food, alcohol and tobacco. Cholesterol and calorie intake has been proved of great significance and importance to health. The Minister has done a tremendous job in highlighting that. I am pleased to hear about the new consultancy on breast feeding. Breast feeding and early feeding habits of children are an aspect of foods. That is why women's role is so important. Breast feeding can affect people's metabolism for the rest of their lives. They become fat-inclined or not fat-inclined, sweet-toothed or not sweet-toothed, and so on. Such matters must be drummed home and money must be spent in terms of investment by the Government. Much more publicity is needed about diet. In terms of legislation, the Government should demand that calorie and cholesterol contents should be printed on food packages at point of sale.

In terms of alcohol—you will be shocked, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by the statistics that I hope to give—750,000 Britons are seriously ill as a result of alcohol abuse. That means that 2 million or more families are affected. Alcohol abuse is the United Kingdom's third most dangerous disease. Women are particularly prone to the harm of excessive alcohol intake, especially in the 25 to 37 age group. Excessive drinking was involved in 80 per cent. of deaths by fire, 40 per cent. of pedestrian traffic accidents, 33 per cent. of child abuse cases, 50 per cent. of murders, 30 per cent. of non-traffic accident deaths, and 33 per cent. of domestic accidents.

As I have said already, I am ashamed that, in Hampshire, we have experienced the worst rise in violence against the police. It occurs throughout the country, and it is rising at an alarming degree. Ninety per cent. of such offences are related to alcohol.

In the past 20 years, alcohol consumption has doubled, not declined. In 1982, £12·3 billion was spent on alcohol. No less than 38p of every leisure pound is spent on alcohol. That is more than is spent on food, light, newspapers, cigarettes, books or holidays. Alcohol has a high human cost—it is responsible for between 5,000 and 10,000 premature deaths each year, and for more than one in five patients being in NHS care. The monetary cost of alcohol misuse is estimated to be more than £1 billion in lost production and more than £1·7 billion in social costs.

The cost is huge. The Government have a duty to publicise that fact far more effectively. We have hard-hitting campaigns, which I support, on AIDS, for example, but the campaign on alcohol is nowhere near hard-hitting enough. Not enough money is spent on it. Will the Government seriously consider demanding through legislation that a health warning be printed on each bottle of alcohol? A label could be affixed, just as a duty-free label is attached. That would not be too expensive and it could be done quickly.